Infomotions, Inc.The Girl of the Golden West / Belasco, David, 1853-1931



Author: Belasco, David, 1853-1931
Title: The Girl of the Golden West
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): rance; sonora; nick; johnson; girl; jack rance; sidney duck; wells fargo; polka saloon; cloudy mountain
Contributor(s): Bright, Mynors, 1818-1883 [Translator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 75,792 words (short) Grade range: 8-11 (high school) Readability score: 66 (easy)
Identifier: etext16551
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Title: The Girl of the Golden West


Author: David Belasco



Release Date: August 19, 2005  [eBook #16551]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST***


E-text prepared by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.



THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST

by

DAVID BELASCO

1911







   "In those strange days, people coming from God knows where,
   joined forces in that far Western land, and, according to the
   rude custom of the camp, their very names were soon lost and
   unrecorded, and here they struggled, laughed, gambled, cursed,
   killed, loved and worked out their strange destinies in a
   manner incredible to us of to-day. Of one thing only are we
   sure--they lived!"

                                 _Early History of California_




I.


It was when coming back to the mines, after a trip to Monterey, that the
Girl first met him. It happened, too, just at a time when her mind was
ripe to receive a lasting impression. But of all this the boys of Cloudy
Mountain Camp heard not a word, needless to say, until long afterwards.

Lolling back on the rear seat of the stage, her eyes half closed,--the
sole passenger now, and with the seat in front piled high with boxes
and baskets containing _rebozos_, silken souvenirs, and other finery
purchased in the shops of the old town,--the Girl was mentally reviewing
and dreaming of the delights of her week's visit there,--a visit that
had been a revelation to one whose sole experience of the world had
until now been derived from life in a rough mining camp. Before her
half-closed eyes still shimmered a vista of strange, exotic scenes and
people, the thronging crowds of carnivals and fetes; the Mexican girls
swaying through the movements of the fandango to the music of guitars
and castanets; the great _rodeo_ with its hundreds of _vaqueros_, which
was held at one of the ranchos just outside the town; and, lastly, and
most vividly of all, the never-to-be-forgotten thrill of her first
bull-fight.

Still ringing in her ears was the piercing note of the bugle which
instantly silenced the expectant throng; the hoarse roar that greeted
the entrance of the bull, and the thunder of his hoofs when he made his
first mad charge. She saw again, with marvellous fidelity, the whole
colour-scheme just before the death of the big, brave beast: the huge
arena in its unrivalled setting of mountain, sea and sky; the eager
multitude, tense with expectancy; the silver-mounted bridles and
trappings of the horses; the many-hued capes of the _capadors_; the
gaily-dressed _banderilleros_, poising their beribboned barbs; the red
flag and long, slender, flashing sword of the cool and ever watchful
_matador_; and, most prominent of all to her eyes, the brilliant,
gold-laced packets of the gentlemen-_picadors_, who, after the Mexican
fashion,--so she had been told,--deemed it in nowise beneath them to
enter the arena in person.

And so it happened that now, as the stage swung round a corner, and a
horseman suddenly appeared at a point where two roads converged, and
was evidently spurring his horse with the intent of coming up with the
stage, it was only natural that, even before he was near enough to be
identified, the _caballero_ should already have become a part of the
pageant of her mental picture.

Up to the moment of the stranger's appearance, nothing had happened to
break the monotony of her long return journey towards Cloudy Mountain
Camp. Far back in the distance now lay the Mission where the passengers
of the stage had been hospitably entertained the night before; still
further back the red-tiled roofs and whitewashed walls of the little
pueblo of San Jose,--a veritable bower of roses; and remotest of all,
the crosses of San Carlos and the great pines, oaks and cypresses, which
bordered her dream-memory of the white-beach crescent formed by the
waves of Monterey Bay.

The dawn of each day that swept her further from her week in wonderland
had ushered in the matchless spring weather of California,--the
brilliant sunshine, the fleecy clouds, the gentle wind with just a
tang in it from the distant mountains; and as the stage rolled slowly
northward through beautiful valleys, bright with yellow poppies and
silver-white lupines, every turn of the road varied her view of the
hills lying under an enchantment unlike that of any other land. Yet
strange and full of interest as every mile of the river country should
have been to a girl accustomed to the great forest of the Sierras,
she had gazed upon it for the most part with unseeing eyes, while
her thoughts turned, magnet-like, backward to the delights and the
bewilderment of the old Mexican town. So now, as the pursuing horseman
swept rapidly nearer, each swinging stride of the powerful horse, each
rhythmic movement of the graceful rider brought nearer and more vivid
the vision of a handsome _picador_ holding off with his lance a
thoroughly maddened bull until the crowd roared forth its appreciation.

"See, Senorita," said the horseman, at last galloping close to the coach
and lifting his sombrero, "A beautiful bunch of syringa," and then, with
his face bent towards her and his voice full of appeal, he added in
lower tone: "for you!"

For a brief second, the Girl was too much taken back to find the
adequate words with which to accept the stranger's offering.
Notwithstanding that in his glance she could read, as plainly as though
he had spoken: "I know I am taking a liberty, but please don't be angry
with me," there was something in his sweeping bow and grace of manner
that, coupled with her vague sense of his social advantage, disconcerted
her. A second more, however, and the embarrassment had passed, for on
lifting her eyes to his again she saw that her memory had not played
her false; beyond all chance of a mistake, he was the man who, ten days
earlier, had peered into the stage, as she was nearing Monterey, and
later, at the bull-fight, had found time to shoot admiring glances
at her between his daring feats of horsemanship. Therefore, genuine
admiration was in her eyes and extreme cordiality in her voice when,
after a word or two of thanks, she added, with great frankness:

"But it strikes me sort o' forcible that I've seen you before." Then,
with growing enthusiasm: "My, but that bull-fight was jest grand! You
were fine! I'm right glad to know you, sir."

The _caballero's_ face flushed with pleasure at her free-and-easy
reception of him, while an almost inaudible "_Gracias_" fell from his
lips. At once he knew that his first surmise, that the Girl was an
American, had been correct. Not that his experience in life had
furnished him with any parallel, for the Girl constituted a new and
unique type. But he was well aware that no Spanish lady would have
received the advances of a stranger in like fashion. It was inevitable,
therefore, that for the moment he should contrast, and not wholly to her
advantage, the Girl's unconventionality with the enforced reserve of the
_dulcineas_ who, custom decrees, may not be courted save in the presence
of _duennas_. But the next instant he recalled that there were, in
Sacramento, young women whose directness it would never do to mistake
for boldness; and,--to his credit be it said,--he was quick to perceive
that, however indifferent the Girl seemed to the customary formality of
introduction, there was no suggestion of indelicacy about her. All that
her frank and easy manner suggested was that she was a child of nature,
spontaneous and untrammelled by the dictates of society, and normally
and healthily at home in the company of the opposite sex.

"And she is even more beautiful than I supposed," was the thought that
went through his mind.

And yet, the Girl was not beautiful, at least if judged by Spanish or
Californian standards. Unlike most of their women, she was fair, and her
type purely American. Her eyes of blue were lightly but clearly browed
and abundantly fringed; her hair of burnished gold was luxuriant and
wavy, and framed a face of singularly frank and happy expression, even
though the features lacked regularity. But it was a face, so he told
himself, that any man would trust,--a face that would make a man the
better for looking at it,--a face which reflected a soul that no
environment could make other than pure and spotless. And so there was,
perhaps, a shade more of respect and a little less assurance in his
manner when he asked:

"And you like Monterey?"

"I love it! Ain't it romantic--an', my, what a fine time the girls there
must have!"

The man laughed; the Girl's enthusiasm amused him.

"Have you had a fine trip so far?" he asked, for want of something
better to say.

"Mercy, yes! This 'ere stage is a pokey ol' thing, but we've made not
bad time, considerin'."

"I thought you were never going to get here!"

The Girl shot a coquettish glance at him.

"How did you know I was comin' on this 'ere stage?"

"I did not know,"--the stranger broke off and thought a moment. He may
have been asking himself whether it were best for him to be as frank
as she had been and admit his admiration for her; at last, encouraged
perhaps by a look in the Girl's blue eyes, he ventured: "But I've been
riding along this road every day since I saw you. I felt that I must see
you again."

"You must like me powerful well . . .?" This remark, far from being a
question, was accompanied with all the physiognomical evidences of an
assertion.

The stranger shot a surprised glance at her, out of the corner of his
eye. Then he admitted, in all truthfulness:

"Of course I do. Who could help . . .?"

"Have you tried not to?" questioned the Girl, smiling in his face now,
and enjoying in the full this stolen intimacy.

"Ah, Senorita, why should I . . .? All I know is that I do."

The Girl became reflective; presently she observed:

"How funny it seems, an' yet, p'r'aps not so strange after all. The
boys--all my boys at the camp like me--I'm glad you do, too."

Meanwhile the good-natured and loquaciously-inclined driver had turned
his head and was subjecting the man cantering alongside of his stage to
a rigid inspection. With his knowledge of the various types of men in
California at that time, he had no difficulty in placing the status
of this straight-limbed, broad-shouldered, young fellow as a native
Californian. Moreover, it made no difference to him whether his
passenger had met an old acquaintance or not; it was sufficient for him
to observe that the lady, as well as himself--for the expression on her
face could by no means be described as bored or scornful--liked the
stranger's appearance; and so the better to take in all the points
of the magnificent horse which the young Californian was riding, not
to mention a commendable desire to give his only passenger a bit of
pleasant diversion on the long journey, he slowed his horse down to a
walk.

"But where do you live? You have a rancho near here?" the Girl was now
asking.

"My father has--I live with him."

"Any sisters?"

"No,--no sisters or brothers. My mother was an American; she died a few
years ago." And so saying, his glance sought and obtained an answering
one full of sympathy.

"I'm downright sorry for you," said the Girl with feeling; and then in
the next breath she added:

"But I'm pleased you're--you're half American."

"And you, Senorita?"

"I'm an orphan--my family are all dead," replied the Girl in a low
voice. "But I have my boys," she went on more cheerfully, "an' what more
do I need?" And then before he had time to ask her to explain what she
meant by the boys, she cried out: "Oh, jest look at them wonderful
berries over yonder! La, how I wish I could pick 'em!"

"Perhaps you may," the stranger hastened to say, and instantly with his
free hand he made a movement to assist her to alight, while with the
other he checked his horse; then, with his eyes resting appealingly upon
the driver, he inquired: "It is possible, is it not, Senor?"

Curiously enough, this apparently proper request was responsible for
changing the whole aspect of things. For, keenly desirous to oblige
him, though she was, there was something in the stranger's eyes as they
now rested upon her that made her feel suddenly shy; a flood of new
impressions assailed her: she wanted to evade the look and yet foster
it; but the former impulse was the stronger, and for the first time she
was conscious of a growing feeling of restraint. Indeed, some inner
voice told her that it would not be quite right for her to leave the
stage. True, she belonged to Cloudy Mountain Camp where the conventions
were unknown and where a rough, if kind, comradery existed between the
miners and herself; nevertheless, she felt that she had gone far enough
with a new acquaintance, whose accent, as well as the timbre of his
voice, gave ample evidence that he belonged to another order of society
than her own and that of the boys. So, hard though it was not to accede
to his request and, at the same time, break the monotony of her journey
with a few minutes of berry-picking with him in the fields, she made
no move to leave the stage but answered the questioning look of the
obliging driver with a negative one. Whereupon, the latter, after
declaring to the young Californian that the stage was late as it was,
called to his horses to show what they could do in the way of getting
over the ground after their long rest.

The young man's face clouded with disappointment. For two hundred yards
or more he spoke not a word, though he spurred his horse in order to
keep up with the now fast-moving stage. Then, all of a sudden, as the
silence between them was beginning to grow embarrassing, the Girl made
out the figure of a man on horseback a short distance ahead, and uttered
an exclamation of surprise. The stranger followed the direction of the
Girl's eyes and, almost instantly, it was borne in upon them that the
horseman awaited their coming. The Girl turned to speak, but the tender,
sorrowful expression that she saw on the young man's face kept her
silent.

"That is one of my father's men," he said, somewhat solemnly. "His
presence here may mean that I must leave you. The road to our ranch
begins there. I fear that something may be wrong."

The Girl shot him a look of sympathetic inquiry, though she said
nothing. To tell the truth, the first thought that entered her mind
at his words was one of concern that their companionship was likely
to cease abruptly. During the silence that preceded his outspoken
premonition of trouble, she had been studying him closely. She found
herself admiring his aquiline features, his olive-coloured skin with its
healthful pallor, the lazy, black Spanish eyes behind which, however
tranquil they generally were, it was easy for her to discern, when he
smiled, that reckless and indomitable spirit which appeals to women all
the world over.

As the stage approached the motionless horseman, the young man cried out
to the _vaquero_, for such he was, and asked in Spanish whether he had a
message for him; an answer came back in the same language, the meaning
of which the Girl failed to comprehend. A moment later her companion
turned to her and said:

"It is as I feared."

Once more a silence fell upon them. For a half-mile or so, apparently
deep in thought, he continued to canter at her side; at last he spoke
what was in his mind.

"I hate to leave you, Senorita," he said.

In an instant the light went out of the Girl's eyes, and her face was as
serious as his own when she replied:

"Well, I guess I ain't particularly crazy to have you go neither."

The unmistakable note of regret in the Girl's voice flattered as well as
encouraged him to go further and ask:

"Will you think of me some time?"

The Girl laughed.

"What's the good o' my thinkin' o' you? I seen you talkin' with them
gran' Monterey ladies an' I guess you won't be thinkin' often o' me.
Like 's not by to-morrow you'll 'ave clean forgot me," she said with
forced carelessness.

"I shall never forget you," declared the young man with the intense
fervour that comes so easily to the men of his race.

At that a half-mistrustful, half-puzzled look crossed the Girl's face.
Was this handsome stranger finding her amusing? There was almost a
resentful glitter in her eyes when she cried out:

"I 'mos' think you're makin' fun o' me!"

"No, I mean every word that I say," he hastened to assure her, looking
straight into her eyes where he could scarcely have failed to read
something which the Girl had not the subtlety to conceal.

"Oh, I guess I made you say that!" she returned, making a child-like
effort to appear to disbelieve him.

The stranger could not suppress a smile; but the next moment he was
serious, and asked:

"And am I never going to see you again? Won't you tell me where I can
find you?"

Once more the Girl was conscious of a feeling of embarrassment. Not that
she was at all ashamed of being "The Girl of The Polka Saloon," for that
never entered her mind; but she suddenly realised that it was one thing
to converse pleasantly with a young man on the highway and another to
let him come to her home on Cloudy Mountain. Only too well could she
imagine the cool reception, if it stopped at that, that the boys of the
camp there would accord to this stylish stranger. As a consequence, she
was torn by conflicting emotions: an overwhelming desire to see him
again, and a dread of what might happen to him should he descend upon
Cloudy Mountain with all his fine airs and graces.

"I guess I'm queer--" she began uncertainly and then stopped in sudden
surprise. Too long had she delayed her answer. Already the stage had
left him some distance behind. Unperceived by her a shade of annoyance
had passed over the Californian's face at her seeming reluctance to
tell him where she lived. The quick of his Spanish pride was touched;
and with a wave of his sombrero he had pulled his horse down on his
haunches. Of no avail now was her resolution to let him know the
whereabouts of the camp at any cost, for already his "_Adios, Senorita_"
was sounding faintly in her ears.

With a little cry of vexation, scarcely audible, the young woman flung
herself back on the seat. She was only a girl with all a girl's ways,
and like most of her sex, however practical her life thus far, she
was not without dreams of a romance. This meeting with the handsome
_caballero_ was the nearest she had come to having one. True, there was
scarcely a man at Cloudy but what had tried at one time or another to go
beyond the stage of good comradeship; but none of them had approached
the idealistic vision of the hero that was all the time lying dormant in
her mind. Of course, being a girl, and almost a queen in her own little
sphere, she accepted their rough homage in a manner that was befitting
to such an exalted personage, and gave nothing in return. But now
something was stirring within her of which she knew nothing; a feeling
was creeping over her that she could not analyse; she was conscious only
of the fact that with the departure of this attractive stranger, who had
taken no pains to conceal his admiration for her, her journey had been
robbed of all its joy.

A hundred yards further on, therefore, she could not resist the
temptation to put her head out of the stage and look back at the place
where she had last seen him.

He was still sitting quietly on his horse at the place where they had
parted so unceremoniously, his face turned in her direction--horse and
rider silhouetted against the western sky which showed a crimson hue
below a greenish blue that was sapphire farther from the horizon.




II.


Not until a turn of the road hid the stage from sight did the stranger
fix his gaze elsewhere. Even then it was not easy for him, and there had
been a moment when he was ready to throw everything to the winds and
follow it. But when on the point of doing so there suddenly flashed
through his mind the thought of the summons that he had received. And
so, not unlike one who had come to the conclusion that it was indeed a
farewell, he waved his hand resignedly in the direction that the stage
had taken and, calling to his _vaquero_, he gave his horse a thrust of
the long rowel of his spur and galloped off towards the foothills of the
Sierras.

For some miles the riders travelled a road which wound through beautiful
green fields; but master and man were wholly indifferent, seeing neither
the wild flowers lining each side of the road nor the sycamores and live
oaks which were shining overhead from the recent rains. In the case of
the young man every foot of the way to his father's rancho was familiar.
All hours of the day and night he had made the trip to the highway, for
with the exception of the few years that had been given to his education
in foreign lands, his whole life had been passed on the rancho. Scarcely
less acquainted with the road than his young master was the _vaquero_,
so neither gave a glance at the country through which they were passing,
but side by side took the miles in silence.

An hour passed with the young man still wrapt in thought. The truth was,
though he was scarcely ready to admit it, he had been hard hit. In more
ways than one the Girl had made a deep impression on him. Not only had
her appearance awakened his interest to the point of enthusiasm, but
there was something irresistibly attractive to him in her lack of
affectation and audacious frankness. Over and over again he thought
of her happy face, her straightforward way of looking at things and,
last but not least, her evident pleasure in meeting him. And when he
reflected on the hopelessness of their ever meeting again, a feeling of
depression seized him. But his nature--always a buoyant one--did not
permit him to remain downcast very long.

By this time they were nearing the foothills. A little while longer and
the road that they were travelling became nothing more than a bridle
path. Indeed, so dense did the _chaparral_ presently become that it
would have been utterly impossible for one unacquainted with the way to
keep on it. Animal life was to be seen everywhere. At the approach of
the riders innumerable rabbits scurried away; quail whirred from bush
to bush; and, occasionally, a deer broke from the thickets.

At the end of another hour of hard riding they were forced to slacken
their pace. In front of them the ground could be seen, in the light of a
fast disappearing moon, to be gradually rising. Another mile or two and
vertical walls of rock rose on each side of them; while great ravines,
holding mountain torrents, necessitated their making a short detour for
the purpose of finding a place where the stream could be safely forded.
Even then it was not an easy task on account of the boulder-enclosing
whirlpools whose waters were whipped into foam by the wind that swept
through the forest.

At a point of the road where there was a break in the _chaparral_, a
voice suddenly cried out in Spanish:

"Who comes?"

"Follow us!" was the quick answer without drawing rein; and, instantly,
on recognition of the young master's voice, a mounted sentinel spurred
his horse out from behind an overhanging rock and closed in behind
them. And as they were challenged thus several times, it happened that
presently there was quite a little band of men pushing ahead in the
darkness that had fallen.

And so another hour passed. Then, suddenly, there sprung into view
the dark outlines of a low structure which proved to be a corral, and
finally they made their way through a gate and came upon a long adobe
house, situated in a large clearing and having a kind of courtyard in
front of it.

In the centre of this courtyard was what evidently had once been a
fountain, though it had long since dried up. Around it squatted a group
of _vaqueros_, all smoking cigarettes and some of them lazily twisting
lariats out of horsehair. Close at hand a dozen or more wiry little
mustangs stood saddled and bridled and ready for any emergency. In
colour, one or two were of a peculiar cream and had silver white manes,
but the rest were greys and chestnuts. It was evident that they had
great speed and bottom. All in all, what with the fierce and savage
faces of the men scattered about the courtyard, the remoteness of the
adobe, and the care taken to guard against surprise, old Bartolini's
_hacienda_ was an establishment not unlike that of the feudal barons
or a nest of banditti according to the point of view.

At the sound of the fast galloping horses, every man on the ground
sprang to his feet and ran to his horse. For a second only they stood
still and listened intently; then, satisfied that all was well and that
the persons approaching belonged to the rancho, they returned to their
former position by the fountain--all save an Indian servant, who caught
the bridle thrown to him by the young man as he swung himself out of
the saddle. And while this one led his horse noiselessly away, another
of the same race preceded him along a corridor until he came to the
_Maestro's_ room.

Old Ramerrez Bartolini, or Ramerrez, as he was known to his followers,
was dying. His hair, pure white and curly, was still as luxuriant as
when he was a young man. Beneath the curls was a patrician, Spanish
face, straight nose and brilliant, piercing, black eyes. His gigantic
frame lay on a heap of stretched rawhides which raised him a few inches
from the floor. This simple couch was not necessarily an indication of
poverty, though his property had dwindled to almost nothing, for in most
Spanish adobes of that time, even in some dwellings of the very rich,
there were no beds. Over him, as well as under him, were blankets. On
each side of his head, fixed on the wall, two candles were burning, and
almost within reach of his hand there stood a rough altar, with crucifix
and candles, where a padre was making preparations to administer the
Last Sacraments.

In the low-studded room the only evidence remaining of prosperity
were some fragments of rich and costly goods that once had been piled
up there. In former times the old Spaniard had possessed these in
profusion, but little was left now. Indeed, whatever property he had at
the present time was wholly in cattle and horses, and even these were
comparatively few.

There had been a period, not so very long ago at that, when old Ramerrez
was a power in the land. In all matters pertaining to the province of
Alta California his advice was eagerly sought, and his opinion carried
great weight in the councils of the Spaniards. Later, under the Mexican
regime, the respect in which his name was held was scarcely less; but
with the advent of the _Americanos_ all this was changed. Little by
little he lost his influence, and nothing could exceed the hatred which
he felt for the race that he deemed to be responsible for his downfall.

It was odd, in a way, too, for he had married an American girl, the
daughter of a sea captain who had visited the coast, and for many years
he had held her memory sacred. And, curiously enough, it was because of
this enmity, if indirectly, that much of his fortune had been wasted.

Fully resolved that England--even France or Russia, so long as Spain
was out of the question--should be given an opportunity to extend a
protectorate over his beloved land, he had sent emissaries to Europe
and supplied them with moneys--far more than he could afford--to give
a series of lavish entertainments at which the wonderful richness and
fertility of California could be exploited. At one time it seemed as
if his efforts in that direction would meet with success. His plan had
met with such favour from the authorities in the City of Mexico that
Governor Pico had been instructed by them to issue a grant for several
million of acres. But the United States Government was quick to perceive
the hidden meaning in the extravagances of these envoys in London, and
in the end all that was accomplished was the hastening of the inevitable
American occupation.

From that time on it is most difficult to imagine the zeal with which he
endorsed the scheme of the native Californians for a republic of their
own. He was a leader when the latter made their attack on the Americans
in Sonoma County and were repulsed with the loss of several killed.
One of these was Ramerrez' only brother, who was the last, with the
exception of himself and son, of a proud, old, Spanish family. It was a
terrible blow, and increased, if possible, his hatred for the Americans.
Later the old man took part in the battle of San Pasquale and the Mesa.
In the last engagement he was badly wounded, but even in that condition
he announced his intention of fighting on and bitterly denounced his
fellow-officers for agreeing to surrender. As a matter of fact, he
escaped that ignominy. For, taking advantage of his great knowledge of
the country, he contrived to make his way through the American lines
with his few followers, and from that time may be said to have taken
matters into his own hand.

Old Ramerrez was conscious that his end was merely a matter of hours, if
not minutes. Over and over again he had had himself propped up by his
attendants with the expectation that his command to bring his son had
been obeyed. No one knew better than he how impossible it would be to
resist another spasm like that which had seized him a little while after
his son had ridden off the rancho early that morning. Yet he relied once
more on his iron constitution, and absolutely refused to die until he
had laid upon his next of kin what he thoroughly believed to be a stern
duty. Deep down in heart, it is true, he was vaguely conscious of a
feeling of dread lest his cherished revenge should meet with opposition;
but he refused to harbour the thought, believing, not unnaturally, that,
after having imposed his will upon others for nearly seventy years, it
was extremely unlikely that his dying command should be disobeyed by
his son. And it was in the midst of these death-bed reflections that he
heard hurried footsteps and knew that his boy had come at last.

When the latter entered the room his face wore an agonised expression,
for he feared that he had arrived too late. It was a relief, therefore,
to see his father, who had lain still, husbanding his little remaining
strength, open his eyes and make a sign, which included the padre as
well as the attendants, that he wished to be left alone with his son.

"Art thou here at last, my son?" said the old man the moment they were
alone.

"Ay, father, I came as soon as I received your message."

"Come nearer, then, I have much to say to you, and I have not long to
live. Have I been a good father to you, my lad?"

The young man knelt beside the couch and kissed his father's hand, while
he murmured an assent.

At the touch of his son's lips a chill struck the old man's heart. It
tortured him to think how little the boy guessed of the recent history
of the man he was bending over with loving concern; how little he
divined of the revelation that must presently be made to him. For a
moment the dying man felt that, after all, perhaps it were better to
renounce his vengeance, for it had been suddenly borne in upon him that
the boy might suffer acutely in the life that he intended him to live;
but in another moment he had taken himself to task for a weakness that
he considered must have been induced by his dying condition, and he
sternly banished the thought from his mind.

"My lad," he began, "you promise to carry out my wishes after I am
gone?"

"Ay, father, you know that I will. What do you wish me to do?"

The old man pointed to the crucifix.

"You swear it?"

"I swear it."

No sooner had the son uttered the wished-for words than his father fell
back on the couch and closed his eyes. The effort and excitement left
him as white as a sheet. It seemed to the boy as if his father might be
sinking into the last stupor, but after a while he opened his eyes and
called for a glass of _aguardiente_.

With difficulty he gulped it down; then he said feebly:

"My boy, the only American that ever was good was your mother. She was
an angel. All the rest of these cursed gringos are pigs;" and his voice
growing stronger, he repeated: "Ay, pigs, hogs, swine!"

The son made no reply; his father went on:

"What have not these devils done to our country ever since they came
here? At first we received them most hospitably; everything they wanted
was gladly supplied to them. And what did they do in return for our
kindness? Where now are our extensive ranchos--our large herds of
cattle? They have managed to rob us of our lands through clever laws
that we of California cannot understand; they have stolen from our
people thousands and thousands of cattle! There is no infamy that--"

The young man hastened to interrupt him.

"You must not excite yourself, father," he said with solicitude. "They
are unscrupulous--many of them, but all are not so."

"Bah!" ejaculated the old man; "the gringos are all alike. I hate them
all, I--" The old man was unable to finish. He gasped for breath. But
despite his son's entreaties to be calm, he presently cried out:

"Do you know who you are?" And not waiting for a reply he went on with:
"Our name is one of the proudest in Spain--none better! The curse of a
long line of ancestors will be upon you if you tamely submit--not make
these Americans suffer for their seizure of this, our rightful land--our
beautiful California!"

More anxiously than ever now the son regarded his father. His inspection
left no doubt in his mind that the end could not be far off. With great
earnestness he implored him to lie down; but the dying man shook his
head and continued to grow more and more excited.

"Do you know who I am?" he demanded. "No--you think you do, but you
don't. There was a time when I had plenty of money. It pleased me
greatly to pay all your expenses--to see that you received the best
education possible both at home and abroad. Then the gringos came.
Little by little these cursed _Americanos_ have taken all that I had
from me. But as they have sown so shall they reap. I have taken my
revenge, and you shall take more!" He paused to get his breath; then in
a terrible voice he cried: "Yes, I have robbed--robbed! For the last
three years, almost, your father has been a bandit!"

The son sprang to his feet.

"A bandit? You, father, a Ramerrez, a bandit?"

"Ay, a bandit, an outlaw, as you also will be when I am no more, and
rob, rob, rob, these _Americanos_. It is my command and--you--have--
sworn . . ."

The son's eyes were rivetted upon his father's face as the old man fell
back, completely exhausted, upon his couch of rawhides. With a strange
conflict of emotions, the young man remained standing in silence for
a few brief seconds that seemed like hours, while the pallor of death
crept over the face before him, leaving no doubt that, in the solemnity
of the moment his father had spoken nothing but the literal truth.
It was a hideous avowal to hear from the dying lips of one whom from
earliest childhood he had been taught to revere as the pattern of
Spanish honour and nobility. And yet the thought now uppermost in young
Ramerrez's mind was that oddly enough he had not been taken by surprise.
Never by a single word had any one of his father's followers given him
a hint of the truth. So absolute, so feudal was the old man's mastery
over his men that not a whisper of his occupation had ever reached his
son's ears. Nevertheless, he now told himself that in some curious,
instinctive way, he had _known_,--or rather, had refused to know,
putting off the hour of open avowal, shutting his eyes to the
accumulating facts that day by day had silently spoken of lawlessness
and peril. Three years, his father had just said; well, that explained
how it was that no suspicions had ever awakened until after he had
completed his education and returned home from his travels. But since
then a child must have noted that something was wrong: the grim,
sinister faces of the men, constantly on guard, as though the old
_hacienda_ were in a state of siege; the altered disposition of his
father, always given to gloomy moods, but lately doubly silent and
saturnine, full of strange savagery and smouldering fire. Yes, somewhere
in the back of his mind he had known the whole, shameful truth; had
known the purpose of those silent, stealthy excursions, and equally
silent returns,--and more than once the broken heads and bandaged arms
that coincided so oddly with some new tale of a daring hold-up that
he was sure to hear of, the next time that he chanced to ride into
Monterey. For three years, young Ramerrez had known that sooner or later
he would be facing such a moment as this, called upon to make the choice
that should make or mar him for life. And now, for the first time he
realised why he had never voiced his suspicions, never questioned, never
hastened the time of decision,--it was because even now he did not know
which way he wished to decide! He knew only that he was torn and racked
by terrible emotions, that on one side was a mighty impulse to disregard
the oath he had blindly taken and refuse to do his father's bidding;
and on the other, some new and unguessed craving for excitement and
danger, some inherited lawlessness in his blood, something akin to the
intoxication of the arena, when the thunder of the bull's hoofs rang in
his ears. And so, when the old man's lips opened once more, and shaped,
almost inaudibly, the solemn words:

"You have sworn,--" the scales were turned and the son bowed his head in
silence.

A moment later and the room was filled with men who fell on their knees.
On every face, save one, there was an expression of overwhelming grief
and despair; but on that one, ashen grey as it was with the agony of
approaching death, there was a look of contentment as he made a sign to
the padre that he was now ready for him to administer the last rites of
his church.




III.


The Polka Saloon!

How the name stirs the blood and rouses the imagination!

No need to be a Forty-Niner to picture it all as if there that night:
the great high and square room lighted by candles and the warm, yellow
light of kerosene lamps; the fireplace with its huge logs blazing and
roaring; the faro tables with the little rings of miners around them;
and the long, pine bar behind which a typical barkeeper of the period
was busily engaged in passing the bottle to the men clamorous for whisky
in which to drink the health of the Girl.

And the spirit of the place! When and where was there ever such a fine
fellowship--transforming as it unquestionably did an ordinary saloon
into a veritable haven of good cheer for miners weary after a long and
often discouraging day in the gulches?

In a word, the Polka was a marvellous tribute to its girl-proprietor's
sense of domesticity. Nothing that could insure the comfort for her
patrons was omitted. Nothing, it would seem, could occur that would
disturb the harmonious aspect of the scene.

But alas! the night was yet young.

Now the moment for which not a few of that good-humoured and
musically-inclined company were waiting arrived. Clear above the babel
of voices sounded a chord, and the poor old concertina player began
singing in a voice that was as wheezy as his instrument:


   "Camp town ladies sing this song
           Dooda! Dooda!
    Camp town race track five miles long
           Dooda! Dooda! Day!"


Throughout the solo nothing more nerve-racking or explosive than an
occasional hilarious whoop punctuated the melody. For once, at any rate,
it seemed likely to go the distance; but no sooner did the chorus, which
had been taken up, to a man, by the motley crowd and was rip-roaring
along at a great rate, reach the second line than there sounded the
reports of a fusillade of gun-shots from the direction of the street.
The effect was magical: every voice trailed off into uncertainty and
then ceased.

Instantly the atmosphere became charged with tension; a hush fell upon
the room, the joyous light of battle in every eye, if nothing else,
attesting the approach of the foe; while all present, after listening
contemptuously to a series of wild and unearthly yells which announced
an immediate arrival, sprang to their feet and concentrated their
glances on the entrance of the saloon through which there presently
burst a party of lively boys from The Ridge.

A psychological moment followed, during which the occupants of The
Polka Saloon glared fiercely at the newcomers, who, needless to say,
returned their hostile stares. The chances of war, judging from past
performances, far outnumbered those of peace. But as often happens in
affairs of this kind when neither side is unprepared, the desire for
gun-play gave way to mirthless laughter, and, presently, the hilarious
crowd from the rival camp, turning abruptly on their heels, betook
themselves en masse into the dance-hall.

For the briefest of periods, there was a look of keen disappointment on
the faces of the Cloudy Mountain boys as they gazed upon the receding
figures of their sworn enemies; but almost in as little time as it takes
to tell it there was a tumultuous lining up at the bar, the flat surface
of which soon resounded with the heavy blows dealt it by the fists of
the men desirous of accentuating the rhythm when roaring out:


   "Gwine to run all night,
    Gwine to run all day,
    Bet my money on a bob-tail nag,
    Somebody bet on the bay!"


Among those standing at the bar, and looking out of bleared eyes at a
flashy lithograph tacked upon the wall which pictured a Spanish woman
in short skirts and advertised "Espaniola Cigaroos," were two miners:
one with curly hair and a pink-and-white complexion; the other, tall,
loose-limbed and good-natured looking. They were known respectively as
Handsome Charlie and Happy Halliday, and had been arguing in a maudlin
fashion over the relative merits of Spanish and American beauties. The
moment the song was concluded they banged their glasses significantly
on the bar; but since it was an unbroken rule of the house that at the
close of the musician's performance he should be rewarded by a drink,
which was always passed up to him, they needs must wait. The little
barkeeper paid no attention to their demands until he had satisfied
the thirst of the old concertina player who, presently, could be seen
drawing aside the bear-pelt curtain and passing through the small,
square opening of the partition which separated the Polka Saloon from
its dance-hall.

"Not goin', old Dooda Day, are you?" The question, almost a bellow,
which, needless to say, was unanswered, came from Sonora Slim who, with
his great pal Trinidad Joe, was playing faro at a table on one side of
the room. Apparently, both were losing steadily to the dealer whose
chair, placed up against the pine-boarded wall, was slightly raised
above the floor. This last individual was as fat and unctuous looking as
his confederate, the Look-out, was thin and sneaky; moreover, he bore
the sobriquet of The Sidney Duck and, obviously, was from Australia.

"Say, what did the last eight do?" Sonora now asked, turning to the
case-keeper.

"Lose."

"Well, let the tail go with the hide," returned Sonora, resignedly.

"And the ace--how many times did it win?" inquired Trinidad.

"Four times," was the case-keeper's answer.

All this time a full-blooded Indian with long, blue-black hair, very
thick and oily, had been watching the game with excited eyes. His dress
was part Indian and part American, and he wore all kinds of imitation
jewelry including a huge scarf-pin which flashed from his vivid red tie.
Furthermore, he possessed a watch,--a large, brassy-looking article,--
which he brought out on every possible occasion. When not engaged in
helping himself to the dregs that remained in the glasses carelessly
left about the room, he was generally to be found squatted down on the
floor and playing a solitaire of his own devising. But now he reached
over Sonora's shoulder and put some coins on the table in front of the
dealer.

"Give Billy Jackrabbit fer two dolla' Mexican chip," he demanded in a
guttural voice.

The Sidney Duck did as requested. While he was shuffling the cards for
a new deal, the players beat time with their feet to the music that
floated in from the dance-hall. The tune seemed to have an unusually
exhilarating effect on Happy Halliday, for letting out a series of
whoops he staggered off towards the adjoining room with the evident
intention of getting his fill of the music, not forgetting to yell
back just before he disappeared:

"Root hog or die, boys!"

Happy's boisterous exit caused a peculiar expression to appear
immediately on Handsome's face, which might be interpreted as one of
envy at his friend's exuberant condition; at all events, he proceeded
forthwith to order several drinks, gulping them down in rapid
succession.

Meanwhile, at the faro table, the luck was going decidedly against the
boys. In fact, so much so, that there was a dangerous note in Sonora's
voice when, presently, he blurted out:

"See here, gambolier Sid, you're too lucky!"

"You bet!" approved Trinidad, and then added:

"More chips, Australier!"

But Trinidad's comment, as well as his request, only brought forth the
oily smile that The Sidney Duck always smiled when any reference was
made to his game. It was his policy to fawn upon all and never permit
himself to think that an insult was intended. So he gathered in
Trinidad's money and gave him chips in return. For some seconds the men
played on without anything disturbing the game except the loud voice of
the caller of the wheel-of-fortune in the dance-hall. But the boys were
to hear something more from there besides, "Round goes the wheel!" For,
all at once there came to their ears the sounds of an altercation in
which it was not difficult to recognise the penetrating voice of Happy
Halliday.

"Now, git, you loafer!" he was saying in tones that left no doubt in the
minds of his friends that Happy was hot under the collar over something.

A shot followed.

"Missed, by the Lord Harry!" ejaculated Happy, deeply humiliated at his
failure to increase the mortuary record of the camp.

The incident, however, passed unnoticed by the faro players; not a man
within sound of the shot, for that matter, inquired what the trouble
was about; and even Nick, picking up his tray filled with glasses and a
bottle, walked straightway into the dance-hall looking as if the matter
were not worth a moment's thought.

At Nick's going the Indian's face brightened; it gave him the
opportunity for which he had been waiting. Nobly he maintained his
reputation as a thief by quietly going behind the bar and lifting from
a box four cigars which he stowed away in his pockets. But even that,
apparently did not satisfy him, for when he espied the butt of a cigar,
flung into the sawdust on the floor by a man who had just come in, he
picked it up before squatting down again to resume his card playing.

The newcomer, a man of, say, forty years, came slowly into the
room without a word of salutation to anyone. In common with his
fellow-miners, he wore a flannel shirt and boots. The latter gave every
evidence of age as did his clothes which, nevertheless, were neat.
His face wore a mild, gentle look and would have said that he was
companionable enough; yet it was impossible not to see that he was not
willingly seeking the cheer of the saloon but came there solely because
he had no other place to go. In a word, he had every appearance of a man
down on his luck.

Men were continually coming in and going out, but no one paid the
slightest attention to him, even though a succession of audible sighs
escaped his lips. At length he went over to the counter and took a sheet
or two of the paper,--which was kept there for the few who desired to
write home,--a quill-pen and ink; and picking up a small wooden box he
seated himself upon it before a desk--which had been built from a rude
packing-case--and began wearily and laboriously to write.

"The lone star now rises!"

It was the stentorian voice of the caller of the wheel-of-fortune.
One would have thought that the sound would have had the effect of a
thunder-clap upon the figure at the desk; but he gave no sign whatever
of having heard it; nor did he see the suspicious glance which Nick,
entering at that moment, shot at Billy Jackrabbit who was stealing
noiselessly towards the dance-hall where the whoops were becoming so
frequent and evincing such exuberance of spirits that the ubiquitous, if
generally unconcerned, Nick felt it incumbent to give an explanation of
them.

"Boys from The Ridge cuttin' up a bit," he tendered apologetically, and
took up a position at the end of the bar where he could command a view
of both rooms.

As a partial acknowledgment that he had heard Nick's communication,
Sonora turned round slightly in his seat at the faro table and shot a
glance towards the dance-hall. Contempt showed on his rugged features
when he turned round again and addressed the stocky, little man sitting
at his elbow.

"Well, I don't dance with men for partners! When I shassay, Trin, I want
a feminine piece of flesh an' blood"--he sneered, and then went on to
amplify--"with garters on."

"You bet!" agreed his faithful, if laconic pal, on feeling the other's
playful dig in his ribs.

The subject of men dancing together was a never-ceasing topic of
conversation between these two cronies. But whatever the attitude of
others Sonora knew that Trinidad would never fail him when it came
to nice discriminations of this sort. His reference to an article of
feminine apparel, however, was responsible for his recalling the fact
that he had not as yet received his daily assurance from the presiding
genius of the bar that he stood well in the estimation of the only lady
in the camp. Therefore, leaving the table, he went over to Nick and
whispered:

"Has the Girl said anythin' about me to-day, Nick?"

Now the role of confidential adviser to the boys was not a new one to
the barkeeper, nor was anyone in the camp more familiar than he with
their good qualities as well as their failings. Every morning before
going to work in the placers it was their custom to stop in at The Polka
for their first drink--which was, generally, "on the house." Invariably,
Nick received them in his shirt-sleeves,--for that matter he was the
proud possessor of the sole "biled shirt" in the camp,--and what with
his red flannel undershirt that extended far below the line of his
cuffs, his brilliantly-coloured waistcoat and tie, and his hair combed
down very low in a cow-lick over his forehead, he was indeed an odd
little figure of a man as he listened patiently to the boys' grievances
and doled out sympathy to them. On the other hand, absolutely devoted to
the fair proprietress of the saloon,--though solely in the character of
a good comrade,--he never ceased trying to advance her interests; and
since one and all of her customers believed themselves to be in love
with her, one of his most successful methods was to flatter each one in
turn into thinking that he had made a tremendous impression upon her. It
was not a difficult thing to do inasmuch as long custom and repetition
had made him an adept at highly-coloured lying.

"Well, you got the first chance," asseverated Nick, dropping his voice
to a whisper.

Sonora grinned from ear to ear; he expanded his broad chest and held his
head proudly; and waving his hand in lordly fashion he sung out:

"Cigars for all hands and drinks, too, Nick!"

The genial prevaricator could scarcely restrain himself from laughing
outright as he watched the other return to his place at the faro table;
and when, in due course, he served the concoctions and passed around the
high-priced cigars, there was a smile on his face which said as plainly
as if spoken that Sonora was not the only person present that had reason
to be pleased with himself.

Then occurred one of those terpsichorean performances which never failed
to shock old Sonora's sense of the fitness of things. For the next
moment two Ridge boys, dancing together, waltzed through the opening
between the two rooms and, letting out ear-piercing whoops with every
rotation, whirled round and round the room until they brought up against
the bar where they, breathlessly, called for drinks.

An angry lull fell upon the room; the card game stopped. However, before
anyone seated there could give vent to his resentment at this boisterous
intrusion of the men from the rival camp, the smooth, oily and inviting
voice of the unprincipled Sidney Duck, scenting easy prey because of
their inebriated condition, called out in its cockney accent:

"'Ello, boys--'ow's things at The Ridge?"

"Wipes this camp off the earth!" returned a voice that was provocative
in the extreme--a reply that instantly brought every man at the faro
table to his feet. For a time, at least, it seemed as if the boys from
The Ridge would get the trouble they were looking for.

A murmur of angry amazement arose, while Sonora, his watery blue eyes
glinting, followed up his explosive, "What!" with a suggestive movement
towards his hip. But quick as he was Nick was still quicker and had The
Ridge boy, as well as Sonora, covered before their hands had even
reached their guns.

"You . . .!" the little barkeeper's sentence was bristled out and
contained along with the expletives some comparatively mild words which
gave the would-be combatants to understand that any such foolishness
would not be tolerated in The Polka unless he himself "'lowed it to be
ne'ssary."

Not unnaturally The Ridge boys failed to see anything offensive in
language that had a gun behind it; and realising the futility of any
further attempt to get away with a successful disturbance they wisely
yielded to superior quickness at the draw. With a whoop of resignation
they rushed back to the dance-hall where the voice of the caller was
exhorting the gents--whose partners were mostly big, husky, hairy-faced
men clumsily enacting parts generally assigned to members of the gentler
sex--to swing:

"With the right-hand gent, first partner swing with the left-hand gent,
first partner swing with the right-hand gent; first partner swing with
the left-hand gent, and the partner in the centre, and gents all
around!"

