Infomotions, Inc.Snow-Bound at Eagle's / Harte, Bret, 1836-1902



Author: Harte, Bret, 1836-1902
Title: Snow-Bound at Eagle's
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): falkner; hale; kate; rawlins; clinch; lee; ned; colonel clinch; snow
Contributor(s): Bell, Clara, 1834-1927 [Translator]
Versions: original; local mirror; HTML (this file); printable
Services: find in a library; evaluate using concordance
Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 35,554 words (really short) Grade range: 9-11 (high school) Readability score: 63 (easy)
Identifier: etext2297
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Title: Snow-Bound at Eagle's

Author: Bret Harte

Release Date: May 13, 2006 [EBook #2297]

Language: English

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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK SNOW-BOUND AT EAGLE'S ***




Produced by Donald Lainson





SNOW-BOUND AT EAGLE'S

by Bret Harte




SNOW-BOUND AT EAGLE'S




CHAPTER I


For some moments profound silence and darkness had accompanied a Sierran
stage-coach towards the summit. The huge, dim bulk of the vehicle,
swaying noiselessly on its straps, glided onward and upward as if
obeying some mysterious impulse from behind, so faint and indefinite
appeared its relation to the viewless and silent horses ahead. The
shadowy trunks of tall trees that seemed to approach the coach windows,
look in, and then move hurriedly away, were the only distinguishable
objects. Yet even these were so vague and unreal that they might have
been the mere phantoms of some dream of the half-sleeping passengers;
for the thickly-strewn needles of the pine, that choked the way and
deadened all sound, yielded under the silently-crushing wheels a faint
soporific odor that seemed to benumb their senses, already slipping back
into unconsciousness during the long ascent. Suddenly the stage stopped.

Three of the four passengers inside struggled at once into upright
wakefulness. The fourth passenger, John Hale, had not been sleeping, and
turned impatiently towards the window. It seemed to him that two of the
moving trees had suddenly become motionless outside. One of them moved
again, and the door opened quickly but quietly, as of itself.

"Git down," said a voice in the darkness.

All the passengers except Hale started. The man next to him moved his
right hand suddenly behind him, but as quickly stopped. One of the
motionless trees had apparently closed upon the vehicle, and what had
seemed to be a bough projecting from it at right angles changed slowly
into the faintly shining double-barrels of a gun at the window.

"Drop that!" said the voice.

The man who had moved uttered a short laugh, and returned his hand empty
to his knees. The two others perceptibly shrugged their shoulders as
over a game that was lost. The remaining passenger, John Hale, fearless
by nature, inexperienced by habit, awaking suddenly to the truth,
conceived desperate resistance. But without his making a gesture this
was instinctively felt by the others; the muzzle of the gun turned
spontaneously on him, and he was vaguely conscious of a certain contempt
and impatience of him in his companions.

"Git down," repeated the voice imperatively.

The three passengers descended. Hale, furious, alert, but helpless of
any opportunity, followed. He was surprised to find the stage-driver and
express messenger standing beside him; he had not heard them dismount.
He instinctively looked towards the horses. He could see nothing.

"Hold up your hands!"

One of the passengers had already lifted his, in a weary, perfunctory
way. The others did the same reluctantly and awkwardly, but apparently
more from the consciousness of the ludicrousness of their attitude
than from any sense of danger. The rays of a bull's-eye lantern, deftly
managed by invisible hands, while it left the intruders in shadow,
completely illuminated the faces and figures of the passengers. In spite
of the majestic obscurity and silence of surrounding nature, the group
of humanity thus illuminated was more farcical than dramatic. A scrap of
newspaper, part of a sandwich, and an orange peel that had fallen from
the floor of the coach, brought into equal prominence by the searching
light, completed the absurdity.

"There's a man here with a package of greenbacks," said the voice, with
an official coolness that lent a certain suggestion of Custom House
inspection to the transaction; "who is it?" The passengers looked at
each other, and their glance finally settled on Hale.

"It's not HIM," continued the voice, with a slight tinge of contempt on
the emphasis. "You'll save time and searching, gentlemen, if you'll tote
it out. If we've got to go through every one of you we'll try to make it
pay."

The significant threat was not unheeded. The passenger who had first
moved when the stage stopped put his hand to his breast.

"T'other pocket first, if you please," said the voice.

The man laughed, drew a pistol from his hip pocket, and, under the
strong light of the lantern, laid it on a spot in the road indicated
by the voice. A thick envelope, taken from his breast pocket, was laid
beside it. "I told the d--d fools that gave it to me, instead of sending
it by express, it would be at their own risk," he said apologetically.

"As it's going with the express now it's all the same," said the
inevitable humorist of the occasion, pointing to the despoiled express
treasure-box already in the road.

The intention and deliberation of the outrage was plain enough to Hale's
inexperience now. Yet he could not understand the cool acquiescence of
his fellow-passengers, and was furious. His reflections were interrupted
by a voice which seemed to come from a greater distance. He fancied it
was even softer in tone, as if a certain austerity was relaxed.

"Step in as quick as you like, gentlemen. You've five minutes to wait,
Bill."

The passengers reentered the coach; the driver and express messenger
hurriedly climbed to their places. Hale would have spoken, but an
impatient gesture from his companions stopped him. They were evidently
listening for something; he listened too.

Yet the silence remained unbroken. It seemed incredible that there
should be no indication near or far of that forceful presence which a
moment ago had been so dominant. No rustle in the wayside "brush," nor
echo from the rocky canyon below, betrayed a sound of their flight. A
faint breeze stirred the tall tips of the pines, a cone dropped on the
stage roof, one of the invisible horses that seemed to be listening too
moved slightly in his harness. But this only appeared to accentuate
the profound stillness. The moments were growing interminable, when the
voice, so near as to startle Hale, broke once more from the surrounding
obscurity.

"Good-night!"

It was the signal that they were free. The driver's whip cracked like
a pistol shot, the horses sprang furiously forward, the huge vehicle
lurched ahead, and then bounded violently after them. When Hale could
make his voice heard in the confusion--a confusion which seemed greater
from the colorless intensity of their last few moments' experience--he
said hurriedly, "Then that fellow was there all the time?"

"I reckon," returned his companion, "he stopped five minutes to cover
the driver with his double-barrel, until the two other men got off with
the treasure."

"The TWO others!" gasped Hale. "Then there were only THREE men, and we
SIX."

The man shrugged his shoulders. The passenger who had given up the
greenbacks drawled, with a slow, irritating tolerance, "I reckon you're
a stranger here?"

"I am--to this sort of thing, certainly, though I live a dozen miles
from here, at Eagle's Court," returned Hale scornfully.

"Then you're the chap that's doin' that fancy ranchin' over at Eagle's,"
continued the man lazily.

"Whatever I'm doing at Eagle's Court, I'm not ashamed of it," said Hale
tartly; "and that's more than I can say of what I've done--or HAVEN'T
done--to-night. I've been one of six men over-awed and robbed by THREE."

"As to the over-awin', ez you call it--mebbee you know more about
it than us. As to the robbin'--ez far as I kin remember, YOU haven't
onloaded much. Ef you're talkin' about what OUGHTER have been done,
I'll tell you what COULD have happened. P'r'aps ye noticed that when he
pulled up I made a kind of grab for my wepping behind me?"

"I did; and you wern't quick enough," said Hale shortly.

"I wasn't quick enough, and that saved YOU. For ef I got that pistol out
and in sight o' that man that held the gun--"

"Well," said Hale impatiently, "he'd have hesitated."

"He'd hev blown YOU with both barrels outer the window, and that before
I'd got a half-cock on my revolver."

"But that would have been only one man gone, and there would have been
five of you left," said Hale haughtily.

"That might have been, ef you'd contracted to take the hull charge of
two handfuls of buck-shot and slugs; but ez one eighth o' that amount
would have done your business, and yet left enough to have gone round,
promiskiss, and satisfied the other passengers, it wouldn't do to
kalkilate upon."

"But the express messenger and the driver were armed," continued Hale.

"They were armed, but not FIXED; that makes all the difference."

"I don't understand."

"I reckon you know what a duel is?"

"Yes."

"Well, the chances agin US was about the same as you'd have ef you was
put up agin another chap who was allowed to draw a bead on you, and the
signal to fire was YOUR DRAWIN' YOUR WEAPON. You may be a stranger to
this sort o' thing, and p'r'aps you never fought a duel, but even then
you wouldn't go foolin' your life away on any such chances."

