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Title: Susy, a Story of the Plains
Author: Harte, Bret
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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SUSY, A STORY OF THE PLAINS


By Bret Harte


From: “ARGONAUT EDITION” OF THE WORKS OF BRET HARTE, VOL. 7

P. F. COLLIER & SON

NEW YORK



SUSY, A STORY OF THE PLAINS



CHAPTER I.


Where the San Leandro turnpike stretches its dusty, hot, and
interminable length along the valley, at a point where the heat and dust
have become intolerable, the monotonous expanse of wild oats on either
side illimitable, and the distant horizon apparently remoter than ever,
it suddenly slips between a stunted thicket or hedge of “scrub oaks,”
 which until that moment had been undistinguishable above the long,
misty, quivering level of the grain. The thicket rising gradually in
height, but with a regular slope whose gradient had been determined
by centuries of western trade winds, presently becomes a fair wood of
live-oak, and a few hundred yards further at last assumes the aspect of
a primeval forest. A delicious coolness fills the air; the long, shadowy
aisles greet the aching eye with a soothing twilight; the murmur
of unseen brooks is heard, and, by a strange irony, the enormous,
widely-spaced stacks of wild oats are replaced by a carpet of
tiny-leaved mosses and chickweed at the roots of trees, and the minutest
clover in more open spaces. The baked and cracked adobe soil of the now
vanished plains is exchanged for a heavy red mineral dust and gravel,
rocks and boulders make their appearance, and at times the road is
crossed by the white veins of quartz. It is still the San Leandro
turnpike,--a few miles later to rise from this canada into the upper
plains again,--but it is also the actual gateway and avenue to the
Robles Rancho. When the departing visitors of Judge Peyton, now owner
of the rancho, reach the outer plains again, after twenty minutes’
drive from the house, the canada, rancho, and avenue have as completely
disappeared from view as if they had been swallowed up in the plain.

A cross road from the turnpike is the usual approach to the casa or
mansion,--a long, low quadrangle of brown adobe wall in a bare but
gently sloping eminence. And here a second surprise meets the stranger.
He seems to have emerged from the forest upon another illimitable plain,
but one utterly trackless, wild, and desolate. It is, however, only
a lower terrace of the same valley, and, in fact, comprises the three
square leagues of the Robles Rancho. Uncultivated and savage as it
appears, given over to wild cattle and horses that sometimes sweep in
frightened bands around the very casa itself, the long south wall of the
corral embraces an orchard of gnarled pear-trees, an old vineyard, and
a venerable garden of olives and oranges. A manor, formerly granted by
Charles V. to Don Vincente Robles, of Andalusia, of pious and ascetic
memory, it had commended itself to Judge Peyton, of Kentucky, a modern
heretic pioneer of bookish tastes and secluded habits, who had bought it
of Don Vincente’s descendants. Here Judge Peyton seemed to have
realized his idea of a perfect climate, and a retirement, half-studious,
half-active, with something of the seignioralty of the old slaveholder
that he had been. Here, too, he had seen the hope of restoring his
wife’s health--for which he had undertaken the overland emigration--more
than fulfilled in Mrs. Peyton’s improved physical condition, albeit
at the expense, perhaps, of some of the languorous graces of ailing
American wifehood.

It was with a curious recognition of this latter fact that Judge Peyton
watched his wife crossing the patio or courtyard with her arm around the
neck of her adopted daughter “Suzette.” A sudden memory crossed his mind
of the first day that he had seen them together,--the day that he had
brought the child and her boy-companion--two estrays from an emigrant
train on the plains--to his wife in camp. Certainly Mrs. Peyton was
stouter and stronger fibred; the wonderful Californian climate had
materialized her figure, as it had their Eastern fruits and flowers, but
it was stranger that “Susy”--the child of homelier frontier blood and
parentage, whose wholesome peasant plumpness had at first attracted
them--should have grown thinner and more graceful, and even seemed to
have gained the delicacy his wife had lost. Six years had imperceptibly
wrought this change; it had never struck him before so forcibly as on
this day of Susy’s return from the convent school at Santa Clara for the
holidays.

The woman and child had reached the broad veranda which, on one side of
the patio, replaced the old Spanish corridor. It was the single modern
innovation that Peyton had allowed himself when he had broken the
quadrangular symmetry of the old house with a wooden “annexe” or
addition beyond the walls. It made a pleasant lounging-place, shadowed
from the hot midday sun by sloping roofs and awnings, and sheltered from
the boisterous afternoon trade winds by the opposite side of the court.
But Susy did not seem inclined to linger there long that morning, in
spite of Mrs. Peyton’s evident desire for a maternal tete-a-tete. The
nervous preoccupation and capricious ennui of an indulged child showed
in her pretty but discontented face, and knit her curved eyebrows, and
Peyton saw a look of pain pass over his wife’s face as the young girl
suddenly and half-laughingly broke away and fluttered off towards the
old garden.

Mrs. Peyton looked up and caught her husband’s eye.

“I am afraid Susy finds it more dull here every time she returns,” she
said, with an apologetic smile. “I am glad she has invited one of her
school friends to come for a visit to-morrow. You know, yourself, John,”
 she added, with a slight partisan attitude, “that the lonely old house
and wild plain are not particularly lively for young people, however
much they may suit YOUR ways.”

“It certainly must be dull if she can’t stand it for three weeks in
the year,” said her husband dryly. “But we really cannot open the San
Francisco house for her summer vacation, nor can we move from the rancho
to a more fashionable locality. Besides, it will do her good to run
wild here. I can remember when she wasn’t so fastidious. In fact, I was
thinking just now how changed she was from the day when we picked her
up”--

“How often am I to remind you, John,” interrupted the lady, with some
impatience, “that we agreed never to speak of her past, or even to think
of her as anything but our own child. You know how it pains me! And the
poor dear herself has forgotten it, and thinks of us only as her own
parents. I really believe that if that wretched father and mother of
hers had not been killed by the Indians, or were to come to life again,
she would neither know them nor care for them. I mean, of course,
John,” she said, averting her eyes from a slightly cynical smile on
her husband’s face, “that it’s only natural for young children to be
forgetful, and ready to take new impressions.”

“And as long, dear, as WE are not the subjects of this youthful
forgetfulness, and she isn’t really finding US as stupid as the rancho,”
 replied her husband cheerfully, “I suppose we mustn’t complain.”

“John, how can you talk such nonsense?” said Mrs. Peyton impatiently.
“But I have no fear of that,” she added, with a slightly ostentatious
confidence. “I only wish I was as sure”--

“Of what?”

“Of nothing happening that could take her from us. I do not mean death,
John,--like our first little one. That does not happen to one twice; but
I sometimes dread”--

“What? She’s only fifteen, and it’s rather early to think about the only
other inevitable separation,--marriage. Come, Ally, this is mere fancy.
She has been given up to us by her family,--at least, by all that we
know are left of them. I have legally adopted her. If I have not made
her my heiress, it is because I prefer to leave everything to YOU, and
I would rather she should know that she was dependent upon you for the
future than upon me.”

“And I can make a will in her favor if I want to?” said Mrs. Peyton
quickly.

“Always,” responded her husband smilingly; “but you have ample time to
think of that, I trust. Meanwhile I have some news for you which may
make Susy’s visit to the rancho this time less dull to her. You remember
Clarence Brant, the boy who was with her when we picked her up, and who
really saved her life?”

“No, I don’t,” said Mrs. Peyton pettishly, “nor do I want to! You know,
John, how distasteful and unpleasant it is for me to have those dreary,
petty, and vulgar details of the poor child’s past life recalled, and,
thank Heaven, I have forgotten them except when you choose to drag
them before me. You agreed, long ago, that we were never to talk of the
Indian massacre of her parents, so that we could also ignore it before
her; then why do you talk of her vulgar friends, who are just as
unpleasant? Please let us drop the past.”

“Willingly, my dear; but, unfortunately, we cannot make others do it.
And this is a case in point. It appears that this boy, whom we brought
to Sacramento to deliver to a relative”--

“And who was a wicked little impostor,--you remember that yourself,
John, for he said that he was the son of Colonel Brant, and that he was
dead; and you know, and my brother Harry knew, that Colonel Brant was
alive all the time, and that he was lying, and Colonel Brant was not his
father,” broke in Mrs. Peyton impatiently.

“As it seems you do remember that much,” said Peyton dryly, “it is only
just to him that I should tell you that it appears that he was not an
impostor. His story was TRUE. I have just learned that Colonel Brant WAS
actually his father, but had concealed his lawless life here, as well
as his identity, from the boy. He was really that vague relative to whom
Clarence was confided, and under that disguise he afterwards protected
the boy, had him carefully educated at the Jesuit College of San Jose,
and, dying two years ago in that filibuster raid in Mexico, left him a
considerable fortune.”

“And what has he to do with Susy’s holidays?” said Mrs. Peyton, with
uneasy quickness. “John, you surely cannot expect her ever to meet this
common creature again, with his vulgar ways. His wretched associates
like that Jim Hooker, and, as you yourself admit, the blood of an
assassin, duelist, and--Heaven knows what kind of a pirate his father
wasn’t at the last--in his veins! You don’t believe that a lad of this
type, however much of his father’s ill-gotten money he may have, can be
fit company for your daughter? You never could have thought of inviting
him here?”

“I’m afraid that’s exactly what I have done, Ally,” said the smiling but
unmoved Peyton; “but I’m still more afraid that your conception of his
present condition is an unfair one, like your remembrance of his past.
Father Sobriente, whom I met at San Jose yesterday, says he is very
intelligent, and thoroughly educated, with charming manners and refined
tastes. His father’s money, which they say was an investment for him in
Carson’s Bank five years ago, is as good as any one’s, and his father’s
blood won’t hurt him in California or the Southwest. At least, he is
received everywhere, and Don Juan Robinson was his guardian. Indeed, as
far as social status goes, it might be a serious question if the actual
daughter of the late John Silsbee, of Pike County, and the adopted
child of John Peyton was in the least his superior. As Father Sobriente
evidently knew Clarence’s former companionship with Susy and her
parents, it would be hardly politic for us to ignore it or seem to be
ashamed of it. So I intrusted Sobriente with an invitation to young
Brant on the spot.”

Mrs. Peyton’s impatience, indignation, and opposition, which had
successively given way before her husband’s quiet, masterful good humor,
here took the form of a neurotic fatalism. She shook her head with
superstitious resignation.

“Didn’t I tell you, John, that I always had a dread of something
coming”--

“But if it comes in the shape of a shy young lad, I see nothing
singularly portentous in it. They have not met since they were quite
small; their tastes have changed; if they don’t quarrel and fight they
may be equally bored with each other. Yet until then, in one way or
another, Clarence will occupy the young lady’s vacant caprice, and
her school friend, Mary Rogers, will be here, you know, to divide
his attentions, and,” added Peyton, with mock solemnity, “preserve the
interest of strict propriety. Shall I break it to her,--or will you?”

“No,--yes,” hesitated Mrs. Peyton; “perhaps I had better.”

“Very well, I leave his character in your hands; only don’t prejudice
her into a romantic fancy for him.” And Judge Peyton lounged smilingly
away.

Then two little tears forced themselves from Mrs. Peyton’s eyes. Again
she saw that prospect of uninterrupted companionship with Susy, upon
which each successive year she had built so many maternal hopes and
confidences, fade away before her. She dreaded the coming of Susy’s
school friend, who shared her daughter’s present thoughts and intimacy,
although she had herself invited her in a more desperate dread of the
child’s abstracted, discontented eyes; she dreaded the advent of the boy
who had shared Susy’s early life before she knew her; she dreaded the
ordeal of breaking the news and perhaps seeing that pretty animation
spring into her eyes, which she had begun to believe no solicitude or
tenderness of her own ever again awakened,--and yet she dreaded still
more that her husband should see it too. For the love of this recreated
woman, although not entirely materialized with her changed fibre, had
nevertheless become a coarser selfishness fostered by her loneliness and
limited experience. The maternal yearning left unsatisfied by the loss
of her first-born had never been filled by Susy’s thoughtless acceptance
of it; she had been led astray by the child’s easy transference of
dependence and the forgetfulness of youth, and was only now dimly
conscious of finding herself face to face with an alien nature.

She started to her feet and followed the direction that Susy had taken.
For a moment she had to front the afternoon trade wind which chilled her
as it swept the plain beyond the gateway, but was stopped by the
adobe wall, above whose shelter the stunted treetops--through years of
exposure--slanted as if trimmed by gigantic shears. At first, looking
down the venerable alley of fantastic, knotted shapes, she saw no trace
of Susy. But half way down the gleam of a white skirt against a thicket
of dark olives showed her the young girl sitting on a bench in a
neglected arbor. In the midst of this formal and faded pageantry she
looked charmingly fresh, youthful, and pretty; and yet the unfortunate
woman thought that her attitude and expression at that moment suggested
more than her fifteen years of girlhood. Her golden hair still hung
unfettered over her straight, boy-like back and shoulders; her short
skirt still showed her childish feet and ankles; yet there seemed to be
some undefined maturity or a vague womanliness about her that stung Mrs.
Peyton’s heart. The child was growing away from her, too!

“Susy!”

The young girl raised her head quickly; her deep violet eyes seemed also
to leap with a sudden suspicion, and with a half-mechanical, secretive
movement, that might have been only a schoolgirl’s instinct, her right
hand had slipped a paper on which she was scribbling between the leaves
of her book. Yet the next moment, even while looking interrogatively
at her mother, she withdrew the paper quietly, tore it up into small
pieces, and threw them on the ground.

But Mrs. Peyton was too preoccupied with her news to notice the
circumstance, and too nervous in her haste to be tactful. “Susy, your
father has invited that boy, Clarence Brant,--you know that creature
we picked up and assisted on the plains, when you were a mere baby,--to
come down here and make us a visit.”

Her heart seemed to stop beating as she gazed breathlessly at the girl.
But Susy’s face, unchanged except for the alert, questioning eyes,
remained fixed for a moment; then a childish smile of wonder opened her
small red mouth, expanded it slightly as she said simply:--

“Lor, mar! He hasn’t, really!”

Inexpressibly, yet unreasonably reassured, Mrs. Peyton hurriedly
recounted her husband’s story of Clarence’s fortune, and was even
joyfully surprised into some fairness of statement.

“But you don’t remember him much, do you, dear? It was so long ago,
and--you are quite a young lady now,” she added eagerly.

The open mouth was still fixed; the wondering smile would have been
idiotic in any face less dimpled, rosy, and piquant than Susy’s. After
a slight gasp, as if in still incredulous and partly reminiscent
preoccupation, she said without replying:--

“How funny! When is he coming?”

“Day after to-morrow,” returned Mrs. Peyton, with a contented smile.

“And Mary Rogers will be here, too. It will be real fun for her.”

Mrs. Peyton was more than reassured. Half ashamed of her jealous fears,
she drew Susy’s golden head towards her and kissed it. And the young
girl, still reminiscent, with smilingly abstracted toleration, returned
the caress.



CHAPTER II.


It was not thought inconsistent with Susy’s capriciousness that she
should declare her intention the next morning of driving her pony buggy
to Santa Inez to anticipate the stage-coach and fetch Mary Rogers from
the station. Mrs. Peyton, as usual, supported the young lady’s whim and
opposed her husband’s objections.

“Because the stage-coach happens to pass our gate, John, it is no reason
why Susy shouldn’t drive her friend from Santa Inez if she prefers it.
It’s only seven miles, and you can send Pedro to follow her on horseback
to see that she comes to no harm.”

“But that isn’t Pedro’s business,” said Peyton.

“He ought to be proud of the privilege,” returned the lady, with a toss
of her head.

Peyton smiled grimly, but yielded; and when the stage-coach drew up the
next afternoon at the Santa Inez Hotel, Susy was already waiting in her
pony carriage before it. Although the susceptible driver, expressman,
and passengers generally, charmed with this golden-haired vision,
would have gladly protracted the meeting of the two young friends, the
transfer of Mary Rogers from the coach to the carriage was effected with
considerable hauteur and youthful dignity by Susy. Even Mary Rogers,
two years Susy’s senior, a serious brunette, whose good-humor did not,
however, impair her capacity for sentiment, was impressed and even
embarrassed by her demeanor; but only for a moment. When they had driven
from the hotel and were fairly hidden again in the dust of the outlying
plain, with the discreet Pedro hovering in the distance, Susy dropped
the reins, and, grasping her companion’s arm, gasped, in tones of
dramatic intensity:--

“He’s been heard from, and is coming HERE!”

“Who?”

A sickening sense that her old confidante had already lost touch with
her--they had been separated for nearly two weeks--might have passed
through Susy’s mind.

“Who?” she repeated, with a vicious shake of Mary’s arm, “why, Clarence
Brant, of course.”

“No!” said Mary, vaguely.

Nevertheless, Susy went on rapidly, as if to neutralize the effect of
her comrade’s vacuity.

“You never could have imagined it! Never! Even I, when mother told me, I
thought I should have fainted, and ALL would have been revealed!”

“But,” hesitated the still wondering confidante, “I thought that was all
over long ago. You haven’t seen him nor heard from him since that day
you met accidentally at Santa Clara, two years ago, have you?”

Susy’s eyes shot a blue ray of dark but unutterable significance into
Mary’s, and then were carefully averted. Mary Rogers, although perfectly
satisfied that Susy had never seen Clarence since, nevertheless
instantly accepted and was even thrilled with this artful suggestion
of a clandestine correspondence. Such was the simple faith of youthful
friendship.

“Mother knows nothing of it, of course, and a word from you or him would
ruin everything,” continued the breathless Susy. “That’s why I came
to fetch you and warn you. You must see him first, and warn him at any
cost. If I hadn’t run every risk to come here to-day, Heaven knows what
might have happened! What do you think of the ponies, dear? They’re
my own, and the sweetest! This one’s Susy, that one Clarence,--but
privately, you know. Before the world and in the stables he’s only
Birdie.”

“But I thought you wrote to me that you called them ‘Paul and
Virginie,’” said Mary doubtfully.

“I do, sometimes,” said Susy calmly. “But one has to learn to suppress
one’s feelings, dear!” Then quickly, “I do so hate deceit, don’t you?
Tell me, don’t you think deceit perfectly hateful?”

Without waiting for her friend’s loyal assent, she continued rapidly:
“And he’s just rolling in wealth! and educated, papa says, to the
highest degree!”

“Then,” began Mary, “if he’s coming with your mother’s consent, and if
you haven’t quarreled, and it is not broken off, I should think you’d be
just delighted.”

But another quick flash from Susy’s eyes dispersed these beatific
visions of the future. “Hush!” she said, with suppressed dramatic
intensity. “You know not what you say! There’s an awful mystery hangs
over him. Mary Rogers,” continued the young girl, approaching her small
mouth to her confidante’s ear in an appalling whisper. “His father
was--a PIRATE! Yes--lived a pirate and was killed a pirate!”

The statement, however, seemed to be partly ineffective. Mary Rogers was
startled but not alarmed, and even protested feebly. “But,” she said,
“if the father’s dead, what’s that to do with Clarence? He was always
with your papa--so you told me, dear--or other people, and couldn’t
catch anything from his own father. And I’m sure, dearest, he always
seemed nice and quiet.”

“Yes, SEEMED,” returned Susy darkly, “but that’s all you know! It was in
his BLOOD. You know it always is,--you read it in the books,--you
could see it in his eye. There were times, my dear, when he was
thwarted,--when the slightest attention from another person to me
revealed it! I have kept it to myself,--but think, dearest, of the
effects of jealousy on that passionate nature! Sometimes I tremble to
look back upon it.”

Nevertheless, she raised her hands and threw back her lovely golden mane
from her childish shoulders with an easy, untroubled gesture. It was
singular that Mary Rogers, leaning back comfortably in the buggy, also
accepted these heart-rending revelations with comfortably knitted
brows and luxuriously contented concern. If she found it difficult to
recognize in the picture just drawn by Susy the quiet, gentle, and sadly
reserved youth she had known, she said nothing. After a silence, lazily
watching the distant wheeling vacquero, she said:--

“And your father always sends an outrider like that with you? How nice!
So picturesque--and like the old Spanish days.”

“Hush!” said Susy, with another unutterable glance.

But this time Mary was in full sympathetic communion with her friend,
and equal to any incoherent hiatus of revelation.

“No!” she said promptly, “you don’t mean it!”

“Don’t ask me, I daren’t say anything to papa, for he’d be simply
furious. But there are times when we’re alone, and Pedro wheels down so
near with SUCH a look in his black eyes, that I’m all in a tremble. It’s
dreadful! They say he’s a real Briones,--and he sometimes says something
in Spanish, ending with ‘senorita,’ but I pretend I don’t understand.”

“And I suppose that if anything should happen to the ponies, he’d just
risk his life to save you.”

“Yes,--and it would be so awful,--for I just hate him!”

“But if I was with you, dear, he couldn’t expect you to be as grateful
as if you were alone. Susy!” she continued after a pause, “if you just
stirred up the ponies a little so as to make ‘em go fast, perhaps he
might think they’d got away from you, and come dashing down here. It
would be so funny to see him,--wouldn’t it?”

The two girls looked at each other; their eyes sparkled already with
a fearful joy,--they drew a long breath of guilty anticipation. For a
moment Susy even believed in her imaginary sketch of Pedro’s devotion.

“Papa said I wasn’t to use the whip except in a case of necessity,”
 she said, reaching for the slender silver-handled toy, and setting
her pretty lips together with the added determination of disobedience.
“G’long!”--and she laid the lash smartly on the shining backs of the
animals.

They were wiry, slender brutes of Mojave Indian blood, only lately
broken to harness, and still undisciplined in temper. The lash sent
them rearing into the air, where, forgetting themselves in the slackened
traces and loose reins, they came down with a succession of bounds that
brought the light buggy leaping after them with its wheels scarcely
touching the ground. That unlucky lash had knocked away the bonds of
a few months’ servitude and sent the half-broken brutes instinctively
careering with arched backs and kicking heels into the field towards the
nearest cover.

Mary Rogers cast a hurried glance over her shoulder. Alas, they had
not calculated on the insidious levels of the terraced plain, and the
faithful Pedro had suddenly disappeared; the intervention of six inches
of rising wild oats had wiped him out of the prospect and their possible
salvation as completely as if he had been miles away. Nevertheless,
the girls were not frightened; perhaps they had not time. There was,
however, the briefest interval for the most dominant of feminine
emotions, and it was taken advantage of by Susy.

“It was all YOUR fault, dear!” she gasped, as the forewheels of the
buggy, dropping into a gopher rut, suddenly tilted up the back of the
vehicle and shot its fair occupants into the yielding palisades of dusty
grain. The shock detached the whiffletree from the splinter-bar, snapped
the light pole, and, turning the now thoroughly frightened animals again
from their course, sent them, goaded by the clattering fragments, flying
down the turnpike. Half a mile farther on they overtook the gleaming
white canvas hood of a slowly moving wagon drawn by two oxen, and,
swerving again, the nearer pony stepped upon a trailing trace and
ingloriously ended their career by rolling himself and his companion in
the dust at the very feet of the peacefully plodding team.

Equally harmless and inglorious was the catastrophe of Susy and her
friend. The strong, elastic stalks of the tall grain broke their fall
and enabled them to scramble to their feet, dusty, disheveled, but
unhurt, and even unstunned by the shock. Their first instinctive cries
over a damaged hat or ripped skirt were followed by the quick reaction
of childish laughter. They were alone; the very defection of Pedro
consoled them, in its absence of any witness to their disaster; even
their previous slight attitude to each other was forgotten. They groped
their way, pushing and panting, to the road again, where, beholding
the overset buggy with its wheels ludicrously in the air, they suddenly
seized and shook each other, and in an outburst of hilarious ecstasy,
fairly laughed until the tears came into their eyes.

Then there was a breathless silence.

“The stage will be coming by in a moment,” composedly said Susy. “Fix
me, dear.”

Mary Rogers calmly walked around her friend, bestowing a practical
shake there, a pluck here, completely retying one bow and restoring an
engaging fullness to another, yet critically examining, with her head on
one side, the fascinating result. Then Susy performed the same function
for Mary with equal deliberation and deftness. Suddenly Mary started and
looked up.

“It’s coming,” she said quickly, “and they’ve SEEN US.”

The expression of the faces of the two girls instantly changed. A
pained dignity and resignation, apparently born of the most harrowing
experiences and controlled only by perfect good breeding, was distinctly
suggested in their features and attitude as they stood patiently by the
wreck of their overturned buggy awaiting the oncoming coach. In sharp
contrast was the evident excitement among the passengers. A few rose
from their seats in their eagerness; as the stage pulled up in the road
beside the buggy four or five of the younger men leaped to the ground.

“Are you hurt, miss?” they gasped sympathetically.

Susy did not immediately reply, but ominously knitted her pretty
eyebrows as if repressing a spasm of pain. Then she said, “Not at all,”
 coldly, with the suggestion of stoically concealing some lasting or
perhaps fatal injury, and took the arm of Mary Rogers, who had, in the
mean time, established a touching yet graceful limp.

Declining the proffered assistance of the passengers, they helped each
other into the coach, and freezingly requesting the driver to stop at
Mr. Peyton’s gate, maintained a statuesque and impressive silence. At
the gates they got down, followed by the sympathetic glances of the
others.

To all appearance their escapade, albeit fraught with dangerous
possibilities, had happily ended. But in the economy of human affairs,
as in nature, forces are not suddenly let loose without more or less
sympathetic disturbance which is apt to linger after the impelling
cause is harmlessly spent. The fright which the girls had unsuccessfully
attempted to produce in the heart of their escort had passed him to
become a panic elsewhere. Judge Peyton, riding near the gateway of his
rancho, was suddenly confronted by the spectacle of one of his vacqueros
driving on before him the two lassoed and dusty ponies, with a face that
broke into violent gesticulating at his master’s quick interrogation.

“Ah! Mother of God! It was an evil day! For the bronchos had run away,
upset the buggy, and had only been stopped by a brave Americano of an
ox-team, whose lasso was even now around their necks, to prove it, and
who had been dragged a matter of a hundred varas, like a calf, at their
heels. The senoritas,--ah! had he not already said they were safe, by
the mercy of Jesus!--picked up by the coach, and would be here at this
moment.”

“But where was Pedro all the time? What was he doing?” demanded Peyton,
with a darkened face and gathering anger.

The vacquero looked at his master, and shrugged his shoulders
significantly. At any other time Peyton would have remembered that
Pedro, as the reputed scion of a decayed Spanish family, and claiming
superiority, was not a favorite with his fellow-retainers. But the
gesture, half of suggestion, half of depreciation, irritated Peyton
still more.

“Well, where is this American who DID something when there wasn’t a
man among you all able to stop a child’s runaway ponies?” he said
sarcastically. “Let me see him.”

The vacquero became still more deprecatory.

“Ah! He had driven on with his team towards San Antonio. He would not
stop to be thanked. But that was the whole truth. He, Incarnacion, could
swear to it as to the Creed. There was nothing more.”

“Take those beasts around the back way to the corral,” said Peyton,
thoroughly enraged, “and not a word of this to any one at the casa, do
you hear? Not a word to Mrs. Peyton or the servants, or, by Heaven, I’ll
clear the rancho of the whole lazy crew of you at once. Out of the way
there, and be off!”

He spurred his horse past the frightened menial, and dashed down the
narrow lane that led to the gate. But, as Incarnacion had truly said,
“It was an evil day,” for at the bottom of the lane, ambling slowly
along as he lazily puffed a yellow cigarette, appeared the figure of
the erring Pedro. Utterly unconscious of the accident, attributing the
disappearance of his charges to the inequalities of the plain, and,
in truth, little interested in what he firmly believed was his purely
artificial function, he had even made a larger circuit to stop at a
wayside fonda for refreshments.

Unfortunately, there is no more illogical sequence of human emotion than
the exasperation produced by the bland manner of the unfortunate object
who has excited it, although that very unconcern may be the convincing
proof of innocence of intention. Judge Peyton, already influenced, was
furious at the comfortable obliviousness of his careless henchman, and
rode angrily towards him. Only a quick turn of Pedro’s wrist kept the
two men from coming into collision.

“Is this the way you attend to your duty?” demanded Peyton, in a thick,
suppressed voice, “Where is the buggy? Where is my daughter?”

There was no mistaking Judge Peyton’s manner, even if the reason of
it was not so clear to Pedro’s mind, and his hot Latin blood flew
instinctively to his face. But for that, he might have shown some
concern or asked an explanation. As it was, he at once retorted with the
national shrug and the national half-scornful, half-lazy “Quien sabe?”

“Who knows?” repeated Peyton, hotly. “I do! She was thrown out of her
buggy through your negligence and infernal laziness! The ponies ran
away, and were stopped by a stranger who wasn’t afraid of risking
his bones, while you were limping around somewhere like a slouching,
cowardly coyote.”

The vacquero struggled a moment between blank astonishment and
inarticulate rage. At last he burst out:--

“I am no coyote! I was there! I saw no runaway!”

“Don’t lie to me, sir!” roared Peyton. “I tell you the buggy was
smashed, the girls were thrown out and nearly killed”--He stopped
suddenly. The sound of youthful laughter had come from the bottom of the
lane, where Susy Peyton and Mary Rogers, just alighted from the coach,
in the reaction of their previous constrained attitude, were flying
hilariously into view. A slight embarrassment crossed Peyton’s face; a
still deeper flush of anger overspread Pedro’s sullen cheek.

Then Pedro found tongue again, his native one, rapidly, violently,
half incoherently. “Ah, yes! It had come to this. It seems he was not
a vacquero, a companion of the padrone on lands that had been his own
before the Americanos robbed him of it, but a servant, a lackey of
muchachas, an attendant on children to amuse them, or--why not?--an
appendage to his daughter’s state! Ah, Jesus Maria! such a state! such a
muchacha! A picked-up foundling--a swineherd’s daughter--to be
ennobled by his, Pedro’s, attendance, and for whose vulgar, clownish
tricks,--tricks of a swineherd’s daughter,--he, Pedro, was to be brought
to book and insulted as if she were of Hidalgo blood! Ah, Caramba! Don
Juan Peyton would find he could no more make a servant of him than he
could make a lady of her!”

The two young girls were rapidly approaching. Judge Peyton spurred his
horse beside the vacquero’s, and, swinging the long thong of his bridle
ominously in his clenched fingers, said, with a white face:--

“Vamos!”

Pedro’s hand slid towards his sash. Peyton only looked at him with a
rigid smile of scorn.

“Or I’ll lash you here before them both,” he added in a lower voice.

