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Title: On the Frontier
Author: Harte, Bret
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "On the Frontier" ***

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ON THE FRONTIER

By Bret Harte



CONTENTS


AT THE MISSION OF SAN CARMEL

A BLUE GRASS PENELOPE

LEFT OUT ON LONE STAR MOUNTAIN



AT THE MISSION OF SAN CARMEL



PROLOGUE


It was noon of the 10th of August, 1838. The monotonous coast line
between Monterey and San Diego had set its hard outlines against the
steady glare of the Californian sky and the metallic glitter of
the Pacific Ocean. The weary succession of rounded, dome-like hills
obliterated all sense of distance; the rare whaling vessel or still
rarer trader, drifting past, saw no change in these rusty undulations,
barren of distinguishing peak or headland, and bald of wooded crest or
timbered ravine. The withered ranks of wild oats gave a dull procession
of uniform color to the hills, unbroken by any relief of shadow in their
smooth, round curves. As far as the eye could reach, sea and shore met
in one bleak monotony, flecked by no passing cloud, stirred by no sign
of life or motion. Even sound was absent; the Angelus, rung from the
invisible Mission tower far inland, was driven back again by the steady
northwest trades, that for half the year had swept the coast line and
left it abraded of all umbrage and color.

But even this monotony soon gave way to a change and another monotony as
uniform and depressing. The western horizon, slowly contracting before
a wall of vapor, by four o’clock had become a mere cold, steely strip of
sea, into which gradually the northern trend of the coast faded and was
lost. As the fog stole with soft step southward, all distance, space,
character, and locality again vanished; the hills upon which the sun
still shone bore the same monotonous outlines as those just wiped into
space. Last of all, before the red sun sank like the descending host,
it gleamed upon the sails of a trading vessel close in shore. It was the
last object visible. A damp breath breathed upon it, a soft hand passed
over the slate, the sharp pencilling of the picture faded and became a
confused gray cloud.

The wind and waves, too, went down in the fog; the now invisible and
hushed breakers occasionally sent the surf over the sand in a quick
whisper, with grave intervals of silence, but with no continuous murmur
as before. In a curving bight of the shore the creaking of oars in their
rowlocks began to be distinctly heard, but the boat itself, although
apparently only its length from the sands, was invisible.

“Steady, now; way enough.” The voice came from the sea, and was low, as
if unconsciously affected by the fog. “Silence!”

The sound of a keel grating the sand was followed by the order, “Stern
all!” from the invisible speaker.

“Shall we beach her?” asked another vague voice.

“Not yet. Hail again, and all together.”

“Ah hoy--oi--oi--oy!”

There were four voices, but the hail appeared weak and ineffectual, like
a cry in a dream, and seemed hardly to reach beyond the surf before
it was suffocated in the creeping cloud. A silence followed, but no
response.

“It’s no use to beach her and go ashore until we find the boat,” said
the first voice, gravely; “and we’ll do that if the current has brought
her here. Are you sure you’ve got the right bearings?”

“As near as a man could off a shore with not a blasted pint to take his
bearings by.”

There was a long silence again, broken only by the occasional dip of
oars, keeping the invisible boat-head to the sea.

“Take my word for it, lads, it’s the last we’ll see of that boat again,
or of Jack Cranch, or the captain’s baby.”

“It DOES look mighty queer that the painter should slip. Jack Cranch
ain’t the man to tie a granny knot.”

“Silence!” said the invisible leader. “Listen.”

A hail, so faint and uncertain that it might have been the
long-deferred, far-off echo of their own, came from the sea, abreast of
them.

“It’s the captain. He hasn’t found anything, or he couldn’t be so far
north. Hark!”

The hail was repeated again faintly, dreamily. To the seamen’s trained
ears it seemed to have an intelligent significance, for the first voice
gravely responded, “Aye, aye!” and then said softly, “Oars.”

The word was followed by a splash. The oars clicked sharply and
simultaneously in the rowlocks, then more faintly, then still fainter,
and then passed out into the darkness.

The silence and shadow both fell together; for hours sea and shore were
impenetrable. Yet at times the air was softly moved and troubled, the
surrounding gloom faintly lightened as with a misty dawn, and then was
dark again; or drowsy, far-off cries and confused noises seemed to grow
out of the silence, and, when they had attracted the weary ear, sank
away as in a mocking dream, and showed themselves unreal. Nebulous
gatherings in the fog seemed to indicate stationary objects that, even
as one gazed, moved away; the recurring lap and ripple on the shingle
sometimes took upon itself the semblance of faint articulate laughter
or spoken words. But towards morning a certain monotonous grating on the
sand, that had for many minutes alternately cheated and piqued the ear,
asserted itself more strongly, and a moving, vacillating shadow in the
gloom became an opaque object on the shore.

With the first rays of the morning light the fog lifted. As the undraped
hills one by one bared their cold bosoms to the sun, the long line of
coast struggled back to life again. Everything was unchanged, except
that a stranded boat lay upon the sands, and in its stern sheets a
sleeping child.



CHAPTER I.


The 10th of August, 1852, brought little change to the dull monotony
of wind, fog, and treeless coast line. Only the sea was occasionally
flecked with racing sails that outstripped the old, slow-creeping
trader, or was at times streaked and blurred with the trailing smoke of
a steamer. There were a few strange footprints on those virgin sands,
and a fresh track, that led from the beach over the rounded hills,
dropped into the bosky recesses of a hidden valley beyond the coast
range.

It was here that the refectory windows of the Mission of San Carmel had
for years looked upon the reverse of that monotonous picture presented
to the sea. It was here that the trade winds, shorn of their fury and
strength in the heated, oven-like air that rose from the valley, lost
their weary way in the tangled recesses of the wooded slopes, and
breathed their last at the foot of the stone cross before the Mission.
It was on the crest of those slopes that the fog halted and walled
in the sun-illumined plain below; it was in this plain that limitless
fields of grain clothed the fat adobe soil; here the Mission garden
smiled over its hedges of fruitful vines, and through the leaves of fig
and gnarled pear trees: and it was here that Father Pedro had lived for
fifty years, found the prospect good, and had smiled also.

Father Pedro’s smile was rare. He was not a Las Casas, nor a Junipero
Serra, but he had the deep seriousness of all disciples laden with the
responsible wording of a gospel not their own. And his smile had an
ecclesiastical as well as a human significance, the pleasantest object
in his prospect being the fair and curly head of his boy acolyte and
chorister, Francisco, which appeared among the vines, and his sweetest
pastoral music, the high soprano humming of a chant with which the boy
accompanied his gardening.

Suddenly the acolyte’s chant changed to a cry of terror. Running rapidly
to Father Pedro’s side, he grasped his sotana, and even tried to hide
his curls among its folds.

“‘St! ‘st!” said the Padre, disengaging himself with some impatience.
“What new alarm is this? Is it Luzbel hiding among our Catalan vines, or
one of those heathen Americanos from Monterey? Speak!”

“Neither, holy father,” said the boy, the color struggling back into his
pale cheeks, and an apologetic, bashful smile lighting his clear eyes.
“Neither; but oh! such a gross, lethargic toad! And it almost leaped
upon me.”

“A toad leaped upon thee!” repeated the good father with evident
vexation. “What next? I tell thee, child, those foolish fears are most
unmeet for thee, and must be overcome, if necessary, with prayer and
penance. Frightened by a toad! Blood of the Martyrs! ‘Tis like any
foolish girl!”

Father Pedro stopped and coughed.

“I am saying that no Christian child should shrink from any of God’s
harmless creatures. And only last week thou wast disdainful of poor
Murieta’s pig, forgetting that San Antonio himself did elect one his
faithful companion, even in glory.”

“Yes, but it was so fat, and so uncleanly, holy father,” replied the
young acolyte, “and it smelt so.”

“Smelt so?” echoed the father doubtfully. “Have a care, child, that this
is not luxuriousness of the senses. I have noticed of late you gather
overmuch of roses and syringa, excellent in their way and in moderation,
but still not to be compared with the flower of Holy Church, the lily.”

“But lilies don’t look well on the refectory table, and against the
adobe wall,” returned the acolyte, with a pout of a spoilt child; “and
surely the flowers cannot help being sweet, any more than myrrh or
incense. And I am not frightened of the heathen Americanos either NOW.
There was a small one in the garden yesterday, a boy like me, and he
spoke kindly and with a pleasant face.”

“What said he to thee, child?” asked Father Pedro, anxiously.

“Nay, the matter of his speech I could not understand,” laughed the boy,
“but the manner was as gentle as thine, holy father.”

“‘St, child,” said the Padre impatiently. “Thy likings are as
unreasonable as thy fears. Besides, have I not told thee it ill becomes
a child of Christ to chatter with those sons of Belial? But canst thou
not repeat the words--the WORDS he said?” he continued suspiciously.

“‘Tis a harsh tongue the Americanos speak in their throat,” replied the
boy. “But he said ‘Devilishnisse’ and ‘pretty-as-a-girl,’ and looked at
me.”

The good father made the boy repeat the words gravely, and as gravely
repeated them after him with infinite simplicity. “They are but
heretical words,” he replied in answer to the boy’s inquiring look;
“it is well you understand not English. Enough. Run away, child, and be
ready for the Angelus. I will commune with myself awhile under the pear
trees.”

Glad to escape so easily, the young acolyte disappeared down the alley
of fig trees, not without a furtive look at the patches of chickweed
around their roots, the possible ambuscade of creeping or saltant
vermin. The good priest heaved a sigh and glanced round the darkening
prospect. The sun had already disappeared over the mountain wall that
lay between him and the sea, rimmed with a faint white line of outlying
fog. A cool zephyr fanned his cheek; it was the dying breath of the
vientos generales beyond the wall. As Father Pedro’s eyes were raised to
this barrier, which seemed to shut out the boisterous world beyond, he
fancied he noticed for the first time a slight breach in the parapet,
over which an advanced banner of the fog was fluttering. Was it an omen?
His speculations were cut short by a voice at his very side.

He turned quickly and beheld one of those “heathens” against whom he
had just warned his young acolyte; one of that straggling band of
adventurers whom the recent gold discoveries had scattered along the
coast. Luckily the fertile alluvium of these valleys, lying parallel
with the sea, offered no “indications” to attract the gold seekers.
Nevertheless to Father Pedro even the infrequent contact with the
Americanos was objectionable; they were at once inquisitive and
careless; they asked questions with the sharp perspicacity of
controversy; they received his grave replies with the frank indifference
of utter worldliness. Powerful enough to have been tyrannical
oppressors, they were singularly tolerant and gentle, contenting
themselves with a playful, good-natured irreverence, which tormented
the good father more than opposition. They were felt to be dangerous and
subversive.

The Americano, however, who stood before him did not offensively suggest
these national qualities. A man of middle height, strongly built,
bronzed and slightly gray from the vicissitudes of years and exposure,
he had an air of practical seriousness that commended itself to Father
Pedro. To his religious mind it suggested self-consciousness; expressed
in the dialect of the stranger it only meant “business.”

“I’m rather glad I found you out here alone,” began the latter; “it
saves time. I haven’t got to take my turn with the rest, in there”--he
indicated the church with his thumb--“and you haven’t got to make an
appointment. You have got a clear forty minutes before the Angelus
rings,” he added, consulting a large silver chronometer, “and I reckon
I kin git through my part of the job inside of twenty, leaving you ten
minutes for remarks. I want to confess.”

Father Pedro drew back with a gesture of dignity. The stranger, however,
laid his hand upon the Padre’s sleeve with the air of a man anticipating
objection, but never refusal, and went on.

“Of course, I know. You want me to come at some other time, and in
THERE. You want it in the reg’lar style. That’s your way and your time.
My answer is: it ain’t MY way and MY time. The main idea of confession,
I take it, is gettin’ at the facts. I’m ready to give ‘em if you’ll
take ‘em out here, now. If you’re willing to drop the Church and
confessional, and all that sort o’ thing, I, on my side, am willing
to give up the absolution, and all that sort o’ thing. You might,” he
added, with an unconscious touch of pathos in the suggestion, “heave in
a word or two of advice after I get through; for instance, what YOU’D do
in the circumstances, you see! That’s all. But that’s as you please. It
ain’t part of the business.”

Irreverent as this speech appeared, there was really no trace of such
intention in his manner, and his evident profound conviction that
his suggestion was practical, and not at all inconsistent with
ecclesiastical dignity, would alone have been enough to touch the Padre,
had not the stranger’s dominant personality already overridden him. He
hesitated. The stranger seized the opportunity to take his arm, and lead
him with the half familiarity of powerful protection to a bench beneath
the refectory window. Taking out his watch again, he put it in the
passive hands of the astonished priest, saying, “Time me,” cleared his
throat, and began:--

“Fourteen years ago there was a ship cruisin’ in the Pacific, jest off
this range, that was ez nigh on to a Hell afloat as anything rigged kin
be. If a chap managed to dodge the cap’en’s belayin-pin for a time,
he was bound to be fetched up in the ribs at last by the mate’s boots.
There was a chap knocked down the fore hatch with a broken leg in the
Gulf, and another jumped overboard off Cape Corrientes, crazy as a loon,
along a clip of the head from the cap’en’s trumpet. Them’s facts. The
ship was a brigantine, trading along the Mexican coast. The cap’en
had his wife aboard, a little timid Mexican woman he’d picked up at
Mazatlan. I reckon she didn’t get on with him any better than the men,
for she ups and dies one day, leavin’ her baby, a year-old gal. One of
the crew was fond o’ that baby. He used to get the black nurse to put it
in the dingy, and he’d tow it astern, rocking it with the painter like
a cradle. He did it--hatin’ the cap’en all the same. One day the black
nurse got out of the dingy for a moment, when the baby was asleep,
leavin’ him alone with it. An idea took hold on him, jest from
cussedness, you’d say, but it was partly from revenge on the cap’en and
partly to get away from the ship. The ship was well inshore, and the
current settin’ towards it. He slipped the painter--that man--and set
himself adrift with the baby. It was a crazy act, you’d reckon, for
there wasn’t any oars in the boat; but he had a crazy man’s luck, and
he contrived, by sculling the boat with one of the seats he tore out, to
keep her out of the breakers, till he could find a bight in the shore
to run her in. The alarm was given from the ship, but the fog shut down
upon him; he could hear the other boats in pursuit. They seemed to close
in on him, and by the sound he judged the cap’en was just abreast of
him in the gig, bearing down upon him in the fog. He slipped out of the
dingy into the water without a splash, and struck out for the breakers.
He got ashore after havin’ been knocked down and dragged in four times
by the undertow. He had only one idea then, thankfulness that he had not
taken the baby with him in the surf. You kin put that down for him: it’s
a fact. He got off into the hills, and made his way up to Monterey.”

“And the child?” asked the Padre, with a sudden and strange asperity
that boded no good to the penitent; “the child thus ruthlessly
abandoned--what became of it?”

“That’s just it, the child,” assented the stranger, gravely. “Well, if
that man was on his death-bed instead of being here talking to you,
he’d swear that he thought the cap’en was sure to come up to it the
next minit. That’s a fact. But it wasn’t until one day that he--that’s
me--ran across one of that crew in Frisco. ‘Hallo, Cranch,’ sez he to
me, ‘so you got away, didn’t you? And how’s the cap’en’s baby? Grown a
young gal by this time, ain’t she?’ ‘What are you talkin about,’ ez I;
‘how should I know?’ He draws away from me, and sez, ‘D--- it,’ sez he,
‘you don’t mean that you’ . . . I grabs him by the throat and makes him
tell me all. And then it appears that the boat and the baby were never
found again, and every man of that crew, cap’en and all, believed I had
stolen it.”

He paused. Father Pedro was staring at the prospect with an
uncompromising rigidity of head and shoulder.

“It’s a bad lookout for me, ain’t it?” the stranger continued, in
serious reflection.

“How do I know,” said the priest harshly, without turning his head,
“that you did not make away with this child?”

“Beg pardon.”

“That you did not complete your revenge by--by--killing it, as your
comrade suspected you? Ah! Holy Trinity,” continued Father Pedro,
throwing out his hands with an impatient gesture, as if to take the
place of unutterable thought.

“How do YOU know?” echoed the stranger coldly.

“Yes.”

The stranger linked his fingers together and threw them over his knee,
drew it up to his chest caressingly, and said quietly, “Because you DO
know.”

The Padre rose to his feet.

“What mean you?” he said, sternly fixing his eyes upon the speaker.
Their eyes met. The stranger’s were gray and persistent, with hanging
corner lids that might have concealed even more purpose than they
showed. The Padre’s were hollow, open, and the whites slightly brown, as
if with tobacco stains. Yet they were the first to turn away.

“I mean,” returned the stranger, with the same practical gravity, “that
you know it wouldn’t pay me to come here, if I’d killed the baby, unless
I wanted you to fix things right with me up there,” pointing skywards,
“and get absolution; and I’ve told you THAT wasn’t in my line.”

“Why do you seek me, then?” demanded the Padre, suspiciously.

“Because I reckon I thought a man might be allowed to confess something
short of a murder. If you’re going to draw the line below that--”

“This is but sacrilegious levity,” interrupted Father Pedro, turning as
if to go. But the stranger did not make any movement to detain him.

“Have you implored forgiveness of the father--the man you
wronged--before you came here?” asked the priest, lingering.

“Not much. It wouldn’t pay if he was living, and he died four years
ago.”

“You are sure of that?”

“I am.”

“There are other relations, perhaps?”

“None.”

Father Pedro was silent. When he spoke again, it was with a changed
voice. “What is your purpose, then?” he asked, with the first indication
of priestly sympathy in his manner. “You cannot ask forgiveness of the
earthly father you have injured, you refuse the intercession of holy
Church with the Heavenly Father you have disobeyed. Speak, wretched man!
What is it you want?”

“I want to find the child.”

“But if it were possible, if she were still living, are you fit to seek
her, to even make yourself known to her, to appear before her?”

“Well, if I made it profitable to her, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” echoed the priest, scornfully. “So be it. But why come here?”

“To ask your advice. To know how to begin my search. You know this
country. You were here when that boat drifted ashore beyond that
mountain.”

“Ah, indeed. I have much to do with it. It is an affair of the
alcalde--the authorities--of your--your police.”

“Is it?”

The Padre again met the stranger’s eyes. He stopped, with the snuff box
he had somewhat ostentatiously drawn from his pocket still open in his
hand.

“Why is it not, Senor?” he demanded.

“If she lives, she is a young lady by this time, and might not want the
details of her life known to any one.”

“And how will you recognize your baby in this young lady?” asked Father
Pedro, with a rapid gesture, indicating the comparative heights of a
baby and an adult.

“I reckon I’ll know her, and her clothes too; and whoever found her
wouldn’t be fool enough to destroy them.”

“After fourteen years! Good! you have faith, Senor--”

“Cranch,” supplied the stranger, consulting his watch. “But time’s up.
Business is business. Good-by; don’t let me keep you.”

He extended his hand.

The Padre met it with a dry, unsympathetic palm, as sere and yellow
as the hills. When their hands separated, the father still hesitated,
looking at Cranch. If he expected further speech or entreaty from him he
was mistaken, for the American, without turning his head, walked in
the same serious, practical fashion down the avenue of fig trees, and
disappeared beyond the hedge of vines. The outlines of the mountain
beyond were already lost in the fog. Father Pedro turned into the
refectory.

“Antonio.”

A strong flavor of leather, onions, and stable preceded the entrance of
a short, stout vaquero from the little patio.

“Saddle Pinto and thine own mule to accompany Francisco, who will
take letters from me to the Father Superior at San Jose to-morrow at
daybreak.”

“At daybreak, reverend father?”

“At daybreak. Hark ye, go by the mountain trails and avoid the highway.
Stop at no posada nor fonda, but if the child is weary, rest then awhile
at Don Juan Briones’ or at the rancho of the Blessed Fisherman. Have no
converse with stragglers, least of all those gentile Americanos.
So . . .”

The first strokes of the Angelus came from the nearer tower. With a
gesture Father Pedro waved Antonio aside, and opened the door of the
sacristy.

“Ad Majorem Dei Gloria.”



CHAPTER II


The hacienda of Don Juan Briones, nestling in a wooded cleft of the
foot-hills, was hidden, as Father Pedro had wisely reflected, from
the straying feet of travelers along the dusty highway to San Jose. As
Francisco, emerging from the canada, put spurs to his mule at the sight
of the whitewashed walls, Antonio grunted.

“Oh aye, little priest! thou wast tired enough a moment ago, and though
we are not three leagues from the Blessed Fisherman, thou couldst
scarce sit thy saddle longer. Mother of God! and all to see that little
mongrel, Juanita.”

“But, good Antonio, Juanita was my play-fellow, and I may not soon again
chance this way. And Juanita is not a mongrel, no more than I am.”

“She is a mestiza, and thou art a child of the Church, though this
following of gypsy wenches does not show it.”

“But Father Pedro does not object,” urged the boy.

“The reverend father has forgotten he was ever young,” replied Antonio,
sententiously, “or he wouldn’t set fire and tow together.”

“What sayest thou, good Antonio?” asked Francisco quickly, opening his
blue eyes in frank curiosity; “who is fire, and who is tow?”

The worthy muleteer, utterly abashed and confounded by this display
of the acolyte’s direct simplicity, contented himself by shrugging his
shoulders, and a vague “Quien sabe?”

“Come,” said the boy, gayly, “confess it is only the aguardiente of the
Blessed Fisherman thou missest. Never fear, Juanita will find thee some.
And see! here she comes.”

There was a flash of white flounces along the dark brown corridor, the
twinkle of satin slippers, the flying out of long black braids, and with
a cry of joy a young girl threw herself upon Francisco as he entered the
patio, and nearly dragged him from his mule.

“Have a care, little sister,” laughed the acolyte, looking at Antonio,
“or there will be a conflagration. Am I the fire?” he continued,
submitting to the two sounding kisses the young girl placed upon either
cheek, but still keeping his mischievous glance upon the muleteer.

“Quien sabe?” repeated Antonio, gruffly, as the young girl blushed under
his significant eyes. “It is no affair of mine,” he added to himself, as
he led Pinto away. “Perhaps Father Pedro is right, and this young twig
of the Church is as dry and sapless as himself. Let the mestiza burn if
she likes.”

“Quick, Pancho,” said the young girl, eagerly leading him along the
corridor. “This way. I must talk with thee before thou seest Don Juan;
that is why I ran to intercept thee, and not as that fool Antonio would
signify, to shame thee. Wast thou ashamed, my Pancho?”

The boy threw his arm familiarly round the supple, stayless little
waist, accented only by the belt of the light flounced saya, and said,
“But why this haste and feverishness, ‘Nita? And now I look at thee,
thou hast been crying.”

They had emerged from a door in the corridor into the bright sunlight of
a walled garden. The girl dropped her eyes, cast a quick glance around
her, and said,--

“Not here, to the arroyo,” and half leading, half dragging him, made her
way through a copse of manzanita and alder until they heard the faint
tinkling of water. “Dost thou remember,” said the girl, “it was here,”
 pointing to an embayed pool in the dark current, “that I baptized thee,
when Father Pedro first brought thee here, when we both played at being
monks? They were dear old days, for Father Pedro would trust no one with
thee but me, and always kept us near him.”

“Aye and he said I would be profaned by the touch of any other, and so
himself always washed and dressed me, and made my bed near his.”

“And took thee away again, and I saw thee not till thou camest with
Antonio, over a year ago, to the cattle branding. And now, my Pancho, I
may never see thee again.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed
aloud.

The little acolyte tried to comfort her, but with such abstraction of
manner and inadequacy of warmth that she hastily removed his caressing
hand.

“But why? What has happened?” he asked eagerly.

The girl’s manner had changed. Her eyes flashed, and she put her brown
fist on her waist and began to rock from side to side.

“But I’ll not go,” she said viciously.

“Go where?” asked the boy.

“Oh, where?” she echoed, impatiently. “Hear me, Francisco; thou knowest
I am, like thee, an orphan; but I have not, like thee, a parent in the
Holy Church. For, alas,” she added, bitterly, “I am not a boy, and
have not a lovely voice borrowed from the angels. I was, like thee, a
foundling, kept by the charity of the reverend fathers, until Don Juan,
a childless widower, adopted me. I was happy, not knowing and caring who
were the parents who had abandoned me, happy only in the love of him who
became my adopted father. And now--” She paused.

“And now?” echoed Francisco, eagerly.

“And now they say it is discovered who are my parents.”

“And they live?”

“Mother of God! no,” said the girl, with scarcely filial piety. “There
is some one, a thing, a mere Don Fulano, who knows it all, it seems, who
is to be my guardian.”

“But how? tell me all, dear Juanita,” said the boy with a feverish
interest, that contrasted so strongly with his previous abstraction that
Juanita bit her lips with vexation.

“Ah! How? Santa Barbara! an extravaganza for children. A necklace of
lies. I am lost from a ship of which my father--Heaven rest him--is
General, and I am picked up among the weeds on the sea-shore, like Moses
in the bulrushes. A pretty story, indeed.”

“Oh, how beautiful!” exclaimed Francisco, enthusiastically. “Ah,
Juanita, would it had been me.”

“THEE!” said the girl bitterly,--“thee! No!--it was a girl wanted.
Enough, it was me.”

“And when does the guardian come?” persisted the boy, with sparkling
eyes.

“He is here even now, with that pompous fool the American alcalde from
Monterey, a wretch who knows nothing of the country or the people, but
who helped the other American to claim me. I tell thee, Francisco, like
as not it is all a folly, some senseless blunder of those Americanos
that imposes upon Don Juan’s simplicity and love for them.”

“How looks he, this Americano who seeks thee?” asked Francisco.

“What care I how he looks,” said Juanita, “or what he is? He may have
the four S’s, for all I care. Yet,” she added with a slight touch of
coquetry, “he is not bad to look upon, now I recall him.”

“Had he a long moustache and a sad, sweet smile, and a voice so gentle
and yet so strong that you felt he ordered you to do things with out
saying it? And did his eye read your thoughts?--that very thought that
you must obey him?”

“Saints preserve thee, Pancho! Of whom dost thou speak?”

“Listen, Juanita. It was a year ago, the eve of Natividad, he was in the
church when I sang. Look where I would, I always met his eye. When the
canticle was sung and I was slipping into the sacristy, he was beside
me. He spoke kindly, but I understood him not. He put into my hand gold
for an aguinaldo. I pretended I understood not that also, and put it
into the box for the poor. He smiled and went away. Often have I seen
him since, and last night, when I left the Mission, he was there again
with Father Pedro.”

“And Father Pedro, what said he of him?” asked Juanita.

“Nothing.” The boy hesitated. “Perhaps--because I said nothing of the
stranger.”

Juanita laughed. “So thou canst keep a secret from the good father when
thou carest. But why dost thou think this stranger is my new guardian?”

“Dost thou not see, little sister? he was even then seeking thee,” said
the boy with joyous excitement. “Doubtless he knew we were friends and
playmates--may be the good father has told him thy secret. For it is no
idle tale of the alcalde, believe me. I see it all! It is true!”

“Then thou wilt let him take me away,” exclaimed the girl bitterly,
withdrawing the little hand he had clasped in his excitement.