Something in the man's manner, as in a certain sly amusement the other
passengers appeared to extract from the conversation, impressed Hale,
already beginning to be conscious of the ludicrous insufficiency of his
own grievance beside that of his interlocutor.

"Then you mean to say this thing is inevitable," said he bitterly, but
less aggressively.

"Ez long ez they hunt YOU; when you hunt THEM you've got the advantage,
allus provided you know how to get at them ez well as they know how to
get at you. This yer coach is bound to go regular, and on certain
days. THEY ain't. By the time the sheriff gets out his posse they've
skedaddled, and the leader, like as not, is takin' his quiet cocktail at
the Bank Exchange, or mebbe losin' his earnings to the sheriff over draw
poker, in Sacramento. You see you can't prove anything agin them unless
you take them 'on the fly.' It may be a part of Joaquim Murietta's band,
though I wouldn't swear to it."

"The leader might have been Gentleman George, from up-country,"
interposed a passenger. "He seemed to throw in a few fancy touches,
particlerly in that 'Good night.' Sorter chucked a little sentiment in
it. Didn't seem to be the same thing ez, 'Git, yer d--d suckers,' on the
other line."

"Whoever he was, he knew the road and the men who travelled on it. Like
ez not, he went over the line beside the driver on the box on the down
trip, and took stock of everything. He even knew I had those greenbacks;
though they were handed to me in the bank at Sacramento. He must have
been hanging 'round there."

For some moments Hale remained silent. He was a civic-bred man, with an
intense love of law and order; the kind of man who is the first to take
that law and order into his own hands when he does not find it existing
to please him. He had a Bostonian's respect for respectability,
tradition, and propriety, but was willing to face irregularity and
impropriety to create order elsewhere. He was fond of Nature with these
limitations, never quite trusting her unguided instincts, and finding
her as an instructress greatly inferior to Harvard University, though
possibly not to Cornell. With dauntless enterprise and energy he had
built and stocked a charming cottage farm in a nook in the Sierras,
whence he opposed, like the lesser Englishman that he was, his own
tastes to those of the alien West. In the present instance he felt it
incumbent upon him not only to assert his principles, but to act
upon them with his usual energy. How far he was impelled by the
half-contemptuous passiveness of his companions it would be difficult to
say.

"What is to prevent the pursuit of them at once?" he asked suddenly. "We
are a few miles from the station, where horses can be procured."

"Who's to do it?" replied the other lazily. "The stage company will
lodge the complaint with the authorities, but it will take two days to
get the county officers out, and it's nobody else's funeral."

"I will go for one," said Hale quietly. "I have a horse waiting for me
at the station, and can start at once."

There was an instant of silence. The stage-coach had left the obscurity
of the forest, and by the stronger light Hale could perceive that his
companion was examining him with two colorless, lazy eyes. Presently
he said, meeting Hale's clear glance, but rather as if yielding to a
careless reflection,--

"It MIGHT be done with four men. We oughter raise one man at the
station." He paused. "I don't know ez I'd mind taking a hand myself," he
added, stretching out his legs with a slight yawn.

"Ye can count ME in, if you're goin', Kernel. I reckon I'm talkin' to
Kernel Clinch," said the passenger beside Hale with sudden alacrity.
"I'm Rawlins, of Frisco. Heerd of ye afore, Kernel, and kinder spotted
you jist now from your talk."

To Hale's surprise the two men, after awkwardly and perfunctorily
grasping each other's hand, entered at once into a languid conversation
on the recent election at Fresno, without the slightest further
reference to the pursuit of the robbers. It was not until the remaining
and undenominated passenger turned to Hale, and, regretting that he had
immediate business at the Summit, offered to accompany the party if they
would wait a couple of hours, that Colonel Clinch briefly returned to
the subject.

"FOUR men will do, and ez we'll hev to take horses from the station
we'll hev to take the fourth man from there."

With these words he resumed his uninteresting conversation with the
equally uninterested Rawlins, and the undenominated passenger subsided
into an admiring and dreamy contemplation of them both. With all his
principle and really high-minded purpose, Hale could not help feeling
constrained and annoyed at the sudden subordinate and auxiliary position
to which he, the projector of the enterprise, had been reduced. It was
true that he had never offered himself as their leader; it was true that
the principle he wished to uphold and the effect he sought to obtain
would be equally demonstrated under another; it was true that the
execution of his own conception gravitated by some occult impulse to
the man who had not sought it, and whom he had always regarded as an
incapable. But all this was so unlike precedent or tradition that, after
the fashion of conservative men, he was suspicious of it, and only that
his honor was now involved he would have withdrawn from the enterprise.
There was still a chance of reasserting himself at the station, where he
was known, and where some authority might be deputed to him.

But even this prospect failed. The station, half hotel and half stable,
contained only the landlord, who was also express agent, and the new
volunteer who Clinch had suggested would be found among the stable-men.
The nearest justice of the peace was ten miles away, and Hale had to
abandon even his hope of being sworn in as a deputy constable. This
introduction of a common and illiterate ostler into the party on equal
terms with himself did not add to his satisfaction, and a remark from
Rawlins seemed to complete his embarrassment.

"Ye had a mighty narrer escape down there just now," said that gentleman
confidentially, as Hale buckled his saddle girths.

"I thought, as we were not supposed to defend ourselves, there was no
danger," said Hale scornfully.

"Oh, I don't mean them road agents. But HIM."

"Who?"

"Kernel Clinch. You jist ez good as allowed he hadn't any grit."

"Whatever I said, I suppose I am responsible for it," answered Hale
haughtily.

"That's what gits me," was the imperturbable reply. "He's the best shot
in Southern California, and hez let daylight through a dozen chaps afore
now for half what you said."

"Indeed!"

"Howsummever," continued Rawlins philosophically, "ez he's concluded to
go WITH ye instead of FOR ye, you're likely to hev your ideas on this
matter carried out up to the handle. He'll make short work of it, you
bet. Ef, ez I suspect, the leader is an airy young feller from Frisco,
who hez took to the road lately, Clinch hez got a personal grudge agin
him from a quarrel over draw poker."

This was the last blow to Hale's ideal crusade. Here he was--an honest,
respectable citizen--engaged as simple accessory to a lawless vendetta
originating at a gambling table! When the first shock was over that
grim philosophy which is the reaction of all imaginative and sensitive
natures came to his aid. He felt better; oddly enough he began to be
conscious that he was thinking and acting like his companions. With this
feeling a vague sympathy, before absent, faintly showed itself in their
actions. The Sharpe's rifle put into his hands by the stable-man was
accompanied by a familiar word of suggestion as to an equal, which
he was ashamed to find flattered him. He was able to continue the
conversation with Rawlins more coolly.

"Then you suspect who is the leader?"

"Only on giniral principles. There was a finer touch, so to speak, in
this yer robbery that wasn't in the old-fashioned style. Down in my
country they hed crude ideas about them things--used to strip the
passengers of everything, includin' their clothes. They say that at the
station hotels, when the coach came in, the folks used to stand round
with blankets to wrap up the passengers so ez not to skeer the wimen.
Thar's a story that the driver and express manager drove up one day with
only a copy of the Alty Californy wrapped around 'em; but thin," added
Rawlins grimly, "there WAS folks ez said the hull story was only an
advertisement got up for the Alty."

"Time's up."

"Are you ready, gentlemen?" said Colonel Clinch.

Hale started. He had forgotten his wife and family at Eagle's Court,
ten miles away. They would be alarmed at his absence, would perhaps hear
some exaggerated version of the stage coach robbery, and fear the worst.

"Is there any way I could send a line to Eagle's Court before daybreak?"
he asked eagerly.

The station was already drained of its spare men and horses. The
undenominated passenger stepped forward and offered to take it himself
when his business, which he would despatch as quickly as possible, was
concluded.

"That ain't a bad idea," said Clinch reflectively, "for ef yer hurry
you'll head 'em off in case they scent us, and try to double back on the
North Ridge. They'll fight shy of the trail if they see anybody on it,
and one man's as good as a dozen."