The vacquero met Peyton’s relentless eyes with a yellow flash of hate,
drew his reins sharply, until his mustang, galled by the cruel bit,
reared suddenly as if to strike at the immovable American, then,
apparently with the same action, he swung it around on its hind legs, as
on a pivot, and dashed towards the corral at a furious gallop.



CHAPTER III.


Meantime the heroic proprietor of the peaceful ox-team, whose valor
Incarnacion had so infelicitously celebrated, was walking listlessly in
the dust beside his wagon. At a first glance his slouching figure, taken
in connection with his bucolic conveyance, did not immediately suggest
a hero. As he emerged from the dusty cloud it could be seen that he was
wearing a belt from which a large dragoon revolver and hunting knife
were slung, and placed somewhat ostentatiously across the wagon seat
was a rifle. Yet the other contents of the wagon were of a singularly
inoffensive character, and even suggested articles of homely barter.
Culinary utensils of all sizes, tubs, scullery brushes, and clocks, with
several rolls of cheap carpeting and calico, might have been the wares
of some traveling vender. Yet, as they were only visible through a flap
of the drawn curtains of the canvas hood, they did not mitigate the
general aggressive effect of their owner’s appearance. A red bandanna
handkerchief knotted and thrown loosely over his shoulders, a slouched
hat pulled darkly over a head of long tangled hair, which, however,
shadowed a round, comfortable face, scantily and youthfully bearded,
were part of these confusing inconsistencies.

The shadows of the team wagon were already lengthening grotesquely over
the flat, cultivated fields, which for some time had taken the place of
the plains of wild oats in the branch road into which they had turned.
The gigantic shadow of the proprietor, occasionally projected before it,
was in characteristic exaggeration, and was often obliterated by a puff
of dust, stirred by the plodding hoofs of the peaceful oxen, and swept
across the field by the strong afternoon trades. The sun sank lower,
although a still potent presence above the horizon line; the creaking
wagon lumbered still heavily along. Yet at intervals its belligerent
proprietor would start up from his slouching, silent march, break out
into violent, disproportionate, but utterly ineffective objurgation
of his cattle, jump into the air and kick his heels together in some
paroxysm of indignation against them,--an act, however, which was
received always with heavy bovine indifference, the dogged scorn of
swaying, repudiating heads, or the dull contempt of lazily flicking
tails.

Towards sunset one or two straggling barns and cottages indicated their
approach to the outskirts of a country town or settlement. Here the team
halted, as if the belligerent-looking teamster had felt his appearance
was inconsistent with an effeminate civilization, and the oxen were
turned into an open waste opposite a nondescript wooden tenement, half
farmhouse and half cabin, evidently of the rudest Western origin. He may
have recognized the fact that these “shanties” were not, as the ordinary
traveler might infer, the first rude shelter of the original pioneers
or settlers, but the later makeshifts of some recent Western immigrants
who, like himself, probably found themselves unequal to the settled
habits of the village, and who still retained their nomadic instincts.
It chanced, however, that the cabin at present was occupied by a New
England mechanic and his family, who had emigrated by ship around Cape
Horn, and who had no experience of the West, the plains, or its people.
It was therefore with some curiosity and a certain amount of fascinated
awe that the mechanic’s only daughter regarded from the open door of her
dwelling the arrival of this wild and lawless-looking stranger.

Meantime he had opened the curtains of the wagon and taken from its
interior a number of pots, pans, and culinary utensils, which he
proceeded to hang upon certain hooks that were placed on the outer ribs
of the board and the sides of the vehicle. To this he added a roll of
rag carpet, the end of which hung from the tailboard, and a roll of pink
calico temptingly displayed on the seat. The mystification and curiosity
of the young girl grew more intense at these proceedings. It looked
like the ordinary exhibition of a traveling peddler, but the gloomy
and embattled appearance of the man himself scouted so peaceful and
commonplace a suggestion. Under the pretense of chasing away a marauding
hen, she sallied out upon the waste near the wagon. It then became
evident that the traveler had seen her, and was not averse to her
interest in his movements, although he had not changed his attitude of
savage retrospection. An occasional ejaculation of suppressed passion,
as if the memory of some past conflict was too much for him, escaped him
even in this peaceful occupation. As this possibly caused the young girl
to still hover timidly in the distance, he suddenly entered the
wagon and reappeared carrying a tin bucket, with which he somewhat
ostentatiously crossed her path, his eyes darkly wandering as if seeking
something.

“If you’re lookin’ for the spring, it’s a spell furder on--by the
willows.”

It was a pleasant voice, the teamster thought, albeit with a dry, crisp,
New England accent unfamiliar to his ears. He looked into the depths
of an unlovely blue-check sunbonnet, and saw certain small, irregular
features and a sallow check, lit up by a pair of perfectly innocent,
trustful, and wondering brown eyes. Their timid possessor seemed to be a
girl of seventeen, whose figure, although apparently clad in one of her
mother’s gowns, was still undeveloped and repressed by rustic hardship
and innutrition. As her eyes met his she saw that the face of this
gloomy stranger was still youthful, by no means implacable, and, even at
that moment, was actually suffused by a brick-colored blush! In matters
of mere intuition, the sex, even in its most rustic phase, is still our
superior; and this unsophisticated girl, as the trespasser stammered,
“Thank ye, miss,” was instinctively emboldened to greater freedom.

“Dad ain’t tu hum, but ye kin have a drink o’ milk if ye keer for it.”

She motioned shyly towards the cabin, and then led the way. The
stranger, with an inarticulate murmur, afterwards disguised as a cough,
followed her meekly. Nevertheless, by the time they had reached the
cabin he had shaken his long hair over his eyes again, and a dark
abstraction gathered chiefly in his eyebrows. But it did not efface from
the girl’s mind the previous concession of a blush, and, although it
added to her curiosity, did not alarm her. He drank the milk awkwardly.
But by the laws of courtesy, even among the most savage tribes, she
felt he was, at that moment at least, harmless. A timid smile fluttered
around her mouth as she said:--

“When ye hung up them things I thought ye might be havin’ suthing to
swap or sell. That is,”--with tactful politeness,--“mother was wantin’
a new skillet, and it would have been handy if you’d had one. But”--with
an apologetic glance at his equipments--“if it ain’t your business, it’s
all right, and no offense.”

“I’ve got a lot o’ skillets,” said the strange teamster, with marked
condescension, “and she can have one. They’re all that’s left outer a
heap o’ trader’s stuff captured by Injuns t’other side of Laramie. We
had a big fight to get ‘em back. Lost two of our best men,--scalped at
Bloody Creek,--and had to drop a dozen redskins in their tracks,--me and
another man,--lyin’ flat in er wagon and firin’ under the flaps o’
the canvas. I don’t know ez they waz wuth it,” he added in gloomy
retrospect; “but I’ve got to get rid of ‘em, I reckon, somehow, afore I
work over to Deadman’s Gulch again.”

The young girl’s eyes brightened timidly with a feminine mingling of
imaginative awe and personal, pitying interest. He was, after all, so
young and amiable looking for such hardships and adventures. And with
all this, he--this Indian fighter--was a little afraid of HER!

“Then that’s why you carry that knife and six-shooter?” she said. “But
you won’t want ‘em now, here in the settlement.”

“That’s ez mebbe,” said the stranger darkly. He paused, and then
suddenly, as if recklessly accepting a dangerous risk, unbuckled his
revolver and handed it abstractedly to the young girl. But the sheath
of the bowie-knife was a fixture in his body-belt, and he was obliged
to withdraw the glittering blade by itself, and to hand it to her in all
its naked terrors. The young girl received the weapons with a smiling
complacency. Upon such altars as these the skeptical reader will
remember that Mars had once hung his “battered shield,” his lance, and
“uncontrolled crest.”

Nevertheless, the warlike teamster was not without embarrassment.
Muttering something about the necessity of “looking after his stock,”
 he achieved a hesitating bow, backed awkwardly out of the door, and
receiving from the conquering hands of the young girl his weapons again,
was obliged to carry them somewhat ingloriously in his hands across
the road, and put them on the wagon seat, where, in company with the
culinary articles, they seemed to lose their distinctively aggressive
character. Here, although his cheek was still flushed from his peaceful
encounter, his voice regained some of its hoarse severity as he drove
the oxen from the muddy pool into which they had luxuriantly wandered,
and brought their fodder from the wagon. Later, as the sun was setting,
he lit a corn-cob pipe, and somewhat ostentatiously strolled down the
road, with a furtive eye lingering upon the still open door of the
farmhouse. Presently two angular figures appeared from it, the farmer
and his wife, intent on barter.

These he received with his previous gloomy preoccupation, and a slight
variation of the story he had told their daughter. It is possible
that his suggestive indifference piqued and heightened the bargaining
instincts of the woman, for she not only bought the skillet, but
purchased a clock and a roll of carpeting. Still more, in some effusion
of rustic courtesy, she extended an invitation to him to sup with them,
which he declined and accepted in the same embarrassed breath, returning
the proffered hospitality by confidentially showing them a couple of
dried scalps, presumably of Indian origin. It was in the same moment
of human weakness that he answered their polite query as to “what they
might call him,” by intimating that his name was “Red Jim,”--a title of
achievement by which he was generally known, which for the present must
suffice them. But during the repast that followed this was shortened to
“Mister Jim,” and even familiarly by the elders to plain “Jim.” Only
the young girl habitually used the formal prefix in return for the “Miss
Phoebe” that he called her.

With three such sympathetic and unexperienced auditors the gloomy
embarrassment of Red Jim was soon dissipated, although it could hardly
be said that he was generally communicative. Dark tales of Indian
warfare, of night attacks and wild stampedes, in which he had always
taken a prominent part, flowed freely from his lips, but little else
of his past history or present prospects. And even his narratives of
adventure were more or less fragmentary and imperfect in detail.

“You woz saying,” said the farmer, with slow, matter of fact, New
England deliberation, “ez how you guessed you woz beguiled amongst the
Injins by your Mexican partner, a pow’ful influential man, and yet you
woz the only one escaped the gen’ral slarterin’. How came the Injins to
kill HIM,--their friend?”

“They didn’t,” returned Jim, with ominously averted eyes.

“What became of him?” continued the farmer.

Red Jim shadowed his eyes with his hand, and cast a dark glance of
scrutiny out of the doors and windows. The young girl perceived it with
timid, fascinated concern, and said hurriedly:--

“Don’t ask him, father! Don’t you see he mustn’t tell?”

“Not when spies may be hangin’ round, and doggin’ me at every step,”
 said Red Jim, as if reflecting, with another furtive glance towards
the already fading prospect without. “They’ve sworn to revenge him,” he
added moodily.

A momentary silence followed. The farmer coughed slightly, and looked
dubiously at his wife. But the two women had already exchanged feminine
glances of sympathy for this evident slayer of traitors, and were
apparently inclined to stop any adverse criticism.

In the midst of which a shout was heard from the road. The farmer and
his family instinctively started. Red Jim alone remained unmoved,--a
fact which did not lessen the admiration of his feminine audience. The
host rose quickly, and went out. The figure of a horseman had halted
in the road, but after a few moments’ conversation with the farmer they
both moved towards the house and disappeared. When the farmer returned,
it was to say that “one of them ‘Frisco dandies, who didn’t keer
about stoppin’ at the hotel in the settlement,” had halted to give his
“critter” a feed and drink that he might continue his journey. He had
asked him to come in while the horse was feeding, but the stranger had
“guessed he’d stretch his legs outside and smoke his cigar;” he might
have thought the company “not fine enough for him,” but he was “civil
spoken enough, and had an all-fired smart hoss, and seemed to know how
to run him.” To the anxious inquiries of his wife and daughter he added
that the stranger didn’t seem like a spy or a Mexican; was “as young
as HIM,” pointing to the moody Red Jim, “and a darned sight more
peaceful-like in style.”

Perhaps owing to the criticism of the farmer, perhaps from some still
lurking suspicion of being overheard by eavesdroppers, or possibly from
a humane desire to relieve the strained apprehension of the women, Red
Jim, as the farmer disappeared to rejoin the stranger, again dropped
into a lighter and gentler vein of reminiscence. He told them how, when
a mere boy, he had been lost from an emigrant train in company with a
little girl some years his junior. How, when they found themselves alone
on the desolate plain, with the vanished train beyond their reach, he
endeavored to keep the child from a knowledge of the real danger of
their position, and to soothe and comfort her. How he carried her on
his back, until, exhausted, he sank in a heap of sage-brush. How he was
surrounded by Indians, who, however, never suspected his hiding-place;
and how he remained motionless and breathless with the sleeping child
for three hours, until they departed. How, at the last moment, he had
perceived a train in the distance, and had staggered with her thither,
although shot at and wounded by the trainmen in the belief that he
was an Indian. How it was afterwards discovered that the child was the
long-lost daughter of a millionaire; how he had resolutely refused
any gratuity for saving her, and she was now a peerless young heiress,
famous in California. Whether this lighter tone of narrative suited him
better, or whether the active feminine sympathy of his auditors
helped him along, certain it was that his story was more coherent and
intelligible and his voice less hoarse and constrained than in his
previous belligerent reminiscences; his expression changed, and even his
features worked into something like gentler emotion. The bright eyes
of Phoebe, fastened upon him, turned dim with a faint moisture, and
her pale cheek took upon itself a little color. The mother, after
interjecting “Du tell,” and “I wanter know,” remained open-mouthed,
staring at her visitor. And in the silence that followed, a pleasant,
but somewhat melancholy voice came from the open door.

“I beg your pardon, but I thought I couldn’t be mistaken. It IS my old
friend, Jim Hooker!”

Everybody started. Red Jim stumbled to his feet with an inarticulate and
hysteric exclamation. Yet the apparition that now stood in the doorway
was far from being terrifying or discomposing. It was evidently the
stranger,--a slender, elegantly-knit figure, whose upper lip was faintly
shadowed by a soft, dark mustache indicating early manhood, and whose
unstudied ease in his well-fitting garments bespoke the dweller of
cities. Good-looking and well-dressed, without the consciousness of
being either; self-possessed through easy circumstances, yet without
self-assertion; courteous by nature and instinct as well as from an
experience of granting favors, he might have been a welcome addition
to even a more critical company. But Red Jim, hurriedly seizing his
outstretched hand, instantly dragged him away from the doorway into the
road and out of hearing of his audience.

“Did you hear what I was saying?” he asked hoarsely.

“Well, yes,--I think so,” returned the stranger, with a quiet smile.

“Ye ain’t goin’ back on me, Clarence, are ye,--ain’t goin’ to gimme away
afore them, old pard, are ye?” said Jim, with a sudden change to almost
pathetic pleading.

“No,” returned the stranger, smiling. “And certainly not before that
interested young lady, Jim. But stop. Let me look at you.”

He held out both hands, took Jim’s, spread them apart for a moment with
a boyish gesture, and, looking in his face, said half mischievously,
half sadly, “Yes, it’s the same old Jim Hooker,--unchanged.”

“But YOU’RE changed,--reg’lar war paint, Big Injin style!” said Hooker,
looking up at him with an awkward mingling of admiration and envy.
“Heard you struck it rich with the old man, and was Mister Brant now!”

“Yes,” said Clarence gently, yet with a smile that had not only a tinge
of weariness but even of sadness in it.

Unfortunately, the act, which was quite natural to Clarence’s
sensitiveness, and indeed partly sprang from some concern in his old
companion’s fortunes, translated itself by a very human process to
Hooker’s consciousness as a piece of rank affectation. HE would have
been exalted and exultant in Clarence’s place, consequently any other
exhibition was only “airs.” Nevertheless, at the present moment Clarence
was to be placated.

“You didn’t mind my telling that story about your savin’ Susy as my own,
did ye?” he said, with a hasty glance over his shoulder. “I only did it
to fool the old man and women-folks, and make talk. You won’t blow on
me? Ye ain’t mad about it?”

It had crossed Clarence’s memory that when they were both younger
Jim Hooker had once not only borrowed his story, but his name and
personality as well. Yet in his loyalty to old memories there was
mingled no resentment for past injury. “Of course not,” he said, with a
smile that was, however, still thoughtful. “Why should I? Only I ought
to tell you that Susy Peyton is living with her adopted parents not ten
miles from here, and it might reach their ears. She’s quite a young lady
now, and if I wouldn’t tell her story to strangers, I don’t think YOU
ought to, Jim.”

He said this so pleasantly that even the skeptical Jim forgot what he
believed were the “airs and graces” of self-abnegation, and said,
“Let’s go inside, and I’ll introduce you,” and turned to the house. But
Clarence Brant drew back. “I’m going on as soon as my horse is fed,
for I’m on a visit to Peyton, and I intend to push as far as Santa Inez
still to-night. I want to talk with you about yourself, Jim,” he
added gently; “your prospects and your future. I heard,” he went on
hesitatingly, “that you were--at work--in a restaurant in San Francisco.
I’m glad to see that you are at least your own master here,”--he glanced
at the wagon. “You are selling things, I suppose? For yourself, or
another? Is that team yours? Come,” he added, still pleasantly, but in
an older and graver voice, with perhaps the least touch of experienced
authority, “be frank, Jim. Which is it? Never mind what things you’ve
told IN THERE, tell ME the truth about yourself. Can I help you in any
way? Believe me, I should like to. We have been old friends, whatever
difference in our luck, I am yours still.”

Thus adjured, the redoubtable Jim, in a hoarse whisper, with a furtive
eye on the house, admitted that he was traveling for an itinerant
peddler, whom he expected to join later in the settlement; that he
had his own methods of disposing of his wares, and (darkly) that his
proprietor and the world generally had better not interfere with him;
that (with a return to more confidential lightness) he had already
“worked the Wild West Injin” business so successfully as to dispose of
his wares, particularly in yonder house, and might do even more if not
prematurely and wantonly “blown upon,” “gone back on,” or “given away.”

“But wouldn’t you like to settle down on some bit of land like this, and
improve it for yourself?” said Clarence. “All these valley terraces are
bound to rise in value, and meantime you would be independent. It could
be managed, Jim. I think I could arrange it for you,” he went on, with a
slight glow of youthful enthusiasm. “Write to me at Peyton’s ranch,
and I’ll see you when I come back, and we’ll hunt up something for
you together.” As Jim received the proposition with a kind of gloomy
embarrassment, he added lightly, with a glance at the farmhouse, “It
might be near HERE, you know; and you’d have pleasant neighbors, and
even eager listeners to your old adventures.”

“You’d better come in a minit before you go,” said Jim, clumsily evading
a direct reply. Clarence hesitated a moment, and then yielded. For an
equal moment Jim Hooker was torn between secret jealousy of his old
comrade’s graces and a desire to present them as familiar associations
of his own. But his vanity was quickly appeased.

Need it be said that the two women received this fleck and foam of
a super-civilization they knew little of as almost an impertinence
compared to the rugged, gloomy, pathetic, and equally youthful hero of
an adventurous wilderness of which they knew still less? What availed
the courtesy and gentle melancholy of Clarence Brant beside the
mysterious gloom and dark savagery of Red Jim? Yet they received him
patronizingly, as one who was, like themselves, an admirer of manly
grace and power, and the recipient of Jim’s friendship. The farmer alone
seemed to prefer Clarence, and yet the latter’s tacit indorsement of Red
Jim, through his evident previous intimacy with him, impressed the man
in Jim’s favor. All of which Clarence saw with that sensitive perception
which had given him an early insight into human weakness, yet still had
never shaken his youthful optimism. He smiled a little thoughtfully, but
was openly fraternal to Jim, courteous to his host and family, and,
as he rode away in the faint moonlight, magnificently opulent in his
largess to the farmer,--his first and only assertion of his position.

The farmhouse, straggling barn, and fringe of dusty willows, the white
dome of the motionless wagon, with the hanging frying pans and kettles
showing in the moonlight like black silhouettes against the staring
canvas, all presently sank behind Clarence like the details of a dream,
and he was alone with the moon, the hazy mystery of the level, grassy
plain, and the monotony of the unending road. As he rode slowly along he
thought of that other dreary plain, white with alkali patches and brown
with rings of deserted camp-fires, known to his boyhood of deprivation,
dependency, danger, and adventure, oddly enough, with a strange delight;
and his later years of study, monastic seclusion, and final ease
and independence, with an easy sense of wasted existence and useless
waiting. He remembered his homeless childhood in the South, where
servants and slaves took the place of the father he had never known,
and the mother that he rarely saw; he remembered his abandonment to a
mysterious female relation, where his natural guardians seemed to
have overlooked and forgotten him, until he was sent, an all too young
adventurer, to work his passage on an overland emigrant train across the
plains; he remembered, as yesterday, the fears, the hopes, the dreams
and dangers of that momentous journey. He recalled his little playmate,
Susy, and their strange adventures--the whole incident that the
imaginative Jim Hooker had translated and rehearsed as his own--rose
vividly before him. He thought of the cruel end of that pilgrimage,
which again left him homeless and forgotten by even the relative he was
seeking in a strange land. He remembered his solitary journey to the
gold mines, taken with a boy’s trust and a boy’s fearlessness, and
the strange protector he had found there, who had news of his missing
kinsman; he remembered how this protector--whom he had at once
instinctively loved--transferred him to the house of this new-found
relation, who treated him kindly and sent him to the Jesuit school, but
who never awakened in him a feeling of kinship. He dreamed again of his
life at school, his accidental meeting with Susy at Santa Clara, the
keen revival of his boyish love for his old playmate, now a pretty
schoolgirl, the petted adopted child of wealthy parents. He recalled
the terrible shock that interrupted this boyish episode: the news of the
death of his protector, and the revelation that this hard, silent, and
mysterious man was his own father, whose reckless life and desperate
reputation had impelled him to assume a disguise.

He remembered how his sudden accession to wealth and independence had
half frightened him, and had always left a lurking sensitiveness that
he was unfairly favored, by some mere accident, above his less lucky
companions. The rude vices of his old associates had made him impatient
of the feebler sensual indulgences of the later companions of
his luxury, and exposed their hollow fascinations; his sensitive
fastidiousness kept him clean among vulgar temptations; his clear
perceptions were never blinded by selfish sophistry. Meantime his
feeling for Susy remained unchanged. Pride had kept him from seeking the
Peytons. His present visit was as unpremeditated as Peyton’s invitation
had been unlooked for by him. Yet he had not allowed himself to be
deceived. He knew that this courtesy was probably due to the change in
his fortune, although he had hoped it might have been some change in
their opinion brought about by Susy. But he would at least see
her again, not in the pretty, half-clandestine way she had thought
necessary, but openly and as her equal.

In his rapid ride he seemed to have suddenly penetrated the peaceful
calm of the night. The restless irritation of the afternoon trade winds
had subsided; the tender moonlight had hushed and tranquilly possessed
the worried plain; the unending files of wild oats, far spaced and
distinct, stood erect and motionless as trees; something of the sedate
solemnity of a great forest seemed to have fallen upon their giant
stalks. There was no dew. In that light, dry air, the heavier dust no
longer rose beneath the heels of his horse, whose flying shadow passed
over the field like a cloud, leaving no trail or track behind it. In the
preoccupation of his thought and his breathless retrospect, the young
man had ridden faster than he intended, and he now checked his panting
horse. The influence of the night and the hushed landscape stole over
him; his thoughts took a gentler turn; in that dim, mysterious horizon
line before him, his future seemed to be dreamily peopled with airy,
graceful shapes that more or less took the likeness of Susy. She was
bright, coquettish, romantic, as he had last seen her; she was older,
graver, and thoughtfully welcome of him; or she was cold, distant, and
severely forgetful of the past. How would her adopted father and mother
receive him? Would they ever look upon him in the light of a suitor to
the young girl? He had no fear of Peyton,--he understood his own sex,
and, young as he was, knew already how to make himself respected; but
how could he overcome that instinctive aversion which Mrs. Peyton had
so often made him feel he had provoked? Yet in this dreamy hush of earth
and sky, what was not possible? His boyish heart beat high with daring
visions.

He saw Mrs. Peyton in the porch, welcoming him with that maternal smile
which his childish longing had so often craved to share with Susy.
Peyton would be there, too,--Peyton, who had once pushed back his torn
straw hat to look approvingly in his boyish eyes; and Peyton, perhaps,
might be proud of him.

Suddenly he started. A voice in his very ear!

“Bah! A yoke of vulgar cattle grazing on lands that were thine by right
and law. Neither more nor less than that. And I tell thee, Pancho, like
cattle, to be driven off or caught and branded for one’s own. Ha! There
are those who could swear to the truth of this on the Creed. Ay! and
bring papers stamped and signed by the governor’s rubric to prove it.
And not that I hate them,--bah! what are those heretic swine to me? But
thou dost comprehend me? It galls and pricks me to see them swelling
themselves with stolen husks, and men like thee, Pancho, ousted from
their own land.”

Clarence had halted in utter bewilderment. No one was visible before
him, behind him, on either side. The words, in Spanish, came from the
air, the sky, the distant horizon, he knew not which. Was he still
dreaming? A strange shiver crept over his skin as if the air had grown
suddenly chill. Then another mysterious voice arose, incredulous, half
mocking, but equally distinct and clear.

“Caramba! What is this? You are wandering, friend Pancho. You are still
smarting from his tongue. He has the grant confirmed by his brigand
government; he has the POSSESSION, stolen by a thief like himself; and
he has the Corregidors with him. For is he not one of them himself, this
Judge Peyton?”

Peyton! Clarence felt the blood rush back to his face in astonishment
and indignation. His heels mechanically pressed his horse’s flanks, and
the animal sprang forward.

“Guarda! Mira!” said the voice again in a quicker, lower tone. But
this time it was evidently in the field beside him, and the heads and
shoulders of two horsemen emerged at the same moment from the tall ranks
of wild oats. The mystery was solved. The strangers had been making
their way along a lower level of the terraced plain, hidden by the
grain, not twenty yards away, and parallel with the road they were now
ascending to join. Their figures were alike formless in long striped
serapes, and their features undistinguishable under stiff black
sombreros.

“Buenas noches, senor,” said the second voice, in formal and cautious
deliberation.

A sudden inspiration made Clarence respond in English, as if he had not
comprehended the stranger’s words, “Eh?”

“Gooda-nighta,” repeated the stranger.

“Oh, good-night,” returned Clarence. They passed him. Their spurs
tinkled twice or thrice, their mustangs sprang forward, and the next
moment the loose folds of their serapes were fluttering at their sides
like wings in their flight.



CHAPTER IV.


After the chill of a dewless night the morning sun was apt to look
ardently upon the Robles Rancho, if so strong an expression could
describe the dry, oven-like heat of a Californian coast-range valley.
Before ten o’clock the adobe wall of the patio was warm enough to permit
lingering vacqueros and idle peons to lean against it, and the exposed
annexe was filled with sharp, resinous odors from the oozing sap of
unseasoned “redwood” boards, warped and drying in the hot sunshine. Even
at that early hour the climbing Castilian roses were drooping against
the wooden columns of the new veranda, scarcely older than themselves,
and mingling an already faded spice with the aroma of baking wood and
the more material fragrance of steaming coffee, that seemed dominant
everywhere.

In fact, the pretty breakfast-room, whose three broad windows, always
open to the veranda, gave an al fresco effect to every meal, was a
pathetic endeavor of the Southern-bred Peyton to emulate the soft,
luxurious, and open-air indolence of his native South, in a climate that
was not only not tropical, but even austere in its most fervid moments.
Yet, although cold draughts invaded it from the rear that morning, Judge
Peyton sat alone, between the open doors and windows, awaiting the
slow coming of his wife and the young ladies. He was not in an entirely
comfortable mood that morning. Things were not going on well at Robles.
That truculent vagabond, Pedro, had, the night before, taken himself off
with a curse that had frightened even the vacqueros, who most hated him
as a companion, but who now seemed inclined to regard his absence as an
injury done to their race. Peyton, uneasily conscious that his own anger
had been excited by an exaggerated conception of the accident, was
now, like most obstinate men, inclined to exaggerate the importance of
Pedro’s insolence. He was well out of it to get rid of this quarrelsome
hanger-on, whose presumption and ill-humor threatened the discipline of
the rancho, yet he could not entirely forget that he had employed him
on account of his family claims, and from a desire to placate racial
jealousy and settle local differences. For the inferior Mexicans and
Indian half-breeds still regarded their old masters with affection;
were, in fact, more concerned for the integrity of their caste than
the masters were themselves, and the old Spanish families who had made
alliances with Americans, and shared their land with them, had rarely
succeeded in alienating their retainers with their lands. Certain
experiences in the proving of his grant before the Land Commission had
taught Peyton that they were not to be depended upon. And lately
there had been unpleasant rumors of the discovery of some unlooked-for
claimants to a division of the grant itself, which might affect his own
title.

He looked up quickly as voices and light steps on the veranda at last
heralded the approach of his tardy household from the corridor. But, in
spite of his preoccupation, he was startled and even awkwardly impressed
with a change in Susy’s appearance. She was wearing, for the first time,
a long skirt, and this sudden maturing of her figure struck him, as a
man, much more forcibly than it would probably have impressed a woman,
more familiar with details. He had not noticed certain indications of
womanhood, as significant, perhaps, in her carriage as her outlines,
which had been lately perfectly apparent to her mother and Mary, but
which were to him now, for the first time, indicated by a few inches of
skirt. She not only looked taller to his masculine eyes, but these few
inches had added to the mystery as well as the drapery of the goddess;
they were not so much the revelation of maturity as the suggestion that
it was HIDDEN. So impressed was he, that a half-serious lecture on her
yesterday’s childishness, the outcome of his irritated reflections that
morning, died upon his lips. He felt he was no longer dealing with a
child.

He welcomed them with that smile of bantering approbation, supposed to
keep down inordinate vanity, which for some occult reason one always
reserves for the members of one’s own family. He was quite conscious
that Susy was looking very pretty in this new and mature frock, and that
as she stood beside his wife, far from ageing Mrs. Peyton’s good looks
and figure, she appeared like an equal companion, and that they mutually
“became” one another. This, and the fact that they were all, including
Mary Rogers, in their freshest, gayest morning dresses, awakened a
half-humorous, half-real apprehension in his mind, that he was now
hopelessly surrounded by a matured sex, and in a weak minority.

“I think I ought to have been prepared,” he began grimly, “for this
addition to--to--the skirts of my family.”

“Why, John,” returned Mrs. Peyton quickly; “do you mean to say
you haven’t noticed that the poor child has for weeks been looking
positively indecent?”

“Really, papa, I’ve been a sight to behold. Haven’t I, Mary?” chimed in
Susy.

“Yes, dear. Why, Judge, I’ve been wondering that Susy stood it so well,
and never complained.”