“Alas, Juanita, what avails it now? I am sent to San Jose, charged with
a letter to the Father Superior, who will give me further orders. What
they are, or how long I must stay, I know not. But I know this: the good
Father Pedro’s eyes were troubled when he gave me his blessing, and
he held me long in his embrace. Pray Heaven I have committed no fault.
Still it may be that the reputation of my gift hath reached the Father
Superior, and he would advance me.” And Francisco’s eyes lit up with
youthful pride at the thought.

Not so Juanita. Her black eyes snapped suddenly with suspicion, she
drew in her breath, and closed her little mouth firmly. Then she began a
crescendo.

Mother of God! was that all? Was he a child, to be sent away for such
time or for such purpose as best pleased the fathers? Was he to know
no more than that? With such gifts as God had given him, was he not at
least to have some word in disposing of them? Ah! SHE would not stand
it.

The boy gazed admiringly at the piquant energy of the little figure
before him, and envied her courage. “It is the mestizo blood,” he
murmured to himself. Then aloud, “Thou shouldst have been a man, ‘Nita.”

“And thou a woman.”

“Or a priest. Eh, what is that?”

They had both risen, Juanita defiantly, her black braids flying as she
wheeled and suddenly faced the thicket, Francisco clinging to her with
trembling hands and whitened lips. A stone, loosened from the hillside,
had rolled to their feet; there was a crackling in the alders on the
slope above them.

“Is it a bear, or a brigand?” whispered Francisco, hurriedly, sounding
the uttermost depths of his terror in the two words.

“It is an eavesdropper,” said Juanita, impetuously; “and who and why, I
intend to know,” and she started towards the thicket.

“Do not leave me, good Juanita,” said the young acolyte, grasping the
girl’s skirt.

“Nay; run to the hacienda quickly, and leave me to search the thicket.
Run!”

The boy did not wait for a second injunction, but scuttled away, his
long coat catching in the brambles, while Juanita darted like a
kitten into the bushes. Her search was fruitless, however, and she was
returning impatiently when her quick eye fell upon a letter lying amidst
the dried grass where she and Francisco had been seated the moment
before. It had evidently fallen from his breast when he had risen
suddenly, and been overlooked in his alarm. It was Father Pedro’s letter
to the Father Superior of San Jose.

In an instant she had pounced upon it as viciously as if it had been the
interloper she was seeking. She knew that she held in her fingers the
secret of Francisco’s sudden banishment. She felt instinctively that
this yellowish envelope, with its red string and its blotch of red seal,
was his sentence and her own. The little mestiza had not been brought up
to respect the integrity of either locks or seals, both being unknown
in the patriarchal life of the hacienda. Yet with a certain feminine
instinct she looked furtively around her, and even managed to dislodge
the clumsy wax without marring the pretty effigy of the crossed keys
impressed upon it. Then she opened the letter and read.

Suddenly she stopped and put back her hair from her brown temples. Then
a succession of burning blushes followed each other in waves from her
neck up, and died in drops of moisture in her eyes. This continued until
she was fairly crying, dropping the letter from her hands and rocking
to and fro. In the midst of this she quickly stopped again; the clouds
broke, a sunshine of laughter started from her eyes, she laughed shyly,
she laughed loudly, she laughed hysterically. Then she stopped again as
suddenly, knitted her brows, swooped down once more upon the letter, and
turned to fly. But at the same moment the letter was quietly but firmly
taken from her hand, and Mr. Jack Cranch stood beside her.

Juanita was crimson, but unconquered. She mechanically held out her hand
for the letter; the American took her little fingers, kissed them, and
said:--

“How are you again?”

“The letter,” replied Juanita, with a strong disposition to stamp her
foot.

“But,” said Cranch, with business directness, “you’ve read enough to
know it isn’t for you.”

“Nor for you either,” responded Juanita.

“True. It is for the Reverend Father Superior of San Jose Mission. I’ll
give it to him.”

Juanita was becoming alarmed, first at this prospect, second at
the power the stranger seemed to be gaining over her. She recalled
Francisco’s description of him with something like superstitious awe.

“But it concerns Francisco. It contains a secret he should know.”

“Then you can tell him it. Perhaps it would come easier from you.”

Juanita blushed again. “Why?” she asked, half dreading his reply.

“Because,” said the American, quietly, “you are old playmates; you are
attached to each other.”

Juanita bit her lips. “Why don’t you read it yourself?” she asked
bluntly.

“Because I don’t read other people’s letters, and if it concerns me
you’ll tell me.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Then the Father Superior will.”

“I believe you know Francisco’s secret already,” said the girl, boldly.

“Perhaps.”

“Then, Mother of God! Senor Crancho, what do you want?”

“I do not want to separate two such good friends as you and Francisco.”

“Perhaps you’d like to claim us both,” said the girl, with a sneer that
was not devoid of coquetry.

“I should be delighted.”

“Then here is your occasion, Senor, for here comes my adopted father,
Don Juan, and your friend, Senor Br--r--own, the American alcalde.”

Two men appeared in the garden path below them. The stiff, glazed,
broad-brimmed black hat, surmounting a dark face of Quixotic gravity
and romantic rectitude, indicated Don Juan Briones. His companion, lazy,
specious, and red-faced, was Senor Brown, the American alcalde.

“Well, I reckon we kin about call the thing fixed,” said Senor Brown,
with a large wave of the hand, suggesting a sweeping away of all trivial
details. “Ez I was saying to the Don yer, when two high-toned gents like
you and him come together in a delicate matter of this kind, it ain’t no
hoss trade nor sharp practice. The Don is that lofty in principle that
he’s willin’ to sacrifice his affections for the good of the gal; and
you, on your hand, kalkilate to see all he’s done for her, and go your
whole pile better. You’ll make the legal formalities good. I reckon that
old Injin woman who can swear to the finding of the baby on the shore
will set things all right yet. For the matter o’ that, if you want
anything in the way of a certificate, I’m on hand always.”

“Juanita and myself are at your disposition, caballeros,” said Don Juan,
with a grave exaltation. “Never let it be said that the Mexican nation
was outdone by the great Americanos in deeds of courtesy and affection.
Let it rather stand that Juanita was a sacred trust put into my hands
years ago by the goddess of American liberty, and nurtured in the
Mexican eagle’s nest. Is it not so, my soul?” he added, more humanly, to
the girl, when he had quite recovered from the intoxication of his own
speech. “We love thee, little one, but we keep our honor.”

“There’s nothing mean about the old man,” said Brown, admiringly, with a
slight dropping of his left eyelid; “his head is level, and he goes with
his party.”

“Thou takest my daughter, Senor Cranch,” continued the old man, carried
away by his emotion; “but the American nation gives me a son.”

“You know not what you say, father,” said the young girl, angrily,
exasperated by a slight twinkle in the American’s eye.

“Not so,” said Cranch. “Perhaps one of the American nation may take him
at his word.”

“Then, caballeros, you will, for the moment at least, possess yourselves
of the house and its poor hospitality,” said Don Juan, with time-honored
courtesy, producing the rustic key of the gate of the patio. “It is
at your disposition, caballeros,” he repeated, leading the way as his
guests passed into the corridor.

Two hours passed. The hills were darkening on their eastern slopes; the
shadows of the few poplars that sparsedly dotted the dusty highway were
falling in long black lines that looked like ditches on the dead level
of the tawny fields; the shadows of slowly moving cattle were mingling
with their own silhouettes, and becoming more and more grotesque. A keen
wind rising in the hills was already creeping from the canada as from
the mouth of a funnel, and sweeping the plains. Antonio had forgathered
with the servants, had pinched the ears of the maids, had partaken of
aguardiente, had saddled the mules,--Antonio was becoming impatient.

And then a singular commotion disturbed the peaceful monotony of the
patriarchal household of Don Juan Briones. The stagnant courtyard was
suddenly alive with peons and servants, running hither and thither. The
alleys and gardens were filled with retainers. A confusion of questions,
orders, and outcrys rent the air, the plains shook with the galloping of
a dozen horsemen. For the acolyte Francisco, of the Mission San Carmel,
had disappeared and vanished, and from that day the hacienda of Don Juan
Briones knew him no more.



CHAPTER III


When Father Pedro saw the yellow mules vanish under the low branches
of the oaks beside the little graveyard, caught the last glitter of the
morning sun on Pinto’s shining headstall, and heard the last tinkle of
Antonio’s spurs, something very like a mundane sigh escaped him. To
the simple wonder of the majority of early worshipers--the half-breed
converts who rigorously attended the spiritual ministrations of the
Mission, and ate the temporal provisions of the reverend fathers--he
deputed the functions of the first mass to a coadjutor, and, breviary in
hand, sought the orchard of venerable pear trees. Whether there was
any occult sympathy in his reflections with the contemplation of their
gnarled, twisted, gouty, and knotty limbs, still bearing gracious and
goodly fruit, I know not, but it was his private retreat, and under one
of the most rheumatic and misshapen trunks there was a rude seat. Here
Father Pedro sank, his face towards the mountain wall between him and
the invisible sea. The relentless, dry, practical Californian sunlight
falling on his face grimly pointed out a night of vigil and suffering.
The snuffy yellow of his eyes was injected yet burning, his temples were
ridged and veined like a tobacco leaf; the odor of desiccation which
his garments always exhaled was hot and feverish, as if the fire had
suddenly awakened among the ashes.

Of what was Father Pedro thinking?

He was thinking of his youth, a youth spent under the shade of those
pear trees, even then venerable as now. He was thinking of his youthful
dreams of heathen conquest, emulating the sacrifices and labors of
Junipero Serra; a dream cut short by the orders of the archbishop, that
sent his companion, Brother Diego, north on a mission to strange lands,
and condemned him to the isolation of San Carmel. He was thinking of
that fierce struggle with envy of a fellow creature’s better fortune
that, conquered by prayer and penance, left him patient, submissive, and
devoted to his humble work; how he raised up converts to the faith, even
taking them from the breast of heretic mothers.

He recalled how once, with the zeal of propagandism quickening in the
instincts of a childless man, he had dreamed of perpetuating his work
through some sinless creation of his own; of dedicating some virgin
soul, one over whom he could have complete control, restricted by no
human paternal weakness, to the task he had begun. But how? Of all the
boys eagerly offered to the Church by their parents there seemed none
sufficiently pure and free from parental taint. He remembered how one
night, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin herself, as he
firmly then believed, this dream was fulfilled. An Indian woman brought
him a Waugee child--a baby-girl that she had picked up on the sea-shore.
There were no parents to divide the responsibility, the child had no
past to confront, except the memory of the ignorant Indian woman, who
deemed her duty done, and whose interest ceased in giving it to the
Padre. The austere conditions of his monkish life compelled him to the
first step in his adoption of it--the concealment of its sex. This was
easy enough, as he constituted himself from that moment its sole nurse
and attendant, and boldly baptized it among the other children by the
name of Francisco. No others knew its origin, nor cared to know. Father
Pedro had taken a muchacho foundling for adoption; his jealous seclusion
of it and his personal care was doubtless some sacerdotal formula at
once high and necessary.

He remembered with darkening eyes and impeded breath how his close
companionship and daily care of this helpless child had revealed to him
the fascinations of that paternity denied to him; how he had deemed it
his duty to struggle against the thrill of baby fingers laid upon his
yellow cheeks, the pleading of inarticulate words, the eloquence of
wonder-seeing and mutely questioning eyes; how he had succumbed
again and again, and then struggled no more, seeing only in them the
suggestion of childhood made incarnate in the Holy Babe. And yet, even
as he thought, he drew from his gown a little shoe, and laid it beside
his breviary. It was Francisco’s baby slipper, a duplicate to those worn
by the miniature waxen figure of the Holy Virgin herself in her niche in
the transept.

Had he felt during these years any qualms of conscience at this
concealment of the child’s sex? None. For to him the babe was sexless,
as most befitted one who was to live and die at the foot of the altar.
There was no attempt to deceive God; what mattered else? Nor was he
withholding the child from the ministrations of the sacred sisters;
there was no convent near the Mission, and as each year passed, the
difficulty of restoring her to the position and duties of her sex became
greater and more dangerous. And then the acolyte’s destiny was sealed
by what again appeared to Father Pedro as a direct interposition of
Providence. The child developed a voice of such exquisite sweetness and
purity that an angel seemed to have strayed into the little choir, and
kneeling worshipers below, transported, gazed upwards, half expectant of
a heavenly light breaking through the gloom of the raftered ceiling.
The fame of the little singer filled the valley of San Carmel; it was a
miracle vouchsafed the Mission; Don Jose Peralta remembered, ah yes, to
have heard in old Spain of boy choristers with such voices!

And was this sacred trust to be withdrawn from him? Was this life which
he had brought out of an unknown world of sin, unstained and pure,
consecrated and dedicated to God, just in the dawn of power and promise
for the glory of the Mother Church, to be taken from his side? And at
the word of a self-convicted man of sin--a man whose tardy repentance
was not yet absolved by the Holy Church. Never! never! Father Pedro
dwelt upon the stranger’s rejection of the ministrations of the Church
with a pitiable satisfaction; had he accepted it, he would have had a
sacred claim upon Father Pedro’s sympathy and confidence. Yet he rose
again, uneasily and with irregular steps returned to the corridor,
passing the door of the familiar little cell beside his own. The window,
the table, and even the scant toilette utensils were filled with the
flowers of yesterday, some of them withered and dry; the white gown of
the little chorister was hanging emptily against the wall. Father Pedro
started and trembled; it seemed as if the spiritual life of the child
had slipped away with its garments.

In that slight chill, which even in the hottest days in California
always invests any shadow cast in that white sunlight, Father Pedro
shivered in the corridor. Passing again into the garden, he followed
in fancy the wayfaring figure of Francisco, saw the child arrive at
the rancho of Don Juan, and with the fateful blindness of all dreamers
projected a picture most unlike the reality. He followed the pilgrims
even to San Jose, and saw the child deliver the missive which gave
the secret of her sex and condition to the Father Superior. That the
authority at San Jose might dissent with the Padre of San Carmel,
or decline to carry out his designs, did not occur to the one-idea’d
priest. Like all solitary people, isolated from passing events, he made
no allowances for occurrences outside of his routine. Yet at this moment
a sudden thought whitened his yellow cheek. What if the Father Superior
deemed it necessary to impart the secret to Francisco? Would the child
recoil at the deception, and, perhaps, cease to love him? It was the
first time, in his supreme selfishness, he had taken the acolyte’s
feelings into account. He had thought of him only as one owing implicit
obedience to him as a temporal and spiritual guide.

“Reverend Father!”

He turned impatiently. It was his muleteer, Jose. Father Pedro’s sunken
eye brightened.

“Ah, Jose! Quickly, then; hast thou found Sanchicha?”

“Truly, your reverence! And I have brought her with me, just as she is;
though if your reverence make more of her than to fill the six-foot hole
and say a prayer over her, I’ll give the mule that brought her here for
food for the bull’s horns. She neither hears nor speaks, but whether
from weakness or sheer wantonness, I know not.”

“Peace, then! and let thy tongue take example from hers. Bring her with
thee into the sacristy and attend without. Go!”

Father Pedro watched the disappearing figure of the muleteer and
hurriedly swept his thin, dry hand, veined and ribbed like a brown
November leaf, over his stony forehead, with a sound that seemed almost
a rustle. Then he suddenly stiffened his fingers over his breviary,
dropped his arms perpendicularly before him, and with a rigid step
returned to the corridor and passed into the sacristy.

For a moment in the half-darkness the room seemed to be empty. Tossed
carelessly in the corner appeared some blankets topped by a few
straggling black horse tails, like an unstranded riata. A trembling
agitated the mass as Father Pedro approached. He bent over the heap
and distinguished in its midst the glowing black eyes of Sanchicha,
the Indian centenarian of the Mission San Carmel. Only her eyes lived.
Helpless, boneless, and jelly-like, old age had overtaken her with a
mild form of deliquescence.

“Listen, Sanchicha,” said the father, gravely. “It is important that
thou shouldst refresh thy memory for a moment. Look back fourteen years,
mother; it is but yesterday to thee. Thou dost remember the baby--a
little muchacha thou broughtest me then--fourteen years ago?”

The old woman’s eyes became intelligent, and turned with a quick look
towards the open door of the church, and thence towards the choir.

The Padre made a motion of irritation. “No, no! Thou dost not
understand; thou dost not attend me. Knowest thou of any mark of
clothing, trinket, or amulet found upon the babe?”

The light of the old woman’s eyes went out. She might have been dead.
Father Pedro waited a moment, and then laid his hand impatiently on her
shoulder.

“Dost thou mean there are none?”

A ray of light struggled back into her eyes.

“None.”

“And thou hast kept back or put away no sign nor mark of her parentage?
Tell me, on this crucifix.”

The eyes caught the crucifix, and became as empty as the orbits of the
carven Christ upon it.

Father Pedro waited patiently. A moment passed; only the sound of the
muleteer’s spurs was heard in the courtyard.

“It is well,” he said at last, with a sigh of relief. “Pepita shall
give thee some refreshment, and Jose will bring thee back again. I will
summon him.”

He passed out of the sacristy door, leaving it open. A ray of sunlight
darted eagerly in, and fell upon the grotesque heap in the corner.
Sanchicha’s eyes lived again; more than that, a singular movement came
over her face. The hideous caverns of her toothless mouth opened--she
laughed. The step of Jose was heard in the corridor, and she became
again inert.

The third day, which should have brought the return of Antonio, was
nearly spent. Father Pedro was impatient but not alarmed. The good
fathers at San Jose might naturally detain Antonio for the answer, which
might require deliberation. If any mischance had occurred to Francisco,
Antonio would have returned or sent a special messenger. At sunset he
was in his accustomed seat in the orchard, his hands clasped over the
breviary in his listless lap, his eyes fixed upon the mountain between
him and that mysterious sea that had brought so much into his life. He
was filled with a strange desire to see it, a vague curiosity hitherto
unknown to his preoccupied life; he wished to gaze upon that strand,
perhaps the very spot where she had been found; he doubted not his
questioning eyes would discover some forgotten trace of her; under his
persistent will and aided by the Holy Virgin, the sea would give up its
secret. He looked at the fog creeping along the summit, and recalled the
latest gossip of San Carmel; how that since the advent of the Americanos
it was gradually encroaching on the Mission. The hated name vividly
recalled to him the features of the stranger as he had stood before him
three nights ago, in this very garden; so vividly that he sprang to
his feet with an exclamation. It was no fancy, but Senor Cranch himself
advancing from under the shadow of a pear tree.

“I reckoned I’d catch you here,” said Mr. Cranch, with the same dry,
practical business fashion, as if he was only resuming an interrupted
conversation, “and I reckon I ain’t going to keep you a minit longer
than I did t’other day.” He mutely referred to his watch, which he
already held in his hand, and then put it back in his pocket. “Well! we
found her!”

“Francisco,” interrupted the priest with a single stride, laying his
hand upon Cranch’s arm, and staring into his eyes.

Mr. Cranch quietly removed Father Pedro’s hand. “I reckon that wasn’t
the name as I caught it,” he returned dryly. “Hadn’t you better sit
down?”

“Pardon me--pardon me, Senor,” said the priest, hastily sinking back
upon his bench, “I was thinking of other things. You--you--came upon me
suddenly. I thought it was the acolyte. Go on, Senor! I am interested.”

“I thought you’d be,” said Cranch, quietly. “That’s why I came. And then
you might be of service too.”

“True, true,” said the priest, with rapid accents; “and this girl,
Senor, this girl is--”

“Juanita, the mestiza, adopted daughter of Don Juan Briones, over on
the Santa Clare Valley,” replied Cranch, jerking his thumb over his
shoulder, and then sitting down upon the bench beside Father Pedro.

The priest turned his feverish eyes piercingly upon his companion for a
few seconds, and then doggedly fixed them upon the ground. Cranch drew
a plug of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a portion, placed it in his
cheek, and then quietly began to strap the blade of his jack-knife upon
his boot. Father Pedro saw it from under his eyelids, and even in his
preoccupation despised him.

“Then you are certain she is the babe you seek?” said the father,
without looking up.

“I reckon as near as you can be certain of anything. Her age tallies;
she was the only foundling girl baby baptized by you, you know,”--he
partly turned round appealingly to the Padre,--“that year. Injin woman
says she picked up a baby. Looks like a pretty clear case, don’t it?”

“And the clothes, friend Cranch?” said the priest, with his eyes still
on the ground, and a slight assumption of easy indifference.

“They will be forthcoming, like enough, when the time comes,” said
Cranch; “the main thing at first was to find the girl; that was MY job;
the lawyers, I reckon, can fit the proofs and say what’s wanted, later
on.”

“But why lawyers,” continued Padre Pedro, with a slight sneer he could
not repress, “if the child is found and Senor Cranch is satisfied?”

“On account of the property. Business is business!”

“The property?”

Mr. Cranch pressed the back of his knife-blade on his boot, shut it up
with a click, and putting it in his pocket said calmly,--

“Well, I reckon the million of dollars that her father left when he
died, which naturally belongs to her, will require some proof that she
is his daughter.”

He had placed both his hands in his pockets, and turned his eyes full
upon Father Pedro. The priest arose hurriedly.

“But you said nothing of this before, Senor Cranch,” said he, with a
gesture of indignation, turning his back quite upon Cranch, and taking a
step towards the refectory.

“Why should I? I was looking after the girl, not the property,” returned
Cranch, following the Padre with watchful eyes, but still keeping his
careless, easy attitude.

“Ah, well! Will it be said so, think you? Eh! Bueno. What will the world
think of your sacred quest, eh?” continued the Padre Pedro, forgetting
himself in his excitement, but still averting his face from his
companion.

“The world will look after the proofs, and I reckon not bother if the
proofs are all right,” replied Cranch, carelessly; “and the girl won’t
think the worse of me for helping her to a fortune. Hallo! you’ve
dropped something.” He leaped to his feet, picked up the breviary which
had fallen from the Padre’s fingers, and returned it to him with a
slight touch of gentleness that was unsuspected in the man.

The priest’s dry, tremulous hand grasped the volume without
acknowledgment.

“But these proofs?” he said hastily; “these proofs, Senor?”

“Oh, well, you’ll testify to the baptism, you know.”

“But if I refuse; if I will have nothing to do with this thing! If I
will not give my word that there is not some mistake,” said the priest,
working himself into a feverish indignation. “That there are not slips
of memory, eh? Of so many children baptized, is it possible for me to
know which, eh? And if this Juanita is not your girl, eh?”

“Then you’ll help me to find who is,” said Cranch, coolly.

Father Pedro turned furiously on his tormentor. Overcome by his vigil
and anxiety. He was oblivious of everything but the presence of the man
who seemed to usurp the functions of his own conscience. “Who are
you, who speak thus?” he said hoarsely, advancing upon Cranch with
outstretched and anathematizing fingers. “Who are you, Senor Heathen,
who dare to dictate to me, a Father of Holy Church? I tell you, I
will have none of this. Never! I will not. From this moment, you
understand--nothing. I will never . . .”

He stopped. The first stroke of the Angelus rang from the little tower.
The first stroke of that bell before whose magic exorcism all human
passions fled, the peaceful bell that had for fifty years lulled the
little fold of San Carmel to prayer and rest, came to his throbbing
ear. His trembling hands groped for the crucifix, carried it to his
left breast; his lips moved in prayer. His eyes were turned to the cold,
passionless sky, where a few faint, far-spaced stars had silently
stolen to their places. The Angelus still rang, his trembling ceased, he
remained motionless and rigid.

The American, who had uncovered in deference to the worshiper rather
than the rite, waited patiently. The eyes of Father Pedro returned
to the earth, moist as if with dew caught from above. He looked half
absently at Cranch.

“Forgive me, my son,” he said, in a changed voice. “I am only a worn
old man. I must talk with thee more of this--but not to-night--not
to-night;--to-morrow--to-morrow--to-morrow.”

He turned slowly and appeared to glide rather than move under the trees,
until the dark shadow of the Mission tower met and encompassed him.
Cranch followed him with anxious eyes. Then he removed the quid of
tobacco from his cheek.

“Just as I reckoned,” remarked he, quite audibly. “He’s clean gold on
the bed rock after all!”



CHAPTER IV


That night Father Pedro dreamed a strange dream. How much of it was
reality, how long it lasted, or when he awoke from it, he could not
tell. The morbid excitement of the previous day culminated in a febrile
exaltation in which he lived and moved as in a separate existence.

This is what he remembered. He thought he had risen at night in a sudden
horror of remorse, and making his way to the darkened church had fallen
upon his knees before the high altar, when all at once the acolyte’s
voice broke from the choir, but in accents so dissonant and unnatural
that it seemed a sacrilege, and he trembled. He thought he had confessed
the secret of the child’s sex to Cranch, but whether the next morning
or a week later he did not know. He fancied, too, that Cranch had also
confessed some trifling deception to him, but what, or why, he could not
remember; so much greater seemed the enormity of his own transgression.
He thought Cranch had put in his hands the letter he had written to the
Father Superior, saying that his secret was still safe, and that he
had been spared the avowal and the scandal that might have ensued. But
through all, and above all, he was conscious of one fixed idea: to
seek the seashore with Sanchicha, and upon the spot where she had found
Francisco, meet the young girl who had taken his place, and so part from
her forever. He had a dim recollection that this was necessary to some
legal identification of her, as arranged by Cranch, but how or why he
did not understand; enough that it was a part of his penance.

It was early morning when the faithful Antonio, accompanied by Sanchicha
and Jose, rode forth with him from the Mission of San Carmel. Except
on the expressionless features of the old woman, there was anxiety
and gloom upon the faces of the little cavalcade. He did not know how
heavily his strange abstraction and hallucinations weighed upon their
honest hearts. As they wound up the ascent of the mountain he noticed
that Antonio and Jose conversed with bated breath and many pious
crossings of themselves, but with eyes always wistfully fixed upon him.
He wondered if, as part of his penance, he ought not to proclaim his sin
and abase himself before them; but he knew that his devoted followers
would insist upon sharing his punishment; and he remembered his promise
to Cranch, that for HER sake he would say nothing. Before they reached
the summit he turned once or twice to look back upon the Mission. How
small it looked, lying there in the peaceful valley, contrasted with the
broad sweep of the landscape beyond, stopped at the further east only
by the dim, ghost-like outlines of the Sierras. But the strong breath of
the sea was beginning to be felt; in a few moments more they were facing
it with lowered sombreros and flying serapes, and the vast, glittering,
illimitable Pacific opened out beneath them.

Dazed and blinded, as it seemed to him, by the shining, restless
expanse, Father Pedro rode forward as if still in a dream. Suddenly he
halted, and called Antonio to his side.

“Tell me, child, didst thou not say that this coast was wild and
desolate of man, beast, and habitation?”

“Truly I did, reverend father.”

“Then what is that?” pointing to the shore.

Almost at their feet nestled a cluster of houses, at the head of an
arroyo reaching up from the beach. They looked down upon the smoke of a
manufactory chimney, upon strange heaps of material and curious engines
scattered along the sands, with here and there moving specks of human
figures. In a little bay a schooner swung at her cables.

The vaquero crossed himself in stupefied alarm. “I know not, your
reverence; it is only two years ago, before the rodeo, that I was here
for strayed colts, and I swear by the blessed bones of San Antonio that
it was as I said.”