Hale could not help thinking that he might have been that one man, and
had his opportunity for independent action but for his rash proposal,
but it was too late to withdraw now. He hastily scribbled a few lines to
his wife on a sheet of the station paper, handed it to the man, and took
his place in the little cavalcade as it filed silently down the road.

They had ridden in silence for nearly an hour, and had passed the scene
of the robbery by a higher track. Morning had long ago advanced its
colors on the cold white peaks to their right, and was taking possession
of the spur where they rode.

"It looks like snow," said Rawlins quietly.

Hale turned towards him in astonishment. Nothing on earth or sky looked
less likely. It had been cold, but that might have been only a current
from the frozen peaks beyond, reaching the lower valley. The ridge
on which they had halted was still thick with yellowish-green summer
foliage, mingled with the darker evergreen of pine and fir. Oven-like
canyons in the long flanks of the mountain seemed still to glow with the
heat of yesterday's noon; the breathless air yet trembled and quivered
over stifling gorges and passes in the granite rocks, while far at their
feet sixty miles of perpetual summer stretched away over the winding
American River, now and then lost in a gossamer haze. It was scarcely
ripe October where they stood; they could see the plenitude of August
still lingering in the valleys.

"I've seen Thomson's Pass choked up with fifteen feet o' snow earlier
than this," said Rawlins, answering Hale's gaze; "and last September the
passengers sledded over the road we came last night, and all the time
Thomson, a mile lower down over the ridge in the hollow, smoking his
pipes under roses in his piazzy! Mountains is mighty uncertain; they
make their own weather ez they want it. I reckon you ain't wintered here
yet."

Hale was obliged to admit that he had only taken Eagle's Court in the
early spring.

"Oh, you're all right at Eagle's--when you're there! But it's like
Thomson's--it's the gettin' there that--Hallo! What's that?"

A shot, distant but distinct, had rung through the keen air. It was
followed by another so alike as to seem an echo.

"That's over yon, on the North Ridge," said the ostler, "about two miles
as the crow flies and five by the trail. Somebody's shootin' b'ar."

"Not with a shot gun," said Clinch, quickly wheeling his horse with a
gesture that electrified them. "It's THEM, and the've doubled on us! To
the North Ridge, gentlemen, and ride all you know!"

It needed no second challenge to completely transform that quiet
cavalcade. The wild man-hunting instinct, inseparable to most
humanity, rose at their leader's look and word. With an incoherent and
unintelligible cry, giving voice to the chase like the commonest hound
of their fields, the order-loving Hale and the philosophical Rawlins
wheeled with the others, and in another instant the little band swept
out of sight in the forest.

An immense and immeasurable quiet succeeded. The sunlight glistened
silently on cliff and scar, the vast distance below seemed to stretch
out and broaden into repose. It might have been fancy, but over the
sharp line of the North Ridge a light smoke lifted as of an escaping
soul.




CHAPTER II


Eagle's Court, one of the highest canyons of the Sierras, was in reality
a plateau of table-land, embayed like a green lake in a semi-circular
sweep of granite, that, lifting itself three thousand feet higher,
became a foundation for the eternal snows. The mountain genii of space
and atmosphere jealously guarded its seclusion and surrounded it with
illusions; it never looked to be exactly what it was: the traveller who
saw it from the North Ridge apparently at his feet in descending found
himself separated from it by a mile-long abyss and a rushing river;
those who sought it by a seeming direct trail at the end of an hour lost
sight of it completely, or, abandoning the quest and retracing their
steps, suddenly came upon the gap through which it was entered. That
which from the Ridge appeared to be a copse of bushes beside the tiny
dwelling were trees three hundred feet high; the cultivated lawn before
it, which might have been covered by the traveller's handkerchief, was a
field of a thousand acres.

The house itself was a long, low, irregular structure, chiefly of roof
and veranda, picturesquely upheld by rustic pillars of pine, with the
bark still adhering, and covered with vines and trailing roses. Yet it
was evident that the coolness produced by this vast extent of cover was
more than the architect, who had planned it under the influence of a
staring and bewildering sky, had trustfully conceived, for it had to be
mitigated by blazing fires in open hearths when the thermometer marked
a hundred degrees in the field beyond. The dry, restless wind that
continually rocked the tall masts of the pines with a sound like the
distant sea, while it stimulated out-door physical exertion and defied
fatigue, left the sedentary dwellers in these altitudes chilled in the
shade they courted, or scorched them with heat when they ventured to
bask supinely in the sun. White muslin curtains at the French windows,
and rugs, skins, and heavy furs dispersed in the interior, with
certain other charming but incongruous details of furniture, marked the
inconsistencies of the climate.

There was a coquettish indication of this in the costume of Miss
Kate Scott as she stepped out on the veranda that morning. A man's
broad-brimmed Panama hat, partly unsexed by a twisted gayly-colored
scarf, but retaining enough character to give piquancy to the pretty
curves of the face beneath, protected her from the sun; a red flannel
shirt--another spoil from the enemy--and a thick jacket shielded her
from the austerities of the morning breeze. But the next inconsistency
was peculiarly her own. Miss Kate always wore the freshest and lightest
of white cambric skirts, without the least reference to the temperature.
To the practical sanatory remonstrances of her brother-in-law, and to
the conventional criticism of her sister, she opposed the same defence:
"How else is one to tell when it is summer in this ridiculous climate?
And then, woollen is stuffy, color draws the sun, and one at least
knows when one is clean or dirty." Artistically the result was far from
unsatisfactory. It was a pretty figure under the sombre pines, against
the gray granite and the steely sky, and seemed to lend the yellowing
fields from which the flowers had already fled a floral relief of color.
I do not think the few masculine wayfarers of that locality objected
to it; indeed, some had betrayed an indiscreet admiration, and had
curiously followed the invitation of Miss Kate's warmly-colored figure
until they had encountered the invincible indifference of Miss Kate's
cold gray eyes. With these manifestations her brother-in-law did
not concern himself; he had perfect confidence in her unqualified
disinterest in the neighboring humanity, and permitted her to wander in
her solitary picturesqueness, or accompanied her when she rode in her
dark green habit, with equal freedom from anxiety.

For Miss Scott, although only twenty, had already subjected most of
her maidenly illusions to mature critical analyses. She had voluntarily
accompanied her sister and mother to California, in the earnest
hope that nature contained something worth saying to her, and was
disappointed to find she had already discounted its value in the pages
of books. She hoped to find a vague freedom in this unconventional
life thus opened to her, or rather to show others that she knew how
intelligently to appreciate it, but as yet she was only able to express
it in the one detail of dress already alluded to. Some of the men, and
nearly all the women, she had met thus far, she was amazed to find,
valued the conventionalities she believed she despised, and were
voluntarily assuming the chains she thought she had thrown off. Instead
of learning anything from them, these children of nature had bored her
with eager questionings regarding the civilization she had abandoned, or
irritated her with crude imitations of it for her benefit. "Fancy,"
she had written to a friend in Boston, "my calling on Sue Murphy, who
remembered the Donner tragedy, and who once shot a grizzly that was
prowling round her cabin, and think of her begging me to lend her my
sack for a pattern, and wanting to know if 'polonays' were still worn."
She remembered more bitterly the romance that had tickled her earlier
fancy, told of two college friends of her brother-in-law's who were
living the "perfect life" in the mines, laboring in the ditches with
a copy of Homer in their pockets, and writing letters of the purest
philosophy under the free air of the pines. How, coming unexpectedly on
them in their Arcadia, the party found them unpresentable through dirt,
and thenceforth unknowable through domestic complications that had
filled their Arcadian cabin with half-breed children.

Much of this disillusion she had kept within her own heart, from a
feeling of pride, or only lightly touched upon it in her relations with
her mother and sister. For Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Scott had no idols to
shatter, no enthusiasm to subdue. Firmly and unalterably conscious
of their own superiority to the life they led and the community that
surrounded them, they accepted their duties cheerfully, and performed
them conscientiously. Those duties were loyalty to Hale's interests and
a vague missionary work among the neighbors, which, like most missionary
work, consisted rather in making their own ideas understood than in
understanding the ideas of their audience. Old Mrs. Scott's zeal was
partly religious, an inheritance from her Puritan ancestry; Mrs. Hale's
was the affability of a gentlewoman and the obligation of her position.
To this was added the slight languor of the cultivated American wife,
whose health has been affected by the birth of her first child, and
whose views of marriage and maternity were slightly tinged with gentle
scepticism. She was sincerely attached to her husband, "who dominated
the household" like the rest of his "women folk," with the faint
consciousness of that division of service which renders the position
of the sultan of a seraglio at once so prominent and so precarious. The
attitude of John Hale in his family circle was dominant because it had
never been subjected to criticism or comparison; and perilous for the
same reason.