Peyton glanced around him at this compact feminine embattlement. It was
as he feared. Yet even here he was again at fault.

“And,” said Mrs. Peyton slowly, with the reserved significance of the
feminine postscript in her voice, “if that Mr. Brant is coming here
to-day, it would be just as well for him to see that SHE IS NO LONGER A
CHILD, AS WHEN HE KNEW HER.”

An hour later, good-natured Mary Rogers, in her character of “a
dear,”--which was usually indicated by the undertaking of small errands
for her friend,--was gathering roses from the old garden for Susy’s
adornment, when she saw a vision which lingered with her for many a
day. She had stopped to look through the iron grille in the adobe wall,
across the open wind-swept plain. Miniature waves were passing over
the wild oats, with glittering disturbances here and there in the
depressions like the sparkling of green foam; the horizon line was
sharply defined against the hard, steel-blue sky; everywhere the
brand-new morning was shining with almost painted brilliancy; the vigor,
spirit, and even crudeness of youth were over all. The young girl was
dazzled and bewildered. Suddenly, as if blown out of the waving grain,
or an incarnation of the vivid morning, the bright and striking figure
of a youthful horseman flashed before the grille. It was Clarence Brant!
Mary Rogers had always seen him, in the loyalty of friendship, with
Susy’s prepossessed eyes, yet she fancied that morning that he had
never looked so handsome before. Even the foppish fripperies of his
riding-dress and silver trappings seemed as much the natural expression
of conquering youth as the invincible morning sunshine. Perhaps it
might have been a reaction against Susy’s caprice or some latent
susceptibility of her own; but a momentary antagonism to her friend
stirred even her kindly nature. What right had Susy to trifle with such
an opportunity? Who was SHE to hesitate over this gallant prince?

But Prince Charming’s quick eyes had detected her, and the next moment
his beautiful horse was beside the grating, and his ready hand of
greeting extended through the bars.

“I suppose I am early and unexpected, but I slept at Santa Inez last
night, that I might ride over in the cool of the morning. My things are
coming by the stage-coach, later. It seemed such a slow way of coming
one’s self.”

Mary Rogers’s black eyes intimated that the way he had taken was the
right one, but she gallantly recovered herself and remembered her
position as confidante. And here was the opportunity of delivering
Susy’s warning unobserved. She withdrew her hand from Clarence’s frank
grasp, and passing it through the grating, patted the sleek, shining
flanks of his horse, with a discreet division of admiration.

“And such a lovely creature, too! And Susy will be so delighted! and
oh, Mr. Brant, please, you’re to say nothing of having met her at Santa
Clara. It’s just as well not to begin with THAT here, for, you see”
 (with a large, maternal manner), “you were both SO young then.”

Clarence drew a quick breath. It was the first check to his vision of
independence and equal footing! Then his invitation was NOT the outcome
of a continuous friendship revived by Susy, as he had hoped; the Peytons
had known nothing of his meeting with her, or perhaps they would not
have invited him. He was here as an impostor,--and all because Susy had
chosen to make a mystery of a harmless encounter, which might have
been explained, and which they might have even countenanced. He thought
bitterly of his old playmate for a brief moment,--as brief as Mary’s
antagonism. The young girl noticed the change in his face, but
misinterpreted it.

“Oh, there’s no danger of its coming out if you don’t say anything,” she
said, quickly. “Ride on to the house, and don’t wait for me. You’ll find
them in the patio on the veranda.”

Clarence moved on, but not as spiritedly as before. Nevertheless there
was still dash enough about him and the animal he bestrode to stir into
admiration the few lounging vacqueros of a country which was apt to
judge the status of a rider by the quality of his horse. Nor was the
favorable impression confined to them alone. Peyton’s gratification rang
out cheerily in his greeting:--

“Bravo, Clarence! You are here in true caballero style. Thanks for the
compliment to the rancho.”

For a moment the young man was transported back again to his boyhood,
and once more felt Peyton’s approving hand pushing back the worn straw
hat from his childish forehead. A faint color rose to his cheeks; his
eyes momentarily dropped. The highest art could have done no more! The
slight aggressiveness of his youthful finery and picturesque good looks
was condoned at once; his modesty conquered where self-assertion might
have provoked opposition, and even Mrs. Peyton felt herself impelled
to come forward with an outstretched hand scarcely less frank than her
husband’s. Then Clarence lifted his eyes. He saw before him the woman
to whom his childish heart had gone out with the inscrutable longing and
adoration of a motherless, homeless, companionless boy; the woman who
had absorbed the love of his playmate without sharing it with him; who
had showered her protecting and maternal caresses on Susy, a waif like
himself, yet had not only left his heart lonely and desolate, but had
even added to his childish distrust of himself the thought that he
had excited her aversion. He saw her more beautiful than ever in her
restored health, freshness of coloring, and mature roundness of outline.
He was unconsciously touched with a man’s admiration for her without
losing his boyish yearnings and half-filial affection; in her new
materialistic womanhood his youthful imagination had lifted her to
a queen and goddess. There was all this appeal in his still boyish
eyes,--eyes that had never yet known shame or fear in the expression of
their emotions; there was all this in the gesture with which he lifted
Mrs. Peyton’s fingers to his lips. The little group saw in this act only
a Spanish courtesy in keeping with his accepted role. But a thrill of
surprise, of embarrassment, of intense gratification passed over her.
For he had not even looked at Susy!

Her relenting was graceful. She welcomed him with a winning smile. Then
she motioned pleasantly towards Susy.

“But here is an older friend, Mr. Brant, whom you do not seem to
recognize,--Susy, whom you have not seen since she was a child.”

A quick flush rose to Clarence’s cheek. The group smiled at this evident
youthful confession of some boyish admiration. But Clarence knew that
his truthful blood was merely resenting the deceit his lips were sealed
from divulging. He did not dare to glance at Susy; it added to the
general amusement that the young girl was obliged to present herself.
But in this interval she had exchanged glances with Mary Rogers, who had
rejoined the group, and she knew she was safe. She smiled with gracious
condescension at Clarence; observed, with the patronizing superiority
of age and established position, that he had GROWN, but had not greatly
changed, and, it is needless to say, again filled her mother’s heart
with joy. Clarence, still intoxicated with Mrs. Peyton’s kindliness,
and, perhaps, still embarrassed by remorse, had not time to remark the
girl’s studied attitude. He shook hands with her cordially, and then,
in the quick reaction of youth, accepted with humorous gravity the
elaborate introduction to Mary Rogers by Susy, which completed this
little comedy. And if, with a woman’s quickness, Mrs. Peyton detected a
certain lingering glance which passed between Mary Rogers and Clarence,
and misinterpreted it, it was only a part of that mystification into
which these youthful actors are apt to throw their mature audiences.

“Confess, Ally,” said Peyton, cheerfully, as the three young people
suddenly found their tongues with aimless vivacity and inconsequent
laughter, and started with unintelligible spirits for an exploration of
the garden, “confess now that your bete noir is really a very manly as
well as a very presentable young fellow. By Jove! the padres have made a
Spanish swell out of him without spoiling the Brant grit, either!
Come, now; you’re not afraid that Susy’s style will suffer from HIS
companionship. ‘Pon my soul, she might borrow a little of his courtesy
to his elders without indelicacy. I only wish she had as sincere a way
of showing her respect for you as he has. Did you notice that he really
didn’t seem to see anybody else but you at first? And yet you never were
a friend to him, like Susy.”

The lady tossed her head slightly, but smiled.

“This is the first time he’s seen Mary Rogers, isn’t it?” she said
meditatively.

“I reckon. But what’s that to do with his politeness to you?”

“And do her parents know him?” she continued, without replying.

“How do I know? I suppose everybody has heard of him. Why?”

“Because I think they’ve taken a fancy to each other.”

“What in the name of folly, Ally”--began the despairing Peyton.

“When you invite a handsome, rich, and fascinating young man into the
company of young ladies, John,” returned Mrs. Peyton, in her severest
manner, “you must not forget you owe a certain responsibility to the
parents. I shall certainly look after Miss Rogers.”



CHAPTER V.


Although the three young people had left the veranda together, when they
reached the old garden Clarence and Susy found themselves considerably
in advance of Mary Rogers, who had become suddenly and deeply interested
in the beauty of a passion vine near the gate. At the first discovery of
their isolation their voluble exchange of information about themselves
and their occupations since their last meeting stopped simultaneously.
Clarence, who had forgotten his momentary irritation, and had recovered
his old happiness in her presence, was nevertheless conscious of some
other change in her than that suggested by the lengthened skirt and the
later and more delicate accentuation of her prettiness. It was not her
affectation of superiority and older social experience, for that was
only the outcome of what he had found charming in her as a child, and
which he still good-humoredly accepted; nor was it her characteristic
exaggeration of speech, which he still pleasantly recognized. It was
something else, vague and indefinite,--something that had been unnoticed
while Mary was with them, but had now come between them like some
unknown presence which had taken the confidante’s place. He remained
silent, looking at her half-brightening cheek and conscious profile.
Then he spoke with awkward directness.

“You are changed, Susy, more than in looks.”

“Hush,” said the girl in a tragic whisper, with a warning gesture
towards the blandly unconscious Mary.

“But,” returned Clarence wonderingly, “she’s your--our friend, you
know.”

“I DON’T know,” said Susy, in a still deeper tone, “that is--oh, don’t
ask me! But when you’re always surrounded by spies, when you can’t say
your soul is your own, you doubt everybody!” There was such a pretty
distress in her violet eyes and curving eyebrows, that Clarence, albeit
vague as to its origin and particulars, nevertheless possessed himself
of the little hand that was gesticulating dangerously near his own, and
pressed it sympathetically. Perhaps preoccupied with her emotions, she
did not immediately withdraw it, as she went on rapidly: “And if you
were cooped up here, day after day, behind these bars,” pointing to the
grille, “you’d know what I suffer.”

“But”--began Clarence.

“Hush!” said Susy, with a stamp of her little foot.

Clarence, who had only wished to point out that the whole lower end of
the garden wall was in ruins and the grille really was no prevention,
“hushed.”

“And listen! Don’t pay me much attention to-day, but talk to HER,”
 indicating the still discreet and distant Mary, “before father and
mother. Not a word to her of this confidence, Clarence. To-morrow ride
out alone on your beautiful horse, and come back by way of the woods,
beyond our turning, at four o’clock. There’s a trail to the right of the
big madrono tree. Take that. Be careful and keep a good lookout, for she
mustn’t see you.”

“Who mustn’t see me?” said the puzzled Clarence.

“Why, Mary, of course, you silly boy!” returned the girl impatiently.
“She’ll be looking for ME. Go now, Clarence! Stop! Look at that lovely
big maiden’s-blush up there,” pointing to a pink-suffused specimen
of rose grandiflora hanging on the wall. “Get it, Clarence,--that
one,--I’ll show you where,--there!” They had already plunged into the
leafy bramble, and, standing on tiptoe, with her hand on his shoulder
and head upturned, Susy’s cheek had innocently approached Clarence’s
own. At this moment Clarence, possibly through some confusion of color,
fragrance, or softness of contact, seemed to have availed himself of the
opportunity, in a way which caused Susy to instantly rejoin Mary Rogers
with affected dignity, leaving him to follow a few moments later with
the captured flower.

Without trying to understand the reason of to-morrow’s rendezvous, and
perhaps not altogether convinced of the reality of Susy’s troubles, he,
however, did not find that difficulty in carrying out her other commands
which he had expected. Mrs. Peyton was still gracious, and, with
feminine tact, induced him to talk of himself, until she was presently
in possession of his whole history, barring the episode of his meeting
with Susy, since he had parted with them. He felt a strange satisfaction
in familiarly pouring out his confidences to this superior woman,
whom he had always held in awe. There was a new delight in her womanly
interest in his trials and adventures, and a subtle pleasure even in her
half-motherly criticism and admonition of some passages. I am afraid he
forgot Susy, who listened with the complacency of an exhibitor; Mary,
whose black eyes dilated alternately with sympathy for the performer and
deprecation of Mrs. Peyton’s critical glances; and Peyton, who, however,
seemed lost in thought, and preoccupied. Clarence was happy. The softly
shaded lights in the broad, spacious, comfortably furnished drawing-room
shone on the group before him. It was a picture of refined domesticity
which the homeless Clarence had never known except as a vague,
half-painful, boyish remembrance; it was a realization of welcome that
far exceeded his wildest boyish vision of the preceding night. With that
recollection came another,--a more uneasy one. He remembered how that
vision had been interrupted by the strange voices in the road, and their
vague but ominous import to his host. A feeling of self-reproach came
over him. The threats had impressed him as only mere braggadocio,--he
knew the characteristic exaggeration of the race,--but perhaps he ought
to privately tell Peyton of the incident at once.

The opportunity came later, when the ladies had retired, and Peyton,
wrapped in a poncho in a rocking-chair, on the now chilly veranda,
looked up from his reverie and a cigar. Clarence casually introduced the
incident, as if only for the sake of describing the supernatural effect
of the hidden voices, but he was concerned to see that Peyton was
considerably disturbed by their more material import. After questioning
him as to the appearance of the two men, his host said: “I don’t mind
telling you, Clarence, that as far as that fellow’s intentions go he is
quite sincere, although his threats are only borrowed thunder. He is
a man whom I have just dismissed for carelessness and insolence,--two
things that run in double harness in this country,--but I should be more
afraid to find him at my back on a dark night, alone on the plains; than
to confront him in daylight, in the witness box, against me. He was
only repeating a silly rumor that the title to this rancho and the nine
square leagues beyond would be attacked by some speculators.”

“But I thought your title was confirmed two years ago,” said Clarence.

“The GRANT was confirmed,” returned Peyton, “which means that the
conveyance of the Mexican government of these lands to the ancestor of
Victor Robles was held to be legally proven by the United States Land
Commission, and a patent issued to all those who held under it. I and my
neighbors hold under it by purchase from Victor Robles, subject to the
confirmation of the Land Commission. But that confirmation was only
of Victor’s GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S TITLE, and it is now alleged that as
Victor’s father died without making a will, Victor has claimed and
disposed of property which he ought to have divided with his SISTERS. At
least, some speculating rascals in San Francisco have set up what they
call ‘the Sisters’ title,’ and are selling it to actual settlers on
the unoccupied lands beyond. As, by the law, it would hold possession
against the mere ordinary squatters, whose only right is based, as you
know, on the presumption that there is NO TITLE CLAIMED, it gives the
possessor immunity to enjoy the use of the property until the case is
decided, and even should the original title hold good against his, the
successful litigant would probably be willing to pay for improvements
and possession to save the expensive and tedious process of ejectment.”

“But this does not affect YOU, who have already possession?” said
Clarence quickly.

“No, not as far as THIS HOUSE and the lands I actually OCCUPY AND
CULTIVATE are concerned; and they know that I am safe to fight to the
last, and carry the case to the Supreme Court in that case, until
the swindle is exposed, or they drop it; but I may have to pay them
something to keep the squatters off my UNOCCUPIED land.”

“But you surely wouldn’t recognize those rascals in any way?” said the
astonished Clarence.

“As against other rascals? Why not?” returned Peyton grimly. “I only pay
for the possession which their sham title gives me to my own land. If by
accident that title obtains, I am still on the safe side.” After a pause
he said, more gravely, “What you overheard, Clarence, shows me that the
plan is more forward than I had imagined, and that I may have to fight
traitors here.”

“I hope, sir,” said Clarence, with a quick glow in his earnest
face, “that you’ll let me help you. You thought I did once, you
remember,--with the Indians.”

There was so much of the old Clarence in his boyish appeal and eager,
questioning face that Peyton, who had been talking to him as a younger
but equal man of affairs, was startled into a smile, “You did, Clarence,
though the Indians butchered your friends, after all. I don’t know,
though, but that your experiences with those Spaniards--you must have
known a lot of them when you were with Don Juan Robinson and at the
college--might be of service in getting at evidence, or smashing their
witnesses if it comes to a fight. But just now, MONEY is everything.
They must be bought OFF THE LAND if I have to mortgage it for the
purpose. That strikes you as a rather heroic remedy, Clarence, eh?”
 he continued, in his old, half-bantering attitude towards Clarence’s
inexperienced youth, “don’t it?”

But Clarence was not thinking of that. Another more audacious but
equally youthful and enthusiastic idea had taken possession of his mind,
and he lay awake half that night revolving it. It was true that it was
somewhat impractically mixed with his visions of Mrs. Peyton and Susy,
and even included his previous scheme of relief for the improvident and
incorrigible Hooker. But it gave a wonderful sincerity and happiness
to his slumbers that night, which the wiser and elder Peyton might have
envied, and I wot not was in the long run as correct and sagacious as
Peyton’s sleepless cogitations. And in the early morning Mr. Clarence
Brant, the young capitalist, sat down to his traveling-desk and wrote
two clear-headed, logical, and practical business letters,--one to his
banker, and the other to his former guardian, Don Juan Robinson, as
his first step in a resolve that was, nevertheless, perhaps as wildly
quixotic and enthusiastic as any dream his boyish and unselfish heart
had ever indulged.

At breakfast, in the charmed freedom of the domestic circle, Clarence
forgot Susy’s capricious commands of yesterday, and began to address
himself to her in his old earnest fashion, until he was warned by
a significant knitting of the young lady’s brows and monosyllabic
responses. But in his youthful loyalty to Mrs. Peyton, he was more
pained to notice Susy’s occasional unconscious indifference to her
adopted mother’s affectionate expression, and a more conscious disregard
of her wishes. So uneasy did he become, in his sensitive concern for
Mrs. Peyton’s half-concealed mortification, that he gladly accepted
Peyton’s offer to go with him to visit the farm and corral. As the
afternoon approached, with another twinge of self-reproach, he was
obliged to invent some excuse to decline certain hospitable plans
of Mrs. Peyton’s for his entertainment, and at half past three stole
somewhat guiltily, with his horse, from the stables. But he had to pass
before the outer wall of the garden and grille, through which he had
seen Mary the day before. Raising his eyes mechanically, he was startled
to see Mrs. Peyton standing behind the grating, with her abstracted gaze
fixed upon the wind-tossed, level grain beyond her. She smiled as she
saw him, but there were traces of tears in her proud, handsome eyes.

“You are going to ride?” she said pleasantly.

“Y-e-es,” stammered the shamefaced Clarence.

She glanced at him wistfully.

“You are right. The girls have gone away by themselves. Mr. Peyton has
ridden over to Santa Inez on this dreadful land business, and I suppose
you’d have found him a dull riding companion. It is rather stupid here.
I quite envy you, Mr. Brant, your horse and your freedom.”

“But, Mrs. Peyton,” broke in Clarence, impulsively, “you have a horse--I
saw it, a lovely lady’s horse--eating its head off in the stable. Won’t
you let me run back and order it; and won’t you, please, come out with
me for a good, long gallop?”

He meant what he said. He had spoken quickly, impulsively, but with the
perfect understanding in his own mind that his proposition meant the
complete abandonment of his rendezvous with Susy. Mrs. Peyton was
astounded and slightly stirred with his earnestness, albeit unaware of
all it implied.

“It’s a great temptation, Mr. Brant,” she said, with a playful smile,
which dazzled Clarence with its first faint suggestion of a refined
woman’s coquetry; “but I’m afraid that Mr. Peyton would think me going
mad in my old age. No. Go on and enjoy your gallop, and if you should
see those giddy girls anywhere, send them home early for chocolate,
before the cold wind gets up.”

She turned, waved her slim white hand playfully in acknowledgment of
Clarence’s bared head, and moved away.

For the first few moments the young man tried to find relief in furious
riding, and in bullying his spirited horse. Then he pulled quickly up.
What was he doing? What was he going to do? What foolish, vapid deceit
was this that he was going to practice upon that noble, queenly,
confiding, generous woman? (He had already forgotten that she had always
distrusted him.) What a fool he was not to tell her half-jokingly that
he expected to meet Susy! But would he have dared to talk half-jokingly
to such a woman on such a topic? And would it have been honorable
without disclosing the WHOLE truth,--that they had met secretly before?
And was it fair to Susy?--dear, innocent, childish Susy! Yet something
must be done! It was such trivial, purposeless deceit, after all; for
this noble woman, Mrs. Peyton, so kind, so gentle, would never object
to his loving Susy and marrying her. And they would all live happily
together; and Mrs. Peyton would never be separated from them, but always
beaming tenderly upon them as she did just now in the garden. Yes, he
would have a serious understanding with Susy, and that would excuse the
clandestine meeting to-day.

His rapid pace, meantime, had brought him to the imperceptible incline
of the terrace, and he was astonished, in turning in the saddle, to find
that the casa, corral, and outbuildings had completely vanished, and
that behind him rolled only the long sea of grain, which seemed to have
swallowed them in its yellowing depths. Before him lay the wooded ravine
through which the stagecoach passed, which was also the entrance to
the rancho, and there, too, probably, was the turning of which Susy had
spoken. But it was still early for the rendezvous; indeed, he was in
no hurry to meet her in his present discontented state, and he made a
listless circuit of the field, in the hope of discovering the phenomena
that had caused the rancho’s mysterious disappearance. When he had
found that it was the effect of the different levels, his attention was
arrested by a multitude of moving objects in a still more distant
field, which proved to be a band of wild horses. In and out among
them, circling aimlessly, as it seemed to him, appeared two horsemen
apparently performing some mystic evolution. To add to their singular
performance, from time to time one of the flying herd, driven by the
horsemen far beyond the circle of its companions, dropped suddenly and
unaccountably in full career. The field closed over it as if it had been
swallowed up. In a few moments it appeared again, trotting peacefully
behind its former pursuer. It was some time before Clarence grasped the
meaning of this strange spectacle. Although the clear, dry atmosphere
sharply accented the silhouette-like outlines of the men and horses, so
great was the distance that the slender forty-foot lasso, which in
the skillful hands of the horsemen had effected these captures, was
COMPLETELY INVISIBLE! The horsemen were Peyton’s vacqueros, making a
selection from the young horses for the market. He remembered now
that Peyton had told him that he might be obliged to raise money by
sacrificing some of his stock, and the thought brought back Clarence’s
uneasiness as he turned again to the trail. Indeed, he was hardly in
the vein for a gentle tryst, as he entered the wooded ravine to seek the
madrono tree which was to serve as a guide to his lady’s bower.

A few rods further, under the cool vault filled with woodland spicing,
he came upon it. In its summer harlequin dress of scarlet and green,
with hanging bells of poly-tinted berries, like some personified sylvan
Folly, it seemed a fitting symbol of Susy’s childish masquerade of
passion. Its bizarre beauty, so opposed to the sober gravity of the
sedate pines and hemlocks, made it an unmistakable landmark. Here he
dismounted and picketed his horse. And here, beside it, to the right,
ran the little trail crawling over mossy boulders; a narrow yellow track
through the carpet of pine needles between the closest file of trees;
an almost imperceptible streak across pools of chickweed at their roots,
and a brown and ragged swath through the ferns. As he went on, the
anxiety and uneasiness that had possessed him gave way to a languid
intoxication of the senses; the mysterious seclusion of these woodland
depths recovered the old influence they had exerted over his boyhood. He
was not returning to Susy, as much as to the older love of his youth, of
which she was, perhaps, only an incident. It was therefore with an odd
boyish thrill again that, coming suddenly upon a little hollow, like
a deserted nest, where the lost trail made him hesitate, he heard the
crackle of a starched skirt behind him, was conscious of the subtle odor
of freshly ironed and scented muslin, and felt the gentle pressure of
delicate fingers upon his eyes.

“Susy!”

“You silly boy! Where were you blundering to? Why didn’t you look around
you?”

“I thought I would hear your voices.”

“Whose voices, idiot?”

“Yours and Mary’s,” returned Clarence innocently, looking round for the
confidante.

“Oh, indeed! Then you wanted to see MARY? Well, she’s looking for me
somewhere. Perhaps you’ll go and find her, or shall I?”

She was offering to pass him when he laid his hand on hers to detain
her. She instantly evaded it, and drew herself up to her full height,
incontestably displaying the dignity of the added inches to her skirt.
All this was charmingly like the old Susy, but it did not bid fair
to help him to a serious interview. And, looking at the pretty, pink,
mocking face before him, with the witchery of the woodland still upon
him, he began to think that he had better put it off.

“Never mind about Mary,” he said laughingly. “But you said you wanted to
see me, Susy; and here I am.”

“Said I wanted to see you?” repeated Susy, with her blue eyes lifted in
celestial scorn and wonderment. “Said I wanted to see you? Are you not
mistaken, Mr. Brant? Really, I imagined that you came here to see ME.”

With her fair head upturned, and the leaf of her scarlet lip temptingly
curled over, Clarence began to think this latest phase of her
extravagance the most fascinating. He drew nearer to her as he said
gently, “You know what I mean, Susy. You said yesterday you were
troubled. I thought you might have something to tell me.”

“I should think it was YOU who might have something to tell me after all
these years,” she said poutingly, yet self-possessed. “But I suppose you
came here only to see Mary and mother. I’m sure you let them know that
plainly enough last evening.”

“But you said”--began the stupefied Clarence.

“Never mind what I said. It’s always what I say, never what YOU say; and
you don’t say anything.”

The woodland influence must have been still very strong upon Clarence
that he did not discover in all this that, while Susy’s general
capriciousness was unchanged, there was a new and singular insincerity
in her manifest acting. She was either concealing the existence of some
other real emotion, or assuming one that was absent. But he did not
notice it, and only replied tenderly:--

“But I want to say a great deal to you, Susy. I want to say that if you
still feel as I do, and as I have always felt, and you think you could
be happy as I would be if--if--we could be always together, we need not
conceal it from your mother and father any longer. I am old enough to
speak for myself, and I am my own master. Your mother has been very kind
to me,--so kind that it doesn’t seem quite right to deceive her,--and
when I tell her that I love you, and that I want you to be my wife, I
believe she will give us her blessing.”

Susy uttered a strange little laugh, and with an assumption of coyness,
that was, however, still affected, stooped to pick a few berries from a
manzanita bush.

“I’ll tell you what she’ll say, Clarence. She’ll say you’re frightfully
young, and so you are!”

The young fellow tried to echo the laugh, but felt as if he had received
a blow. For the first time he was conscious of the truth: this girl,
whom he had fondly regarded as a child, had already passed him in the
race; she had become a woman before he was yet a man, and now stood
before him, maturer in her knowledge, and older in her understanding, of
herself and of him. This was the change that had perplexed him; this
was the presence that had come between them,--a Susy he had never known
before.

She laughed at his changed expression, and then swung herself easily to
a sitting posture on the low projecting branch of a hemlock. The act
was still girlish, but, nevertheless, she looked down upon him in
a superior, patronizing way. “Now, Clarence,” she said, with a
half-abstracted manner, “don’t you be a big fool! If you talk that way
to mother, she’ll only tell you to wait two or three years until you
know your own mind, and she’ll pack me off to that horrid school again,
besides watching me like a cat every moment you are here. If you want
to stay here, and see me sometimes like this, you’ll just behave as you
have done, and say nothing. Do you see? Perhaps you don’t care to come,
or are satisfied with Mary and mother. Say so, then. Goodness knows, I
don’t want to force you to come here.”

Modest and reserved as Clarence was generally, I fear that bashfulness
of approach to the other sex was not one of these indications. He walked
up to Susy with appalling directness, and passed his arm around her
waist. She did not move, but remained looking at him and his intruding
arm with a certain critical curiosity, as if awaiting some novel
sensation. At which he kissed her. She then slowly disengaged his arm,
and said:--

“Really, upon my word, Clarence,” in perfectly level tones, and slipped
quietly to the ground.

He again caught her in his arms, encircling her disarranged hair and
part of the beribboned hat hanging over her shoulder, and remained
for an instant holding her thus silently and tenderly. Then she freed
herself with an abstracted air, a half smile, and an unchanged color
except where her soft cheek had been abraded by his coat collar.

“You’re a bold, rude boy, Clarence,” she said, putting back her hair
quietly, and straightening the brim of her hat. “Heaven knows where
you learned manners!” and then, from a safer distance, with the same
critical look in her violet eyes, “I suppose you think mother would
allow THAT if she knew it?”

But Clarence, now completely subjugated, with the memory of the kiss
upon him and a heightened color, protested that he only wanted to make
their intercourse less constrained, and to have their relations, even
their engagement, recognized by her parents; still he would take her
advice. Only there was always the danger that if they were discovered
she would be sent back to the convent all the same, and his banishment,
instead of being the probation of a few years, would be a perpetual
separation.

“We could always run away, Clarence,” responded the young girl calmly.
“There’s nothing the matter with THAT.”

Clarence was startled. The idea of desolating the sad, proud, handsome
Mrs. Peyton, whom he worshiped, and her kind husband, whom he was just
about to serve, was so grotesque and confusing, that he said hopelessly,
“Yes.”

“Of course,” she continued, with the same odd affectation of coyness,
which was, however, distinctly uncalled for, as she eyed him from under
her broad hat, “you needn’t come with me unless you like. I can run away
by myself,--if I want to! I’ve thought of it before. One can’t stand
everything!”

“But, Susy,” said Clarence, with a swift remorseful recollection of her
confidence yesterday, “is there really anything troubles you? Tell me,
dear. What is it?”

“Oh, nothing--EVERYTHING! It’s no use,--YOU can’t understand! YOU like
it, I know you do. I can see it; it’s your style. But it’s stupid, it’s
awful, Clarence! With mamma snooping over you and around you all day,
with her ‘dear child,’ ‘mamma’s pet,’ and ‘What is it, dear?’ and ‘Tell
it all to your own mamma,’ as if I would! And ‘my own mamma,’ indeed! As
if I didn’t know, Clarence, that she ISN’T. And papa, caring for nothing
but this hideous, dreary rancho, and the huge, empty plains. It’s worse
than school, for there, at least, when you went out, you could see
something besides cattle and horses and yellow-faced half-breeds! But
here--Lord! it’s only a wonder I haven’t run away before!”

Startled and shocked as Clarence was at this revelation, accompanied as
it was by a hardness of manner that was new to him, the influence of
the young girl was still so strong upon him that he tried to evade it as
only an extravagance, and said with a faint smile, “But where would you
run to?”

She looked at him cunningly, with her head on one side, and then said:--

“I have friends, and”--

She hesitated, pursing up her pretty lips.

“And what?”

“Relations.”

“Relations?”

“Yes,--an aunt by marriage. She lives in Sacramento. She’d be overjoyed
to have me come to her. Her second husband has a theatre there.”

“But, Susy, what does Mrs. Peyton know of this?”