“Ah! it is like these Americanos,” responded the muleteer. “I have it
from my brother Diego that he went from San Jose to Pescadero two months
ago, across the plains, with never a hut nor fonda to halt at all the
way. He returned in seven days, and in the midst of the plain there were
three houses and a mill, and many people. And why was it? Ah! Mother of
God! one had picked up in the creek where he drank that much of gold;”
 and the muleteer tapped one of the silver coins that fringed his jacket
sleeves in place of buttons.

“And they are washing the sands for gold there now,” said Antonio,
eagerly pointing to some men gathered round a machine like an enormous
cradle. “Let us hasten on.”

Father Pedro’s momentary interest had passed. The words of his
companions fell dull and meaningless upon his dreaming ears. He was
conscious only that the child was more a stranger to him as an outcome
of this hard, bustling life, than when he believed her borne to him over
the mysterious sea. It perplexed his dazed, disturbed mind to think that
if such an antagonistic element could exist within a dozen miles of
the Mission, and he not know it, could not such an atmosphere have been
around him, even in his monastic isolation, and he remain blind to it?
Had he really lived in the world without knowing it? Had it been in his
blood? Had it impelled him to--He shuddered and rode on.

They were at the last slope of the zigzag descent to the shore, when he
saw the figures of a man and woman moving slowly through a field of wild
oats, not far from the trail. It seemed to his distorted fancy that the
man was Cranch. The woman! His heart stopped beating. Ah! could it be?
He had never seen her in her proper garb: would she look like that?
Would she be as tall? He thought he bade Jose and Antonio go on slowly
before with Sanchicha, and dismounted, walking slowly between the high
stalks of grain, lest he should disturb them. They evidently did not
hear his approach, but were talking earnestly. It seemed to Father Pedro
that they had taken each other’s hands, and as he looked Cranch slipped
his arm round her waist. With only a blind instinct of some dreadful
sacrilege in this act, Father Pedro would have rushed forward, when
the girl’s voice struck his ear. He stopped, breathless. It was not
Francisco, but Juanita, the little mestiza.

“But are you sure you are not pretending to love me now, as you
pretended to think I was the muchacha you had run away with and lost?
Are you sure it is not pity for the deceit you practiced upon me--upon
Don Juan--upon poor Father Pedro?”

It seemed as if Cranch had tried to answer with a kiss, for the girl
drew suddenly away from him with a coquettish fling of the black braids,
and whipped her little brown hands behind her.

“Well, look here,” said Cranch, with the same easy, good-natured,
practical directness which the priest remembered, and which would have
passed for philosophy in a more thoughtful man, “put it squarely, then.
In the first place, it was Don Juan and the alcalde who first suggested
you might be the child.”

“But you have said you knew it was Francisco all the time,” interrupted
Juanita.

“I did; but when I found the priest would not assist me at first, and
admit that the acolyte was a girl, I preferred to let him think I
was deceived in giving a fortune to another, and leave it to his own
conscience to permit it or frustrate it. I was right. I reckon it was
pretty hard on the old man, at his time of life, and wrapped up as he
was in the girl; but at the moment he came up to the scratch like a
man.”

“And to save him you have deceived me? Thank you, Senor,” said the girl
with a mock curtsey.

“I reckon I preferred to have you for a wife than a daughter,” said
Cranch, “if that’s what you mean. When you know me better, Juanita,” he
continued, gravely, “you’ll know that I would never have let you believe
I sought in you the one if I had not hoped to find in you the other.”

“Bueno! And when did you have that pretty hope?”

“When I first saw you.”

“And that was--two weeks ago.”

“A year ago, Juanita. When Francisco visited you at the rancho. I
followed and saw you.”

Juanita looked at him a moment, and then suddenly darted at him, caught
him by the lapels of his coat and shook him like a terrier.

“Are you sure that you did not love that Francisco? Speak!” (She shook
him again.) “Swear that you did not follow her!”

“But--I did,” said Cranch, laughing and shaking between the clenching of
the little hands.

“Judas Iscariot! Swear you do not love her all this while.”

“But, Juanita!”

“Swear!”

Cranch swore. Then to Father Pedro’s intense astonishment she drew the
American’s face towards her own by the ears and kissed him.

“But you might have loved her, and married a fortune,” said Juanita,
after a pause.

“Where would have been my reparation--my duty?” returned Cranch, with a
laugh.

“Reparation enough for her to have had you,” said Juanita, with that
rapid disloyalty of one loving woman to another in an emergency. This
provoked another kiss from Cranch, and then Juanita said demurely,--

“But we are far from the trail. Let us return, or we shall miss Father
Pedro. Are you sure he will come?”

“A week ago he promised to be here to see the proofs to-day.”

The voices were growing fainter and fainter; they were returning to the
trail.

Father Pedro remained motionless. A week ago! Was it a week ago
since--since what? And what had he been doing here? Listening! He!
Father Pedro, listening like an idle peon to the confidences of two
lovers. But they had talked of him, of his crime, and the man had pitied
him. Why did he not speak? Why did he not call after them? He tried
to raise his voice. It sank in his throat with a horrible choking
sensation. The nearest heads of oats began to nod to him, he felt
himself swaying backwards and forwards. He fell--heavily, down, down,
down, from the summit of the mountain to the floor of the Mission
chapel, and there he lay in the dark.

*****

“He moves.”

“Blessed Saint Anthony preserve him!”

It was Antonio’s voice, it was Jose’s arm, it was the field of wild
oats, the sky above his head,--all unchanged.

“What has happened?” said the priest feebly.

“A giddiness seized your reverence just now, as we were coming to seek
you.”

“And you met no one?”

“No one, your reverence.”

Father Pedro passed his hand across his forehead.

“But who are these?” he said, pointing to two figures who now appeared
upon the trail.

Antonio turned.

“It is the Americano, Senor Cranch, and his adopted daughter, the
mestiza Juanita, seeking your reverence, methinks.”

“Ah!” said Father Pedro.

Cranch came forward and greeted the priest cordially. “It was kind of
you, Father Pedro,” he said, meaningly, with a significant glance at
Jose and Antonio, “to come so far to bid me and my adopted daughter
farewell. We depart when the tide serves, but not before you partake of
our hospitality in yonder cottage.”

Father Pedro gazed at Cranch and then at Juanita.

“I see,” he stammered. “But she goes not alone. She will be strange at
first. She takes some friend, perhaps--some companion?” he continued,
tremulously.

“A very old and dear one, Father Pedro, who is waiting for us now.”

He led the way to a little white cottage, so little and white and
recent, that it seemed a mere fleck of sea foam cast on the sands.
Disposing of Jose and Antonio in the neighboring workshop and
outbuildings, he assisted the venerable Sanchicha to dismount, and,
together with Father Pedro and Juanita, entered a white palisaded
enclosure beside the cottage, and halted before what appeared to be a
large, folding trap-door, covering a slight, sandy mound. It was locked
with a padlock; beside it stood the American alcalde and Don Juan
Briones. Father Pedro looked hastily around for another figure, but it
was not there.

“Gentlemen,” began Cranch, in his practical business way, “I reckon
you all know we’ve come here to identify a young lady, who”--he
hesitated--“was lately under the care of Father Pedro, with a foundling
picked up on this shore fifteen years ago by an Indian woman. How this
foundling came here, and how I was concerned in it, you all know. I’ve
told everybody here how I scrambled ashore, leaving that baby in the
dingy, supposing it would be picked up by the boat pursuing me. I’ve
told some of you,” he looked at Father Pedro, “how I first discovered,
from one of the men, three years ago, that the child was not found by
its father. But I have never told any one, before now, I KNEW it was
picked up here.

“I never could tell the exact locality where I came ashore, for the fog
was coming on as it is now. But two years ago I came up with a party of
gold hunters to work these sands. One day, digging near this creek, I
struck something embedded deep below the surface. Well, gentlemen, it
wasn’t gold, but something worth more to me than gold or silver. Here it
is.”

At a sign the alcalde unlocked the doors and threw them open. They
disclosed an irregular trench, in which, filled with sand, lay the
half-excavated stern of a boat.

“It was the dingy of the Trinidad, gentlemen; you can still read her
name. I found hidden away, tucked under the stern sheets, mouldy and
water-worn, some clothes that I recognized to be the baby’s. I knew
then that the child had been taken away alive for some purpose, and
the clothes were left so that she should carry no trace with her.
I recognized the hand of an Indian. I set to work quietly. I found
Sanchicha here, she confessed to finding a baby, but what she had done
with it she would not at first say. But since then she has declared
before the alcalde that she gave it to Father Pedro, of San Carmel, and
that here it stands--Francisco that was! Francisca that it is!”

He stepped aside to make way for a tall girl, who had approached from
the cottage.

Father Pedro had neither noticed the concluding words nor the movement
of Cranch. His eyes were fixed upon the imbecile Sanchicha,--Sanchicha,
on whom, to render his rebuke more complete, the Deity seemed to have
worked a miracle, and restored intelligence to eye and lip. He passed
his hand tremblingly across his forehead, and turned away, when his eye
fell upon the last comer.

It was she. The moment he had longed for and dreaded had come. She stood
there, animated, handsome, filled with a hurtful consciousness in
her new charms, her fresh finery, and the pitiable trinkets that had
supplanted her scapulary, and which played under her foolish fingers.
The past had no place in her preoccupied mind; her bright eyes were
full of eager anticipation of a substantial future. The incarnation of a
frivolous world, even as she extended one hand to him in half-coquettish
embarrassment she arranged the folds of her dress with the other. At
the touch of her fingers, he felt himself growing old and cold. Even
the penance of parting, which he had looked forward to, was denied him;
there was no longer sympathy enough for sorrow. He thought of the empty
chorister’s robe in the little cell, but not now with regret. He only
trembled to think of the flesh that he had once caused to inhabit it.

“That’s all, gentlemen,” broke in the practical voice of Cranch.
“Whether there are proofs enough to make Francisca the heiress of her
father’s wealth, the lawyers must say. I reckon it’s enough for me that
they give me the chance of repairing a wrong by taking her father’s
place. After all, it was a mere chance.”

“It was the will of God,” said Father Pedro, solemnly.

They were the last words he addressed them. For when the fog had begun
to creep inshore, hastening their departure, he only answered their
farewells by a silent pressure of the hand, mute lips, and far-off eyes.

When the sound of their laboring oars grew fainter, he told Antonio to
lead him and Sanchicha again to the buried boat. There he bade her kneel
beside him. “We will do penance here, thou and I, daughter,” he said
gravely. When the fog had drawn its curtain gently around the strange
pair, and sea and shore were blotted out, he whispered, “Tell me, it was
even so, was it not, daughter, on the night she came?” When the distant
clatter of blocks and rattle of cordage came from the unseen vessel, now
standing out to sea, he whispered again, “So, this is what thou didst
hear, even then.” And so during the night he marked, more or less
audibly to the half-conscious woman at his side, the low whisper of the
waves, the murmur of the far-off breakers, the lightening and thickening
of the fog, the phantoms of moving shapes, and the slow coming of the
dawn. And when the morning sun had rent the veil over land and sea,
Antonio and Jose found him, haggard, but erect, beside the trembling
old woman, with a blessing on his lips, pointing to the horizon where a
single sail still glimmered:--

“Va Usted con Dios.”



A BLUE GRASS PENELOPE



CHAPTER I


She was barely twenty-three years old. It is probable that up to that
age, and the beginning of this episode, her life had been uneventful.
Born to the easy mediocrity of such compensating extremes as a small
farmhouse and large lands, a good position and no society, in that vast
grazing district of Kentucky known as the “Blue Grass” region, all the
possibilities of a Western American girl’s existence lay before her.
A piano in the bare-walled house, the latest patented mower in the
limitless meadows, and a silk dress sweeping the rough floor of
the unpainted “meeting-house” were already the promise of those
possibilities. Beautiful she was, but the power of that beauty was
limited by being equally shared with her few neighbors. There were
small, narrow, arched feet besides her own that trod the uncarpeted
floors of outlying log-cabins with equal grace and dignity; bright,
clearly opened eyes that were equally capable of looking unabashed
upon princes and potentates, as a few later did, and the heiress of the
county judge read her own beauty without envy in the frank glances and
unlowered crest of the blacksmith’s daughter. Eventually she had married
the male of her species, a young stranger, who, as schoolmaster in
the nearest town, had utilized to some local extent a scant capital
of education. In obedience to the unwritten law of the West, after
the marriage was celebrated the doors of the ancestral home cheerfully
opened, and bride and bridegroom issued forth, without regret and
without sentiment, to seek the further possibilities of a life beyond
these already too familiar voices. With their departure for California
as Mr. and Mrs. Spencer Tucker, the parental nest in the Blue Grass
meadows knew them no more.

They submitted with equal cheerfulness to the privations and excesses of
their new conditions. Within three years the schoolmaster developed into
a lawyer and capitalist, the Blue Grass bride supplying a grace and ease
to these transitions that were all her own. She softened the abruptness
of sudden wealth, mitigated the austerities of newly acquired power, and
made the most glaring incongruity picturesque. Only one thing seemed
to limit their progress in the region of these possibilities. They
were childless. It was as if they had exhausted the future in their own
youth, leaving little or nothing for another generation to do.


A southwesterly storm was beating against the dressing-room windows
of their new house in one of the hilly suburbs of San Francisco, and
threatening the unseasonable frivolity of the stucco ornamentation of
cornice and balcony. Mrs. Tucker had been called from the contemplation
of the dreary prospect without by the arrival of a visitor. On
entering the drawing-room she found him engaged in a half-admiring,
half-resentful examination of its new furniture and hangings. Mrs.
Tucker at once recognized Mr. Calhoun Weaver, a former Blue Grass
neighbor; with swift feminine intuition she also felt that his slight
antagonism was likely to be transferred from her furniture to herself.
Waiving it with the lazy amiability of Southern indifference, she
welcomed him by the familiarity of a Christian name.

“I reckoned that mebbee you opined old Blue Grass friends wouldn’t
naturally hitch on to them fancy doins,” he said, glancing around the
apartment to avoid her clear eyes, as if resolutely setting himself
against the old charm of her manner as he had against the more recent
glory of her surroundings, “but I thought I’d just drop in for the sake
of old times.”

“Why shouldn’t you, Cal?” said Mrs. Tucker with a frank smile.

“Especially as I’m going up to Sacramento to-night with some influential
friends,” he continued, with an ostentation calculated to resist the
assumption of her charms and her furniture. “Senator Dyce of Kentucky,
and his cousin Judge Briggs; perhaps you know ‘em, or may be Spencer--I
mean Mr. Tucker--does.”

“I reckon,” said Mrs. Tucker smiling; “but tell me something about the
boys and girls at Vineville, and about yourself. YOU’RE looking well,
and right smart too.” She paused to give due emphasis to this latter
recognition of a huge gold chain with which her visitor was somewhat
ostentatiously trifling.

“I didn’t know as you cared to hear anything about Blue Grass,” he
returned, a little abashed. “I’ve been away from there some time
myself,” he added, his uneasy vanity taking fresh alarm at the faint
suspicion of patronage on the part of his hostess. “They’re doin’ well,
though; perhaps as well as some others.”

“And you’re not married yet,” continued Mrs. Tucker, oblivious of the
innuendo. “Ah, Cal,” she added archly, “I am afraid you are as fickle as
ever. What poor girl in Vineville have you left pining?”

The simple face of the man before her flushed with foolish gratification
at this old-fashioned, ambiguous flattery. “Now look yer, Belle,” he
said, chuckling, “if you’re talking of old times and you think I bear
malice agin Spencer, why--”

But Mrs. Tucker interrupted what might have been an inopportune
sentimental retrospect with a finger of arch but languid warning. “That
will do! I’m dying to know all about it, and you must stay to dinner and
tell me. It’s right mean you can’t see Spencer too; but he isn’t back
from Sacramento yet.”

Grateful as a tete-a-tete with his old neighbor in her more prosperous
surroundings would have been, if only for the sake of later gossiping
about it, he felt it would be inconsistent with his pride and his
assumption of present business. More than that, he was uneasily
conscious that in Mrs. Tucker’s simple and unaffected manner there was
a greater superiority than he had ever noticed during their previous
acquaintance. He would have felt kinder to her had she shown any
“airs and graces,” which he could have commented upon and forgiven. He
stammered some vague excuse of preoccupation, yet lingered in the hope
of saying something which, if not aggressively unpleasant, might at
least transfer to her indolent serenity some of his own irritation.
“I reckon,” he said, as he moved hesitatingly towards the door, “that
Spencer has made himself easy and secure in them business risks he’s
taking. That ‘ere Alameda ditch affair they’re talking so much about
is a mighty big thing, rather TOO big if it ever got to falling back on
him. But I suppose he’s accustomed to take risks?”

“Of course he is,” said Mrs. Tucker gayly. “He married ME.”

The visitor smiled feebly, but was not equal to the opportunity offered
for gallant repudiation. “But suppose you ain’t accustomed to risks?”

“Why not? I married HIM,” said Mrs. Tucker.

Mr. Calhoun Weaver was human, and succumbed to this last charming
audacity. He broke into a noisy but genuine laugh, shook Mrs. Tucker’s
hand with effusion, said, “Now that’s regular Blue Grass and no
mistake!” and retreated under cover of his hilarity. In the hall he
made a rallying stand to repeat confidentially to the servant who had
overheard them: “Blue Grass, all over, you bet your life,” and, opening
the door, was apparently swallowed up in the tempest.

Mrs. Tucker’s smile kept her lips until she had returned to her room,
and even then languidly shone in her eyes for some minutes after, as
she gazed abstractedly from her window on the storm-tossed bay in the
distance. Perhaps some girlish vision of the peaceful Blue Glass plain
momentarily usurped the prospect; but it is to be doubted if there was
much romance in that retrospect, or that it was more interesting to her
than the positive and sharply cut outlines of the practical life she now
held. Howbeit she soon forgot this fancy in lazily watching a boat that,
in the teeth of the gale, was beating round Alcatraz Island. Although
at times a mere blank speck on the gray waste of foam, a closer scrutiny
showed it to be one of those lateen-rigged Italian fishing boats that so
often flecked the distant bay. Lost in the sudden darkening of rain,
or reappearing beneath the lifted curtain of the squall, she watched
it weather the island, and then turn its laboring but persistent course
towards the open channel. A rent in the Indian-inky sky, that showed the
narrowing portals of the Golden Gate beyond, revealed, as unexpectedly,
the destination of the little craft, a tall ship that hitherto lay
hidden in the mist of the Saucelito shore. As the distance lessened
between boat and ship, they were again lost in the downward swoop of
another squall. When it lifted, the ship was creeping under the headland
towards the open sea, but the boat was gone. Mrs. Tucker in vain rubbed
the pane with her handkerchief; it had vanished. Meanwhile the ship,
as she neared the Gate, drew out from the protecting headland, stood
outlined for a moment with spars and canvas hearsed in black against
the lurid rent in the horizon, and then seemed to sink slowly into the
heaving obscurity beyond. A sudden onset of rain against the windows
obliterated the remaining prospect; the entrance of a servant completed
the diversion.

“Captain Poindexter, ma’am!”

Mrs. Tucker lifted her pretty eyebrows interrogatively. Captain
Poindexter was a legal friend of her husband, and had dined there
frequently; nevertheless she asked: “Did you tell him Mr. Tucker was not
at home?”

“Yes, ‘m.”

“Did he ask for ME?”

“Yes, ‘m.”

“Tell him I’ll be down directly.”

Mrs. Tucker’s quiet face did not betray the fact that this second
visitor was even less interesting than the first. In her heart she did
not like Captain Poindexter. With a clever woman’s instinct she had
early detected the fact that he had a superior, stronger nature than
her husband; as a loyal wife, she secretly resented the occasional
unconscious exhibition of this fact on the part of his intimate friend
in their familiar intercourse. Added to this slight jealousy, there was
a certain moral antagonism between herself and the captain which none
but themselves knew. They were both philosophers, but Mrs. Tucker’s
serene and languid optimism would not tolerate the compassionate and
kind-hearted pessimisms of the lawyer. “Knowing what Jack Poindexter
does of human nature,” her husband had once said, “it’s mighty fine in
him to be so kind and forgiving. You ought to like him better, Belle.”
 “And qualify myself to be forgiven,” said the lady pertly. “I don’t see
what you’re driving at, Belle; I give it up,” had responded the puzzled
husband. Mrs. Tucker kissed his high but foolish forehead tenderly, and
said: “I’m glad you don’t, dear.”

Meanwhile her second visitor had, like the first, employed the interval
in a critical survey of the glories of the new furniture, but with
apparently more compassion than resentment in his manner. Once only had
his expression changed. Over the fireplace hung a large photograph of
Mr. Spencer Tucker. It was retouched, refined, and idealized in the
highest style of that polite and diplomatic art. As Captain Poindexter
looked upon the fringed hazel eyes, the drooping raven moustache, the
clustering ringlets, and the Byronic full throat and turned-down collar
of his friend, a smile of exhausted humorous tolerance and affectionate
impatience curved his lips. “Well, you ARE a fool, aren’t you?” he
apostrophized it half-audibly.

He was standing before the picture as she entered. Even in the
trying contiguity of that peerless work he would have been called a
fine-looking man. As he advanced to greet her, it was evident that
his military title was not one of the mere fanciful sobriquets of the
locality. In his erect figure and the disciplined composure of limb and
attitude there were still traces of the refined academic rigors of West
Point. The pliant adaptability of Western civilization which enabled
him, three years before, to leave the army and transfer his executive
ability to the more profitable profession of the law, had loosed sash
and shoulder-strap, but had not entirely removed the restraint of the
one, or the bearing of the other.

“Spencer is in Sacramento,” began Mrs. Tucker in languid explanation,
after the first greetings were over.

“I knew he was not here,” replied Captain Poindexter gently, as he drew
the proffered chair towards her, “but this is business that concerns
you both.” He stopped and glanced upwards at the picture. “I suppose
you know nothing of his business? Of course not,” he added reassuringly,
“nothing, absolutely nothing, certainly.” He said this so kindly, and
yet so positively, as if to promptly dispose of that question before
going further, that she assented mechanically. “Well, then, he’s taken
some big risks in the way of business, and--well, things have gone bad
with him, you know. Very bad! Really, they couldn’t be worse! Of course
it was dreadfully rash and all that,” he went on, as if commenting
upon the amusing waywardness of a child; “but the result is the usual
smash-up of everything, money, credit, and all!” He laughed and
added: “Yes, he’s got cut off--mules and baggage regularly routed and
dispersed! I’m in earnest.” He raised his eyebrows and frowned slightly,
as if to deprecate any corresponding hilarity on the part of Mrs.
Tucker, or any attempt to make TOO light of the subject, and then
rising, placed his hands behind his back, beamed half-humorously upon
her from beneath her husband’s picture, and repeated: “That’s so.”

Mrs. Tucker instinctively knew that he spoke the truth, and that it was
impossible for him to convey it in any other than his natural manner;
but between the shock and the singular influence of that manner she
could at first only say, “You don’t mean it!” fully conscious of
the utter inanity of the remark, and that it seemed scarcely less
cold-blooded than his own.

Poindexter, still smiling, nodded.

She arose with an effort. She had recovered from the first shock, and
pride lent her a determined calmness that more than equaled Poindexter’s
easy philosophy.

“Where is he?” she asked.

“At sea, and I hope by this time where he can not be found or followed.”

Was her momentary glimpse of the outgoing ship a coincidence, or only
a vision? She was confused and giddy, but, mastering her weakness, she
managed to continue in a lower voice:

“You have no message for me from him? He told you nothing to tell me?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” replied Poindexter. “It was as much as he
could do, I reckon, to get fairly away before the crash came.”

“Then you did not see him go?”

“Well, no,” said Poindexter. “I’d hardly have managed things in this
way.” He checked himself and added, with a forgiving smile, “But he was
the best judge of what he needed, of course.”

“I suppose I will hear from him,” she said quietly, “as soon as he is
safe. He must have had enough else to think about, poor fellow.”

She said this so naturally and quietly that Poindexter was deceived.
He had no idea that the collected woman before him was thinking only of
solitude and darkness, of her own room, and madly longing to be there.
He said, “Yes, I dare say,” in quite another voice, and glanced at the
picture. But as she remained standing, he continued more earnestly,
“I didn’t come here to tell you what you might read in the newspapers
to-morrow morning, and what everybody might tell you. Before that time
I want you to do something to save a fragment of your property from
the ruin; do you understand? I want you to make a rally, and bring off
something in good order.”

“For him?” said Mrs. Tucker, with brightening eyes.

“Well, yes, of course--if you like--but as if for yourself. Do you know
the Rancho de los Cuervos?”

“I do.”

“It’s almost the only bit of real property your husband hasn’t sold,
mortgaged, or pledged. Why it was exempt, or whether only forgotten, I
can’t say.”

“I’ll tell you why,” said Mrs. Tucker, with a slight return of color.
“It was the first land we ever bought, and Spencer always said it should
be mine and he would build a new house on it.”

Captain Poindexter smiled and nodded at the picture. “Oh, he did say
that, did he? Well, THAT’S evidence. But you see he never gave you the
deed, and by sunrise to-morrow his creditors will attach it--unless--”

“Unless--” repeated Mrs. Tucker, with kindling eyes.

“Unless,” continued Captain Poindexter, “they happen to find YOU in
possession.”

“I’ll go,” said Mrs. Tucker.

“Of course you will,” returned Poindexter, pleasantly; “only, as it’s
a big contract to take, suppose we see how you can fill it. It’s forty
miles to Los Cuervos, and you can’t trust yourself to steamboat or
stage-coach. The steamboat left an hour ago.”

“If I had only known this then!” ejaculated Mrs. Tucker.

“I knew it, but you had company then,” said Poindexter, with ironical
gallantry, “and I wouldn’t disturb you.” Without saying how he knew it,
he continued, “In the stage-coach you might be recognized. You must go
in a private conveyance and alone; even I can not go with you, for I
must go on before and meet you there. Can you drive forty miles?”

Mrs. Tucker lifted up her abstracted pretty lids. “I once drove
fifty--at home,” she returned simply.

“Good! and I dare say you did it then for fun. Do it now for something
real and personal, as we lawyers say. You will have relays and a plan of
the road. It’s rough weather for a pasear, but all the better for that.
You’ll have less company on the road.”

“How soon can I go?” she asked.

“The sooner the better. I’ve arranged everything for you already,” he
continued with a laugh. “Come now, that’s a compliment to you, isn’t
it?” He smiled a moment in her steadfast, earnest face, and then said,
more gravely, “You’ll do. Now listen.”

He then carefully detailed his plan. There was so little of excitement
or mystery in their manner that the servant, who returned to light the
gas, never knew that the ruin and bankruptcy of the house was being told
before her, or that its mistress was planning her secret flight.

“Good afternoon; I will see you to-morrow then,” said Poindexter,
raising his eyes to hers as the servant opened the door for him.

“Good afternoon,” repeated Mrs. Tucker quietly answering his look. “You
need not light the gas in my room, Mary,” she continued in the same
tone of voice as the door closed upon him; “I shall lie down for a few
moments, and then I may run over to the Robinsons for the evening.”