Mrs. Hale presently joined her sister in the veranda, and, shading her
eyes with a narrow white hand, glanced on the prospect with a polite
interest and ladylike urbanity. The searching sun, which, as Miss Kate
once intimated, was "vulgarity itself," stared at her in return, but
could not call a blush to her somewhat sallow cheek. Neither could it
detract, however, from the delicate prettiness of her refined face with
its soft gray shadows, or the dark gentle eyes, whose blue-veined lids
were just then wrinkled into coquettishly mischievous lines by the
strong light. She was taller and thinner than Kate, and had at times a
certain shy, coy sinuosity of movement which gave her a more virginal
suggestion than her unmarried sister. For Miss Kate, from her earliest
youth, had been distinguished by that matronly sedateness of voice and
step, and completeness of figure, which indicates some members of the
gallinaceous tribe from their callow infancy.

"I suppose John must have stopped at the Summit on some business," said
Mrs. Hale, "or he would have been here already. It's scarcely worth
while waiting for him, unless you choose to ride over and meet him. You
might change your dress," she continued, looking doubtfully at Kate's
costume. "Put on your riding-habit, and take Manuel with you."

"And take the only man we have, and leave you alone?" returned Kate
slowly. "No!"

"There are the Chinese field hands," said Mrs. Hale; "you must correct
your ideas, and really allow them some humanity, Kate. John says they
have a very good compulsory school system in their own country, and can
read and write."

"That would be of little use to you here alone if--if--" Kate hesitated.

"If what?" said Mrs. Hale smiling. "Are you thinking of Manuel's
dreadful story of the grizzly tracks across the fields this morning? I
promise you that neither I, nor mother, nor Minnie shall stir out of the
house until you return, if you wish it."

"I wasn't thinking of that," said Kate; "though I don't believe the
beating of a gong and the using of strong language is the best way to
frighten a grizzly from the house. Besides, the Chinese are going
down the river to-day to a funeral, or a wedding, or a feast of stolen
chickens--they're all the same--and won't be here."

"Then take Manuel," repeated Mrs. Hale. "We have the Chinese servants
and Indian Molly in the house to protect us from Heaven knows what! I
have the greatest confidence in Chy-Lee as a warrior, and in Chinese
warfare generally. One has only to hear him pipe in time of peace to
imagine what a terror he might become in war time. Indeed, anything more
deadly and soul-harrowing than that love song he sang for us last night
I cannot conceive. But really, Kate, I am not afraid to stay alone. You
know what John says: we ought to be always prepared for anything that
might happen.

"My dear Josie," returned Kate, putting her arm around her sister's
waist, "I am perfectly convinced that if three-fingered Jack,
or two-toed Bill, or even Joaquim Murietta himself, should step,
red-handed, on that veranda, you would gently invite him to take a cup
of tea, inquire about the state of the road, and refrain delicately
from any allusions to the sheriff. But I shan't take Manuel from you.
I really cannot undertake to look after his morals at the station, and
keep him from drinking aguardiente with suspicious characters at the
bar. It is true he 'kisses my hand' in his speech, even when it is
thickest, and offers his back to me for a horse-block, but I think
I prefer the sober and honest familiarity of even that Pike County
landlord who is satisfied to say, 'Jump, girl, and I'll ketch ye!'"

"I hope you didn't change your manner to either of them for that," said
Mrs. Hale with a faint sigh. "John wants to be good friends with them,
and they are behaving quite decently lately, considering that they can't
speak a grammatical sentence nor know the use of a fork."

"And now the man puts on gloves and a tall hat to come here on Sundays,
and the woman won't call until you've called first," retorted Kate;
"perhaps you call that improvement. The fact is, Josephine," continued
the young girl, folding her arms demurely, "we might as well admit it at
once--these people don't like us."

"That's impossible!" said Mrs. Hale, with sublime simplicity. "You don't
like them, you mean."

"I like them better than you do, Josie, and that's the reason why I feel
it and YOU don't." She checked herself, and after a pause resumed in a
lighter tone: "No; I sha'n't go to the station; I'll commune with nature
to-day, and won't 'take any humanity in mine, thank you,' as Bill the
driver says. Adios."

"I wish Kate would not use that dreadful slang, even in jest," said
Mrs. Scott, in her rocking-chair at the French window, when Josephine
reentered the parlor as her sister walked briskly away. "I am afraid
she is being infected by the people at the station. She ought to have a
change."

"I was just thinking," said Josephine, looking abstractedly at her
mother, "that I would try to get John to take her to San Francisco this
winter. The Careys are expected, you know; she might visit them."

"I'm afraid, if she stays here much longer, she won't care to see them
at all. She seems to care for nothing now that she ever liked before,"
returned the old lady ominously.

Meantime the subject of these criticisms was carrying away her own
reflections tightly buttoned up in her short jacket. She had driven back
her dog Spot--another one of her disillusions, who, giving way to
his lower nature, had once killed a sheep--as she did not wish her
Jacques-like contemplation of any wounded deer to be inconsistently
interrupted by a fresh outrage from her companion. The air was really
very chilly, and for the first time in her mountain experience the
direct rays of the sun seemed to be shorn of their power. This compelled
her to walk more briskly than she was conscious of, for in less than an
hour she came suddenly and breathlessly upon the mouth of the canyon, or
natural gateway to Eagle's Court.

To her always a profound spectacle of mountain magnificence, it seemed
to-day almost terrible in its cold, strong grandeur. The narrowing pass
was choked for a moment between two gigantic buttresses of granite,
approaching each other so closely at their towering summits that trees
growing in opposite clefts of the rock intermingled their branches and
pointed the soaring Gothic arch of a stupendous gateway. She raised her
eyes with a quickly beating heart. She knew that the interlacing trees
above her were as large as those she had just quitted; she knew also
that the point where they met was only half-way up the cliff, for she
had once gazed down upon them, dwindled to shrubs from the airy summit;
she knew that their shaken cones fell a thousand feet perpendicularly,
or bounded like shot from the scarred walls they bombarded. She
remembered that one of these pines, dislodged from its high foundations,
had once dropped like a portcullis in the archway, blocking the pass,
and was only carried afterwards by assault of steel and fire. Bending
her head mechanically, she ran swiftly through the shadowy passage, and
halted only at the beginning of the ascent on the other side.

It was here that the actual position of the plateau, so indefinite
of approach, began to be realized. It now appeared an independent
elevation, surrounded on three sides by gorges and watercourses, so
narrow as to be overlooked from the principal mountain range, with which
it was connected by a long canyon that led to the ridge. At the outlet
of this canyon--in bygone ages a mighty river--it had the appearance of
having been slowly raised by the diluvium of that river, and the debris
washed down from above--a suggestion repeated in miniature by the
artificial plateaus of excavated soil raised before the mouths of mining
tunnels in the lower flanks of the mountain. It was the realization of a
fact--often forgotten by the dwellers in Eagle's Court--that the valley
below them, which was their connecting link with the surrounding world,
was only reached by ascending the mountain, and the nearest road was
over the higher mountain ridge. Never before had this impressed itself
so strongly upon the young girl as when she turned that morning to look
upon the plateau below her. It seemed to illustrate the conviction
that had been slowly shaping itself out of her reflections on the
conversation of that morning. It was possible that the perfect
understanding of a higher life was only reached from a height still
greater, and that to those half-way up the mountain the summit was never
as truthfully revealed as to the humbler dwellers in the valley.