“Nothing. Do you think I’d tell her, and have her buy them up as she has
my other relations? Do you suppose I don’t know that I’ve been bought up
like a nigger?”

She looked indignant, compressing her delicate little nostrils, and yet,
somehow, Clarence had the same singular impression that she was only
acting.

The calling of a far-off voice came faintly through the wood.

“That’s Mary, looking for me,” said Susy composedly. “You must go, now,
Clarence. Quick! Remember what I said,--and don’t breathe a word of
this. Good-by.”

But Clarence was standing still, breathless, hopelessly disturbed, and
irresolute. Then he turned away mechanically towards the trail.

“Well, Clarence?”

She was looking at him half reproachfully, half coquettishly, with
smiling, parted lips. He hastened to forget himself and his troubles
upon them twice and thrice. Then she quickly disengaged herself,
whispered, “Go, now,” and, as Mary’s call was repeated, Clarence heard
her voice, high and clear, answering, “Here, dear,” as he was plunging
into the thicket.

He had scarcely reached the madrono tree again and remounted his horse,
before he heard the sound of hoofs approaching from the road. In
his present uneasiness he did not care to be discovered so near the
rendezvous, and drew back into the shadow until the horseman should
pass. It was Peyton, with a somewhat disturbed face, riding rapidly.
Still less was he inclined to join or immediately follow him, but he was
relieved when his host, instead of taking the direct road to the rancho,
through the wild oats, turned off in the direction of the corral.

A moment later Clarence wheeled into the direct road, and presently
found himself in the long afternoon shadows through the thickest of the
grain. He was riding slowly, immersed in thought, when he was suddenly
startled by a hissing noise at his ear, and what seemed to be the
uncoiling stroke of a leaping serpent at his side. Instinctively he
threw himself forward on his horse’s neck, and as the animal shied
into the grain, felt the crawling scrape and jerk of a horsehair lariat
across his back and down his horse’s flanks. He reined in indignantly
and stood up in his stirrups. Nothing was to be seen above the level of
the grain. Beneath him the trailing riata had as noiselessly vanished
as if it had been indeed a gliding snake. Had he been the victim of a
practical joke, or of the blunder of some stupid vacquero? For he made
no doubt that it was the lasso of one of the performers he had watched
that afternoon. But his preoccupied mind did not dwell long upon it, and
by the time he had reached the wall of the old garden, the incident was
forgotten.



CHAPTER VI.


Relieved of Clarence Brant’s embarrassing presence, Jim Hooker did not,
however, refuse to avail himself of that opportunity to expound to the
farmer and his family the immense wealth, influence, and importance of
the friend who had just left him. Although Clarence’s plan had suggested
reticence, Hooker could not forego the pleasure of informing them
that “Clar” Brant had just offered to let him into an extensive land
speculation. He had previously declined a large share or original
location in a mine of Clarence’s, now worth a million, because it was
not “his style.” But the land speculation in a country of unsettled
titles and lawless men, he need not remind them, required some
experience of border warfare. He would not say positively, although he
left them to draw their own conclusions with gloomy significance, that
this was why Clarence had sought him. With this dark suggestion, he took
leave of Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins and their daughter Phoebe the next day,
not without some natural human emotion, and peacefully drove his team
and wagon into the settlement of Fair Plains.

He was not prepared, however, for a sudden realization of his
imaginative prospects. A few days after his arrival in Fair Plains,
he received a letter from Clarence, explaining that he had not time to
return to Hooker to consult him, but had, nevertheless, fulfilled his
promise, by taking advantage of an opportunity of purchasing the Spanish
“Sisters’” title to certain unoccupied lands near the settlement. As
these lands in part joined the section already preempted and occupied by
Hopkins, Clarence thought that Jim Hooker would choose that part for the
sake of his neighbor’s company. He inclosed a draft on San Francisco,
for a sum sufficient to enable Jim to put up a cabin and “stock” the
property, which he begged he would consider in the light of a loan, to
be paid back in installments, only when the property could afford it.
At the same time, if Jim was in difficulty, he was to inform him. The
letter closed with a characteristic Clarence-like mingling of enthusiasm
and older wisdom. “I wish you luck, Jim, but I see no reason why you
should trust to it. I don’t know of anything that could keep you from
making yourself independent of any one, if you go to work with a LONG
AIM and don’t fritter away your chances on short ones. If I were you,
old fellow, I’d drop the Plains and the Indians out of my thoughts, or
at least out of my TALK, for a while; they won’t help you in the long
run. The people who believe you will be jealous of you; those who don’t,
will look down upon you, and if they get to questioning your little
Indian romances, Jim, they’ll be apt to question your civilized facts.
That won’t help you in the ranching business and that’s your only real
grip now.” For the space of two or three hours after this, Jim was
reasonably grateful and even subdued,--so much so that his employer, to
whom he confided his good fortune, frankly confessed that he believed
him from that unusual fact alone. Unfortunately, neither the practical
lesson conveyed in this grim admission, nor the sentiment of gratitude,
remained long with Jim. Another idea had taken possession of his fancy.
Although the land nominated in his bill of sale had been, except on the
occasion of his own temporary halt there, always unoccupied,
unsought, and unclaimed, and although he was amply protected by legal
certificates, he gravely collected a posse of three or four idlers from
Fair Plains, armed them at his own expense, and in the dead of night
took belligerent and forcible possession of the peaceful domain which
the weak generosity and unheroic dollars of Clarence had purchased for
him! A martial camp-fire tempered the chill night winds to the pulses of
the invaders, and enabled them to sleep on their arms in the field they
had won. The morning sun revealed to the astonished Hopkins family
the embattled plain beyond, with its armed sentries. Only then did Jim
hooker condescend to explain the reason of his warlike occupation, with
dark hints of the outlying “squatters” and “jumpers,” whose incursions
their boldness alone had repulsed. The effect of this romantic situation
upon the two women, with the slight fascination of danger imported
into their quiet lives, may well be imagined. Possibly owing to some
incautious questioning by Mr. Hopkins, and some doubts of the discipline
and sincerity of his posse, Jim discharged them the next day; but
during the erection of his cabin by some peaceful carpenters from the
settlement, he returned to his gloomy preoccupation and the ostentatious
wearing of his revolvers. As an opulent and powerful neighbor, he took
his meals with the family while his house was being built, and generally
impressed them with a sense of security they had never missed.

Meantime, Clarence, duly informed of the installation of Jim as his
tenant, underwent a severe trial. It was necessary for his plans that
this should be kept a secret at present, and this was no easy thing for
his habitually frank and open nature. He had once mentioned that he had
met Jim at the settlement, but the information was received with such
indifference by Susy, and such marked disfavor by Mrs. Peyton, that
he said no more. He accompanied Peyton in his rides around the rancho,
fully possessed himself of the details of its boundaries, the debatable
lands held by the enemy, and listened with beating pulses, but a hushed
tongue, to his host’s ill-concealed misgivings.

“You see, Clarence, that lower terrace?” he said, pointing to a
far-reaching longitudinal plain beyond the corral; “it extends from my
corral to Fair Plains. That is claimed by the sisters’ title, and, as
things appear to be going, if a division of the land is made it will be
theirs. It’s bad enough to have this best grazing land lying just on
the flanks of the corral held by these rascals at an absurd prohibitory
price, but I am afraid that it may be made to mean something even worse.
According to the old surveys, these terraces on different levels were
the natural divisions of the property,--one heir or his tenant taking
one, and another taking another,--an easy distinction that saved the
necessity of boundary fencing or monuments, and gave no trouble to
people who were either kinsmen or lived in lazy patriarchal concord.
That is the form of division they are trying to reestablish now. Well,”
 he continued, suddenly lifting his eyes to the young man’s flushed face,
in some unconscious, sympathetic response to his earnest breathlessness,
“although my boundary line extends half a mile into that field, my house
and garden and corral ARE ACTUALLY UPON THAT TERRACE OR LEVEL.” They
certainly appeared to Clarence to be on the same line as the long field
beyond. “If,” went on Peyton, “such a decision is made, these men will
push on and claim the house and everything on the terrace.”

“But,” said Clarence quickly, “you said their title was only valuable
where they have got or can give POSSESSION. You already have yours. They
can’t take it from you except by force.”

“No,” said Peyton grimly, “nor will they dare to do it as long as I live
to fight them.”

“But,” persisted Clarence, with the same singular hesitancy of manner,
“why didn’t you purchase possession of at least that part of the land
which lies so dangerously near your own house?”

“Because it was held by squatters, who naturally preferred buying what
might prove a legal title to their land from these impostors than to
sell out their possession to ME at a fair price.”

“But couldn’t you have bought from them both?” continued Clarence.

“My dear Clarence, I am not a Croesus nor a fool. Only a man who was
both would attempt to treat with these rascals, who would now, of
course, insist that THEIR WHOLE claim should be bought up at their own
price, by the man who was most concerned in defeating them.”

He turned away a little impatiently. Fortunately he did not observe that
Clarence’s averted face was crimson with embarrassment, and that a faint
smile hovered nervously about his mouth.

Since his late rendezvous with Susy, Clarence had had no chance to
interrogate her further regarding her mysterious relative. That that
shadowy presence was more or less exaggerated, if not an absolute myth,
he more than half suspected, but of the discontent that had produced it,
or the recklessness it might provoke, there was no doubt. She might be
tempted to some act of folly. He wondered if Mary Rogers knew it. Yet,
with his sensitive ideas of loyalty, he would have shrunk from any
confidence with Mary regarding her friend’s secrets, although he
fancied that Mary’s dark eyes sometimes dwelt upon him with mournful
consciousness and premonition. He did not imagine the truth, that this
romantic contemplation was only the result of Mary’s conviction that
Susy was utterly unworthy of his love. It so chanced one morning that
the vacquero who brought the post from Santa Inez arrived earlier than
usual, and so anticipated the two girls, who usually made a youthful
point of meeting him first as he passed the garden wall. The letter bag
was consequently delivered to Mrs. Peyton in the presence of the others,
and a look of consternation passed between the young girls. But
Mary quickly seized upon the bag as if with girlish and mischievous
impatience, opened it, and glanced within it.

“There are only three letters for you,” she said, handing them to
Clarence, with a quick look of significance, which he failed to
comprehend, “and nothing for me or Susy.”

“But,” began the innocent Clarence, as his first glance at the letters
showed him that one was directed to Susy, “here is”--

A wicked pinch on his arm that was nearest Mary stopped his speech, and
he quickly put the letters in his pocket.

“Didn’t you understand that Susy don’t want her mother to see that
letter?” asked Mary impatiently, when they were alone a moment later.

“No,” said Clarence simply, handing her the missive.

Mary took it and turned it over in her hands.

“It’s in a man’s handwriting,” she said innocently.

“I hadn’t noticed it,” returned Clarence with invincible naivete, “but
perhaps it is.”

“And you hand it over for me to give to Susy, and ain’t a bit curious to
know who it’s from?”

“No,” returned Clarence, opening his big eyes in smiling and apologetic
wonder.

“Well,” responded the young lady, with a long breath of melancholy
astonishment, “certainly, of all things you are--you really ARE!” With
which incoherency--apparently perfectly intelligible to herself--she
left him. She had not herself the slightest idea who the letter was
from; she only knew that Susy wanted it concealed.

The incident made little impression on Clarence, except as part of the
general uneasiness he felt in regard to his old playmate. It seemed
so odd to him that this worry should come from HER,--that she herself
should form the one discordant note in the Arcadian dream that he had
found so sweet; in his previous imaginings it was the presence of Mrs.
Peyton which he had dreaded; she whose propinquity now seemed so full
of gentleness, reassurance, and repose. How worthy she seemed of any
sacrifice he could make for her! He had seen little of her for the last
two or three days, although her smile and greeting were always ready
for him. Poor Clarence did not dream that she had found from certain
incontestable signs and tokens, both in the young ladies and himself,
that he did not require watching, and that becoming more resigned to
Susy’s indifference, which seemed so general and passive in quality, she
was no longer tortured by the sting of jealousy.

Finding himself alone that afternoon, the young man had wandered
somewhat listlessly beyond the low adobe gateway. The habits of the
siesta obtained in a modified form at the rancho. After luncheon, its
masters and employees usually retired, not so much from the torrid
heat of the afternoon sun, but from the first harrying of the afternoon
trades, whose monotonous whistle swept round the walls. A straggling
passion vine near the gate beat and struggled against the wind. Clarence
had stopped near it, and was gazing with worried abstraction across the
tossing fields, when a soft voice called his name.

It was a pleasant voice,--Mrs. Peyton’s. He glanced back at the gateway;
it was empty. He looked quickly to the right and left; no one was there.

The voice spoke again with the musical addition of a laugh; it seemed
to come from the passion vine. Ah, yes; behind it, and half overgrown
by its branches, was a long, narrow embrasured opening in the wall,
defended by the usual Spanish grating, and still further back, as in the
frame of a picture, the half length figure of Mrs. Peyton, very handsome
and striking, too, with a painted picturesqueness from the effect of the
checkered light and shade.

“You looked so tired and bored out there,” she said. “I am afraid you
are finding it very dull at the rancho. The prospect is certainly not
very enlivening from where you stand.”

Clarence protested with a visible pleasure in his eyes, as he held back
a spray before the opening.

“If you are not afraid of being worse bored, come in here and talk
with me. You have never seen this part of the house, I think,--my own
sitting-room. You reach it from the hall in the gallery. But Lola or
Anita will show you the way.”

He reentered the gateway, and quickly found the hall,--a narrow, arched
passage, whose black, tunnel-like shadows were absolutely unaffected
by the vivid, colorless glare of the courtyard without, seen through an
opening at the end. The contrast was sharp, blinding, and distinct;
even the edges of the opening were black; the outer light halted on
the threshold and never penetrated within. The warm odor of verbena
and dried rose leaves stole from a half-open door somewhere in the
cloistered gloom. Guided by it, Clarence presently found himself on the
threshold of a low-vaulted room. Two other narrow embrasured windows
like the one he had just seen, and a fourth, wider latticed casement,
hung with gauze curtains, suffused the apartment with a clear, yet
mysterious twilight that seemed its own. The gloomy walls were warmed
by bright-fringed bookshelves, topped with trifles of light feminine
coloring and adornment. Low easy-chairs and a lounge, small fanciful
tables, a dainty desk, gayly colored baskets of worsteds or mysterious
kaleidoscopic fragments, and vases of flowers pervaded the apartment
with a mingled sense of grace and comfort. There was a womanly
refinement in its careless negligence, and even the delicate wrapper of
Japanese silk, gathered at the waist and falling in easy folds to the
feet of the graceful mistress of this charming disorder, looked a part
of its refined abandonment.

Clarence hesitated as on the threshold of some sacred shrine. But Mrs.
Peyton, with her own hands, cleared a space for him on the lounge.

“You will easily suspect from all this disorder, Mr. Brant, that I spend
a greater part of my time here, and that I seldom see much company. Mr.
Peyton occasionally comes in long enough to stumble over a footstool or
upset a vase, and I think Mary and Susy avoid it from a firm conviction
that there is work concealed in these baskets. But I have my books
here, and in the afternoons, behind these thick walls, one forgets the
incessant stir and restlessness of the dreadful winds outside. Just
now you were foolish enough to tempt them while you were nervous, or
worried, or listless. Take my word for it, it’s a great mistake. There
is no more use fighting them, as I tell Mr. Peyton, than of fighting the
people born under them. I have my own opinion that these winds were
sent only to stir this lazy race of mongrels into activity, but they are
enough to drive us Anglo-Saxons into nervous frenzy. Don’t you think
so? But you are young and energetic, and perhaps you are not affected by
them.”

She spoke pleasantly and playfully, yet with a certain nervous tension
of voice and manner that seemed to illustrate her theory. At least,
Clarence, in quick sympathy with her slightest emotion, was touched by
it. There is no more insidious attraction in the persons we admire, than
the belief that we know and understand their unhappiness, and that our
admiration for them is lifted higher than a mere mutual instinctive
sympathy with beauty or strength. This adorable woman had suffered. The
very thought aroused his chivalry. It loosened, also, I fear, his quick,
impulsive tongue.

Oh, yes; he knew it. He had lived under this whip of air and sky for
three years, alone in a Spanish rancho, with only the native peons
around him, and scarcely speaking his own tongue even to his guardian.
He spent his mornings on horseback in fields like these, until the
vientos generales, as they called them, sprang up and drove him nearly
frantic; and his only relief was to bury himself among the books in his
guardian’s library, and shut out the world,--just as she did. The smile
which hovered around the lady’s mouth at that moment arrested Clarence,
with a quick remembrance of their former relative positions, and a
sudden conviction of his familiarity in suggesting an equality of
experience, and he blushed. But Mrs. Peyton diverted his embarrassment
with an air of interested absorption in his story, and said:--

“Then you know these people thoroughly, Mr. Brant? I am afraid that WE
do not.”

Clarence had already gathered that fact within the last few days, and,
with his usual impulsive directness, said so. A slight knitting of Mrs.
Peyton’s brows passed off, however, as he quickly and earnestly went on
to say that it was impossible for the Peytons in their present relations
to the natives to judge them, or to be judged by them fairly. How they
were a childlike race, credulous and trustful, but, like all credulous
and trustful people, given to retaliate when imposed upon with a larger
insincerity, exaggeration, and treachery. How they had seen their houses
and lands occupied by strangers, their religion scorned, their customs
derided, their patriarchal society invaded by hollow civilization or
frontier brutality--all this fortified by incident and illustration,
the outcome of some youthful experience, and given with the glowing
enthusiasm of conviction. Mrs. Peyton listened with the usual divided
feminine interest between subject and speaker.

Where did this rough, sullen boy--as she had known him--pick up this
delicate and swift perception, this reflective judgment, and this odd
felicity of expression? It was not possible that it was in him while he
was the companion of her husband’s servants or the recognized “chum” of
the scamp Hooker. No. But if HE could have changed like this, why not
Susy? Mrs. Peyton, in the conservatism of her sex, had never been quite
free from fears of her adopted daughter’s hereditary instincts; but,
with this example before her, she now took heart. Perhaps the change was
coming slowly; perhaps even now what she thought was indifference and
coldness was only some abnormal preparation or condition. But she only
smiled and said:--

“Then, if you think those people have been wronged, you are not on our
side, Mr. Brant?”

What to an older and more worldly man would have seemed, and probably
was, only a playful reproach, struck Clarence deeply, and brought his
pent-up feelings to his lips.

“YOU have never wronged them. You couldn’t do it; it isn’t in your
nature. I am on YOUR side, and for you and yours always, Mrs. Peyton.
From the first time I saw you on the plains, when I was brought, a
ragged boy, before you by your husband, I think I would gladly have
laid down my life for you. I don’t mind telling you now that I was even
jealous of poor Susy, so anxious was I for the smallest share in your
thoughts, if only for a moment. You could have done anything with me you
wished, and I should have been happy,--far happier than I have been ever
since. I tell you this, Mrs. Peyton, now, because you have just doubted
if I might be ‘on your side,’ but I have been longing to tell it all to
you before, and it is that I am ready to do anything you want,--all you
want,--to be on YOUR SIDE and at YOUR SIDE, now and forever.”

He was so earnest and hearty, and above all so appallingly and
blissfully happy, in this relief of his feelings, smiling as if it were
the most natural thing in the world, and so absurdly unconscious of his
twenty-two years, his little brown curling mustache, the fire in
his wistful, yearning eyes, and, above all, of his clasped hands and
lover-like attitude, that Mrs. Peyton--at first rigid as stone, then
suffused to the eyes--cast a hasty glance round the apartment, put her
handkerchief to her face, and laughed like a girl.

At which Clarence, by no means discomposed, but rather accepting her
emotion as perfectly natural, joined her heartily, and added:--

“It’s so, Mrs. Peyton; I’m glad I told you. You don’t mind it, do you?”

But Mrs. Peyton had resumed her gravity, and perhaps a touch of her
previous misgivings.

“I should certainly be very sorry,” she said, looking at him critically,
“to object to your sharing your old friendship for your little playmate
with her parents and guardians, or to your expressing it to THEM as
frankly as to her.”

She saw the quick change in his mobile face and the momentary arrest of
its happy expression. She was frightened and yet puzzled. It was not the
sensitiveness of a lover at the mention of the loved one’s name, and yet
it suggested an uneasy consciousness. If his previous impulsive outburst
had been prompted honestly, or even artfully, by his passion for Susy,
why had he looked so shocked when she spoke of her?

But Clarence, whose emotion had been caused by the sudden recall of his
knowledge of Susy’s own disloyalty to the woman whose searching eyes
were upon him, in his revulsion against the deceit was, for an instant,
upon the point of divulging all. Perhaps, if Mrs. Peyton had shown more
confidence, he would have done so, and materially altered the evolution
of this story. But, happily, it is upon these slight human weaknesses
that your romancer depends, and Clarence, with no other reason than the
instinctive sympathy of youth with youth in its opposition to wisdom and
experience, let the opportunity pass, and took the responsibility of it
out of the hands of this chronicler.

Howbeit, to cover his confusion, he seized upon the second idea that was
in his mind, and stammered, “Susy! Yes, I wanted to speak to you about
her.” Mrs. Peyton held her breath, but the young man went on, although
hesitatingly, with evident sincerity. “Have you heard from any of her
relations since--since--you adopted her?”

It seemed a natural enough question, although not the sequitur she had
expected. “No,” she said carelessly. “It was well understood, after the
nearest relation--an aunt by marriage--had signed her consent to Susy’s
adoption, that there should be no further intercourse with the family.
There seemed to us no necessity for reopening the past, and Susy herself
expressed no desire.” She stopped, and again fixing her handsome eyes on
Clarence, said, “Do you know any of them?”

But Clarence by this time had recovered himself, and was able to answer
carelessly and truthfully that he did not. Mrs. Peyton, still regarding
him closely, added somewhat deliberately, “It matters little now what
relations she has; Mr. Peyton and I have complete legal control over her
until she is of age, and we can easily protect her from any folly of
her own or others, or from any of the foolish fancies that sometimes
overtake girls of her age and inexperience.”

To her utter surprise, however, Clarence uttered a faint sigh of relief,
and his face again recovered its expression of boyish happiness. “I’m
glad of it, Mrs. Peyton,” he said heartily. “No one could understand
better what is for her interest in all things than yourself. Not,” he
said, with hasty and equally hearty loyalty to his old playmate, “that
I think she would ever go against your wishes, or do anything that she
knows to be wrong, but she is very young and innocent,--as much of a
child as ever, don’t you think so, Mrs. Peyton?”

It was amusing, yet nevertheless puzzling, to hear this boyish young man
comment upon Susy’s girlishness. And Clarence was serious, for he had
quite forgotten in Mrs. Peyton’s presence the impression of superiority
which Susy had lately made upon him. But Mrs. Peyton returned to
the charge, or, rather, to an attack upon what she conceived to be
Clarence’s old position.

“I suppose she does seem girlish compared to Mary Rogers, who is a much
more reserved and quiet nature. But Mary is very charming, Mr. Brant,
and I am really delighted to have her here with Susy. She has such
lovely dark eyes and such good manners. She has been well brought up,
and it is easy to see that her friends are superior people. I must
write to them to thank them for her visit, and beg them to let her stay
longer. I think you said you didn’t know them?”

But Clarence, whose eyes had been thoughtfully and admiringly wandering
over every characteristic detail of the charming apartment, here raised
them to its handsome mistress, with an apologetic air and a “No” of such
unaffected and complete abstraction, that she was again dumbfounded.
Certainly, it could not be Mary in whom he was interested.

Abandoning any further inquisition for the present, she let the talk
naturally fall upon the books scattered about the tables. The young
man knew them all far better than she did, with a cognate knowledge of
others of which she had never heard. She found herself in the attitude
of receiving information from this boy, whose boyishness, however,
seemed to have evaporated, whose tone had changed with the subject, and
who now spoke with the conscious reserve of knowledge. Decidedly, she
must have grown rusty in her seclusion. This came, she thought bitterly,
of living alone; of her husband’s preoccupation with the property; of
Susy’s frivolous caprices. At the end of eight years to be outstripped
by a former cattle-boy of her husband’s, and to have her French
corrected in a matter of fact way by this recent pupil of the priests,
was really too bad! Perhaps he even looked down upon Susy! She smiled
dangerously but suavely.

“You must have worked so hard to educate yourself from nothing, Mr.
Brant. You couldn’t read, I think, when you first came to us. No? Could
you really? I know it has been very difficult for Susy to get on with
her studies in proportion. We had so much to first eradicate in the way
of manners, style, and habits of thought which the poor child had
picked up from her companions, and for which SHE was not responsible.
Of course, with a boy that does not signify,” she added, with feline
gentleness.

But the barbed speech glanced from the young man’s smoothly smiling
abstraction.

“Ah, yes. But those were happy days, Mrs. Peyton,” he answered, with an
exasperating return of his previous boyish enthusiasm, “perhaps because
of our ignorance. I don’t think that Susy and I are any happier for
knowing that the plains are not as flat as we believed they were, and
that the sun doesn’t have to burn a hole in them every night when it
sets. But I know I believed that YOU knew everything. When I once saw
you smiling over a book in your hand, I thought it must be a different
one from any that I had ever seen, and perhaps made expressly for you.
I can see you there still. Do you know,” quite confidentially, “that you
reminded me--of course YOU were much younger--of what I remembered of my
mother?”

But Mrs. Peyton’s reply of “Ah, indeed,” albeit polite, indicated some
coldness and lack of animation. Clarence rose quickly, but cast a long
and lingering look around him.

“You will come again, Mr. Brant,” said the lady more graciously. “If you
are going to ride now, perhaps you would try to meet Mr. Peyton. He is
late already, and I am always uneasy when he is out alone,--particularly
on one of those half-broken horses, which they consider good enough for
riding here. YOU have ridden them before and understand them, but I am
afraid that’s another thing WE have got to learn.”

When the young man found himself again confronting the glittering light
of the courtyard, he remembered the interview and the soft twilight of
the boudoir only as part of a pleasant dream. There was a rude awakening
in the fierce wind, which had increased with the lengthening shadows.
It seemed to sweep away the half-sensuous comfort that had pervaded
him, and made him coldly realize that he had done nothing to solve the
difficulties of his relations to Susy. He had lost the one chance of
confiding to Mrs. Peyton,--if he had ever really intended to do so.
It was impossible for him to do it hereafter without a confession of
prolonged deceit.

He reached the stables impatiently, where his attention was attracted
by the sound of excited voices in the corral. Looking within, he was
concerned to see that one of the vacqueros was holding the dragging
bridle of a blown, dusty, and foam-covered horse, around whom a dozen
idlers were gathered. Even beneath its coating of dust and foam and
the half-displaced saddle blanket, Clarence immediately recognized the
spirited pinto mustang which Peyton had ridden that morning.

“What’s the matter?” said Clarence, from the gateway.

The men fell apart, glancing at each other. One said quickly in
Spanish:--

“Say nothing to HIM. It is an affair of the house.”

But this brought Clarence down like a bombshell among them, not to be
overlooked in his equal command of their tongue and of them. “Ah! come,
now. What drunken piggishness is this? Speak!”

“The padron has been--perhaps--thrown,” stammered the first speaker.
“His horse arrives,--but he does not. We go to inform the senora.”

“No, you don’t! mules and imbeciles! Do you want to frighten her to
death? Mount, every one of you, and follow me!”

The men hesitated, but for only a moment. Clarence had a fine assortment
of Spanish epithets, expletives, and objurgations, gathered in his rodeo
experience at El Refugio, and laid them about him with such fervor
and discrimination that two or three mules, presumably with guilty
consciences, mistaking their direction, actually cowered against the
stockade of the corral in fear. In another moment the vacqueros had
hastily mounted, and, with Clarence at their head, were dashing down the
road towards Santa Inez. Here he spread them in open order in the grain,
on either side of the track, himself taking the road.

They did not proceed very far. For when they had reached the gradual
slope which marked the decline to the second terrace, Clarence, obeying
an instinct as irresistible as it was unaccountable, which for the last
few moments had been forcing itself upon him, ordered a halt. The casa
and corral had already sunk in the plain behind them; it was the spot
where the lasso had been thrown at him a few evenings before! Bidding
the men converge slowly towards the road, he went on more cautiously,
with his eyes upon the track before him. Presently he stopped. There
was a ragged displacement of the cracked and crumbling soil and the
unmistakable scoop of kicking hoofs. As he stooped to examine them, one
of the men at the right uttered a shout. By the same strange instinct
Clarence knew that Peyton was found!

He was, indeed, lying there among the wild oats at the right of the
road, but without trace of life or scarcely human appearance. His
clothes, where not torn and shredded away, were partly turned inside
out; his shoulders, neck, and head were a shapeless, undistinguishable
mask of dried earth and rags, like a mummy wrapping. His left boot was
gone. His large frame seemed boneless, and, except for the cerements of
his mud-stiffened clothing, was limp and sodden.

Clarence raised his head suddenly from a quick examination of the body,
and looked at the men around him. One of them was already cantering
away. Clarence instantly threw himself on his horse, and, putting spurs
to the animal, drew a revolver from his holster and fired over the man’s
head. The rider turned in his saddle, saw his pursuer, and pulled up.

“Go back,” said Clarence, “or my next shot won’t MISS you.”

“I was only going to inform the senora,” said the man with a shrug and a
forced smile.

“I will do that,” said Clarence grimly, driving him back with him
into the waiting circle; then turning to them he said slowly, with
deliberate, smileless irony, “And now, my brave gentlemen,--knights
of the bull and gallant mustang hunters,--I want to inform YOU that I
believe that Mr. Peyton was MURDERED, and if the man who killed him is
anywhere this side of hell, I intend to find him. Good! You understand
me! Now lift up the body,--you two, by the shoulders; you two, by the
feet. Let your horses follow. For I intend that you four shall carry
home your master in your arms, on foot. Now forward to the corral by the
back trail. Disobey me, or step out of line and”--He raised the revolver
ominously.

If the change wrought in the dead man before them was weird and
terrifying, no less distinct and ominous was the change that, during the
last few minutes, had come over the living speaker. For it was no longer
the youthful Clarence who sat there, but a haggard, prematurely worn,
desperate-looking avenger, lank of cheek, and injected of eye, whose
white teeth glistened under the brown mustache and thin pale lips that
parted when his restrained breath now and then hurriedly escaped them.

As the procession moved on, two men slunk behind with the horses.

“Mother of God! Who is this wolf’s whelp?” said Manuel.