She regained her room composedly. The longing desire to bury her head
in her pillow and “think out” her position had gone. She did not
apostrophize her fate, she did not weep; few real women do in the access
of calamity, or when there is anything else to be done. She felt that
she knew it all; she believed she had sounded the profoundest depths
of the disaster, and seemed already so old in her experience that she
almost fancied she had been prepared for it. Perhaps she did not fully
appreciate it; to a life like hers it was only an incident, the mere
turning of a page of the illimitable book of youth; the breaking up of
what she now felt had become a monotony. In fact, she was not quite sure
she had ever been satisfied with their present success. Had it brought
her all she expected? She wanted to say this to her husband, not only
to comfort him, poor fellow, but that they might come to a better
understanding of life in the future. She was not perhaps different
from other loving women who, believing in this unattainable goal
of matrimony, have sought it in the various episodes of fortune or
reverses, in the bearing of children, or the loss of friends. In her
childless experience there was no other life that had taken root in her
circumstances and might suffer transplantation; only she and her husband
could lose or profit by the change. The “perfect” understanding would
come under other conditions than these.

She would have gone superstitiously to the window to gaze in the
direction of the vanished ship, but another instinct restrained her.
She would put aside all yearning for him until she had done something to
help him, and earned the confidence he seemed to have withheld. Perhaps
it was pride--perhaps she never really believed his exodus was distant
or complete.

With a full knowledge that to-morrow the various ornaments and pretty
trifles around her would be in the hands of the law, she gathered only a
few necessaries for her flight and some familiar personal trinkets. I
am constrained to say that this self-abnegation was more fastidious than
moral. She had no more idea of the ethics of bankruptcy than any other
charming woman; she simply did not like to take with her any contagious
memory of the chapter of the life just closing. She glanced around the
home she was leaving without a lingering regret; there was no sentiment
of tradition or custom that might be destroyed; her roots lay too near
the surface to suffer from dislocation; the happiness of her childless
union had depended upon no domestic centre, nor was its flame sacred to
any local hearthstone. It was without a sigh that, when night had fully
fallen, she slipped unnoticed down the staircase. At the door of the
drawing-room she paused and then entered with the first guilty feeling
of shame she had known that evening. Looking stealthily around she
mounted a chair before her husband’s picture, kissed the irreproachable
moustache hurriedly, said, “You foolish darling, you!” and slipped
out again. With this touching indorsement of the views of a rival
philosopher, she closed the door softly and left her home forever.



CHAPTER II


The wind and rain had cleared the unfrequented suburb of any observant
lounger, and the darkness, lit only by far-spaced, gusty lamps, hid
her hastening figure. She had barely crossed the second street when she
heard the quick clatter of hoofs behind her; a buggy drove up to the
curbstone, and Poindexter leaped out. She entered quickly, but for a
moment he still held the reins of the impatient horse. “He’s rather
fresh,” he said, eying her keenly; “are you sure you can manage him?”

“Give me the reins,” she said simply.

He placed them in the two firm, well-shaped hands that reached from the
depths of the vehicle, and was satisfied. Yet he lingered.

“It’s rough work for a lone woman,” he said, almost curtly. “I can’t
go with you, but, speak frankly, is there any man you know whom you can
trust well enough to take? It’s not too late yet; think a moment!”

He paused over the buttoning of the leather apron of the vehicle.

“No, there is none,” answered the voice from the interior; “and it’s
better so. Is all ready?”

“One moment more.” He had recovered his half-bantering manner. “You HAVE
a friend and countryman already with you, do you know? Your horse is
Blue Grass. Good night.”

With these words ringing in her ears she began her journey. The horse,
as if eager to maintain the reputation which his native district had
given his race, as well as the race of the pretty woman behind him,
leaped impatiently forward. But pulled together by the fine and firm
fingers that seemed to guide rather than check his exuberance, he
presently struck into the long, swinging pace of his kind, and kept it
throughout without “break” or acceleration. Over the paved streets the
light buggy rattled, and the slender shafts danced around his smooth
barrel, but when they touched the level high-road, horse and vehicle
slipped forward through the night, a swift and noiseless phantom. Mrs.
Tucker could see his graceful back dimly rising and falling before her
with tireless rhythm, and could feel the intelligent pressure of his
mouth until it seemed the responsive grasp of a powerful but kindly
hand. The faint glow of conquest came to her cold cheek; the slight
stirrings of pride moved her preoccupied heart. A soft light filled her
hazel eyes. A desolate woman, bereft of husband and home, and flying
through storm and night, she knew not where, she still leaned forward
towards her horse. “Was he Blue Grass, then, dear old boy?” she gently
cooed at him in the darkness. He evidently WAS, and responded by blowing
her an ostentatious equine kiss. “And he would be good to his own
forsaken Belle,” she murmured caressingly, “and wouldn’t let any one
harm her?” But here, overcome by the lazy witchery of her voice, he
shook his head so violently that Mrs. Tucker, after the fashion of her
sex, had the double satisfaction of demurely restraining the passion she
had evoked.

To avoid the more traveled thoroughfare, while the evening was still
early, it had been arranged that she should at first take a less direct
but less frequented road. This was a famous pleasure-drive from San
Francisco, a graveled and sanded stretch of eight miles to the sea and
an ultimate “cocktail,” in a “stately pleasure-dome decreed” among the
surf and rocks of the Pacific shore. It was deserted now, and left to
the unobstructed sweep of the wind and rain. Mrs. Tucker would not have
chosen this road. With the instinctive jealousy of a bucolic inland race
born by great rivers, she did not like the sea; and again the dim and
dreary waste tended to recall the vision connected with her husband’s
flight, upon which she had resolutely shut her eyes. But when she had
reached it the road suddenly turned, following the trend of the beach,
and she was exposed to the full power of its dread fascinations. The
combined roar of sea and shore was in her ears; as the direct force of
the gale had compelled her to furl the protecting hood of the buggy
to keep the light vehicle from oversetting or drifting to leeward, she
could no longer shut out the heaving chaos on the right from which the
pallid ghosts of dead and dying breakers dimly rose and sank as if in
awful salutation. At times through the darkness a white sheet appeared
spread before the path and beneath the wheels of the buggy, which, when
withdrawn with a reluctant hiss, seemed striving to drag the exhausted
beach seaward with it. But the blind terror of her horse, who swerved at
every sweep of the surge, shamed her own half-superstitious fears,
and with the effort to control his alarm she regained her own
self-possession, albeit with eyelashes wet not altogether with the salt
spray from the sea. This was followed by a reaction, perhaps stimulated
by her victory over the beaten animal, when for a time, she knew not how
long, she felt only a mad sense of freedom and power; oblivious of
even her sorrows, her lost home and husband, and with intense feminine
consciousness she longed to be a man. She was scarcely aware that the
track turned again inland until the beat of the horse’s hoofs on the
firm ground and an acceleration of speed showed her she had left the
beach and the mysterious sea behind her, and she remembered that she was
near the end of the first stage of her journey. Half an hour later the
twinkling lights of the roadside inn where she was to change horses rose
out of the darkness.

Happily for her, the ostler considered the horse, who had a local
reputation, of more importance than the unknown muffled figure in the
shadow of the unfurled hood, and confined his attention to the animal.
After a careful examination of his feet and a few comments addressed
solely to the superior creation, he led him away. Mrs. Tucker would have
liked to part more affectionately from her four-footed compatriot, and
felt a sudden sense of loneliness at the loss of her new friend, but a
recollection of certain cautions of Captain Poindexter’s kept her mute.
Nevertheless, the ostler’s ostentatious adjuration of “Now then, aren’t
you going to bring out that mustang for the Senora?” puzzled her. It was
not until the fresh horse was put to, and she had flung a piece of gold
into the attendant’s hand, that the “Gracias” of his unmistakable Saxon
speech revealed to her the reason of the lawyer’s caution. Poindexter
had evidently represented her to these people as a native Californian
who did not speak English. In her inconsistency her blood took fire at
this first suggestion of deceit, and burned in her face. Why should he
try to pass her off as anybody else? Why should she not use her own, her
husband’s name? She stopped and bit her lip.

It was but the beginning of an uneasy train of thought. She suddenly
found herself thinking of her visitor, Calhoun Weaver, and not
pleasantly. He would hear of their ruin tomorrow, perhaps of her own
flight. He would remember his visit, and what would he think of her
deceitful frivolity? Would he believe that she was then ignorant of the
failure? It was her first sense of any accountability to others than
herself, but even then it was rather owing to an uneasy consciousness of
what her husband must feel if he were subjected to the criticisms of
men like Calhoun. She wondered if others knew that he had kept her
in ignorance of his flight. Did Poindexter know it, or had he only
entrapped her into the admission? Why had she not been clever enough
to make him think that she knew it already? For the moment she hated
Poindexter for sharing that secret. Yet this was again followed by a
new impatience of her husband’s want of insight into her ability to help
him. Of course the poor fellow could not bear to worry her, could
not bear to face such men as Calhoun, or even Poindexter (she added
exultingly to herself), but he might have sent her a line as he fled,
only to prepare her to meet and combat the shame alone. It did not occur
to her unsophisticated singleness of nature that she was accepting as an
error of feeling what the world would call cowardly selfishness.

At midnight the storm lulled and a few stars trembled through the rent
clouds. Her eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, and her country
instincts, a little overlaid by the urban experiences of the last few
years, came again to the surface. She felt the fresh, cool radiation
from outlying, upturned fields, the faint, sad odors from dim stretches
of pricking grain and quickening leaf, and wondered if at Los Cuervos
it might be possible to reproduce the peculiar verdure of her native
district. She beguiled her fancy by an ambitious plan of retrieving
their fortunes by farming; her comfortable tastes had lately rebelled
against the homeless mechanical cultivation of these desolate but
teeming Californian acres, and for a moment indulged in a vision of
a vine-clad cottage home that in any other woman would have been
sentimental. Her cramped limbs aching, she took advantage of the
security of the darkness and the familiar contiguity of the fields to
get down from the vehicle, gather her skirts together, and run at the
head of the mustang, until her chill blood was thawed, night drawing a
modest veil over this charming revelation of the nymph and woman. But
the sudden shadow of a coyote checked the scouring feet of this swift
Camilla, and sent her back precipitately to the buggy. Nevertheless,
she was refreshed and able to pursue her journey, until the cold gray of
early morning found her at the end of her second stage.

Her route was changed again from the main highway, rendered dangerous by
the approach of day and the contiguity of the neighboring rancheros. The
road was rough and hilly, her new horse and vehicle in keeping with the
rudeness of the route--by far the most difficult of her whole journey.
The rare wagon tracks that indicated her road were often scarcely
discernible; at times they led her through openings in the half-cleared
woods, skirted suspicious morasses, painfully climbed the smooth,
dome-like hills, or wound along perilous slopes at a dangerous angle.
Twice she had to alight and cling to the sliding wheels on one of those
treacherous inclines, or drag them from impending ruts or immovable
mire. In the growing light she could distinguish the distant, low-lying
marshes eaten by encroaching sloughs and insidious channels, and beyond
them the faint gray waste of the Lower Bay. A darker peninsula in the
marsh she knew to be the extreme boundary of her future home: the Rancho
de los Cuervos. In another hour she began to descend to the plain, and
once more to approach the main road, which now ran nearly parallel
with her track. She scanned it cautiously for any early traveler; it
stretched north and south in apparent unending solitude. She struck
into it boldly, and urged her horse to the top of his speed, until she
reached the cross road that led to the rancho. But here she paused and
allowed the reins to drop idly on the mustang’s back. A singular and
unaccountable irresolution seized her. The difficulties of her journey
were over; the rancho lay scarcely two miles away; she had achieved
the most important part of her task in the appointed time, but she
hesitated. What had she come for? She tried to recall Poindexter’s
words, even her own enthusiasm, but in vain. She was going to take
possession of her husband’s property, she knew, that was all. But the
means she had taken seemed now so exaggerated and mysterious for that
simple end that she began to dread an impending something, or some vague
danger she had not considered, that she was rushing blindly to meet.
Full of this strange feeling she almost mechanically stopped her horse
as she entered the cross road.

From this momentary hesitation a singular sound aroused her. It seemed
at first like the swift hurrying by of some viewless courier of the
air, the vague alarm of some invisible flying herald, or like the
inarticulate cry that precedes a storm. It seemed to rise and fall
around her as if with some changing urgency of purpose. Raising her eyes
she suddenly recognized the two far-stretching lines of telegraph wire
above her head, and knew the aeolian cry of the morning wind along its
vibrating chords. But it brought another and more practical fear to her
active brain. Perhaps even now the telegraph might be anticipating her!
Had Poindexter thought of that? She hesitated no longer, but laying the
whip on the back of her jaded mustang again hurried forward.

As the level horizon grew more distinct, her attention was attracted by
the white sail of a small boat lazily threading the sinuous channel of
the slough. It might be Poindexter arriving by the more direct route
from the steamboat that occasionally lay off the ancient embarcadero of
the Los Cuervos Rancho. But even while watching it her quick ear caught
the sound of galloping hoofs behind her. She turned quickly and saw she
was followed by a horseman. But her momentary alarm was succeeded by
a feeling of relief as she recognized the erect figure and square
shoulders of Poindexter. Yet she could not help thinking that he looked
more like a militant scout, and less like a cautious legal adviser, than
ever.

With unaffected womanliness she rearranged her slightly disordered hair
as he drew up beside her. “I thought you were in yonder boat,” she said.

“Not I,” he laughed; “I distanced you by the high road two hours, and
have been reconnoitring, until I saw you hesitate at the cross roads.”

“But who is in the boat?” asked Mrs. Tucker, partly to hide her
embarrassment.

“Only some early Chinese market gardener, I dare say. But you are safe
now. You are on your own land. You passed the boundary monument of the
rancho five minutes ago. Look! All you see before you is yours from the
embarcadero to yonder Coast Range.”

The tone of half-raillery did not, however, cheer Mrs. Tucker. She
shuddered slightly and cast her eyes over the monotonous sea of tule and
meadow.

“It doesn’t look pretty, perhaps,” continued Poindexter, “but it’s the
richest land in the State, and the embarcadero will some day be a town.
I suppose you’ll call it Blue Grassville. But you seem tired!” he said,
suddenly dropping his voice to a tone of half-humorous sympathy.

Mrs. Tucker managed to get rid of an impending tear under the pretense
of clearing her eyes. “Are we nearly there?” she asked.

“Nearly. You know,” he added with the same half-mischievous,
half-sympathizing gayety, “it’s not exactly a palace you’re coming
to. Hardly. It’s the old casa that has been deserted for years, but I
thought it better you should go into possession there than take up your
abode at the shanty where your husband’s farm-hands are. No one will
know when you take possession of the casa, while the very hour of
your arrival at the shanty would be known; and if they should make any
trouble--”

“If they should make any trouble?” repeated Mrs. Tucker, lifting her
frank, inquiring eyes to Poindexter.

His horse suddenly rearing from an apparently accidental prick of the
spur, it was a minute or two before he was able to explain. “I mean if
this ever comes up as a matter of evidence, you know. But here we are!”

What had seemed to be an overgrown mound rising like an island out of
the dead level of the grassy sea now resolved itself into a collection
of adobe walls, eaten and incrusted with shrubs and vines, that
bore some resemblance to the usual uninhabited-looking exterior of a
Spanish-American dwelling. Apertures that might have been lance-shaped
windows or only cracks and fissures in the walls were choked up with
weeds and grass, and gave no passing glimpse of the interior. Entering
a ruinous corral they came to a second entrance, which proved to be the
patio or courtyard. The deserted wooden corridor, with beams, rafters,
and floors whitened by the eternal sun and wind, contained a few
withered leaves, dryly rotting skins, and thongs of leather, as if
undisturbed by human care. But among these scattered debris of former
life and habitation there was no noisome or unclean suggestion of decay.
A faint, spiced odor of desiccation filled the bare walls. There was
no slime on stone or sun-dried brick. In place of fungus or discolored
moisture the dust of efflorescence whitened in the obscured corners. The
elements had picked clean the bones of the crumbling tenement ere they
should finally absorb it.

A withered old peon woman, who in dress, complexion, and fibrous hair
might have been an animated fragment of the debris, rustled out of a low
vaulted passage and welcomed them with a feeble crepitation. Following
her into the dim interior Mrs. Tucker was surprised to find some slight
attempt at comfort and even adornment in the two or three habitable
apartments. They were scrupulously clean and dry, two qualities which in
her feminine eyes atoned for poverty of material.

“I could not send anything from San Bruno, the nearest village, without
attracting attention,” explained Poindexter; “but if you can manage to
picnic here for a day longer, I’ll get one of our Chinese friends here,”
 he pointed to the slough, “to bring over, for his return cargo from
across the bay, any necessaries you may want. There is no danger of his
betraying you,” he added, with an ironical smile; “Chinamen and Indians
are, by an ingenious provision of the statute of California, incapable
of giving evidence against a white person. You can trust your handmaiden
perfectly--even if she can’t trust YOU. That is your sacred privilege
under the constitution. And now, as I expect to catch the up boat ten
miles from hence, I must say ‘good-by’ until to-morrow night. I hope
to bring you then some more definite plans for the future. The worst is
over.” He held her hand for a moment, and with a graver voice continued,
“You have done it very well--do you know--very well!”

In the slight embarrassment produced by his sudden change of manner she
felt that her thanks seemed awkward and restrained. “Don’t thank me,” he
laughed, with a prompt return of his former levity, “that’s my trade. I
only advised. You have saved yourself like a plucky woman--shall I say
like Blue Grass? Good-by!” He mounted his horse, but, as if struck by an
after-thought, wheeled and drew up by her side again. “If I were you I
wouldn’t see many strangers for a day or two, and listen to as
little news as a woman possibly can.” He laughed again, waved her a
half-gallant, half-military salute, and was gone. The question she had
been trying to frame, regarding the probability of communication with
her husband, remained unasked. At least she had saved her pride before
him.

Addressing herself to the care of her narrow household, she mechanically
put away the few things she had brought with her, and began to readjust
the scant furniture. She was a little discomposed at first at the
absence of bolts, locks, and even window-fastenings until assured, by
Concha’s evident inability to comprehend her concern, that they were
quite unknown at Los Cuervos. Her slight knowledge of Spanish was barely
sufficient to make her wants known, so that the relief of conversation
with her only companion was debarred her, and she was obliged to content
herself with the sapless, crackling smiles and withered genuflexions
that the old woman dropped like dead leaves in her path. It was staring
noon when, the house singing like an empty shell in the monotonous
wind, she felt she could stand the solitude no longer, and, crossing the
glaring patio and whistling corridor, made her way to the open gateway.

But the view without seemed to intensify her desolation. The broad
expanse of the shadowless plain reached apparently to the Coast Range,
trackless and unbroken save by one or two clusters of dwarfed oaks,
which at that distance were but mossy excrescences on the surface,
barely raised above the dead level. On the other side the marsh took
up the monotony and carried it, scarcely interrupted by undefined
water-courses, to the faintly marked out horizon line of the remote bay.
Scattered and apparently motionless black spots on the meadows that gave
a dreary significance to the title of “the Crows” which the rancho bore,
and sudden gray clouds of sand-pipers on the marshes, that rose and
vanished down the wind, were the only signs of life. Even the white sail
of the early morning was gone.

She stood there until the aching of her straining eyes and the
stiffening of her limbs in the cold wind compelled her to seek the
sheltered warmth of the courtyard. Here she endeavored to make friends
with a bright-eyed lizard, who was sunning himself in the corridor; a
graceful little creature in blue and gold, from whom she felt at other
times she might have fled, but whose beauty and harmlessness solitude
had made known to her. With misplaced kindness she tempted it with
bread-crumbs, with no other effect than to stiffen it into stony
astonishment. She wondered if she should become like the prisoners
she had read of in books, who poured out their solitary affections on
noisome creatures, and she regretted even the mustang, which with the
buggy had disappeared under the charge of some unknown retainer on her
arrival. Was she not a prisoner? The shutterless windows, yawning doors,
and open gate refuted her suggestion, but the encompassing solitude and
trackless waste still held her captive. Poindexter had told her it was
four miles to the shanty; she might walk there. Why had she given her
word that she would remain at the rancho until he returned?

The long day crept monotonously away, and she welcomed the night
which shut out the dreary prospect. But it brought no cessation of
the harassing wind without, nor surcease of the nervous irritation its
perpetual and even activity wrought upon her. It haunted her pillow even
in her exhausted sleep, and seemed to impatiently beckon her to rise and
follow it. It brought her feverish dreams of her husband, footsore and
weary, staggering forward under its pitiless lash and clamorous outcry;
she would have gone to his assistance, but when she reached his side and
held out her arms to him it hurried her past with merciless power, and,
bearing her away, left him hopelessly behind. It was broad day when she
awoke. The usual night showers of the waning rainy season had left no
trace in sky or meadow; the fervid morning sun had already dried the
patio; only the restless, harrying wind remained.

Mrs. Tucker arose with a resolve. She had learned from Concha on the
previous evening that a part of the shanty was used as a tienda or shop
for the laborers and rancheros. Under the necessity of purchasing some
articles, she would go there and for a moment mingle with those people,
who would not recognize her. Even if they did, her instinct told her it
would be less to be feared than the hopeless uncertainty of another day.
As she left the house the wind seemed to seize her as in her dream, and
hurry her along with it, until in a few moments the walls of the low
casa sank into the earth again and she was alone, but for the breeze on
the solitary plain. The level distance glittered in the sharp light, a
few crows with slant wings dipped and ran down the wind before her,
and a passing gleam on the marsh was explained by the far-off cry of a
curlew.

She had walked for an hour, upheld by the stimulus of light and morning
air, when the cluster of scrub oaks, which was her destination, opened
enough to show two rambling sheds, before one of which was a wooden
platform containing a few barrels and bones. As she approached nearer,
she could see that one or two horses were tethered under the trees, that
their riders were lounging by a horse-trough, and that over an open door
the word Tienda was rudely painted on a board, and as rudely illustrated
by the wares displayed at door and window. Accustomed as she was to the
poverty of frontier architecture, even the crumbling walls of the old
hacienda she had just left seemed picturesque to the rigid angles of the
thin, blank, unpainted shell before her. One of the loungers, who was
reading a newspaper aloud as she advanced, put it aside and stared at
her; there was an evident commotion in the shop as she stepped upon the
platform, and when she entered, with breathless lips and beating heart,
she found herself the object of a dozen curious eyes. Her quick pride
resented the scrutiny and recalled her courage, and it was with a slight
coldness in her usual lazy indifference that she leaned over the counter
and asked for the articles she wanted.

The request was followed by a dead silence. Mrs. Tucker repeated it with
some hauteur.

“I reckon you don’t seem to know this store is in the hands of the
sheriff,” said one of the loungers.

Mrs. Tucker was not aware of it.

“Well, I don’t know any one who’s a better right to know than Spence
Tucker’s wife,” said another with a coarse laugh. The laugh was echoed
by the others. Mrs. Tucker saw the pit into which she had deliberately
walked, but did not flinch.

“Is there any one to serve here?” she asked, turning her clear eyes full
upon the bystanders.

“You’d better ask the sheriff. He was the last one to SARVE here.
He sarved an attachment,” replied the inevitable humorist of all
Californian assemblages.

“Is he here?” asked Mrs. Tucker, disregarding the renewed laughter which
followed this subtle witticism.

The loungers at the door made way for one of their party, who was half
dragged, half pushed into the shop. “Here he is,” said half a dozen
eager voices, in the fond belief that his presence might impart
additional humor to the situation. He cast a deprecating glance at Mrs.
Tucker and said, “It’s so, madam! This yer place is attached; but if
there’s anything you’re wanting, why I reckon, boys,”--he turned half
appealingly to the crowd,--“we could oblige a lady.” There was a vague
sound of angry opposition and remonstrance from the back door of
the shop, but the majority, partly overcome by Mrs. Tucker’s beauty,
assented. “Only,” continued the officer explanatorily, “ez these yer
goods are in the hands of the creditors, they ought to be represented by
an equivalent in money. If you’re expecting they should be charged--”

“But I wish to PAY for them,” interrupted Mrs. Tucker, with a slight
flush of indignation; “I have the money.”

“Oh, I bet you have!” screamed a voice, as, overturning all opposition,
the malcontent at the back door, in the shape of an infuriated woman,
forced her way into the shop. “I’ll bet you have the money! Look at her,
boys! Look at the wife of the thief, with the stolen money in diamonds
in her ears and rings on her fingers. SHE’S got money if WE’VE none.
SHE can pay for what she fancies, if we haven’t a cent to redeem the bed
that’s stolen from under us. Oh yes, buy it all, Mrs. Spencer Tucker!
buy the whole shop, Mrs. Spencer Tucker, do you hear? And if you ain’t
satisfied then, buy my clothes, my wedding ring, the only things your
husband hasn’t stolen.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Mrs. Tucker coldly, turning towards the
door. But with a flying leap across the counter her relentless adversary
stood between her and retreat.

“You don’t understand! Perhaps you don’t understand that your husband
not only stole the hard labor of these men, but even the little money
they brought here and trusted to his thieving hands. Perhaps you don’t
know that he stole my husband’s hard earnings, mortgaged these very
goods you want to buy, and that he is to-day a convicted thief, a
forger, and a runaway coward. Perhaps, if you can’t understand ME,
you can read the newspaper. Look!” She exultingly opened the paper the
sheriff had been reading aloud, and pointed to the displayed headlines.
“Look! there are the very words, ‘Forgery, Swindling, Embezzlement!’ Do
you see? And perhaps you can’t understand this. Look! ‘Shameful Flight.
Abandons his Wife. Runs off with a Notorious--’”

“Easy, old gal, easy now. D--n it! Will you dry up? I say. STOP!”

It was too late!

The sheriff had dashed the paper from the woman’s hand, but not until
Mrs. Tucker had read a single line, a line such as she had sometimes
turned from with weary scorn in her careless perusal of the daily
shameful chronicle of domestic infelicity. Then she had coldly wondered
if there could be any such men and women; and now! The crowd fell back
before her; even the virago was silenced as she looked at her face.
The humorist’s face was as white, but not as immobile, as he gasped,
“Christ! if I don’t believe she knew nothin’ of it!”

For a moment the full force of such a supposition, with all its
poignancy, its dramatic intensity, and its pathos, possessed the crowd.
In the momentary clairvoyance of enthusiasm they caught a glimpse of the
truth, and by one of the strange reactions of human passion they only
waited for a word of appeal or explanation from her lips to throw
themselves at her feet. Had she simply told her story they would have
believed her; had she cried, fainted, or gone into hysterics, they would
have pitied her. She did neither. Perhaps she thought of neither, or
indeed of anything that was then before her eyes. She walked erect to
the door and turned upon the threshold. “I mean what I say,” she said
calmly. “I don’t understand you. But whatever just claims you have upon
my husband will be paid by me, or by his lawyer, Captain Poindexter.”

She had lost the sympathy but not the respect of her hearers. They made
way for her with sullen deference as she passed out on the platform. But
her adversary, profiting by the last opportunity, burst into an ironical
laugh.