Back at the faro table now,--the incident having passed quickly into
oblivion,--Sonora called to the dealer for "a slug's worth of chips"--a
request that was promptly acceded to. But they had played only a few
minutes when a thin but somewhat sweet tenor voice was heard singing:


   "Wait for the waggon,
    Wait for the waggon,
    Wait for the waggon,
    And we'll all take a ride.
    Wait for the waggon--"


"Here he is, gentlemen, just back from his triumphs of The Ridge!" broke
in Nick, whose province it was to act as master of ceremonies; and
coming forward as the singer emerged from the dance-hall he introduced
him to the assembled company in the most approved music-hall manner:
"Allow me to present to you, Jake Wallace the Camp favour-ite!" he said
with an exaggeratedly low bow.

"How-dy, Jake! Hello, Jake, old man! How be you, Jake!" were some of the
greetings that were hurled at the Minstrel who, robed in a long linen
duster, his face half-blacked, and banjo in hand, acknowledged the words
of welcome with a broad grin as he stood bowing in the centre of the
room.

That Jake Wallace was a typical camp minstrel from the top of his dusty
stove-pipe hat to the sole of his flapping negro shoes, one could see
with half an eye as he made his way to a small platform--a musician's
stand--at one end of the bar; nor could there be any question about his
being a prudent one, for the musician did not seat himself until he had
carefully examined the sheet-iron shield inside the railing, which was
attached in such a way that it could be sprung up by working a spring in
the floor and render him fairly safe from a chance shot during a fracas.

"My first selection, friends, will be 'The Little--'," announced the
Minstrel with a smile as he begun to tune his instrument.

"Aw, give us 'Old Dog Tray,'" cut in Sonora, impatiently from his seat
at the card table.

Jake bowed his ready acquiescence to the request and kept right on
tuning up.

"I say, Nick, have you saw the Girl?" asked Trinidad in a low voice,
taking advantage of the interval to stroll over to the bar.

Mysteriously, Nick's eyes wandered about the room to see if anyone was
listening; at length, with marvellous insincerity, he said:

"You've got the first chance, Trin; I gave 'er your message."

Trinidad Joe fairly beamed upon him.

"Whisky for everybody, Nick!" he ordered bumptuously; and as before the
little barkeeper's face wore an expression of pleasure not a whit less
than that of the man whom, presently, he followed to the faro table with
a bottle and four glasses.

As soon as Trinidad had seated himself the Minstrel struck a chord and
announced impressively:

"'Old Dog Tray,' gents, 'or Echoes from Home'!" He cleared his throat,
and the next instant in quavering tones he warbled:


   "How of-ten do I pic-ture
    The old folks down at home,
    And of-ten wonder if they think of me,
    Would an-gel mother know me,
    If back there I did roam,
    Would old dog Tray re-member me."


At the first few words of his song the man at the desk who, up to this
time, had been wholly oblivious to what was taking place, arose from his
seat, put the ink-bottle back on the bar, opened a cigar-box there and
took from it a stamp, which he put on his letter. This he carried to
a mail-box attached to the door; then, returning, he threw himself
dejectedly down in a chair and put his head in his hands, where it
remained throughout the song.

At the conclusion of his solo, the Minstrel's emotions were seemingly
deeply stirred by his own melodious voice and he gasped audibly;
whereupon, Nick came to his relief with a stiff drink which, apparently,
went to the right spot, for presently the singer's voice rang out
vigorously: "Now, boys!"

No second invitation was needed, and the chorus was taken up by all, the
singers beating time with their feet and chips.


   ALL.
     "Oh, mother, an-gel mother, are you waitin' there
          beside the lit-tle cottage on the lea--"

   JAKE.
     "On the lea--"

   ALL.
     "How of-ten would she bless me
          in all them days so fair--
      Would old dog Tray re-member me--"

   SONORA.
     "Re-member me."


All the while the miners had been singing, the sad and morose-looking
individual had been steadily growing more and more disconsolate; and
when Sonora rumbled out the last deep note in his big, bass voice, he
heaved a great sob and broke down completely.

In surprised consternation everyone turned in the direction from whence
had come the sound. But it was Sonora who, affected both by the pathos
of the song and the sight of the pathetic figure before them, quietly
went over and laid a hand upon the other's arm.

"Why, Larkins--Jim--what's the trouble--what's the matter?" he asked,
a thousand thoughts fluttering within his breast. "I wouldn't feel so
bad."

With a desperate effort Larkins, his face twitching perceptibly, the
lines about his eyes deepening, struggled to control himself. At last,
after taking in the astonished faces about him, he plunged into his tale
of woe.

"Say, boys, I'm homesick--I'm broke--and what's more, I don't care who
knows it." He paused, his fingers opening and closing spasmodically, and
for a moment it seemed as if he could not continue--a moment of silence
in which the Minstrel began to pick gently on his banjo the air of Old
Dog Tray.

"I want to go home!" suddenly burst from the unfortunate man's lips.
"I'm tired o' drillin' rocks; I want to be in the fields again; I want
to see the grain growin'; I want the dirt in the furrows at home; I
want old Pensylvanny; I want my folks; I'm done, boys, I'm done, I'm
done . . .!" And with these words he buried his face in his hands.


   "Oh, mother, an-gel mother, are you waitin'--"


sang the Minstrel, dolefully.

Men looked at one another and were distressingly affected; The Polka had
never witnessed a more painful episode. Throwing a coin at the Minstrel,
Sonora stopped him with an impatient gesture; the latter nodded
understandingly at the same time that Nick, apparently indifferent
to Larkin's collapse, began to dance a jig behind the bar. A look
of scowling reproach instantly appeared on Sonora's face. It was
uncalled-for since, far from being heartless and indifferent to the
man's misfortunes, the little barkeeper had taken this means to distract
the miners' attention from the pitiful sight.

"Boys, Jim Larkins 'lows he's goin' back East," announced Sonora. "Chip
in every mother's son o' you."

Immediately every man at the faro table demanded cash from The Sidney
Duck; a moment later they, as well as the men who were not playing
cards, threw their money into the hat which Sonora passed around. It was
indeed a well-filled hat that Sonora held out to the weeping man.

"Here you are, Jim," he said simply.

The sudden transition from poverty to comparative affluence was too much
for Larkins! Looking through tear-dimmed eyes at Sonora he struggled for
words with which to express his gratitude, but they refused to come; and
at last with a sob he turned away. At the door, however, he stopped and
choked out: "Thank you, boys, thank you."

The next moment he was gone.

At once a wave of relief swept over the room. Indeed, the incident was
forgotten before the unfortunate man had gone ten paces from The Polka,
for then it was that Trinidad suddenly rose in his seat, lunged across
the table for The Sidney Duck's card-box, and cried out angrily:

"You're cheatin'! That ain't a square deal! You're a cheat!"

In a moment the place was in an uproar. Every man at the table sprung to
his feet; chairs were kicked over; chips flew in every direction; guns
came from every belt; and so occupied were the men in watching The
Sidney Duck that no one perceived the Lookout sneak out through the
door save Nick, who was returning from the dance-hall with a tray of
empty glasses. But whether or not he was aware that the Australian's
confederate was bent upon running away he made no attempt to stop him,
for in common with every man present, including Sonora and Trinidad, who
had seized the gambler and brought him out in front of his card-table,
Nick's eyes were fastened upon another man whom none had seen enter, but
whose remarkable personality, now as often, made itself felt even though
he spoke not a word.

"Lift his hand!" cried Sonora, looking as if for sanction at the
newcomer, who stood in the centre of the room, calmly smoking a huge
cigar.

Forcing up The Sidney Duck's arms, Trinidad threw upon the table a deck
of cards which he had found concealed about the other's person, bursting
out with:

"There! Look at that, the infernal, good-for-nothin' cheat!"

"String 'im up!" suggested Sonora, and as before he shot a questioning
look at the man, who was regarding the scene with bored interest.

"You bet!" shouted Trinidad, pulling at the Australian's arm.

"For 'eaven's sake, don't, don't, don't!" wailed The Sidney Duck,
terror-stricken.

The Sheriff of Manzaneta County, for such was the newcomer's office,
raised his steely grey eyes inquisitorially to Nick's who, with a
hostile stare at the Australian, emitted:

"Chicken lifter!"

"String 'im! String 'im!" insisted Trinidad, at the same time dragging
the culprit towards the door.

"No, boys, no!" cried the unfortunate wretch, struggling uselessly to
break away from his captors.

At this stage the Sheriff of Manzaneta County took a hand in the
proceedings, and drawled out:

"Well, gentlemen--" He stopped short and seemingly became reflective.
Instantly, as was their wont whenever the Sheriff spoke, all eyes fixed
themselves upon him. Indeed, it needed but a second glance at this cool,
deliberate individual to see how great was his influence upon them.
He was tall,--fully six feet one,--thin, and angular; his hair and
moustache were black enough to bring out strongly the unhealthy pallor
of his face; his eyes were steel grey and were heavily fringed and
arched; his nose straight and his mouth hard, determined, but just, the
lips of which were thin and drawn tightly over brilliantly-white teeth;
and his soft, pale hands were almost feminine looking except for the
unusual length of his fingers. On his head was a black beaver hat with a
straight brim; a black broadcloth suit--cut after the "'Frisco" fashion
of the day--gave every evidence that its owner paid not a little
attention to it. From the bosom of his white, puffed shirt an enormous
diamond, held in place by side gold chains, flashed forth; while
glittering on his fingers was another stone almost as large. Below his
trousers could plainly be seen the highly-polished boots; the heels
and instep being higher than those generally in use. In a word, it was
impossible not to get the impression that he was scrupulously immaculate
and careful about his attire. And his voice--the voice that tells
character as nothing else does--was smooth and drawling, though
fearlessness and sincerity could easily be detected in it. Such was Mr.
Jack Rance, Gambler and Sheriff of Manzaneta County.

"This is a case for you, Jack Rance," suddenly spoke up Sonora.

"Yes," chimed in Trinidad; and then as he gave the Australian a rough
shake, he added: "Here's the Sheriff to take charge of you."

But Mr. Jack Rance, the Sheriff of Manzaneta County, was never known
to move otherwise than slowly, deliberately. Taking from his pocket a
smoothly-creased handkerchief he proceeded to dust languidly first one
and then the other of his boots; and not until he had succeeded in
flicking the last grain of dust from them did he take up the business
in hand.

"Gentlemen, what's wrong with the cyards?" he now began in his peculiar
drawling voice.

Sonora pointed to the faro table.

"The Sidney Duck's cheated!" he said--an accusation which was
responsible for a renewal of outcries and caused a number of men to
pounce upon the faro dealer.

Trinidad ran a significant hand around his collar.

"String 'im! Come on, you--!" once more he cried. But on seeing the
Sheriff raise a restraining hand he desisted from pulling the Australian
along.

"Wait a minute!" commanded the Sheriff.

The miners with the prisoner in their midst stood stock-still. Now
the Sheriff's features lost some of their usual inscrutability and
for a moment became hard and stern. Slowly he let his eyes wander
comprehensively about the saloon: first, they travelled to a small
balcony--reached by a ladder drawn down or up at will--decorated with
red calico curtains, garlands of cedar and bittersweet, while the
railing was ornamented with a wildcat's skin and a stuffed fawn's head;
from the ceiling with its strings of red peppers, onions and apples
they fell on a stuffed grizzly bear, which stood at the entrance to
the dance-hall, with a little green parasol in its paw and an old silk
hat upon its head; from it they shifted to the gaudy bar with its
paraphernalia of fancy glasses, show-cases of coloured liquors and its
pair of scales for weighing the gold dust; and from that to a keg,
the top of which could be withdrawn without engendering the slightest
suspicion that it represented other than an ordinary receptacle for
liquor. Two notices tacked upon the wall also caught and held his
glance, his eyes dwelling most affectionately on the one reading:
"A Real Home For The Boys."

That there was such a thing as sentiment in the make-up of the
Sheriff of Manzaneta County few people, perhaps, would have believed.
Nevertheless, at the thought that this placard inspired, he dismissed
whatever inclination he might have had to deal leniently with the
culprit, and calmly observed:

"There is no reason, gentlemen, of being in a hurry. I've got something
to say about this. I don't forget, although I am the Sheriff of
Manzaneta County, that I'm running four games. But it's men like The
Sidney Duck here that casts reflections on square-minded, sporting men
like myself. And worse--far worse, gentlemen, he casts reflections on
The Polka, the establishment of the one decent woman in Cloudy."

"You bet!" affirmed Nick, indignantly.

"Yes, a lady, d'you hear me?" stormed Sonora, addressing the prisoner;
then: "You lily-livered skunk!"

"Oh, let's string 'im up!" urged Trinidad.

"Yes, come on, you . . .!" was Handsome's ejaculation, contriving, at
last, to get his hands on the faro dealer.

But again the Sheriff would have none of it.

"Hold on, hold on--" he began and paused to philosophise: "After all,
gents, what's death? A kick and you're off;" and then went on: "I've
thought of a worse punishment. Give him his coat."

Surprised and perplexed at this order, Handsome, reluctantly, assisted
the culprit into his coat.

"Put him over there," the Sheriff now ordered.

Whereupon, obedient to the instructions of that personage, The Sidney
Duck was roughly put down into a chair; and while he was firmly held
into it, Rance strolled nonchalantly over to the faro table and picked
out a card from the deck there. Returning, he quickly plucked a
stick-pin from the prisoner's scarf, saying, while he suited his action
to his words:

"See, now I place the deuce of spades over his heart as a warning. He
can't leave the camp, and he never plays cyards again--see?" And while
the men, awed to silence, stood looking at one another, he instructed
Handsome to pass the word through the camp.

"Ow, now, don't si that! Don't si that!" bawled out the card sharp.

The sentence met with universal approval. Rance waved an authoritative
hand towards the door; and the incident, a few seconds later, passed
into its place in the camp records. Albeit, in those seconds, and while
the men were engrossed in the agreeable task of ejecting The Sidney
Duck, The Polka harboured another guest, no less unwelcome, who made his
way unobserved through the saloon to become an unobtrusive spectator of
the doings in the dance-hall.




IV.


In the space of six months one can do little or much harm. The young
bandit,--for he had kept his oath to his father,--flattered himself
that he had done much. In all the mining camps of the Sierras the mere
mention of the name of Ramerrez brought forth execrations. Not a stage
started out with its precious golden freight without its passengers
having misgivings that they would be held up before reaching Sacramento.
Messengers armed with shotguns were always to be found at their post
beside the drivers; yet, despite all precautions, not a week passed
without a report that the stage out of this or that camp, had been
attacked and the passengers forced to surrender their money and
valuables. Under no circumstances, however, were any of Ramerrez's own
countrymen molested. If, by any chance, the road agent made a mistake
and stopped a party of native Californians or Mexicans, they were at
once permitted to proceed on their way with the bandit-leader's profuse
apologies.

But it was altogether different with Americans. The men of that race
were compelled to surrender their gold; although so far as he was
concerned, their women were exempt from robbery. As a matter of fact, he
had few chances to show his chivalry, since few women were living, at
that time, in the Sierras. Nevertheless, it happened in rare instances
that a stage was held up which contained one or two of them, and they
were never known to complain of his treatment. And so far, at least, he
had contrived to avoid any serious bloodshed. Two or three messengers,
it is true, had been slightly wounded; but that was the most that his
worst enemies could charge against him.

As for Ramerrez's own attitude towards the life he was leading, it must
be confessed that, the plunge once taken, his days and nights were too
full of excitement and adventure to leave him time to brood. Somewhat
to his own surprise, he had inherited his father's power of iron
domination. Young as he was, not one of his father's seasoned band of
cut-throats ever questioned his right or his ability to command. At
first, no doubt, they followed him through a rude spirit of loyalty;
but after a short time it was because they had found in him all the
qualities of a leader of men, one whose plans never miscarried. Fully
two-thirds of the present band were vassals, as it were, in his family,
while all were of Spanish or Mexican descent. In truth, Ramerrez himself
was the only one among them who had any gringo blood in his veins.
And hence not a tale of the outlaw's doings was complete without the
narrator insisting upon it that the leader of the band--the road agent
himself--closely resembled an American. One and all of his victims
agreed that he spoke with an American accent, while the few who had been
able to see his features on a certain occasion when the red bandanna,
which he wore about his face, had fallen, never failed to maintain that
he looked like an American.

As a matter of fact, Ramerrez not only bore the imprint of his mother's
race in features and in speech, but the more he made war upon them, the
more he realised that it was without any real feeling of hostility. In
spite of his early training and in spite of his oath, he could not share
his father's bitterness. True, the gringos had wrecked the fortunes of
his house; it was due to them that his sole inheritance was an outlaw's
name and an outlaw's leadership. And yet, despite it all, there was
another fact that he could not forget,--the fact that he himself was one
half gringo, one half the same race as that of the unforgotten Girl whom
he had met on the road to Sacramento. Indeed, it had been impossible
to forget her, for she had stirred some depth in him, the existence of
which he had never before suspected. He was haunted by the thought of
her attractive face, her blue eyes and merry, contagious laugh. For the
hundredth time he recalled his feelings on that glorious day when he had
intercepted her on the great highway. And with this memory would come a
sudden shame of himself and occupation,--a realisation of the barrier
which he had deliberately put between the present and the past. Up to
the hour when he had parted from her, and had remained spellbound,
seated on his horse at the fork of the roads, watching the vanishing
coach up to the last minute, he was still a Spanish gentleman, still
worthy in himself,--whatever his father had done,--to offer his love and
his devotion to a pure and honest girl. But now he was an outlaw, a road
agent going from one robbery to another, likely at any time to stain his
hand with the life-blood of a fellow man. And this pretence that he was
stealing in a righteous cause, that he was avenging the wrongs that had
been done to his countrymen,--why, it was the rankest hypocrisy! He knew
in his heart that vengeance and race hatred had nothing whatever to do
with it. It was because he loved it like a game, a game of unforeseen,
unguessed danger. The fever of it was in his blood, like strong drink,--
and with every day's adventure, the thirst for it grew stronger.

Yet, however personally daring, Ramerrez was the last person in the
world to trust to chance for his operations, more than was absolutely
necessary. He handled his men with shrewd judgment and strict
discipline. Furthermore, never was an attack made that was not the
outcome of a carefully matured plan. A prime factor in Ramerrez' success
had from the first been the information which he was able to obtain from
the Mexicans, not connected with his band, concerning the places that
the miners used as temporary depositories for their gold; and it was
information of this sort that led Ramerrez and his men to choose a
certain Mexican settlement in the mountains as a base of operations:
namely, the tempting fact that a large amount of gold was stored nightly
in the Polka Saloon, at the neighbouring camp on Cloudy Mountain.

And there was still another reason.

Despite the fact that his heart had been genuinely touched by the many
and unusual attractions of the Girl, it is not intended to convey the
idea that he was austere or incapable of passion for anyone else. For
that was not so. Although, to give the bandit his due, he had remained
quite exemplary, when one considers his natural charm as well as the
fascination which his adventurous life had for his country-women.
Unfortunately, however, in one of his weak moments, he had foolishly
permitted himself to become entangled with a Mexican woman--Nina
Micheltorena, by name--whose jealous nature now threatened to prove a
serious handicap to him. It was a particularly awkward situation in
which he found himself placed, inasmuch as this woman had furnished him
with much valuable information. In fact, it was she who had called his
attention to the probable spoils to be had in the American camp near
by. It can readily be imagined, therefore, that it was not without a
premonition of trouble to come that he sought the Mexican settlement
with the intention of paying her a hundred-fold for her valuable
assistance in the past and then be through with her for good and all.


The Mexican or greaser settlements had little in them that resembled
their American neighbours. In the latter there were few women, for the
long distance that the American pioneers had to travel before reaching
the gold-fields of California, the hardships that they knew had to be
encountered, deterred them from bringing their wives and daughters. But
with the Mexicans it was wholly different. The number of women in their
camps almost equalled that of the men, and the former could always
be seen, whenever the weather permitted, strolling about or sitting
in the doorways chatting with their neighbours, while children were
everywhere. In fact, everything about the Mexican settlements conveyed
the impression that they had come to stay--a decided contrast to the
transient appearance of the camps of the Americans.

It was one evening late in the fall that Ramerrez and his band
halted just outside of this particular Mexican settlement. And after
instructing his men where they should meet him the following day, he
sent them off to enjoy themselves for the night with their friends. For,
Ramerrez, although exercising restraint over his band, never failed to
see to it that they had their pleasures as well as their duties--a trait
in his character that had not a little to do with his great influence
over his men. And so it happened that he made his way alone up the main
street to the hall where a dance was going on.

The scene that met his eyes on entering the long, low room was a gay
one. It was a motley crowd gathered there in which the Mexicans,
not unnaturally, predominated. Here and there, however, were native
Californians, Frenchmen, Germans and a few Americans, the latter
conspicuous by the absence of colour in their dress; for with the
exception of an occasional coatless man in a red or blue shirt, they
wore faded, old, black coats,--frequently frock-coats, at that,--which
certainly contrasted unfavourably, at least so far as heightening the
gaiety of the scene was concerned, with the green velvet jackets,
brilliant waistcoats with gold filigree and silver buttons and red
sashes of the Mexicans. That there was not a man present but what was
togged out in his best and was armed, it goes without saying, even
if the weapons of the Mexicans were in the form of murderous knives
concealed somewhere about their persons instead of belts with guns and
knives openly displayed, as was the case with the Americans.

At the time of the outlaw's entrance into the dance-hall the fandango
was over. But presently the fiddles, accompanied by guitars, struck up a
waltz, and almost instantly some twenty or more men and women took the
floor; those not engaged in dancing surrounding the dancers, clapping
their hands and shouting their applause. In order to see if the woman he
sought was present, it was necessary for Ramerrez to push to the very
front of the crowd of lookers-on, where he was not long in observing
that nearly all the women present were of striking appearance and danced
well; likewise, he noted, that none compared either in looks or grace
with Nina Micheltorena who, he had to acknowledge, even if his feelings
for her were dead, was a superb specimen of a woman.

Good blood ran in the veins of Nina Micheltorena. It is not in the
province of this story to tell how it was that a favourite in the best
circles of Monterey came to be living in a Mexican camp in the Sierras.
Suffice it to say that her fall from grace had been rapid, though her
dissolute career had in no way diminished her beauty. Indeed, her
features were well-nigh perfect, her skin transparently clear, if dark,
and her form was suppleness itself as she danced. And that she was the
undisputed belle of the evening was made apparent by the number of men
who watched her with eyes that marvelled at her grace when dancing, and
surrounded her whenever she stopped, each pleading with her to accept
him as a partner.

Almost every colour of the rainbow had a place in her costume for
the occasion: The bodice was of light blue silk; the skirt orange;
encircling her small waist was a green sash; while her jet-black hair
was fastened with a crimson ribbon. Diamonds flashed from the earrings
in her ears as well as from the rings on her fingers. All in all, it was
scarcely to be wondered at that her charms stirred to the very depths
the fierce passion of the desperate characters about her.

That Ramerrez dreaded the interview which he had determined to have with
his confederate can easily be understood by anyone who has ever tried to
sever his relations with an enamoured woman. In fact the outlaw dreaded
it so much that he decided to postpone it as long as he could. And so,
after sauntering aimlessly about the room, and coming, unexpectedly,
across a woman of his acquaintance, he began to converse with her,
supposing, all the time, that Nina Micheltorena was too occupied with
the worshippers at her shrine to perceive that he was in the dance-hall.
But it was decidedly a case of the wish being father to the thought: Not
a movement had he made since he entered that she was not cognisant of it
and, although she hated to acknowledge it to herself, deep down in her
heart she was conscious that he was not as thoroughly under the sway of
her dark eyes as she would have wished. Something had happened in the
last few weeks that had brought about a change in him, but just what it
was she was unable to determine. There were moments when she saw plainly
that he was much more occupied with his daring plans than he was with
thoughts of her. So far, it was true, there had been no evidences on his
part of any hesitation in confiding his schemes to her. Of that she was
positive. But, on the other hand, she had undoubtedly lost some of her
influence over him. It did not lessen her nervousness to realise that he
had been in the hall for some time without making any effort to see her.
Besides, the appointment had been of his own making, inasmuch as he had
sent word by one of his band that she should meet him to-night in this
place. Furthermore, she knew that he had in mind one of the boldest
projects he had yet attempted and needed, to insure success, every scrap
of knowledge that she possessed. In the meantime, while she waited for
him to seek her out, she resolved to show him the extent of her power
to fascinate others; and from that moment never had she seemed more
attractive and alluring to her admirers, in all of whom she appeared to
excite the fiercest of passions. In fact, one word whispered in an ear
by those voluptuous lips and marvellously sweet, musical voice, and the
recipient would have done her bidding, even had she demanded a man's
life as the price of her favour.

It is necessary, however, to single out one man as proving an exception
to this sweeping assertion, although this particular person seemed no
less devoted than the other men present. He was plainly an American and
apparently a stranger to his countrymen as well as to the Mexicans. His
hair was white and closely cropped, the eyebrows heavy and very black,
the lips nervous and thin but denoting great determination, and the
face was tanned to the colour of old leather, sufficiently so as to be
noticeable even in a country where all faces were tanned, swarthy, and
dark. One would have thought that this big, heavy, but extremely-active
man whose clothes, notwithstanding the wear and tear of the road, were
plainly cut on "'Frisco patterns," was precisely the person calculated
to make an impression upon a woman like Nina Micheltorena; and, yet,
oddly enough, he was the only man in the room whose attentions seemed
distasteful to her. It could not be accounted for on the ground of
his nationality, for she danced gladly with others of his race. Nor
did it look like caprice on her part. On the contrary, there was an
expression on her face that resembled something like fear when she
refused to be cajoled into dancing with him. At length, finding her
adamant, the man left the room.

But as time went by and still Ramerrez kept aloof, Nina Micheltorena's
excitement began to increase immeasureably. To such a woman the outlaw's
neglect could mean but one thing--another woman. And, finally, unable
to control herself any longer, she made her way to where the woman with
whom Ramerrez had been conversing was standing alone.

"What has the Senor been saying to you?" she demanded, jealousy and
ungovernable passion blazing forth from her eyes.

"Nothing of interest to you," replied the other with a shrug of her
shoulders.

"It's a lie!" burst from Nina's lips. "I heard him making love to you! I
was standing near and heard every tone, every inflection of his voice! I
saw how he looked at you!" And so crazed was she by jealousy that her
face became distorted and almost ugly, if such a thing were possible,
and her great eyes filled with hatred.

The other woman laughed scornfully.

"Make your man stay away from me then--if you can," she retorted.

At that the infuriated Nina drew a knife and cried:

"Swear to me that you'll not see him to-night, or--"

The sentence was never finished. Quick as lightning Ramerrez stepped in
and caught Nina's up-raised arm. For one instant her eyes flashed fire
at him; another, and submissive to his will, she slipped the knife
somewhere in the folds of her dress and the attention that she had
succeeded in attracting was diverted elsewhere. Those who had rushed up
expecting a tragedy returned, once more, to their dancing.

"I have been looking for you, Nina," he said, taking her to one side. "I
want to speak with you."

Nina laughed airily, but only another woman would have been able to
detect the danger lurking in that laugh.

"Have you just come in?" she inquired casually. "It is generally not
difficult to find me when there is dancing." And then with a significant
smile: "But perhaps there were so many men about me that I was
completely hidden from the view of the Senor."

Ramerrez bowed politely his belief in the truth of her words; then he
said somewhat seriously:

"I see a vacant table over in the corner where we can talk without
danger of being overheard. Come!" He led the way, the woman following
him, to a rough table of pine at the farther end of the room where,
immediately, a bottle and two glasses were placed before them. When they
had pledged each other, Ramerrez went on to say, in a low voice, that he
had made the appointment in order to deliver to her her share for the
information that led to his successful holdup of the stage at a place
known as "The Forks," a few miles back; and taking from his pocket a
sack of gold he placed it on the table before her.

There was a silence in which Nina made no movement to pick up the gold;
whereupon, Ramerrez repeated a little harshly:

"Your share."

Slowly the woman rose, picking up the sack as she did so, and with a
request that he await her, she made her way over to the bar where she
handed it to the Mexican in charge with a few words of instruction. In
another moment she was again seated at the table with him.

"Why did you send for me to meet you here?" she now asked. "Why did you
not come to my room--surely you knew that there was danger here?"

Carelessly, Ramerrez let his eyes wander about the room; no one was
paying the slightest attention to them and, apparently, there being
nothing to fear, he answered:

"From whom?"

For a brief space of time the woman looked at him as if she would ferret
out his innermost thoughts; at length, she said with a shrug of the
shoulders:

"Few here are to be thoroughly trusted. The woman you were with--she
knows you?"

"I never met her but once before," was his laconic rejoinder.

Nina eyed him suspiciously; at last she was satisfied that he spoke the
truth, but there was still that cold, abstracted manner of his to be
explained. However, cleverly taking her cue from him she inquired in
business-like tones:

"And how about The Polka Saloon--the raid on Cloudy Mountain Camp?"

A shade of annoyance crossed Ramerrez' face.

"I have decided to give that up--at least for a time."

Again Nina regarded him curiously; when she spoke there was a suspicious
gleam in her eyes, though she said lightly:

"Perhaps you're right--it will not be an easy job."

"Far from it," quickly agreed the man. "But the real reason is, that I
have planned to go below for a while."

The woman's eyes narrowed.

"You are going away then?"

"Yes."

"And what about me? Do I go with you?"

Ramerrez laughed uneasily.

"It is impossible. The fact is, it is best that this should be our last
meeting." And seeing the change that came over her face he went on in
more conciliatory tones: "Now, Nina, be reasonable. It is time that we
understood each other. This interview must be final."

"And you came here to tell me this?" blazed the woman, scowling darkly
upon him. And for the moment she looked all that she was reputed to
be--a dangerous woman!

Receiving no answer, she spoke again.

"But you said that you would love me always?"

The man flushed.

"Did I say that once? What a memory you have!"

"And you never meant it?"

"I suppose so--at the time."

"Then you don't love me any more?"

Ramerrez made no answer.

For some moments Nina sat perfectly still. Her mind was busy trying
to determine upon the best course to pursue. At length she decided to
make one more attempt to see whether he was really in earnest. And if
not . . .

"But to-night," she hazarded, leaning far over the table and putting her
face close to his, her eyes the while flooded with voluptuousness, "you
will come with me to my room?"

Ramerrez shook his head.

"No, Nina, all that is over."

The woman bit her lips with vexation.

"Are you made of stone? What is the matter with you to-night? Is there
anything wrong with my beauty? Have you seen anyone handsomer than I
am?"

"No . . ."

"Then why not come? You don't hate?"

"I don't hate you in the least, but I won't go to your room."

"So!"

There was a world of meaning in that one word. For a while she seemed
to be reflecting; suddenly with great earnestness she said:

"Once for all, Ramerrez, listen to me. Rather than give you up to any
other woman I will give you up to death. Now do you still refuse me?"

"Yes . . ." answered Ramerrez not unkindly and wholly unmoved by her
threat. "We've been good pals, Nina, but it's best for both that we
should part."

In the silence that ensued the woman did some hard thinking. That a man
could ever tire of her without some other woman coming into his life
never once entered into her mind. Something told her, nevertheless, that
the woman with whom he had been conversing was not the woman that she
sought; and at a loss to discover the person to whom he had transferred
his affections, her mind reverted to his avowed purpose of withdrawing
from the proposed Cloudy Mountain expedition. The more Nina reflected
on that subject the more convinced she became that, for some reason or
other, Ramerrez had been deceiving her. It was made all the more clear
to her when she recalled that when Ramerrez' messenger had brought his
master's message that she was to meet him, she had asked where the
band's next rendezvous was to be, and that he, knowing full well that
his countrywoman had ever been cognizant of his master's plans, had
freely given the desired information. Like a flash it came to her now
that no such meeting-place would have been selected for any undertaking
other than a descent upon Cloudy Mountain Camp. Nor was her intuition or
reasoning at fault: Ramerrez had not given up his intention of getting
the miners' gold that he knew from her to be packed away somewhere in
The Polka Saloon; but what she did not suspect, despite his peculiar
behaviour, was that he had taken advantage of the proximity of the two
camps to sever his relation, business and otherwise, with her. And yet,
did he but know it, she was destined to play no small part in his life
for the next few weeks!

Nina Micheltorena had now decided upon her future course of action: She
would let him think that his desire to break off all relations with her
would not be opposed. Ever a keen judge of men and their ways, she was
well aware that any effort to reclaim him to-night would meet with
disaster. And so when Ramerrez, surprised at her long silence, looked
up, he was met with a smiling face and the words:

"So be it, Ramerrez. But if anything happens, remember you have only
yourself to blame."

Ramerrez was astounded at her cool dismissal of the subject. To judge by
the expression on his face he had indeed obtained his release far easier
than he had deemed it possible. As a matter of fact, her indifference
so piqued him that before he was conscious of his words he had asked
somewhat lamely:

"You wish me well? We part as friends?"

Nina regarded him with well-simulated surprise, and replied:

"Why, of course--the best of friends. Good luck, _amigo_!" And with that
she rose and left him.

And so it was that later that evening after assuring herself that
neither Ramerrez nor any of his band remained in the dance-hall, Nina,
her face set and pale, exchanged a few whispered words with that same
big man towards whom, earlier in the evening, she had shown such
animosity.

The effect of these words was magical; the man could not suppress a
grunt of intense satisfaction.

"She says I'm to meet her to-morrow night at the Palmetto Restaurant,"
said Ashby to himself after the woman had lost herself in a crowd of
her own countrymen. "She will tell where I can put my hands on this
Ramerrez. Bah! It's too good to be true. Nevertheless, I'll be on hand,
my lady, for if anyone knows of this fellow's movements I'll wager you
do."

At that moment Ashby, the Wells Fargo Agent, was nearer than ever before
to the most brilliant capture of all his career.


Late the following afternoon, some five miles from the Mexican
settlement, on a small tableland high above a black ravine which was
thickly timbered with the giant trees of the Sierras, Ramerrez' band was
awaiting the coming of the _Maestro_. It was not to be a long wait and
they stood around smoking and talking in low tones. Suddenly, the sound
of horses climbing was heard, and soon a horseman came in sight whose
appearance had the effect of throwing them instantly into a state of
excitement, one and all drawing their guns and making a dash for their
horses, which were tied to trees. A moment later, however, another
horseman appeared, and laughing boisterously at themselves they slid
their guns back into their belts and retied their horses, for the man
whom they recognised so quickly, the individual who saved the situation,
as it were, was none other than Jose Castro, an ex-_padrona_ of the
bull-fights and the second in command to Ramerrez. He was a wiry,
hard-faced and shifty-eyed Mexican, but was as thoroughly devoted to
Ramerrez as he had been to the young leader's father. On the other hand,
the man who had caused them to fear that a stranger had surprised them,
and that they had been trapped, was Ramerrez or Johnson--the name that
he had assumed for the dangerous work he was about to engage in--and
they had failed to know him, dressed as he was in the very latest
fashion prevailing among the Americans in Sacramento in '49. Nor was it
to be wondered at, for on his head was a soft, brown hat--large, but not
nearly the proportions of a sombrero; a plain, rough tweed coat and a
waistcoat of a darker tan, which showed a blue flannel shirt beneath it;
and his legs were encased in boots topped by dark brown leggings. In a
word, his get-up resembled closely the type of American referred to
disdainfully by the miners of that time as a Sacramento guy; whereas,
the night before he had taken great pains to attire himself as gaudily
as any of the Mexicans at the dance, and he had worn a short black
jacket of a velvety material that was not unlike corduroy and covered
with braid; his breeches were of the same stuff; above his boots were
leather gaiters; and around his waist was a red sash.

It was now close to four o'clock in the afternoon and the band began
their preparations for the raid. To the rear of the small, open space
where they had been waiting was a fairly good-sized cave, in the opening
of which they deposited various articles unnecessary for the expedition.
It took only a short time to do this, and within half an hour from the
time that their leader had so startled them by his strange appearance,
the outlaws were ready to take the trail for Cloudy Mountain. One
comprehensive glance the pseudo-American--and he certainly looked the
part--shot at his picturesque, if rough-looking followers, not a few of
whom showed red bandannas under their sombreros or around their necks--
and then with a satisfied expression on his face--for he had a leader's
pride in his men--he gave the signal and led the way along and down the
steep trail from the tableland. And as from time to time he glanced back
over his shoulders to where the men were coming along in single file, he
could see that in every eye was a glint of exultation at the prospect of
booty.

After they had gone about three miles they crossed the black ravine, and
from there they began to ascend. Up and up they went, the path very hard
on the horses, until finally they came to the top of a pass where it
had been arranged that the band should await further instructions, none
going on further save the two leaders. Here, saddle-girths and guns
were inspected, the last orders given, and with a wave of the hand in
response to the muttered wishes of good luck, Johnson,--for as such
he will be known from this time on,--followed by Castro, made his way
through the forest towards Cloudy Mountain.

For an hour or so Johnson rode along in that direction, checking the
speed of his horse every time the sun came into view and showed that
there was yet some time before sunset. Presently, he made a sign to
Castro to take the lead, for he had never been in this locality before,
and was relying on his subordinate to find a spot from which he could
reconnoitre the scene of the proposed raid without the slightest danger
of meeting any of the miners.

At a very sharp turn of the road to the left Castro struck off through
the forest to the right and, within a few minutes, reached a place where
the trees had thinned out and were replaced by the few scrubs that grew
in a spot almost barren. A minute or so more and the two men, their
horses tied, were able to get an uninterrupted view of Cloudy Mountain.

The scene before them was one of grandeur. Day was giving place to
night, fall to winter, and yet at this hour all the winds were stilled.
In the distance gleamed the snow-capped Sierras, range after range as
far as the eye could see to the northwest; in the opposite direction
there stood out against the steel-blue of the sky a succession of wooded
peaks ever rising higher and higher until culminating in the faraway
white mountains of the south; and below, they looked upon a ravine that
was brownish-green until the rays of the departing orb touched the
leaves with opal tints.

Now the fast-falling sun flung its banner of gorgeous colours across the
western sky. Immediately a wonderful light played upon the fleecy cumuli
gathered in the upper heavens of the east and changed them from pearl to
brilliant scarlet. For a moment, also, the purple hills became wonderful
piles of dull gold and copper; a moment more and the magic hand of the
King of Day was withdrawn.

In front of them now, dark, gloomy and threatening rose Cloudy Mountain,
from which the Mining Camp took its name; and on a plateau near its
base the camp itself could plainly be seen. It consisted of a group
of miners' cabins set among pines, firs and manzaneta bushes with two
larger pine-slab buildings, and scattered around in various places were
shafts, whose crude timber-hoists appeared merely as vague outlines in
the fast-fading light. The distance to the camp from where they stood
was not over three miles as the crow flies, but it appeared much less in
the rarefied atmosphere.

As the two bandits stood on the edge of the precipice looking across and
beyond the intervening gulch or ravine, here and there a light twinkled
out from the cabins and, presently, a much stronger illumination shot
forth from one of the larger and more pretentious buildings. Castro was
quick to call his master's attention to it.

"There--that place with the light is The Palmetto Hotel!" he exclaimed.
"And over there--the one with the larger light is The Polka Saloon!" For
even as he spoke the powerful kerosene lamp of The Polka Saloon, flanked
by a composition metal reflector, flashed out its light into the gloom
enveloping the desolate, ominous-looking mountains.

Johnson regarded this building long and thoughtfully. Then his eyes made
out a steep trail which zigzagged from The Polka Saloon up the barren
slopes of the mountain until it reached a cabin perched on the very top,
the steps and porch of which were held up by poles made of trees. There,
also, a light could be seen, but dimly. It was a strange place for
anyone to erect a dwelling-place, and he found himself wondering what
manner of person dwelt there. Of one thing he was certain: whoever it
was the mountains were loved for themselves, for no mere digger of gold
would think of erecting a habitation in view of those strange, vast, and
silent heights!

And as he meditated thus, he perceived that the far off Sierras were
forming a background for a sinuous coil of smoke from the cabin. For
some time he watched it curling up into the great arch of sky. It was as
if he were hypnotised by it and, in a vague, shadowy way, he had a sense
of being connected, somehow, with the little cabin and its recluse. Was
this feeling that he had a premonition of danger? Was this a moment of
foreboding and distrust of the situation yet to be revealed? For like
most venturesome men he always had a moment before every one of his
undertakings in which his instinct either urged him forward or held him
back.

Suddenly he became conscious that his eyes no longer saw the smoke. He
stared hard to glimpse it, but it was gone. And with a supreme effort he
wrenched himself free from a sort of paralysis which was stealing away
his senses.

Now the light in the cabin disappeared, and since the shades of night,
for which he had been waiting, had fallen, he called to the impatient
and wondering Castro, and together they went back to the trail.

But even as they crossed the gulch and reached the outskirts of the camp
a great white moon rose from behind the Sierras. To Castro, hidden now
in the pines, it meant nothing so long as it did not interfere with his
purpose. As a matter of fact he was already listening intently to the
bursts of song and shouts of revelry that came every now and then from
the nearby saloon. But his master, unaccountably under the spell of the
moon's mystery and romance, watched it until it shed its silvery and
magic light upon the lone cabin on the top of Cloudy Mountain, which
Fate had chosen for the decisive scene of his dramatic life.




V.


Inside The Polka, not a bit more, and not a bit less sardonic--it was
this imperturbability which made him so resistless to most people--than
he was prior to the banishment of The Sidney Duck, the Sheriff of
Manzaneta County waited patiently until the returning puppets of his
will had had time to compose themselves. It took them merely the
briefest of periods, but it served to increase visibly the long ash at
the end of Rance's cigar. At length he shot a hawk-like glance at Sonora
and proposed a little game of poker.

"This time, gentlemen--" he said, with a significant pause and accent--
"just for social recreation. What do you say?"

"I'm your Injun!" acquiesced Sonora, rubbing his hands together
gleefully at the prospect of winning from the Sheriff, whom he liked
none too well.

"That's me, too!" concurred Trinidad.

"Chips, then, Nick!" called out the Sheriff, quietly taking a seat at
the table; while Sonora, bubbling over with spirits, hitched up his
trousers in sailor fashion and executed an impromptu hornpipe, bellowing
in his deep, base voice:


   "I shipped aboard of a liner, boys--"


"Renzo, boys, renzo," finished Trinidad, falling in place at the table.

At this point the outside door was unexpectedly pushed open, inward, and
the Deputy-Sheriff came into their midst.

"Ashby just rode in with his posse," he announced huskily to his
superior.

The Sheriff flashed a look of annoyance and inquired of the gaunt,
hollow-cheeked, muscular Deputy whose beaver overcoat was thrown open
so that his gun and powder-flask showed plainly in his belt:

"Why, what's he doing here?"

"He's after Ramerrez," answered the Deputy, eyeing him intently.

Rance received this information in silence and went on with his
shuffling of the cards; presently, unconcernedly, he remarked:

"Ramerrez--Oh, that's the polite road agent who has been visiting the
other camps?"

"Yes; he's just turned into your county," declared the Deputy,
meaningly.

"What?" Sonora looked dumbfounded.

The Deputy nodded and proceeded to the bar. And while he drained the
contents of his glass, the Minstrel played on his banjo, much to the
amusement of the men, who showed their appreciation by laughing
heartily, the last bars of, "Pop Goes the Weasel."

"Hello, Sheriff!" greeted Ashby, coming in just as the merriment over
the Minstrel's little joke had died away. Ashby's voice--quick, sharp
and decisive was that of a man accustomed to ordering men, but his
manner was suave, if a trifle gruff. Moreover, he was a man of whom it
could be said, paradoxical as it may seem, that he was never known to be
drunk nor ever known to be sober. It was plain from his appearance that
he had been some time on the road.

Rance rose and politely extended his hand. And, although the greeting
between the two men was none too cordial, yet in their look, as they
eyed each other, was the respect which men have for others engaged
more or less in the same business and in whom they recognise certain
qualities which they have in common. In point of age Ashby was, perhaps,
the senior. As far as reputation was concerned, both men were accounted
nervy and square. Rance introduced him to Sonora and the others, saying:

"Boys, Mr. Ashby of Wells Fargo."