“Hush!” said his companion in a terrified whisper. “Have you not heard?
It is the son of Hamilton Brant, the assassin, the duelist,--he who
was fusiladed in Sonora.” He made the sign of the cross quickly. “Jesus
Maria! Let them look out who have cause, for the blood of his father is
in him!”



CHAPTER VII.


What other speech passed between Clarence and Peyton’s retainers was not
known, but not a word of the interview seemed to have been divulged by
those present. It was generally believed and accepted that Judge Peyton
met his death by being thrown from his half-broken mustang, and dragged
at its heels, and medical opinion, hastily summoned from Santa Inez
after the body had been borne to the corral, and stripped of its
hideous encasings, declared that the neck had been broken, and death had
followed instantaneously. An inquest was deemed unnecessary.

Clarence had selected Mary to break the news to Mrs. Peyton, and the
frightened young girl was too much struck with the change still visible
in his face, and the half authority of his manner, to decline, or even
to fully appreciate the calamity that had befallen them. After the first
benumbing shock, Mrs. Peyton passed into that strange exaltation of
excitement brought on by the immediate necessity for action, followed by
a pallid calm, which the average spectator too often unfairly accepts as
incongruous, inadequate, or artificial. There had also occurred one
of those strange compensations that wait on Death or disrupture by
catastrophe: such as the rude shaking down of an unsettled life, the
forcible realization of what were vague speculations, the breaking of
old habits and traditions, and the unloosing of half-conscious bonds.
Mrs. Peyton, without insensibility to her loss or disloyalty to her
affections, nevertheless felt a relief to know that she was now really
Susy’s guardian, free to order her new life wherever and under what
conditions she chose as most favorable to it, and that she could dispose
of this house that was wearying to her when Susy was away, and which
the girl herself had always found insupportable. She could settle this
question of Clarence’s relations to her daughter out of hand without
advice or opposition. She had a brother in the East, who would be
summoned to take care of the property. This consideration for the living
pursued her, even while the dead man’s presence still awed the hushed
house; it was in her thoughts as she stood beside his bier and adjusted
the flowers on his breast, which no longer moved for or against these
vanities; and it stayed with her even in the solitude of her darkened
room.

But if Mrs. Peyton was deficient, it was Susy who filled the popular
idea of a mourner, and whose emotional attitude of a grief-stricken
daughter left nothing to be desired. It was she who, when the house was
filled with sympathizing friends from San Francisco and the few near
neighbors who had hurried with condolences, was overflowing in her
reminiscences of the dead man’s goodness to her, and her own undying
affection; who recalled ominous things that he had said, and strange
premonitions of her own, the result of her ever-present filial anxiety;
it was she who had hurried home that afternoon, impelled with vague
fears of some impending calamity; it was she who drew a picture of
Peyton as a doting and almost too indulgent parent, which Mary Rogers
failed to recognize, and which brought back vividly to Clarence’s
recollection her own childish exaggerations of the Indian massacre. I
am far from saying that she was entirely insincere or merely acting at
these moments; at times she was taken with a mild hysteria, brought on
by the exciting intrusion of this real event in her monotonous life,
by the attentions of her friends, the importance of her suffering as an
only child, and the advancement of her position as the heiress of the
Robles Rancho. If her tears were near the surface, they were at least
genuine, and filmed her violet eyes and reddened her pretty eyelids
quite as effectually as if they had welled from the depths of her being.
Her black frock lent a matured dignity to her figure, and paled her
delicate complexion with the refinement of suffering. Even Clarence was
moved in that dark and haggard abstraction that had settled upon him
since his strange outbreak over the body of his old friend.

The extent of that change had not been noticed by Mrs. Peyton, who
had only observed that Clarence had treated her grief with a grave and
silent respect. She was grateful for that. A repetition of his boyish
impulsiveness would have been distasteful to her at such a moment. She
only thought him more mature and more subdued, and as the only man now
in her household his services had been invaluable in the emergency.

The funeral had taken place at Santa Inez, where half the county
gathered to pay their last respects to their former fellow-citizen and
neighbor, whose legal and combative victories they had admired, and whom
death had lifted into a public character. The family were returning to
the house the same afternoon, Mrs. Peyton and the girls in one carriage,
the female house-servants in another, and Clarence on horseback. They
had reached the first plateau, and Clarence was riding a little in
advance, when an extraordinary figure, rising from the grain beyond,
began to gesticulate to him wildly. Checking the driver of the first
carriage, Clarence bore down upon the stranger. To his amazement it
was Jim Hooker. Mounted on a peaceful, unwieldy plough horse, he was
nevertheless accoutred and armed after his most extravagant fashion.
In addition to a heavy rifle across his saddle-bow he was weighted down
with a knife and revolvers. Clarence was in no mood for trifling, and
almost rudely demanded his business.

“Gord, Clarence, it ain’t foolin’. The Sisters’ title was decided
yesterday.”

“I knew it, you fool! It’s YOUR title! You were already on your land and
in possession. What the devil are you doing HERE?”

“Yes,--but,” stammered Jim, “all the boys holding that title moved up
here to ‘make the division’ and grab all they could. And I followed. And
I found out that they were going to grab Judge Peyton’s house, because
it was on the line, if they could, and findin’ you was all away, by Gord
THEY DID! and they’re in it! And I stoled out and rode down here to warn
ye.”

He stopped, looked at Clarence, glanced darkly around him and then down
on his accoutrements. Even in that supreme moment of sincerity, he could
not resist the possibilities of the situation.

“It’s as much as my life’s worth,” he said gloomily. “But,” with a dark
glance at his weapons, “I’ll sell it dearly.”

“Jim!” said Clarence, in a terrible voice, “you’re not lying again?”

“No,” said Jim hurriedly. “I swear it, Clarence! No! Honest Injin this
time. And look. I’ll help you. They ain’t expectin’ you yet, and they
think ye’ll come by the road. Ef I raised a scare off there by the
corral, while you’re creepin’ ROUND BY THE BACK, mebbe you could get in
while they’re all lookin’ for ye in front, don’t you see? I’ll raise a
big row, and they needn’t know but what ye’ve got wind of it and brought
a party with you from Santa Inez.”

In a flash Clarence had wrought a feasible plan out of Jim’s fantasy.

“Good,” he said, wringing his old companion’s hand. “Go back quietly
now; hang round the corral, and when you see the carriage climbing the
last terrace raise your alarm. Don’t mind how loud it is, there’ll be
nobody but the servants in the carriages.”

He rode quickly back to the first carriage, at whose window Mrs.
Peyton’s calm face was already questioning him. He told her briefly and
concisely of the attack, and what he proposed to do.

“You have shown yourself so strong in matters of worse moment than
this,” he added quietly, “that I have no fears for your courage. I have
only to ask you to trust yourself to me, to put you back at once in your
own home. Your presence there, just now, is the one important thing,
whatever happens afterwards.”

She recognized his maturer tone and determined manner, and nodded
assent. More than that, a faint fire came into her handsome eyes; the
two girls kindled their own at that flaming beacon, and sat with flushed
checks and suspended, indignant breath. They were Western Americans, and
not over much used to imposition.

“You must get down before we raise the hill, and follow me on foot
through the grain. I was thinking,” he added, turning to Mrs. Peyton,
“of your boudoir window.”

She had been thinking of it, too, and nodded.

“The vine has loosened the bars,” he said.

“If it hasn’t, we must squeeze through them,” she returned simply.

At the end of the terrace Clarence dismounted, and helped them from the
carriage. He then gave directions to the coachmen to follow the road
slowly to the corral in front of the casa, and tied his horse behind
the second carriage. Then, with Mrs. Peyton and the two young girls, he
plunged into the grain.

It was hot, it was dusty, their thin shoes slipped in the crumbling
adobe, and the great blades caught in their crape draperies, but they
uttered no complaint. Whatever ulterior thought was in their minds, they
were bent only on one thing at that moment,--on entering the house at
any hazard. Mrs. Peyton had lived long enough on the frontier to know
the magic power of POSSESSION. Susy already was old enough to feel the
acute feminine horror of the profanation of her own belongings by alien
hands. Clarence, more cognizant of the whole truth than the others, was
equally silent and determined; and Mary Rogers was fired with the zeal
of loyalty.

Suddenly a series of blood-curdling yells broke from the direction
of the corral, and they stopped. But Clarence at once recognized the
well-known war-whoop imitation of Jim Hooker,--infinitely more gruesome
and appalling than the genuine aboriginal challenge. A half dozen shots
fired in quick succession had evidently the same friendly origin.

“Now is our time,” said Clarence eagerly. “We must run for the house.”

They had fortunately reached by this time the angle of the adobe wall of
the casa, and the long afternoon shadows of the building were in their
favor. They pressed forward eagerly with the sounds of Jim Hooker’s sham
encounter still in their ears, mingled with answering shouts of defiance
from strange voices within the building towards the front.

They rapidly skirted the wall, even passing boldly before the back
gateway, which seemed empty and deserted, and the next moment stood
beside the narrow window of the boudoir. Clarence’s surmises were
correct; the iron grating was not only loose, but yielded to a vigorous
wrench, the vine itself acting as a lever to pull out the rusty bars.
The young man held out his hand, but Mrs. Peyton, with the sudden
agility of a young girl, leaped into the window, followed by Mary and
Susy. The inner casement yielded to her touch; the next moment they
were within the room. Then Mrs. Peyton’s flushed and triumphant face
reappeared at the window.

“It’s all right; the men are all in the courtyard, or in the front of
the house. The boudoir door is strong, and we can bolt them out.”

“It won’t be necessary,” said Clarence quietly; “you will not be
disturbed.”

“But are you not coming in?” she asked timidly, holding the window open.

Clarence looked at her with his first faint smile since Peyton’s death.

“Of course I am, but not in THAT way. I am going in by THE FRONT GATE.”

She would have detained him, but, with a quick wave of his hand, he left
her, and ran swiftly around the wall of the casa toward the front. The
gate was half open; a dozen excited men were gathered before it and in
the archway, and among them, whitened with dust, blackened with powder,
and apparently glutted with rapine, and still holding a revolver in his
hand, was Jim Hooker! As Clarence approached, the men quickly retreated
inside the gate and closed it, but not before he had exchanged a meaning
glance with Jim. When he reached the gate, a man from within roughly
demanded his business.

“I wish to see the leader of this party,” said Clarence quietly.

“I reckon you do,” returned the man, with a short laugh. “But I
kalkilate HE don’t return the compliment.”

“He probably will when he reads this note to his employer,” continued
Clarence still coolly, selecting a paper from his pocketbook. It was
addressed to Francisco Robles, Superintendent of the Sisters’ Title, and
directed him to give Mr. Clarence Brant free access to the property and
the fullest information concerning it. The man took it, glanced at it,
looked again at Clarence, and then passed the paper to a third man among
the group in the courtyard. The latter read it, and approached the gate
carelessly.

“Well, what do you want?”

“I am afraid you have the advantage of me in being able to transact
business through bars,” said Clarence, with slow but malevolent
distinctness, “and as mine is important, I think you had better open the
gate to me.”

The slight laugh that his speech had evoked from the bystanders was
checked as the leader retorted angrily:--

“That’s all very well; but how do I know that you’re the man represented
in that letter? Pancho Robles may know you, but I don’t.”

“That you can find out very easily,” said Clarence. “There is a man
among your party who knows me,--Mr. Hooker. Ask him.”

The man turned, with a quick mingling of surprise and suspicion, to the
gloomy, imperturbable Hooker. Clarence could not hear the reply of that
young gentleman, but it was evidently not wanting in his usual dark,
enigmatical exaggeration. The man surlily opened the gate.

“All the same,” he said, still glancing suspiciously at Hooker, “I don’t
see what HE’S got to do with you.”

“A great deal,” said Clarence, entering the courtyard, and stepping into
the veranda; “HE’S ONE OF MY TENANTS.”

“Your WHAT?” said the man, with a coarse laugh of incredulity.

“My tenants,” repeated Clarence, glancing around the courtyard
carelessly. Nevertheless, he was relieved to notice that the three
or four Mexicans of the party did not seem to be old retainers of the
rancho. There was no evidence of the internal treachery he had feared.

“Your TENANTS!” echoed the man, with an uneasy glance at the faces of
the others.

“Yes,” said Clarence, with business brevity; “and, for the matter of
that, although I have no reason to be particularly proud of it, SO ARE
YOU ALL. You ask my business here. It seems to be the same as yours,--to
hold possession of this house! With this difference, however,” he
continued, taking a document from his pocket. “Here is the certificate,
signed by the County Clerk, of the bill of sale of the entire Sisters’
title to ME. It includes the whole two leagues from Fair Plains to
the old boundary line of this rancho, which you forcibly entered this
morning. There is the document; examine it if you like. The only shadow
of a claim you could have to this property you would have to derive from
ME. The only excuse you could have for this act of lawlessness would
be orders from ME. And all that you have done this morning is only the
assertion of MY legal right to this house. If I disavow your act, as I
might, I leave you as helpless as any tramp that was ever kicked from
a doorstep,--as any burglar that was ever collared on the fence by a
constable.”

It was the truth. There was no denying the authority of the document,
the facts of the situation, or its ultimate power and significance.
There was consternation, stupefaction, and even a half-humorous
recognition of the absurdity of their position on most of the faces
around him. Incongruous as the scene was, it was made still more
grotesque by the attitude of Jim Hooker. Ruthlessly abandoning the
party of convicted trespassers, he stalked gloomily over to the side
of Clarence, with the air of having been all the time scornfully in
the secret and a mien of wearied victoriousness, and thus halting, he
disdainfully expectorated tobacco juice on the ground between him
and his late companions, as if to form a line of demarcation. The
few Mexicans began to edge towards the gateway. This defection of his
followers recalled the leader, who was no coward, to himself again.

“Shut the gate, there!” he shouted.

As its two sides clashed together again, he turned deliberately to
Clarence.

“That’s all very well, young man, as regards the TITLE. You may have
BOUGHT up the land, and legally own every square inch of howling
wilderness between this and San Francisco, and I wish you joy of
your d--d fool’s bargain; you may have got a whole circus like that,”
 pointing to the gloomy Jim, “at your back. But with all your money and
all your friends you’ve forgotten one thing. You haven’t got possession,
and we have.”

“That’s just where we differ,” said Clarence coolly, “for if you take
the trouble to examine the house, you will see that it is already in
possession of Mrs. Peyton,--MY TENANT.”

He paused to give effect to his revelations. But he was, nevertheless,
unprepared for an unrehearsed dramatic situation. Mrs. Peyton, who had
been tired of waiting, and was listening in the passage, at the mention
of her name, entered the gallery, followed by the young ladies. The
slight look of surprise upon her face at the revelation she had just
heard of Clarence’s ownership, only gave the suggestion of her having
been unexpectedly disturbed in her peaceful seclusion. One of the
Mexicans turned pale, with a frightened glance at the passage, as if he
expected the figure of the dead man to follow.

The group fell back. The game was over,--and lost. No one recognized it
more quickly than the gamblers themselves. More than that, desperate and
lawless as they were, they still retained the chivalry of Western men,
and every hat was slowly doffed to the three black figures that stood
silently in the gallery. And even apologetic speech began to loosen the
clenched teeth of the discomfited leader.

“We--were--told there was no one in the house,” he stammered.

“And it was the truth,” said a pert, youthful, yet slightly affected
voice. “For we climbed into the window just as you came in at the gate.”

It was Susy’s words that stung their ears again; but it was Susy’s
pretty figure, suddenly advanced and in a slightly theatrical attitude,
that checked their anger. There had been a sudden ominous silence,
as the whole plot of rescue seemed to be revealed to them in those
audacious words. But a sense of the ludicrous, which too often was the
only perception that ever mitigated the passions of such assemblies,
here suddenly asserted itself. The leader burst into a loud laugh, which
was echoed by the others, and, with waving hats, the whole party swept
peacefully out through the gate.

“But what does all this mean about YOUR purchasing the land, Mr. Brant?”
 said Mrs. Peyton quickly, fixing her eyes intently on Clarence.

A faint color--the useless protest of his truthful blood--came to his
cheek.

“The house is YOURS, and yours alone, Mrs. Peyton. The purchase of the
sisters’ title was a private arrangement between Mr. Peyton and myself,
in view of an emergency like this.”

She did not, however, take her proud, searching eyes from his face, and
he was forced to turn away.

“It was SO like dear, good, thoughtful papa,” said Susy. “Why, bless
me,” in a lower voice, “if that isn’t that lying old Jim Hooker standing
there by the gate!”



CHAPTER VIII.


Judge Peyton had bequeathed his entire property unconditionally to his
wife. But his affairs were found to be greatly in disorder, and his
papers in confusion, and although Mrs. Peyton could discover no actual
record of the late transaction with Mr. Brant, which had saved her the
possession of the homestead, it was evident that he had spent large sums
in speculative attempts to maintain the integrity of his estate. That
enormous domain, although perfectly unencumbered, had been nevertheless
unremunerative, partly through the costs of litigation and partly
through the systematic depredations to which its great size and long
line of unprotected boundary had subjected it. It had been invaded
by squatters and “jumpers,” who had sown and reaped crops without
discovery; its cattle and wild horses had strayed or been driven beyond
its ill-defined and hopeless limits. Against these difficulties the
widow felt herself unable and unwilling to contend, and with the advice
of her friends and her lawyer, she concluded to sell the estate, except
that portion covered by the Sisters’ title, which, with the homestead,
had been reconveyed to her by Clarence. She retired with Susy to the
house in San Francisco, leaving Clarence to occupy and hold the casa,
with her servants, for her until order was restored. The Robles Rancho
thus became the headquarters of the new owner of the Sisters’ title,
from which he administered its affairs, visited its incumbencies,
overlooked and surveyed its lands, and--occasionally--collected its
rents. There were not wanting critics who averred that these were
scarcely remunerative, and that the young San Francisco fine gentleman,
who was only Hamilton Brant’s son, after all, yet who wished to ape
the dignity and degree of a large landholder, had made a very foolish
bargain. I grieve to say that one of his own tenants, namely, Jim
Hooker, in his secret heart inclined to that belief, and looked upon
Clarence’s speculation as an act of far-seeing and inordinate vanity.

Indeed, the belligerent Jim had partly--and of course darkly--intimated
something of this to Susy in their brief reunion at the casa during
the few days that followed its successful reoccupation. And Clarence,
remembering her older caprices, and her remark on her first recognition
of him, was quite surprised at the easy familiarity of her reception
of this forgotten companion of their childhood. But he was still more
concerned in noticing, for the first time, a singular sympathetic
understanding of each other, and an odd similarity of occasional action
and expression between them. It was a part of this monstrous peculiarity
that neither the sympathy nor the likeness suggested any particular
friendship or amity in the pair, but rather a mutual antagonism and
suspicion. Mrs. Peyton, coldly polite to Clarence’s former COMPANION,
but condescendingly gracious to his present TENANT and retainer, did not
notice it, preoccupied with the annoyance and pain of Susy’s frequent
references to the old days of their democratic equality.

“You don’t remember, Jim, the time that you painted my face in the
wagon, and got me up as an Indian papoose?” she said mischievously.

But Jim, who had no desire to recall his previous humble position before
Mrs. Peyton or Clarence, was only vaguely responsive. Clarence, although
joyfully touched at this seeming evidence of Susy’s loyalty to the past,
nevertheless found himself even more acutely pained at the distress
it caused Mrs. Peyton, and was as relieved as she was by Hooker’s
reticence. For he had seen little of Susy since Peyton’s death, and
there had been no repetition of their secret interviews. Neither had he,
nor she as far as he could judge, noticed the omission. He had been more
than usually kind, gentle, and protecting in his manner towards her,
with little reference, however, to any response from her, yet he was
vaguely conscious of some change in his feelings. He attributed it, when
he thought of it at all, to the exciting experiences through which he
had passed; to some sentiment of responsibility to his dead friend; and
to another secret preoccupation that was always in his mind. He believed
it would pass in time. Yet he felt a certain satisfaction that she was
no longer able to trouble him, except, of course, when she pained Mrs.
Peyton, and then he was half conscious of taking the old attitude of
the dead husband in mediating between them. Yet so great was his
inexperience that he believed, with pathetic simplicity of perception,
that all this was due to the slow maturing of his love for her, and
that he was still able to make her happy. But this was something to
be thought of later. Just now Providence seemed to have offered him a
vocation and a purpose that his idle adolescence had never known. He did
not dream that his capacity for patience was only the slow wasting of
his love.

Meantime that more wonderful change and recreation of the Californian
landscape, so familiar, yet always so young, had come to the rancho. The
league-long terrace that had yellowed, whitened, and wasted for half a
year beneath a staring, monotonous sky, now under sailing clouds, flying
and broken shafts of light, and sharply defined lines of rain, had taken
a faint hue of resurrection. The dust that had muffled the roads and
byways, and choked the low oaks that fringed the sunken canada, had
long since been laid. The warm, moist breath of the southwest trades had
softened the hard, dry lines of the landscape, and restored its color as
of a picture over which a damp sponge had been passed. The broad expanse
of plateau before the casa glistened and grew dark. The hidden woods of
the canada, cleared and strengthened in their solitude, dripped along
the trails and hollows that were now transformed into running streams.
The distinguishing madrono near the entrance to the rancho had changed
its crimson summer suit and masqueraded in buff and green.

Yet there were leaden days, when half the prospect seemed to be seen
through palisades of rain; when the slight incline between the terraces
became a tumultuous cascade, and the surest hoofs slipped on trails of
unctuous mud; when cattle were bogged a few yards from the highway, and
the crossing of the turnpike road was a dangerous ford. There were
days of gale and tempest, when the shriveled stalks of giant oats were
stricken like trees, and lay across each other in rigid angles, and
a roar as of the sea came up from the writhing treetops in the sunken
valley. There were long weary nights of steady downpour, hammering
on the red tiles of the casa, and drumming on the shingles of the
new veranda, which was more terrible to be borne. Alone, but for the
servants, and an occasional storm-stayed tenant from Fair Plains,
Clarence might have, at such times, questioned the effect of this
seclusion upon his impassioned nature. But he had already been
accustomed to monastic seclusion in his boyish life at El Refugio, and
he did not reflect that, for that very reason, its indulgences might
have been dangerous. From time to time letters reached him from the
outer world of San Francisco,--a few pleasant lines from Mrs. Peyton, in
answer to his own chronicle of his half stewardship, giving the news of
the family, and briefly recounting their movements. She was afraid that
Susy’s sensitive nature chafed under the restriction of mourning in the
gay city, but she trusted to bring her back for a change to Robles when
the rains were over. This was a poor substitute for those brief, happy
glimpses of the home circle which had so charmed him, but he accepted
it stoically. He wandered over the old house, from which the perfume
of domesticity seemed to have evaporated, yet, notwithstanding Mrs.
Peyton’s playful permission, he never intruded upon the sanctity of the
boudoir, and kept it jealously locked.

He was sitting in Peyton’s business room one morning, when Incarnacion
entered. Clarence had taken a fancy to this Indian, half steward, half
vacquero, who had reciprocated it with a certain dog-like fidelity,
but also a feline indirectness that was part of his nature. He had been
early prepossessed with Clarence through a kinsman at El Refugio, where
the young American’s generosity had left a romantic record among the
common people. He had been pleased to approve of his follies before
the knowledge of his profitless and lordly land purchase had commended
itself to him as corroborative testimony. “Of true hidalgo blood, mark
you,” he had said oracularly. “Wherefore was his father sacrificed by
mongrels! As to the others, believe me,--bah!”

He stood there, sombrero in hand, murky and confidential, steaming
through his soaked serape and exhaling a blended odor of equine
perspiration and cigarette smoke.

“It was, perhaps, as the master had noticed, a brigand’s own day!
Bullying, treacherous, and wicked! It blew you off your horse if you so
much as lifted your arms and let the wind get inside your serape; and as
for the mud,--caramba! in fifty varas your forelegs were like bears, and
your hoofs were earthen plasters!”

Clarence knew that Incarnacion had not sought him with mere
meteorological information, and patiently awaited further developments.
The vacquero went on:--

“But one of the things this beast of a weather did was to wash down the
stalks of the grain, and to clear out the trough and hollows between,
and to make level the fields, and--look you! to uncover the stones and
rubbish and whatever the summer dust had buried. Indeed, it was even as
a miracle that Jose Mendez one day, after the first showers, came upon
a silver button from his calzas, which he had lost in the early summer.
And it was only that morning that, remembering how much and with what
fire Don Clarencio had sought the missing boot from the foot of the
Senor Peyton when his body was found, he, Incarnacion, had thought he
would look for it on the falda of the second terrace. And behold, Mother
of God it was there! Soaked with mud and rain, but the same as when the
senor was alive. To the very spur!”

He drew the boot from beneath his serape and laid it before Clarence.
The young man instantly recognized it, in spite of its weather-beaten
condition and its air of grotesque and drunken inconsistency to the
usually trim and correct appearance of Peyton when alive. “It is the
same,” he said, in a low voice.

“Good!” said Incarnacion. “Now, if Don Clarencio will examine the
American spur, he will see--what? A few horse-hairs twisted and caught
in the sharp points of the rowel. Good! Is it the hair of the horse that
Senor rode? Clearly not; and in truth not. It is too long for the flanks
and belly of the horse; it is not the same color as the tail and the
mane. How comes it there? It comes from the twisted horsehair rope of a
riata, and not from the braided cowhide thongs of the regular lasso of a
vacquero. The lasso slips not much, but holds; the riata slips much and
strangles.”

“But Mr. Peyton was not strangled,” said Clarence quickly.

“No, for the noose of the riata was perhaps large,--who knows? It
might have slipped down his arms, pinioned him, and pulled him off.
Truly!--such has been known before. Then on the ground it slipped again,
or he perhaps worked it off to his feet where it caught on his spur, and
then he was dragged until the boot came off, and behold! he was dead.”

This had been Clarence’s own theory of the murder, but he had only
half confided it to Incarnacion. He silently examined the spur with the
accusing horse-hair, and placed it in his desk. Incarnacion continued:--

“There is not a vacquero in the whole rancho who has a horse-hair riata.
We use the braided cowhide; it is heavier and stronger; it is for
the bull and not the man. The horse-hair riata comes from over the
range--south.”

There was a dead silence, broken only by the drumming of the rain upon
the roof of the veranda. Incarnacion slightly shrugged his shoulders.

“Don Clarencio does not know the southern county? Francisco Robles,
cousin of the ‘Sisters,’--he they call ‘Pancho,’--comes from the south.
Surely when Don Clarencio bought the title he saw Francisco, for he was
the steward?”

“I dealt only with the actual owners and through my bankers in San
Francisco,” returned Clarence abstractedly.

Incarnacion looked through the yellow corners of his murky eyes at his
master.

“Pedro Valdez, who was sent away by Senor Peyton, is the foster-brother
of Francisco. They were much together. Now that Francisco is rich from
the gold Don Clarencio paid for the title, they come not much together.
But Pedro is rich, too. Mother of God! He gambles and is a fine
gentleman. He holds his head high,--even over the Americanos he gambles
with. Truly, they say he can shoot with the best of them. He boasts and
swells himself, this Pedro! He says if all the old families were like
him, they would drive those western swine back over the mountains
again.”

Clarence raised his eyes, caught a subtle yellow flash from
Incarnacion’s, gazed at him suddenly, and rose.

“I don’t think I have ever seen him,” he said quietly. “Thank you for
bringing me the spur. But keep the knowledge of it to yourself, good
Nascio, for the present.”

Nascio nevertheless still lingered. Perceiving which, Clarence handed
him a cigarette and proceeded to light one himself. He knew that the
vacquero would reroll his, and that that always deliberate occupation
would cover and be an excuse for further confidence.

“The Senora Peyton does not perhaps meet this Pedro in the society of
San Francisco?”

“Surely not. The senora is in mourning and goes not out in society, nor
would she probably go anywhere where she would meet a dismissed servant
of her husband.”

Incarnacion slowly lit his cigarette, and said between the puffs, “And
the senorita--she would not meet him?”

“Assuredly not.”

“And,” continued Incarnacion, throwing down the match and putting his
foot on it, “if this boaster, this turkey-cock, says she did, you could
put him out like that?”

“Certainly,” said Clarence, with an easy confidence he was, however, far
from feeling, “if he really SAID it--which I doubt.”

“Ah, truly,” said Incarnacion; “who knows? It may be another Senorita
Silsbee.”

“The senora’s adopted daughter is called MISS PEYTON, friend Nascio. You
forget yourself,” said Clarence quietly.

“Ah, pardon!” said Incarnacion with effusive apology; “but she was born
Silsbee. Everybody knows it; she herself has told it to Pepita. The
Senor Peyton bequeathed his estate to the Senora Peyton. He named
not the senorita! Eh, what would you? It is the common cackle of the
barnyard. But I say ‘Mees Silsbee.’ For look you. There is a Silsbee of
Sacramento, the daughter of her aunt, who writes letters to her. Pepita
has seen them! And possibly it is only that Mees of whom the brigand
Pedro boasts.”

“Possibly,” said Clarence, “but as far as this rancho is concerned,
friend Nascio, thou wilt understand--and I look to thee to make the
others understand--that there is no Senorita SILSBEE here, only the
Senorita PEYTON, the respected daughter of the senora thy mistress!” He
spoke with the quaint mingling of familiarity and paternal gravity of
the Spanish master--a faculty he had acquired at El Refugio in a like
vicarious position, and which never failed as a sign of authority. “And
now,” he added gravely, “get out of this, friend, with God’s blessing,
and see that thou rememberest what I told thee.”

The retainer, with equal gravity, stepped backwards, saluted with his
sombrero until the stiff brim scraped the floor, and then solemnly
withdrew.