I do not know that these profound truths prevented her from gathering
some quaint ferns and berries, or from keeping her calm gray eyes open
to certain practical changes that were taking place around her. She had
noticed a singular thickening in the atmosphere that seemed to prevent
the passage of the sun's rays, yet without diminishing the transparent
quality of the air. The distant snow-peaks were as plainly seen, though
they appeared as if in moonlight. This seemed due to no cloud or mist,
but rather to a fading of the sun itself. The occasional flurry of wings
overhead, the whirring of larger birds in the cover, and a frequent
rustling in the undergrowth, as of the passage of some stealthy animal,
began equally to attract her attention. It was so different from the
habitual silence of these sedate solitudes. Kate had no vague fear of
wild beasts; she had been long enough a mountaineer to understand the
general immunity enjoyed by the unmolesting wayfarer, and kept her way
undismayed. She was descending an abrupt trail when she was stopped by a
sudden crash in the bushes. It seemed to come from the opposite incline,
directly in a line with her, and apparently on the very trail that she
was pursuing. The crash was then repeated again and again lower down, as
of a descending body. Expecting the apparition of some fallen tree, or
detached boulder bursting through the thicket, in its way to the bottom
of the gulch, she waited. The foliage was suddenly brushed aside, and
a large grizzly bear half rolled, half waddled, into the trail on the
opposite side of the hill. A few moments more would have brought them
face to face at the foot of the gulch; when she stopped there were not
fifty yards between them.

She did not scream; she did not faint; she was not even frightened.
There did not seem to be anything terrifying in this huge, stupid beast,
who, arrested by the rustle of a stone displaced by her descending feet,
rose slowly on his haunches and gazed at her with small, wondering eyes.
Nor did it seem strange to her, seeing that he was in her way, to pick
up a stone, throw it in his direction, and say simply, "Sho! get away!"
as she would have done to an intruding cow. Nor did it seem odd that
he should actually "go away" as he did, scrambling back into the bushes
again, and disappearing like some grotesque figure in a transformation
scene. It was not until after he had gone that she was taken with
a slight nervousness and giddiness, and retraced her steps somewhat
hurriedly, shying a little at every rustle in the thicket. By the time
she had reached the great gateway she was doubtful whether to be pleased
or frightened at the incident, but she concluded to keep it to herself.

It was still intensely cold. The light of the midday sun had decreased
still more, and on reaching the plateau again she saw that a dark cloud,
not unlike the precursor of a thunder-storm, was brooding over the snowy
peaks beyond. In spite of the cold this singular suggestion of summer
phenomena was still borne out by the distant smiling valley, and even
in the soft grasses at her feet. It seemed to her the crowning
inconsistency of the climate, and with a half-serious, half-playful
protest on her lips she hurried forward to seek the shelter of the
house.




CHAPTER III


To Kate's surprise, the lower part of the house was deserted, but there
was an unusual activity on the floor above, and the sound of heavy
steps. There were alien marks of dusty feet on the scrupulously clean
passage, and on the first step of the stairs a spot of blood. With a
sudden genuine alarm that drove her previous adventure from her mind,
she impatiently called her sister's name. There was a hasty yet subdued
rustle of skirts on the staircase, and Mrs. Hale, with her finger on her
lip, swept Kate unceremoniously into the sitting-room, closed the door,
and leaned back against it, with a faint smile. She had a crumpled paper
in her hand.

"Don't be alarmed, but read that first," she said, handing her sister
the paper. "It was brought just now."

Kate instantly recognized her brother's distinct hand. She read
hurriedly, "The coach was robbed last night; nobody hurt. I've lost
nothing but a day's time, as this business will keep me here until
to-morrow, when Manuel can join me with a fresh horse. No cause for
alarm. As the bearer goes out of his way to bring you this, see that he
wants for nothing."

"Well," said Kate expectantly.

"Well, the 'bearer' was fired upon by the robbers, who were lurking on
the Ridge. He was wounded in the leg. Luckily he was picked up by his
friend, who was coming to meet him, and brought here as the nearest
place. He's up-stairs in the spare bed in the spare room, with his
friend, who won't leave his side. He won't even have mother in the room.
They've stopped the bleeding with John's ambulance things, and now,
Kate, here's a chance for you to show the value of your education in
the ambulance class. The ball has got to be extracted. Here's your
opportunity."

Kate looked at her sister curiously. There was a faint pink flush on her
pale cheeks, and her eyes were gently sparkling. She had never seen her
look so pretty before.

"Why not have sent Manuel for a doctor at once?" asked Kate.

"The nearest doctor is fifteen miles away, and Manuel is nowhere to be
found. Perhaps he's gone to look after the stock. There's some talk of
snow; imagine the absurdity of it!"

"But who are they?"

"They speak of themselves as 'friends,' as if it were a profession. The
wounded one was a passenger, I suppose."

"But what are they like?" continued Kate. "I suppose they're like them
all."

Mrs. Hale shrugged her shoulders.

"The wounded one, when he's not fainting away, is laughing. The other is
a creature with a moustache, and gloomy beyond expression."

"What are you going to do with them?" said Kate.

"What should I do? Even without John's letter I could not refuse the
shelter of my house to a wounded and helpless man. I shall keep him,
of course, until John comes. Why, Kate, I really believe you are so
prejudiced against these people you'd like to turn them out. But I
forget! It's because you LIKE them so well. Well, you need not fear to
expose yourself to the fascinations of the wounded Christy Minstrel--I'm
sure he's that--or to the unspeakable one, who is shyness itself, and
would not dare to raise his eyes to you."

There was a timid, hesitating step in the passage. It paused before the
door, moved away, returned, and finally asserted its intentions in the
gentlest of taps.

"It's him; I'm sure of it," said Mrs. Hale, with a suppressed smile.

Kate threw open the door smartly, to the extreme discomfiture of a tall,
dark figure that already had slunk away from it. For all that, he was
a good-looking enough fellow, with a moustache as long and almost as
flexible as a ringlet. Kate could not help noticing also that his hand,
which was nervously pulling the moustache, was white and thin.

"Excuse me," he stammered, without raising his eyes, "I was looking
for--for--the old lady. I--I beg your pardon. I didn't know that
you--the young ladies--company--were here. I intended--I only wanted to
say that my friend--" He stopped at the slight smile that passed quickly
over Mrs. Hale's mouth, and his pale face reddened with an angry flush.

"I hope he is not worse," said Mrs. Hale, with more than her usual
languid gentleness. "My mother is not here at present. Can I--can
WE--this is my sister--do as well?"

Without looking up he made a constrained recognition of Kate's presence,
that embarrassed and curt as it was, had none of the awkwardness of
rusticity.

"Thank you; you're very kind. But my friend is a little stronger, and
if you can lend me an extra horse I'll try to get him on the Summit
to-night."

"But you surely will not take him away from us so soon?" said Mrs. Hale,
with a languid look of alarm, in which Kate, however, detected a certain
real feeling. "Wait at least until my husband returns to-morrow."

"He won't be here to-morrow," said the stranger hastily. He stopped,
and as quickly corrected himself. "That is, his business is so very
uncertain, my friend says."

Only Kate noticed the slip; but she noticed also that her sister was
apparently unconscious of it. "You think," she said, "that Mr. Hale may
be delayed?"

He turned upon her almost brusquely. "I mean that it is already snowing
up there;" he pointed through the window to the cloud Kate had noticed;
"if it comes down lower in the pass the roads will be blocked up. That
is why it would be better for us to try and get on at once."

"But if Mr. Hale is likely to be stopped by snow, so are you," said
Mrs. Hale playfully; "and you had better let us try to make your friend
comfortable here rather than expose him to that uncertainty in his
weak condition. We will do our best for him. My sister is dying for
an opportunity to show her skill in surgery," she continued, with
an unexpected mischievousness that only added to Kate's surprised
embarrassment. "Aren't you, Kate?"

Equivocal as the young girl knew her silence appeared, she was unable to
utter the simplest polite evasion. Some unaccountable impulse kept her
constrained and speechless. The stranger did not, however, wait for her
reply, but, casting a swift, hurried glance around the room, said, "It's
impossible; we must go. In fact, I've already taken the liberty to order
the horses round. They are at the door now. You may be certain," he
added, with quick earnestness, suddenly lifting his dark eyes to Mrs.
Hale, and as rapidly withdrawing them, "that your horse will be returned
at once, and--and--we won't forget your kindness." He stopped and turned
towards the hall. "I--I have brought my friend down-stairs. He wants to
thank you before he goes."

As he remained standing in the hall the two women stepped to the door.
To their surprise, half reclining on a cane sofa was the wounded man,
and what could be seen of his slight figure was wrapped in a dark
serape. His beardless face gave him a quaint boyishness quite
inconsistent with the mature lines of his temples and forehead. Pale,
and in pain, as he evidently was, his blue eyes twinkled with intense
amusement. Not only did his manner offer a marked contrast to the sombre
uneasiness of his companion, but he seemed to be the only one perfectly
at his ease in the group around him.