The latter had a pleasant word or two for the men; then, turning to the
Deputy, he said:

"And how are you these days?"

"Fit. And yourself?"

"Same here." Turning now to the barkeeper, Ashby, with easy familiarity,
added: "Say, Nick, give us a drink."

"Sure!" came promptly from the little barkeeper.

"Everybody'll have the same?" inquired Ashby, turning once more to the
men.

"The same!" returned the men in chorus.

Thereupon, Nick briskly slapped down a bottle and four glasses before
the Sheriff, and leaving him to do the honours, disappeared into the
dance-hall.

"'Well, I trust the Girl who runs The Polka is well?" inquired Ashby,
pushing his glass near the bottle.

"Fine as silk," vouched Sonora, adding in the next breath: "But, say,
Mr. Ashby, how long you been chasm' up this road agent?"

"Oh, he only took to the road a few months ago," was Ashby's answer.
"Wells Fargo have had me and a posse busy ever since. He's a wonder!"

"Must be to evade you," complimented Sonora, much to the discomfort of
the Sheriff.

"Yes, I can smell a road agent in the wind," declared Ashby somewhat
boastfully. "But, Rance, I expect to get that fellow right here in your
county."

The Sheriff looked as if he scouted the idea, and was about to speak,
but checked the word on his tongue. Then followed a short silence in
which the Deputy, smiling a trifle derisively, went out of the saloon.

"Is this fellow a Spaniard?" questioned the Sheriff, drawling as usual,
but at the same time jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards a
placard on the wall, which read:


   "FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD
    FOR THE ROAD AGENT RAMERREZ,
    OR INFORMATION LEADING TO HIS
    CAPTURE.
            (SIGNED) WELLS FARGO."


"No--can't prove it. The fact of his leading a crew of greasers and
Spaniards signifies nothing. His name is assumed, I suppose."

"They say he robs you like a gentleman," remarked Rance with some show
of interest.

"Well, look out for the greasers up the road!" was Ashby's warning as he
emptied his glass and put it down before him.

"We don't let them pass through here," shrugged Rance, likewise putting
down his glass on the table.

Ashby now picked up the whisky bottle and carried it over to the
deserted faro table before which he settled himself comfortably in a
chair.

"Well, boys, I've had a long ride--wake me up when The Pony Express goes
through!" he called over his shoulder as he put his coat over him.

But no sooner was he comfortably ensconced for a snooze than Nick
came bustling in with a kettle of boiling water and several glasses
half-filled with whisky and lemon. Stopping before Ashby he said in his
best professional manner:

"Re-gards of the Girl--hot whisky straight with lemming extract."

Ashby took up his glass, as did, in turn, the men at the other table.
But it was Rance who, with arm uplifted, toasted:

"The Girl, gentlemen, the only Girl in Camp, the Girl I mean to make
Mrs. Jack Rance!"

Confident that neither would catch him in the act, Nick winked first at
Sonora and then at Trinidad. That the little barkeeper was successful
in making the former, at least, believe that he possessed the Girl's
affections was manifested by the big miner's next remark.

"That's a joke, Rance. She makes you look like a Chinaman."

Rance sprang to his feet, white with rage.

"You prove that!" he shouted.

"In what particular spot will you have it?" taunted Sonora, as his hand
crept for his gun.

Simultaneously, every man in the room made a dash for cover. Nick ducked
behind the bar, for, as he told himself when safely settled there, he
was too old a bird to get anywhere near the line of fire when two old
stagers got to making lead fly about. Nor was Trinidad slow in arriving
at the other end of the bar where he caromed against Jake, who had
dropped his banjo and was frantically trying to kick the spring of the
iron shield in an endeavour to protect himself--a feat which, at last,
he succeeded in performing. But, fortunately, for all concerned, as
the two men stood eyeing each other, their hands on their hips ready
to draw, Nick, from his position behind the bar, glimpsed through the
window the Girl on the point of entering the saloon.

"Here comes the Girl!" he cried excitedly. "Aw, leave your guns alone--
take your drinks, quick!"

For a fraction of a second the men looked sheepishly at one another,
even Nick appearing a trifle uncomfortable, as he picked up the kettle
and went off with it.

"Once more we're friends, eh, boys?" said Rance, with a forced laugh;
and then as he lifted his glass high in the air, he gave the toast:

"The Girl!"

"The Girl!" repeated all--all save Ashby, whose snores by this time
could be heard throughout the big room--and drained their glasses.




VI.


There was a general movement towards the bar when the fair proprietress
of The Polka, who had lingered longer than usual in her little cabin on
top of the mountain, breezily entered the place by the main door. In a
coarse, blue skirt, and rough, white flannel blouse, cut away and held
in place at the throat by a crimson ribbon, the Girl made a pretty
picture; it was not difficult to see why the boys of Cloudy Mountain
Camp had a feeling which fell little short of adoration for this
sun-browned maid, with the spirit of the mountain in her eyes. That
each in his own way had given her to understand that he was desperately
smitten with her, goes without saying. But, although she accepted their
rough homage as a matter of course, such a thought as falling in love
with anyone of them had never entered her mind.

As far back, almost, as she could remember, the Girl had lived among
them and had ever been a true comrade, sharing their disappointments and
thrilling with their successes. Of a nature pure and simple, she was,
nevertheless, frank and outspoken. Moreover, she knew to a dot what was
meant when someone--bolder than his mates--stretched out his arms to
her. One such exhibition on a man's part she was likely to forgive and
forget, but the wrath and scorn that had blazed forth from her blue
eyes on such an occasion had been sufficient to prevent a repetition of
the offence. In short, unspoiled by their coarse flattery, and, to all
appearances, happy and care-free, she attended to the running of The
Polka wholly unsmirched by her environment.

But a keen observer would not have failed to detect that the Girl took
a little less pleasure in her surroundings than she had taken in them
before she had made the trip to Monterey. Downright glad, to use her own
expression, as she had been on her return to see the boys of the camp
and hear their boisterous shouts of welcome when the stage drew up in
front of The Polka, she had to acknowledge that her home-coming was not
quite what she expected. It was as if she had suddenly been startled out
of a beautiful dream wherein she had been listening to the soft music of
her lover's voice and brought face to face with the actualities of life,
which, in her case, to say the least, were very real.

For hours after leaving her admirer sitting motionless on his horse on
the great highway between Monterey and Sacramento, the Girl had indulged
in some pertinent thoughts which, if the truth were known, were anything
but complimentary to her behaviour. And, however successful she was
later on in persuading herself that he would eventually seek her out,
there was no question that at first she felt that the chances of her
ever setting eyes on him again were almost negligible. All the more
bitterly, therefore, did she regret her folly in not having told him
where she lived; particularly so since she assured herself that not only
was he the handsomest man that she had ever seen, but that he was the
only one who had ever succeeded in chaining her attention. That he had
been making love to her with his eyes, if not with words, she knew
only too well--a fact that had been anything but displeasing to her.
Indeed, far from having felt sorry that she had encouraged him, she,
unblushingly, acknowledged to herself that, if she had the thing to do
over again, she would encourage him still more.

Was she then a flirt? Not at all, in the common acceptation of the word.
All her knowledge of the ways of the world had been derived from Mother
Nature, who had supplied her with a quick and ready wit to turn aside,
with a smile, the protestations of the boys; had taught her how to live
on intimate terms with them and yet not be intimate; but when it came
to playing at love, which every city maid of the same age is an adept
at, she was strangely ignorant. Of a truth, then, it was something
far broader and deeper that had entered into her heart--love. Not
infrequently love comes as suddenly as this to young women who live
in small mining camps or out-of-the-way places where the men are
practically of a type; it is their unfamiliarity with the class which
a stranger represents when he makes his appearance in their midst that
is responsible, fully as much as his own personality, for their being
attracted to him. It is not impossible, of course, that if the Girl had
met him in Cloudy,--say as a miner there,--the result would have been
precisely the same. But it is much more likely that the attendant
conditions of their meeting aided him in appealing to her imagination,
and in touching a chord in her nature which, under other circumstances,
would not have responded in as many months as there were minutes on that
eventful day.

Little wonder then, that as each succeeding mile travelled by the stage
took her further and further away from him, something which, as yet, she
did not dare to name, kept tugging at her heartstrings and which she
endeavoured to overcome by listening to the stage driver's long-winded
reminiscences and anecdotes concerning the country through which
they were passing. But, although she made a brave effort to appear
interested, it did not take him long to realise that something was on
his passenger's mind and, being a wise man, he gradually relapsed into
silence, with the result that, before the long journey ended at Cloudy
Mountain, she had deceived herself into believing that she was certain
to see her admirer again.

But as the days grew into weeks, the weeks into months, and the Girl
neither saw nor heard anything of him, it was inevitable that the
picture that he had left on her mind should begin to grow dim.
Nevertheless, it was surprising what a knack his figure had of appearing
before her at various times of the day and night, when she never failed
to compare him with the miners in the camp, and, needless to say,
unflatteringly to them. There came a time, it is true, when she was
sorely tempted to tell one of them something of this new-found friend of
hers; but rightly surmising the effect that her praising of her paragon
would have upon the recipient of her confidences, she wisely resolved to
lock up his image in her heart.

Of course, there were moments, too, when the Girl regretted that there
was no other woman--some friend of her own sex in the camp--to whom she
could confide her little romance. But since that boon was denied her,
she took to seeking out the most solitary places to dream of him. In
such moods she would climb to a high crag, a few feet from her cabin,
and with a reminiscent and far-away look in her eyes she would sit for
hours gazing at the great canyons and gorges, the broad forests and
wooded hillsides, the waterfalls flashing silver in the distance, and,
above all, at the wonderously-grand and snow-capped peaks of the main
range.

At other times she would take the trail leading from the camp to the
country below, and after wandering about aimlessly in the beautiful and
mysterious forests, she would select some little glen through which
a brook trickled and murmured underneath the ferns into a pool, and
seating herself on a clump of velvet moss, the great sugar pines and
firs forming a canopy over her head, she would whisper her secret
thoughts and wild hopes to the gorgeously-plumed birds and saucy
squirrels scampering all about her. The hours spent thus were as oases
in her otherwise practical existence, and after a while she would
return laden down with great bunches of ferns and wild flowers which,
eventually, found a place on the walls of The Polka.


     *     *     *     *     *     *


Glancing at the bar to see that everything was to her satisfaction, the
Girl greeted the boys warmly, almost rapturously with:

"Hello, boys! How's everythin'? Gettin' taken care of?"

"Hello, Girl!" sang out Sonora in what he considered was his most
fetching manner. He had been the first to reach the coveted position
opposite the Girl, although Handsome, who had followed her in, was
leaning at the end of the bar nearest to the dance-hall.

"Hello, Sonora!" returned the Girl with an amused smile, for it was
impossible with her keen sense of humour not to see Sonora's attempts
to make himself irresistible to her. Nor did she fail to observe that
Trinidad, likewise, had spruced himself up a little more than usual,
with the same purpose in mind.

"Hello, Girl!" he said, strolling up to her with a ludicrous swagger.

"Hello, Trin!" came from the Girl, smilingly.

There was an awkward pause in which both Sonora and Trinidad floundered
about in their minds for something to say; at length, a brilliant
inspiration came to the former, and he asked:

"Say, Girl, make me a prairie oyster, will you?"

"All, right, Sonora, I'll fix you right up," returned the Girl, smiling
to herself at his effort. But at the moment that she was reaching for a
bottle back of the bar, a terrific whoop came from the dance-hall, and
ever-watchful lest the boys' fun should get beyond her control, she
called to her factotum to quiet things down in the next room, concluding
warningly:

"They've had about enough."

When the barkeeper had gone to do her bidding, the Girl picked up an
egg, and, poising it over a glass, she went on:

"Say, look 'ere, Sonora, before I crack this 'ere egg, I'd like to state
that eggs is four bits apiece. Only two hens left--" She broke off
short, and turning upon Handsome, who had been gradually sidling
up until his elbows almost touched hers, she repulsed him a trifle
impatiently:

"Oh, run away, Handsome!"

A flush of pleasure at Handsome's evident discomfiture spread over
Sonora's countenance, and comical, indeed, to the Girl, was the majestic
air he took on when he ordered recklessly:

"Oh, crack the egg--I'll stand for it."

But Sonora's fancied advantage over the others was of short duration,
for the next instant Nick, stepping quickly forward with a drink, handed
it to the Girl with the words:

"Regards of Blonde Harry."

Again Sonora experienced a feeling akin to jealousy at what he termed
Blonde Harry's impudence. It almost immediately gave way to a paroxysm
of chuckling; for, the Girl, quickly taking the glass from Nick's hand,
flung its contents into a nearby receptacle.

"There--tell 'im that it hit the spot!" She laughed.

Nick roared with the others, but on the threshold of the dance-hall he
paused, hesitated, and finally came back, and advised in a low tone:

"Throw around a few kind words, Girl--good for the bar."

The Girl surveyed the barkeeper with playful disapproval in her eye.
However advantageous might be his method of working up trade, she
disdained to follow his advice, and her laughing answer was:

"Oh, you Nick!"

The peal of laughter that rung in Nick's ears as he disappeared through
the door, awakened Ashby and brought him instantly to his feet. Despite
his size, he was remarkably quick in his movements, and in no time at
all he was standing before the bar with a glass, which he had filled
from the bottle that had stood in front of him on the table, and was
saying:

"Compliments of Wells Fargo."

"Thank you," returned the Girl; and then while she shook the prairie
oyster: "You see we live high-shouldered here."

"That's what!" put in Sonora with a broad grin.

"What cigars have you?" asked Ashby, at the conclusion of his round of
drinks.

"Regalias, Auroras and Eurekas," reeled off the Girl with her eye upon
Billy Jackrabbit, who had quietly come in and was sneaking about in an
endeavour to find something worth pilfering.

"Oh, any will do," Ashby told her, with a smile; and while he was
helping himself from a box of Regalias, Nick suddenly appeared, calling
out excitedly:

"Man jest come in threatenin' to shoot up the furniture!"

"Who is it?" calmly inquired the Girl, returning the cigar-box to its
place on the shelf.

"Old man Watson!"

"Leave 'im shoot,--he's good for it!"

"Nick! Nick!" yelled several voices in the dance-hall where old man
Watson was surely having the time of his life.

And still the Girl paid not the slightest attention to the shooting or
the cries of the men; what did concern her, however, was the fact that
the Indian was drinking up the dregs in the whisky glasses on the faro
table.

"Here, you, Billy Jackrabbit! What are you doin' here?" she exclaimed
sharply, causing that generally imperturbable redskin to start
perceptibly. "Did you marry my squaw yet?"

Billy Jackrabbit's face wore as stolid an expression as ever, when he
answered:

"Not so much married squaw--yet."

"Not so much married . . ." repeated the Girl when the merriment, which
his words provoked, had subsided. "Come 'ere, you thievin' redskin!" And
when he had slid up to the bar, and she had extracted from his pockets a
number of cigars which she knew had been pilfered, she added: "You git
up to my cabin an' marry my squaw before I git there." And at another
emphatic "Git!" the Indian, much to the amusement of all, started for
the Girl's cabin.

"Here--here's your prairie oyster, Sonora," at last said the Girl; and
then turning to the Sheriff and speaking to him for the first time, she
called out gaily: "Hello, Rance!"

"Hello, Girl!" replied the Gambler without even a glance at her or
ceasing to shuffle the cards.

Presently, Sonora pulled out a bag of gold-dust and told the Girl to
clear the slate out of it. She was in the act of taking the sack when
Nick, rushing into the room and jerking his thumb over his shoulder,
said:

"Say, Girl, there's a fellow in there wants to know if we can help out
on provisions."

"Sure; what does he want?" returned the Girl with a show of willingness
to accommodate him.

"Bread."

"Bread? Does he think we're runnin' a bakery?"

"Then he asked for sardines."

"Sardines? Great Gilead! You tell 'im we have nothin' but straight
provisions here. We got pickled oysters, smokin' tobacco an' the best
whisky he ever saw," rapped out the Girl, proudly, and turned her
attention to the slate.

"You bet!" vouched Trinidad with a nod, as Nick departed on his errand.

Finally, the Girl, having made her calculations, opened the counter
drawer and brought forth some silver Mexican dollars, saying:

"Sonora, an' Mr. Ashby, your change!"

Ashby picked up his money, only to throw it instantly back on the bar,
and say gallantly:

"Keep the change--buy a ribbon at The Ridge--compliments of Wells
Fargo."

"Thank you," smiled the Girl, sweeping the money into the drawer, but
her manner showed plainly that it was not an unusual thing for the
patrons of The Polka to refuse to accept the change.

Not to be outdone, Sonora quickly arose and went over to the counter
where, pointing to his stack of silver dollars, he said:

"Girl, buy two ribbons at The Ridge;" and then with a significant glance
towards Ashby, he added: "Fawn's my colour."

And again, as before, the voice that said, "Thank you," was colourless,
while her eyes rested upon the ubiquitous Nick, who had entered with an
armful of wood and was intent upon making the room warmer.

Rance snorted disapprovingly at Sonora's prodigality. That he considered
that both his and Ashby's attentions to the Girl had gone far enough
was made apparent by the severe manner in which he envisaged them and
drawled out:

"Play cyards?"

But to that gentleman's surprise the men did not move. Instead, Ashby
raising a warning finger to the Girl, went on to advise that she should
bank with them oftener, concluding with:

"And then if this road agent Ramerrez should drop in, you won't lose so
much--"

"The devil you say!" cut in Sonora; while Trinidad broke out into a
scornful laugh.

"Oh, go on, Mr. Ashby!" smilingly scoffed the Girl. "I keep the
specie in an empty keg now. But I've took to bankin' personally in my
stockin'," she confided without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

"But say, we've got an awful pile this month," observed Nick, anxiously,
leaving the fireplace and joining the little ring of men about her. "It
makes me sort o' nervous--why, Sonora's got ten thousand alone fer safe
keepin' in that keg an'--"

"--Ramerrez' band's everywhere," completed Ashby with a start, his quick
and trained ear having caught the sound of horses' hoofs.

"But if a road agent did come here, I could offer 'im a drink an' he'd
treat me like a perfect lady," contended the Girl, confidently.

"You bet he would, the durned old halibut!" was Sonora's comment, while
Nick took occasion to ask the Girl for some tobacco.

"Solace or Honeydew?" she inquired, her hands already on the assortment
of tobacco underneath the bar.

"Dew," was Nick's laconic answer.

And then it was that the Girl heard for the first time the sound of
the galloping hoofs; startled for the moment, she inquired somewhat
uneasily:

"Who's this, I wonder?"

But no sooner were the words spoken than a voice outside in the darkness
sung out sharply:

"Hello!"

"Hello!" instantly returned another voice, which the Girl recognised at
once as being that of the Deputy.

"Big holdup last night at The Forks!" the first voice was now saying.

"Holdup!" repeated several voices outside in tones of excitement.

"Ramerrez--" went on the first voice, at which ominous word all,
including Ashby, began to exchange significant glances as they echoed:

"Ramerrez!"

The name had barely died on their lips, however, than Nick precipitated
himself into their midst and announced that The Pony Express had
arrived, handing up to the Girl, at the same time, a bundle of letters
and one paper.

"You see!" maintained Ashby, stoutly, as he watched her sort the
letters; "I was right when I told you . . ."

"Look sharp! There's a greaser on the trail!" rang out warningly the
voice of The Pony Express.

"A greaser!" exclaimed Rance, for the first time showing any interest in
the proceedings; and then without looking up and after the manner of a
man speaking to a good dog, he told the Deputy, who had followed Nick
into the room:

"Find him, Dep."

For some time the Girl occupied herself with cashing in the chips which
Nick brought to her--a task which she performed with amazing correctness
and speed considering that her knowledge of the science of mathematics
had been derived solely from the handling of money at The Polka. Now she
went over to Sonora, who sat at a table reading.

"You got the newspaper, I see," she observed. "But you, Trin, I'm sorry
you ain't got nothin'," she added, with a sad, little smile.

"So long!" hollered The Pony Express at that moment; whereupon, Ashby
rushed over to the door and called after him:

"Pony Express, I want you!" Satisfied that his command had been heard he
retraced his footsteps and found Handsome peering eagerly over Sonora's
shoulder.

"So, Sonora, you've got a newspaper," Handsome was saying.

"Yes, but the infernal thing's two months old," returned the other
disgustedly.

Handsome laughed, and wheeling round was just in time to see the door
flung open and a young fellow advance towards Ashby.

The Pony Express was a young man of not more than twenty years of
age. He was smooth-faced and unshaven and, needless to say, was light
of build, for these riders were selected for their weight as well
as for their nerve. He wore a sombrero, a buckskin hunting-shirt,
tight trousers tucked into high boots with spurs, all of which were
weather-beaten and faded by wind, rain, dust and alkali. A pair of Colt
revolvers could be seen in his holsters, and he carried in his hands,
which were covered with heavy gloves, a mail pouch--it being the
company's orders not to let his _muchilo_ of heavy leather out of his
hands for a second.

"You drop mail at the greaser settlement?" inquired Ashby in his
peremptory and incisive manner.

"Yes, sir," quickly responded the young man; and then volunteered:
"It's a tough place."

Ashby scrutinised the newcomer closely before going on with:

"Know a girl there named Nina Micheltorena?"

But before The Pony Express had time to reply the Girl interposed
scornfully:

"Nina Micheltorena? Why, they all know 'er! She's one o' them Cachuca
girls with droopy, Spanish eyes! Oh, ask the boys about 'er!" And with
that she started to leave the room, stopping on her way to clap both
Trinidad and Sonora playfully on the back. "Yes, ask the boys about 'er,
they'll tell you!" And so saying she fled from the room, followed by the
men she was poking fun at.

"Hold her letters, you understand?" instructed Ashby who, with the
Sheriff, was alone now with The Pony Express.

"Yes, sir," he replied earnestly. A moment later there being no further
orders forthcoming he hastily took his leave.

Ashby now turned his attention to Rance.

"Sheriff," said he, "to-night I expect to see this Nina Micheltorena
either here or at The Palmetto."

Rance never raised an eyebrow.

"You do?" he remarked a moment later with studied carelessness. "Well,
the boys had better look to their watches. I met that lady once."

Ashby shot him a look of inquiry.

"She's looking to that five thousand reward for Ramerrez," he told him.

Rance's interest was growing by leaps and bounds though he continued to
riffle the cards.

"What? She's after that?"

"Sure thing. She knows something . . ." And having delivered himself
of this Ashby strode over to the opposite side of the room where his
coat and hat were hanging upon an elk horn. While putting them on he
came face to face with the Girl who, having merely glanced in at the
dance-hall, was returning to take up her duties behind the bar. "Well,
I'll have a look at that greaser up the road," he said, addressing her,
and then went on half-jocularly, half-seriously: "He may have his eye on
the find in that stocking."

"You be darned!" was the Girl's parting shot at him as he went out into
the night.

There was a long and impressive pause in which, apparently, the Sheriff
was making up his mind to speak of matters scarcely incident to the
situation that had gone before; while fully conscious that she was to
be asked to give him an answer--she whose answer had been given many
times--the Girl stood at the bar in an attitude of amused expectancy,
and fussing with things there. At length, Rance, glancing shyly over his
shoulder to make sure that they were alone, became all at once grave and
his voice fell soft and almost caressingly.

"Say, Girl!"

The young woman addressed stole a look at him from under her lashes, all
the while smiling a wise, little smile to herself, but not a word did
she vouchsafe in reply.

Again Rance called to her over his shoulder:

"I say, Girl!"

The Girl took up a glass and began to polish it. At last she deigned to
favour him with "Hm?" which, apparently, he did not hear, for again a
silence fell upon them. Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer,
the Sheriff threw down his cards on the table, and facing her he said:

"Say, Girl, will you marry me?"

"Nope," returned the Girl with a saucy toss of the head.

Rance rose and strode over to the bar. Looking fixedly at her with his
steely grey eyes he demanded the reason.

"'Cause you got a wife in Noo Orleans--or so the mountain breezes say,"
was her ready answer.

Rance gave no sign of having heard her. Throwing away the cigar he was
smoking he asked in the most nonchalant manner:

"Give me some of them cigars--my kind."

Reaching for a box behind her the Girl placed it before him.

"Them's your kind, Jack."

From an inside pocket of his broadcloth coat Rance took out an elaborate
cigar-case, filled it slowly, leaving out one cigar which he placed
between his lips. When he had this one going satisfactorily he rested
both elbows on the edge of the bar, and said bluntly:

"I'm stuck on you."

The Girl's lips parted a little mockingly.

"Thank you."

Rance puffed away for a moment or two in silence, and then with sudden
determination he went on:

"I'm going to marry you."

"Think so?" questioned the Girl, drawing herself up proudly. And while
Rance proceeded to relight his cigar, it having gone out, she plumped
both elbows on the bar and looked him straight in the eye, and
announced: "They ain't a man here goin' to marry me."

The scene had precisely the appearance of a struggle between two
powerful wills. How long they would have remained with elbows almost
touching and looking into each other's eyes it is difficult to
determine; but an interruption came in the person of the barkeeper,
who darted in, calling: "One good cigar!"

Instantly the Girl reached behind her for the box containing the
choicest cigars, and handing one to Nick, she said:

"Here's your poison--three bits. Why look at 'em," she went on in
the next breath to Rance; "there's Handsome with two wives I know of
somewhere East. And--" She broke off short and ended with: "Nick, who's
that cigar for?"

"Tommy," he told her.

"Here, give that back!" she cried quickly putting out her hand for it.
"Tommy don't know a good cigar when he's smokin' it." And so saying she
put the choice cigar back in its place among its fellows and handed him
one from another box with the remark: "Same price, Nick."

Nick chuckled and went out.

"An' look at Trin with a widow in Sacramento. An' you--" The Girl broke
off short and laughed in his face. "Oh, not one o' you travellin' under
your own name!"

"One whisky!" ordered Nick, coming into the room with a rush. Without
a word the Girl took down a bottle and poured it out for him while he
stood quietly looking on, grinning from ear to ear. For Rance's weakness
was known to him as it was to every other man in Manzaneta County, and
he believed that the Sheriff had taken advantage of his absence to press
his hopeless suit.

"Here you be!" sang out the Girl, and passed the glass over to him.

"He wants it with water," returned Nick, with a snicker.

With a contemptuous gesture the Girl put the bottle back on the shelf.

"No--no you don't; no fancy drinks here!" she objected.

"But he says he won't take it without water," protested Nick, though
there was a twinkle in his eye. "He's a fellow that's jest rode in from
The Crossin', so he says."

The Girl folded her arms and declared in a tone of finality:

"He'll take it straight or git."

"But he won't git," contended Nick chuckling. There was an ominous
silence. Such behaviour was without a parallel in the annals of Cloudy.
For much less than this, as the little barkeeper very well knew, many a
man had been disciplined by the Girl. So, with his eyes fixed upon her
face, he was already revelling in the situation by way of anticipation,
and rejoicing in the coming requital for his own rebuff when the
stranger had declined to leave as ordered. It was merely a question of
his waiting for the words which would, as he put it, "take the fellow
down a peg." They were soon forthcoming.

"You jest send 'im to me," commanded the Girl. "I'll curl his hair for
him!"

Nick's face showed that the message was to his liking. It was evident,
also, that he meant to lose no time in delivering it. A moment after he
disappeared, Rance, who had been toying with a twenty dollar gold piece
which he took from his pocket, turned to the Girl and said with great
earnestness:

"Girl, I'll give you a thousand dollars on the spot for a kiss," which
offer met with no response other than a nervous little laugh and the
words:

"Some men invite bein' played."

The gambler shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, what are men made for?" said he, flinging the gold piece down on
the bar in payment for the cigar.

"That's true," placidly commented the Girl, making the change.

Rance tried another tack.

"You can't keep on running this place alone; it's getting too big for
you; too much money circulating through The Polka. You need a man behind
you." All this was said in short, jerky sentences; moreover, when she
placed his change in front of him he pushed it back almost angrily.

"Come now, marry me," again he pleaded.

"Nope."

"My wife won't know it."

"Nope."

"Now, see here, there's just one--"

"Nope--take it straight, Jack, nope . . ." interrupted the Girl. She had
made up her mind that he had gone far enough; and firmly grabbing his
hand she slipped his change into it.

Without a word the Sheriff dropped the coins into the cuspidor. The
Girl saw the action and her eyes flashed with anger. The next moment,
however, she looked up at him and said more gently than any time yet:

"No, Jack, I can't marry you. Ah, come along--start your game again--go
on, Jack." And so saying she came out from behind the bar and went over
to the faro table with: "Whoop la! Mula! Go! Good Lord, look at that
faro table!"

But Rance was on the verge of losing control of himself. There was
passion in his steely grey eyes when he advanced towards her, but
although the Girl saw the look she did not flinch, and met it in a
clear, straight glance.

"Look here, Jack Rance," she said, "let's have it out right now. I run
The Polka 'cause I like it. My father taught me the business an', well,
don't you worry 'bout me--I can look after m'self. I carry my little
wepping"--and with that she touched significantly the little pocket of
her dress. "I'm independent, I'm happy, The Polka's payin', an' it's
bully!" she wound up, laughing. Then, with one of her quick changes of
mood, she turned upon him angrily and demanded: "Say, what the devil do
you mean by proposin' to me with a wife in Noo Orleans? Now, this is a
respectable saloon, an' I don't want no more of it."

A look of gloom came into Rance's eyes.

"I didn't say anything--" he began.

"Push me that Queen," interrupted the Girl, sharply, gathering up the
cards at the faro table, and pointing to one that was just beyond her
reach. But when Rance handed it to her and was moving silently away, she
added: "Ah, no offence, Jack, but I got other idees o' married life from
what you have."

"Aw, nonsense!" came from the Sheriff in a voice that was not free from
irritation.

The Girl glanced up at him quickly. Her mind was not the abode of
hardened convictions, but was tender to sentiment, and something in his
manner at once softening her, she said:

"Nonsense? I dunno 'bout that. You see--" and her eyes took on a far
away look--"I had a home once an' I ain't forgot it--a home up over our
little saloon down in Soledad. I ain't forgot my father an' my mother
an' what a happy kepple they were. Lord, how they loved each other--it
was beautiful!"

Despite his seemingly callous exterior, there was a soft spot in the
gambler's heart. Every word that the Girl uttered had its effect on him.
Now his hands, which had been clenched, opened out and a new light came
into his eyes. Suddenly, however, it was replaced by one of anger, for
the door, at that moment, was hesitatingly pushed open, and The Sidney
Duck stood with his hand on the knob, snivelling:

"Oh, Miss, I--"

The Girl fairly flew over to him.

"Say, I've heard about you! You git!" she cried; and when she was
certain that he was gone she came back and took a seat at the table
where she continued, in the same reminiscent vein as before: "I can
see mother now fussin' over father an' pettin' 'im, an' father dealin'
faro--Ah, he was square! An' me a kid, as little as a kitten, under the
table sneakin' chips for candy. Talk 'bout married life--that was a
little heaven! Why, mother tho't so much o' that man, she was so much
heart an' soul with 'im that she learned to be the best case-keeper you
ever saw. Many a sleeper she caught! You see, when she played, she was
playin' for the ol' man." She stopped as if overcome with emotion, and
then added with great feeling: "I guess everybody's got some remembrance
o' their mother tucked away. I always see mine at the faro table with
her foot snuggled up to Dad's, an' the light o' lovin' in her eyes. Ah,
she was a lady . . .!" Impulsively she rose and walked over to the bar.
"No," she went on, when behind it once more, "I couldn't share that
table an' The Polka with any man--unless there was a heap o' carin' back
of it. No, I couldn't, Jack, I couldn't . . ."

By this time the Sheriff's anger had completely vanished; dejection was
plainly written on every line of his face.

"Well, I guess the boys were right; I am a Chinaman," he drawled out.

At once the Girl was all sympathy.

"Oh, no you're not, Jack!" she protested, speaking as tenderly as she
dared without encouraging him.

Rance was quick to detect the change in her voice. Now he leaned over
the end of the bar and said in tones that still held hope:

"Once when I rode in here it was nothing but Jack, Jack, Jack Rance. By
the Eternal, I nearly got you then!"

"Did you?" The Girl was her saucy self again.

Rance ignored her manner, and went on:

"Then you went on that trip to Sacramento and Monterey and you were
different."

In spite of herself the Girl started, which Rance's quick eye did not
fail to note.

"Who's the man?" he blazed.

For answer the Girl burst out into a peal of laughter. It was forced,
and the man knew it.

"I suppose he's one o' them high-toned, Sacramento shrimps!" he burst
out gruffly; then he added meaningly: "Do you think he'd have you?"

At those words a wondering look shone in the Girl's eyes, and she asked
in all seriousness:

"What's the matter with me? Is there anythin' 'bout me a high-toned gent
would object to?" And then as the full force of the insult was borne in
upon her she stepped out from behind the bar, and demanded: "Look here,
Jack Rance, ain't I always been a perfect lady?"

Rance laughed discordantly.

"Oh, heaven knows your character's all right!" And so saying he seated
himself again at the table.

The girl flared up still more at this; she retorted:

"Well, that ain't your fault, Jack Rance!" But the words were hardly out
of her mouth than she regretted having spoken them. She waited a moment,
and then as he did not speak she murmured an "Adios, Jack," and took up
her position behind the bar where, if Rance had been looking, he would
have seen her start on hearing a voice in the next room and fix her eyes
in a sort of fascinated wonder, on a man who, after parting the pelt
curtain, came into the saloon with just a suggestion of swagger in his
bearing.




VII.


"Where's the man who wanted to curl my hair?"

Incisive and harsh, with scarcely a trace of the musical tones she
recollected so well, as was Johnson's voice, it deceived the Girl not an
instant. Even before she was able to get a glimpse of his face it did
not fail to tell her that the handsome _caballero_, with whom she had
ridden on that never-to-be-forgotten day on the Monterey road, was
standing before her. That his attire now, as might be expected, was
wholly different from what it had been then, it never occurred to her to
note; for, to tell the truth, she was vainly struggling to suppress the
joy that she felt at seeing him again, and before she was aware of it
there slipped through her lips:

"Why, howdy do, stranger!"

At the sound of her voice Johnson wheeled round in glad surprise and
amazement; but the quick look of recognition that he flashed upon her
wholly escaped the Sheriff whose attitude was indicative of keen
resentment at this intrusion, and whose eyes were taking in the newcomer
from head to foot.

"We're not much on strangers here," he blurted out at last.

Johnson turned on his heel and faced the speaker. An angry retort rose
to his lips, but he checked it. Although, perhaps, not fully
appreciating his action, he was, nevertheless, not unaware that, from
the point of view of the Polka, his refusal to take his whisky straight
might be regarded as nothing less than an insult. And now that it was
too late he was inclined, however much he resented an attempt to
interfere in a matter which he believed concerned himself solely, to
regret the provocation and challenging words of his entrance if only
because of a realisation that a quarrel would be likely to upset his
plans. On the other hand, with every fraction of a second that passed he
was conscious of becoming more and more desirous of humbling the man
standing before him and scrutinising him so insolently; moreover, he
felt intuitively that the eyes of the Girl were on him as well as on the
other principal to this silent but no less ominous conflict going on,
and such being the case it was obviously impossible for him to withdraw
from the position he had taken. As a sort of compromise, therefore, he
said, tentatively:

"I'm the man who wanted water in his whisky."

"You!" exclaimed the Girl; and then added reprovingly: "Oh, Nick, this
gentleman takes his whisky as he likes it!"

And this from the Girl! The little barkeeper had all the appearance of a
man who thought the world was coming to an end. He did not accept the
Girl's ultimatum until he had drawn down his face into an expression of
mock solemnity and ejaculated half-aloud:

"Moses, what's come over 'er!"

Johnson took a few steps nearer the Girl and bowed low.

"In the presence of a lady I will take nothing," he said impressively.
"But pardon me, you seem to be almost at home here."

The girl leaned her elbows on the bar and her chin in her hands, and
answered with a tantalising little laugh:

"Who--me?"

After a loud guffaw Nick took it upon himself to explain matters;
turning to Johnson he said:

"Why, she's the Girl who runs The Polka!"

Johnson's face wore a look of puzzled consternation; he saw no reason
for levity.

"You . . .?"

"Yep," nodded the Girl with a merry twinkle in her eyes.

Johnson's face fell.

"She runs The Polka," he murmured to himself. Of all places to have
chosen--this! So the thing he had dreaded had happened!

For odd as it unquestionably seemed to him that she should turn up as
the proprietress of a saloon after months of searching high and low for
her, it was not this reflection that was uppermost in his mind; on the
contrary, it was the deeply humiliating thought that he had come upon
her when about to ply his vocation. Regret came swiftly that he had not
thought to inquire who was the owner of The Polka Saloon. Bitterly he
cursed himself for his dense stupidity. And yet, it was doubtful whether
any of his band could have informed him. All that they knew of the place
was that the miners of Cloudy Mountain Camp were said to keep a large
amount of placer gold there; all that he had done was to acquaint
himself with the best means of getting it. But his ruminations were soon
dissipated by Rance, who had come so close that their feet almost
touched, and was speaking in a voice that showed the quarrelsome frame
of mind that he was in.

"You're from The Crossing, the barkeeper said--" he began, and then
added pointedly: "I don't remember you."

Johnson slowly turned from the Girl to the speaker and calmly corrected:

"You're mistaken; I said I rode over from The Crossing." And turning his
back on the man he faced the Girl with: "So, you run The Polka?"

"I'm the Girl--the girl that runs The Polka," she said, and to his
astonishment seemed to glory in her occupation.

Presently, much to their delight, an opportunity came to them to
exchange a word or two with each other without interruption. For, Rance,
as if revolving some plan of action in his mind, had turned on his heel
and walked off a little way. A moment more, however, and he was back
again and more malevolently aggressive than ever.

"No strangers are allowed in this camp," he said, glowering at Johnson;
and then, his remark having passed unheeded by the other, he sneered:
"Perhaps you're off the road; men often get mixed up when they're
visiting Nina Micheltorena on the back trail."

"Oh, Rance!" protested the Girl.

But Johnson, though angered, let the insinuation pass unnoticed, and
went on to say that he had stopped in to rest his horse and, perhaps, if
invited, try his luck at a game of cards. And with this intimation he
crossed over to the poker table where he picked up the deck that Rance
had been using.

Rance hesitated, and finally followed up the stranger until he brought
up face to face with him.

"You want a game, eh?" he drawled, coolly impudent. "I haven't heard
your name, young man."

"Name," echoed the Girl with a cynical laugh. "Oh, names out here--"

"My name's Johnson--" spoke up the man, throwing down the cards on the
table.

"Is what?" laughed the Girl, saucily, and, apparently, trying to relieve
the strained situation by her bantering tone.

"--Of Sacramento," he finished easily.

"Of Sacramento," repeated the Girl in the same jesting manner as before;
then, quickly coming out from behind the bar, she went over to him and
put out her hand, saying:

"I admire to know you, Mr. Johnson o' Sacramento."

Johnson bowed low over her hand.

"Thank you," he said simply.

"Say, Girl, I--" began Rance, fuming at her behaviour.

"Oh, sit down, Rance!" The interruption came from the Girl as she pushed
him lightly out of her way; then, perching herself up on one end of the
faro table, at which Johnson had taken a seat, she ventured:

"Say, Mr. Johnson, do you know what I think o' you?"

Johnson eyed her uncertainly, while Rance's eyes blazed as she blurted
out:

"Well, I think you staked out a claim in a etiquette book." And then
before Johnson could answer her, she went on to say: "So you think you
can play poker?"

"That's my conviction," Johnson told her, smilingly.

"Out o' every fifty men who think they can play poker one ain't
mistaken," was the Girl's caustic observation. The next instant,
however, she jumped down from the table and was back at her post, where,
fearful lest he should think her wanting in hospitality, she proposed:
"Try a cigar, Mr. Johnson?"

"Thank you," he said, rising, and following her to the bar.

"Best in the house--my compliments."

"You're very kind," said Johnson, taking the candle that she had lighted
for him; then, when his cigar was going, and in a voice that was
intended for her alone, he went on: "So you remember me?"

"If you remember me," returned the Girl, likewise in a low tone.

"What the devil are they talking about anyway?" muttered Rance to
himself as he stole a glance at them over his shoulder, though he kept
on shuffling the cards.

"I met you on the road to Monterey," said Johnson with a smile.

"Yes, comin' an' goin'," smiled back the Girl. "You passed me a bunch o'
wild syringa over the wheel; you also asked me to go a-berryin'--" and
here she paused long enough to glance up at him coquettishly before
adding: "But I didn't see it, Mr. Johnson."

"I noticed that," observed Johnson, laughing.

"An' when you went away you said--" The Girl broke off abruptly and
replaced the candle on the bar; then with a shy, embarrassed look on her
face she ended with: "Oh, I dunno."

"Yes, you do, yes, you do," maintained Johnson. "I said I'll think of
you all the time--well, I've thought of you ever since."

There was a moment of embarrassment. Then:

"Somehow I kind o' tho't you might drop in," she said with averted eyes.
"But as you didn't--" She paused and summoned to her face a look which
she believed would adequately reflect a knowledge of the proprieties.
"O' course," she tittered out, "it wa'n't my place to remember
you--first."

"But I didn't know where you lived--you never told me, you know,"
contended the road agent, which contention so satisfied the Girl--for
she remembered only too well that she had not told him--that she
determined to show him further evidences of her regard.

Say, I got a special bottle here--best in the house. Will you . . .?"

"Why--"

The girl did not wait for him to finish his sentence, but quickly placed
a bottle and glass before him.

"My compliments," she whispered, smiling.

"You're very kind--thanks," returned the road agent, and proceeded to
pour out a drink.

Meanwhile, little of what was taking place had been lost on Jack Rance.
As the whispered conversation continued, he grew more and more jealous,
and at the moment that Johnson was on the point of putting the glass to
his lips, Rance, rising quickly, went over to him and deliberately
knocked the glass out of his hand.

With a crash it fell to the floor.

"Look here, Mr. Johnson, your ways are offensive to me!" he cried;
"damned offensive! My name is Rance--Jack Rance. Your business
here--your business?" And without waiting for the other's reply he
called out huskily: "Boys! Boys! Come in here!"

At this sudden and unexpected summons in the Sheriff's well-known voice
there was a rush from the dance-hall; in an instant the good-natured,
roistering crowd, nosing a fight, crowded to the bar, where the two men
stood glaring at each other in suppressed excitement.

"Boys," declared the Sheriff, his eye never leaving Johnson's face,
"there's a man here who won't explain his business. He won't tell--"

"Won't he?" cut in Sonora, blusteringly. "Well, we'll see--we'll make
'im!"

There was a howl of execration from the bar. It moved the Girl to
instant action. Quick as thought she turned and strode to where the
cries were the most menacing--towards the boys who knew her best and
ever obeyed her unquestioningly.

"Wait a minute!" she cried, holding up her hand authoritatively. "I know
the gent!"

The men exchanged incredulous glances; from all sides came the explosive
cries:

"What's that? You know him?"

"Yes," she affirmed dramatically; and turning now to Rance with a swift
change of manner, she confessed: "I didn't tell you--but I know 'im."

The Sheriff started as if struck.

"The Sacramento shrimp by all that is holy!" he muttered between his
teeth as the truth slowly dawned upon him.

"Yes, boys, this is Mr. Johnson o' Sacramento," announced the Girl with
a simple and unconscious dignity that did not fail to impress all
present. "I vouch to Cloudy for Mr. Johnson!"

Consternation!

And then the situation vaguely dawning upon them there ensued an
outburst of cheering compared to which the previous howl of execration
was silence.

Johnson smiled pleasantly at the Girl in acknowledgment of her
confirmation of him, then shot a half-curious, half-amused look at the
crowd surrounding him and regarding him with a new interest. Apparently
what he saw was to his liking, for his manner was most friendly when
bowing politely, he said:

"How are you, boys?"

At once the miners returned his salutation in true western fashion:
every man in the place, save Rance, taking off his hat and sweeping it
before him in an arc as they cried out in chorus:

"Hello, Johnson!"

"Boys, Rance ain't a-runnin' The Polka yet!" observed Sonora with a
mocking smile on his lips, and gloating over the opportunity to give the
Sheriff a dig.