Left to himself, Clarence remained for an instant silent and thoughtful
before the oven-like hearth. So! everybody knew Susy’s real relations to
the Peytons, and everybody but Mrs. Peyton, perhaps, knew that she
was secretly corresponding with some one of her own family. In other
circumstances he might have found some excuse for this assertion of her
independence and love of her kindred, but in her attitude towards Mrs.
Peyton it seemed monstrous. It appeared impossible that Mrs. Peyton
should not have heard of it, or suspected the young girl’s disaffection.
Perhaps she had,--it was another burden laid upon her shoulders,--but
the proud woman had kept it to herself. A film of moisture came across
his eyes. I fear he thought less of the suggestion of Susy’s secret
meeting with Pedro, or Incarnacion’s implied suspicions that Pedro was
concerned in Peyton’s death, than of this sentimental possibility. He
knew that Pedro had been hated by the others on account of his position;
he knew the instinctive jealousies of the race and their predisposition
to extravagant misconstruction. From what he had gathered, and
particularly from the voices he had overheard on the Fair Plains Road,
it seemed to him that Pedro was more capable of mercenary intrigue than
physical revenge. He was not aware of the irrevocable affront put upon
Pedro by Peyton, and he had consequently attached no importance to
Peyton’s own half-scornful intimation of the only kind of retaliation
that Pedro would be likely to take. The unsuccessful attempt upon
himself he had always thought might have been an accident, or if it was
really a premeditated assault, it might have been intended actually for
HIMSELF and not Peyton, as he had first thought, and his old friend had
suffered for HIM, through some mistake of the assailant. The purpose,
which alone seemed wanting, might have been to remove Clarence as a
possible witness who had overheard their conspiracy--how much of it they
did not know--on the Fair Plains Road that night. The only clue he held
to the murderer in the spur locked in his desk, merely led him beyond
the confines of the rancho, but definitely nowhere else. It was,
however, some relief to know that the crime was not committed by one of
Peyton’s retainers, nor the outcome of domestic treachery.

After some consideration he resolved to seek Jim Hooker, who might be
possessed of some information respecting Susy’s relations, either from
the young girl’s own confidences or from Jim’s personal knowledge of the
old frontier families. From a sense of loyalty to Susy and Mrs. Peyton,
he had never alluded to the subject before him, but since the young
girl’s own indiscretion had made it a matter of common report, however
distasteful it was to his own feelings, he felt he could not plead the
sense of delicacy for her. He had great hopes in what he had always
believed was only her exaggeration of fact as well as feeling. And he
had an instinctive reliance on her fellow poseur’s ability to detect it.
A few days later, when he found he could safely leave the rancho alone,
he rode to Fair Plains.

The floods were out along the turnpike road, and even seemed to have
increased since his last journey. The face of the landscape had changed
again. One of the lower terraces had become a wild mere of sedge and
reeds. The dry and dusty bed of a forgotten brook had reappeared, a
full-banked river, crossing the turnpike and compelling a long detour
before the traveler could ford it. But as he approached the Hopkins
farm and the opposite clearing and cabin of Jim Hooker, he was quite
unprepared for a still more remarkable transformation. The cabin, a
three-roomed structure, and its cattle-shed had entirely disappeared!
There were no traces or signs of inundation. The land lay on a gentle
acclivity above the farm and secure from the effects of the flood, and
a part of the ploughed and cleared land around the site of the cabin
showed no evidence of overflow on its black, upturned soil. But
the house was gone! Only a few timbers too heavy to be removed,
the blighting erasions of a few months of occupation, and the dull,
blackened area of the site itself were to be seen. The fence alone was
intact.

Clarence halted before it, perplexed and astonished. Scarcely two weeks
had elapsed since he had last visited it and sat beneath its roof with
Jim, and already its few ruins had taken upon themselves the look of
years of abandonment and decay. The wild land seemed to have thrown off
its yoke of cultivation in a night, and nature rioted again with all its
primal forces over the freed soil. Wild oats and mustard were springing
already in the broken furrows, and lank vines were slimily spreading
over a few scattered but still unseasoned and sappy shingles. Some
battered tin cans and fragments of old clothing looked as remote as if
they had been relics of the earliest immigration.

Clarence turned inquiringly towards the Hopkins farmhouse across the
road. His arrival, however, had already been noticed, as the door of the
kitchen opened in an anticipatory fashion, and he could see the slight
figure of Phoebe Hopkins in the doorway, backed by the overlooking heads
and shoulders of her parents. The face of the young girl was pale and
drawn with anxiety, at which Clarence’s simple astonishment took a shade
of concern.

“I am looking for Mr. Hooker,” he said uneasily. “And I don’t seem to be
able to find either him or his house.”

“And you don’t know what’s gone of him?” said the girl quickly.

“No; I haven’t seen him for two weeks.”

“There, I told you so!” said the girl, turning nervously to her parents.
“I knew it. He hasn’t seen him for two weeks.” Then, looking almost
tearfully at Clarence’s face, she said, “No more have we.”

“But,” said Clarence impatiently, “something must have happened. Where
is his house?”

“Taken away by them jumpers,” interrupted the old farmer; “a lot of
roughs that pulled it down and carted it off in a jiffy before our very
eyes without answerin’ a civil question to me or her. But he wasn’t
there, nor before, nor since.”

“No,” added the old woman, with flashing eyes, “or he’d let ‘em have
what ther’ was in his six-shooters.”

“No, he wouldn’t, mother,” said the girl impatiently, “he’d CHANGED, and
was agin all them ideas of force and riotin’. He was for peace and
law all the time. Why, the day before we missed him he was tellin’ me
California never would be decent until people obeyed the laws and the
titles were settled. And for that reason, because he wouldn’t fight
agin the law, or without the consent of the law, they’ve killed him, or
kidnapped him away.”

The girl’s lips quivered, and her small brown hands twisted the edges of
her blue checked apron. Although this new picture of Jim’s peacefulness
was as astounding and unsatisfactory as his own disappearance, there was
no doubt of the sincerity of poor Phoebe’s impression.

In vain did Clarence point out to them there must be some mistake; that
the trespassers--the so-called jumpers--really belonged to the same
party as Hooker, and would have no reason to dispossess him; that, in
fact, they were all HIS, Clarence’s, tenants. In vain he assured them of
Hooker’s perfect security in possession; that he could have driven the
intruders away by the simple exhibition of his lease, or that he could
have even called a constable from the town of Fair Plains to protect him
from mere lawlessness. In vain did he assure them of his intention to
find his missing friend, and reinstate him at any cost. The conviction
that the unfortunate young man had been foully dealt with was fixed in
the minds of the two women. For a moment Clarence himself was staggered
by it.

“You see,” said the young girl, with a kindling face, “the day before
he came back from Robles, ther’ were some queer men hangin’ round his
cabin, but as they were the same kind that went off with him the day the
Sisters’ title was confirmed, we thought nothing of it. But when he
came back from you he seemed worried and anxious, and wasn’t a bit like
himself. We thought perhaps he’d got into some trouble there, or been
disappointed. He hadn’t, had he, Mr. Brant?” continued Phoebe, with an
appealing look.

“By no means,” said Clarence warmly. “On the contrary, he was able to do
his friends good service there, and was successful in what he attempted.
Mrs. Peyton was very grateful. Of course he told you what had happened,
and what he did for us,” continued Clarence, with a smile.

He had already amused himself on the way with a fanciful conception
of the exaggerated account Jim had given of his exploits. But the
bewildered girl shook her head.

“No, he didn’t tell us ANYTHING.”

Clarence was really alarmed. This unprecedented abstention of Hooker’s
was portentous.

“He didn’t say anything but what I told you about law and order,”
 she went on; “but that same night we heard a good deal of talking and
shouting in the cabin and around it. And the next day he was talking
with father, and wanting to know how HE kept his land without trouble
from outsiders.”

“And I said,” broke in Hopkins, “that I guessed folks didn’t bother a
man with women folks around, and that I kalkilated that I wasn’t quite
as notorious for fightin’ as he was.”

“And he said,” also interrupted Mrs. Hopkins, “and quite in his nat’ral
way, too,--gloomy like, you remember, Cyrus,” appealingly to her
husband,--“that that was his curse.”

The smile that flickered around Clarence’s mouth faded, however, as he
caught sight of Phoebe’s pleading, interrogating eyes. It was really too
bad. Whatever change had come over the rascal it was too evident that
his previous belligerent personality had had its full effect upon the
simple girl, and that, hereafter, one pair of honest eyes would be
wistfully following him.

Perplexed and indignant, Clarence again closely questioned her as to the
personnel of the trespassing party who had been seen once or twice since
passing over the field. He had at last elicited enough information to
identify one of them as Gilroy, the leader of the party that had invaded
Robles rancho. His cheek flushed. Even if they had wished to take a
theatrical and momentary revenge on Hooker for the passing treachery to
them which they had just discovered, although such retaliation was
only transitory, and they could not hold the land, it was an insult
to Clarence himself, whose tenant Jim was, and subversive of all their
legally acquired rights. He would confront this Gilroy at once; his
half-wild encampment was only a few miles away, just over the boundaries
of the Robles estate. Without stating his intention, he took leave of
the Hopkins family with the cheerful assurance that he would probably
return with some news of Hooker, and rode away.

The trail became more indistinct and unfrequented as it diverged from
the main road, and presently lost itself in the slope towards the east.
The horizon grew larger: there were faint bluish lines upon it which he
knew were distant mountains; beyond this a still fainter white line--the
Sierran snows. Presently he intersected a trail running south, and
remarked that it crossed the highway behind him, where he had once met
the two mysterious horsemen. They had evidently reached the terrace
through the wild oats by that trail. A little farther on were a
few groups of sheds and canvas tents in a bare and open space, with
scattered cattle and horsemen, exactly like an encampment, or the
gathering of a country fair. As Clarence rode down towards them he could
see that his approach was instantly observed, and that a simultaneous
movement was made as if to anticipate him. For the first time he
realized the possible consequences of his visit, single-handed, but it
was too late to retrace his steps. With a glance at his holster, he rode
boldly forward to the nearest shed. A dozen men hovered near him, but
something in his quiet, determined manner held them aloof. Gilroy was
on the threshold in his shirtsleeves. A single look showed him that
Clarence was alone, and with a careless gesture of his hand he warned
away his own followers.

“You’ve got a sort of easy way of droppin’ in whar you ain’t invited,
Brant,” he said with a grim smile, which was not, however, without a
certain air of approval. “Got it from your father, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t believe HE ever thought it necessary to warn
twenty men of the approach of ONE,” replied Clarence, in the same tone.
“I had no time to stand on ceremony, for I have just come from Hooker’s
quarter section at Fair Plains.”

Gilroy smiled again, and gazed abstractedly at the sky.

“You know as well as I do,” said Clarence, controlling his voice with
an effort, “that what you have done there will have to be undone, if you
wish to hold even those lawless men of yours together, or keep yourself
and them from being run into the brush like highwaymen. I’ve no fear for
that. Neither do I care to know what was your motive in doing it; but I
can only tell you that if it was retaliation, I alone was and still am
responsible for Hooker’s action at the rancho. I came here to know just
what you have done with him, and, if necessary, to take his place.”

“You’re just a little too previous in your talk, I reckon, Brant,”
 returned Gilroy lazily, “and as to legality, I reckon we stand on the
same level with yourself, just here. Beginnin’ with what you came for:
as we don’t know where your Jim Hooker is, and as we ain’t done anythin’
to HIM, we don’t exackly see what we could do with YOU in his place.
Ez to our motives,--well, we’ve got a good deal to say about THAT.
We reckoned that he wasn’t exackly the kind of man we wanted for a
neighbor. His pow’ful fightin’ style didn’t suit us peaceful folks, and
we thought it rather worked agin this new ‘law and order’ racket to have
such a man about, to say nuthin’ of it prejudicin’ quiet settlers.
He had too many revolvers for one man to keep his eye on, and was
altogether too much steeped in blood, so to speak, for ordinary washin’
and domestic purposes! His hull get up was too deathlike and clammy; so
we persuaded him to leave. We just went there, all of us, and exhorted
him. We stayed round there two days and nights, takin’ turns, talkin’
with him, nuthin’ more, only selecting subjects in his own style to
please him, until he left! And then, as we didn’t see any use for his
house there, we took it away. Them’s the cold facts, Brant,” he added,
with a certain convincing indifference that left no room for doubt, “and
you can stand by ‘em. Now, workin’ back to the first principle you laid
down,--that we’ll have to UNDO what we’ve DONE,--we don’t agree with
you, for we’ve taken a leaf outer your own book. We’ve got it here
in black and white. We’ve got a bill o’ sale of Hooker’s house and
possession, and we’re on the land in place of him,--AS YOUR TENANTS.”
 He reentered the shanty, took a piece of paper from a soap-box on the
shell, and held it out to Clarence. “Here it is. It’s a fair and square
deal, Brant. We gave him, as it says here, a hundred dollars for it! No
humbuggin’, but the hard cash, by Jiminy! AND HE TOOK THE MONEY.”

The ring of truth in the man’s voice was as unmistakable as the
signature in Jim’s own hand. Hooker had sold out! Clarence turned
hastily away.

“We don’t know where he went,” continued Gilroy grimly, “but I reckon
you ain’t over anxious to see him NOW. And I kin tell ye something to
ease your mind,--he didn’t require much persuadin’. And I kin tell ye
another, if ye ain’t above takin’ advice from folks that don’t pertend
to give it,” he added, with the same curious look of interest in his
face. “You’ve done well to get shut of him, and if you got shut of a few
more of his kind that you trust to, you’d do better.”

As if to avoid noticing any angry reply from the young man, he reentered
the cabin and shut the door behind him. Clarence felt the uselessness of
further parley, and rode away.

But Gilroy’s Parthian arrow rankled as he rode. He was not greatly
shocked at Jim’s defection, for he was always fully conscious of
his vanity and weakness; but he was by no means certain that Jim’s
extravagance and braggadocio, which he had found only amusing and,
perhaps, even pathetic, might not be as provocative and prejudicial
to others as Gilroy had said. But, like all sympathetic and unselfish
natures, he sought to find some excuse for his old companion’s weakness
in his own mistaken judgment. He had no business to bring poor Jim on
the land, to subject his singular temperament to the temptations of
such a life and such surroundings; he should never have made use of his
services at the rancho. He had done him harm rather than good in his
ill-advised, and, perhaps, SELFISH attempts to help him. I have said
that Gilroy’s parting warning rankled in his breast, but not ignobly.
It wounded the surface of his sensitive nature, but could not taint or
corrupt the pure, wholesome blood of the gentleman beneath it. For in
Gilroy’s warning he saw only his own shortcomings. A strange fatality
had marked his friendships. He had been no help to Jim; he had brought
no happiness to Susy or Mrs. Peyton, whose disagreement his visit seemed
to have accented. Thinking over the mysterious attack upon himself, it
now seemed to him possible that, in some obscure way, his presence at
the rancho had precipitated the more serious attack on Peyton. If, as
it had been said, there was some curse upon his inheritance from his
father, he seemed to have made others share it with him. He was riding
onward abstractedly, with his head sunk on his breast and his eyes fixed
upon some vague point between his horse’s sensitive ears, when a sudden,
intelligent, forward pricking of them startled him, and an apparition
arose from the plain before him that seemed to sweep all other sense
away.

It was the figure of a handsome young horseman as abstracted as himself,
but evidently on better terms with his own personality. He was dark
haired, sallow cheeked, and blue eyed,--the type of the old Spanish
Californian. A burnt-out cigarette was in his mouth, and he was riding
a roan mustang with the lazy grace of his race. But what arrested
Clarence’s attention more than his picturesque person was the narrow,
flexible, long coil of gray horse-hair riata which hung from his
saddle-bow, but whose knotted and silver-beaded terminating lash he
was swirling idly in his narrow brown hand. Clarence knew and instantly
recognized it as the ordinary fanciful appendage of a gentleman rider,
used for tethering his horse on lonely plains, and always made the
object of the most lavish expenditure of decoration and artistic
skill. But he was as suddenly filled with a blind, unreasoning sense
of repulsion and fury, and lifted his eyes to the man as he approached.
What the stranger saw in Clarence’s blazing eyes no one but himself
knew, for his own became fixed and staring; his sallow cheeks grew
lanker and livid; his careless, jaunty bearing stiffened into rigidity,
and swerving his horse to one side he suddenly passed Clarence at a
furious gallop. The young American wheeled quickly, and for an instant
his knees convulsively gripped the flanks of his horse to follow. But
the next moment he recalled himself, and with an effort began to collect
his thoughts. What was he intending to do, and for what reason! He had
met hundreds of such horsemen before, and caparisoned and accoutred like
this, even to the riata. And he certainly was not dressed like either of
the mysterious horsemen whom he had overheard that moonlight evening. He
looked back; the stranger had already slackened his pace, and was slowly
disappearing. Clarence turned and rode on his way.



CHAPTER IX.


Without disclosing the full extent of Jim’s defection and desertion,
Clarence was able to truthfully assure the Hopkins family of his
personal safety, and to promise that he would continue his quest, and
send them further news of the absentee. He believed it would be found
that Jim had been called away on some important business, but that not
daring to leave his new shanty exposed and temptingly unprotected, he
had made a virtue of necessity by selling it to his neighbors, intending
to build a better house on its site after his return. Having comforted
Phoebe, and impulsively conceived further plans for restoring Jim to
her,--happily without any recurrence of his previous doubts as to his
own efficacy as a special Providence,--he returned to the rancho. If he
thought again of Jim’s defection and Gilroy’s warning, it was only to
strengthen himself to a clearer perception of his unselfish duty and
singleness of purpose. He would give up brooding, apply himself more
practically to the management of the property, carry out his plans
for the foundation of a Landlords’ Protective League for the southern
counties, become a candidate for the Legislature, and, in brief, try
to fill Peyton’s place in the county as he had at the rancho. He would
endeavor to become better acquainted with the half-breed laborers on
the estate and avoid the friction between them and the Americans; he was
conscious that he had not made that use of his early familiarity with
their ways and language which he might have done. If, occasionally, the
figure of the young Spaniard whom he had met on the lonely road obtruded
itself on him, it was always with the instinctive premonition that he
would meet him again, and the mystery of the sudden repulsion be in some
way explained. Thus Clarence! But the momentary impulse that had driven
him to Fair Plains, the eagerness to set his mind at rest regarding Susy
and her relatives, he had utterly forgotten.

Howbeit some of the energy and enthusiasm that he breathed into these
various essays made their impression. He succeeded in forming the
Landlords’ League; under a commission suggested by him the straggling
boundaries of Robles and the adjacent claims were resurveyed, defined,
and mutually protected; even the lawless Gilroy, from extending an
amused toleration to the young administrator, grew to recognize and
accept him; the peons and vacqueros began to have faith in a man who
acknowledged them sufficiently to rebuild the ruined Mission Chapel on
the estate, and save them the long pilgrimage to Santa Inez on Sundays
and saints’ days; the San Francisco priest imported from Clarence’s
old college at San Jose, and an habitual guest at Clarence’s hospitable
board, was grateful enough to fill his flock with loyalty to the young
padron.

He had returned from a long drive one afternoon, and had just thrown
himself into an easy-chair with the comfortable consciousness of a rest
fairly earned. The dull embers of a fire occasionally glowed in the
oven-like hearth, although the open casement of a window let in the
soft breath of the southwest trades. The angelus had just rung from the
restored chapel, and, mellowed by distance, seemed to Clarence to lend
that repose to the wind-swept landscape that it had always lacked.

Suddenly his quick ear detected the sound of wheels in the ruts of the
carriage way. Usually his visitors to the casa came on horseback, and
carts and wagons used only the lower road. As the sound approached
nearer, an odd fancy filled his heart with unaccountable pleasure. Could
it be Mrs. Peyton making an unexpected visit to the rancho? He held his
breath. The vehicle was now rolling on into the patio. The clatter of
hoofs and a halt were followed by the accents of women’s voices. One
seemed familiar. He rose quickly, as light footsteps ran along the
corridor, and then the door opened impetuously to the laughing face of
Susy!

He came towards her hastily, yet with only the simple impulse of
astonishment. He had no thought of kissing her, but as he approached,
she threw her charming head archly to one side, with a mischievous
knitting of her brows and a significant gesture towards the passage,
that indicated the proximity of a stranger and the possibility of
interruption.

“Hush! Mrs. McClosky’s here,” she whispered.

“Mrs. McClosky?” repeated Clarence vaguely.

“Yes, of course,” impatiently. “My Aunt Jane. Silly! We just cut away
down here to surprise you. Aunty’s never seen the place, and here was a
good chance.”

“And your mother--Mrs. Peyton? Has she--does she?”--stammered Clarence.

“Has she--does she?” mimicked Susy, with increasing impatience. “Why, of
course she DOESN’T know anything about it. She thinks I’m visiting Mary
Rogers at Oakland. And I am--AFTERWARDS,” she laughed. “I just wrote to
Aunt Jane to meet me at Alameda, and we took the stage to Santa Inez
and drove on here in a buggy. Wasn’t it real fun? Tell me, Clarence! You
don’t say anything! Tell me--wasn’t it real fun?”

This was all so like her old, childlike, charming, irresponsible self,
that Clarence, troubled and bewildered as he was, took her hands and
drew her like a child towards him.

“Of course,” she went on, yet stopping to smell a rosebud in his
buttonhole, “I have a perfect right to come to my own home, goodness
knows! and if I bring my own aunt, a married woman, with me,--although,”
 loftily, “there may be a young unmarried gentleman alone there,--still I
fail to see any impropriety in it!”

He was still holding her; but in that instant her manner had completely
changed again; the old Susy seemed to have slipped away and evaded him,
and he was retaining only a conscious actress in his arms.

“Release me, Mr. Brant, please,” she said, with a languid affected
glance behind her; “we are not alone.”

Then, as the rustling of a skirt sounded nearer in the passage, she
seemed to change back to her old self once more, and with a lightning
flash of significance whispered,--

“She knows everything!”

To add to Clarence’s confusion, the woman who entered cast a quick
glance of playful meaning on the separating youthful pair. She was an
ineffective blonde with a certain beauty that seemed to be gradually
succumbing to the ravages of paint and powder rather than years;
her dress appeared to have suffered from an equally unwise excess of
ornamentation and trimming, and she gave the general impression of
having been intended for exhibition in almost any other light than the
one in which she happened to be. There were two or three mud-stains
on the laces of her sleeve and underskirt that were obtrusively
incongruous. Her voice, which had, however, a ring of honest intention
in it, was somewhat over-strained, and evidently had not yet adjusted
itself to the low-ceilinged, conventual-like building.

“There, children, don’t mind me! I know I’m not on in this scene, but I
got nervous waiting there, in what you call the ‘salon,’ with only those
Greaser servants staring round me in a circle, like a regular chorus.
My! but it’s anteek here--regular anteek--Spanish.” Then, with a glance
at Clarence, “So this is Clarence Brant,--your Clarence? Interduce me,
Susy.”

In his confusion of indignation, pain, and even a certain conception of
the grim ludicrousness of the situation, Clarence grasped despairingly
at the single sentence of Susy’s. “In my own home.” Surely, at least, it
was HER OWN HOME, and as he was only the business agent of her adopted
mother, he had no right to dictate to her under what circumstances
she should return to it, or whom she should introduce there. In her
independence and caprice Susy might easily have gone elsewhere with this
astounding relative, and would Mrs. Peyton like it better? Clinging to
this idea, his instinct of hospitality asserted itself. He welcomed Mrs.
McClosky with nervous effusion:--

“I am only Mrs. Peyton’s major domo here, but any guest of her
DAUGHTER’S is welcome.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. McClosky, with ostentatious archness, “I reckon Susy
and I understand your position here, and you’ve got a good berth of it.
But we won’t trouble you much on Mrs. Peyton’s account, will we, Susy?
And now she and me will just take a look around the shanty,--it is real
old Spanish anteek, ain’t it?--and sorter take stock of it, and you
young folks will have to tear yourselves apart for a while, and play
propriety before me. You’ve got to be on your good behavior while
I’m here, I can tell you! I’m a heavy old ‘doo-anna.’ Ain’t I, Susy?
School-ma’ms and mother superiors ain’t in the game with ME for
discipline.”

She threw her arms around the young girl’s waist and drew her towards
her affectionately, an action that slightly precipitated some powder
upon the black dress of her niece. Susy glanced mischievously at
Clarence, but withdrew her eyes presently to let them rest with
unmistakable appreciation and admiration on her relative. A pang shot
through Clarence’s breast. He had never seen her look in that way at
Mrs. Peyton. Yet here was this stranger, provincial, overdressed, and
extravagant, whose vulgarity was only made tolerable through her good
humor, who had awakened that interest which the refined Mrs. Peyton had
never yet been able to touch. As Mrs. McClosky swept out of the room
with Susy he turned away with a sinking heart.

Yet it was necessary that the Spanish house servants should not suspect
this treason to their mistress, and Clarence stopped their childish
curiosity about the stranger with a careless and easy acceptance of
Susy’s sudden visit in the light of an ordinary occurrence, and with a
familiarity towards Mrs. McClosky which became the more distasteful to
him in proportion as he saw that it was evidently agreeable to her. But,
easily responsive, she became speedily confidential. Without a single
question from himself, or a contributing remark from Susy, in half an
hour she had told him her whole history. How, as Jane Silsbee, an elder
sister of Susy’s mother, she had early eloped from the paternal home
in Kansas with McClosky, a strolling actor. How she had married him
and gone on the stage under his stage name, effectively preventing any
recognition by her family. How, coming to California, where her husband
had become manager of the theatre at Sacramento, she was indignant to
find that her only surviving relation, a sister-in-law, living in the
same place, had for a money consideration given up all claim to the
orphaned Susy, and how she had resolved to find out “if the poor child
was happy.” How she succeeded in finding out that she was not happy.
How she wrote to her, and even met her secretly at San Francisco and
Oakland, and how she had undertaken this journey partly for “a lark,”
 and partly to see Clarence and the property. There was no doubt of the
speaker’s sincerity; with this outrageous candor there was an equal
obliviousness of any indelicacy in her conduct towards Mrs. Peyton that
seemed hopeless. Yet he must talk plainly to her; he must say to her
what he could not say to Susy; upon HER Mrs. Peyton’s happiness--he
believed he was thinking of Susy’s also--depended. He must take the
first opportunity of speaking to her alone.

That opportunity came sooner than he had expected. After dinner, Mrs.
McClosky turned to Susy, and playfully telling her that she had “to talk
business” with Mr. Brant, bade her go to the salon and await her. When
the young girl left the room, she looked at Clarence, and, with that
assumption of curtness with which coarse but kindly natures believe they
overcome the difficulty of delicate subjects, said abruptly:--

“Well, young man, now what’s all this between you and Susy? I’m looking
after her interests--same as if she was my own girl. If you’ve got
anything to say, now’s your time. And don’t you shilly-shally too long
over it, either, for you might as well know that a girl like that can
have her pick and choice, and be beholden to no one; and when she don’t
care to choose, there’s me and my husband ready to do for her all the
same. We mightn’t be able to do the anteek Spanish Squire, but we’ve got
our own line of business, and it’s a comfortable one.”

To have this said to him under the roof of Mrs. Peyton, from whom, in
his sensitiveness, he had thus far jealously guarded his own secret, was
even more than Clarence’s gentleness could stand, and fixed his wavering
resolution.

“I don’t think we quite understand each other, Mrs. McClosky,” he said
coldly, but with glittering eyes. “I have certainly something to say to
you; if it is not on a subject as pleasant as the one you propose,
it is, nevertheless, one that I think you and I are more competent to
discuss together.”

Then, with quiet but unrelenting directness, he pointed out to her that
Susy was a legally adopted daughter of Mrs. Peyton, and, as a minor,
utterly under her control; that Mrs. Peyton had no knowledge of any
opposing relatives; and that Susy had not only concealed the fact from
her, but that he was satisfied that Mrs. Peyton did not even know of
Susy’s discontent and alienation; that she had tenderly and carefully
brought up the helpless orphan as her own child, and even if she had not
gained her affection was at least entitled to her obedience and respect;
that while Susy’s girlish caprice and inexperience excused HER
conduct, Mrs. Peyton and her friends would have a right to expect more
consideration from a person of Mrs. McClosky’s maturer judgment. That
for these reasons, and as the friend of Mrs. Peyton, whom he could alone
recognize as Susy’s guardian and the arbiter of her affections, he must
decline to discuss the young girl with any reference to himself or his
own intentions.

An unmistakable flush asserted itself under the lady’s powder.

“Suit yourself, young man, suit yourself,” she said, with equally direct
resentment and antagonism; “only mebbee you’ll let me tell you that
Jim McClosky ain’t no fool, and mebbee knows what lawyers think of an
arrangement with a sister-in-law that leaves a real sister out! Mebbee
that’s a ‘Sister’s title’ you ain’t thought of, Mr. Brant! And mebbee
you’ll find out that your chance o’ gettin’ Mrs. Peyton’s consent ain’t
as safe to gamble on as you reckon it is. And mebbee, what’s more to the
purpose, if you DID get it, it might not be just the trump card to fetch
Susy with! And to wind up, Mr. Brant, when you DO have to come down to
the bed-rock and me and Jim McClosky, you may find out that him and me
have discovered a better match for Susy than the son of old Ham Brant,
who is trying to play the Spanish grandee off his father’s money on a
couple of women. And we mayn’t have to go far to do it--or to get THE
REAL THING, Mr. Brant!”

Too heartsick and disgusted to even notice the slur upon himself or the
import of her last words, Clarence only rose and bowed as she jumped up
from the table. But as she reached the door he said, half appealingly:--

“Whatever are your other intentions, Mrs. McClosky, as we are both
Susy’s guests, I beg you will say nothing of this to her while we are
here, and particularly that you will not allow her to think for a moment
that I have discussed MY relations to her with anybody.”

She flung herself out of the door without a reply; but on entering the
dark low-ceilinged drawing-room she was surprised to find that Susy was
not there. She was consequently obliged to return to the veranda, where
Clarence had withdrawn, and to somewhat ostentatiously demand of the
servants that Susy should be sent to her room at once. But the young
girl was not in her own room, and was apparently nowhere to be found.
Clarence, who had now fully determined as a last resource to make a
direct appeal to Susy herself, listened to this fruitless search with
some concern. She could not have gone out in the rain, which was again
falling. She might be hiding somewhere to avoid a recurrence of the
scene she had perhaps partly overheard. He turned into the corridor
that led to Mrs. Peyton’s boudoir. As he knew that it was locked, he was
surprised to see by the dim light of the hanging lamp that a duplicate
key to the one in his desk was in the lock. It must be Susy’s, and the
young girl had probably taken refuge there. He knocked gently. There was
a rustle in the room and the sound of a chair being moved, but no reply.
Impelled by a sudden instinct he opened the door, and was met by a cool
current of air from some open window. At the same moment the figure of
Susy approached him from the semi-darkness of the interior.

“I did not know you were here,” said Clarence, much relieved, he knew
not why, “but I am glad, for I wanted to speak with you alone for a few
moments.”

She did not reply, but he drew a match from his pocket and lit the two
candles which he knew stood on the table. The wick of one was still
warm, as if it had been recently extinguished. As the light slowly
radiated, he could see that she was regarding him with an air of
affected unconcern, but a somewhat heightened color. It was like her,
and not inconsistent with his idea that she had come there to avoid an
after scene with Mrs. McClosky or himself, or perhaps both. The room was
not disarranged in any way. The window that was opened was the casement
of the deep embrasured one in the rear wall, and the light curtain
before it still swayed occasionally in the night wind.