"It's rather rough making you come out here to see me off," he said,
with a not unmusical laugh that was very infectious, "but Ned there,
who carried me downstairs, wanted to tote me round the house in his arms
like a baby to say ta-ta to you all. Excuse my not rising, but I feel as
uncertain below as a mermaid, and as out of my element," he added, with
a mischievous glance at his friend. "Ned concluded I must go on. But I
must say good-by to the old lady first. Ah! here she is."

To Kate's complete bewilderment, not only did the utter familiarity of
this speech, pass unnoticed and unrebuked by her sister, but actually
her own mother advanced quickly with every expression of lively
sympathy, and with the authority of her years and an almost maternal
anxiety endeavored to dissuade the invalid from going. "This is not my
house," she said, looking at her daughter, "but if it were I should
not hear of your leaving, not only to-night, but until you were out of
danger. Josephine! Kate! What are you thinking of to permit it? Well,
then I forbid it--there!"

Had they become suddenly insane, or were they bewitched by this morose
intruder and his insufferably familiar confidant? The man was wounded,
it was true; they might have to put him up in common humanity; but here
was her austere mother, who wouldn't come in the room when Whisky Dick
called on business, actually pressing both of the invalid's hands,
while her sister, who never extended a finger to the ordinary visiting
humanity of the neighborhood, looked on with evident complacency.

The wounded man suddenly raised Mrs. Scott's hand to his lips, kissed
it gently, and, with his smile quite vanished, endeavored to rise to his
feet. "It's of no use--we must go. Give me your arm, Ned. Quick! Are the
horses there?"

"Dear me," said Mrs. Scott quickly. "I forgot to say the horse cannot be
found anywhere. Manuel must have taken him this morning to look up the
stock. But he will be back to-night certainly, and if to-morrow--"

The wounded man sank back to a sitting position. "Is Manuel your man?"
he asked grimly.

"Yes."

The two men exchanged glances.

"Marked on his left cheek and drinks a good deal?"

"Yes," said Kate, finding her voice. "Why?"

The amused look came back to the man's eyes. "That kind of man isn't
safe to wait for. We must take our own horse, Ned. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

The wounded man again attempted to rise. He fell back, but this time
quite heavily. He had fainted.

Involuntarily and simultaneously the three women rushed to his side. "He
cannot go," said Kate suddenly.

"He will be better in a moment."

"But only for a moment. Will nothing induce you to change your mind?"

As if in reply a sudden gust of wind brought a volley of rain against
the window.

"THAT will," said the stranger bitterly.

"The rain?"

"A mile from here it is SNOW; and before we could reach the Summit with
these horses the road would be impassable."

He made a slight gesture to himself, as if accepting an inevitable
defeat, and turned to his companion, who was slowly reviving under the
active ministration of the two women. The wounded man looked around with
a weak smile. "This is one way of going off," he said faintly, "but I
could do this sort of thing as well on the road."

"You can do nothing now," said his friend, decidedly. "Before we get to
the Gate the road will be impassable for our horses."

"For ANY horses?" asked Kate.

"For any horses. For any man or beast I might say. Where we cannot get
out, no one can get in," he added, as if answering her thoughts. "I
am afraid that you won't see your brother to-morrow morning. But I'll
reconnoitre as soon as I can do so without torturing HIM," he said,
looking anxiously at the helpless man; "he's got about his share of
pain, I reckon, and the first thing is to get him easier." It was the
longest speech he had made to her; it was the first time he had fairly
looked her in the face. His shy restlessness had suddenly given way to
dogged resignation, less abstracted, but scarcely more flattering to
his entertainers. Lifting his companion gently in his arms, as if he
had been a child, he reascended the staircase, Mrs. Scott and the
hastily-summoned Molly following with overflowing solicitude. As soon as
they were alone in the parlor Mrs. Hale turned to her sister: "Only that
our guests seemed to be as anxious to go just now as you were to pack
them off, I should have been shocked at your inhospitality. What has
come over you, Kate? These are the very people you have reproached me so
often with not being civil enough to."

"But WHO are they?"

"How do I know? There is YOUR BROTHER'S letter."

She usually spoke of her husband as "John." This slight shifting of
relationship and responsibility to the feminine mind was significant.
Kate was a little frightened and remorseful.

"I only meant you don't even know their names."

"That wasn't necessary for giving them a bed and bandages. Do you
suppose the good Samaritan ever asked the wounded Jew's name, and that
the Levite did not excuse himself because the thieves had taken the
poor man's card-case? Do the directions, 'In case of accident,' in your
ambulance rules, read, 'First lay the sufferer on his back and inquire
his name and family connections'? Besides, you can call one 'Ned' and
the other 'George,' if you like."

"Oh, you know what I mean," said Kate, irrelevantly. "Which is George?"

"George is the wounded man," said Mrs. Hale; "NOT the one who talked
to you more than he did to any one else. I suppose the poor man was
frightened and read dismissal in your eyes."

"I wish John were here."

"I don't think we have anything to fear in his absence from men whose
only wish is to get away from us. If it is a question of propriety,
my dear Kate, surely there is the presence of mother to prevent any
scandal--although really her own conduct with the wounded one is not
above suspicion," she added, with that novel mischievousness that seemed
a return of her lost girlhood. "We must try to do the best we can with
them and for them," she said decidedly, "and meantime I'll see if I
can't arrange John's room for them."

"John's room?"

"Oh, mother is perfectly satisfied; indeed, suggested it. It's larger
and will hold two beds, for 'Ned,' the friend, must attend to him at
night. And, Kate, don't you think, if you're not going out again, you
might change your costume? It does very well while we are alone--"

"Well," said Kate indignantly, "as I am not going into his room--"

"I'm not so sure about that, if we can't get a regular doctor. But he
is very restless, and wanders all over the house like a timid and
apologetic spaniel."

"Who?"

"Why 'Ned.' But I must go and look after the patient. I suppose they've
got him safe in his bed again," and with a nod to her sister she tripped
up-stairs.

Uncomfortable and embarrassed, she knew not why, Kate sought her mother.
But that good lady was already in attendance on the patient, and
Kate hurried past that baleful centre of attraction with a feeling of
loneliness and strangeness she had never experienced before. Entering
her own room she went to the window--that first and last refuge of the
troubled mind--and gazed out. Turning her eyes in the direction of her
morning's walk, she started back with a sense of being dazzled. She
rubbed first her eyes and then the rain-dimmed pane. It was no illusion!
The whole landscape, so familiar to her, was one vast field of dead,
colorless white! Trees, rocks, even distance itself, had vanished in
those few hours. An even shadowless, motionless white sea filled the
horizon. On either side a vast wall of snow seemed to shut out the
world like a shroud. Only the green plateau before her, with its sloping
meadows and fringe of pines and cottonwood, lay alone like a summer
island in this frozen sea.

A sudden desire to view this phenomenon more closely, and to learn for
herself the limits of this new tethered life, completely possessed
her, and, accustomed to act upon her independent impulses, she seized a
hooded waterproof cloak, and slipped out of the house unperceived. The
rain was falling steadily along the descending trail where she walked,
but beyond, scarcely a mile across the chasm, the wintry distance began
to confuse her brain with the inextricable swarming of snow. Hurrying
down with feverish excitement, she at last came in sight of the arching
granite portals of their domain. But her first glance through the
gateway showed it closed as if with a white portcullis. Kate remembered
that the trail began to ascend beyond the arch, and knew that what she
saw was only the mountain side she had partly climbed this morning. But
the snow had already crept down its flank, and the exit by trail was
practically closed. Breathlessly making her way back to the highest part
of the plateau--the cliff behind the house that here descended abruptly
to the rain-dimmed valley--she gazed at the dizzy depths in vain for
some undiscovered or forgotten trail along its face. But a single glance
convinced her of its inaccessibility. The gateway was indeed their only
outlet to the plain below. She looked back at the falling snow beyond
until she fancied she could see in the crossing and recrossing lines
the moving meshes of a fateful web woven around them by viewless but
inexorable fingers.