The men shouted their approval of this jibe. Indeed, they might have
gone just a little too far with their badgering of the Sheriff,
considering the mood that he was in; so, perhaps, it was fortunate that
Nick should break in upon them at this time with:

"Gents, the boys from The Ridge invites you to dance with them."

No great amount of enthusiasm was evinced at this. Nevertheless, it was
a distinct declaration of peace; and, taking advantage of it, Johnson
advanced toward the Girl, bowed low, and asked with elaborate formality:

"May I have the honour of a waltz?"

Flabbergasted and awed to silence by what they termed Johnson's "style,"
Happy and Handsome stood staring helplessly at one another; at length
Happy broke out with:

"Say, Handsome, ain't he got a purty action? An' ornamental sort o'
cuss, ain't he? But say, kind o' presumin' like, ain't it, for a fellow
breathin' the obscurity o' The Crossin' to learn gents like us how to
ketch the ladies pronto?"

"Which same," allowed Handsome, "shorely's a most painful, not to say
humiliatin' state o' things." And then to the Girl he whispered: "It's
up to you--make a holy show of 'im."

The Girl laughed.

"Me waltz? Me?" she cried, answering Johnson at last. "Oh, I can't waltz
but I can polky."

Once more Johnson bent his tall figure to the ground, and said:

"Then may I have the pleasure of the next polka?"

By this time Sonora had recovered from his astonishment. After giving
vent to a grunt expressive of his contempt, he blurted out:

"That fellow's too flip!"

But the idea had taken hold of the Girl, though she temporised shyly:

"Oh, I dunno! Makes me feel kind o' foolish, you know, kind o' retirin'
like a elk in summer."

Johnson smiled in spite of himself.

"Elks are retiring," was his comment as he again advanced and offered
his arm in an impressive and ceremonious manner.

"Well, I don't like everybody's hand on the back o' my waist," said the
Girl, running her hands up and down her dress skirt. "But, somehow--"
She stopped, and fixing her eyes recklessly on Rance, made a movement as
if about to accept; but another look at Johnson's proffered arm so
embarrassed her that she sent a look of appeal to the rough fellows, who
stood watching her with grinning faces.

"Oh, Lord, must I?" she asked; then, hanging back no longer, she
suddenly flung herself into his arms with the cry: "Oh, come along!"

Promptly Johnson put his arm around the Girl's waist, and breaking into
a polka he swung her off to the dance-hall where their appearance was
greeted with a succession of wild whoops from the men there, as well as
from the hilarious boys, who had rushed pell-mell after them.

Left to himself and in a rage Rance began to pace the floor.

"Cleaned out--cleaned out for fair by a high-toned, fine-haired dog
named Johnson! Well, I'll be--" The sentence was never finished, his
attention being caught and held by something which Nick was carrying in
from the dance-hall.

"What's that?" he demanded brusquely.

Nick's eyes were twinkling when he answered:

"Johnson's saddle."

Rance could control himself no longer; with a sweep of his long arm he
knocked the saddle out of the other's hand, saying:

"Nick, I've a great notion to walk out of this door and never step my
foot in here again."

Nick did not answer at once. While he did not especially care for Rance
he did not propose to let his patronage, which was not inconsiderable,
go elsewhere without making an effort to hold it. Therefore, he thought
a moment before picking up the saddle and placing it in the corner of
the room.

"Aw, what you givin' us, Rance! She's only a-kiddin' 'im," at last he
said consolingly.

The Sheriff was about to question this when a loud cry from outside
arrested him.

"What's that?" he asked with his eyes upon the door.

"Why that's--that's Ashby's voice," the barkeeper informed him; and
going to the door, followed by Rance, as well as the men who, on hearing
the cry, had rushed in from the dance-hall, he opened it, and they heard
again the voice that they all recognised now as that of the Wells Fargo
Agent.

"Come on!" he was saying gruffly.

"What the deuce is up?" inquired Trinidad simultaneously with the
Deputy's cry of "Bring him in!" And almost instantly the Deputy,
followed by Ashby and others, entered, dragging along with him the
unfortunate Jose Castro. The rough handling that he had received had not
improved his appearance. His clothing, half Mexican, the rest of odds
and ends, had been torn in several places. He looked oily, greasy and
unwashed, while the eyes that looked around in affright had lost none of
their habitual trickiness and sullenness.

And precisely as Castro appeared wholly different than when last seen in
the company of his master, so, too, was Ashby metamorphosed. His hat was
on the back of his head; his coat looked as if he had been engaged in
some kind of a struggle; his hair was ruffled and long locks straggled
down over his forehead; while his face wore a brutal, savage, pitiless,
nasty look.

By this time all the regular habitues of the saloon had come in and were
crowding around the greaser with scowling, angry faces.

"The greaser on the trail!" gurgled Ashby in his glass, having left his
prisoner for a moment to fortify himself with a drink of whisky.

Whereupon, the Sheriff advanced and, with rough hands, jerked the
prisoner's head brutally.

"Here you," he said, "give us a look at your face."

But the Sheriff had never seen him before. And in obedience to his
commands to "Tie him up!" the Deputy and Billy Jackrabbit took a lariat
from the wall and proceeded to bind their prisoner fast. When this was
done Ashby called to Nick to serve him another drink, adding:

"Come on, boys!"

Instantly there was an exclamatory lining up at the bar, only Sonora,
apparently, seeming disinclined to accept, which Ashby was quick to
note. Turning to him quickly, he inquired:

"Say, my friend, don't you drink?"

But no insult had been intended by Sonora's omission; it was merely most
inconsiderate on his part of the feelings of others; and, therefore,
there was a note of apology in the voice that presently said:

"Oh, yes, Mr. Ashby, I'm with you all right."

During this conversation the eyes of the greaser had been wandering all
over the room. But as the men moved away from him to take their drinks
he started violently and an expression of dismay crossed his features.
"Ramerrez' saddle!" he muttered to himself. "_The Maestro_--he is
taken!"

Just then there came a particularly loud burst of approval from the
spectators of the dancing going on in the adjoining room, and
instinctively the men at the bar half-turned towards the noise. The
prisoner's eyes followed their gaze and a fiendish grin replaced the
look of dismay on his face. "No, he is there dancing with a girl," he
said under his breath. A moment later Nick let down the bearskin
curtain, shutting off completely the Mexican's view of the dance-hall.

"Come, now, tell us what your name is?" The voice was Ashby's who,
together with the others, now surrounded the prisoner. "Speak up--who
are you?"

"My name ees Jose Castro;" and then he added with a show of pride:
"_Ex-padrona_ of the bull-fights."

"But the bull-fights are at Monterey! Why do you come to this place?"

All eyes instantly turned from the prisoner to Rance, who had asked the
question while seated at the table, and from him they returned to the
prisoner, most of the men giving vent to exclamations of anger in tones
that made the greaser squirm, while Trinidad expressed the prevailing
admiration of the Sheriff's poser by crying out:

"That's the talk--you bet! Why do you come here?"

Castro's face wore an air of candour as he replied:

"To tell the Senor Sheriff I know where ees Ramerrez."

Rance turned on the prisoner a grim look.

"You lie!" he vociferated, at the same time raising his hand to check
the angry mutterings of the men that boded ill for the greaser.

"Nay," denied Castro, strenuously, "pleanty Mexican _vaquero_--my friend
Peralta, Weelejos all weeth Ramerrez--so I know where ees."

Rance advanced and shot a finger in his face.

"You're one of his men yourself!" he cried hotly. But if he had hoped by
his accusation to take the man off his guard, it was eminently
unsuccessful, for the look on the greaser's face was innocence itself
when he declared:

"No, no, Senor Sheriff."

Rance reflected a moment; suddenly, then, he took another tack.

"You see that man there?" he queried, pointing to the Wells Fargo Agent.
"That is Ashby. He is the man that pays out that reward you've heard
of." Then after a pause to let his words sink in, he demanded gruffly:
"Where is Ramerrez' camp?"

At once the prisoner became voluble.

"Come with me one mile, Senor," he said, "and by the soul of my mother,
the blessed Maria Saltaja, we weel put a knife into hees back."

"One mile, eh?" repeated Rance, coolly.

The miners looked incredulous.

"If I tho't--" began Sonora, but Rance rudely cut in with:

"Where is this trail?"

"Up the Madrona Canyada," was the greaser's instant reply.

At this juncture a Ridge boy, who had pushed aside the bear-skin curtain
and was gazing with mouth wide open at the proceedings, suddenly cried
out:

"Why, hello, boys! What's the--" He got no further. In a twinkling and
with cries of "Shut up! Git!" the men made for the intruder and bodily
threw him out of the room. When quiet was restored Rance motioned to the
prisoner to proceed.

"Ramerrez can be taken--too well taken," declared the Mexican, gaining
confidence as he went on, "if many men come with me--in forty minutes
there--back."

Rance turned to Ashby and asked him what he thought about it.

"I don't know what to think," was the Wells Fargo Agent's reply. "But it
certainly is curious. This is the second warning--intimation that we
have had that he is somewhere in this vicinity."

"And this Nina Micheltorena--you say she is coming here to-night?"

Ashby nodded assent.

"All the same, Rance," he maintained, "I wouldn't go. Better drop in to
The Palmetto later."

"What? Risk losin' 'im?" exclaimed Sonora, who had been listening
intently to their conversation.

"We'll take the chance, boys, in spite of Ashby's advice," Rance said
decisively. It was with not a little surprise that he heard the shouts
with which his words were approved by all save the Wells Fargo Agent.

Now the miners made a rush for their coats, hats and saddles, while from
all sides came the cries of, "Come on, boys! Careful--there!
Ready--Sheriff!"

Gladly, cheerfully, Nick, too, did what he could to get the men started
by setting up the drinks for all hands, though he remarked as he did so:

"It's goin' to snow, boys; I don't like the sniff in the air."

But even the probability of encountering a storm--which in that altitude
was something decidedly to be reckoned with--did not deter the men from
proceeding to make ready for the road agent's capture. In an incredibly
short space of time they had loaded up and got their horses together,
and from the harmony in their ranks while carrying out orders, it was
evident that not a man there doubted the success of their undertaking.

"We'll git this road agent!" sung out Trinidad, going out through the
door.

"Right you are, pard!" agreed Sonora; but at the door he called back to
the greaser: "Come on, you oily, garlic-eatin', red-peppery,
dog-trottin', sunbaked son of a skunk!"

"Come on, you . . .!" came simultaneously from the Deputy, now untying
the rope which bound the prisoner.

The greaser's teeth were chattering; he begged:

"One dreenk--I freeze . . ."

Turning to Nick the Deputy told him to give the man a drink, adding as
he left the room:

"Watch him--keep your eye on him a moment for me, will you?"

Nick nodded; and then regarding the Mexican with a contemptuous look, he
asked:

"What'll you have?"

The Mexican rose to his feet and began hesitatingly:

"Geeve me--" He paused; and then, starting with the thought that had
come to him, he shot a glance at the dance-hall and called out loudly,
rolling his r's even more pronouncedly than is the custom with his race:
"Aguardiente! Aguardiente!"

"Sit down!" ordered Nick, vaguely conscious that there was something in
the greaser's voice that was not there before.

The greaser obeyed, but not until he knew for a certainty that his voice
had been heard by his master.

"So you did bring in my saddle, eh, Nick?" asked the road agent, coming
quickly, but unconcernedly into the room and standing behind his man.

Up to this time, Nick's eyes had not left the prisoner, but with the
appearance on the scene of Johnson, he felt that his responsibility
ceased in a measure. He turned and gave his attention to matters
pertaining to the bar. As a consequence, he did not see the look of
recognition that passed between the two men, nor did he hear the
whispered dialogue in Spanish that followed.

"_Maestro! Ramerrez!_" came in whispered tones from Castro.

"Speak quickly--go on," came likewise in whispered tones from the road
agent.

"I let them take me according to your bidding," went on Castro.

"Careful, Jose, careful," warned his master while stooping to pick up
his saddle, which he afterwards laid on the faro table. It was while he
was thus engaged that Nick came over to the prisoner with a glass of
liquor, which he handed to him gruffly with:

"Here!"

At that moment several voices from the dance-hail called somewhat
impatiently: "Nick, Nick!"

"Oh, The Ridge boys are goin'!" he said, and seeming intuitively to know
what was wanted he made for the bar. But before acceding to their
wishes, he turned to Johnson, took out his gun and offered it to him
with the words: "Say, watch this greaser for a moment, will you?"

"Certainly," responded Johnson, quickly, declining the other's pistol by
touching his own holster significantly. "Tell the Girl you pressed me
into service," he concluded with a smile.

"Sure." But on the point of going, the little barkeeper turned to him
and confided: "Say, the Girl's taken an awful fancy to you."

"No?" deprecated the road agent.

"Yes," affirmed Nick. "Drop in often--great bar!"

Johnson smiled an assent as the other went out of the room leaving
master and man together.

"Now, then, Jose, go on," he said, when they were alone.
"_Bueno!_ Our men await the signal in the bushes close by. I will lead
the Sheriff far off--then I will slip away. You quietly rob the place
and fly--it is death for you to linger--Ashby is here."

"Ashby!" The road agent started in alarm.

"Ashby--" reiterated Castro and stopped on seeing that Nick had returned
to see that all was well.

"All right, Nick, everything's all right," Johnson reassured him.

The outlaw's position remained unchanged until Nick had withdrawn. From
where he stood he now saw for the first time the preparations that were
being made for his capture: the red torchlights and white candle-lighted
lanterns which were reflected through the windows; and a moment more he
heard the shouts of the miners calling to one another. Of a sudden he
was aroused to a consciousness, at least, of their danger by Castro's
warning:

"By to-morrow's twilight you must be safe in your rancho."

The road agent shook his head determinedly.

"No, we raid on."

Castro was visibly excited.

"There are a hundred men on your track."

Johnson smiled.

"Oh, one minute's start of the devil does me, Jose."

"Ah, but I fear the woman--Nina Micheltorena--I fear her terribly. She
is close at hand--knowing all, angry with you, and jealous--and still
loving you."

"Loving me? Oh, no, Jose! Nina, like you, loves the spoils, not me. No,
I raid on . . ."

A silence fell upon the two men, which was broken by Sonora calling out:

"Bring along the greaser, Dep!"

"All right!" answered the loud voice of the Deputy.

"You hear--we start," whispered Castro to his master. "Give the signal."
And notwithstanding, the miners were coming through the door for him and
stood waiting, torches in hand, he contrived to finish: "Antonio awaits
for it. Only the woman and her servant will stay behind here."

"Adios!" whispered the master.

"Adios!" returned his man simultaneously with the approach of the Deputy
towards them.

It was then that the Girl's gay, happy voice floated in on them from the
dance-hall; she cried out:

"Good-night, boys, good-night! Remember me to The Ridge!"

"You bet we will! So long! Whoop! Whooppee!" chorussed the men, while
the Deputy, grabbing the Mexican by the collar, ordered him to, "Come
on!"

The situation was not without its humorous side to the road agent; he
could not resist following the crowd to the door where he stood and
watched his would-be captors silently mount; listened to the Sheriff
give the word, which was immediately followed by the sound of horses
grunting as they sprang forward into the darkness in a desperate effort
to escape the maddening pain of the descending quirts and cruel spurs.
It was a scene to set the blood racing through the veins, viewed in any
light; and not until the yells of the men had grown indistinct, and all
that could be heard was the ever-decreasing sound of rushing hoofs, did
the outlaw turn back into the saloon over which there hung a silence
which, by contrast, he found strangely depressing.




VIII.


There was a subtle change, an obvious lack of warmth in Johnson's
manner, which the Girl was quick to feel upon returning to the now
practically deserted saloon.

"Don't it feel funny here--kind o' creepy?" She gave the words a
peculiar emphasis, which made Johnson flash a quick, inquisitorial look
at her; and then, no comment being forthcoming, she went on to explain:
"I s'pose though that's 'cause I don't remember seein' the bar so empty
before."

A somewhat awkward silence followed, which at length was broken by the
Girl, who ordered:

"Lights out now! Put out the candle here, too, Nick!" But while the
little barkeeper proceeded to carry out her instructions she turned to
Johnson with an eager, frank expression on her face, and said: "Oh, you
ain't goin', are you?"

"No--not yet--no--" stammered Johnson, half-surprisedly,
half-wonderingly.

The Girl's face wore a pleased look as she answered:

"Oh, I'm so glad o' that!"

Another embarrassing silence followed. At last Nick made a movement
towards the window, saying:

"I'm goin' to put the shutters up."

"So early? What?" The Girl looked her surprise.

"Well, you see, the boys are out huntin' Ramerrez, and there's too much
money here . . ." said Nick in a low tone.

The Girl laughed lightly.

"Oh, all right--cash in--but don't put the head on the keg--I ain't
cashed in m'self yet."

Rolling the keg to one side of the room, Nick beckoned to the Girl to
come close to him, which she did; and pointing to Johnson, who was
strolling about the room, humming softly to himself, he whispered:

"Say, Girl, know anythin' about--about him?"

But very significant as was Nick's pantomime, which included the keg and
Johnson, it succeeded only in bringing forth a laugh from the Girl, and
the words:

"Oh, sure!"

Nevertheless, the faithful guardian of the Girl's interests sent a
startled glance of inquiry about the room, and again asked:

"All right, eh?"

The Girl ignored the implication contained in the other's glance, and
answered "Yep," in such a tone of finality that Nick, reassured at last,
began to put things ship-shape for the night. This took but a moment or
two, however, and then he quietly disappeared.

"Well, Mr. Johnson, it seems to be us a-keepin' house here to-night,
don't it?" said the Girl, alone now with the road agent.

Her observation might easily have been interpreted as purposely
introductory to an intimate scene, notwithstanding that it was made in a
thoroughly matter-of-fact tone and without the slightest trace of
coquetry. But Johnson did not make the mistake of misconstruing her
words, puzzled though he was to find a clue to them. His curiosity about
her was intense, and it showed plainly in the voice that said presently:

"Isn't it strange how things come about? Strange that I should have
looked everywhere for you and in the end find you here--at The Polka."

Johnson's emphasis on his last words sent a bright red rushing over her,
colouring her neck, her ears and her broad, white forehead.

"Anythin' wrong with The Polka?"

Johnson was conscious of an indiscreet remark; nevertheless he ventured:

"Well, it's hardly the place for a young woman like you."

The Girl made no reply to this but busied herself with the closing-up of
the saloon. Johnson interpreted her silence as a difference of opinion.
Nevertheless, he repeated with emphasis:

"It is decidedly no place for you."

"How so?"

"Well, it's rather unprotected, and--"

"Oh, pshaw!" interrupted the Girl somewhat irritably. "I tol' Ashby only
to-night that I bet if a rud agent come in here I could offer 'im a
drink an' he'd treat me like a perfect lady." She stopped and turned
upon him impulsively with: "Say, that reminds me, won't you take
somethin'?"

Before answering, Johnson shot her a quick look of inquiry to see
whether there was not a hidden meaning in her words. Of course there was
not, the remark being impelled by a sudden consciousness that he might
consider her inhospitable. Nevertheless, her going behind the bar and
picking up a bottle came somewhat as a relief to him.

"No, thank you," at last he said; and then as he leaned heavily on the
bar: "But I would very much like to ask you a question."

Instantly, to his great surprise, the Girl was eyeing him with mingled
reproach and coquetry. So he was going to do it! Was it possible that he
thought so lightly of her, she wondered. With all her heart she wished
that he would not make the same mistake that others had.

"I know what it is--every stranger asks it--but I didn't think you
would. You want to know if I am decent? Well, I am, you bet!" she
returned, a defiant note creeping into her voice as she uttered the
concluding words.

"Oh, Girl, I'm not blind!" His eyes quailed before the look that flamed
in hers. "And that was not the question."

Instinctively something told the Girl that the man spoke the truth, but
notwithstanding which, she permitted her eyes to express disbelief and
"Dear me suz!" fell from her lips with an odd little laugh. On the other
hand, Johnson declined to treat the subject other than seriously. He had
no desire, of course, to enlarge upon the unconventionality of her
attitude, but he felt that his feelings towards her, even if they were
only friendly, justified him in giving her a warning. Moreover, he
refused to admit to himself that this was a mere chance meeting. He had
a consciousness, vague, but nevertheless real that, at last, after all
his searching, Fate had brought him face to face with the one woman in
all the world for him. Unknown to himself, therefore, there was a sort
of jealous proprietorship in his manner towards her as he now said:

"What I meant was this: I am sorry to find you here almost at the mercy
of the passer-by, where a man may come, may drink, may rob you if he
will--" and here a flush of shame spread over his features in spite of
himself--"and where, I daresay, more than one has laid claim to a kiss."

The Girl turned upon him in good-natured contempt.

"There's a good many people claimin' things they never git. I've got my
first kiss to give."

Once more a brief silence fell upon them in which the Girl busied
herself with her cash box. She was not unaware that his eyes were upon
her, but she was by no means sure that he believed her words. Nor could
she tell herself, unfortunately for her peace of mind, that it made no
difference to her.

"Have you been here long?" suddenly he asked.

"Yep."

"Lived in The Polka?"

"Nope."

"Where do you live?"

"Cabin up the mountain a little ways."

"Cabin up the mountain a little ways," echoed Johnson, reflectively. The
next instant the little figure before him had faded from his sight and
instead there appeared a vision of the little hut on the top of Cloudy
Mountain. Only a few hours back he had stood on the precipice which
looked towards it, and had felt a vague, indefinable something, had
heard a voice speak to him out of the vastness which he now believed to
have been her spirit calling to him.

"You're worth something better than this," after a while he murmured
with the tenderness of real love in his voice.

"What's better'n this?" questioned the Girl with a toss of her pretty
blonde head. "I ain't a-boastin' but if keepin' this saloon don't give
me sort of a position 'round here I dunno what does."

But the next moment there had flashed through her mind a new thought
concerning him. She came out from behind the bar and confronted him with
the question:

"Look 'ere, you ain't one o' them exhorters from the Missionaries' Camp,
are you?"

The road agent smiled.

"My profession has its faults," he acknowledged, "but I am not an
exhorter."

But still the Girl was nonplussed, and eyed him steadily for a moment or
two.

"You know I can't figger out jest exactly what you are?" she admitted
smilingly.

"Well, try . . ." he suggested, slightly colouring under her persistent
gaze.

"Well, you ain't one o' us."

"No?"

"Oh, I can tell--I can spot my man every time. I tell you, keepin'
saloon's a great educator." And so saying she plumped herself down in a
chair and went on very seriously now: "I dunno but what it's a good way
to bring up girls--they git to know things. Now," and here she looked at
him long and earnestly, "I'd trust you."

Johnson was conscious of a guilty feeling, though he said as he took a
seat beside her:

"You would trust me?"

The Girl nodded an assent and observed in a tone that was intended to be
thoroughly conclusive:

"Notice I danced with you to-night?"

"Yes," was his brief reply, though the next moment he wondered that he
had not found something more to say.

"I seen from the first that you were the real article."

"I beg your pardon," he said absently, still lost in thought.

"Why, that was a compliment I handed out to you," returned the Girl with
a pained look on her face.

"Oh!" he ejaculated with a faint little smile.

Now the Girl, who had drawn up her chair close to his, leaned over and
said in a low, confidential voice:

"Your kind don't prevail much here. I can tell--I got what you call a
quick eye."

As might be expected Johnson flushed guiltily at this remark. No
different, for that matter, would have acted many a man whose conscience
was far clearer.

"Oh, I'm afraid that men like me prevail--prevail, as you say,--almost
everywhere," he said, laying such stress on the words that it would seem
almost impossible for anyone not to see that they were shot through with
self-depreciation.

The Girl gave him a playful dig with her elbow.

"Go on! What are you givin' me! O' course they don't . . .!" She laughed
outright; but the next instant checking herself, went on with absolute
ingenuousness: "Before I went on that trip to Monterey I tho't Rance
here was the genuine thing in a gent, but the minute I kind o' glanced
over you on the road I--I seen he wasn't." She stopped, a realisation
having suddenly been borne in upon her that perhaps she was laying her
heart too bare to him. To cover up her embarrassment, therefore, she
took refuge, as before, in hospitality, and rushing over to the bar she
called to Nick to come and serve Mr. Johnson with a drink, only to
dismiss him the moment he put his head through the door with: "Never
mind, I'll help Mr. Johnson m'self." Turning to her visitor again, she
said: "Have your whisky with water, won't you?"

"But I don't--" began Johnson in protest.

"Say," interrupted the Girl, falling back into her favourite position of
resting both elbows on the bar, her face in her hands, "I've got you
figgered out. You're awful good or awful bad." A remark which seemed to
amuse the man, for he laughed heartily.

"Now, what do you mean by that?" presently he asked.

"Well, I mean so good that you're a teetotaller, or so bad that you're
tired o' life an' whisky."

Johnson shook his head.

"On the contrary, although I'm not good, I've lived and I've liked life
pretty well. It's been bully!"

Surprised and delighted with his enthusiasm, the Girl raised her eyes to
his, which look he mistook--not unnaturally after all that had been
said--for one of encouragement. A moment more and the restraint that he
had exercised over himself had vanished completely.

"So have you liked it, Girl," he went on, trying vainly to get
possession of her hand, "only you haven't lived, you haven't lived--not
with your nature. You see I've got a quick eye, too."

To Johnson's amazement she flushed and averted her face. Following the
direction of her eyes he saw Nick standing in the door with a broad grin
on his face.

"You git, Nick! What do you mean by . . .?" cried out the Girl in a tone
that left no doubt in the minds of her hearers that she was annoyed, if
not angry, at the intrusion.

Nick disappeared into the dance-hall as though shot out of a gun;
whereupon, the Girl turned to Johnson with:

"I haven't lived? That's good!"

Johnson's next words were insinuating, but his voice was cold in
comparison with the fervent tones of a moment previous.

"Oh, you know!" was what he said, seating himself at the poker table.

"No, I don't," contradicted the Girl, taking a seat opposite him.

"Yes, you do," he insisted.

"Well, say it's an even chance I do an' an even chance I don't," she
parried.

Once more the passion in the man was stirring.

"I mean," he explained in a voice that barely reached her, "life for all
it's worth, to the uttermost, to the last drop in the cup, so that it
atones for what's gone before, or may come after."

The Girl's face wore a puzzled look as she answered:

"No, I don't believe I know what you mean by them words. Is it a--" She
cut her sentence short, and springing up, cried out: "Oh, Lord--Oh,
excuse me, I sat on my gun!"

Johnson looked at her, genuine amusement depicted on his face.

"Look here," said the Girl, suddenly perching herself upon the table,
"I'm goin' to make you an offer."

"An offer?" Johnson fairly snatched the words out of her mouth. "You're
going to make me an offer?"

"It's this," declared the Girl with a pleased look on her face. "If ever
you need to be staked--"

Johnson eyed her uncomprehendingly.

"Which o' course you don't," she hastened to add. "Name your price. It's
yours jest for the style I git from you an' the deportment."

"Deportment? Me?" A half-grin formed over Johnson's face as he asked the
question; then he said: "Well, I never heard before that my society was
so desirable. Apart from the financial aspect of this matter, I--"

"Say," broke in the Girl, gazing at him in helpless admiration, "ain't
that great? Ain't that great? Oh, you got to let me stand treat!"

"No, really I would prefer not to take anything," responded Johnson,
putting a restraining hand on her as she was about to leap from the
table.

At that moment Nick's hurried footsteps reached their ears. Turning, the
Girl, with a swift gesture, waved him back. There was a brief silence,
then Johnson spoke:

"Say, Girl, you're like finding some new kind of flower."

A slight laugh of confusion was his answer. The next moment, however,
she went on, speaking very slowly and seriously: "Well, we're kind o'
rough up here, but we're reachin' out."

Johnson noted immediately the change in her voice. There was no
mistaking the genuineness of her emotion, nor the wistful look in her
eyes. It was plain that she yearned for someone who would teach her the
ways of the outside world; and when the man looked at the Girl with the
lamp-light softening her features, he felt her sincerity and was pleased
by her confidence.

"Now, I take it," continued the Girl with a vague, dreamy look on her
face, "that's what we're all put on this earth for--everyone of us--is
to rise ourselves up in the world--to reach out."

"That's true, that's true," returned Johnson with gentle and perfect
sympathy. "I venture to say that there isn't a man who hasn't thought
seriously about that. I have. If only one knew how to reach out for
something one hardly dares even hope for. Why, it's like trying to catch
the star shining just ahead."

The Girl could not restrain her enthusiasm.

"That's the cheese! You've struck it!"

At this juncture Nick appeared and refused to be ordered away. At
length, the Girl inquired somewhat impatiently:

"Well, what is it, Nick?"

"I've been tryin' to say," announced the barkeeper, whose face wore an
expression of uneasiness as he pointed to the window, "that I have seen
an ugly-lookin' greaser hanging around outside."

"A greaser!" exclaimed the Girl, uneasily. "Let me look." And with that
she made a movement towards the window, but was held back by Johnson's
detaining hand. All too well did he know that the Mexican was one of his
men waiting impatiently for the signal. So, with an air of concern, for
he did not intend that the Girl should run any risk, however remote, he
said authoritatively:

"Don't go!"

"Why not?" demanded the Girl.

Johnson sat strangely silent.

"I'll bolt the windows!" cried Nick. Hardly had he disappeared into the
dance-hall when a low whistle came to their ears.

"The signal--they're waiting," said Johnson under his breath, and shot a
quick look of inquiry at the Girl to see whether she had heard the
sound. A look told him that she had, and was uneasy over it.

"Don't that sound horrid?" said the Girl, reaching the bar in a state of
perturbation. "Say, I'm awful glad you're here. Nick's so nervous. He
knows what a lot o' money I got. Why, there's a little fortune in that
keg."

Johnson started; then rising slowly he went over to the keg and examined
it with interest.

"In there?" he asked, with difficulty concealing his excitement.

"Yes; the boys sleep around it nights," she went on to confide.

Johnson looked at her curiously.

"But when they're gone--isn't that rather a careless place to leave it?"

Quietly the Girl came from behind the bar and went over and stood beside
the keg; when she spoke her eyes flashed dangerously.

"They'd have to kill me before they got it," she said, with cool
deliberation.

"Oh, I see--it's your money."

"No, it's the boys'."

A look of relief crossed Johnson's features.

"Oh, that's different," he contended; and then brightening up somewhat,
he went on: "Now, I wouldn't risk my life for that."

"Oh, yes, you would, yes, you would," declared the Girl with feeling. A
moment later she was down on her knees putting bag after bag of the
precious gold-dust and coins into the keg. When they were all in she
closed the lid, and putting her foot down hard to make it secure, she
repeated: "Oh, yes, you would, if you seen how hard they got it. When I
think of it, I nearly cry."

Johnson had listened absorbedly, and was strangely affected by her
words. In her rapidly-filling eyes, in the wave of colour that surged in
her cheeks, in the voice that shook despite her efforts to control it,
he read how intense was her interest in the welfare of the miners. How
the men must adore her!

Unconsciously the Girl arose, and said:

"There's somethin' awful pretty in the way the boys hold out before they
strike it, somethin' awful pretty in the face o' rocks, an' clay an'
alkali. Oh, Lord, what a life it is anyway! They eat dirt, they sleep in
dirt, they breathe dirt 'til their backs are bent, their hands twisted
an' warped. They're all wind-swept an' blear-eyed I tell you, an' some
o' them jest lie down in their sweat beside the sluices, an' they don't
never rise up again. I've seen 'em there!" She paused reminiscently;
then, pointing to the keg, she went on haltingly: "I got some money
there of Ol' Brownie's. He was lyin' out in the sun on a pile o' clay
two weeks ago, an' I guess the only clean thing about him was his soul,
an' he was quittin', quittin', quittin', right there on the clay, an'
quittin' hard. Oh, so hard!" Once more she stopped and covered her face
with her hands as if to shut out the horror of it all. Presently she had
herself under control and resumed: "Yes, he died--died jest like a dog.
You wanted to shoot 'im to help 'im along quicker. Before he went he sez
to me: 'Girl, give it to my ol' woman.' That was all he said, an' he
went. She'll git it, all right."

With every word that the Girl uttered, the iron had entered deeper into
Johnson's soul. Up to the present time he had tried to regard his
profession, if he looked at it at all, from the point of view which he
inherited from his father. It was not, in all truthfulness, what he
would have chosen; it was something that, at times, he lamented; but,
nevertheless, he had practised it and had despoiled the miners with but
few moments of remorse. But now, he was beginning to look upon things
differently. In a brief space of time a woman had impelled him to see
his actions in their true light; new ambitions and desires awakened, and
he looked downward as if it were impossible to meet her honest eye.

"An' that's what aches you," the Girl was now saying. "There ain't one
o' them men workin' for themselves alone--the Lord never put it into no
man's heart to make a beast or a pack-horse o' himself, except for some
woman or some child." She halted a moment, and throwing up her hands
impulsively, she cried: "Ain't it wonderful--ain't it wonderful that
instinct? Ain't it wonderful what a man'll do when it comes to a
woman--ain't it wonderful?" Once more she waited as if expecting him to
corroborate her words; but he remained strangely silent. A moment later
when he raised his troubled eyes, he saw that hers were dry and
twinkling.

"Well, the boys use me as a--a sort of lady bank," presently she said;
and then added with another quick change of expression, and in a voice
that showed great determination: "You bet I'll drop down dead before
anyone'll get a dollar o' theirs outer The Polka!"

Impulsively the road agent's hand went out to her, and with it went a
mental resolution that so far as he was concerned no hard-working miner
of Cloudy Mountain need fear for his gold!

"That's right," was what he said. "I'm with you--I'd like to see anyone
get that." He dropped her hand and laid his on the keg; then with a
voice charged with much feeling, he added: "Girl, I wish to Heaven I
could talk more with you, but I can't. By daybreak I must be a long ways
off. I'm sorry--I should have liked to have called at your cabin."

The Girl shot him a furtive glance.

"Must you be a-movin' so soon?" she asked.

"Yes; I'm only waiting till the posse gets back and you're safe." And
even as he spoke his trained ear caught the sound of horses hoofs. "Why,
they're coming now!" he exclaimed with suppressed excitement, and his
eyes immediately fastened themselves on his saddle.

The Girl looked her disappointment when she said:

"I'm awfully sorry you've got to go. I was goin' to say--" She stopped,
and began to roll the keg back to its place. Now she took the lantern
from the bar and placed it on the keg; then turning to him once more she
went on in a voice that was distinctly persuasive: "If you didn't have
to go so soon, I would like to have you come up to the cabin to-night
an' we would talk o' reachin' out up there. You see, the boys will be
back here--we close The Polka at one--any time after . . ."

Hesitatingly, helplessly, Johnson stared at the Girl before him. His
acceptance, he realised only too well, meant a pleasant hour or two for
him, of which there were only too few in the mad career that he was
following, and he wanted to take advantage of it; on the other hand, his
better judgment told him that already he should be on his way.

"Why, I--I should ride on now." He began and then stopped, the next
moment, however, he threw down his hat on the table in resignation and
announced: "I'll come."

"Oh, good!" cried the Girl, making no attempt to conceal her delight.
"You can use this," she went on, handing him the lantern. "It's the
straight trail up; you can't miss it. But I say, don't expect too much
o' me--I've only had thirty-two dollars' worth o' education." Despite
her struggle to control herself, her voice broke and her eyes filled
with tears. "P'r'aps if I'd had more," she kept on, regretfully, "why,
you can't tell what I might have been. Say, that's a terrible tho't,
ain't it? What we might a been--an' I know it when I look at you."

Johnson was deeply touched at the Girl's distress, and his voice broke,
too, as he said:

"Yes, what we might have been is a terrible thought, and I know it,
Girl, when I look at you--when I look at you."

"You bet!" ejaculated the Girl. And then to Johnson's consternation she
broke down completely, burying her face in her hands and sobbing out:
"Oh, 'tain't no use, I'm rotten, I'm ignorant, I don't know nothin' an'
I never knowed it 'till to-night! The boys always tol' me I knowed so
much, but they're such damn liars!"

In an instant Johnson was beside her, patting her hand caressingly; she
felt the sympathy in his touch and was quick to respond to it.

"Don't you care, Girl, you're all right," he told her, choking back with
difficulty the tears in his own voice. "Your heart's all right, that's
the main thing. And as for your looks? Well, to me you've got the face
of an angel--the face--" He broke off abruptly and ended with: "Oh, but
I must be going now!"

A moment more and he stood framed in the doorway, his saddle in one hand
and the Girl's lantern in the other, torn by two emotions which grappled
with each other in his bosom. "Johnson, what the devil's the matter with
you?" he muttered half-aloud; then suddenly pulling himself together he
stumbled rather than walked out of The Polka into the night.

Motionless and trying to check her sobs, the Girl remained where he had
left her; but a few minutes later, when Nick entered, all trace of her
tears had disappeared.

"Nick," said she, all smiles now, "run over to The Palmetto restaurant
an' tell 'em to send me up two charlotte rusks an' a lemming turnover--a
good, big, fat one--jest as quick as they can--right up to the cabin for
supper."

"He says I have the face of an angel," is what the Girl repeated over
and over again to herself when perched up again on the poker table after
the wondering barkeeper had departed on her errand, and for a brief
space of time her countenance reflected the joy that Johnson's parting
words had imprinted on her heart. But in the Girl's character there was
an element too prosaic, and too practical, to permit her thoughts to
dwell long in a region lifted far above the earth. It was inevitable,
therefore, that the notion should presently strike her as supremely
comic and, quickly leaping to the floor, she let out the one word which,
however adequately it may have expressed her conflicting emotions, is
never by any chance to be found in the vocabulary of angels in good
standing.




IX.


Notwithstanding that The Palmetto was the most pretentious building in
Cloudy, and was the only rooming and eating house that outwardly
asserted its right to be called an hotel, its saloon contrasted
unfavourably with its rival, The Polka. There was not the individuality
of the Girl there to charm away the impress of coarseness settled upon
it by the loafers, the habitual drunkards and the riffraff of the camp,
who were not tolerated elsewhere. In short, it did not have that certain
indefinable something which gave to The Polka Saloon an almost homelike
appearance, but was a drab, squalid, soulless place with nothing to
recommend it but its size.

In a small parlour pungent at all times with the odour of liquor,--but
used only on rare occasions, most of The Palmetto's patrons preferring
the even more stifling atmosphere of the bar-room,--the Wells Fargo
Agent had been watching and waiting ever since he had left The Polka
Saloon. On a table in front of him was a bottle, for it was a part of
Ashby's scheme of things to solace thus all such weary hours.

Although a shrewd judge of women of the Nina Micheltorena type and by no
means unmindful of their mercurial temperament, Ashby, nevertheless, had
felt that she would keep her appointment with him. In the Mexican Camp
he had read the wild jealousy in her eyes, and had assumed, not
unnaturally, that there had been scarcely time for anything to occur
which would cause a revulsion of feeling on her part. But as the moments
went by, and still she did not put in an appearance, an expression of
keen disappointment showed itself on his face and, with mechanical
regularity, he carried out the liquid programme, shutting his eyes after
each drink for moments at a time yet, apparently, in perfect control of
his mind when he opened them again; and it was in one of these moments
that he heard a step outside which he correctly surmised to be that of
the Sheriff.

Without a word Rance walked into the room and over to the table and
helped himself to a drink from the bottle there, which action the Wells
Fargo Agent rightly interpreted as meaning that the posse had failed to
catch their quarry. At first a glint of satisfaction shone in Ashby's
eyes: not that he disliked Rance, but rather that he resented his
egotistical manner and evident desire to overawe all who came in contact
with him; and it required, therefore, no little effort on his part to
banish this look from his face and make up his mind not to mention the
subject in any manner.

For some time, therefore, the two officers sat opposite to each other
inhaling the stale odour of tobacco and spirits peculiar to this room,
with little or no ventilation. It was enough to sicken anyone, but both
men, accustomed to such places in the pursuit of their calling,
apparently thought nothing of it, the Sheriff seemingly absorbed in
contemplating the long ash at the end of his cigar, but, in reality,
turning over in his mind whether he should leave the room or not. At
length, he inaugurated a little contest of opinion.

"This woman isn't coming, that's certain," he declared, impatiently.

"I rather think she will; she promised not to fail me," was the other's
quiet answer; and he added: "In ten minutes you'll see her."

It was a rash remark and expressive of a confidence that he by no means
felt. As a matter of fact, it was induced solely by the cynical smile
which he perceived on the Sheriff's face.

"You, evidently, take no account of the fact that the lady may have
changed her mind," observed Rance, lighting a fresh cigar. "The Nina
Micheltorenas are fully as privileged as others of their sex."

As he drained his glass Ashby gave the speaker a sharp glance; another
side of Rance's character had cropped out. Moreover, Ashby's quick
intuition told him that the other's failure to catch the outlaw was not
troubling him nearly as much as was the blow which his conceit had
probably received at the hands of the Girl. It was, therefore, in an
indulgent tone that he said:

"No, Rance, not this one nor this time. You mark my words, the woman is
through with Ramerrez. At least, she is so jealous that she thinks she
is. She'll turn up here, never fear; she means business."

The shoulders of Mr. Jack Rance strongly suggested a shrug, but the man
himself said nothing. They were anything but sympathetic companions,
these two officers, and in the silence that ensued Rance formulated
mentally more than one disparaging remark about the big man sitting
opposite to him. It is possible, of course, that the Sheriff's rebuff by
the Girl, together with the wild goose chase which he had recently taken
against his better judgment, had something to do with this bitterness;
but it was none the less true that he found himself wondering how Ashby
had succeeded in acquiring his great reputation. Among the things that
he held against him was his everlasting propensity to boast of his
achievements, to say nothing of the pedestal upon which the boys
insisted upon placing him. Was this Wells Fargo's most famous agent? Was
this the man whose warnings were given such credence that they stirred
even the largest of the gold camps into a sense of insecurity? And at
this Rance indulged again in a fit of mental merriment at the other's
expense.

But, although he would have denied it in toto, the truth of the matter
was that the Sheriff was jealous of Ashby. Witty, generous, and a high
liver, the latter was generally regarded as a man who fascinated women;
moreover, he was known to be a favourite--and here the shoe
pinched--with the Girl. True, the demands of his profession were such as
to prevent his staying long in any camp. Nevertheless, it seemed to
Rance that he contrived frequently to turn up at The Polka when the boys
were at the diggings.

After Ashby's observation the conversation by mutual, if unspoken,
consent, was switched into other channels. But it may be truthfully said
that Rance did not wholly recover his mental equilibrium until a door
was heard to open noiselessly and some whispered words in Spanish fell
upon their ears.

Now the Sheriff, as well as Ashby, had the detective instinct fully
developed; moreover, both men knew a few words of that language and had
an extreme curiosity to hear the conversation going on between a man and
a woman, who were standing just outside in a sort of hallway. As a
result, therefore, both officers sprang to the door with the hope--if
indeed it was Nina Micheltorena as they surmised--that they might catch
a word or two which would give them a clue to what was likely to take
place at the coming interview. It came sooner than they expected.

". . . Ramerrez--Five thousand dollars!" reached their ears in a soft,
Spanish voice.

Ashby needed nothing more than this. In an instant, much to the
Sheriff's astonishment, and moving marvellously quick for a man of his
heavy build, he was out of the room, leaving Rance to face a woman with
a black mantilla thrown over her head who, presently, entered by another
door.

Nina Micheltorena, for it was she, did not favour him with as much as an
icy look. Nor did the Sheriff give any sign of knowing her; a wise
proceeding as it turned out, for a quick turn of the head and a subtle
movement of the woman's shoulders told him that she was in anything but
a quiet state of mind. One glance towards the door behind him, however,
and the reason of her anger was all too plain: A Mexican was vainly
struggling in the clutches of Ashby.

"Why are you dragging him in?" Far from quailing before him as did her
confederate, she confronted Ashby with eyes that flashed fire. "He came
with me--"

Ashby cut her short.

"We don't allow greasers in this camp and--" he began in a throaty
voice.

"But he is waiting to take me back!" she objected, and then added: "I
wish him to wait for me outside, and unless you allow him to I'll go at
once." And with these words she made a movement towards the door.