“Captain Poindexter, is it? Well, perhaps he’s safe to pay YOUR bill,
but as for your husband’s--”

“That’s another matter,” interrupted a familiar voice with the greatest
cheerfulness; “that’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? Ha! ha!
Well, Mrs. Patterson,” continued Poindexter, stepping from his buggy,
“you never spoke a truer word in your life. One moment, Mrs. Tucker. Let
me send you back in the buggy. Don’t mind ME. I can get a fresh horse of
the sheriff. I’m quite at home here. I say, Patterson, step a few paces
this way, will you? A little further from your wife, please. That’ll
do. You’ve got a claim of five thousand dollars against the property,
haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that woman just driving away is your one solitary chance of
getting a cent of it. If your wife insults her again, that chance is
gone. And if YOU do--”

“Well?”

“As sure as there is a God in Israel and a Supreme Court of the State of
California, I’ll kill you in your tracks! . . . Stay!”

Patterson turned. The irrepressible look of humorous tolerance of all
human frailty had suffused Poindexter’s black eyes with mischievous
moisture. “If you think it quite safe to confide to your wife this
prospect of her improvement by widowhood, you may!”



CHAPTER III


Mr. Patterson did not inform his wife of the lawyer’s personal threat
to himself. But he managed, after Poindexter had left, to make her
conscious that Mrs. Tucker might be a power to be placated and feared.
“You’ve shot off your mouth at her,” he said argumentatively, “and
whether you’ve hit the mark or not you’ve had your say. Ef you think
it’s worth a possible five thousand dollars and interest to keep on,
heave ahead. Ef you rather have the chance of getting the rest in cash,
you’ll let up on her.” “You don’t suppose,” returned Mrs. Patterson
contemptuously, “that she’s got anything but what that man of
hers--Poindexter--lets her have?” “The sheriff says,” retorted Patterson
surlily, “that she’s notified him that she claims the rancho as a gift
from her husband three years ago, and she’s in POSSESSION now, and was
so when the execution was out. It don’t make no matter,” he added, with
gloomy philosophy, “who’s got a full hand as long as WE ain’t got the
cards to chip in. I wouldn’t ‘a’ minded it,” he continued meditatively,
“ef Spence Tucker had dropped a hint to me afore he put out.” “And I
suppose,” said Mrs. Patterson angrily, “you’d have put out too?” “I
reckon,” said Patterson simply.

Twice or thrice during the evening he referred, more or less directly,
to this lack of confidence shown by his late debtor and employer, and
seemed to feel it more keenly than the loss of property. He confided his
sentiments quite openly to the sheriff in possession, over the whiskey
and euchre with which these gentlemen avoided the difficulties of their
delicate relations. He brooded over it as he handed the keys of the shop
to the sheriff when they parted for the night, and was still thinking of
it when the house was closed, everybody gone to bed, and he was fetching
a fresh jug of water from the well. The moon was at times obscured by
flying clouds, the avant-couriers of the regular evening shower. He
was stooping over the well, when he sprang suddenly to his feet again.
“Who’s there?” he demanded sharply.

“Hush!” said a voice so low and faint it might have been a whisper of
the wind in the palisades of the corral. But, indistinct as it was, it
was the voice of the man he was thinking of as far away, and it sent a
thrill of alternate awe and pleasure through his pulses.

He glanced quickly around. The moon was hidden by a passing cloud, and
only the faint outlines of the house he had just quitted were visible.
“Is that you, Spence?” he said tremulously.

“Yes,” replied the voice, and a figure dimly emerged from the corner of
the corral.

“Lay low, lay low, for God’s sake,” said Patterson, hurriedly throwing
himself upon the apparition. “The sheriff and his posse are in there.”

“But I must speak to you a moment,” said the figure.

“Wait,” said Patterson, glancing towards the building. Its blank,
shutterless windows revealed no inner light; a profound silence
encompassed it. “Come quick,” he whispered. Letting his grasp slip down
to the unresisting hand of the stranger, he half-dragged, half-led him,
brushing against the wall, into the open door of the deserted bar-room
he had just quitted, locked the inner door, poured a glass of whiskey
from a decanter, gave it to him, and then watched him drain it at a
single draught. The moon came out, and, falling through the bare windows
full upon the stranger’s face, revealed the artistic but slightly
disheveled curls and moustache of the fugitive, Spencer Tucker.

Whatever may have been the real influence of this unfortunate man upon
his fellows, it seemed to find expression in a singular unanimity of
criticism. Patterson looked at him with a half-dismal, half-welcoming
smile. “Well, you are a h-ll of a fellow, ain’t you?”

Spencer Tucker passed his hand through his hair and lifted it from his
forehead, with a gesture at once emotional and theatrical. “I am a man
with a price on me!” he said bitterly. “Give me up to the sheriff,
and you’ll get five thousand dollars. Help me, and you’ll get nothing.
That’s my d----d luck, and yours too, I suppose.”

“I reckon you’re right there,” said Patterson gloomily. “But I thought
you got clean away. Went off in a ship--”

“Went off in a boat to a ship,” interrupted Tucker savagely; “went off
to a ship that had all my things on board--everything. The cursed boat
capsized in a squall just off the Heads. The ship, d--n her, sailed
away, the men thinking I was drowned, likely, and that they’d make a
good thing off my goods, I reckon.”

“But the girl, Inez, who was with you, didn’t she make a row?”

“Quien sabe?” returned Tucker, with a reckless laugh. “Well, I hung
on like grim death to that boat’s keel until one of those Chinese
fishermen, in a ‘dug-out,’ hauled me in opposite Saucelito. I chartered
him and his dug-out to bring me down here.”

“Why here?” asked Patterson, with a certain ostentatious caution that
ill-concealed his pensive satisfaction.

“You may well ask,” returned Tucker, with an equal ostentation of
bitterness, as he slightly waved his companion away. “But I reckoned I
could trust a white man that I’d been kind to, and who wouldn’t go back
on me. No, no, let me go! Hand me over to the sheriff!”

Patterson had suddenly grasped both the hands of the picturesque scamp
before him, with an affection that for an instant almost shamed the man
who had ruined him. But Tucker’s egotism whispered that this affection
was only a recognition of his own superiority, and felt flattered. He
was beginning to believe that he was really the injured party.

“What I HAVE and what I have HAD is yours, Spence,” returned Patterson,
with a sad and simple directness that made any further discussion a
gratuitous insult. “I only wanted to know what you reckoned to do here.”

“I want to get over across the Coast Range to Monterey,” said Tucker.
“Once there, one of those coasting schooners will bring me down to
Acapulco, where the ship will put in.”

Patterson remained silent for a moment. “There’s a mustang in the corral
you can take--leastways, I shan’t know that it’s gone--until to-morrow
afternoon. In an hour from now,” he added, looking from the window,
“these clouds will settle down to business. It will rain; there will
be light enough for you to find your way by the regular trail over the
mountain, but not enough for any one to know you. If you can’t push
through to-night, you can lie over at the posada on the summit. Them
greasers that keep it won’t know you, and if they did they won’t go back
on you. And if they did go back on you, nobody would believe them. It’s
mighty curious,” he added, with gloomy philosophy, “but I reckon it’s
the reason why Providence allows this kind of cattle to live among white
men and others made in his image. Take a piece of pie, won’t you?” He
continued, abandoning this abstract reflection and producing half a flat
pumpkin pie from the bar. Spencer Tucker grasped the pie with one hand
and his friend’s fingers with the other, and for a few moments was
silent from the hurried deglutition of viand and sentiment. “YOU’RE a
white man, Patterson, anyway,” he resumed. “I’ll take your horse, and
put it down in our account, at your own figure. As soon as this cursed
thing is blown over, I’ll be back here and see you through, you bet. I
don’t desert my friends, however rough things go with me.”

“I see you don’t,” returned Patterson, with an unconscious and serious
simplicity that had the effect of the most exquisite irony. “I was only
just saying to the sheriff that if there was anything I could have done
for you, you wouldn’t have cut away without letting me know.” Tucker
glanced uneasily at Patterson, who continued, “Ye ain’t wanting anything
else?” Then observing that his former friend and patron was roughly but
newly clothed, and betrayed no trace of his last escapade, he added, “I
see you’ve got a fresh harness.”

“That d----d Chinaman bought me these at the landing; they’re not
much in style or fit,” he continued, trying to get a moonlight view of
himself in the mirror behind the bar, “but that don’t matter here.” He
filled another glass of spirits, jauntily settled himself back in his
chair, and added, “I don’t suppose there are any girls around, anyway.”

“‘Cept your wife; she was down here this afternoon,” said Patterson
meditatively.

Mr. Tucker paused with the pie in his hand. “Ah, yes!” He essayed a
reckless laugh, but that evident simulation failed before Patterson’s
melancholy. With an assumption of falling in with his friend’s manner,
rather than from any personal anxiety, he continued, “Well?”

“That man Poindexter was down here with her. Put her in the hacienda to
hold possession afore the news came out.”

“Impossible!” said Tucker, rising hastily. “It don’t belong--that is--”
 he hesitated.

“Yer thinking the creditors ‘ll get it, mebbe,” returned Patterson,
gazing at the floor. “Not as long as she’s in it; no sir! Whether
it’s really hers, or she’s only keeping house for Poindexter, she’s a
fixture, you bet. They’re a team when they pull together, they are!”

The smile slowly faded from Tucker’s face, that now looked quite rigid
in the moonlight. He put down his glass and walked to the window as
Patterson gloomily continued, “But that’s nothing to you. You’ve got
ahead of ‘em both, and had your revenge by going off with the
gal. That’s what I said all along. When folks--especially women
folks--wondered how you could leave a woman like your wife, and go off
with a scallawag like that gal, I allers said they’d find out there was
a reason. And when your wife came flaunting down here with Poindexter
before she’d quite got quit of you, I reckon they began to see the whole
little game. No sir! I knew it wasn’t on account of the gal! Why, when
you came here to-night and told me quite nat’ral-like and easy how
she went off in the ship, and then calmly ate your pie and drank your
whiskey after it, I knew you didn’t care for her. There’s my hand,
Spence; you’re a trump, even if you are a little looney, eh? Why, what’s
up?”

Shallow and selfish as Tucker was, Patterson’s words seemed like a
revelation that shocked him as profoundly as it might have shocked a
nobler nature. The simple vanity and selfishness that made him unable to
conceive any higher reason for his wife’s loyalty than his own personal
popularity and success, now that he no longer possessed that eclat,
made him equally capable of the lowest suspicions. He was a dishonored
fugitive, broken in fortune and reputation--why should she not desert
him! He had been unfaithful to her from wildness, from caprice, from the
effect of those fascinating qualities; it seemed to him natural that she
should be disloyal from more deliberate motives, and he hugged himself
with that belief. Yet there was enough doubt, enough of haunting
suspicion that he had lost or alienated a powerful affection, to make
him thoroughly miserable. He returned his friend’s grasp convulsively
and buried his face upon his shoulder. But he was not above feeling
a certain exultation in the effect of his misery upon the dog-like,
unreasoning affection of Patterson, nor could he entirely refrain from
slightly posing his affliction before that sympathetic but melancholy
man. Suddenly he raised his head, drew back, and thrust his hand into
his bosom with a theatrical gesture.

“What’s to keep me from killing Poindexter in his tracks?” he said
wildly.

“Nothin’ but HIS shooting first,” returned Patterson, with dismal
practicality. “He’s mighty quick, like all them army men. It’s about
even, I reckon, that he don’t get ME first,” he added in an ominous
voice.

“No!” returned Tucker, grasping his hand again. “This is not your
affair, Patterson; leave him to me when I come back.”

“If he ever gets the drop on me, I reckon he won’t wait,” continued
Patterson lugubriously. “He seems to object to my passin’ criticism on
your wife, as if she was a queen or an angel.”

The blood came to Spencer’s cheek, and he turned uneasily to the window.
“It’s dark enough now for a start,” he said hurriedly, “and if I could
get across the mountain without lying over at the summit, it would be a
day gained.”

Patterson arose without a word, filled a flask of spirit, handed it to
his friend, and silently led the way through the slowly falling rain and
the now settled darkness. The mustang was quickly secured and saddled, a
heavy poncho afforded Tucker a disguise as well as a protection from the
rain. With a few hurried, disconnected words, and an abstracted air, he
once more shook his friend’s hand and issued cautiously from the corral.
When out of earshot from the house he put spurs to the mustang, and
dashed into a gallop.

To intersect the mountain road he was obliged to traverse part of the
highway his wife had walked that afternoon, and to pass within a mile of
the casa where she was. Long before he reached that point his eyes were
straining the darkness in that direction for some indication of the
house which was to him familiar. Becoming now accustomed to the even
obscurity, less trying to the vision than the alternate light and
shadow of cloud or the full glare of the moonlight, he fancied he
could distinguish its low walls over the monotonous level. One of
those impulses which had so often taken the place of resolution in his
character suddenly possessed him to diverge from his course and approach
the house. Why, he could not have explained. It was not from any feeling
of jealous suspicion or contemplated revenge--that had passed with the
presence of Patterson; it was not from any vague lingering sentiment for
the woman he had wronged--he would have shrunk from meeting her at that
moment. But it was full of these and more possibilities by which he
might or might not be guided, and was at least a movement towards
some vague end, and a distraction from certain thoughts he dared not
entertain and could not entirely dismiss. Inconceivable and inexplicable
to human reason, it might have been acceptable to the Divine omniscience
for its predestined result.

He left the road at a point where the marsh encroached upon the meadow,
familiar to him already as near the spot where he had embarked from
the Chinaman’s boat the day before. He remembered that the walls of the
hacienda were distinctly visible from the tules where he had hidden all
day, and he now knew that the figures he had observed near the building,
which had deterred his first attempts at landing, must have been his
wife and his friend. He knew that a long tongue of the slough filled
by the rising tide followed the marsh, and lay between him and the
hacienda. The sinking of his horse’s hoofs in the spongy soil determined
its proximity, and he made a detour to the right to avoid it. In doing
so, a light suddenly rose above the distant horizon ahead of him,
trembled faintly, and then burned with a steady lustre. It was a light
at the hacienda. Guiding his horse half abstractedly in this direction,
his progress was presently checked by the splashing of the animal’s
hoofs in the water. But the turf below was firm, and a salt drop that
had spattered to his lips told him that it was only the encroaching of
the tide in the meadow. With his eyes on the light, he again urged his
horse forward. The rain lulled, the clouds began to break, the landscape
alternately lightened and grew dark; the outlines of the crumbling
hacienda walls that enshrined the light grew more visible. A strange
and dreamy resemblance to the long blue-grass plain before his wife’s
paternal house, as seen by him during his evening rides to courtship,
pressed itself upon him. He remembered, too, that she used to put a
light in the window to indicate her presence. Following this retrospect,
the moon came boldly out, sparkled upon the overflow of silver at his
feet, seemed to show the dark, opaque meadow beyond for a moment, and
then disappeared. It was dark now, but the lesser earthly star still
shone before him as a guide, and pushing towards it, he passed in the
all-embracing shadow.



CHAPTER IV


As Mrs. Tucker, erect, white, and rigid, drove away from the tienda,
it seemed to her to sink again into the monotonous plain, with all its
horrible realities. Except that there was now a new and heart-breaking
significance to the solitude and loneliness of the landscape, all that
had passed might have been a dream. But as the blood came back to her
cheek, and little by little her tingling consciousness returned, it
seemed as if her life had been the dream, and this last scene the
awakening reality. With eyes smarting with the moisture of shame, the
scarlet blood at times dyeing her very neck and temples, she muffled
her lowered crest in her shawl and bent over the reins. Bit by bit she
recalled, in Poindexter’s mysterious caution and strange allusions, the
corroboration of her husband’s shame and her own disgrace. This was why
she was brought hither--the deserted wife, and abandoned confederate!
The mocking glitter of the concave vault above her, scoured by the
incessant wind, the cold stare of the shining pools beyond, the hard
outlines of the Coast Range, and the jarring accompaniment of her
horse’s hoofs and rattling buggy wheels alternately goaded and
distracted her. She found herself repeating “No! no! no!” with the
dogged reiteration of fever. She scarcely knew when or how she reached
the hacienda. She was only conscious that as she entered the patio the
dusty solitude that had before filled her with unrest now came to her
like balm. A benumbing peace seemed to fall from the crumbling walls;
the peace of utter seclusion, isolation, oblivion, death! Nevertheless,
an hour later, when the jingle of spurs and bridle were again heard in
the road, she started to her feet with bent brows and a kindling eye,
and confronted Captain Poindexter in the corridor.

“I would not have intruded upon you so soon again,” he said gravely,
“but I thought I might perhaps spare you a repetition of the scene
of this morning. Hear me out, please,” he added, with a gentle,
half-deprecating gesture, as she lifted the beautiful scorn of her eyes
to his. “I have just heard that your neighbor, Don Jose Santierra, of
Los Gatos, is on his way to this house. He once claimed this land, and
hated your husband, who bought of the rival claimant, whose grant was
confirmed. I tell you this,” he added, slightly flushing as Mrs. Tucker
turned impatiently away, “only to show you that legally he has no
rights, and you need not see him unless you choose. I could not stop his
coming without perhaps doing you more harm than good; but when he does
come, my presence under this roof as your legal counsel will enable you
to refer him to me.” He stopped. She was pacing the corridor with short,
impatient steps, her arms dropped, and her hands clasped rigidly before
her. “Have I your permission to stay?”

She suddenly stopped in her walk, approached him rapidly, and fixing her
eyes on his, said,--

“Do I know ALL, now--everything?”

He could only reply that she had not yet told him what she had heard.

“Well,” she said scornfully, “that my husband has been cruelly imposed
upon--imposed upon by some wretched woman, who has made him sacrifice
his property, his friends, his honor--everything but me?”

“Everything but whom?” gasped Poindexter.

“But ME!”

Poindexter gazed at the sky, the air, the deserted corridor, the stones
of the patio itself, and then at the inexplicable woman before him. Then
he said gravely, “I think you know everything.”

“Then if my husband has left me all he could--this property,” she went
on rapidly, twisting her handkerchief between her fingers, “I can do
with it what I like, can’t I?”

“You certainly can.”

“Then sell it,” she said, with passionate vehemence. “Sell it--all!
everything! And sell these.” She darted into her bedroom, and returned
with the diamond rings she had torn from her fingers and ears when she
entered the house. “Sell them for anything they’ll bring, only sell them
at once.”

“But for what?” asked Poindexter, with demure lips but twinkling eyes.

“To pay the debts that this--this--woman has led him into; to return the
money she has stolen!” she went on rapidly, “to keep him from sharing
her infamy! Can’t you understand?”

“But, my dear madam,” began Poindexter, “even if this could be done--”

“Don’t tell me ‘if it could’--it MUST be done. Do you think I could
sleep under this roof, propped up by the timbers of that ruined tienda?
Do you think I could wear those diamonds again, while that termagant
shop-woman can say that her money bought them? No. If you are my
husband’s friend you will do this--for--for his sake.” She stopped,
locked and interlocked her cold fingers before her, and said, hesitating
and mechanically, “You meant well, Captain Poindexter, in bringing me
here, I know! You must not think that I blame you for it, or for the
miserable result of it that you have just witnessed. But if I have
gained anything by it, for God’s sake let me reap it quickly, that I may
give it to these people and go! I have a friend who can aid me to get to
my husband or to my home in Kentucky, where Spencer will yet find me,
I know. I want nothing more.” She stopped again. With another woman
the pause would have been one of tears. But she kept her head above the
flood that filled her heart, and the clear eyes fixed upon Poindexter,
albeit pained, were undimmed.

“But this would require time,” said Poindexter, with a smile of
compassionate explanation; “you could not sell now, nobody would buy.
You are safe to hold this property while you are in actual possession,
but you are not strong enough to guarantee it to another. There may
still be litigation; your husband has other creditors than these people
you have talked with. But while nobody could oust you--the wife who
would have the sympathies of judge and jury--it might be a different
case with any one who derived title from you. Any purchaser would know
that you could not sell, or if you did, it would be at a ridiculous
sacrifice.”

She listened to him abstractedly, walked to the end of the corridor,
returned, and without looking up, said,--

“I suppose you know her?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“This woman. You have seen her?”

“Never, to my knowledge.”

“And you are his friend! That’s strange.” She raised her eyes to his.
“Well,” she continued impatiently, “who is she? and what is she? You
know that surely?”

“I know no more of her than what I have said,” said Poindexter. “She is
a notorious woman.”

The swift color came to Mrs. Tucker’s face as if the epithet had been
applied to herself. “I suppose,” she said in a dry voice, as if she
were asking a business question, but with an eye that showed her rising
anger,--“I suppose there is some law by which creatures of this kind can
be followed and brought to justice--some law that would keep innocent
people from suffering for their crimes?”

“I am afraid,” said Poindexter, “that arresting her would hardly help
these people over in the tienda.”

“I am not speaking of them,” responded Mrs. Tucker, with a sudden
sublime contempt for the people whose cause she had espoused: “I am
talking of my husband.”

Poindexter bit his lip. “You’d hardly think of bringing back the
strongest witness against him,” he said bluntly.

Mrs. Tucker dropped her eyes and was silent. A sudden shame suffused
Poindexter’s cheek; he felt as if he had struck that woman a blow. “I
beg your pardon,” he said hastily, “I am talking like a lawyer to a
lawyer.” He would have taken any other woman by the hand in the honest
fullness of his apology, but something restrained him here. He only
looked down gently on her lowered lashes, and repeated his question if
he should remain during the coming interview with Don Jose: “I must beg
you to determine quickly,” he added, “for I already hear him entering
the gate.”

“Stay,” said Mrs. Tucker, as the ringing of spurs and clatter of hoofs
came from the corral. “One moment.” She looked up suddenly, and said,
“How long had he known her?” But before he could reply there was a step
in the doorway, and the figure of Don Jose Santierra emerged from the
archway.

He was a man slightly past middle age, fair and well shaven, wearing a
black broadcloth serape, the deeply embroidered opening of which formed
a collar of silver rays around his neck, while a row of silver buttons
down the side seams of his riding trousers, and silver spurs, completed
his singular equipment. Mrs. Tucker’s swift feminine glance took in
these details, as well as the deep salutation, more formal than the
exuberant frontier politeness she was accustomed to, with which he
greeted her. It was enough to arrest her first impulse to retreat. She
hesitated and stopped as Poindexter stepped forward, partly interposing
between them, acknowledging Don Jose’s distant recognition of himself
with an ironical accession of his usual humorous tolerance. The Spaniard
did not seem to notice it, but remained gravely silent before Mrs.
Tucker, gazing at her with an expression of intent and unconscious
absorption.

“You are quite right, Don Jose,” said Poindexter, with ironical concern,
“it is Mrs. Tucker. Your eyes do NOT deceive you. She will be glad to do
the honors of her house,” he continued, with a simulation of appealing
to her, “unless you visit her on business, when I need not say I shall
be only too happy, to attend you, as before.”

Don Jose, with a slight lifting of the eyebrows, allowed himself to
become conscious of the lawyer’s meaning. “It is not of business that
I come to kiss the Senora’s hand to-day,” he replied, with a melancholy
softness; “it is as her neighbor, to put myself at her disposition. Ah!
the what have we here for a lady?” he continued, raising his eyes in
deprecation of the surroundings; “a house of nothing, a place of winds
and dry bones, without refreshments, or satisfaction, or delicacy. The
Senora will not refuse to make us proud this day to send her of that
which we have in our poor home at Los Gatos, to make her more complete.
Of what shall it be? Let her make choice. Or if she would commemorate
this day by accepting of our hospitality at Los Gatos, until she shall
arrange herself the more to receive us here, we shall have too much
honor.”

“The Senora would only find it the more difficult to return to this
humble roof again, after once leaving it for Don Jose’s hospitality,”
 said Poindexter, with a demure glance at Mrs. Tucker. But the innuendo
seemed to lapse equally unheeded by his fair client and the stranger.
Raising her eyes with a certain timid dignity which Don Jose’s presence
seemed to have called out, she addressed herself to him.

“You are very kind and considerate, Mister Santierra, and I thank you. I
know that my husband”--she let the clear beauty of her translucent eyes
rest full on both men--“would thank you too. But I shall not be here
long enough to accept your kindness in this house or in your own. I have
but one desire and object now. It is to dispose of this property, and
indeed all I possess, to pay the debt of my husband. It is in your
power, perhaps, to help me. I am told that you wish to possess Los
Cuervos,” she went on, equally oblivious of the consciousness that
appeared in Don Jose’s face, and a humorous perplexity on the brow of
Poindexter. “If you can arrange it with Mr. Poindexter, you will find
me a liberal vendor. That much you can do, and I know you will believe
I shall be grateful. You can do no more, unless it be to say to your
friends that Mrs. Belle Tucker remains here only for that purpose,
and to carry out what she knows to be the wishes of her husband.” She
paused, bent her pretty crest, dropped a quaint curtsey to the superior
age, the silver braid, and the gentlemanly bearing of Don Jose, and with
the passing sunshine of a smile disappeared from the corridor.

The two men remained silent for a moment, Don Jose gazing abstractedly
on the door through which she had vanished, until Poindexter, with a
return of his tolerant smile, said, “You have heard the views of Mrs.
Tucker. You know the situation as well as she does.”

“Ah, yes; possibly better.”

Poindexter darted a quick glance at the grave, sallow face of Don Jose,
but detecting no unusual significance in his manner, continued, “As you
see, she leaves this matter in my hands. Let us talk like business men.
Have you any idea of purchasing this property?”

“Of purchasing, ah, no.”

Poindexter bent his brows, but quickly relaxed them with a smile of
humorous forgiveness. “If you have any other idea, Don Jose, I ought to
warn you, as Mrs. Tucker’s lawyer, that she is in legal possession here,
and that nothing but her own act can change that position.”

“Ah, so.”

Irritated at the shrug which accompanied this, Poindexter continued
haughtily, “If I am to understand, you have nothing to say--”

“To say, ah, yes, possibly. But”--he glanced toward the door of Mrs.
Tucker’s room--“not here.” He stopped, appeared to recall himself,
and with an apologetic smile and a studied but graceful gesture of
invitation, he motioned to the gateway, and said, “Will you ride?”

“What can the fellow be up to?” muttered Poindexter, as with an
assenting nod he proceeded to remount his horse. “If he wasn’t an old
hidalgo, I’d mistrust him. No matter! here goes!”

The Don also remounted his half-broken mustang; they proceeded in solemn
silence through the corral, and side by side emerged on the open plain.
Poindexter glanced around; no other being was in sight. It was not until
the lonely hacienda had also sunk behind them that Don Jose broke the
silence.

“You say just now we shall speak as business men. I say no, Don Marco; I
will not. I shall speak, we shall speak, as gentlemen.”

“Go on,” said Poindexter, who was beginning to be amused.

“I say just now I will not purchase the rancho from the Senora. And why?
Look you, Don Marco;” he reined in his horse, thrust his hand under his
serape, and drew out a folded document: “this is why.”

With a smile, Poindexter took the paper from his hand and opened it. But
the smile faded from his lips as he read. With blazing eyes he spurred
his horse beside the Spaniard, almost unseating him, and said sternly,
“What does this mean?”