Half frightened, she was turning away, when she perceived, a few paces
distant, the figure of the stranger, "Ned," also apparently absorbed
in the gloomy prospect. He was wrapped in the clinging folds of a black
serape braided with silver; the broad flap of a slouch hat beaten back
by the wind exposed the dark, glistening curls on his white forehead. He
was certainly very handsome and picturesque, and that apparently without
effort or consciousness. Neither was there anything in his costume or
appearance inconsistent with his surroundings, or, even with what Kate
could judge were his habits or position. Nevertheless, she instantly
decided that he was TOO handsome and too picturesque, without suspecting
that her ideas of the limits of masculine beauty were merely personal
experience.

As he turned away from the cliff they were brought face to face. "It
doesn't look very encouraging over there," he said quietly, as if the
inevitableness of the situation had relieved him of his previous shyness
and effort; "it's even worse than I expected. The snow must have begun
there last night, and it looks as if it meant to stay." He stopped for a
moment, and then, lifting his eyes to her, said:--

"I suppose you know what this means?"

"I don't understand you."

"I thought not. Well! it means that you are absolutely cut off here from
any communication or intercourse with any one outside of that canyon.
By this time the snow is five feet deep over the only trail by which one
can pass in and out of that gateway. I am not alarming you, I hope, for
there is no real physical danger; a place like this ought to be
well garrisoned, and certainly is self-supporting so far as the mere
necessities and even comforts are concerned. You have wood, water,
cattle, and game at your command, but for two weeks at least you are
completely isolated."

"For two weeks," said Kate, growing pale--"and my brother!"

"He knows all by this time, and is probably as assured as I am of the
safety of his family."

"For two weeks," continued Kate; "impossible! You don't know my brother!
He will find some way to get to us."

"I hope so," returned the stranger gravely, "for what is possible for
him is possible for us."

"Then you are anxious to get away," Kate could not help saying.

"Very."

The reply was not discourteous in manner, but was so far from gallant
that Kate felt a new and inconsistent resentment. Before she could say
anything he added, "And I hope you will remember, whatever may happen,
that I did my best to avoid staying here longer than was necessary to
keep my friend from bleeding to death in the road."

"Certainly," said Kate; then added awkwardly, "I hope he'll be better
soon." She was silent, and then, quickening her pace, said hurriedly, "I
must tell my sister this dreadful news."

"I think she is prepared for it. If there is anything I can do to help
you I hope you will let me know. Perhaps I may be of some service. I
shall begin by exploring the trails to-morrow, for the best service we
can do you possibly is to take ourselves off; but I can carry a gun, and
the woods are full of game driven down from the mountains. Let me show
you something you may not have noticed." He stopped, and pointed to a
small knoll of sheltered shrubbery and granite on the opposite mountain,
which still remained black against the surrounding snow. It seemed to be
thickly covered with moving objects. "They are wild animals driven out
of the snow," said the stranger. "That larger one is a grizzly; there is
a panther, wolves, wild cats, a fox, and some mountain goats."

"An ill-assorted party," said the young girl.

"Ill luck makes them companions. They are too frightened to hurt one
another now."

"But they will eat each other later on," said Kate, stealing a glance at
her companion.

He lifted his long lashes and met her eyes. "Not on a haven of refuge."




CHAPTER IV


Kate found her sister, as the stranger had intimated, fully prepared. A
hasty inventory of provisions and means of subsistence showed that they
had ample resources for a much longer isolation.

"They tell me it is by no means an uncommon case, Kate; somebody over at
somebody's place was snowed in for four weeks, and now it appears that
even the Summit House is not always accessible. John ought to have known
it when he bought the place; in fact, I was ashamed to admit that he did
not. But that is like John to prefer his own theories to the experience
of others. However, I don't suppose we should even notice the privation
except for the mails. It will be a lesson to John, though. As Mr. Lee
says, he is on the outside, and can probably go wherever he likes from
the Summit except to come here."

"Mr. Lee?" echoed Kate.

"Yes, the wounded one; and the other's name is Falkner. I asked them in
order that you might be properly introduced. There were very respectable
Falkners in Charlestown, you remember; I thought you might warm to
the name, and perhaps trace the connection, now that you are such good
friends. It's providential they are here, as we haven't got a horse or
a man in the place since Manuel disappeared, though Mr. Falkner says
he can't be far away, or they would have met him on the trail if he had
gone towards the Summit."

"Did they say anything more of Manuel?"

"Nothing; though I am inclined to agree with you that he isn't
trustworthy. But that again is the result of John's idea of employing
native skill at the expense of retaining native habits."

The evening closed early, and with no diminution in the falling rain and
rising wind. Falkner kept his word, and unostentatiously performed the
out-door work in the barn and stables, assisted by the only Chinese
servant remaining, and under the advice and supervision of Kate.
Although he seemed to understand horses, she was surprised to find that
he betrayed a civic ignorance of the ordinary details of the farm and
rustic household. It was quite impossible that she should retain her
distrustful attitude, or he his reserve in their enforced companionship.
They talked freely of subjects suggested by the situation, Falkner
exhibiting a general knowledge and intuition of things without parade or
dogmatism. Doubtful of all versatility as Kate was, she could not help
admitting to herself that his truths were none the less true for their
quantity or that he got at them without ostentatious processes. His talk
certainly was more picturesque than her brother's, and less subduing to
her faculties. John had always crushed her.

When they returned to the house he did not linger in the parlor or
sitting-room, but at once rejoined his friend. When dinner was ready in
the dining-room, a little more deliberately arranged and ornamented than
usual, the two women were somewhat surprised to receive an excuse from
Falkner, begging them to allow him for the present to take his meals
with the patient, and thus save the necessity of another attendant.

"It is all shyness, Kate," said Mrs. Hale, confidently, "and must not be
permitted for a moment."

"I'm sure I should be quite willing to stay with the poor boy myself,"
said Mrs. Scott, simply, "and take Mr. Falkner's place while he dines."

"You are too willing, mother," said Mrs. Hale, pertly, "and your 'poor
boy,' as you call him, will never see thirty-five again."

"He will never see any other birthday!" retorted her mother, "unless you
keep him more quiet. He only talks when you're in the room."

"He wants some relief to his friend's long face and moustachios that
make him look prematurely in mourning," said Mrs. Hale, with a slight
increase of animation. "I don't propose to leave them too much together.
After dinner we'll adjourn to their room and lighten it up a little.
You must come, Kate, to look at the patient, and counteract the baleful
effects of my frivolity."

Mrs. Hale's instincts were truer than her mother's experience; not only
that the wounded man's eyes became brighter under the provocation of her
presence, but it was evident that his naturally exuberant spirits were
a part of his vital strength, and were absolutely essential to his quick
recovery. Encouraged by Falkner's grave and practical assistance, which
she could not ignore, Kate ventured to make an examination of Lee's
wound. Even to her unpractised eye it was less serious than at first
appeared. The great loss of blood had been due to the laceration of
certain small vessels below the knee, but neither artery nor bone was
injured. A recurrence of the haemorrhage or fever was the only thing to
be feared, and these could be averted by bandaging, repose, and simple
nursing.

The unfailing good humor of the patient under this manipulation, the
quaint originality of his speech, the freedom of his fancy, which was,
however, always controlled by a certain instinctive tact, began to
affect Kate nearly as it had the others. She found herself laughing over
the work she had undertaken in a pure sense of duty; she joined in the
hilarity produced by Lee's affected terror of her surgical mania, and
offered to undo the bandages in search of the thimble he declared she
had left in the wound with a view to further experiments.

"You ought to broaden your practice," he suggested. "A good deal might
be made out of Ned and a piece of soap left carelessly on the first step
of the staircase, while mountains of surgical opportunities lie in
a humble orange peel judiciously exposed. Only I warn you that you
wouldn't find him as docile as I am. Decoyed into a snow-drift and
frozen, you might get some valuable experiences in resuscitation by
thawing him."

"I fancied you had done that already, Kate," whispered Mrs. Hale.

"Freezing is the new suggestion for painless surgery," said Lee, coming
to Kate's relief with ready tact, "only the knowledge should be
more generally spread. There was a man up at Strawberry fell under a
sledge-load of wood in the snow. Stunned by the shock, he was slowly
freezing to death, when, with a tremendous effort, he succeeded in
freeing himself all but his right leg, pinned down by a small log. His
axe happened to have fallen within reach, and a few blows on the log
freed him."