Ashby laid one restraining hand upon her, while with the other he held
on to the Mexican. Of a sudden there had dawned upon him the conviction
that for once in his life he had made a grievous mistake. He had
thought, by the detention of her confederate, to have two strings to his
bow, but one glance at the sneeringly censorious expression on the
Sheriff's face convinced him that no information would be forthcoming
from the woman while in her present rebellious mood.

"All right, my lady," he said, for the time being yielding to her will,
"have your way." And turning now to the Mexican, he added none too
gently:

"Here you, get out!"

Whereupon the Mexican slunk out of the room.

"There's no use of your getting into a rage," went on Ashby, turning to
the woman in a slightly conciliatory manner. "I calculated that the
greaser would be in on the job, too."

All through this scene Rance had been sitting back in his chair chewing
his cigar in contemptuous silence, while his face wore a look of languid
insolence, a fact which, apparently, did not disturb the woman in the
least, for she ignored him completely.

"It was well for you, Senor Ashby, that you let him go. I tell you
frankly that in another moment I should have gone." And now throwing
back her mantilla she took out a cigarette from a dainty, little case
and lit it and coolly blew a cloud of smoke in Rance's face, saying: "It
depends on how you treat me--you, Mr. Jack Rance, as well as Senor
Ashby--whether we come to terms or not. Perhaps I had better go away
anyway," she concluded with a shrug of admirably simulated indifference.

This time Ashby sat perfectly still. It was not difficult to perceive
that her anger was decreasing with every word that she uttered; nor did
he fail to note how fluently she spoke English, a slight Spanish accent
giving added charm to her wonderfully soft and musical voice. How
gloriously beautiful, he told himself, she looked as she stood there,
voluptuous, compelling, alluring, the expression that had been almost
diabolical, gradually fading from her face. Was it possible, he asked
himself, that all this loveliness was soiled forever? He felt that there
was something pitiful in the fact that the woman standing before him
represented negotiable property which could be purchased by any
passer-by who had a few more nuggets in his possession than his
neighbour; and, perhaps, because of his knowledge of the piteous history
of this former belle of Monterey he put a little more consideration into
the voice that said:

"All right, Nina, we'll get down to business. What have you to say to
us?"

By this time Nina's passionate anger had burned itself out. In
anticipation, perhaps, of what she was about to do, she looked straight
ahead of her into space. It was not because she was assailed by some
transient emotion to forswear her treacherous desire for vengeance; she
had no illusion of that kind. Too vividly she recalled the road agent's
indifferent manner at their last interview for any feeling to dwell in
her heart other than hatred. It was that she was summoning to appear a
vision scarcely less attractive, however pregnant with tragedy, than
that of seeing herself avenged: a gay, extravagant career in Mexico or
Spain which the reward would procure for her. That was what she was
seeing, and with a pious wish for its confirmation she began to make
herself a fresh cigarette, rolling it dexterously with her white,
delicate fingers, and not until her task was accomplished and her full,
red lips were sending forth tiny clouds of smoke did she announce:

"Ramerrez was in Cloudy Mountain to-night."

But however much of a surprise this assertion was to both men, neither
gave vent to an exclamation. Instead Rance regarded his elegantly booted
feet; Ashby looked hard at the woman as if he would read the truth in
her eyes; while as for Nina, she continued to puff away at her little
cigarette after the manner of one that has appealed not in vain to the
magic power which can paint out the past and fill the blank with the
most beautiful of dreams.

The Wells Fargo man was the first to make any comment; he asked:

"You know this?" And then as she surveyed them through a scented cloud
and bowed her head, he added: "How do you know it?"

"That I shall not tell you," replied the woman, firmly.

Ashby made an impatient movement towards her with the question:

"Where was he?"

"Oh, come, Ashby!" put in Rance, speaking for the first time. "She's
putting up a game on us."

In a flash Nina wheeled around and with eyes that blazed advanced to the
table where the Sheriff was sitting. Indeed, there was something so
tigerish about the woman that the Sheriff, in alarm, quickly pushed back
his chair.

"I am not lying, Jack Rance." There was an evil glitter in her eye as
she watched a sarcastic smile playing around his lips. "Oh, yes, I know
you--you are the Sheriff," and so saying a peal of contemptuous
merriment burst from her, "and Ramerrez was in the camp not less than
two hours ago."

Ashby could hardly restrain his excitement.

"And you saw him?" came from him.

"Yes," was her answer.

Both men sprang to their feet; it was impossible to doubt any longer
that she spoke the truth.

"What's his game?" demanded Rance.

The woman answered his question with a question.

"How about the reward, Senor Ashby?"

"You needn't worry about that--I'll see that you get what's coming to
you," replied the Wells Fargo Agent already getting into his coat.

"But how are we to know?" inquired Rance, likewise getting ready to
leave. "Is he an American or a Mexican?"

"To-night he's an American, that is, he's dressed and looks like one.
But the reward--you swear you're playing fair?"

"On my honour," Ashby assured her.

The woman's face stood clear--cruelly clear in the light of the kerosene
lamp above her head. About her mouth and eyes there was a repellent
expression. Her mind, still working vividly, was reviewing the past; and
a bitter memory prompted the words which were said however with a smile
that was still seductive:

"Try to recall, Senor Ashby, what strangers were in The Polka to-night?"

At these ominous words the men started and regarded each other
questioningly. Their keen and trained intelligences were greatly
distressed at being so utterly in the dark. For an instant, it is true,
the thought of the greaser that Ashby had brought in rose uppermost in
their minds, but only to be dismissed quickly when they recalled the
woman's words concerning the way that the road agent was dressed. A
moment more, however, and a strange thought had fastened itself on one
of their active minds--a thought which, although persisting in forcing
itself upon the Sheriff's consideration, was in the end rejected as
wholly improbable. But who was it then? In his intensity Rance let his
cigar go out.

"Ah!" at last he cried. "Johnson, by the eternal!"

"Johnson?" echoed Ashby, wholly at sea and surprised at the look of
corroboration in Nina's eyes.

"Yes, Johnson," went on Rance, insistently. Why had he not seen at once
that it was Johnson who was the road agent! There could be no mistake!
"You weren't there," he explained hurriedly, "when he came in and began
flirting with the Girl and--"

"Ramerrez making love to the Girl?" broke in Ashby. "Ye Gods!"

"The Girl? So that's the woman he's after now!" Nina laughed bitterly.
"Well, she's not destined to have him for long, I can tell you!" And
with that she reached out for the bottle on the table and poured herself
a small glass of whisky and swallowed it. When she turned her lips were
tightly shut over her brilliant teeth, a thousand thoughts came rushing
into her brain. There was no longer any compunction--she would strike
now and deep. Through her efforts alone the man would be captured, and
she gloried in the thought.

"Here--here is something that will interest you!" she said; and putting
her hand in her bosom drew out a soiled, faded photograph. "There--that
will settle him for good and all! Never again will he boast of trifling
with Nina Micheltorena--with me, a Micheltorena in whose veins runs the
best and proudest blood of California!"

Ashby fairly snatched the photograph out of her hand and, after one look
at it, passed it over to the Sheriff.

"Good of him, isn't it?" sneered Nina; and then seemingly trying by her
very vehemence to impress upon herself the impossibility of his ever
being anything but an episode in her life, she added: "I hate him!"

The picture was indeed an excellent one. It represented Ramerrez in the
gorgeous dress of a _caballero_--and the outlaw was a fine specimen of
that spectacular class of men. But Rance studied the photograph only
long enough to be sure that no mistake was possible. With a quick
movement he put it away in his pocket and looked long and hard at the
figure of the degraded woman standing before him and revelling in her
treachery. In that time he forgot that anyone had ever entertained a
kind thought about her; he forgot that she once was respected as well as
admired; he was conscious only of regarding her with a far deeper
disgust and repugnance than he held towards others much her inferior in
birth and education. But, presently, his face grew a shade whiter, if
that were possible, and he cursed himself for not having thought of the
danger to which the Girl might even now be exposed. In less than a
minute, therefore, both men stood ready for the work before them. But on
the threshold just before going out into the fierce storm that had burst
during the last few minutes, he paused and called back:

"You Mexican devil! If any harm comes to the Girl, I'll strangle you
with my own hands!" And not waiting to hear the woman's mocking laughter
he passed out, followed by Ashby, into the storm.




X.


In the still black night and with no guide other than the dimly-lighted
lantern which she carried, the Girl had started for home--a bit of
shelter in the middle of a great silence, a little fortress in the
wilderness, as it were, with its barred doors and windows--on the top of
Cloudy Mountain. To be sure, it was not the first time that she had
followed the trail alone: Day and night, night and day, for as long,
almost, as she could remember, she had been doing it; indeed, she had
watched the alders, oaks and dwarf pines, that bordered the trail, grow
year by year as she herself had grown, until now the whispering of the
mountain's night winds spoke a language as familiar as her own; but
never before had she climbed up into the clean, wide, free sweep of this
unbounded horizon, the very air untainted and limitless as the sky
itself, with so keen and uncloying a pleasure. But there was a new
significance attached to her home-coming to-night: was she not to
entertain there her first real visitor?

At the threshold of her cabin the Girl, her cheeks aglow and eyes as
bright, almost, as the red cape that enveloped her lithe, girlish
figure, paused, and swinging her lantern high above her head so that its
light was reflected in the room, she endeavoured to imagine what would
be the impression that a stranger would receive coming suddenly upon
these surroundings.

And well might she have paused, for no eye ever rested upon a more
conglomerate ensemble! Yet, withal, there was a certain attractiveness
about this log-built, low, square room, half-papered with gaudy
paper--the supply, evidently, having fallen short,--that was as
unexpected as it was unusual.

Upon the floor, which had a covering of corn sacks, were many beautiful
bear and wolf skins, Indian rugs and Navajo blankets; while
overhead--screening some old trunks and boxes neatly piled up high in
the loft, which was reached by a ladder, generally swung out of the
way--hung a faded, woollen blanket; from the opposite corner there fell
an old, patchwork, silk quilt. Dainty white curtains in all their
crispness were at the windows, and upon the walls were many rare and
weird trophies of the chase, not to mention the innumerable pictures
that had been taken from "Godey's Lady Book" and other periodicals of
that time. A little book-shelf, that had been fashioned out of a box,
was filled with old and well-read books; while the mantel that guarded
the fireplace was ornamented with various small articles, conspicuous
among which were a clock that beat loud, automatic time with a brassy
resonance, a china dog and cat of most gaudy colours, a whisky bottle
and two tumblers, and some winter berries in a jar.

There were two pieces of furniture in the room, however, which were
placed with an eye to attract attention, and these the Girl prized most
highly: one was a homemade rocking-chair that had been made out of a
barrel and had been dyed, unsuccessfully, with indigo blue, and had
across its back a knitted tidy with a large, upstanding, satin bow; the
other was a homemade, pine wardrobe that had been rudely decorated by
one of the boys of the camp and in which the Girl kept her dresses, and
was piled up high towards the ceiling with souvenirs of her trip to
Monterey, including the hat-boxes and wicker basket that had come well
nigh to loading down the stage on that memorable journey.

But it was upon her bed and bedroom fixings that the greatest attempt at
decoration had been made; partitioning off the room, as it were, and at
the same time forming a canopy about the bed, were curtains of cheap,
gaudy material, through the partings of which there was to be had a
glimpse of a daintily-made-up bed, whose pillows were made conspicuous
by the hand-made lace that trimmed their slips, as was the bureau-cover,
and upon which, in charming disarray, were various articles generally
included in a woman's toilet, not to mention the numberless strings of
coloured beads and other bits of feminine adornment. A table standing in
the centre of the room was covered with a small, white cloth, while
falling in folds from beneath this was a faded, red cotton cover. The
table was laid for one, the charlotte "rusks" and "lemming"
turn-over--each on a separate plate--which Nick had been commissioned to
procure, earlier in the evening, from the Palmetto restaurant, looming
up prominently in the centre; and on another plate were some chipped
beef and biscuits. A large lamp was suspended from the ceiling in the
centre of the room and was quaintly, if not grotesquely, shaded; while
other lamps flanked by composition metal reflectors concentrated light
upon the Girl's bureau, the book-shelf and mantel, leaving the remainder
of the room in variant shadow.

All in all, what with the fire that was burning cheerily in the grate
and the strong odour of steaming coffee, the room had a soft glow and
home-like air that was most inviting.

In that brief moment that the Girl stood in the doorway reviewing her
possessions, a multitude of expressions drifted across her countenance,
a multitude of possibilities thrilled within her bosom. But however much
she would have liked to analyse these strange feelings, she resisted the
inclination and gave all her attention to the amusing scene that was
being enacted before her eyes.

For some time Billy Jackrabbit had been standing by the table looking
greedily down upon the charlotte russes there. He was on the point of
putting his finger through the centre of one of them when Wowkle--the
Indian woman-of-all-work of the cabin, who sat upon the floor before the
fire singing a lullaby to the papoose strapped to its cradle on her
back--turning suddenly her gaze in his direction, was just in time to
prevent him.

"Charlotte rusk--Palmetto rest'rant--not take," were her warning words.

Jackrabbit drew himself up quickly, but he was furious at interference
from a source where it was wholly unexpected.

"Hm--me honest," he growled fiercely, flashing her a malignant look.

"Huh?" was Wowkle's monosyllabic observation delivered in a guttural
tone.

All of a sudden, Jackrabbit's gaze was arrested by a piece of paper
which lay upon the floor and in which had been wrapped the charlotte
russes; he went over to it quickly, picked it up, opened it and
proceeded to collect on his finger the cream that had adhered to it.

"Huh!" he growled delightedly, holding up his finger for Wowkle's
inspection. The next instant, however, he slumped down beside her upon
the floor, where both the man and the woman sat in silence gazing into
the fire. The man was the first to speak.

"Send me up--Polka. Say, p'haps me marry you--huh?" he said, coming to
the point bluntly.

Wowkle's eyes were glued to the fire; she answered dully:

"Me don't know."

There was a silence, and then:

"Me don't know," observed Jackrabbit thoughtfully. A moment later,
however, he added: "Me marry you--how much me get give fatha--huh?"

Wowkle raised her narrowing eyes to his and told him with absolute
indifference:

"Huh--me don't know."

Jackrabbit's face darkened. He pondered for a long time.

"Me don't know--" suddenly he began and then stopped. They had been
silent for some moments, when at last he ventured: "Me give fatha four
dolla"--and here he indicated the number with his two hands, the finger
with the cream locking those of the other hand--"and one blanket."

Wowkle's eyes dilated.

"Better keep blanket--baby cold," was her ambiguous answer.

Whereupon Jackrabbit emitted a low growl. Presently he handed her his
pipe, and while she puffed steadily away he fondled caressingly the
string of beads which she wore around her neck.

"You sing for get those?" he asked.

"Me sing," she replied dully, beginning almost instantly in soft, nasal
tones:


   "My days are as um grass"--


Jackrabbit's face cleared.

"Huh!" he growled in rejoicement.

Immediately Wowkle edged up close to him and together they continued in
chorus:


   "Or as um faded flo'r,
    Um wintry winds sweep o'er um plain,
    We pe'ish in um ho'r."


"But Gar," said the man when the song was ended, at the same time taking
his pipe away from her, "to-morrow we go missionary--sing like hell--get
whisky."

But as Wowkle made no answer, once more a silence fell upon them.

"We pe'ish in um ho'r," suddenly repeated Jackrabbit, half-singing,
half-speaking the words, and rising quickly started for the door. At the
table, however, he halted and inquired: "All right--go missionary
to-morrow--get marry--huh?"

Wowkle hesitated, then rose, and finally started slowly towards him.
Half-way over she stopped and reminded him in a most apathetic manner:

"P'haps me not stay marry to you for long."

"Huh--seven monse?" queried Jackrabbit in the same tone.

"Six monse," came laconically from the woman.

In nowise disconcerted by her answer, the Indian now asked:

"You come soon?"

Wowkle thought a moment; then suddenly edging up close to him she
promised to come to him after the Girl had had her supper.

"Huh!" fairly roared the Indian, his coal-black eyes glowing as he
looked at her.

It was at this juncture that the Girl, after hanging up her lantern on a
peg on the outer door, broke in unexpectedly upon the strange pair of
lovers.

Dumbfounded, the woman and the man stood gaping at her. Wowkle was the
first to regain her composure, and bending over the table she turned up
the light.

"Hello, Billy Jackrabbit!" greeted the Girl, breezily. "Fixed it?"

"Me fix," he grunted.

"That's good! Now git!" ordered the Girl in the same happy tone that had
characterised her greeting.

Slowly, stealthily, Jackrabbit left the cabin, the two women, though for
different reasons, watching him go until the door had closed behind him.

"Now, Wowkle," said the Girl, turning to her with a smile, "it's for two
to-night."

Wowkle's eyelashes twinkled up inquisitorially.

"Huh?"

"Yep."

Wowkle's eyes narrowed to pin-points.

"Come anotha? Never before come anotha," was her significant comment.

"Never you mind." The Girl voiced the reprimand without the twitching of
an eyelid; and then as she hung up her cape upon the wardrobe, she
added: "Pick up the room, Wowkle!"

The big-hipped, full-bosomed woman did not move but stood in all her
stolidness gazing at her mistress like one in a dream; whereupon the
Girl, exasperated beyond measure at the other's placidity, rushed over
to her and shook her so violently that she finally awakened to the
importance of her mistress' request.

"He's comin' now, now; he's comin'!" the Girl was saying, when suddenly
her eyes were attracted to a pair of stockings hanging upon the wall;
quickly she released her hold on the woman and with a hop, skip and a
jump they were down and hid away in her bureau drawer.

"My roses--what did you do with them, Wowkle?" she asked a trifle
impatiently as she fumbled in the drawer.

"Ugh!" grunted Wowkle, and pointed to a corner of the bureau top.

"Good!" cried the Girl, delightedly, as she spied them. The next instant
she was busily engaged in arranging them in her hair, pausing only to
take a pistol out of her pocket, which she laid on the edge of the
bureau. "No offence, Wowkle," she went on thoughtfully, a moment later,
"but I want you to put your best foot forward when you're waitin' on
table to-night. This here company o' mine's a man o' idees. Oh, he knows
everythin'! Sort of a damme style."

Wowkle gave no sign of having heard her mistress' words, but kept right
on tidying the room. Now she went over to the cupboard and took down two
cups, which she placed on the fireplace base. It was while she was in
the act of laying down the last one that the Girl broke in suddenly upon
her thoughts with:

"Say, Wowkle, did Billy Jackrabbit really propose to you?"

"Yep--get marry," spoke up Jackrabbit's promised wife without looking
up.

For some moments the Girl continued to fumble among her possessions in
the bureau drawer; at last she brought forth an orange-coloured satin
ribbon, which she placed in the Indian woman's hands with her prettiest
smile, saying:

"Here, Wowkle, you can have that to fix up for the weddin'."

Wowkle's eyes glowed with appreciation.

"Huh!" she ejaculated, and proceeded to wind the ribbon about the beads
around her neck.

Turning once more to the bureau, the Girl took out a small parcel done
up in tissue paper and began to unwrap it.

"I'm goin' to put on them, if I can git 'em on," she said, displaying a
pair of white satin slippers. The next instant she had plumped herself
down upon the floor and was trying to encase her feet in a pair of
slippers which were much too small for them. "Remember what fun I made
o' you when you took up with Billy Jackrabbit?" suddenly she asked with
a happy little smile. "What for? sez I. Well, p'r'aps you was right.
P'r'aps it's nice to have someone you really care for--who belongs to
you. P'r'aps they ain't so much in the saloon business for a woman after
all, and you don't know what livin' really is until--" She stopped
abruptly and threw upon the floor the slipper that refused to give to
her foot. "Oh, Wowkle," she went on, taking up the other slipper, "it's
nice to have someone you can talk to, someone you can turn your heart
inside out to."

At last she had succeeded in getting into one slipper and, rising, tried
to stand in it; but it hurt her so frightfully that she immediately sank
down upon the floor and proceeded to pat and rub and coddle her foot to
ease the pain. It was while she was thus engaged that a knock came upon
her cabin door.

"Oh, Lord, here he is!" she cried, panic-stricken, and began to drag
herself hurriedly across the room with the intention of concealing
herself behind the curtain at the foot of the bed; while Wowkle, with
unusual celerity, made for the fire-place, where she stood with her back
to the door, gazing into the fire.

The Girl had only gotten half-way across the room, however, when a voice
assailed her ears.

"Miss, Miss, kin I--" came in low, subdued tones.

"What? The Sidney Duck?" she cried, turning and seeing his head poked
through the window.

"Beg pardon, Miss; I know men ain't lowed up here nohow," humbly
apologised that individual; "but, but--"

Vexed and flustered, the Girl turned upon him a trifle irritably with:

"Git! Git, I tell you!"

"But I'm in grite trouble, Miss," began The Sidney Duck, tearfully. "The
boys are back--they missed that road agent Ramerrez and now they're
taking it out of me. If--if you'd only speak a word for me, Miss."

"No--" began the Girl, and stopped. The next instant she ordered Wowkle
to shut the window.

"Oh, don't be 'ard on me, Miss," whimpered the man.

The Girl flashed him a scornful look.

"Now, look here, Sidney Duck, there's one kind o' man I can't stand, an'
that's a cheat an' a thief, an' you're it," said the Girl, laying great
stress upon her words. "You're no better'n that road agent Ramerrez,
an'--"

"But, Miss--" interrupted the man.

"Miss nothin'!" snapped back the Girl, tugging away at the slippers; in
desperation once more she ordered:

"Wowkle, close the winder! Close the winder!"

The Sidney Duck glowered at her. He had expected her intercession on his
behalf and could not understand this new attitude of hers toward him.

"Public 'ouse jide!" he retorted furiously, and slammed the window.

"Ugh!" snarled Wowkle, resentfully, her eyes full of fire.

Now at any other time, The Sidney Duck would have been made to pay
dearly for his words, but either the Girl did not hear him, or if she
did she was too engrossed to heed them; at any rate, the remark passed
unnoticed.

"I got it on!" presently exclaimed the Girl in great joy. Nevertheless,
it was not without several ouches and moans that, finally, she stood
upon her feet. "Say, Wowkle, how do you think he'll like 'em? How do
they look? They feel awful!" she rattled on with a pained look on her
face.

But whatever would have been the Indian woman's observation on the
subject of tight shoes in general and those of her mistress in
particular, she was not permitted to make it, for the Girl, now hobbling
over towards the bureau, went on to announce with sudden determination:

"Say, Wowkle, I'm a-goin' the whole hog! Yes, I'm a-goin' the whole
hog," she repeated a moment later, as she drew forth various bits of
finery from a chest of drawers, with which she proceeded to adorn
herself before the mirror. Taking out first a lace shawl of bold design,
she drew it over her shoulders with the grace and ease of one who makes
it an everyday affair rather than an occasional undertaking; then she
took from a sweet-grass basket a vividly-embroidered handkerchief and
saturated it with cologne, impregnating the whole room with its strong
odour; finally she brought forth a pair of long, white gloves and began
to stretch them on. "Does it look like an effort, Wowkle?" she asked,
trying to get her hands into them.

"Ugh!" was the Indian woman's comment at the very moment that a knock
came upon the door. "Two plates," she added with a groan, and started
for the cupboard.

Meanwhile the Girl continued with her primping and preening, her hands
flying back and forth like an automaton from her waist-line to her
stockings. Suddenly another knock, this time more vigorous, more
insistent, came upon the rough boards of the cabin door, which, finally,
was answered by the Girl herself.




XI.


"Hello!" sang out Johnson, genially, as he entered the Girl's cabin.

At once the Girl's audacity and spirit deserted her, and hanging her
head she answered meekly, bashfully:

"Hello!"

The man's eyes swept the Girl's figure; he looked puzzled, and asked:

"Are you--you going out?"

The Girl was plainly embarrassed; she stammered in reply:

"Yes--no--I don't know--Oh, come on in!"

"Thank you," said Johnson in his best manner, and put down his lantern
on the table. Turning now with a look of admiration in his eyes, at the
same time trying to embrace her, he went on: "Oh, Girl, I'm so glad you
let me come . . ."

His glance, his tone, his familiarity sent the colour flying to the
Girl's cheeks; she flared up instantly, her blue eyes snapping with
resentment:

"You stop where you are, Mr. Johnson."

"Ugh!" came from Wowkle, at that moment closing the door which Johnson
had left ajar.

At the sound of the woman's voice Johnson wheeled round quickly. And
then, to his great surprise, he saw that the Girl was not alone as he
had expected to find her.

"I beg your pardon; I did not see anyone when I came in," he said in
humble apology, his eyes the while upon Wowkle who, having blown out the
candle and removed the lantern from the table to the floor, was
directing her footsteps towards the cupboard, into which she presently
disappeared, closing the door behind her. "But seeing you standing
there," went on Johnson in explanation, "and looking into your lovely
eyes, well, the temptation to take you in my arms was so great that I,
well, I took--"

"You must be in the habit o' takin' things, Mr. Johnson," broke in the
Girl. "I seen you on the road to Monterey, goin' an' comin', an' passed
a few words with you; I seen you once since, but that don't give you no
excuse to begin this sort o' game." The Girl's tone was one of reproach
rather than of annoyance, and for the moment the young man was left with
a sense of having committed an indiscretion. Silently, sheepishly, he
moved away, while she quietly went over to the fire.

"Besides, you might have prospected a bit first anyway," presently she
went on, watching the tips of her slender white fingers held out
transparent towards the fire.

Just at that moment a log dropped, turning up its glowing underside.
Wheeling round with a smile, Johnson said:

"I see how wrong I was."

And then, seeing that the Girl made no move in his direction, he asked,
still smiling:

"May I take off my coat?"

The Girl remained silent, which silence he interpreted as an assent, and
went on to make himself at home.

"Thank you," he said simply. "What a bully little place you have here!
It's awfully snug!" he continued delightedly, as his eyes wandered about
the room. "And to think that I've found you again when I--Oh, the luck
of it!"

He went over to her and held out his hands, a broad, yet kindly smile
lighting up his strong features, making him appear handsomer, even, than
he really was, to the Girl taking in the olive-coloured skin glowing
with healthful pallor.

"Friends?" he asked.

Nevertheless the girl did not give him her hand, but quickly drew it
away; she answered his question with a question:

"Are you sorry?"

"No, I'm not sorry."

To this she made no reply but quietly, disappointedly returned to the
fireplace, where she stood in contemplative silence, waiting for his
next words.

But he did not speak; he contented himself with gazing at the tender
girlishness of her, the blue-black eyes, and flesh that was so bright
and pure that he knew it to be soft and firm, making him yearn for her.

Involuntarily she turned towards him, and she saw that in his face which
caused her eyes to drop and her breath to come more quickly.

"That damme style just catches a woman!" she ejaculated with a little
tremour in her voice.

Then her mood underwent a sudden change in marked contrast to that of
the moment before. "Look here, Mr. Johnson," she said, "down at the
saloon to-night you said you always got what you wanted. O' course I've
got to admire you for that. I reckon women always do admire men for
gettin' what they want. But if huggin' me's included, jest count it
out."

For a breathing space there was a dead silence.

"That was a lovely day, Girl, on the road to Monterey, wasn't it?" of a
sudden Johnson observed dreamily.

The Girl's eyes opened upon him wonderingly.

"Was it?"

"Well, wasn't it?"

The Girl thought it was and she laughed.

"Say, take a chair and set down for a while, won't you?" was her next
remark, she herself taking a chair at the table.

"Thanks," he said, coming slowly towards her while his eyes wandered
about the room for a chair.

"Say, look 'ere!" she shot out, scrutinising him closely; "I ben
thinkin' you didn't come to the saloon to see me to-night. What brought
you?"

"It was Fate," he told her, leaning over the table and looking down upon
her admiringly.

She pondered his answer for a moment, then blurted out:

"You're a bluff! It may have been Fate, but I tho't you looked kind o'
funny when Rance asked you if you hadn't missed the trail an' wa'n't on
the road to see Nina Micheltorena--she that lives in the greaser
settlement an' has the name o' shelterin' thieves."

At the mention of thieves, Johnson paled frightfully and the knife which
he had been toying with dropped to the floor.

"Was it Fate or the back trail?" again queried the Girl.

"It was Fate," calmly reiterated the man, and looked her fairly in the
eye.

The cloud disappeared from the Girl's face.

"Serve the coffee, Wowkle!" she called almost instantly. And then it was
that she saw that no chair had been placed at the table for him. She
sprang to her feet, exclaiming: "Oh, Lordy, you ain't got no chair yet
to--"

"Careful, please, careful," quickly warned Johnson, as she rounded the
corner of the table upon which his guns lay.

But fear was not one of the Girl's emotions. At the display of guns that
met her gaze she merely shrugged and inquired placidly:

"Oh, how many guns do you carry?"

Not unnaturally she waited for his answer before starting in quest of a
chair for him; but instead Johnson quietly went over to the chair near
the door where his coat lay, hung it up on the peg with his hat, and
returning now with a chair, he answered:

"Oh, several when travelling through the country."

"Well, set down," said the Girl bluntly, and hurried to his side to
adjust his chair. But she did not return to her place at the table;
instead, she took the barrel rocker near the fireplace and began to rock
nervously to and fro. In silence Johnson sat studying her, looking her
through and through, as it were.

"It must be strange living all alone way up here in the mountains," he
remarked, breaking the spell of silence. "Isn't it lonely?"

"Lonely? Mountains lonely?" The Girl's laugh rang out clearly. "Besides,"
she went on, her eyes fairly dancing with excitement, "I got a little
pinto an' I'm all over the country on 'im. Finest little horse you ever
saw! If I want to I can ride right down into the summer at the foothills
with miles o' Injun pinks jest a-laffin' an' tiger lilies as mad as
blazes. There's a river there, too--the Injuns call it a water-road--an'
I can git on that an' drift an' drift an' smell the wild syringa on the
banks. An if I git tired o' that I can turn my horse up-grade an' gallop
right into the winter an' the lonely pines an' firs a-whisperin' an'
a-sighin'. Lonely? Mountains lonely, did you say? Oh, my mountains, my
beautiful peaks, my Sierras! God's in the air here, sure! You can see
Him layin' peaceful hands on the mountain tops. He seems so near you
want to let your soul go right on up."

Johnson was touched at the depth of meaning in her words; he nodded his
head in appreciation.

"I see, when you die you won't have far to go," he quietly observed.

Minutes passed before either spoke. Then all at once the Girl rose and
took the chair facing his, the table between them as at first.

"Wowkle, serve the coffee!" again she called.

Immediately, Wowkle emerged from the cupboard, took the coffee-pot from
the fire and filled the cups that had been kept warm on the fireplace
base, and after placing a cup beside each plate she squatted down before
the fire in watchful silence.

"But when it's very cold up here, cold, and it snows?" queried Johnson,
his admiration for the plucky, quaint little figure before him growing
by leaps and bounds.

"Oh, the boys come up an' digs me out o' my front door like--like--" She
paused, her sunny laugh rippling out at the recollection of it all, and
Johnson noted the two delightful dimples in her rounded cheeks. Indeed,
she had never appeared prettier to him than when displaying her two rows
of perfect, dazzling teeth, which was the case every time that she
laughed.

"--like a little rabbit, eh?" he supplemented, joining in the laugh.

She nodded eagerly.

"I get digged out near every day when the mine's shet down an' Academy
opens," went on the Girl in the same happy strain, her big blue eyes
dancing with merriment.

Johnson looked at her wonderingly; he questioned:

"Academy? Here? Why, who teaches in your Academy?"

"Me--I'm her--I'm teacher," she told him with not a little show of
pride.

With difficulty Johnson suppressed a smile; nevertheless he observed
soberly:

"Oh, so you're the teacher?"

"Yep--I learn m'self an' the boys at the same time," she hastened to
explain, and dropped a heaping teaspoon of coarse brown sugar into his
cup. "But o' course Academy's suspended when ther's a blizzard on 'cause
no girl could git down the mountain then."

"Is it so very severe here when there's a blizzard on?" Johnson was
saying, when there came to his ears a strange sound--the sound of the
wind rising in the canyon below.

The Girl looked at him in blank astonishment--a look that might easily
have been interpreted as saying, "Where do you hail from?" She answered:

"Is it . . .? Oh, Lordy, they come in a minute! All of a sudden you
don't know where you are--it's awful!"

"Not many women--" digressed the man, glancing apprehensively towards
the door, but she cut him short swiftly with the ejaculation:

"Bosh!" And picking up a plate she raised it high in the air the better
to show off its contents. "Charlotte rusks an' lemming turnover!" she
announced, searching his face for some sign of joy, her own face
lighting up perceptibly.

"Well, this is a treat!" cried out Johnson between sips of coffee.

"Have one?"

"You bet!" he returned with unmistakable pleasure in his voice.

The Girl served him with one of each, and when he thanked her she beamed
with happiness.

"Let me send you some little souvenir of to-night"--he said, a little
while later, his admiring eyes settled on her hair of burnished gold
which glistened when the light fell upon it--"something that you'd just
love to read in your course of teaching at the Academy." He paused to
search his mind for something suitable to suggest to her; at length he
questioned: "Now, what have you been reading lately?"

The Girl's face broke into smiles as she answered:

"Oh, it's an awful funny book about a kepple. He was a classic an' his
name was Dent."

Johnson knitted his brows and thought a moment. "He was a classic, you
say, and his name was--Oh, yes, I know--Dante," he declared, with
difficulty controlling the laughter that well-nigh convulsed him. "And
you found Dante funny, did you?"

"Funny? I roared!" acknowledged the Girl with a frankness that was so
genuine that Johnson could not help but admire her all the more. "You
see, he loved a lady--" resumed the Girl, toying idly with her spoon.

"--Beatrice," supplemented Johnson, pronouncing the name with the
Italian accent which, by the way, was not lost on the Girl.

"How?" she asked quickly, with eyes wide open.

Johnson ignored the question. Anxious to hear her interpretation of the
story, he requested her to continue.

"He loved a lady--" began the Girl, and broke off short. And going over
to the book-shelf she took down a volume and began to finger the leaves
absently. Presently she came back, and fixing her eyes upon him, she
went on: "It made me think of it, what you said down to the saloon
to-night about livin' so you didn't care what come after. Well, he made
up his min', this Dent--Dantes--that one hour o' happiness with her was
worth the whole da--" She checked the word on her tongue, and concluded:
"outfit that come after. He was willin' to sell out his chances for
sixty minutes with 'er. Well, I jest put the book down an' hollered."
And once more she broke into a hearty laugh.

"Of course you did," agreed Johnson, joining in the laugh. "All the
same," he presently added, "you knew he was right."

"I didn't!" she contradicted with spirit, and slowly went back to the
book-shelf with the book.

"You did."

"Didn't!"

"You did."

"Didn't! Didn't!"

"I don't--"

"You do, you do," insisted the Girl, plumping down into the chair which
she had vacated at the table.

"Do you mean to say--" Johnson got no further, for the Girl, with a
naivete that made her positively bewitching to the man before her, went
on as if there had been no interruption:

"That a feller could so wind h'ms'lf up as to say, 'Jest give me one
hour o' your sassiety; time ain't nothin', nothin' ain't nothin' only to
be a da--darn fool over you!' Ain't it funny to feel like that?" And
then, before Johnson could frame an answer:

"Yet, I s'pose there are people that love into the grave an' into death
an' after." The Girl's voice lowered, stopped. Then, looking straight
ahead of her, her eyes glistening, she broke out with:

"Golly, it jest lifts you right up by your bootstraps to think of it,
don't it?"

Johnson was not smiling now, but sat gazing intently at her through
half-veiled lids.

"It does have that effect," he answered, the wonder of it all creeping
into his voice.

"Yet, p'r'aps he was ahead o' the game. P'r'aps--" She did not finish
the sentence, but broke out with fresh enthusiasm: "Oh, say, I jest love
this conversation with you! I love to hear you talk! You give me idees!"

Johnson's heart was too full for utterance; he could only think of his
own happiness. The next instant the Girl called to Wowkle to bring the
candle, while she, still eager and animated, her eyes bright, her lips
curving in a smile, took up a cigar and handed it to him, saying:

"One o' your real Havanas!"

"But I"--began Johnson, protestingly.

Nevertheless the Girl lit a match for him from the candle which Wowkle
held up to her, and, while the latter returned the candle to the mantel,
Johnson lighted his cigar from the burning match between her fingers.

"Oh, Girl, how I'd love to know you!" he suddenly cried with the fire of
love in his eyes.

"But you do know me," was her answer, as she watched the smoke from his
cigar curl upwards toward the ceiling.

"Not well enough," he sighed.

For a brief second only she was silent. Whether she read his thoughts it
would be difficult to say; but there came a moment soon when she could
not mistake them.

"What's your drift, anyway?" she asked, looking him full in the face.

"To know you as Dante knew the lady--'One hour for me, one hour worth
the world,'" he told her, all the while watching and loving her beauty.

At the thought she trembled a little, though she answered with
characteristic bluntness:

"He didn't git it, Mr. Johnson."

"All the same there are women we could die for," insisted Johnson,
dreamily.

The Girl was in the act of carrying her cup to her mouth but put it down
on the table. Leaning forward, she inquired somewhat sneeringly:

"Mr. Johnson, how many times have you died?" Johnson did not have to
think twice before answering. With wide, truthful eyes he said:

"That day on the road to Monterey I said just that one woman for me. I
wanted to kiss you then," he added, taking her hand in his. And, strange
to say, she was not angry, not unwilling, but sweetly tender and modest
as she let it lay there.

"But, Mr. Johnson, some men think so much o' kisses that they don't want
a second kiss from the same girl," spoke up the Girl after a moment's
reflection.

"Doesn't that depend on whether they love her or not? Now all loves are
not alike," reasoned the man in all truthfulness.

"No, but they all have the same aim--to git 'er if they can," contended
the Girl, gently withdrawing her hand.

Silence filled the room.

"Ah, I see you don't know what love is," at length sighed Johnson,
watching the colour come and go from her face.

The Girl hesitated, then answered in a confused, uneven voice:

"Nope. Mother used to say, 'It's a tickling sensation at the heart that
you can't scratch,' an' we'll let it go at that."

"Oh, Girl, you're bully!" laughed the man, rising, and making an attempt
to embrace her. But all of a sudden he stopped and stood with a
bewildered look upon his face: a fierce gale was sweeping the mountain.
It filtered in through the crevices of the walls and doors; the lights
flickered; the curtains swayed; and the cabin itself rocked uncertainly
until it seemed as if it would be uprooted. It was all over in a minute.
In fact, the wind had died away almost simultaneously with the Girl's
loud cry of "Wowkle, hist the winder!"

It is not to be wondered at, however, that Johnson looked apprehensively
about him with every fresh impulse of the gale. The Girl's description
of the storms on the mountain was fresh in his mind, and there was also
good and sufficient reason why he should not be caught in a blizzard on
the top of Cloudy Mountain! Nevertheless, as before, the calm look which
he saw on the Girl's face reassured him. Advancing once more towards
her, he stretched out his arms as if to gather her in them.

"Look out, you'll muss my roses!" she cried, waving him back and dodging
Wowkle who, having cleared the table, was now making her last trip to
the cupboard.

"Well, hadn't you better take them off then?" suggested Johnson, still
following her up.

"Give a man an inch an' he'll be at Sank Hosey before you know it!" she
flung at him over her shoulder, and made straightway for the bureau.

But although Johnson desisted, he kept his eyes upon her as she took the
roses from her hair, losing none of the picture that she made with the
light beating and playing upon her glimmering eyes, her rosy cheeks and
her parted lips.

"Is there--is there anyone else?" he inquired falteringly, half-fearful
lest there was.

"A man always says, 'who was the first one?' but the girl says, 'who'll
be the next one?'" she returned, as she carefully laid the roses in her
bureau drawer.

"But the time comes when there never will be a next one."

"No?"

"No."

"I'd hate to stake my pile on that," observed the Girl, drily. She blew
up each glove as it came off and likewise carefully laid them away in
the bureau drawer.

By this time Wowkle's soft tread had ceased, her duties for the night
were over, and she stood at the table waiting to be dismissed.

"Wowkle, git to your wigwam!" suddenly ordered her mistress, watching
her until she disappeared into the cupboard; but she did not see the
Indian woman's lips draw back in a half-grin as she closed the door
behind her.

"Oh, you're sending her away! Must I go, too?" asked Johnson, dismally.

"No--not jest yet; you can stay a--a hour or two longer," the Girl
informed him with a smile; and turning once more to the bureau she
busied herself there for a few minutes longer.

Johnson's joy knew no bounds; he burst out delightedly:

"Why, I'm like Dante! I want the world in that hour, because, you see,
I'm afraid the door of this little paradise might be shut to me after--
Let's say this is my one hour--the hour that gave me--that kiss I want."

"Go long! You go to grass!" returned the Girl with a nervous little
laugh.

Johnson made one more effort and won out; that is, he succeeded, at
last, in getting her in his grasp.

"Listen," said the determined lover, pleading for a kiss as he would
have pleaded for his very life.

It was at this juncture that Wowkle, silently, stealthily, emerged from
the cupboard and made her way over to the door. Her feet were heavily
moccasined and she was blanketed in a stout blanket of gay colouring.

"Ugh--some snow!" she muttered, as a gust of wind beat against her face
and drove great snow-flakes into the room, fairly taking her breath
away. But her words fell on deaf ears. For, oblivious to the storm that
was now raging outside, the youthful pair of lovers continued to
concentrate their thoughts upon the storm that was raging within their
own breasts, the Girl keeping up the struggle with herself, while the
man urged her on as only he knew how.

"Why, if I let you take one you'd take two," denied the Girl,
half-yielding by her very words, if she but knew it.

"No, I wouldn't--I swear I wouldn't," promised the man with great
earnestness.

"Ugh--very bad!" was the Indian woman's muffled ejaculation as she
peered out into the night. But she had promised her lover to come to him
when supper was over, and she would not break faith with him even if it
were at the peril of her life. The next moment she went out, as did the
red light in the Girl's lantern hanging on a peg of the outer door.

"Oh, please, please," said the Girl, half-protestingly, half-willingly.

But the man was no longer to be denied; he kept on urging:

"One kiss, only one."

Here was an appeal which could no longer be resisted, and though
half-frightened by the tone of his voice and the look in his eye, the
Girl let herself be taken into his arms as she murmured:

"'Tain't no use, I lay down my hands to you."

And so it was that, unconscious of the great havoc that was being
wrought by the storm, unconscious of the danger that momentarily
threatened their lives, they remained locked in each other's arms. The
Girl made no attempt to silence him now or withdraw her hands from his.
Why should she? Had he not come to Cloudy Mountain to woo her? Was she
not awaiting his coming? To her it seemed but natural that the
conventions should be as nothing in the face of love. His voice, low and
musical, charged with passion, thrilled through her.

"I love you," said the man, with a note of possession that frightened
her while it filled her with strange, sweet joy. For months she had
dreamed of him and loved him; no wonder that she looked upon him as her
hero and yielded herself entirely to her fate.

She lifted her eyes and he saw the love in them. She freed her hands
from his grasp, and then gave them back to him in a little gesture of
surrender.

"Yes, you're mine, an' I'm yours," she said with trembling lips.

"I have lived but for this from the moment that I first saw you," he
told her, softly.

"Me, too--seein' that I've prayed for it day an' night," she
acknowledged, her eyes seeking his.

"Our destinies have brought us together; whatever happens now I am
content," he said, pressing his lips once more to hers. A little while
later he added: "My darkest hour will be lightened by the memory of you,
to-night."




XII.


The clock, striking the hour of two, filled in a lull that might
otherwise have seemed to require conversation. For some minutes,
Johnson, raised to a higher level of exaltation, even, than was the
Girl, had been secretly rejoicing in the Fate that had brought them
together.

"It's wonderful that I should have found her at last and won her love,"
he soliloquised. "We must be Fortune's children--she and I."

The minutes ticked away and still they were silent. Then, of a sudden,
with infinite tenderness in his voice, Johnson asked:

"What is your name, Girl--your real name?"

"Min--Minnie; my father's name was Smith," she told him, her eyes cast
down under delicately tremulous lids.

"Oh, Minnie Sm--"

"But 'twa'n't his right name," quickly corrected the Girl, and
unconsciously both rose to their feet. "His right name was Falconer."