“What does it mean?” repeated Don Jose, with equally flashing eyes,
“I’ll tell you. It means that your client, this man Spencer Tucker, is
a Judas, a traitor! It means that he gave Los Cuervos to his mistress
a year ago, and that she sold it to me--to me, you hear!--ME, Jose
Santierra, the day before she left! It means that the coyote of a
Spencer, the thief, who bought these lands of a thief, and gave them
to a thief, has tricked you all. Look,” he said, rising in his saddle,
holding the paper like a baton, and defining with a sweep of his arm the
whole level plain, “all these lands were once mine, they are mine again
to-day. Do I want to purchase Los Cuervos? you ask, for you will speak
of the BUSINESS. Well, listen. I HAVE purchased Los Cuervos, and here is
the deed.”

“But it has never been recorded,” said Poindexter, with a carelessness
he was far from feeling.

“Of a verity, no. Do you wish that I should record it?” asked Don Jose,
with a return of his simple gravity.

Poindexter bit his lip. “You said we were to talk like gentlemen,” he
returned. “Do you think you have come into possession of this alleged
deed like a gentleman?”

Don Jose shrugged his shoulders. “I found it tossed in the lap of a
harlot. I bought it for a song. Eh, what would you?”

“Would you sell it again for a song?” asked Poindexter.

“Ah! what is this?” said Don Jose, lifting his iron-gray brows; “but a
moment ago we would sell everything, for any money. Now we would buy. Is
it so?”

“One moment, Don Jose,” said Poindexter, with a baleful light in his
dark eyes. “Do I understand that you are the ally of Spencer Tucker and
his mistress, that you intend to turn this doubly betrayed wife from the
only roof she has to cover her?”

“Ah, I comprehend not. You heard her say she wished to go. Perhaps it
may please ME to distribute largess to these cattle yonder, I do not say
no. More she does not ask. But YOU, Don Marco, of whom are you advocate?
You abandon your client’s mistress for the wife, is it so?”

“What I may do you will learn hereafter,” said Poindexter, who had
regained his composure, suddenly reining up his horse. “As our paths
seem likely to diverge, they had better begin now. Good morning.”

“Patience, my friend, patience! Ah, blessed St. Anthony, what these
Americans are! Listen. For what YOU shall do, I do not inquire. The
question is to me what I”--he emphasized the pronoun by tapping himself
on the breast--“I, Jose Santierra, will do. Well, I shall tell you.
To-day, nothing. To-morrow, nothing. For a week, for a month, nothing!
After, we shall see.”

Poindexter paused thoughtfully. “Will you give your word, Don Jose, that
you will not press the claim for a month?”

“Truly, on one condition. Observe! I do not ask you for an equal
promise, that you will not take this time to defend yourself.” He
shrugged his shoulders. “No! It is only this. You shall promise that
during that time the Senora Tucker shall remain ignorant of this
document.”

Poindexter hesitated a moment. “I promise,” he said at last.

“Good. Adios, Don Marco.”

“Adios, Don Jose.”

The Spaniard put spurs to his mustang and galloped off in the direction
of Los Gatos. The lawyer remained for a moment gazing on his retreating
but victorious figure. For the first time the old look of humorous
toleration with which Mr. Poindexter was in the habit of regarding all
human infirmity gave way to something like bitterness. “I might have
guessed it,” he said, with a slight rise of color. “He’s an old
fool; and she--well, perhaps it’s all the better for her!” He glanced
backwards almost tenderly in the direction of Los Cuervos, and then
turned his head towards the embarcadero.

As the afternoon wore on, a creaking, antiquated ox-cart arrived at
Los Cuervos, bearing several articles of furniture, and some tasteful
ornaments from Los Gatos, at the same time that a young Mexican girl
mysteriously appeared in the kitchen, as a temporary assistant to the
decrepit Concha. These were both clearly attributable to Don Jose, whose
visit was not so remote but that these delicate attentions might have
been already projected before Mrs. Tucker had declined them, and she
could not, without marked discourtesy, return them now. She did not wish
to seem discourteous; she would like to have been more civil to this
old gentleman, who still retained the evidences of a picturesque
and decorous past, and a repose so different from the life that was
perplexing her. Reflecting that if he bought the estate these things
would be ready to his hand, and with a woman’s instinct recognizing
their value in setting off the house to other purchasers’ eyes, she
took a pleasure in tastefully arranging them, and even found herself
speculating how she might have enjoyed them herself had she been able
to keep possession of the property. After all, it would not have been
so lonely if refined and gentle neighbors, like this old man, would have
sympathized with her; she had an instinctive feeling that, in their own
hopeless decay and hereditary unfitness for this new civilization, they
would have been more tolerant of her husband’s failure than his own
kind. She could not believe that Don Jose really hated her husband for
buying of the successful claimant, as there was no other legal title.
Allowing herself to become interested in the guileless gossip of the new
handmaiden, proud of her broken English, she was drawn into a sympathy
with the grave simplicity of Don Jose’s character, a relic of that true
nobility which placed this descendant of the Castilians and the daughter
of a free people on the same level.

In this way the second day of her occupancy of Los Cuervos closed, with
dumb clouds along the gray horizon, and the paroxysms of hysterical
wind growing fainter and fainter outside the walls; with the moon rising
after nightfall, and losing itself in silent and mysterious confidences
with drifting scud. She went to bed early, but woke past midnight,
hearing, as she thought, her own name called. The impression was so
strong upon her that she rose, and, hastily enwrapping herself, went
to the dark embrasures of the oven-shaped windows, and looked out. The
dwarfed oak beside the window was still dropping from a past shower, but
the level waste of marsh and meadow beyond seemed to advance and recede
with the coming and going of the moon. Again she heard her name called,
and this time in accents so strangely familiar that with a slight cry
she ran into the corridor, crossed the patio, and reached the open gate.
The darkness that had, even in this brief interval, again fallen upon
the prospect she tried in vain to pierce with eye and voice. A blank
silence followed. Then the veil was suddenly withdrawn; the vast plain,
stretching from the mountain to the sea, shone as clearly as in the
light of day; the moving current of the channel glittered like black
pearls, the stagnant pools like molten lead; but not a sign of life nor
motion broke the monotony of the broad expanse. She must have surely
dreamed it. A chill wind drove her back to the house again; she entered
her bedroom, and in half an hour she was in a peaceful sleep.



CHAPTER V


The two men kept their secret. Mr. Poindexter convinced Mrs. Tucker that
the sale of Los Cuervos could not be effected until the notoriety of her
husband’s flight had been fairly forgotten, and she was forced to accept
her fate. The sale of her diamonds, which seemed to her to have realized
a singularly extravagant sum, enabled her to quietly reinstate the
Pattersons in the tienda and to discharge in full her husband’s
liabilities to the rancheros and his humbler retainers.

Meanwhile the winter rains had ceased. It seemed to her as if the clouds
had suddenly one night struck their white tents and stolen away, leaving
the unvanquished sun to mount the vacant sky the next morning alone,
and possess it thenceforward unchallenged. One afternoon she thought
the long sad waste before her window had caught some tint of gayer
color from the sunset; a week later she found it a blazing landscape of
poppies, broken here and there by blue lagoons of lupine, by pools of
daisies, by banks of dog-roses, by broad outlying shores of dandelions
that scattered their lavish gold to the foot of the hills, where the
green billows of wild oats carried it on and upwards to the darker crest
of pines. For two months she was dazzled and bewildered with color. She
had never before been face to face with this spendthrift Californian
Flora, in her virgin wastefulness, her more than goddess-like
prodigality. The teeming earth seemed to quicken and throb beneath
her feet; the few circuits of a plough around the outlying corral were
enough to call out a jungle growth of giant grain that almost hid the
low walls of the hacienda. In this glorious fecundity of the earth,
in this joyous renewal of life and color, in this opulent youth and
freshness of soil and sky, it alone remained, the dead and sterile Past,
left in the midst of buoyant rejuvenescence and resurrection, like an
empty churchyard skull upturned on the springing turf. Its bronzed adobe
walls mocked the green vine that embraced them, the crumbling dust of
its courtyard remained ungerminating and unfruitful; to the thousand
stirring voices without, its dry lips alone remained mute, unresponsive
and unchanged.

During this time Don Jose had become a frequent visitor at Los Cuervos,
bringing with him at first his niece and sister in a stately precision
of politeness that was not lost on the proud Blue Grass stranger.
She returned their visit at Los Gatos, and there made the formal
acquaintance of Don Jose’s grandmother, a lady who still regarded the
decrepit Concha as a giddy muchacha, and who herself glittered as with
the phosphorescence of refined decay. Through this circumstance she
learned that Don Jose was not yet fifty, and that his gravity of
manner and sedateness was more the result of fastidious isolation and
temperament than years. She could not tell why the information gave
her a feeling of annoyance, but it caused her to regret the absence of
Poindexter, and to wonder, also somewhat nervously, why he had lately
avoided her presence. The thought that he might be doing so from a
recollection of the innuendoes of Mrs. Patterson caused a little tremor
of indignation in her pulses. “As if--” but she did not finish the
sentence even to herself, and her eyes filled with bitter tears.

Yet she had thought of the husband who had so cruelly wronged her less
feverishly, less impatiently than before. For she thought she loved him
now the more deeply, because, although she was not reconciled to his
absence, it seemed to keep alive the memory of what he had been before
his one wild act separated them. She had never seen the reflection of
another woman’s eyes in his; the past contained no haunting recollection
of waning or alienated affection; she could meet him again, and,
clasping her arms around him, awaken as if from a troubled dream without
reproach or explanation. Her strong belief in this made her patient;
she no longer sought to know the particulars of his flight, and never
dreamed that her passive submission to his absence was partly due to
a fear that something in his actual presence at that moment would have
destroyed that belief forever.

For this reason the delicate reticence of the people at Los Gatos, and
their seclusion from the world which knew of her husband’s fault, had
made her encourage the visits of Don Jose, until from the instinct
already alluded to she one day summoned Poindexter to Los Cuervos, on
the day that Don Jose usually called. But to her surprise the two men
met more or less awkwardly and coldly, and her tact as hostess was tried
to the utmost to keep their evident antagonism from being too apparent.
The effort to reconcile their mutual discontent, and some other feeling
she did not quite understand, produced a nervous excitement which called
the blood to her cheek and gave a dangerous brilliancy to her eyes, two
circumstances not unnoticed nor unappreciated by her two guests. But
instead of reuniting them, the prettier Mrs. Tucker became, the more
distant and reserved grew the men, until Don Jose rose before the usual
hour, and with more than usual ceremoniousness departed.

“Then my business does not seem to be with HIM?” said Poindexter,
with quiet coolness, as Mrs. Tucker turned her somewhat mystified face
towards him. “Or have you anything to say to me about him in private?”

“I am sure I don’t know what you both mean,” she returned with a slight
tremor of voice. “I had no idea you were not on good terms. I thought
you were! It’s very awkward.” Without coquetry and unconsciously she
raised her blue eyes under her lids until the clear pupils coyly and
softly hid themselves in the corners of the brown lashes, and added,
“You have both been so kind to me.”

“Perhaps that is the reason,” said Poindexter, gravely. But Mrs. Tucker
refused to accept the suggestion with equal gravity, and began to laugh.
The laugh, which was at first frank, spontaneous, and almost child-like,
was becoming hysterical and nervous as she went on, until it was
suddenly checked by Poindexter.

“I have had no difficulties with Don Jose Santierra,” he said, somewhat
coldly ignoring her hilarity, “but perhaps he is not inclined to be as
polite to the friend of the husband as he is to the wife.”

“Mr. Poindexter!” said Mrs. Tucker quickly, her face becoming pale
again.

“I beg your pardon!” said Poindexter, flushing; “but--”

“You want to say,” she interrupted coolly, “that you are not friends, I
see. Is that the reason why you have avoided this house?” she continued
gently.

“I thought I could be of more service to you elsewhere,” he replied
evasively. “I have been lately following up a certain clue rather
closely. I think I am on the track of a confidante of--of--that woman.”

A quick shadow passed over Mrs. Tucker’s face. “Indeed!” she said
coldly. “Then I am to believe that you prefer to spend your leisure
moments in looking after that creature to calling here?”

Poindexter was stupefied. Was this the woman who only four months ago
was almost vindictively eager to pursue her husband’s paramour! There
could be but one answer to it--Don Jose! Four months ago he would have
smiled compassionately at it from his cynical pre-eminence. Now he
managed with difficulty to stifle the bitterness of his reply.

“If you do not wish the inquiry carried on,” he began, “of course--”

“I? What does it matter to me?” she said coolly. “Do as you please.”

Nevertheless, half an hour later, as he was leaving, she said, with a
certain hesitating timidity, “Do not leave me so much alone here, and
let that woman go.”

This was not the only unlooked-for sequel to her innocent desire to
propitiate her best friends. Don Jose did not call again upon his usual
day, but in his place came Dona Clara, his younger sister. When Mrs.
Tucker had politely asked after the absent Don Jose, Dona Clara wound
her swarthy arms around the fair American’s waist and replied, “But why
did you send for the abogado Poindexter when my brother called?”

“But Captain Poindexter calls as one of my friends,” said the amazed
Mrs. Tucker. “He is a gentleman, and has been a soldier and an officer,”
 she added with some warmth.

“Ah, yes, a soldier of the law, what you call an oficial de policia,
a chief of gendarmes, my sister, but not a gentleman--a camarero to
protect a lady.”

Mrs. Tucker would have uttered a hasty reply, but the perfect and
good-natured simplicity of Dona Clara withheld her. Nevertheless, she
treated Don Jose with a certain reserve at their next meeting, until
it brought the simple-minded Castilian so dangerously near the point of
demanding an explanation which implied too much that she was obliged to
restore him temporarily to his old footing. Meantime she had a brilliant
idea. She would write to Calhoun Weaver, whom she had avoided since that
memorable day. She would say she wished to consult him. He would come to
Los Cuervos; he might suggest something to lighten this weary waiting;
at least she would show them all that she had still old friends. Yet she
did not dream of returning to her Blue Grass home; her parents had died
since she left; she shrank from the thought of dragging her ruined life
before the hopeful youth of her girlhood’s companions.

Mr. Calhoun Weaver arrived promptly, ostentatiously, oracularly, and
cordially, but a little coarsely. He had--did she remember?--expected
this from the first. Spencer had lost his head through vanity, and
had attempted too much. It required foresight and firmness, as he
himself--who had lately made successful “combinations” which she might
perhaps have heard of--well knew. But Spencer had got the “big head.”
 “As to that woman--a devilish handsome woman too!--well, everybody knew
that Spencer always had a weakness that way, and he would say--but if
she didn’t care to hear any more about her--well, perhaps she was right.
That was the best way to take it.” Sitting before her, prosperous,
weak, egotistical, incompetent, unavailable, and yet filled with a vague
kindliness of intent, Mrs. Tucker loathed him. A sickening perception of
her own weakness in sending for him, a new and aching sense of her utter
isolation and helplessness, seemed to paralyze her.

“Nat’rally you feel bad,” he continued, with the large air of a profound
student of human nature. “Nat’rally, nat’rally you’re kept in an
uncomfortable state, not knowing jist how you stand. There ain’t but one
thing to do. Jist rise up, quiet like, and get a divorce agin Spencer.
Hold on! There ain’t a judge or jury in California that wouldn’t give it
to you right off the nail, without asking questions. Why, you ‘ld get it
by default if you wanted to; you ‘ld just have to walk over the course!
And then, Belle,” he drew his chair still nearer her, “when you’ve
settled down again--well!--I don’t mind renewing that offer I once made
ye, before Spencer ever came round ye--I don’t mind, Belle, I swear I
don’t! Honest Injin! I’m in earnest, there’s my hand!”

Mrs. Tucker’s reply has not been recorded. Enough that half an hour
later Mr. Weaver appeared in the courtyard with traces of tears on his
foolish face, a broken falsetto voice, and other evidence of mental and
moral disturbance. His cordiality and oracular predisposition remained
sufficiently to enable him to suggest the magical words “Blue Grass”
 mysteriously to Concha, with an indication of his hand to the erect
figure of her pale mistress in the doorway, who waved to him a silent
but half-compassionate farewell.

At about this time a slight change in her manner was noticed by the few
who saw her more frequently. Her apparently invincible girlishness of
spirit had given way to a certain matronly seriousness. She applied
herself to her household cares and the improvement of the hacienda with
a new sense of duty and a settled earnestness, until by degrees she
wrought into it not only her instinctive delicacy and taste, but part
of her own individuality. Even the rude rancheros and tradesmen who were
permitted to enter the walls in the exercise of their calling began to
speak mysteriously of the beauty of this garden of the almarjal. She
went out but seldom, and then accompanied by the one or the other of her
female servants, in long drives on unfrequented roads. On Sundays she
sometimes drove to the half-ruined mission church of Santa Inez, and
hid herself, during mass, in the dim monastic shadows of the choir.
Gradually the poorer people whom she met in these journeys began to
show an almost devotional reverence for her, stopping in the roads with
uncovered heads for her to pass, or making way for her in the tienda
or plaza of the wretched town with dumb courtesy. She began to feel a
strange sense of widowhood, that, while it at times brought tears to
her eyes, was, not without a certain tender solace. In the sympathy and
simpleness of this impulse she went as far as to revive the mourning she
had worn for her parents, but with such a fatal accenting of her beauty,
and dangerous misinterpreting of her condition to eligible bachelors
strange to the country, that she was obliged to put it off again. Her
reserve and dignified manner caused others to mistake her nationality
for that of the Santierras, and in “Dona Bella” the simple Mrs.
Tucker was for a while forgotten. At times she even forgot it herself.
Accustomed now almost entirely to the accents of another language and
the features of another race, she would sit for hours in the corridor,
whose massive bronzed inclosure even her tasteful care could only make
an embowered mausoleum of the Past, or gaze abstractedly from the dark
embrasures of her windows across the stretching almarjal to the shining
lagoon beyond that terminated the estuary. She had a strange fondness
for this tranquil mirror, which under sun or stars always retained the
passive reflex of the sky above, and seemed to rest her weary eyes. She
had objected to one of the plans projected by Poindexter to redeem the
land and deepen the water at the embarcadero, as it would have drained
the lagoon, and the lawyer had postponed the improvement to gratify
her fancy. So she kept it through the long summer unchanged save by the
shadows of passing wings or the lazy files of sleeping sea-fowl.

On one of these afternoons she noticed a slowly moving carriage leave
the high road and cross the almarjal skirting the edge of the lagoon. If
it contained visitors for Los Cuervos they had evidently taken a shorter
cut without waiting to go on to the regular road which intersected the
highway at right angles a mile farther on. It was with some sense of
annoyance and irritation that she watched the trespass, and finally saw
the vehicle approach the house. A few moments later the servant informed
her that Mr. Patterson would like to see her alone. When she entered the
corridor, which in the dry season served as a reception hall, she
was surprised to see that Patterson was not alone. Near him stood
a well-dressed handsome woman, gazing about her with good-humored
admiration of Mrs. Tucker’s taste and ingenuity.

“It don’t look much like it did two years ago,” said the stranger
cheerfully. “You’ve improved it wonderfully.”

Stiffening slightly, Mrs. Tucker turned inquiringly to Mr. Patterson.
But that gentleman’s usual profound melancholy appeared to be
intensified by the hilarity of his companion. He only sighed deeply and
rubbed his leg with the brim of his hat in gloomy abstraction.

“Well! go on, then,” said the woman, laughing and nudging him. “Go
on--introduce me--can’t you? Don’t stand there like a tombstone. You
won’t? Well, I’ll introduce myself.” She laughed again, and then, with
an excellent imitation of Patterson’s lugubrious accents, said, “Mr.
Spencer Tucker’s wife that IS, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Spencer
Tucker’s sweetheart that WAS! Hold on! I said THAT WAS. For true as
I stand here, ma’am--and I reckon I wouldn’t stand here if it wasn’t
true--I haven’t set eyes on him since the day he left you.”

“It’s the Gospel truth, every word,” said Patterson, stirred into a
sudden activity by Mrs. Tucker’s white and rigid face. “It’s the frozen
truth, and I kin prove it. For I kin swear that when that there young
woman was sailin’ outer the Golden Gate, Spencer Tucker was in my bar
room; I kin swear that I fed him, lickered him, give him a hoss and set
him in his road to Monterey that very night.”

“Then, where is he now?” said Mrs. Tucker, suddenly facing them.

They looked at each other, and then looked at Mrs. Tucker.
Then both together replied slowly and in perfect unison,
“That’s--what--we--want--to--know.” They seemed so satisfied
with this effect that they as deliberately repeated,
“Yes--that’s--what--we--want--to--know.”

Between the shock of meeting the partner of her husband’s guilt and
the unexpected revelation to her inexperience, that in suggestion and
appearance there was nothing beyond the recollection of that guilt that
was really shocking in the woman--between the extravagant extremes
of hope and fear suggested by their words, there was something so
grotesquely absurd in the melodramatic chorus that she with difficulty
suppressed a hysterical laugh.

“That’s the way to take it,” said the woman, putting her own
good-humored interpretation upon Mrs. Tucker’s expression. “Now, look
here! I’ll tell you all about it.” She carefully selected the most
comfortable chair, and sitting down, lightly crossed her hands in her
lap. “Well, I left here on the 13th of last January on the ship Argo,
calculating that your husband would join the ship just inside the Heads.
That was our arrangement, but if anything happened to prevent him, he
was to join me in Acapulco. Well! He didn’t come aboard, and we sailed
without him. But it appears now he did attempt to join the ship, but his
boat was capsized. There, now, don’t be alarmed! he wasn’t drowned, as
Patterson can swear to--no, catch HIM! not a hair of him was hurt; but
I--I was bundled off to the end of the earth in Mexico, alone, without a
cent to bless me. For true as you live, that hound of a captain, when he
found, as he thought, that Spencer was nabbed, he just confiscated all
his trunks and valuables and left me in the lurch. If I hadn’t met a man
down there that offered to marry me and brought me here, I might have
died there, I reckon. But I did, and here I am. I went down there as
your husband’s sweetheart, I’ve come back as the wife of an honest man,
and I reckon it’s about square!”

There was something so startlingly frank, so hopelessly self-satisfied,
so contagiously good-humored in the woman’s perfect moral
unconsciousness, that even if Mrs. Tucker had been less preoccupied her
resentment would have abated. But her eyes were fixed on the gloomy face
of Patterson, who was beginning to unlock the sepulchres of his memory
and disinter his deeply buried thoughts.

“You kin bet your whole pile on what this Mrs. Capting Baxter--ez used
to be French Inez of New Orleans--hez told ye. Ye kin take everything
she’s unloaded. And it’s only doin’ the square thing to her to say, she
hain’t done it out o’ no cussedness, but just to satisfy herself, now
she’s a married woman and past such foolishness. But that ain’t neither
here nor there. The gist of the whole matter is that Spencer Tucker was
at the tienda the day after she sailed and after his boat capsized.” He
then gave a detailed account of the interview, with the unnecessary but
truthful minutiae of his class, adding to the particulars already known
that the following week he visited the Summit House and was surprised
to find that Spencer had never been there, nor had he ever sailed from
Monterey.

“But why was this not told to me before?” said Mrs. Tucker, suddenly.
“Why not at the time? Why,” she demanded almost fiercely, turning from
the one to the other, “has this been kept from me?”

“I’ll tell ye why,” said Patterson, sinking with crushed submission into
a chair. “When I found he wasn’t where he ought to be, I got to lookin’
elsewhere. I knew the track of the hoss I lent him by a loose shoe. I
examined; and found he had turned off the high road somewhere beyond the
lagoon, jist as if he was makin’ a bee line here.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Tucker, breathlessly.

“Well,” said Patterson, with the resigned tone of an accustomed martyr,
“mebbe I’m a God-forsaken idiot, but I reckon he DID come yer. And mebbe
I’m that much of a habitooal lunatic, but thinking so, I calkilated
you’ld know it without tellin’.”

With their eyes fixed upon her, Mrs. Tucker felt the quick blood rush
to her cheeks, although she knew not why. But they were apparently
satisfied with her ignorance, for Patterson resumed, yet more
gloomily:--

“Then if he wasn’t hidin’ here beknownst to you, he must have changed
his mind agin and got away by the embarcadero. The only thing wantin’ to
prove that idea is to know how he got a boat, and what he did with the
hoss. And thar’s one more idea, and ez that can’t be proved,” continued
Patterson, sinking his voice still lower, “mebbe it’s accordin’ to God’s
laws.”

Unsympathetic to her as the speaker had always been and still was, Mrs.
Tucker felt a vague chill creep over her that seemed to be the result of
his manner more than his words. “And that idea is . . . ?” she suggested
with pale lips.

“It’s this! Fust, I don’t say it means much to anybody but me. I’ve
heard of these warnings afore now, ez comin’ only to folks ez hear them
for themselves alone, and I reckon I kin stand it, if it’s the will o’
God. The idea is then--that--Spencer Tucker--WAS DROWNDED in that boat;
the idea is”--his voice was almost lost in a hoarse whisper--“that it
was no living man that kem to me that night, but a spirit that kem out
of the darkness and went back into it! No eye saw him but mine--no ears
heard him but mine. I reckon it weren’t intended it should.” He paused,
and passed the flap of his hat across his eyes. “The pie, you’ll say, is
agin it,” he continued in the same tone of voice,--“the whiskey is agin
it--a few cuss words that dropped from him, accidental like, may have
been agin it. All the same they mout have been only the little signs and
tokens that it was him.”

But Mrs. Baxter’s ready laugh somewhat rudely dispelled the infection
of Patterson’s gloom. “I reckon the only spirit was that which you and
Spencer consumed,” she said, cheerfully. “I don’t wonder you’re a little
mixed. Like as not you’ve misunderstood his plans.” Patterson shook
his head. “He’ll turn up yet, alive and kicking! Like as not, then,
Poindexter knows where he is all the time.”

“Impossible! He would have told me,” said Mrs. Tucker, quickly.

Mrs. Baxter looked at Patterson without speaking. Patterson replied by a
long lugubrious whistle.

“I don’t understand you,” said Mrs. Tucker, drawing back with cold
dignity.

“You don’t?” returned Mrs. Baxter. “Bless your innocent heart! Why was
he so keen to hunt me up at first, shadowing my friends and all that,
and why has he dropped it now he knows I’m here, if he didn’t know where
Spencer was?”

“I can explain that,” interrupted Mrs. Tucker, hastily, with a blush of
confusion. “That is--I--”

“Then mebbe you kin explain too,” broke in Patterson with gloomy
significance, “why he has bought up most of Spencer’s debts himself, and
perhaps you’re satisfied it ISN’T to hold the whip hand of him and keep
him from coming back openly. Pr’aps you know why he’s movin’ heaven and
earth to make Don Jose Santierra sell the ranch, and why the Don don’t
see it all.”

“Don Jose sell Los Cuervos! Buy it, you mean?” said Mrs. Tucker. “I
offered to sell it to him.”

Patterson arose from the chair, looked despairingly around him, passed
his hand sadly across his forehead, and said: “It’s come! I knew it
would. It’s the warning! It’s suthing betwixt jim-jams and doddering
idjiocy. Here I’d hev been willin’ to swear that Mrs. Baxter here told
me SHE had sold this yer ranch nearly two years ago to Don Jose, and now
you--”

“Stop!” said Mrs. Tucker, in a voice that chilled them.