“I’m afraid I had a row with your aunt, Susy,” he began lightly, in his
old familiar way; “but I had to tell her I didn’t think her conduct to
Mrs. Peyton was exactly the square thing towards one who had been as
devoted to you as she has been.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t go over all that again,” said Susy
impatiently. “I’ve had enough of it.”

Clarence flashed, but recovered himself.

“Then you overheard what I said, and know what I think,” he said calmly.

“I knew it BEFORE,” said the young girl, with a slight supercilious toss
of the head, and yet a certain abstraction of manner as she went to the
window and closed it. “Anybody could see it! I know you always wanted
me to stay here with Mrs. Peyton, and be coddled and monitored and
catechised and shut up away from any one, until YOU had been coddled and
monitored and catechised by somebody else sufficiently to suit her
ideas of your being a fit husband for me. I told aunty it was no use our
coming here to--to”--

“To do what?” asked Clarence.

“To put some spirit into you,” said the young girl, turning upon him
sharply; “to keep you from being tied to that woman’s apron-strings. To
keep her from making a slave of you as she would of me. But it is of
no use. Mary Rogers was right when she said you had no wish to please
anybody but Mrs. Peyton, and no eyes for anybody but her. And if it
hadn’t been too ridiculous, considering her age and yours, she’d say you
were dead in love with her.”

For an instant Clarence felt the blood rush to his face and then sink
away, leaving him pale and cold. The room, which had seemed to
whirl around him, and then fade away, returned with appalling
distinctness,--the distinctness of memory,--and a vision of the first
day that he had seen Mrs. Peyton sitting there, as he seemed to see her
now. For the first time there flashed upon him the conviction that the
young girl had spoken the truth, and had brusquely brushed the veil from
his foolish eyes. He WAS in love with Mrs. Peyton! That was what his
doubts and hesitation regarding Susy meant. That alone was the source,
secret, and limit of his vague ambition.

But with the conviction came a singular calm. In the last few moments
he seemed to have grown older, to have loosed the bonds of old
companionship with Susy, and the later impression she had given him of
her mature knowledge, and moved on far beyond her years and experience.
And it was with an authority that was half paternal, and in a voice he
himself scarcely recognized, that he said:--

“If I did not know you were prejudiced by a foolish and indiscreet
woman, I should believe that you were trying to insult me as you have
your adopted mother, and would save you the pain of doing both in HER
house by leaving it now and forever. But because I believe you are
controlled against your best instinct by that woman, I shall remain
here with you to frustrate her as best I can, or until I am able to lay
everything before Mrs. Peyton except the foolish speech you have just
made.”

The young girl laughed. “Why not THAT one too, while you’re about it?
See what she’ll say.”

“I shall tell her,” continued Clarence calmly, “only what YOU yourself
have made it necessary for me to tell her to save you from folly and
disgrace, and only enough to spare her the mortification of hearing it
first from her own servants.”

“Hearing WHAT from her own servants? What do you mean? How dare you?”
 demanded the young girl sharply.

She was quite real in her anxiety now, although her attitude of virtuous
indignation struck him as being like all her emotional expression,
namely, acting.

“I mean that the servants know of your correspondence with Mrs.
McClosky, and that she claims to be your aunt,” returned Clarence. “They
know that you confided to Pepita. They believe that either Mrs. McClosky
or you have seen”--

He had stopped suddenly. He was about to say that the servants
(particularly Incarnacion) knew that Pedro had boasted of having met
Susy, when, for the first time, the tremendous significance of what he
had hitherto considered as merely an idle falsehood flashed upon him.

“Seen whom?” repeated Susy in a higher voice, impatiently stamping her
foot.

Clarence looked at her, and in her excited, questioning face saw a
confirmation of his still half-formed suspicions. In his own abrupt
pause and knitted eyebrows she must have read his thoughts also. Their
eyes met. Her violet pupils dilated, trembled, and then quickly shifted
as she suddenly stiffened into an attitude of scornful indifference,
almost grotesque in its unreality. His eyes slowly turned to the window,
the door, the candles on the table and the chair before it, and then
came back to her face again. Then he drew a deep breath.

“I give no heed to the idle gossip of servants, Susy,” he said slowly.
“I have no belief that you have ever contemplated anything worse than an
act of girlish folly, or the gratification of a passing caprice. Neither
do I want to appeal to you or frighten you, but I must tell you now,
that I know certain facts that might make such a simple act of folly
monstrous, inconceivable in YOU, and almost accessory to a crime! I can
tell you no more. But so satisfied am I of such a possibility, that I
shall not scruple to take any means--the strongest--to prevent even
the remotest chance of it. Your aunt has been looking for you; you had
better go to her now. I will close the room and lock the door. Meantime,
I should advise you not to sit so near an open window with a candle at
night in this locality. Even if it might not be dangerous for you, it
might be fatal to the foolish creatures it might attract.”

He took the key from the door as he held it open for her to pass out.
She uttered a shrill little laugh, like a nervous, mischievous child,
and, slipping out of her previous artificial attitude as if it had been
a mantle, ran out of the room.



CHAPTER X.


As Susy’s footsteps died away, Clarence closed the door, walked to the
window, and examined it closely. The bars had been restored since he had
wrenched them off to give ingress to the family on the day of recapture.
He glanced around the room; nothing seemed to have been disturbed.
Nevertheless he was uneasy. The suspicions of a frank, trustful nature
when once aroused are apt to be more general and far-reaching than the
specific distrusts of the disingenuous, for they imply the overthrow of
a whole principle and not a mere detail. Clarence’s conviction that Susy
had seen Pedro recently since his dismissal led him into the wildest
surmises of her motives. It was possible that without her having reason
to suspect Pedro’s greater crime, he might have confided to her his
intention of reclaiming the property and installing her as the mistress
and chatelaine of the rancho. The idea was one that might have appealed
to Susy’s theatrical imagination. He recalled Mrs. McClosky’s sneer
at his own pretensions and her vague threats of a rival of more lineal
descent. The possible infidelity of Susy to himself touched him lightly
when the first surprise was over; indeed, it scarcely could be called
infidelity, if she knew and believed Mary Rogers’s discovery; and the
conviction that he and she had really never loved each other now enabled
him, as he believed, to look at her conduct dispassionately. Yet it was
her treachery to Mrs. Peyton and not to himself that impressed him most,
and perhaps made him equally unjust, through his affections.

He extinguished the candles, partly from some vague precautions he could
not explain, and partly to think over his fears in the abstraction and
obscurity of the semi-darkness. The higher windows suffused a faint
light on the ceiling, and, assisted by the dark lantern-like glow
cast on the opposite wall by the tunnel of the embrasured window,
the familiar outlines of the room and its furniture came back to him.
Somewhat in this fashion also, in the obscurity and quiet, came back
to him the events he had overlooked and forgotten. He recalled now some
gossip of the servants, and hints dropped by Susy of a violent quarrel
between Peyton and Pedro, which resulted in Pedro’s dismissal, but which
now seemed clearly attributable to some graver cause than inattention
and insolence. He recalled Mary Rogers’s playful pleasantries with Susy
about Pedro, and Susy’s mysterious air, which he had hitherto
regarded only as part of her exaggeration. He remembered Mrs. Peyton’s
unwarrantable uneasiness about Susy, which he had either overlooked or
referred entirely to himself; she must have suspected something. To his
quickened imagination, in this ruin of his faith and trust, he believed
that Hooker’s defection was either part of the conspiracy, or that he
had run away to avoid being implicated with Susy in its discovery.
This, too, was the significance of Gilroy’s parting warning. He and
Mrs. Peyton alone had been blind and confiding in the midst of this
treachery, and even HE had been blind to his own real affections.

The wind had risen again, and the faint light on the opposite wall grew
tremulous and shifting with the movement of the foliage without. But
presently the glow became quite obliterated, as if by the intervention
of some opaque body outside the window. He rose hurriedly and went to
the casement. But at the same moment he fancied he heard the jamming of
a door or window in quite another direction, and his examination of
the casement before him showed him only the silver light of the thinly
clouded sky falling uninterruptedly through the bars and foliage on the
interior of the whitewashed embrasure. Then a conception of his mistake
flashed across him. The line of the casa was long, straggling, and
exposed elsewhere; why should the attempt to enter or communicate
with any one within be confined only to this single point? And why not
satisfy himself at once if any trespassers were lounging around the
walls, and then confront them boldly in the open? Their discovery and
identification was as important as the defeat of their intentions.

He relit the candle, and, placing it on a small table by the wall beyond
the visual range of the window, rearranged the curtain so that, while
it permitted the light to pass out, it left the room in shadow. He then
opened the door softly, locked it behind him, and passed noiselessly
into the hall. Susy’s and Mrs. McClosky’s rooms were at the further end
of the passage, but between them and the boudoir was the open patio, and
the low murmur of the voices of servants, who still lingered until he
should dismiss them for the night. Turning back, he moved silently down
the passage, until he reached the narrow arched door to the garden.
This he unlocked and opened with the same stealthy caution. The rain had
recommenced. Not daring to risk a return to his room, he took from a
peg in the recess an old waterproof cloak and “sou’wester” of Peyton’s,
which still hung there, and passed out into the night, locking the
door behind him. To keep the knowledge of his secret patrol from the
stablemen, he did not attempt to take out his own horse, but trusted to
find some vacquero’s mustang in the corral. By good luck an old “Blue
Grass” hack of Peyton’s, nearest the stockade as he entered, allowed
itself to be quickly caught. Using its rope headstall for a bridle,
Clarence vaulted on its bare back, and paced cautiously out into the
road. Here he kept the curve of the long line of stockade until he
reached the outlying field where, half hidden in the withered, sapless,
but still standing stalks of grain, he slowly began a circuit of the
casa.

The misty gray dome above him, which an invisible moon seemed to have
quicksilvered over, alternately lightened and darkened with passing
gusts of fine rain. Nevertheless he could see the outline of the broad
quadrangle of the house quite distinctly, except on the west side,
where a fringe of writhing willows beat the brown adobe walls with their
imploring arms at every gust. Elsewhere nothing moved; the view was
uninterrupted to where the shining, watery sky met the equally shining,
watery plain. He had already made a half circuit of the house, and was
still noiselessly picking his way along the furrows, muffled with soaked
and broken-down blades, and the velvety upspringing of the “volunteer”
 growth, when suddenly, not fifty yards before him, without sound or
warning, a figure rode out of the grain upon the open crossroad, and
deliberately halted with a listless, abstracted, waiting air. Clarence
instantly recognized one of his own vacqueros, an undersized half-breed,
but he as instantly divined that he was only an outpost or confederate,
stationed to give the alarm. The same precaution had prevented each
hearing the other, and the lesser height of the vacquero had rendered
him indistinguishable as he preceded Clarence among the grain. As the
young man made no doubt that the real trespasser was nearer the casa,
along the line of willows, he wheeled to intercept him without alarming
his sentry. Unfortunately, his horse answered the rope bridle clumsily,
and splashed in striking out. The watcher quickly raised his head, and
Clarence knew that his only chance was now to suppress him. Determined
to do this at any hazard, with a threatening gesture he charged boldly
down upon him.

But he had not crossed half the distance between them when the man
uttered an appalling cry, so wild and despairing that it seemed to chill
even the hot blood in Clarence’s veins, and dashed frenziedly down the
cross-road into the interminable plain. Before Clarence could determine
if that cry was a signal or an involuntary outburst, it was followed
instantly by the sound of frightened and struggling hoofs clattering
against the wall of the casa, and a swaying of the shrubbery near the
back gate of the patio. Here was his real quarry! Without hesitation he
dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and rode furiously towards
it. As he approached, a long tremor seemed to pass through the
shrubbery, with the retreating sound of horse hoofs. The unseen
trespasser had evidently taken the alarm and was fleeing, and Clarence
dashed in pursuit. Following the sound, for the shrubbery hid the
fugitive from view, he passed the last wall of the casa; but it soon
became evident that the unknown had the better horse. The hoof-beats
grew fainter and fainter, and at times appeared even to cease, until
his own approach started them again, eventually to fade away in the
distance. In vain Clarence dug his heels into the flanks of his heavier
steed, and regretted his own mustang; and when at last he reached the
edge of the thicket he had lost both sight and sound of the fugitive.
The descent to the lower terrace lay before him empty and desolate. The
man had escaped!

He turned slowly back with baffled anger and vindictiveness. However,
he had prevented something, although he knew not what. The principal had
got away, but he had identified his confederate, and for the first time
held a clue to his mysterious visitant. There was no use to alarm the
household, which did not seem to have been disturbed. The trespassers
were far away by this time, and the attempt would hardly be repeated
that night. He made his way quietly back to the corral, let loose his
horse, and regained the casa unobserved. He unlocked the arched door in
the wall, reentered the darkened passage, stopped a moment to open
the door of the boudoir, glance at the closely fastened casement, and
extinguish the still burning candle, and, relocking the door securely,
made his way to his own room.

But he could not sleep. The whole incident, over so quickly, had
nevertheless impressed him deeply, and yet like a dream. The strange
yell of the vacquero still rang in his ears, but with an unearthly and
superstitious significance that was even more dreamlike in its meaning.
He awakened from a fitful slumber to find the light of morning in the
room, and Incarnacion standing by his bedside.

The yellow face of the steward was greenish with terror, and his lips
were dry.

“Get up, Senor Clarencio; get up at once, my master. Strange things have
happened. Mother of God protect us!”

Clarence rolled to his feet, with the events of the past night
struggling back upon his consciousness.

“What mean you, Nascio?” he said, grasping the man’s arm, which
was still mechanically making the sign of the cross, as he muttered
incoherently. “Speak, I command you!”

“It is Jose, the little vacquero, who is even now at the padre’s house,
raving as a lunatic, stricken as a madman with terror! He has seen
him,--the dead alive! Save us!”

“Are you mad yourself, Nascio?” said Clarence. “Whom has he seen?”

“Whom? God help us! the old padron--Senor Peyton himself! He rushed
towards him here, in the patio, last night--out of the air, the sky, the
ground, he knew not,--his own self, wrapped in his old storm cloak and
hat, and riding his own horse,--erect, terrible, and menacing, with an
awful hand upholding a rope--so! He saw him with these eyes, as I see
you. What HE said to him, God knows! The priest, perhaps, for he has
made confession!”

In a flash of intelligence Clarence comprehended all. He rose grimly and
began to dress himself.

“Not a word of this to the women,--to any one, Nascio, dost thou
understand?” he said curtly. “It may be that Jose has been partaking too
freely of aguardiente,--it is possible. I will see the priest myself.
But what possesses thee? Collect thyself, good Nascio.”

But the man was still trembling.

“It is not all,--Mother of God! it is not all, master!” he stammered,
dropping to his knees and still crossing himself. “This morning, beside
the corral, they find the horse of Pedro Valdez splashed and spattered
on saddle and bridle, and in the stirrup,--dost thou hear? the
STIRRUP,--hanging, the torn-off boot of Valdez! Ah, God! The same as
HIS! Now do you understand? It is HIS vengeance. No! Jesu forgive me! it
is the vengeance of God!”

Clarence was staggered.

“And you have not found Valdez? You have looked for him?” he said,
hurriedly throwing on his clothes.

“Everywhere,--all over the plain. The whole rancho has been out since
sunrise,--here and there and everywhere. And there is nothing! Of course
not. What would you?” He pointed solemnly to the ground.

“Nonsense!” said Clarence, buttoning his coat and seizing his hat.
“Follow me.”

He ran down the passage, followed by Incarnacion, through the excited,
gesticulating crowd of servants in the patio, and out of the back gate.
He turned first along the wall of the casa towards the barred window of
the boudoir. Then a cry came from Incarnacion.

They ran quickly forward. Hanging from the grating of the window, like
a mass of limp and saturated clothes, was the body of Pedro Valdez, with
one unbooted foot dangling within an inch of the ground. His head was
passed inside the grating and fixed as at that moment when the first
spring of the frightened horse had broken his neck between the bars as
in a garrote, and the second plunge of the terrified animal had carried
off his boot in the caught stirrup when it escaped.



CHAPTER XI.


The winter rains were over and gone, and the whole long line of
Californian coast was dashed with color. There were miles of yellow and
red poppies, leagues of lupines that painted the gently rounded hills
with soft primary hues, and long continuous slopes, like low mountain
systems, of daisies and dandelions. At Sacramento it was already summer;
the yellow river was flashing and intolerable; the tule and marsh
grasses were lush and long; the bloom of cottonwood and sycamore
whitened the outskirts of the city, and as Cyrus Hopkins and his
daughter Phoebe looked from the veranda of the Placer Hotel, accustomed
as they were to the cool trade winds of the coast valleys, they felt
homesick from the memory of eastern heats.

Later, when they were surveying the long dinner tables at the table
d’hote with something of the uncomfortable and shamefaced loneliness of
the provincial, Phoebe uttered a slight cry and clutched her father’s
arm. Mr. Hopkins stayed the play of his squared elbows and glanced
inquiringly at his daughter’s face. There was a pretty animation in it,
as she pointed to a figure that had just entered. It was that of a young
man attired in the extravagance rather than the taste of the prevailing
fashion, which did not, however, in the least conceal a decided
rusticity of limb and movement. A long mustache, which looked unkempt,
even in its pomatumed stiffness, and lank, dark hair that had bent but
never curled under the barber’s iron, made him notable even in that
heterogeneous assembly.

“That’s he,” whispered Phoebe.

“Who?” said her father.

Alas for the inconsistencies of love! The blush came with the name and
not the vision.

“Mr. Hooker,” she stammered.

It was, indeed, Jim Hooker. But the role of his exaggeration was no
longer the same; the remorseful gloom in which he had been habitually
steeped had changed into a fatigued, yet haughty, fastidiousness more
in keeping with his fashionable garments. He was more peaceful, yet not
entirely placable, and, as he sat down at a side table and pulled down
his striped cuffs with his clasped fingers, he cast a glance of critical
disapproval on the general company. Nevertheless, he seemed to be
furtively watchful of his effect upon them, and as one or two whispered
and looked towards him, his consciousness became darkly manifest.

All of which might have intimidated the gentle Phoebe, but did not
discompose her father. He rose, and crossing over to Hooker’s table,
clapped him heartily on the back.

“How do, Hooker? I didn’t recognize you in them fine clothes, but Phoebe
guessed as how it was you.”

Flushed, disconcerted, irritated, but always in wholesome awe of Mr.
Hopkins, Jim returned his greeting awkwardly and half hysterically. How
he would have received the more timid Phoebe is another question. But
Mr. Hopkins, without apparently noticing these symptoms, went on:--

“We’re only just down, Phoebe and me, and as I guess we’ll want to talk
over old times, we’ll come alongside o’ you. Hold on, and I’ll fetch
her.”

The interval gave the unhappy Jim a chance to recover himself, to regain
his vanished cuffs, display his heavy watch-chain, curl his mustache,
and otherwise reassume his air of blase fastidiousness. But the transfer
made, Phoebe, after shaking hands, became speechless under these
perfections. Not so her father.

“If there’s anything in looks, you seem to be prospering,” he said
grimly; “unless you’re in the tailorin’ line, and you’re only showin’
off stock. What mout ye be doing?”

“Ye ain’t bin long in Sacramento, I reckon?” suggested Jim, with
patronizing pity.

“No, we only came this morning,” returned Hopkins.

“And you ain’t bin to the theatre?” continued Jim.

“No.”

“Nor moved much in--in--gin’ral fash’nable sassiety?”

“Not yet,” interposed Phoebe, with an air of faint apology.

“Nor seen any of them large posters on the fences, of ‘The Prairie
Flower; or, Red-handed Dick,’--three-act play with five tableaux,--just
the biggest sensation out,--runnin’ for forty nights,--money turned
away every night,--standin’ room only?” continued Jim, with prolonged
toleration.

“No.”

“Well, I play Red-handed Dick. I thought you might have seen it and
recognized me. All those people over there,” darkly indicating the long
table, “know me. A fellow can’t stand it, you know, being stared at by
such a vulgar, low-bred lot. It’s gettin’ too fresh here. I’ll have to
give the landlord notice and cut the whole hotel. They don’t seem to
have ever seen a gentleman and a professional before.”

“Then you’re a play-actor now?” said the farmer, in a tone which did
not, however, exhibit the exact degree of admiration which shone in
Phoebe’s eyes.

“For the present,” said Jim, with lofty indifference. “You see I was
in--in partnership with McClosky, the manager, and I didn’t like the
style of the chump that was doin’ Red-handed Dick, so I offered to take
his place one night to show him how. And by Jinks! the audience, after
that night, wouldn’t let anybody else play it,--wouldn’t stand even the
biggest, highest-priced stars in it! I reckon,” he added gloomily, “I’ll
have to run the darned thing in all the big towns in Californy,--if I
don’t have to go East with it after all, just for the business. But it’s
an awful grind on a man,--leaves him no time, along of the invitations
he gets, and what with being run after in the streets and stared at in
the hotels he don’t get no privacy. There’s men, and women, too, over
at that table, that just lie in wait for me here till I come, and don’t
lift their eyes off me. I wonder they don’t bring their opery-glasses
with them.”

Concerned, sympathizing, and indignant, poor Phoebe turned her brown
head and honest eyes in that direction. But because they were honest,
they could not help observing that the other table did not seem to be
paying the slightest attention to the distinguished impersonator of
Red-handed Dick. Perhaps he had been overheard.

“Then that was the reason ye didn’t come back to your location. I always
guessed it was because you’d got wind of the smash-up down there, afore
we did,” said Hopkins grimly.

“What smash-up?” asked Jim, with slightly resentful quickness.

“Why, the smash-up of the Sisters’ title,--didn’t you hear that?”

There was a slight movement of relief and a return of gloomy hauteur in
Jim’s manner.

“No, we don’t know much of what goes on in the cow counties, up here.”

“Ye mout, considerin’ it concerns some o’ your friends,” returned
Hopkins dryly. “For the Sisters’ title went smash as soon as it was
known that Pedro Valdez--the man as started it--had his neck broken
outside the walls o’ Robles Rancho; and they do say as this yer Brant,
YOUR friend, had suthin’ to do with the breaking of it, though it was
laid to the ghost of old Peyton. Anyhow, there was such a big skeer
that one of the Greaser gang, who thought he’d seen the ghost, being a
Papist, to save his everlasting soul went to the priest and confessed.
But the priest wouldn’t give him absolution until he’d blown the
hull thing, and made it public. And then it turned out that all the
dockyments for the title, and even the custom-house paper, were FORGED
by Pedro Valdez, and put on the market by his confederates. And that’s
just where YOUR friend, Clarence Brant, comes in, for HE had bought up
the whole title from them fellers. Now, either, as some say, he was in
the fraud from the beginnin’, and never paid anything, or else he was an
all-fired fool, and had parted with his money like one. Some allow
that the reason was that he was awfully sweet on Mrs. Peyton’s adopted
daughter, and ez the parents didn’t approve of him, he did THIS so as
to get a holt over them by the property. But he’s a ruined man, anyway,
now; for they say he’s such a darned fool that he’s goin’ to pay for all
the improvements that the folks who bought under him put into the land,
and that’ll take his last cent. I thought I’d tell you that, for I
suppose YOU’VE lost a heap in your improvements, and will put in your
claim?”

“I reckon I put nearly as much into it as Clar Brant did,” said Jim
gloomily, “but I ain’t goin’ to take a cent from him, or go back on him
now.”

The rascal could not resist this last mendacious opportunity, although
he was perfectly sincere in his renunciation, touched in his sympathy,
and there was even a film of moisture in his shifting eyes.

Phoebe was thrilled with the generosity of this noble being, who could
be unselfish even in his superior condition. She added softly:--

“And they say that the girl did not care for him at all, but was
actually going to run off with Pedro, when he stopped her and sent for
Mrs. Peyton.”

To her surprise, Jim’s face flushed violently.

“It’s all a dod-blasted lie,” he said, in a thick stage whisper. “It’s
only the hogwash them Greasers and Pike County galoots ladle out to
each other around the stove in a county grocery. But,” recalling himself
loftily, and with a tolerant wave of his be-diamonded hand, “wot kin
you expect from one of them cow counties? They ain’t satisfied till they
drive every gentleman out of the darned gopher-holes they call their
‘kentry.’”

In her admiration of what she believed to be a loyal outburst for his
friend, Phoebe overlooked the implied sneer at her provincial home. But
her father went on with a perfunctory, exasperating, dusty aridity:--

“That mebbee ez mebbee, Mr. Hooker, but the story down in our precinct
goes that she gave Mrs. Peyton the slip,--chucked up her situation as
adopted darter, and went off with a queer sort of a cirkiss woman,--one
of her own KIN, and I reckon one of her own KIND.”

To this Mr. Hooker offered no further reply than a withering rebuke of
the waiter, a genteel abstraction, and a lofty change of subject. He
pressed upon them two tickets for the performance, of which he seemed to
have a number neatly clasped in an india-rubber band, and advised
them to come early. They would see him after the performance and sup
together. He must leave them now, as he had to be punctually at the
theatre, and if he lingered he should be pestered by interviewers. He
withdrew under a dazzling display of cuff and white handkerchief,
and with that inward swing of the arm and slight bowiness of the leg
generally recognized in his profession as the lounging exit of high
comedy.

The mingling of awe and an uneasy sense of changed relations which that
meeting with Jim had brought to Phoebe was not lessened when she entered
the theatre with her father that evening, and even Mr. Hopkins seemed to
share her feelings. The theatre was large, and brilliant in decoration,
the seats were well filled with the same heterogeneous mingling she had
seen in the dining-room at the Placer Hotel, but in the parquet were
some fashionable costumes and cultivated faces. Mr. Hopkins was not
altogether so sure that Jim had been “only gassing.” But the gorgeous
drop curtain, representing an allegory of Californian prosperity and
abundance, presently uprolled upon a scene of Western life almost as
striking in its glaring unreality. From a rose-clad English cottage in
a subtropical landscape skipped “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower.” The
briefest of skirts, the most unsullied of stockings, the tiniest of
slippers, and the few diamonds that glittered on her fair neck and
fingers, revealed at once the simple and unpretending daughter of the
American backwoodsman. A tumult of delighted greeting broke from the
audience. The bright color came to the pink, girlish cheeks, gratified
vanity danced in her violet eyes, and as she piquantly bowed her
acknowledgments, this great breath of praise seemed to transfigure and
possess her. A very young actor who represented the giddy world in
a straw hat and with an effeminate manner was alternately petted and
girded at by her during the opening exposition of the plot, until the
statement that a “dark destiny” obliged her to follow her uncle in an
emigrant train across the plains closed the act, apparently extinguished
him, and left HER the central figure. So far, she evidently was the
favorite. A singular aversion to her crept into the heart of Phoebe.

But the second act brought an Indian attack upon the emigrant train, and
here “Rosalie” displayed the archest heroism and the pinkest and most
distracting self-possession, in marked contrast to the giddy worldling
who, having accompanied her apparently for comic purposes best known to
himself, cowered abjectly under wagons, and was pulled ignominiously out
of straw, until Red Dick swept out of the wings with a chosen band and
a burst of revolvers and turned the tide of victory. Attired as a
picturesque combination of the Neapolitan smuggler, river-bar miner,
and Mexican vacquero, Jim Hooker instantly began to justify the plaudits
that greeted him and the most sanguinary hopes of the audience. A gloomy
but fascinating cloud of gunpowder and dark intrigue from that moment
hung about the stage.

Yet in this sombre obscuration Rosalie had passed a happy six months,
coming out with her character and stockings equally unchanged and
unblemished, to be rewarded with the hand of Red Dick and the discovery
of her father, the governor of New Mexico, as a white-haired, but
objectionable vacquero, at the fall of the curtain.

Through this exciting performance Phoebe sat with a vague and increasing
sense of loneliness and distrust. She did not know that Hooker had added
to his ordinary inventive exaggeration the form of dramatic composition.
But she had early detected the singular fact that such shadowy outlines
of plot as the piece possessed were evidently based on his previous
narrative of his OWN experiences, and the saving of Susy Peyton--by
himself! There was the episode of their being lost on the plains, as
he had already related it to her, with the addition of a few years to
Susy’s age and some vivid picturesqueness to himself as Red Dick. She
was not, of course, aware that the part of the giddy worldling was
Jim’s own conception of the character of Clarence. But what, even to
her provincial taste, seemed the extravagance of the piece, she felt, in
some way, reflected upon the truthfulness of the story she had heard. It
seemed to be a parody on himself, and in the laughter which some of the
most thrilling points produced in certain of the audience, she heard
an echo of her own doubts. But even this she could have borne if Jim’s
confidence had not been given to the general public; it was no longer
HERS alone, she shared it with them. And this strange, bold girl, who
acted with him,--the “Blanche Belville” of the bills,--how often he must
have told HER the story, and yet how badly she had learned it! It was
not her own idea of it, nor of HIM. In the last extravagant scene she
turned her weary and half-shamed eyes from the stage and looked around
the theatre. Among a group of loungers by the wall a face that
seemed familiar was turned towards her own with a look of kindly and
sympathetic recognition. It was the face of Clarence Brant. When the
curtain fell, and she and her father rose to go, he was at their side.
He seemed older and more superior looking than she had ever thought him
before, and there was a gentle yet sad wisdom in his eyes and voice that
comforted her even while it made her feel like crying.

“You are satisfied that no harm has come to our friend,” he said
pleasantly. “Of course you recognized him?”

“Oh, yes; we met him to-day,” said Phoebe. Her provincial pride impelled
her to keep up a show of security and indifference. “We are going to
supper with him.”

Clarence slightly lifted his brows.

“You are more fortunate than I am,” he said smilingly. “I only arrived
here at seven, and I must leave at midnight.”

Phoebe hesitated a moment, then said with affected carelessness:--

“What do you think of the young girl who plays with him? Do you know
her? Who is she?”

He looked at her quickly, and then said, with some surprise:--

“Did he not tell you?”

“She WAS the adopted daughter of Mrs. Peyton,--Miss Susan Silsbee,” he
said gravely.

“Then she DID run away from home as they said,” said Phoebe impulsively.

“Not EXACTLY as they said,” said Clarence gently. “She elected to make
her home with her aunt, Mrs. McClosky, who is the wife of the manager
of this theatre, and she adopted the profession a month ago. As it
now appears that there was some informality in the old articles of
guardianship, Mrs. Peyton would have been powerless to prevent her from
doing either, even if she had wished to.”