"Minnie Falconer--well, that is a pretty name," commented Johnson; and
raising her hand to his lips he pressed them against it.

"I ain't sure that's what he said it was--I ain't sure o' anythin' only
jest you," she said coyly, burying her face in his neck.

"You may well be sure of me since I've loved--" Johnson's sentence was
cut short, a wave of remorse sweeping over him. "Turn your head away,
Girl, and don't listen to me," he went on, gently putting her away from
him. "I'm not worthy of you. Don't listen but just say no, no, no, no."

The Girl, puzzled, was even more so when Johnson began to pace the
floor.

"Oh, I know--I ain't good enough for you !" she cried with a little
tremour in her voice. "But I'll try hard, hard . . . If you see
anythin' better in me, why don't you bring it out, 'cause I've loved you
ever since I saw you first, 'cause I knowed that you--that you were the
right man."

"The right man," repeated Johnson, dismally, for his conscience was
beginning to smite him hard.

"Don't laugh!"

"I'm not laughing," as indeed he was not.

"O' course every girl kind o' looks ahead," went on the Girl in
explanation.

"Yes, I suppose," he observed seriously.

"An' figgers about bein'--well, Oh, you know--about bein' settled. An'
when the right man comes, why, she knows 'im, you bet! Jest as we both
knowed each other standin' on the road to Monterey. I said that day,
he's good, he's gran' an' he can have me."

"I could have you," murmured Johnson, meditatively.

The Girl nodded eagerly.

There was a long silence in which Johnson was trying to make up his mind
to tear himself away from her,--the one woman whom he loved in the
world,--for it had been slowly borne in upon him that he was not a fit
mate for this pure young girl. Nor was his unhappiness lessened when he
recalled how she had struggled against yielding to him. At last,
difficult though it was, he took his courage in both hands, and said:

"Girl, I have looked into your heart and my own and now I realise what
this means for us both--for you, Girl--and knowing that, it seems hard
to say good-bye as I should, must and will . . ."

At those clear words spoken by lips which failed so utterly to hide his
misery, the Girl's face turned pale.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

Johnson coloured, hesitated, and finally with a swift glance at the
clock, he briefly explained:

"I mean it's hard to go and leave you here. The clock reminded me that
long before this I should have been on my way. I shouldn't have come up
here at all. God bless you, dear," and here their eyes came together and
seemed unable to part,--"I love you as I never thought I could . . ."

But at Johnson's queer look she hastened to inquire:

"But it ain't for long you're goin'?"

For long! Then she had not understood that he meant to go for all time.
How tell her the truth? While he pondered over the situation there came
to him with great suddenness the thought that, perhaps, after all, Life
never intended that she should be given to him only to be taken away
almost as suddenly; and seized with a desire to hold on to her at any
cost, he sprang forward as if to take her in his arms, but before he
reached her, he stopped short.

"Such happiness is not for me," he muttered under his breath; and then
aloud he added: "No, no, I've got to go now while I have the courage, I
mean." He broke off as suddenly as he had begun, and taking her face in
his hands he kissed her good-bye.

Now, accustomed as was the Girl to the strange comings and goings of the
men at the camp, it did not occur to her to question him further when he
told her that he should have been away before now. Moreover, she trusted
and loved him. And so it was without the slightest feeling of misgiving
that she watched her lover quickly take down his coat and hat from the
peg on the wall and start for the door. On the other hand, it must have
required not a little courage on the man's part to have torn himself
away from this lovely, if unconventional, creature, just as he was
beginning to love truly and appreciate her. But, then, Johnson was a man
of no mean determination!

Not daring to trust himself to words, Johnson paused to look back over
his shoulder at the Girl before plunging forth into the night. But on
opening the door all the multitudinous wild noises of the forests
reached his ears: Sounds of whispering and rocking storm-tossed pines,
sounds of the wind making the rounds of the deep canyon below them,
sounds that would have made the blood run cold of a man more daring,
even, than himself. Like one petrified he stood blinded, almost, by the
great drifts of snow that were being driven into the room, while the
cabin rocked and shook and the roof cracked and snapped, the lights
flickered, smoked, or sent their tongues of fire upward towards the
ceiling, the curtains swayed like pendants in the air, and while
baskets, boxes, and other small furnishings of the cabin were blown in
every direction.

But it was the Girl's quick presence of mind that saved them from being
buried, literally, under the snow. In an instant she had rushed past him
and closed both the outer and inner doors of the cabin; then, going over
to the window, she tried to look through the heavily frosted panes; but
the falling of the sleet and snow, striking the window like fine shot,
made it impossible for her to see more than a few inches away.

"Why, it's the first time I knew that it--" She cut her sentence short
and ended with: "That's the way we git it up here! Look! Look!"

Whereupon, Johnson went over to the window and put his face close to
hers on the frosted panes; a great sea of white snow met his gaze!

"This means--" he said, turning away from the window and meeting her
glance--"surely it doesn't mean that I can't leave Cloudy to-night?"

"It means you can't get off the mountain to-night," calmly answered the
Girl.

"Good Lord!" fell from the man's lips.

"You can't leave this room to-night," went on the Girl, decidedly. "Why,
you couldn't find your way three feet from this door--you a stranger!
You don't know the trail anyway unless you can see it."

"But I can't stay here?" incredulously.

"Why not? Why, that's all right! The boys'll come up an' dig us out
to-morrow or day after. There's plenty o' wood an' you can have my bed."
And with no more ado than that, the Girl went over to the bed to remove
the covers and make it ready for his occupancy.

"I wouldn't think of taking that," protested the man, stoutly, while his
face clouded over.

The Girl felt a thrill at the note of regard in his voice and hastened
to explain:

"I never use it cold nights; I always roll up in my rug in front of the
fire." All of a sudden she broke out into a merry little laugh. "Jest
think of it stormin' all this time an' we didn't know it!"

But Johnson was not in a laughing mood. Indeed, he looked very grave and
serious when presently he said:

"But people coming up here and finding me might--"

The Girl looked up at him in blank amazement.

"Might what?" And then, while she waited for his answer, two shots in
close succession rang out in the night with great distinctness.

There was no mistaking the nearness of the sound. Instantly scenting
trouble and alert at the possibility of danger, Johnson inquired:

"What's that? What's that?"

"Wait! Wait!" came back from the Girl, unconsciously in the same tone,
while she strained her ears for other sounds. She did not have long to
wait, however, before other shots followed, the last ones coming from
further away, so it seemed, and at greater intervals.

"They've got a road agent--it's the posse--p'r'aps they've got Ramerrez
or one o' his band!" suddenly declared the Girl, at the same time
rushing over to the window for some verification of her words. But, as
before, the wind was beating with great force against the frosted panes,
and only a vast stretch of snow met her gaze. Turning away from the
window she now came towards him with: "You see, whoever it is, they're
snowed in--they can't get away."

Johnson knitted his brows and muttered something under his breath which
the Girl did not catch.

Again a shot was fired.

"Another thief crep' into camp," coldly observed the Girl almost
simultaneously with the report.

Johnson winced.

"Poor devil!" he muttered. "But of course, as you say, he's only a
thief."

In reply to which the Girl uttered words to the effect that she was glad
he had been caught.

"Well, you're right," said Johnson, thoughtfully, after a short silence;
then determinedly and in short jerky sentences, he went on: "I've been
thinking that I must go--tear myself away. I have very important
business at dawn--imperative business . . ."

The Girl, who now stood by the table folding up the white cloth cover,
watched him out of the corner of her eye, take down his coat from the
peg on the wall.

"Ever sample one o' our mountain blizzards?" she asked as he slipped on
his coat. "In five minutes you wouldn't know where you was. Your
important business would land you at the bottom of a canyon 'bout twenty
feet from here."

Johnson cleared his throat as if to speak but said nothing; whereupon
the Girl continued:

"You say you believe in Fate. Well, Fate has caught up with you--you got
to stay here."

Johnson was strangely silent. He was wondering how his coming there
to-night had really come about. But he could find no solution to the
problem unless it was in response to that perverse instinct which
prompts us all at times to do the very thing which in our hearts we know
to be wrong. The Girl, meanwhile, after a final creasing of the
neatly-folded cover, started for the cupboard, stopping on the way to
pick up various articles which the wind had strewn about the room.
Flinging them quickly into the cupboard she now went over to the window
and once more attempted to peer out into the night. But as before, it
was of no avail. With a shrug she straightened the curtains at the
windows and started for the door. Her action seemed to quicken his
decision, for, presently, with a gesture of resignation, he threw down
his hat and coat on the table and said as if speaking to himself:

"Well, it is Fate--my Fate that has always made the thing I shouldn't do
so easy." And then, turning to the Girl, he added: "Come, Girl, as you
say, if I can't go, I can't. But I know as I stand here that I'll never
give you up."

The Girl looked puzzled.

"Why, what do you mean?"

"I mean," began Johnson, pacing the floor slowly. Now he stopped by a
chair and pointed as though to the falling snow. "Suppose we say that's
an omen--that the old trail is blotted out and there is a fresh road.
Would you take it with me a stranger, who says: From this day I mean to
be all you'd have me. Would you take it with me far away from here and
forever?"

It did not take the Girl long to frame an answer. Taking Johnson's hand
she said with great feeling:

"Well, show me the girl that would want to go to Heaven alone! I'll sell
out the saloon--I'll go anywhere with you, you bet!"

Johnson bent low over her hand and kissed it. The Girl's straightforward
answer had filled his heart to overflowing with joy.

"You know what that means, don't you?" a moment later he asked.

Sudden joy leapt to her blue eyes.

"Oh, yes," she told him with a world of understanding in her voice.
There was a silence; then she went on reminiscently: "There's a little
Spanish Mission church--I pass it 'most every day. I can look in an' see
the light burnin' before the Virgin an' see the saints standin' round
with glassy eyes an' faded satin slippers. An' I often tho't what they'd
think if I was to walk right in to be made--well, some man's wife. It
makes your blood like pin-points thinkin' about it. There's somethin'
kind o' holy about love, ain't they?"

Johnson nodded. He had never regarded love in that light before, much
less known it. For many moments he stood motionless, a new problem of
right and wrong throbbing in his bosom.

At last, it being settled that Johnson was to pass the night in the
Girl's cabin, she went over to the bed and, once more, began to make it
ready for his occupancy. Meanwhile, Johnson, seated in the barrel rocker
before the fire, watched her with a new interest. The Girl had not gone
very far with her duties, however, when she suddenly came over to him,
plumping herself down on the floor at his feet.

"Say, did you ever ask any other woman to marry you?" she asked as she
leaned far back in his arms.

"No," was the man's truthful answer.

"Oh, how glad I am! Take me--ah, take me I don't care where as long as
it is with you!" cried the Girl in an ecstasy of delight.

"So help me, God, I'm going to . . .!" promised Johnson, his voice
strained, tense. "You're worth something better than me, Girl," he
added, a moment later, "but they say love works miracles every hour,
that it weakens the strong and strengthens the weak. With all my soul I
love you, with all my soul I--" The man let his voice die out, leaving
his sentence unfinished. Suddenly he called: "Why, Min-Minnie!"

"I wasn't really asleep," spoke up the Girl, blinking sleepily. "I'm
jest so happy an' let down, that's all." The next moment, however, she
was forced to acknowledge that she was awfully sleepy and would have to
say good-night.

"All right," said Johnson, rising, and kissed her good-night.

"That's your bed over there," she told him, pointing in the direction of
the curtains.

"But hadn't you better take the bed and let me sleep over here?"

"Not much!"

"You're sure you would be more comfortable by the fire--sure, now?"

"Yes, you bet!"

And so it was that Johnson decided to pass the night in the Girl's
canopied bed while she herself, rolled up in a blanket rug before the
fire, slept on the floor.

"This beats a bed any time," remarked the Girl, spreading out the rug
smoothly; and then, reaching up for the old patchwork, silk quilt that
hung from the loft, she added: "There's one thing--you don't have to
make it up in the mornin'."

"You're splendid, Girl!" laughed Johnson. Presently, he saw her quietly
closet herself in the cupboard, only to emerge a few minutes later
dressed for the night. Over her white cambric gown with its coarse lace
trimming showing at the throat, she wore a red woollen blanket robe held
in at the waist by a heavy, twisted, red cord which, to the man who got
a glimpse of her as she crossed the room, made her prettier, even, than
she had seemed at any time yet.

Quietly, now, the Girl began to put her house in order. All the lights,
save the quaintly-shaded lamp that was suspended over the table, were
extinguished; that one, after many unsuccessful attempts, was turned
down so as to give the right minimum of light which would not interfere
with her lover's sleep. Then she went over to the door to make sure that
it was bolted. Outside the wind howled and shrieked and moaned; but
inside the cabin it had never seemed more cosey and secure and peaceful
to her.

"Now you can talk to me from your bunk an' I'll talk to you from mine,"
she said in a sleepy, lazy voice.

Except for a prodigious yawn which came from the Girl there was an
ominous quiet hanging over the place that chilled the man. Sudden sounds
startled him, and he found it impossible to make any progress with his
preparations for the night. He was about to make some remark, however,
when to his well-attuned ears there came the sound of approaching
footsteps. In an instant he was standing in the parting made by the
curtains, his face eager, animated, tense.

"What's that?" he whispered.

"That's snow slidin'," the Girl informed him without the slightest trace
of anxiety in her voice.

"God bless you, Girl," he murmured, and retreated back of the curtains.
It was only an instant before he was back again with: "Why, there is
something out there--sounded like people calling," he again whispered.

"That's only the wind," she said, adding as she drew her robe tightly
about her: "Gettin' cold, ain't it?"

But, notwithstanding her assurances, Johnson did not feel secure, and it
was with many misgivings that he now directed his footsteps towards the
bed behind the curtains.

"Good-night!" he said uneasily.

"Good-night!" unconsciously returned the Girl in the same tone.

Taking off her slippers the Girl now put on a pair of moccasins and
quietly went over to her bed, where she knelt down and made a silent
prayer.

"Good-night!" presently came from a little voice in the rug.

"Good-night!" answered the man now settled in the centre of the
much-befrilled bed.

There was a silence; then the little voice in the rug called out:

"Say, what's your name?"

"Dick," whispered the man behind the curtains.

"So long, Dick!" drowsily.

"So long, Girl!" dreamily.

There was a brief silence; then, of a sudden, the Girl bolted upright in
bed, and asked:

"Say, Dick, are you sure you don't know that Nina Micheltorena?"

"Sure," prevaricated the man, not without some compunction.

Whereupon the Girl fell back on her pillows and called out contentedly a
final "Good-night!"




XIII.


There was no mistaking then--no need to contrast her feeling of anxiety
of a few moments ago lest some other woman had preceded her in his
affections, with her indifference on former occasions when her admirers
had proved faithless, to make the Girl realise that she was experiencing
love and was dominated by a passion for this man.

So that, with no reason whatever in her mind to question the sincerity
of Johnson's love for her, it would seem as if nothing were wanting to
make the Girl perfectly happy; that there could be no room in her heart
for any feeling other than elation. And yet, curiously enough, the Girl
could not doze off to sleep. Some mysterious force--a vague foreboding
of something about to happen--impelled her to open her eyes again and
again.

It was an odd and wholly new sensation, this conjuring up of distressing
spectres, for no girl was given less to that sort of thing; all the
same, it was with difficulty that she checked an impulse to cry out to
her lover--whom she believed to be asleep--and make him dissipate, by
renewed assurances, the mysterious barrier which she felt was hemming
her in.

As for Johnson, the moment that his head had touched the pillows, he
fell to thinking of the awkward situation in which he was placed, the
many complications in which his heart had involved him and, finally, he
found himself wondering whether the woman whom he loved so dearly was
also lying sleepless in her rug on the floor.

And so it was not surprising that he should spring up the moment that he
heard cries from outside.

"Who's that knockin', I wonder?"

Although her voice showed no signs of distress or annoyance, the
question coming from her in a calm tone, the Girl was upon her feet
almost before she knew it. In a trice she removed all evidences that she
had been lying upon the floor, flinging the pillows and silk coverlet to
the wardrobe top.

In that same moment Johnson was standing in the parting of the curtains,
his hand raised warningly. In another moment he was over to the door
where, after taking his pistols from his overcoat pockets, he stood in a
cool, determined attitude, fingering his weapons.

"But some one's ben callin'," the Girl was saying, at the very moment
when above the loud roaring of the wind another knock was heard on the
cabin door. "Who can it be?" she asked as if to herself, and calmly went
over to the table, where she took up the candle and lit it.

Springing to her side, Johnson whispered tensely:

"Don't answer--you can't let anyone in--they wouldn't understand."

The Girl eyed him quizzically.

"Understand what?" And before he had time to explain, much less to check
her, she was standing at the window, candle in hand, peering out into
the night.

"Why, it's the posse!" she cried, wheeling round suddenly. "How did they
ever risk it in this storm?"

At these words a crushed expression appeared on Johnson's countenance;
an uncanny sense of insecurity seized him. Once more the loud, insistent
pounding was repeated, and as before, the outlaw, his hands on his guns,
commanded her not to answer.

"But what on earth do the boys want?" inquired the Girl, seemingly
oblivious to what he was saying. Indeed, so much so that as the voice of
Nick rose high above the other sounds of the night, calling,
"Min-Minnie-Girl, let us in!" she hurriedly brushed past him and yelled
through the door:

"What do you want?"

Again Johnson's hand went up imperatively.

"Don't let him come in!" he whispered.

But even then she heard not his warning, but silently, tremulously
listened to Sonora, who shouted through the door: "Say, Girl, you all
right?" And not until her answering voice had called back her assurance
that she was safe did she turn to the man at her side and whisper in a
voice that showed plainly her agitation and fear:

"Jack Rance is there! If he was to see you here--he's that jealous I'd
be afraid--" She checked her words and quickly put her ear close to the
door, the voices outside having become louder and more distinct.
Presently she spun round on her heel and announced excitedly: "Ashby's
there, too!" And again she put her ear to the door.

"Ashby!" The exclamation fell from Johnson's lips before he was aware of
it. It was impossible to deceive himself any longer--the posse had
tracked him!

"We want to come in, Girl!" suddenly rang out from the well-known voice
of Nick.

"But you can't come in!" shouted back the Girl above the noise of the
storm; then, taking advantage of a particularly loud howl of the blast,
she turned to Johnson and inquired: "What will I say? What reason will I
give?"

Serious as was Johnson's predicament, he could not suppress a smile. In
a surprisedly calm voice he told her to say that she had gone to bed.

The Girl's eyes flooded with admiration.

"Why, o' course--that's it," she said, and turned back to the door and
called through it: "I've gone to bed, Nick! I'm in bed now!"

The barkeeper's answer was lost in another loud howl of the blast. Soon
afterwards, however, the Girl made out that Nick was endeavouring to
convey to her a warning of some kind.

"You say you've come to warn me?" she cried.

"Yes, Ramerrez . . .!"

"What? Say that again?"

"Ramerrez is on the trail--"

"Ramerrez's on the trail!" repeated the Girl in tones of alarm; and not
waiting to hear further she motioned to Johnson to conceal himself
behind the curtains of the bed, muttering the while:

"I got to let 'em in--I can't keep 'em out there on such a night . . ."
He had barely reached his place of concealment when the Girl slid back
the bolts and bade the boys to come in.

Headed by Rance, the men quickly filed in and deposited their lanterns
on the floor. It was evident that they had found the storm most severe,
for their boots were soaked through and their heavy buffalo overcoats,
caps and ear-muffs were covered with snow, which all, save Rance,
proceeded to remove by shaking their shoulders and stamping their feet.
The latter, however, calmly took off his gloves, pulled out a
beautifully-creased handkerchief from his pocket, and began slowly to
flick off the snow from his elegant mink overcoat before hanging it
carefully upon a peg on the wall. After that he went over to the table
and warmed his hands over the lighted candle there. Meanwhile, Sonora,
his nose, as well as his hands which with difficulty he removed from his
heavy fur mittens, showing red and swollen from the effects of the
biting cold, had gone over to the fire, where he ejaculated:

"Ouf, I'm cold! Glad you're safe, Girl!"

"Yes, Girl, The Polka's had a narrow squeak," observed Nick, stamping
his feet which, as well as his legs, were wrapped with pieces of
blankets for added warmth.

Unconsciously, at his words, the Girl's eyes travelled to the bed; then,
drawing her robe snugly about her, and seating herself, she asked with
suppressed excitement:

"Why, Nick, what's the matter? What's--"

Rance took it upon himself to do the answering. Sauntering over to the
Girl, he drawled out:

"It takes you a long time to get up, seems to me. You haven't so much
on, either," he went on, piercing her with his eyes.

Smilingly and not in the least disconcerted by the Sheriff's remark, the
Girl picked up a rug from the floor and wound it about her knees.

"Well?" she interrogated.

"Well, we was sure that you was in trouble," put in Sonora. "My breath
jest stopped."

"Me? Me in trouble, Sonora?" A little laugh that was half-gay,
half-derisive, accompanied her words.

"See here, that man Ramerrez--" followed up Rance with a grim look.

"--feller you was dancin' with," interposed Sonora, but checked himself
instantly lest he wound the Girl's feelings.

Whereupon, Rance, with no such compunctions, became the spokesman, a
grimace of pleasure spreading over his countenance as he thought of the
unpleasant surprise he was about to impart. Stretching out his stiffened
fingers over the blaze, he said in his most brutal tones:

"Your polkying friend is none other than Ramerrez."

The Girl's eyes opened wide, but they did not look at the Sheriff. They
looked straight before her.

"I warned you, girl," spoke up Ashby, "that you should bank with us
oftener."

The Girl gave no sign of having heard him. Her slender figure seemed to
have shrunken perceptibly as she stared stupidly, uncomprehendingly,
into space.

"We say that Johnson was--" repeated Rance, impatiently.

"--what?" fell from the Girl's lips, her face pale and set.

"Are you deaf?" demanded Rance; and then, emphasising every word, he
rasped out: "The fellow you've been polkying with is the man that has
been asking people to hold up their hands."

"Oh, go on--you can't hand me out that!" Nevertheless the Girl looked
wildly about the room.

Angrily Rance strode over to her and sneered bitingly:

"You don't believe it yet, eh?"

"No, I don't believe it yet!" rapped out the Girl, laying great stress
upon the last word. "I know he isn't."

"Well, he _is_ Ramerrez, and he _did_ come to The Polka to rob it,"
retorted the Sheriff.

All at once the note of resentment in the Girl's voice became positive;
she flared back at him, though she flushed in spite of herself.

"But he didn't rob it!"

"That's what gits me," fretted Sonora. "He didn't."

"I should think it would git you," snapped back the Girl, both in her
look and voice rebuking him for his words.

It was left to Ashby to spring another surprise.

"We've got his horse," he said pointedly.

"An' I never knowed one o' these men to separate from his horse,"
commented Sonora, still smarting under the Girl's reprimand.

"Right you are! And now that we've got his horse and this storm is on,
we've got him," said Rance, triumphantly. "But the last seen of
Johnson," he went on with a hasty movement towards the Girl and eyeing
her critically, "he was heading this way. You seen anything of him?"

The Girl struggled hard to appear composed.

"Heading this way?" she inquired, reddening.

"So Nick said," declared Sonora, looking towards that individual for
proof of his words.

But Nick had caught the Girl's lightning glance imposing silence upon
him; in some embarrassment he stammered out:

"That is, he was--Sid said he saw 'im take the trail, too."

"But the trail ends here," pointed out Rance, at the same time looking
hard at the Girl. "And if she hasn't seen him, where was he going?"

At this juncture Nick espied a cigar butt on the floor; unseen by the
others, he hurriedly picked it up and threw it in the fire.

"One o' our dollar Havanas! Good Lord, he's here!" he muttered to
himself.

"Rance is right. Where was he goin'?" was the question with which he was
confronted by Sonora when about to return to the others.

"Well, I tho't I seen him," evaded Nick with considerable uneasiness. "I
couldn't swear to it. You see it was dark, an'--Moses but the Sidney
Duck's a liar!"

At length, Ashby decided that the man had in all probability been snowed
under, ending confidently with:

"Something scared him off and he lit out without his horse." Which
remark brought temporary relief to the Girl, for Nick, watching her, saw
the colour return to her face.

Unconsciously, during this discussion, the Girl had risen to her feet,
but only to fall back in her chair again almost as suddenly, a sign of
nervousness which did not escape the sharp eye of the Sheriff.

"How do you know the man's a road agent?" A shade almost of contempt was
in the Girl's question.

Sonora breathed on his badly nipped fingers before answering:

"Well, two greasers jest now were pretty positive before they quit."

Instantly the Girl's head went up in the air.

"Greasers!" she ejaculated scornfully, while her eyes unfalteringly met
Rance's steady gaze.

"But the woman knew him," was the Sheriff's vindictive thrust.

The Girl started; her face went white.

"The woman--the woman d'you say?"

"Why, yes, it was a woman that first tol' them that Ramerrez was in the
camp to rob The Polka," Sonora informed her, though his tone showed
plainly his surprise at being compelled to repeat a thing which, he
wrongly believed, she already knew.

"We saw her at The Palmetto," leered Rance.

"And we missed the reward," frowned Ashby; at which Rance quickly turned
upon the speaker with:

"But Ramerrez is trapped."

There was a moment's startled pause in which the Girl struggled with her
passions; at last, she ventured:

"Who's this woman?"

The Sheriff laughed discordantly.

"Why, the woman of the back trail," he sneered.

"Nina Micheltorena! Then she does know 'im--it's true--it goes through
me!" unwittingly burst from the Girl's lips.

The Sheriff, evidently, found the Situation amusing, for he laughed
outright.

"He's the sort of a man who polkas with you first and then cuts your
throat," was his next stab.

The Girl turned upon him with eyes flashing and retorted:

"Well, it's my throat, ain't it?"

"Well I'll be!--" The Sheriff's sentence was left unfinished, for Nick,
quickly pulling him to one side, whispered:

"Say, Rance, the Girl's cut up because she vouched for 'im. Don't rub it
in."

Notwithstanding, Rance, to the Girl's query of "How did this Nina
Micheltorena know it?" took a keen delight in telling her:

"She's his girl."

"His girl?" repeated the Girl, mechanically.

"Yes. She gave us his picture," went on Rance; and taking the photograph
out of his pocket, he added maliciously, "with love written on the back
of it."

A glance at the photograph, which she fairly snatched out of his hands,
convinced the Girl of the truthfulness of his assertion. With a movement
of pain she threw it upon the floor, crying out bitterly:

"Nina Micheltorena! Nina Micheltorena!" Turning to Ashby with an abrupt
change of manner she said contritely: "I'm sorry, Mr. Ashby, I vouched
for 'im."

The Wells Fargo Agent softened at the note in the Girl's voice; he was
about to utter some comforting words to her when suddenly she spoke
again.

"I s'pose they had one o' them little lovers' quarrels an' that made 'er
tell you, eh?" She laughed a forced little laugh, though her heart was
beating strangely as she kept on: "He's the kind o' man who sort o'
polkas with every girl he meets." And at this she began to laugh almost
hysterically.

Rance, who resented her apologising to anyone but himself, stood
scowling at her.

"What are you laughing at?" he questioned.

"Oh, nothin', Jack, nothin'," half-cried, half-laughed the Girl. "Only
it's kind o' funny how things come out, ain't it? Took in! Nina
Micheltorena! Nice company he keeps--one o' them Cachuca girls with
eyelashes at half-mast!"

Once more, she broke out into a fit of laughter.

"Well, well," she resumed, "an' she sold 'im out for money! Ah, Jack
Rance, you're a better guesser'n I am!" And with these words she sank
down at the table in an apathy of misery. Horror and hatred and
hopelessness had possession of her. A fierce look was in her eyes when a
moment later she raised her head and abruptly dismissed the boys,
saying:

"Well, boys, it's gittin' late--good-night!"

Sonora was the first to make a movement towards the door.

"Come on, boys," he growled in his deep bass voice; "don't you intend to
let a lady go to bed?"

One by one the men filed through the door which Nick held open for them;
but when all but himself had left, the devoted little barkeeper turned
to the Girl with a look full of meaning, and whispered:

"Do you want me to stay?"

"Me? Oh, no, Nick!" And with a "Good-night, all! Good-night, Sonora, an'
thank you! Good-night, Nick!" the Girl closed the door upon them. The
last that she heard from them was the muffled ejaculation:

"Oh, Lordy, we'll never git down to Cloudy to-night!"

Now the Girl slid the bolts and stood with her back against the door as
if to take extra precautions to bar out any intrusion, and with eyes
that blazed she yelled out:

"Come out o' that, now! Step out there, Mr. Johnson!"

Slowly the road agent parted the curtains and came forward in an
attitude of dejection.

"You came here to rob me," at once began the Girl, but her anger made it
impossible for her to continue.

"I didn't," denied the road agent, quietly, his countenance reflecting
how deeply hurt he was by her words.

"You lie!" insisted the Girl, beside herself with rage.

"I don't--"

"You do!"

"I admit that every circumstance points to--"

"Stop! Don't you give me any more o' that Webster Unabridged. You git to
cases. If you didn't come here to steal you came to The Polka to rob it,
didn't you?"

Johnson, his eyes lowered, was forced to admit that such were his
intentions, adding swiftly:

"But when I knew about you--" He broke off and took a step towards her.

"Wait! Wait! Wait where you are! Don't you take a step further or
I'll--" She made a significant gesture towards her bosom, and then,
laughing harshly, went on denouncingly: "A road agent! A road agent!
Well, ain't it my luck! Wouldn't anybody know to look at me that a
gentleman wouldn't fall my way! A road agent! A road agent!" And again
she laughed bitterly before going on: "But now you can git--git, you
thief, you imposer on a decent woman! I ought to have tol' 'em all, but
I wa'n't goin' to be the joke o' the world with you behind the curtains
an' me eatin' charlotte rusks an' lemming turnovers an' a-polkyin' with
a road agent! But now you can git--git, do you hear me?"

Johnson heard her to the end with bowed head; and so scathing had been
her denunciations of his actions that the fact that pride alone kept her
from breaking down completely escaped his notice. With his eyes still
downcast be said in painful fragments:

"One word only--only a word and I'm not going to say anything in defence
of myself. For it's all true--everything is true except that I would
have stolen from you. I _am_ called Ramerrez; I _have_ robbed; I _am_ a
road agent--an outlaw by profession. Yes, I'm all that--and my father
was that before me. I was brought up, educated, thrived on thieves'
money, I suppose, but until six months ago when my father died, I did
not know it. I lived much in Monterey--I lived there as a gentleman.
When we met that day I wasn't the thing I am to-day. I only learned the
truth when my father died and left me with a rancho and a band of
thieves--nothing else--nothing for us all, and I--but what's the good of
going into it--the circumstances. You wouldn't understand if I did. I
was my father's son; I have no excuse; I guess, perhaps, it was in
me--in the blood. Anyhow, I took to the road, and I didn't mind it much
after the first time. But I drew the line at killing--I wouldn't have
that. That's the man that I am, the blackguard that I am. But--" here he
raised his eyes and said with a voice that was charged with feeling--"I
swear to you that from the moment I kissed you to-night I meant to
change, I meant to--"

"The devil you did!" broke from the Girl's lips, but with a sound that
was not unlike a sob.

"I did, believe me, I did," insisted the man. "I meant to go straight
and take you with me--but only honestly--when I could honestly. I meant
to work for you. Why, every word you said to me to-night about being a
thief cut into me like a knife. Over and over again I have said to
myself, she must never know. And now--well, it's all over--I have
finished."

"An' that's all?" questioned the Girl with averted face.

"No--yes--what's the use . . .?"

The Girl's anger blazed forth again.

"But there's jest one thing you've overlooked explainin', Mr. Johnson.
It shows exactly what you are. It wasn't so much your bein' a road agent
I got against you. It's this:" And here she stamped her foot excitedly.
"You kissed me--you got my first kiss."

Johnson hung his head.

"You said," kept on the Girl, hotly, "you'd ben thinkin' o' me ever
since you saw me at Monterey, an' all the time you walked straight off
an' ben kissin' that other woman." She shrugged her shoulder and laughed
grimly. "You've got a girl," she continued, growing more and more
indignant. "It's that I've got against you. It's my first kiss I've got
against you. It's that Nina Micheltorena that I can't forgive. So now
you can git--git!" And with these words she unbolted the door and
concluded tensely:

"If they kill you I don't care. Do you hear, I don't care . . ."

At those bitter words spoken by lips which failed so utterly to hide
their misery, the Girl's face became colourless.

With the instinct of a brave man to sell his life as dearly as possible,
Johnson took a couple of guns from his pocket; but the next moment, as
if coming to the conclusion that death without the Girl would be
preferable, he put them back, saying:

"You're right, Girl."

The next instant he had passed out of the door which she held wide open
for him.

"That's the end o' that--that's the end o' that," she wound up, slamming
the door after him. But all the way from the threshold to the bureau she
kept murmuring to herself: "I don't care, I don't care . . . I'll be
like the rest o' the women I've seen. I'll give that Nina Micheltorena
cards an' spades. There'll be another hussy around here. There'll be--"
The threat was never finished. Instead, with eyes that fairly started
out of their sockets, she listened to the sound of a couple of shots,
the last one exploding so loud and distinct that there was no mistaking
its nearness to the cabin.

"They've got 'im!" she cried. "Well, I don't care--I don't--" But again
she did not finish what she intended to say. For at the sound of a heavy
body falling against the cabin door she flew to it, opened it and,
throwing her arms about the sorely-wounded man, dragged him into the
cabin and placed him in a chair. Quick as lightning she was back at the
door bolting it.

With his eyes Johnson followed her action.

"Don't lock that door--I'm going out again--out there. Don't bar that
door," he commanded feebly, struggling to his feet and attempting to
walk towards it; but he lurched forward and would have fallen to the
floor had she not caught him. Vainly he strove to break away from her,
all the time crying out: "Don't you see, don't you see, Girl--open the
door." And then again with almost a sob: "Do you think me a man to hide
behind a woman?" He would have collapsed except for the strong arms that
held him.

"I love you an' I'm goin' to save you," the Girl murmured while
struggling with him. "You asked me to go away with you; I will when you
git out o' this. If you can't save your own soul--" She stopped and
quickly went over to the mantel where she took down a bottle of whisky
and a glass; but in the act of pouring out a drink for him there came a
loud rap on the window, and quickly looking round she saw Rance's
piercing eyes peering into the room. For an instant she paled, but then
there flashed through her mind the comforting thought that the Sheriff
could not possibly see Johnson from his position. So, after giving the
latter his drink, she waited quietly until a rap at the door told her
that Rance had left the window when, her eye having lit on the ladder
that was held in place on the ceiling, she quickly ran over to it and
let it down, saying:

"Go up the ladder! Climb up there to the loft You're the man that's got
my first kiss an' I'm goin' to save you . . ."

"Oh, no, not here," protested Johnson, stubbornly.

"Do you want them to see you in my cabin?" she cried reproachfully,
trying to lift him to his feet.

"Oh, hurry, hurry . . .!"

With the utmost difficulty Johnson rose to his feet and catching the
rounds of the ladder he began to ascend. But after going up a few rounds
he reeled and almost fell off, gasping:

"I can't make it--no, I can't . . ."

"Yes, you can," encouraged the Girl; and then, simultaneously with
another loud knock on the door: "You're the man I love an' you
must--you've got to show me the man that's in you. Oh, go on, go on,
jest a step an' you'll git there."

"But I can't," came feebly from the voice above. Nevertheless, the next
instant he fell full length on the boarded floor of the loft with the
hand outstretched in which was the handkerchief he had been staunching
the blood from the wound in his side.

With a whispered injunction that he was all right and was not to move on
any account, the Girl put the ladder back in its place. But no sooner
was this done than on looking up she caught sight of the stained
handkerchief. She called softly up to him to take it away, explaining
that the cracks between the boards were wide and it could plainly be
seen from below.

"That's it!" she exclaimed on observing that he had changed the position
of his hand. "Now, don't move!"

Finally, with the lighted candle in her hand, the Girl made a quick
survey of the room to see that nothing was in sight that would betray
her lover's presence there, and then throwing open the door she took up
such a position by it that it made it impossible for anyone to get past
her without using force.

"You can't come in here, Jack Rance," she said in a resolute voice. "You
can tell me what you want from where you are."

Roughly, almost brutally, Rance shoved her to one side and entered.

"No more Jack Rance. It's the Sheriff coming after Mr. Johnson," he
said, emphasizing each word.

The Girl eyed him defiantly.

"Yes, I said Mr. Johnson," reiterated the Sheriff, cocking the gun that
he held in his hand. "I saw him coming in here."

"It's more 'n I did," returned the Girl, evenly, and bolted the door.
"Do you think I'd want to shield a man who tried to rob me?" she asked,
facing him.

Ignoring the question, Rance removed the glove of his weaponless hand
and strode to the curtains that enclosed the Girl's bed and parted them.
When he turned back he was met by a scornful look and the words:

"So, you doubt me, do you? Well, go on--search the place. But this ends
your acquaintance with The Polka. Don't you ever speak to me again.
We're through."

Suddenly there came a smothered groan from the man in the loft; Rance
wheeled round quickly and brought up his gun, demanding:

"What's that? What's that?"

Leaning against the bureau the Girl laughed outright and declared that
the Sheriff was becoming as nervous as an old woman. Her ridicule was
not without its effect, and, presently, Rance uncocked his gun and
replaced it in its holster. Advancing now to the table where the Girl
was standing, he took off his cap and shook it before laying it down;
then, pointing to the door, his eyes never leaving the Girl's face, he
went on accusingly:

"I saw someone standing out there against the snow. I fired. I could
have sworn it was a man."

The Girl winced. But as she stood watching him calmly remove his coat
and shake it with the air of one determined to make himself at home, she
cried out tauntingly:

"Why do you stop? Why don't you go on--finish your search--only don't
ever speak to me again."

At that, Rance became conciliatory.

"Say, Min, I don't want to quarrel with you."

Turning her back on him the Girl moved over to the bureau where she
snapped out over her shoulder:

"Go on with your search, then p'r'aps you'll leave a lady to herself to
go to bed."

The Sheriff followed her up with the declaration:

"I'm plumb crazy about you, Min."

The Girl shrugged her shoulder.

"I could have sworn I saw--I--Oh, you know it's just you for me--just
you, and curse the man you like better. I--I--even yet I can't get over
the queer look in your face when I told you who that man really was." He
stopped and flung his overcoat down on the floor, and fixing her with a
look he demanded: "You don't love him, do you?"

Again the Girl sent over her shoulder a forced little laugh.

"Who--me?"

The Sheriff's face brightened. Taking a few steps nearer to her, he
hazarded:

"Say, Girl, was your answer final to-night about marrying me?"

Without turning round the Girl answered coyly:

"I might think it over, Jack."

Instantly the man's passion was aroused. He strode over to her, put his
arms around her and kissed her forcibly.

"I love you, I love you, Minnie!" he cried passionately.

In the struggle that followed, the Girl's eyes fell on the bottle on the
mantel. With a cry she seized it and raised it threateningly over her
head. Another second, however, she sank down upon a chair and began to
sob, her face buried in her hands.

Rance regarded her coldly; at last he gave vent to a mirthless laugh,
the nasty laugh of a man whose vanity is hurt.

"So, it's as bad as that," he sneered. "I didn't quite realise it. I'm
much obliged to you. Good-night." He snatched up his coat, hesitated,
then repeated a little less angrily than before: "Good-night!"

But the Girl, with her face still hidden, made no answer. For a moment
he watched the crouching form, the quivering shoulders, then asked, with
sudden and unwonted gentleness:

"Can't you say good-night to me, Girl!"

Slowly the Girl rose to her feet and faced him, aversion and pity
struggling for mastery. Then, as she noted the spot where he was now
standing, his great height bringing him so near to the low boards of the
loft where her lover was lying that it seemed as though he must hear the
wounded man's breathing, all other feelings were swept away by
overwhelming fear. With the one thought that she must get rid of
him,--do anything, say anything, but get rid of him quickly, she forced
herself forward, with extended hand, and said in a voice that held out
new promise:

"Good-night. Jack Rance,--good-night!"

Rance seized the hand with an almost fierce gladness in both his own,
his keen glance hungrily striving to read her face. Then, suddenly, he
released her, drawing back his hand with a quick sharpness.

"Why, look at my hand! There's blood on it!" he said.

And even as he spoke, under the yellow flare of the lamp, the Girl saw a
second drop of blood fall at her feet. Like a flash, the terrible
significance of it came upon her. Only by self-violence could she keep
her glance from rising, tell-tale, to the boards above.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she heard herself saying contritely, all the time
desperately groping to invent a reason; at length, she added futilely:
"I must have scratched you."

Rance looked puzzled, staring at the spatter of red as though
hypnotised.

"No, there's no scratch there," he contended, wiping off the blood with
his handkerchief.

"Oh, yes, there is," insisted the Girl tremulously; "that is, there will
be in the mornin'. You'll see in the mornin' that there'll be--" She
stopped and stared in frozen terror at the sinister face of the Sheriff,
who was coolly watching his handkerchief turn from white to red under
the slow rain of blood from the loft above.

"Oho!" he emitted sardonically, stepping back and pointing his gun
towards the loft. "So, he's up there!"

The Girl's fingers clutched his arm, dragging desperately.

"No, he isn't, Jack--no, he isn't!" she iterated in blind, mechanical
denial.

With an abrupt movement, Rance flung her violently from him, made a grab
at the suspended ladder and lowered it into position; then, deaf to the
Girl's pleadings, harshly ordered Johnson to come down, meanwhile
covering the source of the blood-drops with his gun.

"Oh, wait,--wait a minute!" begged the Girl helplessly. What would
happen if he couldn't obey the summons? He had spent himself in his
climb to safety. Perhaps he was unconscious, slowly bleeding to death!
But even as she tortured herself with fears, the boards above creaked as
though a heavy body was dragging itself slowly across them. Johnson was
evidently doing his best to reach the top of the ladder; but he did not
move quickly enough to suit the Sheriff.

"Come down, or I'll--"

"Oh, just a minute, Jack, just a minute!" broke in the Girl frantically.
"Don't shoot!--Don't you see he's tryin' to--?"

"Come down here, Mr. Johnson!" reiterated the Sheriff, with a face
inhuman as a fiend.

The Girl clenched her hands, heedless of the nails cutting into her
palms: "Won't you wait a moment,--please, wait, Jack!"

"Wait? What for?" the Sheriff flung at her brutally, his finger
twitching on the trigger.

The Girl's lips parted to answer, then closed again dumbly,--for it was
then that she saw the boots, then the legs of the road agent slide
uncertainly through the open trap, fumble clumsily for the rungs of the
ladder, then slip and stumble as the weight of the following body came
upon them while the weak fingers strained desperately for a hold. The
whole heart and soul and mind of the Girl seemed to be reaching out
impotently to give her lover strength, to hurry him down fast enough to
forestall a shot from the Sheriff. It seemed hours until the road agent
reached the bottom of the ladder, then lurched with unseeing eyes to a
chair and, finally, fell forward limply, with his arms and head resting
on the table. Still dumb with dread, the Girl watched Rance slowly
circle round the wounded man; it was not until the Sheriff returned his
pistol to its holster that she breathed freely again.

"So, you dropped into The Polka to-night to play a little game of poker?
Funny how things change about in an hour or two!" Rance chuckled
mirthlessly; it seemed to suit his sardonic humour to taunt his helpless
rival. "You think you can play poker,--that's your conviction, is it?
Well, you can play freeze-out as to your chances, Mr. Johnson of
Sacramento. Come, speak up,--it's shooting or the tree,--which shall it
be?"

Goaded beyond endurance by Rance's taunting of the unconscious man, the
Girl, fumbling in her bosom for her pistol, turned upon him in a sudden,
cold fury:

"You better stop that laughin', Jack Rance, or I'll send you to finish
it in some place where things ain't so funny."

Something in the Girl's altered tone so struck the Sheriff that he
obeyed her. He said nothing, but on his lips were the words, "By Heaven,
the Girl means it!" and his eyes showed a smouldering admiration.