She was standing upright and rigid, as if stricken to stone. “I command
you to tell me what this means!” she said, turning only her blazing eyes
upon the woman.

Even the ready smile faded from Mrs. Baxter’s lips as she replied
hesitatingly and submissively: “I thought you knew already that Spencer
had given this ranch to me. I sold it to Don Jose to get the money for
us to go away with. It was Spencer’s idea--”

“You lie!” said Mrs. Tucker.

There was a dead silence. The wrathful blood that had quickly mounted
to Mrs. Baxter’s cheek, to Patterson’s additional bewilderment, faded as
quickly. She did not lift her eyes again to Mrs. Tucker’s, but, slowly
raising herself from her seat, said, “I wish to God I did lie; but it’s
true. And it’s true that I never touched a cent of the money, but gave
it all to him!” She laid her hand on Patterson’s arm, and said, “Come!
let us go,” and led him a few steps towards the gateway. But here
Patterson paused, and again passed his hand over his melancholy brow.
The necessity of coherently and logically closing the conversation
impressed itself upon his darkening mind. “Then you don’t happen to have
heard anything of Spencer?” he said sadly, and vanished with Mrs. Baxter
through the gate.

Left alone to herself, Mrs. Tucker raised her hands above her head with
a little cry, interlocked her rigid fingers, and slowly brought her
palms down upon her upturned face and eyes, pressing hard as if to crush
out all light and sense of life before her. She stood thus for a moment
motionless and silent, with the rising wind whispering without and
flecking her white morning dress with gusty shadows from the arbor.
Then, with closed eyes, dropping her hands to her breast, still pressing
hard, she slowly passed them down the shapely contours of her figure to
the waist, and with another cry cast them off as if she were stripping
herself of some loathsome garment. Then she walked quickly to the
gateway, looked out, returned to the corridor, unloosening and taking
off her wedding-ring from her finger as she walked. Here she paused,
then slowly and deliberately rearranged the chairs and adjusted the
gay-colored rugs that draped them, and quietly re-entered her chamber.


Two days afterwards the sweating steed of Captain Poindexter was
turned loose in the corral, and a moment later the captain entered the
corridor. Handing a letter to the decrepit Concha, who seemed to be
utterly disorganized by its contents, and the few curt words with which
it was delivered, he gazed silently upon the vacant bower, still fresh
and redolent with the delicacy and perfume of its graceful occupant,
until his dark eyes filled with unaccustomed moisture. But his reverie
was interrupted by the sound of jingling spurs without, and the old
humor struggled back in his eyes as Don Jose impetuously entered. The
Spaniard started back, but instantly recovered himself.

“So I find you here. Ah! it is well!” he said passionately, producing a
letter from his bosom. “Look! Do you call this honor? Look how you keep
your compact!”

Poindexter coolly took the letter. It contained a few words of gentle
dignity from Mrs. Tucker, informing Don Jose that she had only that
instant learned of his just claims upon Los Cuervos, tendering him her
gratitude for his delicate intentions, but pointing out with respectful
firmness that he must know that a moment’s further acceptance of his
courtesy was impossible.

“She has gained this knowledge from no word of mine,” said Poindexter,
calmly. “Right or wrong, I have kept my promise to you. I have as much
reason to accuse you of betraying my secret in this,” he added coldly,
as he took another letter from his pocket and handed it to Don Jose.

It seemed briefer and colder, but was neither. It reminded Poindexter
that as he had again deceived her she must take the government of her
affairs in her own hands henceforth. She abandoned all the furniture and
improvements she had put in Los Cuervos to him, to whom she now knew
she was indebted for them. She could not thank him for what his habitual
generosity impelled him to do for any woman, but she could forgive him
for misunderstanding her like any other woman, perhaps she should say,
like a child. When he received this she would be already on her way to
her old home in Kentucky, where she still hoped to be able by her own
efforts to amass enough to discharge her obligations to him.

“She does not speak of her husband, this woman,” said Don Jose, scanning
Poindexter’s face. “It is possible she rejoins him, eh?”

“Perhaps in one way she has never left him, Don Jose,” said Poindexter,
with grave significance.

Don Jose’s face flushed, but he returned carelessly, “And the rancho,
naturally you will not buy it now?”

“On the contrary, I shall abide by my offer,” said Poindexter, quietly.

Don Jose eyed him narrowly, and then said, “Ah, we shall consider of
it.”

He did consider it, and accepted the offer. With the full control of the
land, Captain Poindexter’s improvements, so indefinitely postponed, were
actively pushed forward. The thick walls of the hacienda were the first
to melt away before them; the low lines of corral were effaced, and the
early breath of the summer trade winds swept uninterruptedly across the
now leveled plain to the embarcadero, where a newer structure arose. A
more vivid green alone marked the spot where the crumbling adobe walls
of the casa had returned to the parent soil that gave it. The channel
was deepened, the lagoon was drained, until one evening the magic mirror
that had so long reflected the weary waiting of the Blue Grass Penelope
lay dull, dead, lustreless, an opaque quagmire of noisome corruption
and decay to be put away from the sight of man forever. On this spot
the crows, the titular tenants of Los Cuervos, assembled in tumultuous
congress, coming and going in mysterious clouds, or laboring in thick
and writhing masses, as if they were continuing the work of improvement
begun by human agency. So well had they done the work that by the end
of a week only a few scattered white objects remained glittering on
the surface of the quickly drying soil. But they were the bones of the
missing outcast, Spencer Tucker!

*****

The same spring a breath of war swept over a foul, decaying quagmire of
the whole land, before which such passing deeds as these were blown as
vapor. It called men of all rank and condition to battle for a nation’s
life, and among the first to respond were those into whose boyish
hands had been placed the nation’s honor. It returned the epaulets to
Poindexter’s shoulder with the addition of a double star, carried him
triumphantly to the front, and left him, at the end of a summer’s
day and a hard-won fight, sorely wounded, at the door of a Blue Grass
farmhouse. And the woman who sought him out and ministered to his wants
said timidly, as she left her hand in his, “I told you I should live to
repay you.”



LEFT OUT ON LONE STAR MOUNTAIN.



CHAPTER I


There was little doubt that the Lone Star claim was “played out.” Not
dug out, worked out, washed out, but PLAYED out. For two years its
five sanguine proprietors had gone through the various stages of mining
enthusiasm; had prospected and planned, dug and doubted. They had
borrowed money with hearty but unredeeming frankness, established a
credit with unselfish abnegation of all responsibility, and had borne
the disappointment of their creditors with a cheerful resignation which
only the consciousness of some deep Compensating Future could give.
Giving little else, however, a singular dissatisfaction obtained with
the traders, and, being accompanied with a reluctance to make further
advances, at last touched the gentle stoicism of the proprietors
themselves. The youthful enthusiasm which had at first lifted the
most ineffectual trial, the most useless essay, to the plane of actual
achievement, died out, leaving them only the dull, prosaic record of
half-finished ditches, purposeless shafts, untenable pits, abandoned
engines, and meaningless disruptions of the soil upon the Lone Star
claim, and empty flour sacks and pork barrels in the Lone Star cabin.

They had borne their poverty, if that term could be applied to a
light renunciation of all superfluities in food, dress, or ornament,
ameliorated by the gentle depredations already alluded to, with
unassuming levity. More than that: having segregated themselves from
their fellow-miners of Red Gulch, and entered upon the possession of the
little manzanita-thicketed valley five miles away, the failure of their
enterprise had assumed in their eyes only the vague significance of the
decline and fall of a general community, and to that extent relieved
them of individual responsibility. It was easier for them to admit
that the Lone Star claim was “played out” than confess to a personal
bankruptcy. Moreover, they still retained the sacred right of criticism
of government, and rose superior in their private opinions to their own
collective wisdom. Each one experienced a grateful sense of the entire
responsibility of the other four in the fate of their enterprise.

On December 24, 1863, a gentle rain was still falling over the length
and breadth of the Lone Star claim. It had been falling for several
days, had already called a faint spring color to the wan landscape,
repairing with tender touches the ravages wrought by the proprietors, or
charitably covering their faults. The ragged seams in gulch and canyon
lost their harsh outlines, a thin green mantle faintly clothed the torn
and abraded hillside. A few weeks more, and a veil of forgetfulness
would be drawn over the feeble failures of the Lone Star claim. The
charming derelicts themselves, listening to the raindrops on the roof
of their little cabin, gazed philosophically from the open door, and
accepted the prospect as a moral discharge from their obligations. Four
of the five partners were present. The Right and Left Bowers, Union
Mills, and the Judge.

It is scarcely necessary to say that not one of these titles was the
genuine name of its possessor. The Right and Left Bowers were two
brothers; their sobriquets, a cheerful adaptation from the favorite game
of euchre, expressing their relative value in the camp. The mere fact
that Union Mills had at one time patched his trousers with an old flour
sack legibly bearing that brand of its fabrication, was a tempting
baptismal suggestion that the other partners could not forego. The
Judge, a singularly inequitable Missourian, with no knowledge whatever
of the law, was an inspiration of gratuitous irony.

Union Mills, who had been for some time sitting placidly on the
threshold with one leg exposed to the rain, from a sheer indolent
inability to change his position, finally withdrew that weather-beaten
member, and stood up. The movement more or less deranged the attitudes
of the other partners, and was received with cynical disfavor. It was
somewhat remarkable that, although generally giving the appearance of
healthy youth and perfect physical condition, they one and all simulated
the decrepitude of age and invalidism, and after limping about for a few
moments, settled back again upon their bunks and stools in their former
positions. The Left Bower lazily replaced a bandage that he had worn
around his ankle for weeks without any apparent necessity, and the Judge
scrutinized with tender solicitude the faded cicatrix of a scratch upon
his arm. A passive hypochondria, born of their isolation, was the last
ludicrously pathetic touch to their situation.

The immediate cause of this commotion felt the necessity of an
explanation.

“It would have been just as easy for you to have stayed outside with
your business leg, instead of dragging it into private life in that
obtrusive way,” retorted the Right Bower; “but that exhaustive
effort isn’t going to fill the pork barrel. The grocery man at Dalton
says--what’s that he said?” he appealed lazily to the Judge.

“Said he reckoned the Lone Star was about played out, and he didn’t want
any more in his--thank you!” repeated the Judge with a mechanical effort
of memory utterly devoid of personal or present interest.

“I always suspected that man, after Grimshaw begun to deal with him,”
 said the Left Bower. “They’re just mean enough to join hands against
us.” It was a fixed belief of the Lone Star partners that they were
pursued by personal enmities.

“More than likely those new strangers over in the Fork have been paying
cash and filled him up with conceit,” said Union Mills, trying to dry
his leg by alternately beating it or rubbing it against the cabin wall.
“Once begin wrong with that kind of snipe and you drag everybody down
with you.”

This vague conclusion was received with dead silence. Everybody had
become interested in the speaker’s peculiar method of drying his leg,
to the exclusion of the previous topic. A few offered criticism, no one
assistance.

“Who did the grocery man say that to?” asked the Right Bower, finally
returning to the question.

“The Old man,” answered the Judge.

“Of course,” ejaculated the Right Bower sarcastically.

“Of course,” echoed the other partners together. “That’s like him. The
Old Man all over!”

It did not appear exactly what was like the Old Man, or why it was like
him, but generally that he alone was responsible for the grocery man’s
defection. It was put more concisely by Union Mills.

“That comes of letting him go there! It’s just a fair provocation to
any man to have the Old Man sent to him. They can’t, sorter, restrain
themselves at him. He’s enough to spoil the credit of the Rothschilds.”

“That’s so,” chimed in the Judge. “And look at his prospecting. Why, he
was out two nights last week, all night, prospecting in the moonlight
for blind leads, just out of sheer foolishness.”

“It was quite enough for me,” broke in the Left Bower, “when the other
day, you remember when, he proposed to us white men to settle down to
plain ground sluicing, making ‘grub’ wages just like any Chinaman. It
just showed his idea of the Lone Star claim.”

“Well, I never said it afore,” added Union Mills, “but when that one
of the Mattison boys came over here to examine the claim with an eye to
purchasin’, it was the Old Man that took the conceit out of him. He just
as good as admitted that a lot of work had got to be done afore any pay
ore could be realized. Never even asked him over to the shanty here to
jine us in a friendly game; just kept him, so to speak, to himself. And
naturally the Mattisons didn’t see it.”

A silence followed, broken only by the rain monotonously falling on
the roof, and occasionally through the broad adobe chimney, where it
provoked a retaliating hiss and splutter from the dying embers of the
hearth. The Right Bower, with a sudden access of energy, drew the empty
barrel before him, and taking a pack of well-worn cards from his pocket,
began to make a “solitaire” upon the lid. The others gazed at him with
languid interest.

“Makin’ it for anythin’?” asked Mills.

The Right Bower nodded.

The Judge and Left Bower, who were partly lying in their respective
bunks, sat up to get a better view of the game. Union Mills slowly
disengaged himself from the wall and leaned over the “solitaire” player.
The Right Bower turned the last card in a pause of almost thrilling
suspense, and clapped it down on the lid with fateful emphasis.

“It went!” said the Judge in a voice of hushed respect. “What did you
make it for?” he almost whispered.

“To know if we’d make the break we talked about and vamose the ranch.
It’s the FIFTH time today,” continued the Right Bower in a voice of
gloomy significance. “And it went agin bad cards too.”

“I ain’t superstitious,” said the Judge, with awe and fatuity beaming
from every line of his credulous face, “but it’s flyin’ in the face of
Providence to go agin such signs as that.”

“Make it again, to see if the Old Man must go,” suggested the Left
Bower.

The suggestion was received with favor, the three men gathering
breathlessly around the player. Again the fateful cards were shuffled
deliberately, placed in their mysterious combination, with the same
ominous result. Yet everybody seemed to breathe more freely, as if
relieved from some responsibility, the Judge accepting this manifest
expression of Providence with resigned self-righteousness.

“Yes, gentlemen,” resumed the Left Bower, serenely, as if a calm legal
decision had just been recorded, “we must not let any foolishness or
sentiment get mixed up with this thing, but look at it like business
men. The only sensible move is to get up and get out of the camp.”

“And the Old Man?” queried the Judge.

“The Old Man--hush! he’s coming.”

The doorway was darkened by a slight lissome shadow. It was the absent
partner, otherwise known as “the Old Man.” Need it be added that he was
a BOY of nineteen, with a slight down just clothing his upper lip!

“The creek is up over the ford, and I had to ‘shin’ up a willow on the
bank and swing myself across,” he said, with a quick, frank laugh; “but
all the same, boys, it’s going to clear up in about an hour, you bet.
It’s breaking away over Bald Mountain, and there’s a sun flash on a bit
of snow on Lone Peak. Look! you can see it from here. It’s for all the
world like Noah’s dove just landed on Mount Ararat. It’s a good omen.”

From sheer force of habit the men had momentarily brightened up at
the Old Man’s entrance. But the unblushing exhibition of degrading
superstition shown in the last sentence recalled their just severity.
They exchanged meaning glances. Union Mills uttered hopelessly to
himself: “Hell’s full of such omens.”

Too occupied with his subject to notice this ominous reception, the Old
Man continued: “I reckon I struck a fresh lead in the new grocery man
at the Crossing. He says he’ll let the Judge have a pair of boots on
credit, but he can’t send them over here; and considering that the Judge
has got to try them anyway, it don’t seem to be asking too much for the
Judge to go over there. He says he’ll give us a barrel of pork and a bag
of flour if we’ll give him the right of using our tail-race and clean
out the lower end of it.”

“It’s the work of a Chinaman, and a four days’ job,” broke in the Left
Bower.

“It took one white man only two hours to clean out a third of it,”
 retorted the Old Man triumphantly, “for I pitched in at once with a pick
he let me have on credit, and did that amount of work this morning, and
told him the rest of you boys would finish it this afternoon.”

A slight gesture from the Right Bower checked an angry exclamation from
the Left. The Old Man did not notice either, but, knitting his smooth
young brow in a paternally reflective fashion, went on: “You’ll have
to get a new pair of trousers, Mills, but as he doesn’t keep clothing,
we’ll have to get some canvas and cut you out a pair. I traded off the
beans he let me have for some tobacco for the Right Bower at the other
shop, and got them to throw in a new pack of cards. These are about
played out. We’ll be wanting some brushwood for the fire; there’s a heap
in the hollow. Who’s going to bring it in? It’s the Judge’s turn, isn’t
it? Why, what’s the matter with you all?”

The restraint and evident uneasiness of his companions had at last
touched him. He turned his frank young eyes upon them; they glanced
helplessly at each other. Yet his first concern was for them, his first
instinct paternal and protecting. He ran his eyes quickly over them;
they were all there and apparently in their usual condition. “Anything
wrong with the claim?” he suggested.

Without looking at him the Right Bower rose, leaned against the open
door with his hands behind him and his face towards the landscape, and
said, apparently to the distant prospect: “The claim’s played out, the
partnership’s played out, and the sooner we skedaddle out of this the
better. If,” he added, turning to the Old Man, “if YOU want to stay, if
you want to do Chinaman’s work at Chinaman’s wages, if you want to hang
on to the charity of the traders at the Crossing, you can do it, and
enjoy the prospects and the Noah’s doves alone. But we’re calculatin’ to
step out of it.”

“But I haven’t said I wanted to do it ALONE,” protested the Old Man with
a gesture of bewilderment.

“If these are your general ideas of the partnership,” continued the
Right Bower, clinging to the established hypothesis of the other
partners for support, “it ain’t ours, and the only way we can prove it
is to stop the foolishness right here. We calculated to dissolve the
partnership and strike out for ourselves elsewhere. You’re no longer
responsible for us, nor we for you. And we reckon it’s the square thing
to leave you the claim and the cabin, and all it contains. To prevent
any trouble with the traders, we’ve drawn up a paper here--”

“With a bonus of fifty thousand dollars each down, and the rest to be
settled on my children,” interrupted the Old Man, with a half-uneasy
laugh. “Of course. But--” he stopped suddenly, the blood dropped from
his fresh cheek, and he again glanced quickly round the group. “I don’t
think--I--I quite sabe, boys,” he added, with a slight tremor of voice
and lip. “If it’s a conundrum, ask me an easier one.”

Any lingering doubt he might have had of their meaning was dispelled by
the Judge. “It’s about the softest thing you kin drop into, Old Man,”
 he said confidentially; “if I hadn’t promised the other boys to go with
them, and if I didn’t need the best medical advice in Sacramento for my
lungs, I’d just enjoy staying with you.”

“It gives a sorter freedom to a young fellow like you, Old Man, like
goin’ into the world on your own capital, that every Californian boy
hasn’t got,” said Union Mills, patronizingly.

“Of course it’s rather hard papers on us, you know, givin’ up
everything, so to speak; but it’s for your good, and we ain’t goin’ back
on you,” said the Left Bower, “are we, boys?”

The color had returned to the Old Man’s face a little more quickly and
freely than usual. He picked up the hat he had cast down, put it on
carefully over his brown curls, drew the flap down on the side towards
his companions, and put his hands in his pockets. “All right,” he said,
in a slightly altered voice. “When do you go?”

“To-day,” answered the Left Bower. “We calculate to take a moonlight
pasear over to the Cross Roads and meet the down stage at about twelve
to-night. There’s plenty of time yet,” he added, with a slight laugh;
“it’s only three o’clock now.”

There was a dead silence. Even the rain withheld its continuous patter,
a dumb, gray film covered the ashes of the hushed hearth. For the first
time the Right Bower exhibited some slight embarrassment.

“I reckon it’s held up for a spell,” he said, ostentatiously examining
the weather, “and we might as well take a run round the claim to see
if we’ve forgotten nothing. Of course, we’ll be back again,” he added
hastily, without looking at the Old Man, “before we go, you know.”

The others began to look for their hats, but so awkwardly and with such
evident preoccupation of mind that it was not at first discovered that
the Judge had his already on. This raised a laugh, as did also a clumsy
stumble of Union Mills against the pork barrel, although that gentleman
took refuge from his confusion and secured a decent retreat by a gross
exaggeration of his lameness, as he limped after the Right Bower. The
Judge whistled feebly. The Left Bower, in a more ambitious effort to
impart a certain gayety to his exit, stopped on the threshold and said,
as if in arch confidence to his companions, “Darned if the Old Man
don’t look two inches higher since he became a proprietor,” laughed
patronizingly, and vanished.

If the newly-made proprietor had increased in stature, he had not
otherwise changed his demeanor. He remained in the same attitude until
the last figure disappeared behind the fringe of buckeye that hid the
distant highway. Then he walked slowly to the fire-place, and, leaning
against the chimney, kicked the dying embers together with his foot.
Something dropped and spattered in the film of hot ashes. Surely the
rain had not yet ceased!

His high color had already fled except for a spot on either cheek-bone
that lent a brightness to his eyes. He glanced around the cabin. It
looked familiar and yet strange. Rather, it looked strange BECAUSE
still familiar, and therefore incongruous with the new atmosphere that
surrounded it--discordant with the echo of their last meeting, and
painfully accenting the change. There were the four “bunks,” or sleeping
berths, of his companions, each still bearing some traces of the
individuality of its late occupant with a dumb loyalty that seemed to
make their light-hearted defection monstrous. In the dead ashes of the
Judge’s pipe, scattered on his shelf, still lived his old fire; in
the whittled and carved edges of the Left Bower’s bunk still were the
memories of bygone days of delicious indolence; in the bullet-holes
clustered round a knot of one of the beams there was still the record of
the Right Bower’s old-time skill and practice; in the few engravings
of female loveliness stuck upon each headboard there were the proofs of
their old extravagant devotion--all a mute protest to the change.

He remembered how, a fatherless, truant schoolboy, he had drifted into
their adventurous, nomadic life, itself a life of grown-up truancy like
his own, and became one of that gypsy family. How they had taken the
place of relations and household in his boyish fancy, filling it with
the unsubstantial pageantry of a child’s play at grown-up existence,
he knew only too well. But how, from being a pet and protege, he had
gradually and unconsciously asserted his own individuality and taken
upon his younger shoulders not only a poet’s keen appreciation of that
life, but its actual responsibilities and half-childish burdens, he
never suspected. He had fondly believed that he was a neophyte in their
ways, a novice in their charming faith and indolent creed, and they had
encouraged it; now their renunciation of that faith could only be an
excuse for a renunciation of HIM. The poetry that had for two years
invested the material and sometimes even mean details of their existence
was too much a part of himself to be lightly dispelled. The lesson of
those ingenuous moralists failed, as such lessons are apt to fail; their
discipline provoked but did not subdue; a rising indignation, stirred by
a sense of injury, mounted to his cheek and eyes. It was slow to come,
but was none the less violent that it had been preceded by the benumbing
shock of shame and pride.

I hope I shall not prejudice the reader’s sympathies if my duty as a
simple chronicler compels me to state, therefore, that the sober second
thought of this gentle poet was to burn down the cabin on the spot with
all its contents. This yielded to a milder counsel--waiting for the
return of the party, challenging the Right Bower, a duel to the death,
perhaps himself the victim, with a crushing explanation in extremis,
“It seems we are ONE too many. No matter; it is settled now. Farewell!”
 Dimly remembering, however, that there was something of this in the last
well-worn novel they had read together, and that his antagonist might
recognize it, or even worse, anticipate it himself, the idea was quickly
rejected. Besides, the opportunity for an apotheosis of self-sacrifice
was past. Nothing remained now but to refuse the proffered bribe of
claim and cabin by letter, for he must not wait their return. He tore a
leaf from a blotted diary, begun and abandoned long since, and essayed
to write. Scrawl after scrawl was torn up, until his fury had cooled
down to a frigid third personality. “Mr. John Ford regrets to inform his
late partners that their tender of house, of furniture,” however, seemed
too inconsistent with the pork-barrel table he was writing on; a more
eloquent renunciation of their offer became frivolous and idiotic from a
caricature of Union Mills, label and all, that appeared suddenly on the
other side of the leaf; and when he at last indited a satisfactory and
impassioned exposition of his feelings, the legible addendum of “Oh,
ain’t you glad you’re out of the wilderness!”--the forgotten first line
of a popular song, which no scratching would erase--seemed too like an
ironical postscript to be thought of for a moment. He threw aside his
pen and cast the discordant record of past foolish pastime into the dead
ashes of the hearth.

How quiet it was. With the cessation of the rain the wind too had gone
down, and scarcely a breath of air came through the open door. He walked
to the threshold and gazed on the hushed prospect. In this listless
attitude he was faintly conscious of a distant reverberation, a mere
phantom of sound--perhaps the explosion of a distant blast in the
hills--that left the silence more marked and oppressive. As he turned
again into the cabin a change seemed to have come over it. It already
looked old and decayed. The loneliness of years of desertion seemed to
have taken possession of it; the atmosphere of dry rot was in the
beams and rafters. To his excited fancy the few disordered blankets
and articles of clothing seemed dropping to pieces; in one of the bunks
there was a hideous resemblance in the longitudinal heap of clothing to
a withered and mummied corpse. So it might look in after years when some
passing stranger--but he stopped. A dread of the place was beginning
to creep over him; a dread of the days to come, when the monotonous
sunshine should lay bare the loneliness of these walls; the long, long
days of endless blue and cloudless, overhanging solitude; summer days
when the wearying, incessant trade winds should sing around that empty
shell and voice its desolation. He gathered together hastily a few
articles that were especially his own--rather that the free communion
of the camp, from indifference or accident, had left wholly to him. He
hesitated for a moment over his rifle, but, scrupulous in his wounded
pride, turned away and left the familiar weapon that in the dark days
had so often provided the dinner or breakfast of the little household.
Candor compels me to state that his equipment was not large nor
eminently practical. His scant pack was a light weight for even his
young shoulders, but I fear he thought more of getting away from the
Past than providing for the Future.

With this vague but sole purpose he left the cabin, and almost
mechanically turned his steps towards the creek he had crossed
that morning. He knew that by this route he would avoid meeting his
companions; its difficulties and circuitousness would exercise his
feverish limbs and give him time for reflection. He had determined to
leave the claim, but whence he had not yet considered. He reached the
bank of the creek where he had stood two hours before; it seemed to him
two years. He looked curiously at his reflection in one of the broad
pools of overflow, and fancied he looked older. He watched the rush and
outset of the turbid current hurrying to meet the South Fork, and
to eventually lose itself in the yellow Sacramento. Even in his
preoccupation he was impressed with a likeness to himself and his
companions in this flood that had burst its peaceful boundaries. In
the drifting fragments of one of their forgotten flumes washed from the
bank, he fancied he saw an omen of the disintegration and decay of the
Lone Star claim.