The infelicity of questioning Clarence regarding Susy suddenly flashed
upon the forgetful Phoebe, and she colored. Yet, although sad, he did
not look like a rejected lover.

“Of course, if she is here with her own relatives, that makes all the
difference,” she said gently. “It is protection.”

“Certainly,” said Clarence.

“And,” continued Phoebe hesitatingly, “she is playing with--with--an old
friend--Mr. Hooker!”

“That is quite proper, too, considering their relations,” said Clarence
tolerantly.

“I--don’t--understand,” stammered Phoebe.

The slightly cynical smile on Clarence’s face changed as he looked into
Phoebe’s eyes.

“I’ve just heard that they are married,” he returned gently.



CHAPTER XII.


Nowhere had the long season of flowers brought such glory as to the
broad plains and slopes of Robles Rancho. By some fortuitous chance of
soil, or flood, or drifting pollen, the three terraces had each taken a
distinct and separate blossom and tint of color. The straggling line of
corral, the crumbling wall of the old garden, the outlying chapel, and
even the brown walls of the casa itself, were half sunken in the tall
racemes of crowding lupines, until from the distance they seemed to be
slowly settling in the profundity of a dark-blue sea. The second terrace
was a league-long flow of gray and gold daisies, in which the cattle
dazedly wandered mid-leg deep. A perpetual sunshine of yellow dandelions
lay upon the third. The gentle slope to the dark-green canada was a
broad cataract of crimson poppies. Everywhere where water had stood,
great patches of color had taken its place. It seemed as if the rains
had ceased only that the broken heavens might drop flowers.

Never before had its beauty--a beauty that seemed built upon a cruel,
youthful, obliterating forgetfulness of the past--struck Clarence as
keenly as when he had made up his mind that he must leave the place
forever. For the tale of his mischance and ill-fortune, as told by
Hopkins, was unfortunately true. When he discovered that in his desire
to save Peyton’s house by the purchase of the Sisters’ title he himself
had been the victim of a gigantic fraud, he accepted the loss of the
greater part of his fortune with resignation, and was even satisfied by
the thought that he had at least effected the possession of the property
for Mrs. Peyton. But when he found that those of his tenants who had
bought under him had acquired only a dubious possession of their
lands and no title, he had unhesitatingly reimbursed them for their
improvements with the last of his capital. Only the lawless Gilroy had
good-humoredly declined. The quiet acceptance of the others did
not, unfortunately, preclude their settled belief that Clarence had
participated in the fraud, and that even now his restitution was making
a dangerous precedent, subversive of the best interests of the State,
and discouraging to immigration. Some doubted his sanity. Only one,
struck with the sincerity of his motive, hesitated to take his money,
with a look of commiseration on his face.

“Are you not satisfied?” asked Clarence, smiling.

“Yes, but”--

“But what?”

“Nothin’. Only I was thinkin’ that a man like you must feel awful
lonesome in Calforny!”

Lonely he was, indeed; but his loneliness was not the loss of fortune
nor what it might bring. Perhaps he had never fully realized his wealth;
it had been an accident rather than a custom of his life, and when it
had failed in the only test he had made of its power, it is to be feared
that he only sentimentally regretted it. It was too early yet for him
to comprehend the veiled blessings of the catastrophe in its merciful
disruption of habits and ways of life; his loneliness was still the
hopeless solitude left by vanished ideals and overthrown idols. He was
satisfied that he had never cared for Susy, but he still cared for the
belief that he had.

After the discovery of Pedro’s body that fatal morning, a brief but
emphatic interview between himself and Mrs. McClosky had followed. He
had insisted upon her immediately accompanying Susy and himself to
Mrs. Peyton in San Francisco. Horror-stricken and terrified at the
catastrophe, and frightened by the strange looks of the excited
servants, they did not dare to disobey him. He had left them with Mrs.
Peyton in the briefest preliminary interview, during which he spoke only
of the catastrophe, shielding the woman from the presumption of having
provoked it, and urging only the importance of settling the question
of guardianship at once. It was odd that Mrs. Peyton had been less
disturbed than he imagined she would be at even his charitable version
of Susy’s unfaithfulness to her; it even seemed to him that she had
already suspected it. But as he was about to withdraw to leave her to
meet them alone, she had stopped him suddenly.

“What would you advise me to do?”

It was his first interview with her since the revelation of his own
feelings. He looked into the pleading, troubled eyes of the woman he now
knew he had loved, and stammered:--

“You alone can judge. Only you must remember that one cannot force an
affection any more than one can prevent it.”

He felt himself blushing, and, conscious of the construction of his
words, he even fancied that she was displeased.

“Then you have no preference?” she said, a little impatiently.

“None.”

She made a slight gesture with her handsome shoulders, but she only
said, “I should have liked to have pleased you in this,” and turned
coldly away. He had left without knowing the result of the interview;
but a few days later he received a letter from her stating that she had
allowed Susy to return to her aunt, and that she had resigned all claims
to her guardianship.

“It seemed to be a foregone conclusion,” she wrote; “and although I
cannot think such a change will be for her permanent welfare, it is her
present WISH, and who knows, indeed, if the change will be permanent?
I have not allowed the legal question to interfere with my judgment,
although her friends must know that she forfeits any claim upon the
estate by her action; but at the same time, in the event of her suitable
marriage, I should try to carry out what I believe would have been Mr.
Peyton’s wishes.”

There were a few lines of postscript: “It seems to me that the change
would leave you more free to consult your own wishes in regard to
continuing your friendship with Susy, and upon such a footing as may
please you. I judge from Mrs. McClosky’s conversation that she believed
you thought you were only doing your duty in reporting to me, and that
the circumstances had not altered the good terms in which you all three
formerly stood.”

Clarence had dropped the letter with a burning indignation that seemed
to sting his eyes until a scalding moisture hid the words before him.
What might not Susy have said? What exaggeration of his affection was
she not capable of suggesting? He recalled Mrs. McClosky, and remembered
her easy acceptance of him as Susy’s lover. What had they told Mrs.
Peyton? What must be her opinion of his deceit towards herself? It was
hard enough to bear this before he knew he loved her. It was intolerable
now! And this is what she meant when she suggested that he should
renew his old terms with Susy; it was for HIM that this ill-disguised,
scornful generosity in regard to Susy’s pecuniary expectations was
intended. What should he do? He would write to her, and indignantly deny
any clandestine affection for Susy. But could he do that, in honor,
in truthfulness? Would it not be better to write and confess all?
Yes,--EVERYTHING.

Fortunately for his still boyish impulsiveness, it was at this time that
the discovery of his own financial ruin came to him. The inquest on the
body of Pedro Valdez and the confession of his confidant had revealed
the facts of the fraudulent title and forged testamentary documents.
Although it was correctly believed that Pedro had met his death in an
escapade of gallantry or intrigue, the coroner’s jury had returned a
verdict of “accidental death,” and the lesser scandal was lost in the
wider, far-spreading disclosure of fraud. When he had resolved to assume
all the liabilities of his purchase, he was obliged to write to Mrs.
Peyton and confess his ruin. But he was glad to remind her that it did
not alter HER status or security; he had only given her the possession,
and she would revert to her original and now uncontested title. But as
there was now no reason for his continuing the stewardship, and as he
must adopt some profession and seek his fortune elsewhere, he begged her
to relieve him of his duty. Albeit written with a throbbing heart and
suffused eyes, it was a plain, business-like, and practical letter. Her
reply was equally cool and matter of fact. She was sorry to hear of his
losses, although she could not agree with him that they could logically
sever his present connection with the rancho, or that, placed upon
another and distinctly business footing, the occupation would not be as
remunerative to him as any other. But, of course, if he had a preference
for some more independent position, that was another question, although
he would forgive her for using the privilege of her years to remind
him that his financial and business success had not yet justified his
independence. She would also advise him not to decide hastily, or, at
least, to wait until she had again thoroughly gone over her husband’s
papers with her lawyer, in reference to the old purchase of the Sisters’
title, and the conditions under which it was bought. She knew that Mr.
Brant would not refuse this as a matter of business, nor would that
friendship, which she valued so highly, allow him to imperil the
possession of the rancho by leaving it at such a moment. As soon as she
had finished the examination of the papers, she would write again. Her
letter seemed to leave him no hope, if, indeed, he had ever indulged
in any. It was the practical kindliness of a woman of business, nothing
more. As to the examination of her husband’s papers, that was a
natural precaution. He alone knew that they would give no record of
a transaction which had never occurred. He briefly replied that his
intention to seek another situation was unchanged, but that he would
cheerfully await the arrival of his successor. Two weeks passed. Then
Mr. Sanderson, Mrs. Peyton’s lawyer, arrived, bringing an apologetic
note from Mrs. Peyton. She was so sorry her business was still delayed,
but as she had felt that she had no right to detain him entirely at
Robles, she had sent to Mr. Sanderson to TEMPORARILY relieve him, that
he might be free to look around him or visit San Francisco in reference
to his own business, only extracting a promise from him that he would
return to Robles to meet her at the end of the week, before settling
upon anything.

The bitter smile with which Clarence had read thus far suddenly changed.
Some mysterious touch of unbusiness-like but womanly hesitation, that
he had never noticed in her previous letters, gave him a faint sense of
pleasure, as if her note had been perfumed. He had availed himself of
the offer. It was on this visit to Sacramento that he had accidentally
discovered the marriage of Susy and Hooker.

“It’s a great deal better business for her to have a husband in the
‘profesh’ if she’s agoin’ to stick to it,” said his informant, Mrs.
McClosky, “and she’s nothing if she ain’t business and profesh, Mr.
Brant. I never see a girl that was born for the stage--yes, you might
say jess cut out o’ the boards of the stage--as that girl Susy is! And
that’s jest what’s the matter; and YOU know it, and I know it, and there
you are!”

It was with these experiences that Clarence was to-day reentering the
wooded and rocky gateway of the rancho from the high road of the canada;
but as he cantered up the first slope, through the drift of scarlet
poppies that almost obliterated the track, and the blue and yellow
blooms of the terraces again broke upon his view, he thought only of
Mrs. Peyton’s pleasure in this changed aspect of her old home. She had
told him of it once before, and of her delight in it; and he had once
thought how happy he should be to see it with her.

The servant who took his horse told him that the senora had arrived that
morning from Santa Inez, bringing with her the two Senoritas Hernandez
from the rancho of Los Canejos, and that other guests were expected. And
there was the Senor Sanderson and his Reverence Padre Esteban. Truly an
affair of hospitality, the first since the padron died. Whatever dream
Clarence might have had of opportunities for confidential interview was
rudely dispelled. Yet Mrs. Peyton had left orders to be informed at once
of Don Clarencio’s arrival.

As he crossed the patio and stepped upon the corridor he fancied he
already detected in the internal arrangements the subtle influence of
Mrs. Peyton’s taste and the indefinable domination of the mistress. For
an instant he thought of anticipating the servant and seeking her in the
boudoir, but some instinct withheld him, and he turned into the study
which he had used as an office. It was empty; a few embers glimmered on
the hearth. At the same moment there was a light step behind him,
and Mrs. Peyton entered and closed the door behind her. She was
very beautiful. Although paler and thinner, there was an odd sort of
animation about her, so unlike her usual repose that it seemed almost
feverish.

“I thought we could talk together a few moments before the guests
arrive. The house will be presently so full, and my duties as hostess
commence.”

“I was--about to seek you--in--in the boudoir,” hesitated Clarence.

She gave an impatient shiver.

“Good heavens, not there! I shall never go there again. I should fancy
every time I looked out of the window that I saw the head of that man
between the bars. No! I am only thankful that I wasn’t here at the time,
and that I can keep my remembrance of the dear old place unchanged.” She
checked herself a little abruptly, and then added somewhat irrelevantly
but cheerfully, “Well, you have been away? What have you done?”

“Nothing,” said Clarence.

“Then you have kept your promise,” she said, with the same nervous
hilarity.

“I have returned here without making any other engagement,” he said
gravely; “but I have not altered my determination.”

She shrugged her shoulders again, or, as it seemed, the skin of her
tightly fitting black dress above them, with the sensitive shiver of a
highly groomed horse, and moved to the hearth as if for warmth; put her
slim, slippered foot upon the low fender, drawing, with a quick hand,
the whole width of her skirt behind her until it clingingly accented the
long, graceful curve from her hip to her feet. All this was so unlike
her usual fastidiousness and repose that he was struck by it. With her
eyes on the glowing embers of the hearth, and tentatively advancing her
toe to its warmth and drawing it away, she said:--

“Of course, you must please yourself. I am afraid I have no right except
that of habit and custom to keep you here; and you know,” she added,
with an only half-withheld bitterness, “that they are not always very
effective with young people who prefer to have the ordering of their own
lives. But I have something still to tell you before you finally decide.
I have, as you know, been looking over my--over Mr. Peyton’s papers very
carefully. Well, as a result, I find, Mr. Brant, that there is no record
whatever of his wonderfully providential purchase of the Sisters’ title
from you; that he never entered into any written agreement with you, and
never paid you a cent; and that, furthermore, his papers show me that
he never even contemplated it; nor, indeed, even knew of YOUR owning
the title when he died. Yes, Mr. Brant, it was all to YOUR foresight and
prudence, and YOUR generosity alone, that we owe our present possession
of the rancho. When you helped us into that awful window, it was YOUR
house we were entering; and if it had been YOU, and not those wretches,
who had chosen to shut the doors on us after the funeral, we could never
have entered here again. Don’t deny it, Mr. Brant. I have suspected it a
long time, and when you spoke of changing YOUR position, I determined to
find out if it wasn’t I who had to leave the house rather than you. One
moment, please. And I did find out, and it WAS I. Don’t speak, please,
yet. And now,” she said, with a quick return to her previous nervous
hilarity, “knowing this, as you did, and knowing, too, that I would know
it when I examined the papers,--don’t speak, I’m not through yet,--don’t
you think that it was just a LITTLE cruel for you to try to hurry me,
and make me come here instead of your coming to ME in San Francisco,
when I gave you leave for that purpose?”

“But, Mrs. Peyton,” gasped Clarence.

“Please don’t interrupt me,” said the lady, with a touch of her old
imperiousness, “for in a moment I must join my guests. When I found you
wouldn’t tell me, and left it to me to find out, I could only go away
as I did, and really leave you to control what I believed was your own
property. And I thought, too, that I understood your motives, and, to be
frank with you, that worried me; for I believed I knew the disposition
and feelings of a certain person better than yourself.”

“One moment,” broke out Clarence, “you MUST hear me, now. Foolish and
misguided as that purchase may have been, I swear to you I had only one
motive in making it,--to save the homestead for you and your husband,
who had been my first and earliest benefactors. What the result of it
was, you, as a business woman, know; your friends know; your lawyer will
tell you the same. You owe me nothing. I have given you nothing but the
repossession of this property, which any other man could have done, and
perhaps less stupidly than I did. I would not have forced you to come
here to hear this if I had dreamed of your suspicions, or even if I had
simply understood that you would see me in San Francisco as I passed
through.”

“Passed through? Where were you going?” she said quickly.

“To Sacramento.”

The abrupt change in her manner startled him to a recollection of Susy,
and he blushed. She bit her lips, and moved towards the window.

“Then you saw her?” she said, turning suddenly towards him. The inquiry
of her beautiful eyes was more imperative than her speech.

Clarence recognized quickly what he thought was his cruel blunder in
touching the half-healed wound of separation. But he had gone too far to
be other than perfectly truthful now.

“Yes; I saw her on the stage,” he said, with a return of his boyish
earnestness; “and I learned something which I wanted you to first
hear from me. She is MARRIED,--and to Mr. Hooker, who is in the same
theatrical company with her. But I want you to think, as I honestly do,
that it is the best for her. She has married in her profession, which is
a great protection and a help to her success, and she has married a man
who can look lightly upon certain qualities in her that others might
not be so lenient to. His worst faults are on the surface, and will wear
away in contact with the world, and he looks up to her as his superior.
I gathered this from her friend, for I did not speak with her myself; I
did not go there to see her. But as I expected to be leaving you soon,
I thought it only right that as I was the humble means of first bringing
her into your life, I should bring you this last news, which I suppose
takes her out of it forever. Only I want you to believe that YOU have
nothing to regret, and that SHE is neither lost nor unhappy.”

The expression of suspicious inquiry on her face when he began changed
gradually to perplexity as he continued, and then relaxed into a faint,
peculiar smile. But there was not the slightest trace of that pain,
wounded pride, indignation, or anger, that he had expected to see upon
it.

“That means, I suppose, Mr. Brant, that YOU no longer care for her?”

The smile had passed, yet she spoke now with a half-real, half-affected
archness that was also unlike her.

“It means,” said Clarence with a white face, but a steady voice, “that
I care for her now as much as I ever cared for her, no matter to what
folly it once might have led me. But it means, also, that there was no
time when I was not able to tell it to YOU as frankly as I do now”--

“One moment, please,” she interrupted, and turned quickly towards
the door. She opened it and looked out. “I thought they were calling
me,--and--I--I--MUST go now, Mr. Brant. And without finishing my
business either, or saying half I had intended to say. But wait”--she
put her hand to her head in a pretty perplexity, “it’s a moonlight
night, and I’ll propose after dinner a stroll in the gardens, and you
can manage to walk a little with me.” She stopped again, returned, said,
“It was very kind of you to think of me at Sacramento,” held out her
hand, allowed it to remain for an instant, cool but acquiescent, in his
warmer grasp, and with the same odd youthfulness of movement and gesture
slipped out of the door.

An hour later she was at the head of her dinner table, serene,
beautiful, and calm, in her elegant mourning, provokingly inaccessible
in the sweet deliberation of her widowed years; Padre Esteban was at
her side with a local magnate, who had known Peyton and his wife, while
Donna Rosita and a pair of liquid-tongued, childlike senoritas were near
Clarence and Sanderson. To the priest Mrs. Peyton spoke admiringly of
the changes in the rancho and the restoration of the Mission Chapel, and
together they had commended Clarence from the level of their superior
passionless reserve and years. Clarence felt hopelessly young and
hopelessly lonely; the naive prattle of the young girls beside him
appeared infantine. In his abstraction, he heard Mrs. Peyton allude to
the beauty of the night, and propose that after coffee and chocolate
the ladies should put on their wraps and go with her to the old garden.
Clarence raised his eyes; she was not looking at him, but there was
a slight consciousness in her face that was not there before, and
the faintest color in her cheek, still lingering, no doubt, from the
excitement of conversation.

It was a cool, tranquil, dewless night when they at last straggled out,
mere black and white patches in the colorless moonlight. The brilliancy
of the flower-hued landscape was subdued under its passive, pale
austerity; even the gray and gold of the second terrace seemed dulled
and confused. At any other time Clarence might have lingered over this
strange effect, but his eyes followed only a tall figure, in a long
striped burnous, that moved gracefully beside the soutaned priest. As he
approached, it turned towards him.

“Ah! here you are. I just told Father Esteban that you talked of leaving
to-morrow, and that he would have to excuse me a few moments while you
showed me what you had done to the old garden.”

She moved beside him, and, with a hesitation that was not unlike a more
youthful timidity, slipped her hand through his arm. It was for the
first time, and, without thinking, he pressed it impulsively to his
side. I have already intimated that Clarence’s reserve was at times
qualified by singular directness.

A few steps carried them out of hearing; a few more, and they seemed
alone in the world. The long adobe wall glanced away emptily beside
them, and was lost; the black shadows of the knotted pear-trees were
beneath their feet. They began to walk with the slight affectation of
treading the shadows as if they were patterns on a carpet. Clarence was
voiceless, and yet he seemed to be moving beside a spirit that must be
first addressed.

But it was flesh and blood nevertheless.

“I interrupted you in something you were saying when I left the office,”
 she said quietly.

“I was speaking of Susy,” returned Clarence eagerly; “and”--

“Then you needn’t go on,” interrupted Mrs. Peyton quickly. “I understand
you, and believe you. I would rather talk of something else. We have not
yet arranged how I can make restitution to you for the capital you sank
in saving this place. You will be reasonable, Mr. Brant, and not leave
me with the shame and pain of knowing that you ruined yourself for the
sake of your old friends. For it is no more a sentimental idea of mine
to feel in this way than it is a fair and sensible one for you to imply
that a mere quibble of construction absolves me from responsibility. Mr.
Sanderson himself admits that the repossession you gave us is a fair and
legal basis for any arrangement of sharing or division of the property
with you, that might enable you to remain here and continue the work you
have so well begun. Have you no suggestion, or must it come from ME, Mr.
Brant?”

“Neither. Let us not talk of that now.”

She did not seem to notice the boyish doggedness of his speech, except
so far as it might have increased her inconsequent and nervously pitched
levity.

“Then suppose we speak of the Misses Hernandez, with whom you scarcely
exchanged a word at dinner, and whom I invited for you and your fluent
Spanish. They are charming girls, even if they are a little stupid.
But what can I do? If I am to live here, I must have a few young people
around me, if only to make the place cheerful for others. Do you know I
have taken a great fancy to Miss Rogers, and have asked her to visit me.
I think she is a good friend of yours, although perhaps she is a little
shy. What’s the matter? You have nothing against her, have you?”

Clarence had stopped short. They had reached the end of the pear-tree
shadows. A few steps more would bring them to the fallen south wall
of the garden and the open moonlight beyond, but to the right an olive
alley of deeper shadow diverged.

“No,” he said, with slow deliberation; “I have to thank Mary Rogers for
having discovered something in me that I have been blindly, foolishly,
and hopelessly struggling with.”

“And, pray, what was that?” said Mrs. Peyton sharply.

“That I love you!”

Mrs. Peyton was fairly startled. The embarrassment of any truth is
apt to be in its eternal abruptness, which no deviousness of tact or
circumlocution of diplomacy has ever yet surmounted. Whatever had been
in her heart, or mind, she was unprepared for this directness. The bolt
had dropped from the sky; they were alone; there was nothing between the
stars and the earth but herself and this man and this truth; it could
not be overlooked, surmounted, or escaped from. A step or two more would
take her out of the garden into the moonlight, but always into this
awful frankness of blunt and outspoken nature. She hesitated, and turned
the corner into the olive shadows. It was, perhaps, more dangerous;
but less shameless, and less like truckling. And the appallingly direct
Clarence instantly followed.

“I know you will despise me, hate me; and, perhaps, worst of all,
disbelieve me; but I swear to you, now, that I have always loved
you,--yes, ALWAYS! When first I came here, it was not to see my old
playmate, but YOU, for I had kept the memory of you as I first saw
you when a boy, and you have always been my ideal. I have thought of,
dreamed of, worshiped, and lived for no other woman. Even when I found
Susy again, grown up here at your side; even when I thought that I
might, with your consent, marry her, it was that I might be with YOU
always; that I might be a part of YOUR home, your family, and have a
place with her in YOUR heart; for it was you I loved, and YOU only.
Don’t laugh at me, Mrs. Peyton, it is the truth, the whole truth, I am
telling you. God help me!”

If she only COULD have laughed,--harshly, ironically, or even mercifully
and kindly! But it would not come. And she burst out:--

“I am not laughing. Good heavens, don’t you see? It is ME you are making
ridiculous.”

“YOU ridiculous?” he said in a momentarily choked, half-stupefied voice.
“You--a beautiful woman, my superior in everything, the mistress
of these lands where I am only steward--made ridiculous, not by my
presumption, but by my confession? Was the saint you just now admired in
Father Esteban’s chapel ridiculous because of the peon clowns who were
kneeling before it?”

“Hush! This is wicked! Stop!”

She felt she was now on firm ground, and made the most of it in voice
and manner. She must draw the line somewhere, and she would draw it
between passion and impiety.

“Not until I have told you all, and I MUST before I leave you. I loved
you when I came here,--even when your husband was alive. Don’t be angry,
Mrs. Peyton; HE would not, and need not, have been angry; he would have
pitied the foolish boy, who, in the very innocence and ignorance of his
passion, might have revealed it to him as he did to everybody but ONE.
And yet, I sometimes think you might have guessed it, had you thought of
me at all. It must have been on my lips that day I sat with you in the
boudoir. I know that I was filled with it; with it and with you; with
your presence, with your beauty, your grace of heart and mind,--yes,
Mrs. Peyton, even with your own unrequited love for Susy. Only, then, I
knew not what it was.”

“But I think I can tell you what it was then, and now,” said Mrs.
Peyton, recovering her nervous little laugh, though it died a moment
after on her lips. “I remember it very well. You told me then that
I REMINDED YOU OF YOUR MOTHER. Well, I am not old enough to be your
mother, Mr. Brant, but I am old enough to have been, and might have
been, the mother of your wife. That was what you meant then; that
is what you mean now. I was wrong to accuse you of trying to make me
ridiculous. I ask your pardon. Let us leave it as it was that day in the
boudoir, as it is NOW. Let me still remind you of your mother,--I know
she must have been a good woman to have had so good a son,--and when
you have found some sweet young girl to make you happy, come to me for
a mother’s blessing, and we will laugh at the recollection and
misunderstanding of this evening.”

Her voice did not, however, exhibit that exquisite maternal tenderness
which the beatific vision ought to have called up, and the persistent
voice of Clarence could not be evaded in the shadow.

“I said you reminded me of my mother,” he went on at her side, “because
I knew her and lost her only as a child. She never was anything to me
but a memory, and yet an ideal of all that was sweet and lovable in
woman. Perhaps it was a dream of what she might have been when she was
as young in years as you. If it pleases you still to misunderstand me,
it may please you also to know that there is a reminder of her even
in this. I have no remembrance of a word of affection from her, nor a
caress; I have been as hopeless in my love for her who was my mother, as
of the woman I would make my wife.”

“But you have seen no one, you know no one, you are young, you scarcely
know your own self! You will forget this, you will forget ME! And
if--if--I should--listen to you, what would the world say, what would
YOU yourself say a few years hence? Oh, be reasonable. Think of it,--it
would be so wild,--so mad! so--so--utterly ridiculous!”

In proof of its ludicrous quality, two tears escaped her eyes in
the darkness. But Clarence caught the white flash of her withdrawn
handkerchief in the shadow, and captured her returning hand. It was
trembling, but did not struggle, and presently hushed itself to rest in
his.

“I’m not only a fool but a brute,” he said in a lower voice. “Forgive
me. I have given you pain,--you, for whom I would have died.”

They had both stopped. He was still holding her sleeping hand. His arm
had stolen around the burnous so softly that it followed the curves
of her figure as lightly as a fold of the garment, and was presumably
unfelt. Grief has its privileges, and suffering exonerates a
questionable situation. In another moment her fair head MIGHT have
dropped upon his shoulder. But an approaching voice uprose in the
adjoining broad allee. It might have been the world speaking through the
voice of the lawyer Sanderson.

“Yes, he is a good fellow, and an intelligent fellow, too, but a perfect
child in his experience of mankind.”

They both started, but Mrs. Peyton’s hand suddenly woke up and grasped
his firmly. Then she said in a higher, but perfectly level tone:--

“Yes, I think with you we had better look at it again in the sunlight
to-morrow. But here come our friends; they have probably been waiting
for us to join them and go in.”

* * * * *

The wholesome freshness of early morning was in the room when Clarence
awoke, cleared and strengthened. His resolution had been made. He would
leave the rancho that morning, to enter the world again and seek his
fortune elsewhere. This was only right to HER, whose future it should
never be said he had imperiled by his folly and inexperience; and if, in
a year or two of struggle he could prove his right to address her again,
he would return. He had not spoken to her since they had parted in the
garden, with the grim truths of the lawyer ringing in his ears, but he
had written a few lines of farewell, to be given to her after he
had left. He was calm in his resolution, albeit a little pale and
hollow-eyed for it.

He crept downstairs in the gray twilight of the scarce-awakened house,
and made his way to the stables. Saddling his horse, and mounting,
he paced forth into the crisp morning air. The sun, just risen, was
everywhere bringing out the fresh color of the flower-strewn terraces,
as the last night’s shadows, which had hidden them, were slowly beaten
back. He cast a last look at the brown adobe quadrangle of the quiet
house, just touched with the bronzing of the sun, and then turned his
face towards the highway. As he passed the angle of the old garden he
hesitated, but, strong in his resolution, he put the recollection of
last night behind him, and rode by without raising his eyes.

“Clarence!”

It was HER voice. He wheeled his horse. She was standing behind the
grille in the old wall as he had seen her standing on the day he had
ridden to his rendezvous with Susy. A Spanish manta was thrown over her
head and shoulders, as if she had dressed hastily, and had run out to
intercept him while he was still in the stable. Her beautiful face was
pale in its black-hooded recess, and there were faint circles around her
lovely eyes.

“You were going without saying ‘goodby’!” she said softly.

She passed her slim white hand between the grating. Clarence leaped to
the ground, caught it, and pressed it to his lips. But he did not let it
go.

“No! no!” she said, struggling to withdraw it. “It is better as it
is--as--as you have decided it to be. Only I could not let you go
thus,--without a word. There now,--go, Clarence, go. Please! Don’t you
see I am behind these bars? Think of them as the years that separate
us, my poor, dear, foolish boy. Think of them as standing between us,
growing closer, heavier, and more cruel and hopeless as the years go
on.”

Ah, well! they had been good bars a hundred and fifty years ago, when it
was thought as necessary to repress the innocence that was behind them
as the wickedness that was without. They had done duty in the convent
at Santa Inez, and the monastery of Santa Barbara, and had been brought
hither in Governor Micheltorrenas’ time to keep the daughters of Robles
from the insidious contact of the outer world, when they took the air
in their cloistered pleasance. Guitars had tinkled against them in vain,
and they had withstood the stress and storm of love tokens. But, like
many other things which have had their day and time, they had retained
their semblance of power, even while rattling loosely in their sockets,
only because no one had ever thought of putting them to the test, and,
in the strong hand of Clarence, assisted, perhaps, by the leaning
figure of Mrs. Peyton, I grieve to say that the whole grille suddenly
collapsed, became a frame of tinkling iron, and then clanked, bar by
bar, into the road. Mrs. Peyton uttered a little cry and drew back, and
Clarence, leaping the ruins, caught her in his arms.

For a moment only, for she quickly withdrew from them, and although
the morning sunlight was quite rosy on her cheeks, she said gravely,
pointing to the dismantled opening:--

“I suppose you MUST stay now, for you never could leave me here alone
and defenseless.”

He stayed. And with this fulfillment of his youthful dreams the romance
of his young manhood seemed to be completed, and so closed the second
volume of this trilogy. But what effect that fulfillment of youth
had upon his maturer years, or the fortunes of those who were nearly
concerned in it, may be told in a later and final chronicle.





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