"He doesn't hear you,--he's out of it. But me--me--I hear you--I ain't
out of it," the Girl went on in compelling tones. "You're a gambler; he
was, too; well, so am I." She crossed deliberately to the bureau, and
laid her pistol away in the drawer, Rance meanwhile eyeing her with
puzzled interest. Returning, she went on, incisively as a whip lash:
"I live on chance money, drink money, card money, saloon money. We're
gamblers,--we're all gamblers!" She paused, an odd expression coming
over her face,--an expression that baffled Rance's power to read.
Presently she resumed: "Now, you asked me to-night if my answer was
final,--well, here's your chance. I'll play you the game,--straight
poker. It's two out o' three for me. Hatin' the sight o' you, it's the
nearest chance you'll ever get for me."

"Do you mean--" began Rance, his hands resting on the table, his
hawk-like glance burning into her very thoughts.

"Yes, with a wife in Noo Orleans all right," she interrupted him
feverishly. "If you're lucky,--you'll git 'im an' me. But if you
lose,--this man settin' between us is mine--mine to do with as I please,
an' you shut up an' lose like a gentleman."

"You must be crazy about him!" The words seemed wrung from the Sheriff
against his will.

"That's my business!" came like a knife-cut from the Girl.

"Do you know you're talkin' to the Sheriff?"

"I'm talkin' to Jack Rance, the gambler," she amended evenly.

"You're right,--and he's just fool enough to take you up," returned
Rance with sudden decision. He looked around him for a chair; there was
one near the table, and the Girl handed it to him. With one hand he
swung it into place before the table, while with the other he jerked off
the table-cover, and flung it across the room. Johnson neither moved nor
groaned, as the edge slid from beneath his nerveless arms.

"You and the cyards have got into my blood. I'll take you up," he said,
seating himself.

"Your word," demanded the Girl, leaning over the table, but still
standing.

"I can lose like a gentleman," returned Rance curtly; then, with a swift
seizure of her hand, he continued tensely, in tones that made the Girl
shrink and whiten, "I'm hungry for you, Min, and if I win, I'll take it
out on you as long as I have breath."

A moment later, the Girl had freed her hand from his clasp, and was
saying evenly, "Fix the lamp." And while the Sheriff was adjusting the
wick that had begun to flare up smokily, she swiftly left the room,
saying casually over her shoulder that she was going to fetch something
from the closet.

"What you goin' to get?" he called after her suspiciously. The Girl made
no reply. Rance made no movement to follow her, but instead drew a pack
of cards from his pocket and began to shuffle them with practiced
carelessness. But when a minute had passed and the girl had not
returned, he called once more, with growing impatience, to know what was
keeping her.

"I'm jest gettin' the cards an' kind o' steadyin' my nerves," she
answered somewhat queerly through the doorway. The next moment she had
returned, quickly closing the closet door behind her, blew out her
candle, and laying a pack of cards upon the table, said significantly:

"We'll use a fresh deck. There's a good deal depends on this, Jack." She
seated herself opposite the Sheriff and so close to the unconscious form
of the man she loved that from time to time her left arm brushed his
shoulder.

Rance, without protest other than a shrug, took up his own deck of
cards, wrapped them in a handkerchief, and stowed them away in his
pocket. It was the Girl who spoke first:

"Are you ready?"

"Ready? Yes. I'm ready. Cut for deal."

With unfaltering fingers, the Girl cut. Of the man beside her, dead or
dying, she must not, dared not think. For the moment she had become one
incarnate purpose: to win, to win at any cost,--nothing else mattered.

Rance won the deal; and taking up the pack he asked, as he shuffled:

"A case of show-down?"

"Show-down."

"Cut!" once more peremptorily from Rance; and then, when she had cut,
one question more: "Best two out of three?"

"Best two out of three." Swift, staccato sentences, like the rapid
crossing of swords, the first preliminary interchange of strokes before
the true duel begins.

Rance dealt the cards. Before either looked at them, he glanced across
at the Girl and asked scornfully, perhaps enviously:

"What do you see in him?"

"What do you see in me?" she flashed back instantly, as she picked up
her cards; and then: "What have you got?"

"King high," declared the gambler.

"King high here," echoed the Girl.

"Jack next," and he showed his hand.

"Queen next," and the Girl showed hers.

"You've got it," conceded the gambler, easily. Then, in another tone,
"but you're making a mistake--"

"If I am, it's my mistake! Cut!"

Rance cut the cards. The Girl dealt them steadily. Then,

"What have you got?" she asked.

"One pair,--aces. What have you?"

"Nothing," throwing her cards upon the table.

With just a flicker of a smile, the Sheriff once more gathered up the
pack, saying smoothly:

"Even now,--we're even."

"It's the next hand that tells, Jack, ain't it?"

"Yes."

"It's the next hand that tells me,--I'm awfully sorry,--" the words
seemed to come awkwardly; her glance was troubled, almost contrite, "at
any rate, I want to say jest now that no matter how it comes out--"

"Cut!" interjected Rance mechanically.

"--that I'll always think of you the best I can," completed the Girl
with much feeling. "An' I want you to do the same for me."

Silently, inscrutably, the gambler dealt the ten cards, one by one. But
as the Girl started to draw hers toward her, his long, thin fingers
reached across once more and closed not ungently upon hand and cards.

"The last hand, Girl!" he reminded her. "And I've a feeling that I
win,--that in one minute I'll hold you in my arms." And still covering
her fingers with his own, he stole a glance at his cards.

"I win," he announced, briefly, his eyes alone betraying the inward
fever. He dropped the cards before her on the table. "Three kings,--and
the _last hand_!"

Suddenly, as though some inward cord had snapped under the strain, the
Girl collapsed. Limply she slid downward in her chair, one groping hand
straying aimlessly to her forehead, then dropping of its own weight.
"Quick, Jack,--I'm ill,--git me somethin'!" The voice trailed off to
nothingness as the drooping eyelids closed.

In real consternation, the Sheriff sprang to his feet. In one sweeping
glance his alert eye caught the whisky bottle upon the mantel. "All
right, Girl, I'll fix you in no time," he said cheeringly over his
shoulder. But where the deuce did she keep her tumblers? The next minute
he was groping for them in the dark of the adjoining closet and softly
cursing himself for his own slowness.

Instantaneously, the Girl came to life. The unturned cards upon the
table vanished with one lightning movement; the Girl's hand disappeared
beneath her skirts, raised for the moment knee-high; then the same,
swift reverse motion, and the cards were back in place, while the Girl's
eyes trembled shut again, to hide the light of triumph in them. A smile
flickered on her lips as the Sheriff returned with the glass and bottle.

"Never mind,--I'm better now," her lips shaped weakly.

The Sheriff set down the bottle, and put his arm around the Girl with a
rough tenderness.

"Oh, you only fainted because you lost," he told her.

Averting her gaze, the Girl quietly disengaged herself, rose to her feet
and turned her five cards face upwards.

"No, Jack, it's because I've won,--three aces and a pair."

The Sheriff shot one glance at the girl, keen, searching. Then, without
so much as the twitch of an eyelid, he accepted his defeat, took a cigar
from his pocket and lit it, the flame of the match revealing no
expression other than the nonchalance for which he was noted; then,
picking up his hat and coat he walked slowly to the door. Here he halted
and wished her a polite good-night--so ceremoniously polite that at any
other time it would have compelled her admiration.

Pale as death and almost on the point of collapse, the Girl staggered
back to the table where the wounded road agent was half-sitting,
half-lying.

Thrusting her hand now into the stocking from which she had obtained the
winning, if incriminating, cards, she drew forth those that remained and
scattered them in the air, crying out hysterically:

"Three aces an' a pair an' a stockin' full o' pictures--but his life
belongs to me!"




XIV.


Conscious-stricken at the fraud that she had imposed upon the gambler,
the Girl lived a lifetime in the moments that followed his departure.
With her face buried in her hands she stood lost in contemplation of her
shameful secret.

A sound--the sound of a man in great pain checked her hysterical sobs.
Dazed, she passed her hand over her face as if to clear away the dark
shades that were obstructing her vision. Another groan--and like a flash
she was down on her knees lavishing endearments upon the road agent.

Never before, it is true, had the Girl had any experience in gun-shot
wounds. She had played the part of nurse, however, more than once when
the boys met with accidents at the mines. For the women of the
California camps at that time had endless calls upon them. It was a
period for sacrifices innumerable, and help and sympathy were never
asked that they were not freely given. So, if the Girl did not know the
very best thing to do, she knew, at least, what not to do, and it was
only a few minutes before she had cut the coat from his back.

The next thing to be done--the dragging of the unconscious man to the
bed--was hard work, of course, but being strong of arm, as well as stout
of heart, she at last accomplished it.

Now she cut away his shirt in order to find the wound, which proved to
be in his breast. Quickly then she felt with her fingers in an endeavour
to find the ball, but in this she was unsuccessful. So after a moment's
deliberation she made up her mind that the wound was a flesh one and
that the ball was anywhere but in the man's body--a diagnosis that was
largely due to the cheerful optimism of her nature and which,
fortunately, proved to be true.

Presently she went to a corner of the room and soon returned with a
basin of water and some hastily torn bandages. For a good fifteen
minutes after that she washed the gash and, finally, bandaged it as well
as she knew how. And now, having done all that her knowledge or instinct
prompted, she drew up a chair and prepared to pass the rest of the night
in watching by his side.

For an hour or so he slept the sleep of unconsciousness. In the room not
a sound could be heard, but outside the storm still roared and raged. It
was anything but an easy or cheerful situation: Here she was alone with
a wounded, if not dying, man; and she well knew that, unless there came
an abatement in the fury of the storm, it might be days before anyone
could climb the mountain. True, the Indians were not far off, but like
as not they would remain in their wigwam until the sun came forth again.
In the matter of food there was a scant supply, but probably enough to
tide them over until communication could be had with The Polka.

For three days she watched over him, and all the time the storm
continued. On the third day he became delirious, and that was the night
of her torture. Despite a feeling that she was taking an unfair
advantage of him, the Girl strained her ears to catch a name which, in
his delirium, was constantly on his lips; but she could not make it out.
All that she knew was that it was not her name that he spoke, and it
pained her. She had given him absolute faith and trust and, already, she
was overwhelmed with the fierce flames of jealousy. It was a new
sensation, this being jealous of anyone, and it called forth a
passionate resentment. In such moments she would rise and flee to the
other end of the room until the whispered endearments had ceased. Then
she would draw near again with flushes of shame on her cheeks for having
heeded the sayings of an irresponsible person, and she would take his
head in her lap and, caressing him the while, would put cold towels on
his heated brow.

Dawn of the fourth day saw the Girl still pale and anxious, though
despair had entirely left her; for the storm was over and colour and
speech had come back to the man early that morning. Love and good
nursing, not to speak of some excellent whisky that she happened to have
stored away in her cabin, had pulled him through. With a sigh of relief
she threw herself down on the rug for a much-needed rest.

The man woke just before the sun rose. His first thought, that he was
home in the foothills, was dissipated by the sight of the snow ranges.
Through the window of the cabin, as far as the eye could see, nothing of
green was visible. Snow was everywhere; everything was white, save at
the eastern horizon where silver was fast changing into rose and rose to
a fiery red as the fast-rising sun sent its shafts over the snow-coated
mountains.

And now there came to him a full realisation of what had happened and
where he was. To his amazement, though, he was almost without pain. That
his wound had been dressed he was, of course, well aware for when he
attempted to draw back still further the curtain at the window the
movement strained the tight bandage, and he was instantly made conscious
of a twinge of pain.

Nevertheless, he persevered, for he wisely decided that it would be well
to reconnoitre, to familiarise himself, as much as possible, with the
lay of the land and find out whether the trail that he had followed to
reach the cabin which, he recalled, was perched high up above a ravine,
was the only means of communication with the valley below. It was a
useless precaution, for the snow would have wholly obliterated any such
trail had there been one and, soon realising the fact, he fell back
exhausted by his effort on the pillows.

A half hour passed and the man began to grow restless. He had, of
course, no idea whatever of the length of time he had been in the cabin,
and he knew that he must be thinking of an immediate escape. In
desperation, he tried to get out of bed, but the task was beyond his
power. At that a terrible feeling of hopelessness assailed him. His only
chance was to reach the valley where he had little fear of capture; but
wounded, as he was, that seemed out of the question, and he saw himself
caught like a rat in a trap. In an access of rage at the situation in
which he was placed he made another effort to raise himself up on his
elbow and peer through the window at the Sierras. The noise that he
made, slight though it was, awoke the Girl. In an instant she was at his
bedside drawing the curtain over the window.

"What you thinkin' of?" she asked. "At any moment--jest as soon as the
trail can be cleared--there'll be someone of the boys up here to see how
I've pulled through. They mustn't see you . . ."

Forcibly, but with loving tenderness, she put him back among his pillows
and seated herself by the bed. An awkward silence followed. For now that
the man was in his right senses it was borne in upon her that he might
remember that she had fed him, given him drink and fondled him. It was a
situation embarrassing to both. Neither knew just what to say or how to
begin. At length, the voice from the bed spoke:

"How long have I been here?"

"Three days."

"And you have nursed me all that--"

"You mustn't talk," warned the girl. "It's dangerous in more ways than
one. But if you keep still no one'll suspect that you're here."

"But I must know what happened," he insisted with increasing excitement.
"I remember nothing after I came down the ladder. The Sheriff--Rance--
what's become . . .?"

The Girl chided him with gentle authority.

"You keep perfectly still--you mustn't say nothin' 'til you've rested.
Everythin's all right an' you needn't worry a bit." But then seeing that
he chafed at this, she added: "Well, then, I'll tell you all there is to
know." And then followed an account of the happenings of that night. It
was not a thoroughly truthful tale, for in her narrative she told him
only what she thought was necessary and good for him to know, keeping
the rest to herself. And when she had related all that there was to tell
she insisted upon his going to sleep again, giving him no opportunity
whatsoever to speak, since she left his bedside after drawing the
curtains.

Unwillingly the man lay back and tried to force himself to be patient;
but he fretted at the enforced quietude and, as a result, sleep refused
to come to him. From time to time he could hear the Girl moving
noiselessly about the room. The knowledge that she was there gave him a
sense of security, and he began to let his thoughts dwell upon her. No
longer did he doubt but what she was a real influence now; and the
thought had the effect of making him keenly alive to what his life had
been. It was not a pleasant picture that he looked back upon, now that
he had caught a glimpse of what life might mean with the Girl at his
side. From the moment that he had taken her in his arms he realised to
the full that his cherished dream had come true; he realised, also, that
there was now but one answer to the question of keeping to the oath
given to his father, and that was that gratitude--for he had guessed
rightly, though she had not told him, that she had saved him from
capture by the Sheriff and his posse--demanded that he should put an end
to his vocation and devote his life henceforth to making her happy.

Once or twice while thus communing with himself he fancied that he heard
voices. It seemed to him that he recognised Nick's voice. But whoever it
was, he spoke in whispers, and though the wounded man strove to hear, he
was unsuccessful.

After a while he heard the door close and then the tension was somewhat
relaxed, for he knew that she was keeping his presence in her cabin a
secret with all the wiles of a clever and loving woman. And more and
more he determined to gain an honoured place for her in some
community--an honoured place for himself and her. Vague, very vague, of
course, were the new purposes and plans that had so suddenly sprang up
because of her influence, but the desire to lead a clean life had
touched his heart, and since his old calling had never been pleasing to
him, he did not for a moment doubt his ability to succeed.

The morning was half gone when the Girl returned to her patient. Then,
in tones that did her best to make her appear free from anxiety, she
told him that it was the barkeeper, as he had surmised, with whom she
had been talking and that she had been obliged to take him into her
confidence. The man made no comment, for the situation necessarily was
in her hands, and he felt that she could be relied upon not to make any
mistake. Four people, he was told, knew of his presence in the cabin. So
far as Rance was concerned she had absolute faith in his honour, gambler
though he was; there was nothing that Nick would not do for her; and as
for the Indians, the secret was sure to be kept by them, unless
Jackrabbit got hold of some whisky--a contingency not at all likely, for
Nick had promised to see to that. In fact, all could be trusted to be as
silent as the grave.

The invalid had listened intently; nevertheless, he sighed:

"It's hard to lie here. I don't want to be caught _now_."

The Girl smiled at the emphasis on the last word, for she knew that it
referred to her. Furthermore, she had divined pretty well what had been
his thoughts concerning his old life; but, being essentially a woman of
action and not words, she said nothing.

A moment or so later he asked her to read to him. The Girl looked as she
might have looked if he had asked her to go to the moon.
Notwithstanding, she got up and, presently, returned with a lot of old
school-books, which she solemnly handed over for his inspection.

The invalid smiled at the look of earnestness on the Girl's face.

"Not these?" he gently inquired. "Where is the Dante you were telling me
about?"

Once more the Girl went over to the book-shelf; when she came back she
handed him a volume, which he glanced over carefully before showing her
the place where he wished her to begin to read to him.

At first the Girl was embarrassed and stumbled badly. But on seeing that
he seemed not to notice it she gained courage and acquitted herself
creditably, at least, so she flattered herself, for she could detect, as
she looked up from time to time, no expression other than pleasure on
his face. It may be surmised, though, that Johnson had not merely chosen
a page at random; on the contrary, when the book was in his hand he had
quickly found the lines which the Girl had, so to say, paraphrased, and
he was intensely curious to see how they would appeal to her. But now,
apparently, she saw nothing in the least amusing in them, nor in other
passages fully as sentimental. In fact, no comment of any kind was
forthcoming from her--though Johnson was looking for it and, to tell the
truth, was somewhat disappointed--when she read that Dante had probably
never spoken more than twice to Beatrice and his passion had no other
food than the mists of his own dreaming. However, it was different
when,--pausing before each word after the manner of a child,--she came
to a passage of the poet's, and read:

"'In that moment I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath
its dwelling in the most secret chambers of the heart, began to tremble
so violently that the least pulse of my body shook herewith, and in the
trembling it said these words: "Here is a deity stronger than I who,
coming shall rule over me."'"

At that the Girl let the book fall and, going down on her knees and
taking both his hands in hers, she raised to him a look so full of
adoring worship that he felt himself awed before it.

"That 'ere Dante ain't so far off after all. I know jest how he feels.
Oh, I ain't fit to read to you, to talk to you, to kiss you."

Nevertheless, he saw to it that she did.

After this he told her about the Inferno, and she listened eagerly to
his description of the unfortunate characters, though she declared, when
he explained some of the crimes that they had committed, that they "Got
only what was rightly comin' to them."

The patient could hardly suppress his amusement. Dante was discarded and
instead they told each other how much love there was in that little
cabin on Cloudy Mountain.

The days that followed were all much like this one. Food was brought up
from The Polka and, by degrees, the patient's strength came back. And it
was but natural that he became so absorbed in his newly-found happiness
that he gradually was losing all sense of danger. Late one night,
however, when he was asleep, an incident happened that warned the Girl
that it was necessary to get her lover away just as soon as he was able
to ride a horse.

Lying on the rug in front of the fire she had been thinking of him when,
suddenly, her quick ear, more than ever alert in these days, caught the
sound of a stealthy footstep outside the cabin. With no fear whatever
except in relation to the discovery of her lover, the Girl went
noiselessly to the window and peered out into the darkness. A man was
making signs that he wished to speak with her. For a moment she stood
watching in perplexity, but almost instantly her instinct told her that
one of that race, for she believed the man to be a Mexican, would never
dare to come to her cabin at that time of night unless it was on a
friendly errand. So putting her face close to the pane to reassure
herself that she had not been mistaken in regard to his nationality, she
then went to the door and held it wide open for the man to enter, at the
same time putting her finger to her lips as a sign that he should be
very still.

"What are you doin' here? What do you want?" she asked in a low voice,
at the same time leading him to the side of the room further away from
her lover.

Jose Castro's first words were in Spanish, but immediately perceiving
that he failed to make her understand, he nodded comprehendingly, and
said:

"All righta--I espeak Engleesh--I am Jose Castro too well known to the
_Maestro_. I want to see 'im."

The Girl's intuition told her that a member of the band stood before
her, and she regarded him suspiciously. Not that she believed that he
was disloyal and had come there with hostile intent, but because she
felt that she must be absolutely sure of her ground before she revealed
the fact that Johnson was in the cabin. She let some moments pass before
she replied:

"I don't know nothin' about your master. Who is he?"

An indulgent smile crossed the Mexican's face.

"That ver' good to tella other peoples; but I know 'im here too much.
You trusta me--me quita safe."

All this was said with many gestures and an air that convinced the Girl
that he was speaking the truth. But since she deemed it best that the
invalid should be kept from any excitement, she resolved to make the
Mexican divulge to her the nature of his important errand.

"How do you know he's here?" she began warily. "What do you want 'im
for?"

The Mexican's shifty eyes wandered all over the room as if to make
certain that no inimical ears were listening; then he whispered:

"I tella you something--you lika the _Maestro_?"

Unconsciously the Girl nodded, which evidently satisfied the Mexican,
for he went on:

"You thinka well of him--yees. Now I tella you something. The man Pedro
'e no good. 'E wisha the reward--the money for Ramerrez. 'E and the
woman--woman no good--tell Meester Ashby they thinka 'im 'ere."

The Girl felt the colour leave her cheeks, though she made a gesture for
him to proceed.

"Pedro not 'ere any longer," smiled the Mexican. "Me senda 'im to the
devil. Serva 'im right."

"An' the woman?" gasped the Girl.

"She gone--got away--Monterey by this time," replied Castro with evident
disappointment. "But Meester Ashby 'e know too much--'ees men everywhere
searched the camp--no safa 'ere now. To-norrow--" Castro stopped short;
the next instant with a joyful gleam in his eyes he cried out:
"_Maestro_!"

"Castro's right, Girl," said Johnson, who had waked and heard the
Mexican's last words; "it is not safe a moment more here, and I must
go."

With a little cry of loving protest the Girl abruptly left the men to
talk over the situation and sought the opposite side of the room. There,
her eyes half-closed and her lips pressed tightly together she gave
herself up to her distressing fears. After a while it was made plain to
her that she was being brought into the conversation, for every now and
then Castro would look curiously at her; at length, as if it had been
determined by them that nothing should be undertaken without her advice,
Johnson, followed by his subordinate, came over to her and related in
detail all the startling information that Castro had brought.

Quietly the Girl listened and, in the end, it was agreed between them
that it would be safer for the men not to leave the cabin together, but
that Castro should go at once with the understanding that he should
procure horses and wait for the master at a given point across the
ravine. It was decided, too, that there was not a moment to be lost in
putting their plan into execution. In consequence, Castro immediately
took his departure.

The hour that passed before the time set for Johnson to leave the cabin
was a most trying one for both of them. It was not so hard on the man,
of course, for he was excited over the prospect of escaping; but the
Girl, whose mind was filled with the dread of what might happen to him,
had nothing to sustain her. Despite his objection, she had stipulated
that, with Jackrabbit as a companion, she should accompany him to the
outskirts of the camp. And so, at the moment of departure, throwing
about her a cloak of some rough material, she went up to her lover and
said with a quiver in her voice:

"I'm ready, Dick, but I'm a-figurin' that I can't let you go alone--you
jest got to take me below with you, an' that's all there is to it."

The man shook his head.

"There's very little risk, believe me. I'll join Castro and ride all
through the night. I'll be down below in no time at all. But we must be
going, dear."

The man passed through the door first. But when it came the Girl's turn
she hesitated, for she had seen a dark shadow flit by the window. It was
as if someone had been stealthily watching there. In another moment,
however, it turned out to be Jackrabbit and, greatly relieved, the Girl
whispered to Johnson that he was to descend the trail between the Indian
and herself, and that on no account was he to utter a word until she
gave him permission.

For another moment or so they stood in silence; Johnson, appreciating
fully what were the Girl's feelings, did not dare to whisper even a word
of encouragement to her. At last, she ordered the Indian to lead the
way, and they started.

The trail curved and twisted around the mountain, and in places they had
to use the greatest care lest a misstep should carry them over a
precipice with a drop of hundreds of feet. It was a perilous descent,
inasmuch as the path was covered with snow. Moreover, it was necessary
that as little noise as possible should be made while they were making
their way past the buildings of the camp below, for the Mexican had not
been wrong when he stated that Ashby's men were quartered at, or in the
immediate vicinity of, The Palmetto. Fortunately, they passed through
without meeting anyone, and before long they came to the edge of the
plateau beneath which was the ravine which Johnson had to cross to reach
the spot where it had been agreed that Castro should be waiting with
horses for his master. It was also the place where the Girl was to leave
her lover to go on alone, and so they halted. A few moments passed
without either of them speaking; at length, the man said in as cheery a
voice as he could summon:

"I must leave you here. I remember the way well. All danger is past."

The Girl's lips were quivering; she asked:

"An' when will you be back?"

The man noted her emotion, and though he himself was conscious of a
choking sensation he contrived to say in a most optimistic tone:

"In two weeks--not more than two weeks. It will take all that time to
arrange things at the rancho. As it is, I hardly see my way clear to
dismissing my men--you see, they belong to me, almost, and--but I'll do
so, never fear. No power on earth could make me take up the old life
again."

The Girl said nothing in reply; instead she put both her arms around his
neck and remained a long time in his embrace. At last, summoning up all
her fortitude she put him resolutely from her, and whispered:

"When you are ready, come. You must leave me now." And with a curt
command to the Indian she fled back into the darkness.

For an instant the road agent's eyes followed the direction that she had
taken; then, his spirits rising at the thought that his escape was now
well-nigh assured, he turned and plunged down the ravine.




XV.


As has been said, it was a custom of the miners, whenever a storm made
it impossible for them to work in the mines, to turn the dance-hall of
the Polka Saloon into an Academy, the post of teacher being filled by
the Girl. It happened, therefore, that early the following morning the
men of Cloudy Mountain Camp assembled in the low, narrow room with its
walls of boards nailed across inside upright beams--a typical miners'
dance-hall of the late Forties--which they had transformed into a
veritable bower, so eager were they to please their lovely teacher.
Everyone was in high spirits, Rance alone refraining from taking any
part whatsoever in the morning's activities; dejectedly, sullenly, he
sat tilted back in an old, weather-beaten, lumber chair before the
heavily-dented, sheet-iron stove in a far corner of the room, gazing
abstractedly up towards the stove's rusty pipe that ran directly through
the ceiling; and what with his pale, waxen countenance, his eyes red and
half-closed for the want of sleep, his hair ruffled, his necktie awry,
his waistcoat unfastened, his boots unpolished, and the burnt-out cigar
which he held between his white, emaciated fingers, he was not the
immaculate-looking Rance of old, but presented a very sad spectacle
indeed.

Outside, through the windows,--over which had been hung curtains of red
and yellow cotton,--could be seen the green firs on the mountain, their
branches dazzling under their burden of snow crystals; and stretching
out seemingly interminably until the line of earth and sky met were the
great hills white with snow except in the spots where the wind had swept
it away. But within the little, low dance-hall, everywhere were
evidences of festivity and good cheer, the walls being literally covered
with pine boughs and wreaths of berries, while here and there was an
eagle's wing or an owl's head, a hawk or a vulture, a quail or a
snow-bird, not to mention the big, stuffed game cock that was mounted on
a piece of weather-beaten board, until it would seem as if every variety
of bird native to the Sierra Mountains was represented there.

Grouped together on one side of the wall were twelve buck horns, and
these served as a sort of rack for the miners to hang their hats and
coats during the school session. Several mottoes, likewise upon the
wall, were intended to attract the students' attention, the most
conspicuous being: "Live and Learn" and "God Bless Our School." A great
bear's skin formed a curtain between the dance-hall and the saloon,
while upon the door-frame was a large hand rudely painted, the
index-finger outstretched and pointing to the next room. It said:
"To The Bar."

It was, however, upon the teacher's desk--a whittled-up, hand-made
affair which stood upon a slightly-raised platform--that the boys had
outdone themselves in the matter of decoration. Garlanded both on top
and around the sides with pine boughs and upon the centre of which stood
a tall glass filled with red and white berries, it looked not unlike a
sacrificial altar which, in a way, it certainly was. A box that was
intended for a seat for the teacher was also decorated with pine
branches; while several cheap, print flags adorned the primitive iron
holder of the large lamp suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the
room. Altogether it was a most festive-looking Academy that was destined
to meet the teacher's eye on this particular morning.

For some time Nick had been standing near the window gazing in the
direction of the Girl's cabin. Turning, suddenly, to Rance, the only
other occupant of the room, he remarked somewhat sadly:

"I'd be willin' to lose the profits of the bar if we could git back to a
week ago--before Johnson walked into this room."

At the mention of the road agent's name Rance's eyes dropped to the
floor. It required no flash of inspiration to tell him that things would
never be what they had been.

"Johnson," he muttered, his face ashen white and a sound in his throat
that was something like a groan. "A week--a week in her cabin--nursed
and kissed . . ." he finished shortly.

Nick had been helping himself to a drink; he wheeled swiftly round,
confronting him.

"Oh, say, Rance, she--"

Rance took the words out of his mouth.

"Never kissed him! You bet she kissed him! It was all I could do to keep
from telling the whole camp he was up there." His eyes blazed and his
hands tightened convulsively.

"But you didn't . . ." Nick broke in on him quickly. "If I hadn't been
let into the game by the Girl I'd a thought you were a level Sheriff
lookin' for him. Rance, you're my ideal of a perfect gent."

Rance braced up in his chair.

"What did she see in that Sacramento shrimp, will you tell me?"
presently he questioned, contempt showing on every line of his face.

The little barkeeper did not answer at once, but filled a glass with
whisky which he handed to him.

"Well, you see, I figger it out this way, boss," at last he answered,
meeting him face to face frankly, earnestly, his foot the while resting
on the other's chair. "Love's like a drink that gits a hold on you an'
you can't quit. It's a turn of the head or a touch of the hands, or it's
a half sort of smile, an' you're doped, doped, doped with a feelin' like
strong liquor runnin' through your veins, an' there ain't nothin' on
earth can break it up once you've got the habit. That's love."

Touched by the little barkeeper's droll philosophy, the Sheriff dropped
his head on his breast, while the hand which held the glass
unconsciously fell to his side.

"I've got it," went on Nick with enthusiasm; "you've got it; the boy's
got it; the Girl's got it; the whole damn world's got it. It's all the
heaven there is on earth, an' in nine cases out of ten it's hell."

Rance opened his lips to speak, but quickly drew them in tightly. The
next instant Nick touched him lightly on the shoulder and pointed to the
empty glass in his hand, the contents having run out upon the floor.

With a mere glance at the empty glass Rance returned it to Nick.
Presently, then, he took out his watch and fell to studying its face
intently, and only when he had finally returned the watch to his pocket
did he voice what was in his mind.

"Well, Nick," he said, "her road agent's got off by now."

Whereupon, the barkeeper, too, took out his watch and consulted it.

"Left Cloudy at three o'clock this morning--five hours off . . ." was
his brief comment.

Once more a silence fell upon the room. Then, all of a sudden, the sound
of horses' hoofs and the murmur of rough voices came to their ears, and
almost instantly a voice was heard to cry out:

"Hello!"

"Hello!" came from an answering voice.

"Why, it's The Pony Express got through at last!" announced Nick,
incredulously; and so saying he took up the whisky bottle and glasses
which lay on the teacher's desk and dashed into the saloon. He had
barely left, however, than The Pony Express, muffled up to his ears and
looking fit to brave the fiercest of storms, entered the room, hailing
the boys with:

"Hello, boys! Letter for Ashby!"

The Deputy--who with Trinidad and Sonora had come running in, the latter
carrying a boot-leg and a stove-polishing brush in his hand--took the
letter and started in search of the Wells Fargo Agent who, Rance had
told them, had gone to sleep.

"Well, boys, how d'you like bein' snowed in for a week?" asked The Pony
Express, warming himself by the stove; and then without waiting for an
answer he rattled on: "There's a rumour at The Ridge that you all let
Ramerrez freeze an' missed a hangin'. Say, they're roarin' at you,
chaps!" And with a "So long, boys!" he strode out of the room.

Sonora started in hot pursuit after him, hollering out:

"Wait! Wait!" And when The Pony Express halted, he added: "Says you to
the boys at The Ridge as you ride by, the Academy at Cloudy is open
to-day full blast!"

"Whoopee! Whoop!" chimed in Trinidad and began to execute a _pas seul_
in the middle of the room, dropping into a chair just in time to avoid
running into Nick, who hurriedly returned with two glasses and a bottle.

"Help yourselves, boys," he said; which they did to the accompaniment of
a succession of joyous yells from Trinidad.

Meantime Rance had relighted the burnt-out cigar which he had been
holding for some time between his fingers, and was sending curls of
smoke upwards towards the ceiling.

"Academy," he sneered.

Sonora surveyed him critically for some moments; at length he said:

"Say, Rance, what's the matter with you? We began this Academy game
together--we boys an' the Girl--an' there's a damn pretty piece of
sentiment back of it. She's taught some of us our letters, and--"

"He's a wearin' mournin' because Johnson didn't fall alive into his
hands," interposed Trinidad with a laugh.

"Is that it?" queried Sonora.

"Ain't it enough, Rance, that he must be lyin' dead down some canyon,
with his mouth full of snow?" A mocking smile was on Trinidad's face as
he asked the question.

"You done all you could to git 'im," went on Sonora as if there had been
no interruption. "The boys is all satisfied he's dead."

"Dead?" Rance fairly picked up the word. "Dead? Yes, he's dead," he
declared tensely, and unconsciously arose and went over to the window
where he stood motionless, gazing through the parted curtains at the
snow-covered hills. Presently the boys saw a cynical smile spread over
his face, and a moment later, he added: "The matter with me is that I'm
a Chink."

This depreciation of himself was so thoroughly un-Rance like, that it
brought forth great bursts of laughter from the men, but notwithstanding
which, Rance went on to admit, in the same sullen tone, that it was all
up with him and the Girl.

"Throwed 'im!" whispered Trinidad to Sonora with a pleased look on his
face.

Sonora, likewise, was beaming with joy when almost instantly he turned
to Nick with:

"As sure's you live she's throwed 'im for me!"

Nick, among his other accomplishments, had a faculty for dumbness and
said nothing; but a smile which approached a grin formed on his face as
he stood eyeing quizzically first one and then the other. Finally,
picking up the empty glasses, he left the room.

"Will old dog Tray remember me"--immediately sung out Trinidad,
gleefully. While Sonora, in the seventh heaven of delight, began to
caper about the room. Of a sudden Nick poked his head in through the
door to inquire into the cause of their hilarity, but they ignored him
completely. At the bar-room door, however, Sonora halted and, glancing
over his shoulder in the Sheriff's direction, he added in a most
tantalising manner:

". . . for me!"

But while Trinidad and Sonora were going out through one door the Deputy
was entering through another. He was greatly agitated and carried in his
hand the letter which The Pony Express had entrusted to his keeping for
Ashby.

"Why, Ashby's skipped!" he announced uneasily. "Got off just after three
this morning--posse and all."

A question was in Nick's eyes as he turned upon the speaker with the
interjection:

"What!" And then as the Deputy made a dash for the bar-room, he added
with a swift change of manner: "Help yourself, Dep."

But if Nick was slow to realise the situation, not so the Sheriff, who
instantly awoke to the fact that the Wells Fargo Agent was on Johnson's
trail. His lips drew quickly back in a half-grin.

"Ashby's after Johnson," presently he said with a savage little laugh.
"Nick, he was watchin' that greaser . . . Took him ten minutes to saddle
up--Johnson has ten minutes' start"--He broke off abruptly and ended
impatiently with: "Oh, Lord, they'll never get him! He's a wonder on the
road--you've got to take your hat off to the damn cuss!" And with a dig
at the other's ribs that was half-playful, half-serious, he was off in
pursuit of Ashby.

A moment later the miners began to pile in for school, whooping and
yelling, their feet covered with snow. Sonora led with an armful of
wood, which he deposited on the floor beside the stove; then came
Handsome Charlie and Happy Halliday, together with Old Steady and Bill
Crow, who immediately dropped on all fours and began to play leap-frog.

"Boys gatherin' for school," observed Trinidad, hurriedly opening the
door; and while the men proceeded to flock in, he got into his jacket
which lay on a chair beside the teacher's desk.

"Here, Trin, here's the book!" cried out Happy Halliday; and the book,
which was securely tied in a red cotton handkerchief, went flying
through the air.

In those few words the signal was given; the fun was on in earnest.
Instantly the miners--veritable school-boys they were, so genuine was
their merriment--braced themselves for a catch of the book, which had
landed safely in Trinidad's hands. Now it was aimed at Sonora, who
caught it on the fly; from Sonora it travelled to Old Steady, who sent
it whizzing over to Handsome. Now the Deputy made ready to receive it;
but instead it landed once more in Sonora's hands amidst cheers of "Come
on, Sonora! Whoopee! Whoop!"

"Sh-sh-sh, boys!" warned the Deputy as Sonora was about to send the book
on another expedition through the air; "here comes the noo scholar from
Watson's."

An ominous hush fell upon the room. One could have heard a pin drop as
the school settled itself down with anticipatory grins that said, "What
won't we do to Bucking Billy!" Therefore, there was not an eye that was
not upon the new pupil when with dinner-pail swinging on one arm and the
other holding tightly onto a small slate, he slowly advanced towards
them.

"Did you ever play Lame Soldier, m' friend?" was Sonora's greeting,
while the miners crowded around them.

"No," replied the big, raw-boned, gullible-looking fellow with a grin.

"We'll play it after school; you'll be the stirrup," promised Sonora;
then turning to his mates with a laugh, which was unobserved by Bucking
Billy, he added: "We'll initiate 'im."

Presently the miners began to move away and Trinidad, picking up a chip
which he espied under a bench, put it on his shoulder and stood in the
centre of the room, thereby indirectly challenging the new pupil to a
scrimmage.

"Don't do it!" cried Old Steady as he hung up his hat upon a buck's horn
on the wall.

"Go on! Go on!" encouraged Bill Crow, hanging up his hat beside Old
Steady's.

The boys took up his words in chorus.

"Go on! Go on!"

Whereupon, Sonora made a dash far the chip and knocked it off of
Trinidad's shoulder, blazing huskily into his face as he did so:

"You do, do you?"

In the twinkling of an eye Trinidad's jacket was off and the two men
were engaged in a hand-to-hand scuffle.

"Soak him!" came from a voice somewhere in the crowd.

"Hit him!" urged another.

"Bat him in the eye!" shrieked Handsome Charlie.

Finally Sonora succeeded in throwing down his opponent and sent him
rolling along the floor, the contents of his pockets marking his trail.

The rafters of The Polka shook to a storm of cheering, and there is no
telling when the men would have ceased had not Nick interfered at that
moment by yelling out:

"Boys, boys, here she is!"

"Here comes the Girl!" came simultaneously from Happy Halliday, who had
got a glimpse of her coming down the trail.

None the worse for his defeat and fall, Trinidad sprang to his feet;
while Sonora made a dash for a seat. They had not been placed; whereupon
he cried out excitedly:

"The seats, boys, where's the seats?"

For the few minutes that preceded the Girl's entrance into the room no
men were ever known to work more rapidly or more harmoniously. They
fairly flew in and out of the room, now bringing in the great
whittled-up, weather-beaten benches and placing them in school-room
fashion, and then rolling in boxes and casks which served as a
ground-hold for the planks which were stretched across them for desks.
It was in the midst of these pilgrimages that Trinidad rushed over to
Nick to ask whether he did not think to-day a good time to put the
question to the Girl.

Nick's eyes twinkled up with merriment; nevertheless, his face took on a
dubious look when presently he answered:

"I wouldn't rush her, Trin--you've got plenty of time . . ." And when he
proceeded to put up the blackboard he almost ran into Sonora, who stood
by the teacher's desk getting into his frock coat.

"Hurry up, boys, hurry up!" urged Trinidad, though he himself smilingly
looked on.

A moment later the Girl, carrying a small book of poems, walked quietly
into their midst. She was paler and not as buoyant as usual, but she
managed to appear cheerful when she said:

"Hello, boys!"

The men were all smiles and returned her greeting with:

"Hello, Girl!"

Then followed the presentation of their offerings--mere trifles, to be
sure, but given out of the fulness of their hearts. Sonora led with a
bunch of berries, which was followed by Trinidad with an orange.

"From 'Frisco," he said simply, watching the effect of his words with
pride.

A bunch of berries was also Happy's contribution, which he made with a
stiff little bow and the one word:

"Regards."

Meantime Nick, faithful friend that he was, went down on his knees and
began to remove the Girl's moccasins. The knowledge of his proximity
encouraged the Girl to glance about her to see if she could detect any
signs on the men's faces which would prove that they suspected the real
truth concerning her absence. Needless to say adoration and love was all
that she saw; nevertheless, she felt ill-at-ease and, unconsciously,
repeated:

"Hello, boys!" And then added, a little more bravely: "How's
everythin'?"

"Bully!" spoke up Handsome Charlie, who was posing for her benefit, as
was his wont, beside one of the desks.

"Say, we missed you," acknowledged Sonora with a world of tenderness in
his voice. "Never knew you to desert The Polka for a whole week before."

"No, I--I . . ." stammered guiltily, and with their little gifts turned
abruptly towards her desk lest she should meet their gaze.

"Academy's opened," suddenly announced Happy, "and--"

"Yes, I see it is," quickly answered the Girl, brushing away a tear that
persisted in clinging to her eyelids; slowly, now, she drew off her
gloves and laid them on the desk.

"I guess I'm kind o' nervous to-day, boys," she began.

"No wonder," observed Sonora. "Road agent's been in camp an' we missed a
hangin'. I can't git over that."

All a-quiver and not daring to meet the men's gaze, much less to discuss
the road agent with them, the Girl endeavoured to hide her confusion by
asking Nick to help her off with her cape. Turning presently she said in
a strained voice:

"Well, come on, boys--come, now!"

Immediately the boys fell in line for the opening exercises, which
consisted of an examination by the Girl of their general appearance.

"Let me see your hands," she said to the man nearest to her; a glance
was sufficient, and he was expelled from her presence. "Let me see
yours, Sonora," she commanded.

Holding his hands behind his back the man addressed moved towards her
slowly, for he was conscious of the grime that was on them. Before he
had spoken his apology she ordered him none too gently to go and wash
them, ending with an emphatic:

"Git!"

"Yes'm," was his meek answer, though he called back as he disappeared:
"Been blackenin' my boots."

The Girl took up the word quickly.

"Boots! Yes, an' look at them boots!" And as each man came up to her,
"An' them boots! an' them boots! Get in there the whole lot o' you an'
be sure that you leave your whisky behind."

When all had left the room save Nick, who stood with her cape on his arm
near the desk she suddenly became conscious that she still had her hood
on, and at once began to remove it--a proceeding which brought out
clearly the extraordinary pallor of her face which, generally, had a
bright, healthy colouring. Now she beckoned to Nick to draw near. No
need for her to speak, for he had caught the questioning look in her
eyes, and it told him plainer than any words that she was anxious to
hear of her lover. He was about to tell her the little he knew when with
lips that trembled she finally whispered:

"Have you heard anythin'? Do you think he got through safe?"

Nick nodded in the affirmative.

"I saw 'im off, you know," she went on in the same low voice; then,
before Nick could speak, she concluded anxiously: "But s'pose he don't
git through?"

"Oh, he'll git through sure! We'll hear he's out of this country pretty
quick," consoled the little barkeeper just as Rance, unperceived by
them, quietly entered the room and went over to a chair by the stove.




XVI.


No man had more of a dread of the obvious than the Sheriff. His
position, he felt, was decidedly an unpleasant one. Nevertheless, in the
silence that followed the Girl's discovery of his presence, he struggled
to appear his old self. He was by no means unconscious of the fact that
he had omitted his usual cordial greeting to her, and he felt that she
must be scrutinising him, feature by feature. When, therefore, he shot a
covert glance at her, it was with surprise that he saw an appealing look
in her eyes.

"Oh, Jack, I want to thank you--" she began, but stopped quickly,
deterred by the hard expression that instantly spread itself over the
Sheriff's face. Resentment, all the more bitter because he believed it
to be groundless, followed hard on the heels of her words which he
thought to be inspired solely by a delicate tactfulness.

"Oh, don't thank me that he got away," he said icily. "It was the three
aces and the pair you held--"

This was the Girl's opportunity; she seized it.

"About the three aces, I want to say that--"

It was Rance's turn to interrupt, which he did brutally.

"He'd better keep out of my country, that's all."