The strange hush in the air that he had noticed before--a calm so
inconsistent with that hour and the season as to seem portentous--became
more marked in contrast to the feverish rush of the turbulent
water-course. A few clouds lazily huddled in the west apparently had
gone to rest with the sun on beds of somnolent poppies. There was a
gleam as of golden water everywhere along the horizon, washing out the
cold snowpeaks, and drowning even the rising moon. The creek caught it
here and there, until, in grim irony, it seemed to bear their broken
sluice-boxes and useless engines on the very Pactolian stream they had
been hopefully created to direct and carry. But by some peculiar trick
of the atmosphere, the perfect plenitude of that golden sunset glory
was lavished on the rugged sides and tangled crest of the Lone Star
mountain. That isolated peak, the landmark of their claim, the gaunt
monument of their folly, transfigured in the evening splendor, kept its
radiance unquenched long after the glow had fallen from the encompassing
skies, and when at last the rising moon, step by step, put out the fires
along the winding valley and plains, and crept up the bosky sides of
the canyon, the vanishing sunset was lost only to reappear as a golden
crown.

The eyes of the young man were fixed upon it with more than a momentary
picturesque interest. It had been the favorite ground of his prospecting
exploits, its lowest flank had been scarred in the old enthusiastic days
with hydraulic engines, or pierced with shafts, but its central position
in the claim and its superior height had always given it a commanding
view of the extent of their valley and its approaches, and it was this
practical pre-eminence that alone attracted him at that moment. He knew
that from its crest he would be able to distinguish the figures of his
companions, as they crossed the valley near the cabin, in the growing
moonlight. Thus he could avoid encountering them on his way to the high
road, and yet see them, perhaps, for the last time. Even in his sense of
injury there was a strange satisfaction in the thought.

The ascent was toilsome, but familiar. All along the dim trail he was
accompanied by gentler memories of the past, that seemed, like the faint
odor of spiced leaves and fragrant grasses wet with the rain and crushed
beneath his ascending tread, to exhale the sweeter perfume in his effort
to subdue or rise above them. There was the thicket of manzanita, where
they had broken noonday bread together; here was the rock beside their
maiden shaft, where they had poured a wild libation in boyish enthusiasm
of success; and here the ledge where their first flag, a red shirt
heroically sacrificed, was displayed from a long-handled shovel to
the gaze of admirers below. When he at last reached the summit, the
mysterious hush was still in the air, as if in breathless sympathy with
his expedition. In the west, the plain was faintly illuminated, but
disclosed no moving figures. He turned towards the rising moon, and
moved slowly to the eastern edge. Suddenly he stopped. Another step
would have been his last! He stood upon the crumbling edge of a
precipice. A landslip had taken place on the eastern flank, leaving
the gaunt ribs and fleshless bones of Lone Star mountain bare in the
moonlight. He understood now the strange rumble and reverberation he had
heard; he understood now the strange hush of bird and beast in brake and
thicket!

Although a single rapid glance convinced him that the slide had taken
place in an unfrequented part of the mountain, above an inaccessible
canyon, and reflection assured him his companions could not have reached
that distance when it took place, a feverish impulse led him to descend
a few rods in the track of the avalanche. The frequent recurrence of
outcrop and angle made this comparatively easy. Here he called aloud;
the feeble echo of his own voice seemed only a dull impertinence to the
significant silence. He turned to reascend; the furrowed flank of the
mountain before him lay full in the moonlight. To his excited fancy, a
dozen luminous star-like points in the rocky crevices started into
life as he faced them. Throwing his arm over the ledge above him, he
supported himself for a moment by what appeared to be a projection of
the solid rock. It trembled slightly. As he raised himself to its level,
his heart stopped beating. It was simply a fragment detached from the
outcrop, lying loosely on the ledge but upholding him by ITS OWN WEIGHT
ONLY. He examined it with trembling fingers; the encumbering soil fell
from its sides and left its smoothed and worn protuberances glistening
in the moonlight. It was virgin gold!

Looking back upon that moment afterwards, he remembered that he was not
dazed, dazzled, or startled. It did not come to him as a discovery or an
accident, a stroke of chance or a caprice of fortune. He saw it all in
that supreme moment; Nature had worked out their poor deduction. What
their feeble engines had essayed spasmodically and helplessly against
the curtain of soil that hid the treasure, the elements had achieved
with mightier but more patient forces. The slow sapping of the winter
rains had loosened the soil from the auriferous rock, even while the
swollen stream was carrying their impotent and shattered engines to the
sea.

What mattered that his single arm could not lift the treasure he had
found! What mattered that to unfix those glittering stars would still
tax both skill and patience! The work was done, the goal was reached!
even his boyish impatience was content with that. He rose slowly to his
feet, unstrapped his long-handled shovel from his back, secured it in
the crevice, and quietly regained the summit.

It was all his own! His own by right of discovery under the law of the
land, and without accepting a favor from THEM. He recalled even the fact
that it was HIS prospecting on the mountain that first suggested the
existence of gold in the outcrop and the use of the hydraulic. HE had
never abandoned that belief, whatever the others had done. He dwelt
somewhat indignantly to himself on this circumstance, and half
unconsciously faced defiantly towards the plain below. But it was
sleeping peacefully in the full sight of the moon, without life or
motion. He looked at the stars; it was still far from midnight. His
companions had no doubt long since returned to the cabin to prepare for
their midnight journey. They were discussing him, perhaps laughing at
him, or worse, pitying him and his bargain. Yet here was his bargain! A
slight laugh he gave vent to here startled him a little, it sounded
so hard and so unmirthful, and so unlike, as he oddly fancied, what he
really THOUGHT. But WHAT did he think?

Nothing mean or revengeful; no, they never would say THAT. When he had
taken out all the surface gold and put the mine in working order, he
would send them each a draft for a thousand dollars. Of course, if they
were ever ill or poor he would do more. One of the first, the very first
things he should do would be to send them each a handsome gun and tell
them that he only asked in return the old-fashioned rifle that once was
his. Looking back at the moment in after years, he wondered that, with
this exception, he made no plans for his own future, or the way he
should dispose of his newly acquired wealth. This was the more singular
as it had been the custom of the five partners to lie awake at night,
audibly comparing with each other what they would do in case they made
a strike. He remembered how, Alnaschar-like, they nearly separated once
over a difference in the disposal of a hundred thousand dollars that
they never had, nor expected to have. He remembered how Union Mills
always began his career as a millionnaire by a “square meal” at
Delmonico’s; how the Right Bower’s initial step was always a trip home
“to see his mother”; how the Left Bower would immediately placate the
parents of his beloved with priceless gifts (it may be parenthetically
remarked that the parents and the beloved one were as hypothetical
as the fortune); and how the Judge would make his first start as a
capitalist by breaking a certain faro bank in Sacramento. He himself had
been equally eloquent in extravagant fancy in those penniless days,
he who now was quite cold and impassive beside the more extravagant
reality.

How different it might have been! If they had only waited a day longer!
if they had only broken their resolves to him kindly and parted in good
will! How he would long ere this have rushed to greet them with the
joyful news! How they would have danced around it, sung themselves
hoarse, laughed down their enemies, and run up the flag triumphantly on
the summit of the Lone Star Mountain! How they would have crowned him
“the Old Man,” “the hero of the camp!” How he would have told them the
whole story; how some strange instinct had impelled him to ascend the
summit, and how another step on that summit would have precipitated him
into the canyon! And how--but what if somebody else, Union Mills or the
Judge, had been the first discoverer? Might they not have meanly kept
the secret from him; have selfishly helped themselves and done--

“What YOU are doing now.”

The hot blood rushed to his cheek, as if a strange voice were at his
ear. For a moment he could not believe that it came from his own pale
lips until he found himself speaking. He rose to his feet, tingling with
shame, and began hurriedly to descend the mountain.

He would go to them, tell them of his discovery, let them give him his
share, and leave them forever. It was the only thing to be done, strange
that he had not thought of it at once. Yet it was hard, very hard and
cruel to be forced to meet them again. What had he done to suffer this
mortification? For a moment he actually hated this vulgar treasure that
had forever buried under its gross ponderability the light and careless
past, and utterly crushed out the poetry of their old, indolent, happy
existence.

He was sure to find them waiting at the Cross Roads where the coach
came past. It was three miles away, yet he could get there in time if he
hastened. It was a wise and practical conclusion of his evening’s work,
a lame and impotent conclusion to his evening’s indignation. No matter.
They would perhaps at first think he had come to weakly follow them,
perhaps they would at first doubt his story. No matter. He bit his lips
to keep down the foolish rising tears, but still went blindly forward.

He saw not the beautiful night, cradled in the dark hills, swathed in
luminous mists, and hushed in the awe of its own loveliness! Here and
there the moon had laid her calm face on lake and overflow, and gone
to sleep embracing them, until the whole plain seemed to be lifted
into infinite quiet. Walking on as in a dream, the black, impenetrable
barriers of skirting thickets opened and gave way to vague distances
that it appeared impossible to reach, dim vistas that seemed
unapproachable. Gradually he seemed himself to become a part of the
mysterious night. He was becoming as pulseless, as calm, as passionless.

What was that? A shot in the direction of the cabin! yet so faint, so
echoless, so ineffective in the vast silence, that he would have thought
it his fancy but for the strange instinctive jar upon his sensitive
nerves. Was it an accident, or was it an intentional signal to him? He
stopped; it was not repeated, the silence reasserted itself, but this
time with an ominous death-like suggestion. A sudden and terrible
thought crossed his mind. He cast aside his pack and all encumbering
weight, took a deep breath, lowered his head and darted like a deer in
the direction of the challenge.



CHAPTER II


The exodus of the seceding partners of the Lone Star claim had been
scarcely an imposing one. For the first five minutes after quitting the
cabin, the procession was straggling and vagabond. Unwonted exertion had
exaggerated the lameness of some, and feebleness of moral purpose had
predisposed the others to obtrusive musical exhibition. Union Mills
limped and whistled with affected abstraction; the Judge whistled and
limped with affected earnestness. The Right Bower led the way with some
show of definite design; the Left Bower followed with his hands in
his pockets. The two feebler natures, drawn together in unconscious
sympathy, looked vaguely at each other for support.

“You see,” said the Judge, suddenly, as if triumphantly concluding
an argument, “there ain’t anything better for a young fellow than
independence. Nature, so to speak, points the way. Look at the animals.”

“There’s a skunk hereabouts,” said Union Mills, who was supposed to be
gifted with aristocratically sensitive nostrils, “within ten miles
of this place; like as not crossing the Ridge. It’s always my luck
to happen out just at such times. I don’t see the necessity anyhow of
trapesing round the claim now, if we calculate to leave it to-night.”

Both men waited to observe if the suggestion was taken up by the Right
and Left Bower moodily plodding ahead. No response following, the Judge
shamelessly abandoned his companion.

“You wouldn’t stand snoopin’ round instead of lettin’ the Old Man get
used to the idea alone? No; I could see all along that he was takin’ it
in, takin’ it in, kindly but slowly, and I reckoned the best thing for
us to do was to git up and git until he’d got round it.” The Judge’s
voice was slightly raised for the benefit of the two before him.

“Didn’t he say,” remarked the Right Bower, stopping suddenly and facing
the others, “didn’t he say that that new trader was goin’ to let him
have some provisions anyway?”

Union Mills turned appealingly to the Judge; that gentleman was forced
to reply, “Yes; I remember distinctly he said it. It was one of the
things I was particular about on his account,” responded the Judge,
with the air of having arranged it all himself with the new trader. “I
remember I was easier in my mind about it.”

“But didn’t he say,” queried the Left Bower, also stopping short,
“suthin’ about it’s being contingent on our doing some work on the
race?”

The Judge turned for support to Union Mills, who, however, under the
hollow pretense of preparing for a long conference, had luxuriously
seated himself on a stump. The Judge sat down also, and replied,
hesitatingly, “Well, yes! Us or him.”

“Us or him,” repeated the Right Bower, with gloomy irony. “And you ain’t
quite clear in your mind, are you, if YOU haven’t done the work already?
You’re just killing yourself with this spontaneous, promiscuous, and
premature overwork; that’s what’s the matter with you.”

“I reckon I heard somebody say suthin’ about it’s being a Chinaman’s
three-day job,” interpolated the Left Bower, with equal irony, “but I
ain’t quite clear in my mind about that.”

“It’ll be a sorter distraction for the Old Man,” said Union Mills,
feebly--“kinder take his mind off his loneliness.”

Nobody taking the least notice of the remark, union Mills stretched out
his legs more comfortably and took out his pipe. He had scarcely done so
when the Right Bower, wheeling suddenly, set off in the direction of the
creek. The Left Bower, after a slight pause, followed without a word.
The Judge, wisely conceiving it better to join the stronger party,
ran feebly after him, and left Union Mills to bring up a weak and
vacillating rear.

Their course, diverging from Lone Star Mountain, led them now directly
to the bend of the creek, the base of their old ineffectual operations.
Here was the beginning of the famous tail-race that skirted the new
trader’s claim, and then lost its way in a swampy hollow. It was choked
with debris; a thin, yellow stream that once ran through it seemed to
have stopped work when they did, and gone into greenish liquidation.

They had scarcely spoken during this brief journey, and had received no
other explanation from the Right Bower, who led them, than that afforded
by his mute example when he reached the race. Leaping into it without a
word, he at once began to clear away the broken timbers and driftwood.
Fired by the spectacle of what appeared to be a new and utterly
frivolous game, the men gayly leaped after him, and were soon engaged
in a fascinating struggle with the impeded race. The Judge forgot his
lameness in springing over a broken sluice-box; Union Mills forgot his
whistle in a happy imitation of a Chinese coolie’s song. Nevertheless,
after ten minutes of this mild dissipation, the pastime flagged; Union
Mills was beginning to rub his leg when a distant rumble shook the
earth. The men looked at each other; the diversion was complete; a
languid discussion of the probabilities of its being an earthquake or a
blast followed, in the midst of which the Right Bower, who was working
a little in advance of the others, uttered a warning cry and leaped from
the race. His companions had barely time to follow before a sudden and
inexplicable rise in the waters of the creek sent a swift irruption of
the flood through the race. In an instant its choked and impeded channel
was cleared, the race was free, and the scattered debris of logs and
timber floated upon its easy current. Quick to take advantage of this
labor-saving phenomenon, the Lone Star partners sprang into the water,
and by disentangling and directing the eddying fragments completed their
work.

“The Old Man oughter been here to see this,” said the Left Bower; “it’s
just one o’ them climaxes of poetic justice he’s always huntin’ up. It’s
easy to see what’s happened. One o’ them high-toned shrimps over in the
Excelsior claim has put a blast in too near the creek. He’s tumbled the
bank into the creek and sent the back water down here just to wash out
our race. That’s what I call poetical retribution.”

“And who was it advised us to dam the creek below the race and make it
do the thing?” asked the Right Bower, moodily.

“That was one of the Old Man’s ideas, I reckon,” said the Left Bower,
dubiously.

“And you remember,” broke in the Judge with animation, “I allus said,
‘Go slow, go slow. You just hold on and suthin’ will happen.’ And,” he
added, triumphantly, “you see suthin’ has happened. I don’t want to take
credit to myself, but I reckoned on them Excelsior boys bein’ fools, and
took the chances.”

“And what if I happen to know that the Excelsior boys ain’t blastin’
to-day?” said the Right Bower, sarcastically.

As the Judge had evidently based his hypothesis on the alleged fact of
a blast, he deftly evaded the point. “I ain’t saying the Old Man’s head
ain’t level on some things; he wants a little more sabe of the world.
He’s improved a good deal in euchre lately, and in poker--well! he’s got
that sorter dreamy, listenin’-to-the-angels kind o’ way that you can’t
exactly tell whether he’s bluffin’ or has got a full hand. Hasn’t he?”
 he asked, appealing to Union Mills.

But that gentleman, who had been watching the dark face of the Right
Bower, preferred to take what he believed to be his cue from him. “That
ain’t the question,” he said virtuously; “we ain’t takin’ this step to
make a card sharp out of him. We’re not doin’ Chinamen’s work in this
race to-day for that. No, sir! We’re teachin’ him to paddle his own
canoe.” Not finding the sympathetic response he looked for in the Right
Bower’s face, he turned to the Left.

“I reckon we were teachin’ him our canoe was too full,” was the Left
Bower’s unexpected reply. “That’s about the size of it.”

The Right Bower shot a rapid glance under his brows at his brother.
The latter, with his hands in his pockets, stared unconsciously at the
rushing waters, and then quietly turned away. The Right Bower followed
him. “Are you goin’ back on us?” he asked.

“Are you?” responded the other.

“No!”

“NO, then it is,” returned the Left Bower quietly. The elder brother
hesitated in half-angry embarrassment.

“Then what did you mean by saying we reckoned our canoe was too full?”

“Wasn’t that our idea?” returned the Left Bower, indifferently.
Confounded by this practical expression of his own unformulated good
intentions, the Right Bower was staggered.

“Speakin’ of the Old Man,” broke in the Judge, with characteristic
infelicity, “I reckon he’ll sort o’ miss us, times like these. We were
allers runnin’ him and bedevilin’ him, after work, just to get him
excited and amusin’, and he’ll kinder miss that sort o’ stimulatin’. I
reckon we’ll miss it too, somewhat. Don’t you remember, boys, the night
we put up that little sell on him and made him believe we’d struck it
rich in the bank of the creek, and got him so conceited, he wanted to go
off and settle all our debts at once?”

“And how I came bustin’ into the cabin with a pan full of iron pyrites
and black sand,” chuckled Union Mills, continuing the reminiscences,
“and how them big gray eyes of his nearly bulged out of his head. Well,
it’s some satisfaction to know we did our duty by the young fellow even
in those little things.” He turned for confirmation of their general
disinterestedness to the Right Bower, but he was already striding away,
uneasily conscious of the lazy following of the Left Bower, like a
laggard conscience at his back. This movement again threw Union Mills
and the Judge into feeble complicity in the rear, as the procession
slowly straggled homeward from the creek.

Night had fallen. Their way lay through the shadow of Lone Star
Mountain, deepened here and there by the slight, bosky ridges that,
starting from its base, crept across the plain like vast roots of its
swelling trunk. The shadows were growing blacker as the moon began to
assert itself over the rest of the valley, when the Right Bower halted
suddenly on one of these ridges. The Left Bower lounged up to him, and
stopped also, while the two others came up and completed the group.

“There’s no light in the shanty,” said the Right Bower in a low voice,
half to himself and, half in answer to their inquiring attitude. The men
followed the direction of his finger. In the distance the black outline
of the Lone Star cabin stood out distinctly in the illumined space.
There was the blank, sightless, external glitter of moonlight on its two
windows that seemed to reflect its dim vacancy, empty alike of light,
and warmth, and motion.

“That’s sing’lar,” said the Judge in an awed whisper.

The Left Bower, by simply altering the position of his hands in his
trousers’ pockets, managed to suggest that he knew perfectly the meaning
of it, had always known it; but that being now, so to speak, in the
hands of Fate, he was callous to it. This much, at least, the elder
brother read in his attitude. But anxiety at that moment was the
controlling impulse of the Right Bower, as a certain superstitious
remorse was the instinct of the two others, and without heeding the
cynic, the three started at a rapid pace for the cabin.

They reached it silently, as the moon, now riding high in the heavens,
seemed to touch it with the tender grace and hushed repose of a tomb.
It was with something of this feeling that the Right Bower softly pushed
open the door; it was with something of this dread that the two others
lingered on the threshold, until the Right Bower, after vainly trying
to stir the dead embers on the hearth into life with his foot, struck a
match and lit their solitary candle. Its flickering light revealed the
familiar interior unchanged in aught but one thing. The bunk that
the Old Man had occupied was stripped of its blankets; the few cheap
ornaments and photographs were gone; the rude poverty of the bare boards
and scant pallet looked up at them unrelieved by the bright face and
gracious youth that had once made them tolerable. In the grim irony
of that exposure, their own penury was doubly conscious. The little
knapsack, the teacup and coffee-pot that had hung near his bed, were
gone also. The most indignant protest, the most pathetic of the letters
he had composed and rejected, whose torn fragments still littered the
floor, could never have spoken with the eloquence of this empty space!
The men exchanged no words: the solitude of the cabin, instead of
drawing them together, seemed to isolate each one in selfish distrust of
the others. Even the unthinking garrulity of Union Mills and the Judge
was checked. A moment later, when the Left Bower entered the cabin, his
presence was scarcely noticed.

The silence was broken by a joyous exclamation from the Judge. He had
discovered the Old Man’s rifle in the corner, where it had been at first
overlooked. “He ain’t gone yet, gentlemen--for yer’s his rifle,” he
broke in, with a feverish return of volubility, and a high excited
falsetto. “He wouldn’t have left this behind. No! I knowed it from the
first. He’s just outside a bit, foraging for wood and water. No, sir!
Coming along here I said to Union Mills--didn’t I?--‘Bet your life the
Old Man’s not far off, even if he ain’t in the cabin.’ Why, the moment I
stepped foot--”

“And I said coming along,” interrupted Union Mills, with equally
reviving mendacity, “Like as not he’s hangin’ round yer and lyin’ low
just to give us a surprise.’ He! ho!”

“He’s gone for good, and he left that rifle here on purpose,” said the
Left Bower in a low voice, taking the weapon almost tenderly in his
hands.

“Drop it, then!” said the Right Bower. The voice was that of his
brother, but suddenly changed with passion. The two other partners
instinctively drew back in alarm.

“I’ll not leave it here for the first comer,” said the Left Bower,
calmly, “because we’ve been fools and he too. It’s too good a weapon for
that.”

“Drop it, I say!” said the Right Bower, with a savage stride towards
him.

The younger brother brought the rifle to a half charge with a white face
but a steady eye.

“Stop where you are!” he said collectedly. “Don’t row with ME, because
you haven’t either the grit to stick to your ideas or the heart to
confess them wrong. We’ve followed your lead, and--here we are! The
camp’s broken up--the Old Man’s gone--and we’re going. And as for the
d----d rifle--”

“Drop it, do you hear!” shouted the Right Bower, clinging to that one
idea with the blind pertinacity of rage and a losing cause. “Drop it!”

The Left Bower drew back, but his brother had seized the barrel
with both hands. There was a momentary struggle, a flash through the
half-lighted cabin, and a shattering report. The two men fell back from
each other; the rifle dropped on the floor between them.

The whole thing was over so quickly that the other two partners had not
had time to obey their common impulse to separate them, and consequently
even now could scarcely understand what had passed. It was over so
quickly that the two actors themselves walked back to their places,
scarcely realizing their own act.

A dead silence followed. The Judge and Union Mills looked at each other
in dazed astonishment, and then nervously set about their former habits,
apparently in that fatuous belief common to such natures, that they were
ignoring a painful situation. The Judge drew the barrel towards him,
picked up the cards, and began mechanically to “make a patience,”
 on which Union Mills gazed with ostentatious interest, but with eyes
furtively conscious of the rigid figure of the Right Bower by the
chimney and the abstracted face of the Left Bower at the door. Ten
minutes had passed in this occupation, the Judge and Union Mills
conversing in the furtive whispers of children unavoidably but
fascinatedly present at a family quarrel, when a light step was heard
upon the crackling brushwood outside, and the bright panting face of
the Old Man appeared upon the threshold. There was a shout of joy; in
another moment he was half-buried in the bosom of the Right Bower’s
shirt, half-dragged into the lap of the Judge, upsetting the barrel,
and completely encompassed by the Left Bower and Union Mills. With the
enthusiastic utterance of his name the spell was broken.

Happily unconscious of the previous excitement that had provoked this
spontaneous unanimity of greeting, the Old Man, equally relieved, at
once broke into a feverish announcement of his discovery. He painted the
details, with, I fear, a slight exaggeration of coloring, due partly
to his own excitement, and partly to justify their own. But he was
strangely conscious that these bankrupt men appeared less elated with
their personal interest in their stroke of fortune than with his own
success. “I told you he’d do it,” said the Judge, with a reckless
unscrupulousness of statement that carried everybody with it; “look at
him! the game little pup.” “Oh no! he ain’t the right breed, is he?”
 echoed Union Mills with arch irony, while the Right and Left Bower,
grasping either hand, pressed a proud but silent greeting that was half
new to him, but wholly delicious. It was not without difficulty that he
could at last prevail upon them to return with him to the scene of
his discovery, or even then restrain them from attempting to carry
him thither on their shoulders on the plea of his previous prolonged
exertions. Once only there was a momentary embarrassment. “Then you
fired that shot to bring me back?” said the Old Man, gratefully. In the
awkward silence that followed, the hands of the two brothers sought
and grasped each other, penitently. “Yes,” interposed the Judge, with
delicate tact, “ye see the Right and Left Bower almost quarreled to see
which should be the first to fire for ye. I disremember which did”--“I
never touched the trigger,” said the Left Bower, hastily. With a hurried
backward kick, the Judge resumed, “It went off sorter spontaneous.”

The difference in the sentiment of the procession that once more issued
from the Lone Star cabin did not fail to show itself in each individual
partner according to his temperament. The subtle tact of Union Mills,
however, in expressing an awakened respect for their fortunate partner
by addressing him, as if unconsciously, as “Mr. Ford” was at first
discomposing, but even this was forgotten in their breathless excitement
as they neared the base of the mountain. When they had crossed the creek
the Right Bower stopped reflectively.

“You say you heard the slide come down before you left the cabin?” he
said, turning to the Old Man.

“Yes; but I did not know then what it was. It was about an hour and a
half after you left,” was the reply.

“Then look here, boys,” continued the Right Bower with superstitious
exultation; “it was the SLIDE that tumbled into the creek, overflowed
it, and helped US clear out the race!”

It seemed so clear that Providence had taken the partners of the
Lone Star directly in hand that they faced the toilsome ascent of the
mountain with the assurance of conquerors. They paused only on the
summit to allow the Old Man to lead the way to the slope that held their
treasure. He advanced cautiously to the edge of the crumbling cliff,
stopped, looked bewildered, advanced again, and then remained white and
immovable. In an instant the Right Bower was at his side.

“Is anything the matter? Don’t--don’t look so, Old Man, for God’s sake!”

The Old Man pointed to the dull, smooth, black side of the mountain,
without a crag, break, or protuberance, and said with ashen lips:--

“It’s gone!”

*****

And it was gone! A SECOND slide had taken place, stripping the flank of
the mountain, and burying the treasure and the weak implement that had
marked its side deep under a chaos of rock and debris at its base.

“Thank God!” The blank faces of his companions turned quickly to the
Right Bower. “Thank God!” he repeated, with his arm round the neck of
the Old Man. “Had he stayed behind he would have been buried too.” He
paused, and, pointing solemnly to the depths below, said, “And thank God
for showing us where we may yet labor for it in hope and patience like
honest men.”

The men silently bowed their heads and slowly descended the mountain.
But when they had reached the plain one of them called out to the others
to watch a star that seemed to be rising and moving towards them over
the hushed and sleeping valley.

“It’s only the stage coach, boys,” said the Left Bower, smiling; “the
coach that was to take us away.”

In the security of their new-found fraternity they resolved to wait
and see it pass. As it swept by with flash of light, beat of hoofs, and
jingle of harness, the only real presence in the dreamy landscape, the
driver shouted a hoarse greeting to the phantom partners, audible only
to the Judge, who was nearest the vehicle.

“Did you hear--DID you hear what he said, boys?” he gasped, turning to
his companions. “No! Shake hands all round, boys! God bless you all,
boys! To think we didn’t know it all this while!”

“Know what?”

“Merry Christmas!”





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