"Yes, yes."

To the Girl, any reference to her lover was a stab. Her face was pale
with her terrible anxiety; notwithstanding, the contrast of her pallid
cheeks and masses of golden hair gave her a beauty which Rance, as he
met her eyes, found so extraordinarily tempting that he experienced a
renewed fury at his utter helplessness. At the point, however, when it
would seem from his attitude that all his self-control was about to
leave him, the Girl picked up the bell on the desk and rang it
vigorously.

Began then the long procession of miners walking around the room before
taking their seats on the benches. At their head was Happy Halliday, who
carried in his hands a number of slates, the one on the top having a
large sponge attached. These were all more or less in bad condition,
some having no frames, while others were mere slits of slate, but all
had slate-pencils fastened to them by strings.

"Come along, boys, get your slates!" sang out Happy as he left the line
and let the others file past him.

"Whoop!" vociferated Trinidad in a burst of enthusiasm.

"Trin, you're out o' step there!" reprimanded the teacher a little
sharply; and then addressing Happy she ordered him to take his place
once more in the line.

In a little while they were all seated, and now, at last, it seemed to
the barkeeper as if the air of the room had been freed of its tension.
No longer did he experience a sense of alertness, a feeling that
something out of the ordinary was going to happen, and it was with
immense relief that he heard the Girl take up her duties and ask:

"What books were left from last year?"

At first no one was able to give a scrap of information on this
important matter; maybe it was because all lips were too dry to open; in
the end, however, when the silence was becoming embarrassing, Happy
moistened his lips with his tongue, and answered:

"Why, we scared up jest a whole book left. The name of it is--is--is--"
The effort was beyond his mental powers and he came to a helpless pause.

Swelling with importance, and drawing forth the volume in question from
his pocket, Sonora stood up and finished:

"--is 'Old Joe Miller's Jokes.'"

"That will do nicely," declared the Girl and seated herself on the
pine-decorated box.

"Now, boys," continued Sonora, ever the most considerate of pupils,
"before we begin I propose no drawin' of weppings, drinkin' or swearin'
in school hours. The conduct of certain members wore on teacher last
term. I don't want to mention no names, but I want Handsome an' Happy to
hear what I'm sayin'." And after a sweeping glance at his mates, who,
already, had begun to disport themselves and jeer at the unfortunate
pair, he wound up with: "Is that straight?"

"You bet it is!" yelled the others in chorus; whereupon Sonora dropped
into his seat.

In time order was restored and now the Girl, looking at Rance out of her
big, frightened, blue eyes, observed:

"Rance, last year you led off with an openin' address, an'--"

"Yes, yes, go on Sheriff!" cried the boys, hailing her suggestion with
delight.

Nevertheless, the Sheriff hesitated, seeing which, Trinidad contributed:
"Let 'er go, Jack!"

At length, fixing a look upon the Girl, Rance rose and said
significantly:

"I pass."

"Oh, then, Sonora," suggested the Girl, covering up her embarrassment as
best she could, "won't you make a speech?"

"Me--speak?" exploded Sonora; and again; "Me--speak? Oh, the devil!"

"Sh-sh!" came warningly from several of the boys.

"Why, I didn't mean that, o' course," apologised Sonora, colouring, and
incidentally expectorating on Bucking Billy's boots. But to his infinite
sorrow no protest worthy of the word was forthcoming from the apparently
insensible Bucking Billy.

"Go on! Go on!" urged the school.

Sonora coughed behind his hand; then he began his address.

"Gents, I look on this place as something more 'n a place to sit around
an' spit on--the stove. I claim that there's culture in the air o'
Californay an' we're here to buck up again it an' hook on."

"Hear! Hear! Hear!" voiced the men together, while their fists came down
heavily upon the improvised desks before them.

"With these remarks," concluded Sonora, "I set." And suiting the action
to the word he plumped himself down heavily upon the bench, but only to
rise again quickly with a cry of pain and strike Trinidad a fierce blow,
who, he rightly suspected, was responsible for the pin that had found a
lodging-place in the seat of his trousers.

At that not even the Girl's remonstrances prevented the boys, who had
been silent as mice all the time that the instrument of torture was
being adjusted, from giving vent to roars of laughter; and for a moment
things in the school-room were decidedly boisterous.

"Sit down, boys, sit down!" ordered the Girl again and again; but it was
some moments before she could get the school under control. When,
finally, the skylarking had ceased, the Girl said in a voice which,
despite its strange weariness, was music to their ears:

"Once more we meet together. There's ben a lot happened o' late that has
learned me that p'r'aps I don't know as much as I tho't I did, an' I
can't teach you much more. But if you're willin' to take me for what I
am--jest a woman who wants things better, who wants everybody all they
ought to be, why I'm willin' to rise with you an' help reach out--" She
stopped abruptly, for Handsome was waving his hand excitedly at her, and
asked a trifle impatiently: "What is it, Handsome?"

Handsome rose and hurriedly went over to her.

"Whisky, teacher, whisky! I want it so bad--"

The school rose to its feet as one man.

"Teacher! Teacher!" came tumultuously from all, their hands waving
frantically in the air. And then without waiting for permission to speak
the cry went up: "Whisky! Whisky!"

"No, no whisky," she denied them flatly.

Gradually the commotion subsided, for all knew that she meant what she
said, at least for the moment.

"An' now jest a few words more on the subject o' not settin' judgment on
the errin'--a subject near my heart."

This remark of the Girl's brought forth murmurs of wonder, and in the
midst of them the door was pushed slowly inward and The Sidney Duck,
wearing the deuce of spades which the Sheriff had pinned to his jacket
when he banished him from their presence for cheating at cards, stood on
the threshold, looking uncertainly about him. At once all eyes were
focused upon him.

"Git! Git!" shouted the men, angrily. This was followed by a general
movement towards him, which so impressed The Sidney Duck that he turned
on his heel and was fleeing for his life when a cry from the Girl
stopped him.

"Boys, boys," said the Girl in a reproving voice, which silenced them
almost instantly; then, beckoning to Sid to approach, she went on in her
most gentle tones: "I was jest gittin' to you, Sid, as I promised. You
can stay."

Looking like a whipped dog The Sidney Duck advanced warily towards her.

Sonora's brow grew thunderous.

"What, here among gentlemen?"

And that his protest met with instantaneous approval was shown by the
way the miners shifted uneasily in their seats and shouted
threateningly:

"Git! Git!"

"Why, the fellow's a--" began Trinidad, but got no further, for the Girl
stopped him by exclaiming:

"I know, I know, Trin--I've tho't it all over!"

For the next few minutes the Girl stood strangely still and her face
became very grave. Never before had the men seen her in a mood like
this, and they exchanged wondering glances. Presently she said:

"Boys, of late a man in trouble has been on my mind--" She paused, her
glance having caught the peculiar light which her words had caused to
appear in Rance's eyes, and lest he should misunderstand her meaning,
she hastened to add: "Sid, o' course,--an' I fell to thinkin' o' the
Prodigal Son. He done better, didn't he?"

"But a card sharp," objected Sonora from the depths of his big voice.

"Yes, that's what!" interjected Trinidad, belligerently.

The Girl's eyebrows lifted and a shade of resentment was in the
answering voice:

"But s'pose there was a moment in his life when he was called upon to
find a extra ace--can't we forgive 'im? He says he's sorry--ain't you,
Sid?"

All the while the Girl had been speaking The Sidney Duck kept his eyes
lowered and was swallowing nervously. Now he raised them and, with a
feeble attempt to simulate penitence, he acknowledged that he had done
wrong. Nevertheless, he declared:

"But if I 'adn't got caught things would 'a' been different. Oh, yes,
I'm sorry."

In an instant the Girl was at his side removing the deuce of spades from
his coat.

"Sid, you git your chance," she said with trembling lips. "Now go an'
sit down."

A broad smile was creeping over The Sidney Duck's countenance as he
moved towards the others; but Happy took it upon himself to limit its
spread.

"Take that!" he blazed, striking the man in the face. "And git out of
here!

"Happy, Happy!" cried the Girl. Her voice was so charged with reproach
that The Sidney Duck was allowed by the men to pass on without any
further molestation. Nevertheless, when he attempted to sit beside them,
they moved as far away as possible from him and compelled him to take a
stool that stood apart from the benches which held them together in
friendly proximity.

At this point Trinidad inquired of the Girl whether she meant to infer
that honesty was not the best policy, and by way of illustration, he
went on to say:

"S'posin' my watch had no works an' I was to sell it to the Sheriff for
one hundred dollars. Would you have much respect for me?"

For the briefest part of a second the Girl seemed to be reflecting.

"I'd have more respect for you than for the Sheriff," she answered
succinctly.

"Hurrah! Whoopee! Whoop!" yelled the men, who were delighted both with
what she said as well as her pert way of saying it.

It was in the midst of these shouts that Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle,
unobserved by the others, quietly stole into the room and squatted
themselves down under the blackboard. When the merriment had subsided
Rance rose and took the floor. His face was paler than usual, though his
voice was calm when presently he said:

"Well, bein' Sheriff, I'm careful about my company--I'll sit in the bar.
Cheats and road agents"--and here he paused meaningly and glanced from
The Sidney Duck to the Girl--"ar'n't jest in my line. I walk in the open
road with my head up and my face to the sun, and whatever I've pulled
up, you'll remark I've always played square and stood by the cyards."

"I know, I know," observed the Girl and fell wearily into her seat; the
next instant she went on more confidently: "An' that's the way to
travel--in the straight road. But if ever I don't travel that road, or
you--"

"You always will, you bet," observed Nick with feeling.

"You bet she will!" shouted the others.

"But if I don't," continued the Girl, insistently, "I hope there'll be
someone to lead me back--back to the right road. 'Cause remember, Rance,
some of us are lucky enough to be born good, while others have to be
'lected."

"That's eloquence!" cried Sonora, moved almost to tears; while Rance
took a step forward as if about to make some reply; but the next
instant, his head held no longer erect and his face visibly twitching,
he passed into the bar-room.

A silence reigned for a time, which was broken at last by the Girl
announcing with great solemnity:

"If anybody can sing 'My Country 'Tis,' Academy's opened."

At this request, really of a physical nature, and advanced in a spirit
of true modesty, all present, curiously enough, seemed to have lost
their voices and nudged one another in an endeavour to get the hymn
started. Someone insisted that Sonora should go ahead, but that worthy
pupil objected giving as his excuse, obviously a paltry one and trumped
up for the occasion, that he did not know the words. There was nothing
to it, therefore, but that the Indians should render the great American
anthem. And so, standing stolidly facing the others, their high-pitched,
nasal voices presently began:


   "My country 'tis of thee,
    Sweet land of liberty,
    Of thee I sing."


"Well, if that ain't sarkism!" interjected Sonora between the lines of
the hymn.


   "Land where our fathers died--"


"You bet they died hard!" cut in Trinidad, rolling his eyes upward in a
comical imitation of the Indians.


   "Land of the Pilgrim's pride,
    From every mountain side
    Let freedom ring."


All the while the Indians were singing the last lines of the hymn the
Girl's face was a study in reminiscent dreams, but when they had
finished and were leaving the room, she came back to earth, as it were,
and clapped her hands, an appreciation which brought forth from Wowkle a
grateful "Huh!"

"I would like to read you a little verse from a book of poems,"
presently went on the teacher; and when the men had given her their
attention, she read with much feeling:


   "'No star is ever lost we once have seen,
     We always may be what we might have been.'"


"Why, what's the matter?" inquired Sonora, greatly moved at the sight of
the tears which, of a sudden, began to run down the teacher's cheeks.
"Why, what's--?" came simultaneously from the others, words failing
them.

"Nothin', nothin', only it jest came over me that I'll be leavin' you
soon," stammered the Girl. "How can I do it? How can I do it?" she
wailed.

Sonora gazed at her unbelievingly.

"Do what?" he said.

"What did she say?" questioned Trinidad.

Now Sonora went over to her, and asked:

"What d'you say? Why, what's the matter?"

Slowly the Girl raised her head and looked at him through half-closed
lids, the tears that still clung to them, blinding her almost. Plainly
audible in the silence of the room the seconds ticked away on the clock,
and still she did not speak; at last she murmured:

"Oh, it's nothin', nothin', only I jest remembered I've promised to
leave Cloudy soon an', p'r'aps, we might never be together again--you
an' me an' The Polka. Oh, it took me jest like that when I seen your
dear, ol' faces, your dear, plucky, ol' faces an' realised that--" She
could not go on, and buried her face in her hands, her glistening blonde
head shaking with her sobs.

It was thus that the Sheriff, entering a moment later, found her.
Without a word he resumed his seat in front of the fire.

Sonora continued to stare blankly at her. He was too dazed to speak,
much less to think. He broke silence slowly.

"What--you leavin' us?"

"Leavin' us?" inquired Happy, incredulously.

"Careful, girl, careful," warned Nick, softly.

The Girl hesitated a moment, and then went recklessly on:

"It's bound to happen soon."

Sonora looked more puzzled than ever; he rested his hand upon her desk
as if to support himself, and said:

"I don't quite understand. Great Gilead! We done anythin' to offend
you?"

"Oh, no, no, no!" she hastened to assure him, at the same time letting
her hand rest upon his.

But this explanation did not satisfy Sonora. Anxious to discover what
she had at heart he went on sounding:

"Tired of us? Ain't we got style enough for you?"

The Girl did not answer; her breathing, swift and short, painfully
intensified the hush that had fallen on the room; at last, the boys
becoming impatient began to bombard her with questions.

"Be you goin' to show them Ridge boys we've petered out an' culture's a
dead dog here?" began Happy, rising.

"Do you want them to think Academy's busted?" asked Handsome.

"Ain't we your boys no more?" put in Trinidad, wistfully.

"Ain't I your boy?" asked Sonora, sentimentally. "Why, what is it, Girl?
Has anybody--tell me--perhaps--"

The Girl raised her head and dried her eyes; when she spoke one could
have heard a pin drop.

"Oh, no, no, no," she said with averted face, and added tremulously:
"There, we won't say no more about it. Let's forgit it. Only when I go
away I want to leave the key o' my cabin with Old Sonora here, an' I
want you all to come up sometimes, an' to think o' me as the girl who
loved you all, an' sometimes is wishin' you well, an' I want to think o'
little Nick here runnin' my bar an' not givin' the boys too much
whisky." Her words died away in a sob and her head fell forward, her
hand, the while, resting upon Nick's shoulder.

At last, Sonora saw what lay beneath her tears; the situation was all
too clear to him now.

"Hold on!" he cried hoarsely. "There's jest one reason for the Girl to
leave her home an' friends--only one: There must be some fellow away
from here that she--that she likes better 'n she does any of us." And
turning once more upon the Girl, he demanded excitedly: "Is that it?
Speak!"

The Girl raised her tear-stained face and looked him in the eye.

"Likes--" she repeated with a world of meaning in her voice--"in a
different way, yes."

"Well, so help me!" ejaculated Happy, unhappily, while Sonora, with head
bent low, went over to his seat.

The next moment the boys of the front rows had joined those of the rear
and were grouping themselves together to discuss the situation.

"Sure you ain't makin' a mistake?" Trinidad questioned suddenly.

The Girl came down from her seat on the platform and went over to them.

"Mistake," she repeated dreamily. "Oh, no, no, no, boys, there's no
mistake about this. Oh, Trin!" she burst out tearfully, and two soft
arms crept gently about his neck. "An' Sonora--Ah, Sonora!" She raised
herself on her tiny toes and kissed him on the left cheek.

The next instant she was gone.




XVII.


Whatever may be said to the contrary, there are few more humiliating
moments in a man's life than when he learns that some other person has
supplanted him in the affections of his adored one. And it was the
Girl's knowledge of this, together with her desire to spare the feelings
of her two old admirers,--for in her nature there was ever that
thoughtfulness of others which never permitted her to do a mean thing to
anyone,--that had caused her to flee so precipitously from the room.

But painful as was their humiliation as they stood in silence, gazing
with saddened faces at the door through which the Girl had gone out,
their cup of bitterness was not yet full. The next moment the Sheriff,
his lips curled inscrutably, said mockingly:

"Well, boys, the right man has come at last. Take your medicine,
gentlemen."

His words cut Sonora to the quick, and it was with difficulty that he
braced himself to hear the worst.

"Who's the man?" he inquired gruffly.

The Sheriff's eyes fastened themselves upon him; at length with deadly
coldness he drawled out:

"Johnson's the man."

All the colour went out of Sonora's face, while his lips ejaculated:

"Gol A'mighty!"

"You lie!" blazed Trinidad in the next breath, and made a quick movement
towards the Sheriff.

But Rance was not to be denied. Seeing Nick advancing towards them he
called upon him to verify his words; but that individual merely looked
first at one and then the other and did not answer, which silence
infuriated Sonora.

"Why, you tol' me . . .?" he said with an angry look in his eye.

"Tol' you, Sonora? Why he tol' me the same thing," protested Trinidad
with an earnestness that, at any other time, would have sent his
listeners into fits of laughter.

This was too much for Sonora; he flew into a paroxysm of rage.

"Well, for a first-class liar . . .!"

"You bet!" corroborated Trinidad, relapsing, despite his anger, into his
pet phrase.

For some minutes the dejected suitors continued in this strain, now
arguing and then condoling with one another, the boys, meanwhile,
proceeding to clear the school-room of the benches, casks and planks,
lifting or rolling them back into place as if they were made of paper.

All of a sudden Sonora's face cleared perceptibly. Turning swiftly to
the sheriff, who sat tilted back in a chair before the fire, he said
with unexpected cheerfulness of voice:

"Why, Johnson's dead. He got away, an'--"

"Yes, he got away," remarked Rance, dully, shaking the ashes from his
cigar, which answer, together with the peculiar look which Sonora saw on
the other's face, made him at once suspicious that something was being
held back from them which they had a right to know. It came about,
therefore, that, with a hasty movement towards the Sheriff, his eyes
glaring, his voice husky, Sonora demanded:

"Jack Rance, I call on you as Sheriff for Johnson! He was in your
county."

Instantly the cry was taken up by the others, but it was Trinidad who,
shaking his fist in Rance's face, supplemented:

"You hustle up an' run a bridle through your p'int o' teeth or your boom
for re-election 's over, you lily-fingered gambler!"

But the Sheriff did not move a muscle, though after a moment he answered
coolly:

"Oh, I don't know as I give a damn . . .!" Which reply, to say the
least, was somewhat disconcerting to the men who had surrounded him and
were eyeing him threateningly.

"No talk--we want Johnson," insisted Trinidad, hotly.

"We want Johnson," echoed the crowd in low, tense voices, their fists
clenched.

And still Rance did not waver, but calmly puffing sway at his long,
black cigar he looked blankly into space. Presently a voice outside
calling, "Boys!" sounded throughout the room and brought him back to
actuality. He sat straight up in his chair while Nick, shifting uneasily
about on his feet, muttered:

"Why, that's Ashby!"

"Oh, if--" began the Sheriff and stopped. The next instant the Wells
Fargo Agent, a cool, triumphant look on his face, stood framed in the
doorway. With a hasty movement towards him Rance asked tensely: "Did you
get him?"

The answer came back, almost before the question was asked:

"Yes--we've got him."

"Not Johnson?" demanded Sonora, truculently.

"Yes, Johnson," affirmed the Wells Fargo Agent with a hard laugh, his
eyes the while upon Handsome, who, unaided, was lifting a heavy cask to
a bench nearby.

"Not alive?" questioned Trinidad, unwilling to trust his own ears.

"You bet!" was Ashby's sententious confirmation, at which pandemonium
broke loose, Nick alone appearing dejected and morose-looking. For his
love and devotion to the Girl were too genuine to permit of his taking
any part whatsoever in what he believed was opposed to her happiness. On
the other hand, Rance, as may be inferred, was inwardly rejoicing,
though when he perceived that Nick was eyeing him steadily he was
careful to lower his eyes lest the little barkeeper should see the
triumph shining beneath them. And, finally, unable to bear Nick's
scrutiny any longer, he explained with a feeble attempt at self-defence:

"Well, I didn't do it, Nick, I didn't do it." But a moment later, his
face hard and set, he added: "Now he be damned! There's an end of
Johnson!"

The words were hardly out of his mouth, however, than Johnson, his arms
bound, followed by the Deputy, strode into the room with the courage of
one who has long faced death, and stood before the men who glared at him
with fire in their eyes and murder in their hearts.

"How do you do, Mr. Johnson. I think, Mr. Johnson, five minutes will do
for you." Rance gave to the words a peculiar accent and inflection, but
this caused the prisoner to look even more composed and calm than
before; he returned crisply:

"I think so."

"So this is the gentleman the Girl loves?" Sonora's face wore a cruel
grin as he stood with arms folded leering at the prisoner.

The biting humour of the thought appealed to Rance, and he smiled grimly
to himself.

"That's the gentleman"--he was saying when a voice outside broke in upon
his words with:

"Nick! Boys! Boys!"

"It's the Girl!" cried Nick in dismay, at the same time rushing over to
the door to intercept her; while Ashby, desirous of preventing any
communication between the Girl and the prisoner took up a position
between them--unnecessary precautions, since the Girl had no intention
of re-entering the room, but wished merely to say that she had forgotten
that it was recess and that the boys might have one drink.

At the sound of her voice Johnson paled. He listened to her retreating
steps, then turning towards Nick he asked him to lock the door.

"Why, the devil . . .!" objected the Sheriff, angrily.

"Please," urged the prisoner with such a look of entreaty in his eyes
that Nick could not find it in his heart to deny him, and went forthwith
to the door and locked it.

"Why, you--" began Sonora with a hurried movement towards the prisoner.

"You keep out of this, Sonora," enjoined the Sheriff, coming forward to
take a hand in the proceedings. "I handle the rope--pick the tree . . ."

"Then hurry . . ." said Sonora, impatiently, while Trinidad interposed
with his usual, "You bet!"

"One moment," said the prisoner as the miners started to go out; and,
strange to relate, the Sheriff ordered the men to halt. Turning once
more to the prisoner, he said:

"Be quick--what is it?"

"It is true," began the unfortunate road agent in an even, unemotional
voice, "that I love the Girl."

At these words Rance's arms flew up threateningly, while a mocking smile
sprang to his lips.

"Well, you won't in a minute," he reminded him grimly.

The taunt brought no change of expression to the prisoner's face or
change of tone in his voice as he went on to say that he did not care
what they did to him; that he was prepared for anything; and that every
man who travelled the path that he did faced death every day for a drink
of water or ten minutes' sleep, concluding calmly:

"You've got me and I wouldn't care but for the Girl."

"You've got just three minutes!" A shade almost of contempt was in
Sonora's exclamation.

"Yes . . .!" blazed Trinidad.

There was an impressive silence; then in a voice that trembled strangely
between pride and humility Johnson continued:

"I don't want her to know my end. Why, that would be an awful thought
for her to go on with all her life--that I died out there--near at hand.
Why, boys, she couldn't stay here after that--she couldn't . . ."

"That's understood," replied Rance, succinctly.

"I'd like her to think," went on the prisoner, with difficulty choking
back the tears, "that I got away clear and went East and changed my way
of living. So you just drag me a good ways from here before you--" He
stopped abruptly and began to swallow nervously. When he spoke again it
was with a perceptible change of manner. "And when I don't write and she
never hears why she will say, 'he's forgotten me,' and that will be
about enough for her to remember, because she loved me before she knew
what I was--and you can't change love in a minute."

All the while Johnson had been speaking the Sheriff's jealousy had been
growing steadily until, finally, turning upon the other with a
succession of oaths he struck him a fierce blow in the face.

"I don't blame you," returned the prisoner without a trace of malice in
his voice. "Strike me again--strike me--one death is not enough for me.
Damn me--I wish you could . . . Oh, why couldn't I have let her pass!
I'm sorry I came her way--but it's too late now, it's too late . . ."

Rance, not in the least affected by what the prisoner had been saying,
asked if that was his last word.

Johnson nodded.

Trinidad, simultaneously with his nod, snapped his finger, indicating
that the prisoner's time was up.

"Dep!" called the Sheriff, sharply.

The Deputy came forward and took his prisoner in charge.

"Good-bye, sir!" said Nick, who was visibly affected.

"Good-bye!" returned the prisoner, briefly. "You tell the Girl--no, come
to think of it, Nick, don't say anything . . ."

"Come on, you!" ordered Happy.

Whereupon with a shout and an imprecation the men removed en masse to
the door.

"Boys," intervened Nick at this juncture, rushing into their midst,
"when Alliger was hanged Rance let 'im see his sweetheart. I think,
considerin' as how she ain't goin' to see no more o' Mr. Johnson here,
an' knowin' the Girl's feelin's--well, I think she ought to have a
chance to--"

Nick was not allowed to finish, for instantly the men were up in arms
raising a most vigorous objection to his proposal; but, notwithstanding,
Nick, evidently bent upon calling the Girl, started for the door.

"No," objected Rance, obstinately.

The road agent took a step forward and, turning upon the Sheriff with a
desperately hopeless expression upon his face, he said:

"Jack Rance, there were two of us--I've had my chance. Inside of ten
minutes I'll be dead and it will be all your way. Couldn't you let me--"

He paused, and ended almost piteously with:

"Oh, I thought I'd have the courage not to ask, but, Oh, couldn't you
let me--couldn't you--"

Once more Nick intervened by shrewdly prevaricating:

"Here's the Girl, boys!"

But this ruse of Nick's met with no greater success than his previous
efforts, for Rance, putting his foot down heavily upon the stove, voiced
a vigorous protest.

"All right," said the prisoner, resignedly. Nevertheless, his face
reflected his disappointment. Turning now to Nick he thanked him for his
efforts in his behalf.

"You must excuse Rance," remarked the little barkeeper with a
significant look at the Sheriff, "for bein' so small a man as to deny
the usual courtesies, but he ain't quite himself."

Weary of their cavilling, for he believed that in the end the Sheriff
would carry his point, and determined to go before his courage failed
him, Johnson made a movement towards the door. Speaking bravely, though
his voice trembled, he said:

"Come, boys--come."

But, odd as it may seem, Nick's words had taken root.

"Wait a minute," Rance temporised.

The prisoner halted.

"I don't know that I'm so small a man as to deny the usual courtesies,
since you put it that way," continued Rance. "I always have extended
them. But we'll hear what you have to say--that's our protection. And it
might interest some of us to hear what the Girl will have to say to you,
Mr. Johnson--after a week in her cabin there may be more to know than--"

Fire leapt to Johnson's eyes; he cried hoarsely--

"Stop!"

"Rance, you don't know what you're sayin'," resented Nick, casting hard
looks at him; while Sonora put a heavy hand upon the Sheriff and
threatened him with:

"Now, Rance, you stop that!"

"We'll hear every word he has to say," insisted the Sheriff, doggedly.

"You bet!" affirmed Trinidad.

"Nick! Nick!" called the Girl once more, and while the little barkeeper
went over to admit her the Wells Fargo Agent took his leave, calling
back after him:

"Well, boys, you've got him safe--I can't wait--I'm off!"

"Dep, untie the prisoner! Boys, circle round the bar! Trin, put a man at
that door! And Sonora, put a couple of men at those windows!" And so
swift were the men in carrying out his instructions, that even as he
spoke, everyone was at his post, the Sheriff himself and Sonora
remaining unseen but on guard at the doors, while the prisoner, edging
up close to the door, was not in evidence when the Girl entered.

"You can think of something to tell her--lie to her," had been the
Sheriff's parting suggestion.

"I'll let her think I risked coming back to see her again," had replied
the prisoner, his throat trembling.

"She won't know it's for the last time--we'll be there," had come
warningly from the Sheriff as he pointed to the door that led to the
bar-room.


     *     *     *     *     *     *


"Why, what have you got the door barred for?" asked the Girl as she came
into the room; and then without waiting for an answer: "Why, where are
the boys?"

"Well, you see, the boys--the boys has--has--" began Nick confusedly and
stopped.

"The boys--" There was a question in the Girl's voice.

"Has gone."

"Gone where?"

"Why, to the Palmetter," came out feebly from Nick; and then with a
sudden change of manner, he added: "Oh, say, Girl, I likes you!" And
here he laid his hand affectionately upon her shoulder. "You've been my
religion--the bar an' you. Why, you don't never want to leave us--why,
I'd drop dead for you."

"Nick, you're very nice to--" began the Girl, gratefully, and stopped,
for at that instant a gentle tap came upon the door. Turning swiftly,
she saw Johnson coming towards her.

"Girl!" he cried in an agony of joy, and held out his arms to receive
her.

"You? You?" she admonished softly.

"Don't say a word," he whispered hurriedly.

"You shouldn't have come back," she said with knitted brow.

"I had to--to say good-bye once more." And his voice was so filled with
tenderness that she readily forgave him for the indiscretion.

"It's all right, it's all right," murmured Nick, his hand still on the
door, which he had taken the precaution to bolt after the Girl had
passed through it.

There was a moment's silence; then, going over to the windows, the Girl
pulled down the curtains.

"The boys are good for quite a little bit," she said as she came back.
"Don't git nervous--I'll give you warnin' . . ."

Nick, unwilling to witness the heartrending scene which he foresaw would
follow, noiselessly withdrew into the bar-room, leaving the prisoner
alone with the Girl.

"Don't be afraid, my Girl," said Johnson, softly.

But the Girl's one thought, after her first gladness, was of his safety:

"But you can't git away now without bein' seen?"

"Yes, there's another way out of Cloudy,--and I'm going to take it."

The grimness of his meaning was lost on the Girl, who answered urgently:

"Then go--go! Don't wait, go now!"

Johnson smiled a sad little smile:

"But remember that I'm sorry for the past, and--and don't forget me," he
said, with an odd break in his voice,--so odd that it roused the Girl
into startled wonderment.

"Forget you? Why, Dick . . .!"

"I mean, till we meet again," he reassured her hastily.

The Girl heaved a troubled sigh. Her fears for him were still on edge.
Then, with a nervous start, she asked:

"Did he call?"

"No. He'll--he'll warn me," Johnson told her unsteadily.

"Oh, every day that dawns I'll wait for a message from you. I'll feel
you wanting me. Every night I'll say to-morrow, and every to-morrow I'll
say to-day . . . Oh, you've changed the whole world for me! I can't let
you go, but I must, Dick, I must . . ." And bursting into tears, she
buried her face on his shoulder, repeating piteously, between shaking
sobs, "Oh, I'm so afraid,--I'm so afraid!"

He held her close, the strength of his arms around her reassuring her
silently. "Why, you mustn't be afraid," he said in tones that were
almost steady. "In a few minutes I'll be quite free, and then--"

"An' you'll make a little home for me when you're free--soon--will you?"
asked the Girl, with a wan smile dawning on her trembling lips. She was
drying her eyes and did not see how the light died out of the man's
face, as he gazed down at her hungrily, hopelessly. This time he could
not trust himself to speak, but merely nodded "yes."

"A strange feelin' has come over me," went on the Girl, brokenly, "a
feelin' to hold you--to cling to you--not to let you go. Somethin' in my
heart keeps sayin', 'Don't let him go!'"

Johnson felt his knees sagging oddly beneath him. The Girl's sure
instinct of danger, the piteousness of their case, were making a coward
of him. He tore himself from her in a panic desire to go while he still
had the manhood to play his part to the end; then suddenly broke down
completely, and with his face buried in his hands, sobbed aloud.

"Why, Girl," he managed to say, brokenly, "it's been worth--the whole of
life just--to know you. You've brought me nearer Heaven,--you, to love a
man like me!"

"Don't say that, Oh, don't say that," she hastened to say with a great
tenderness in her voice. "S'pose you was only a road agent an' I was a
saloon keeper. We both came out o' nothin' an' we met, but through
lovin' we're goin' to reach things now--that's us. We had to be lifted
up like this to be saved."

Johnson tried to speak, but the words would not come. It was, therefore,
with a feeling of relief that, presently, he heard Nick at the door,
saying, "It's all clear now."

Johnson wheeled round, but Nick had flown. Turning once more to the
Girl, he said with trembling lips:

"Good-bye!"

The Girl's face wore a puzzled look, and she told him that he acted as
if they were never going to meet again.

"An' we are, we are, ain't we?" she questioned eagerly.

A faint little smile hovered about the corners of the road agent's mouth
when presently he answered:

"Why, surely we are . . ."

His words cleared her face instantly.

"I want you to think o' me here jest waitin'," she said. "You was the
first--there'll never be anyone but you. Why, you're the man I'd want
sittin' across the table if there was a little kid like I was playin'
under it. I can't say no more 'n that. Only you--you will--you must get
through safe an' come back--an' well, think o' me here jest waitin',
jest waitin', waitin' . . ."

At these words a tightness gripped the man's throat, and in the silence
that followed the tears ran steadily down his cheeks.

"Oh, Girl, Girl," at last he said, "that first night I went to your
cabin I saw you kneeling, praying. Say that in your heart again for me
now. Perhaps I believe it--perhaps I don't . . . I hope I do--I want
to--but say it, say it, Girl, just for the luck of it--say it . . ."

Quickly the Girl crossed herself, and while she sent a silent prayer to
Heaven Johnson knelt at her knees, his head bowed low.

"God bless you," he murmured when the prayer was finished and arose to
his feet; then bending over her hand he touched it softly with his lips.

"Good-bye!" he said chokingly and started for the door.

"Good-bye!" came slowly in return, her face no less moist than his.
Presently she murmured like one in a dream: "Dick, Dick!"

The man hastened his steps and did not turn. At the door, however, he
burst out in an agony of despair: "Girl! Girl . . .!"

But when the Girl looked up he had reached the open. She listened a
moment to the retreating steps, then raising her tear-stained face above
her arms, she sobbed out: "He's gone--he's gone--he's gone . . .!" She
started in pursuit of him, but half-way across the room she fell into
Nick's arms, crying out:

"He's gone, he's gone, he's gone! Dick! Dick! Dick . . .!"

Terribly affected at the sight of the Girl's sorrow, the little
barkeeper did his best to soothe her, now patting her little blonde head
as it rested upon his arm, now murmuring words of loving tenderness.

Suddenly she raised her head, and then it was that she saw for the first
time the men standing huddled together near the door. In a flash the
truth of the situation dawned upon her. With a look of indescribable
horror upon her face she turned upon Nick, turned upon them all with:

"You knew, Nick--you all knew you had 'im! You knew you had 'im an'
you're goin' to kill 'im! But you shan't--no, you shan't kill 'im--you
shan't--you shan't . . .!"

Once more she started in pursuit of her lover, but only to fall with her
face against the door, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Outside there was nothing in the enchanting scene to suggest finality.
Nature never was more prodigal of her magic beauties. The sun still
shone on the winter whiteness of the majestic mountains; the great arch
of sky was still an azure blue; the wild things still roamed the great
forest at will.

Life indeed was very beautiful.

Minutes passed and still the Girl wept.

A wonderful thing happened then--and as suddenly as it was
characteristic of these impulsive and tender-hearted men. In thinking
over their action long afterwards the Girl recalled how for an instant
she could believe neither her ears nor her eyes. With Sonora it was
credible, at least; but with Rance--it seemed wonderful to her even when
observed through the vista of many years. And yet, men like Rance more
often than not exhibit to the world the worst side of their nature. It
is only when some cataclysm of feeling bursts that their inner soul is
disclosed and joyously viewed by eyes which have long been accustomed to
judging them solely from the icy and impenetrable reserve which they
invariably wear.

And so it came about that Sonora--first of the two--went over to her
and laid an affectionate hand upon her shoulder.

"Why, Girl," he said, all the kindliness of his gentle nature flooding
his eyes, "the boys an' me ain't perhaps realised jest what Johnson
stood for you, an' hearin' what you said, an' seein' you prayin' over
the cuss--"

Rance's face lit up scornfully.

"The cuss?" he cut in, objecting to a term which is not infrequently
used affectionately.

"Yes, the cuss," repeated Sonora, all the vindictiveness gone from his
heart now. "I got an idee maybe God's back of this 'ere game."

The Girl's heart was beating fast; she was hoping against hope when, a
moment later, she asked:

"You're not goin' to pull the rope on 'im?"

"You mean I set him free," came from Rance, his tone softer, gentler
than anyone had heard it in some time.

"You set 'im free?" repeated the Girl, timidly, and not daring to meet
his gaze.

"I let him go," announced the Sheriff in spite of himself.

"You let 'im go?" questioned the Girl, still in a daze.

"That's our verdict, an' we're prepared to back it up," declared Sonora
with a smile on his weathered face, though the tears streamed down his
cheeks.

The Girl's face illumined with a great joy. She did not stop now to
dissipate the tears which she saw rolling down Sonora's face, as was her
wont when any of the boys were grieved or distressed, but fairly flew
out of the cabin, calling half-frantically, half-ecstatically:

"Dick! Dick! You're free! You're free! You're free . . .!"

The minutes passed and still the miners did not move. They stood with an
air of solemnity gazing silently at one another. Only too well did they
realise what was happening to them. They were inconsolable. Presently,
Sonora, all in a heap on a bench, took out some tobacco and began to
chew it as fast as his mouth would let him; Happy, going over to the
teacher's desk, picked up the bunch of berries which he had presented
her at the opening of the school session and began to fondle them; while
Trinidad, too overcome to speak, stood leaning against the door, gazing
sadly in the direction that the Girl had taken. As for Rance, after
calling to Nick to bring him a drink, he quietly brought out a pack of
cards from his pocket and, seemingly, became absorbed in a game of
solitaire.

A little while later, his eyes still red from weeping, Nick remarked:

"The Polka won't never be the same, boys--the Girl's gone."




XVIII.


The soft and velvety blackness of night was giving place to a pearly
grey, and the feathery streaks of a trembling dawn were shooting
heavenward when a man, whose head had been pillowed on a Mexican saddle,
rose from the ground in front of a tepee, made of blankets on crossed
sticks, and seated himself on an old tree-stump where he proceeded to
light a cigarette.

In the little tepee, sheltered by an overhanging rock, the Girl was
still sleeping; and the man, sitting opposite the mound of earth and
rock on which it was built, was Johnson.

A week had passed since the lovers had left Cloudy Mountain, and each
day, at the moment when the sun burst above the snow-capped mountains,
found them up and riding slowly eastward. No attempt whatever was made
at haste, but, instead, now climbing easily to the top of the passes,
now descending into the valleys, they rode slowly on, ever loathe to
leave behind them the great forests and high mountains.

Noon of each day found them always resting in some glen where the sun
made golden lacework of the branches over their heads; while at the
approach of night when the great orb was no longer to be seen through
the tree-tops and twilight was fast settling upon the woods, they would
halt near a pool of a dancing brook where, with the relish of fatigue,
they would partake of their rations; and then, when the silences came
on, Johnson would proceed to put up with loving skill the Girl's rude
quarters and, stretching himself out on a gentle slope, covered with
pine needles matted close together, the man and the Girl would go to
sleep listening to the music of the stream as it gurgled and dashed
along, foaming and leaping, over the rocks and beneath the little
patches of snow forgotten by the sun. And to these two, whether in the
depths of the vast forest or, as now, at the edge of the merciless
desert, stretching away like a world without end, their environment
seemed nothing less than a paradise.

There were moments, however, in the long days, which could be devoted to
reflection; and often Johnson pondered over the strange fate that had
brought him under the influence--an influence which held him now and
which he earnestly prayed would continue to hold him--and into close
relationship with a character so different from his own. A contemplation
of his past life was wholly unnecessary, for the realisation had come to
him that it was her personality alone that had awakened his dormant
sense of what was right and what was wrong, and changed the course of
his life. That his future was full of possibilities, evil as well as
good, he was only too well aware; nevertheless, his faith in himself was
that of a strong man whose powers of resistance, in this case, would be
immeasurably strengthened by constant association with a stronger
character.

It was while he was in the midst of these thoughts that the Girl,
without letting him see her, quietly drew the blankets of the tepee a
little to one side and peered out at him. She, too, had not been without
her moments of meditation. Not that she regretted for an instant that
she had committed herself to him irrevocably but, rather, because she
feared lest he should find it difficult to detach himself, soul and
body, from the adventurous life he had been leading. Such painful
communings, however, were rare and quickly dismissed as unworthy of her;
and now as she looked at him with faith and joy in her eyes, it seemed
to her that never before had she seen him appear so resolute and strong,
and she rejoiced that he belonged to her. At the thought a blush spread
over her features, and it was not until she had drawn the blankets back
into their place that she called from behind them:

"Are you awake, Dick?"

At the sound of her voice the man quickly arose and, going over to the
tepee, he parted the blankets and held them open. And even as she passed
out the greyness of dawn was replaced by silver, and silver by pink
tints which lighted up the pale green of the sage brush, the dwarf
shrubs and clumps of Buffalo grass around them as well as the darker
green of the pines and hemlocks of the foothills in the near distance.

"Another day, Girl," he said softly. "See, the dawn is breaking!"

For some moments they stood side by side in silence, the man thinking of
the future, the woman serenely happy and lost in admiration of the calm
beauty of the scene which, in one direction, at least, differed greatly
from anything that she had ever beheld. Every night previous to the one
just passed they had encamped in the great forests; but now they looked
upon a vast expanse of level plain which to the north and east,
stretched trackless and unbroken by mountain or ravine to an
infinitude--the boundless prairies soon to be mellowed and turned to a
golden brown by the shafts of a burning sun already just below the edge
of an horizon aglow with opaline tints.

The Girl had ever been a lover of nature. All her life the mystery and
silences of the high mountains had appealed to her soul; but never until
now had she realised the marvellous beauty and glory of the great
plains. And yet, though her eyes shone with the wonder of it all, there
was an unmistakably sad and reminiscent note in the voice that presently
murmured:

"Another day."

After a while, and as if under the spell of some unseen power, she
slowly turned and faced the west where she gazed long and earnestly at
the panorama of the snow-capped peaks, rising range after range, all
tipped with dazzling light.

"Oh, Dick, look back!" she cried in distress. "The foothills are growin'
fainter." She paused, but suddenly with a far-off look in her eyes she
went on: "Every dawn--every dawn they'll be farther away. Some night
when I'm goin' to sleep I'll turn an' they won't be there--red an'
shinin'." Again she paused as if almost overwhelmed with emotion, saying
at length with a deep sigh: "Oh, that was indeed the promised land!"

Johnson was greatly moved. It was some time before he found his voice.
At length he chided her softly:

"We must always look ahead, Girl--not backwards. The promised land is
always ahead."

It was perhaps strange that the Girl failed to see the new light--the
light that reflected his desire for a cleaner life and an honoured place
in another community with her ever at his side--the hope and faith in
his eyes as he spoke; but still in that sad, reminiscent mood, with her
eyes fixed on the dim distances, she failed to see it, though she
replied in a voice of resignation:

"Always ahead--yes, it must be." And then again with tears in her eyes:
"But, Dick, all the people there in Cloudy, how far off they seem
now--like shadows movin' in a dream--like shadows I've dreamt of. Only a
few days ago I clasped their hands--I seen their faces--their dear
faces--I--" She broke off; then while the tears streamed down her
cheeks: "An' now they're fadin'--in this little while I've lost
'em--lost 'em."

"But through you all my old life has faded away . . . I have lost
that . . ." And so saying he stretched out his arms towards her; but
very gently she waved him back with a murmured:

"Not yet!"

For a little while longer her gaze remained on the mountains in the
west. The mist was still over her eyes when she turned again and saw
that the sun was clearing the horizon in opulent splendour.

"See," she cried with a quick transition of mood, "the sun has risen in
the East--far away--fair an' clear!"

Again Johnson held out his arms to her.

"A new day--a new life--trust me, Girl."

In silence she slipped one hand into his; then she bowed her head and
repeated solemnly:

"Yes--a new life."

Suddenly she drew a little away from him and faced the west again.
Clinging tightly now to him with one hand, and the other raised high
above her head, she cried in a voice that was fraught with such
passionate longing that the man felt himself stirred to the very depths
of his emotions:

"Oh, my mountains, I'm leavin' you! Oh, my California--my lovely
West--my Sierras, I'm leavin' you!" She ended with a sob; but the next
moment throwing herself into Johnson's arms she snuggled there,
murmuring lovingly: "Oh, my home!"

A little while later, happy in their love and fearlessly eager to meet
the trials of the days to come in a new country, they had mounted their
mustangs and were riding eastward.



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