"And saved the poor fellow's life," said Mrs. Scott, who was listening
with sympathizing intensity.

"At the expense of his LEFT LEG, which he had unknowingly cut off under
the pleasing supposition that it was a log," returned Lee demurely.

Nevertheless, in a few moments he managed to divert the slightly shocked
susceptibilities of the old lady with some raillery of himself, and did
not again interrupt the even good-humored communion of the party. The
rain beating against the windows and the fire sparkling on the hearth
seemed to lend a charm to their peculiar isolation, and it was not until
Mrs. Scott rose with a warning that they were trespassing upon the rest
of their patient that they discovered that the evening had slipped by
unnoticed. When the door at last closed on the bright, sympathetic
eyes of the two young women and the motherly benediction of the elder,
Falkner walked to the window, and remained silent, looking into the
darkness. Suddenly he turned bitterly to his companion.

"This is just h-ll, George."

George Lee, with a smile on his boyish face, lazily moved his head.

"I don't know! If it wasn't for the old woman, who is the one solid
chunk of absolute goodness here, expecting nothing, wanting nothing,
it would be good fun enough! These two women, cooped up in this house,
wanted excitement. They've got it! That man Hale wanted to show off by
going for us; he's had his chance, and will have it again before I've
done with him. That d--d fool of a messenger wanted to go out of his way
to exchange shots with me; I reckon he's the most satisfied of the lot!
I don't know why YOU should growl. You did your level best to get away
from here, and the result is, that little Puritan is ready to worship
you."

"Yes--but this playing it on them--George--this--"

"Who's playing it? Not you; I see you've given away our names already."

"I couldn't lie, and they know nothing by that."

"Do you think they would be happier by knowing it? Do you think that
soft little creature would be as happy as she was to-night if she knew
that her husband had been indirectly the means of laying me by the heels
here? Where is the swindle? This hole in my leg? If you had been five
minutes under that girl's d--d sympathetic fingers you'd have thought it
was genuine. Is it in our trying to get away? Do you call that ten-feet
drift in the pass a swindle? Is it in the chance of Hale getting back
while we're here? That's real enough, isn't it? I say, Ned, did you ever
give your unfettered intellect to the contemplation of THAT?"

Falkner did not reply. There was an interval of silence, but he could
see from the movement of George's shoulders that he was shaking with
suppressed laughter.

"Fancy Mrs. Hale archly introducing her husband! My offering him a
chair, but being all the time obliged to cover him with a derringer
under the bedclothes. Your rushing in from your peaceful pastoral
pursuits in the barn, with a pitchfork in one hand and the girl in the
other, and dear old mammy sympathizing all round and trying to make
everything comfortable."

"I should not be alive to see it, George," said Falkner gloomily.

"You'd manage to pitchfork me and those two women on Hale's horse and
ride away; that's what you'd do, or I don't know you! Look here, Ned,"
he added more seriously, "the only swindling was our bringing that note
here. That was YOUR idea. You thought it would remove suspicion, and as
you believed I was bleeding to death you played that game for all it was
worth to save me. You might have done what I asked you to do--propped
me up in the bushes, and got away yourself. I was good for a couple of
shots yet, and after that--what mattered? That night, the next day, the
next time I take the road, or a year hence? It will come when it will
come, all the same!"

He did not speak bitterly, nor relax his smile. Falkner, without
speaking, slid his hand along the coverlet. Lee grasped it, and their
hands remained clasped together for a few minutes in silence.

"How is this to end? We cannot go on here in this way," said Falkner
suddenly.

"If we cannot get away it must go on. Look here, Ned. I don't reckon
to take anything out of this house that I didn't bring in it, or isn't
freely offered to me; yet I don't otherwise, you understand, intend
making myself out a d--d bit better than I am. That's the only excuse I
have for not making myself out JUST WHAT I am. I don't know the fellow
who's obliged to tell every one the last company he was in, or the last
thing he did! Do you suppose even these pretty little women tell US
their whole story? Do you fancy that this St. John in the wilderness is
canonized in his family? Perhaps, when I take the liberty to intrude in
his affairs, as he has in mine, he'd see he isn't. I don't blame you for
being sensitive, Ned. It's natural. When a man lives outside the revised
statutes of his own State he is apt to be awfully fine on points of
etiquette in his own household. As for me, I find it rather comfortable
here. The beds of other people's making strike me as being more
satisfactory than my own. Good-night."

In a few moments he was sleeping the peaceful sleep of that youth which
seemed to be his own dominant quality. Falkner stood for a little space
and watched him, following the boyish lines of his cheek on the pillow,
from the shadow of the light brown lashes under his closed lids to the
lifting of his short upper lip over his white teeth, with his regular
respiration. Only a sharp accenting of the line of nostril and jaw and a
faint depression of the temple betrayed his already tried manhood.

The house had long sunk to repose when Falkner returned to the window,
and remained looking out upon the storm. Suddenly he extinguished the
light, and passing quickly to the bed laid his hand upon the sleeper.
Lee opened his eyes instantly.

"Are you awake?"

"Perfectly."

"Somebody is trying to get into the house!"

"Not HIM, eh?" said Lee gayly.

"No; two men. Mexicans, I think. One looks like Manuel."

"Ah," said Lee, drawing himself up to a sitting posture.

"Well?"

"Don't you see? He believes the women are alone."

"The dog--d--d hound!"

"Speak respectfully of one of my people, if you please, and hand me my
derringer. Light the candle again, and open the door. Let them get in
quietly. They'll come here first. It's HIS room, you understand, and if
there's any money it's here. Anyway, they must pass here to get to the
women's rooms. Leave Manuel to me, and you take care of the other."

"I see."

"Manuel knows the house, and will come first. When he's fairly in the
room shut the door and go for the other. But no noise. This is just one
of the SW-EETEST things out--if it's done properly."

"But YOU, George?"

"If I couldn't manage that fellow without turning down the bedclothes
I'd kick myself. Hush. Steady now."

He lay down and shut his eyes as if in natural repose. Only his right
hand, carelessly placed under his pillow, closed on the handle of his
pistol. Falkner quietly slipped into the passage. The light of the
candle faintly illuminated the floor and opposite wall, but left it on
either side in pitchy obscurity.

For some moments the silence was broken only by the sound of the rain
without. The recumbent figure in bed seemed to have actually succumbed
to sleep. The multitudinous small noises of a house in repose might have
been misinterpreted by ears less keen than the sleeper's; but when
the apparent creaking of a far-off shutter was followed by the sliding
apparition of a dark head of tangled hair at the door, Lee had not been
deceived, and was as prepared as if he had seen it. Another step, and
the figure entered the room. The door closed instantly behind it. The
sound of a heavy body struggling against the partition outside followed,
and then suddenly ceased.

The intruder turned, and violently grasped the handle of the door, but
recoiled at a quiet voice from the bed.

"Drop that, and come here."

He started back with an exclamation. The sleeper's eyes were wide open;
the sleeper's extended arm and pistol covered him.

"Silence! or I'll let that candle shine through you!"

"Yes, captain!" growled the astounded and frightened half-breed. "I
didn't know you were here."

Lee raised himself, and grasped the long whip in his left hand and
whirled it round his head.

"WILL YOU dry up?"

The man sank back against the wall in silent terror.

"Open that door now--softly."

Manuel obeyed with trembling fingers.

"Ned" said Lee in a low voice, "bring him in here--quick."

There was a slight rustle, and Falkner appeared, backing in another
gasping figure, whose eyes were starting under the strong grasp of the
captor at his throat.

"Silence," said Lee, "all of you."

There was a breathless pause. The sound of a door hesitatingly opened
in the passage broke the stillness, followed by the gentle voice of Mrs.
Scott.

"Is anything the matter?"

Lee made a slight gesture of warning to Falkner, of menace to the
others. "Everything's the matter," he called out cheerily. "Ned's
managed to half pull down the house trying to get at something from my
saddle-bags."

"I hope he has not hurt himself," broke in another voice mischievously.

"Answer, you clumsy villain," whispered Lee, with twinkling eyes.

"I'm all right, thank you," responded Falkner, with unaffected
awkwardness.

There was a slight murmuring of voices, and then the door was heard to
close. Lee turned to Falkner.

"Disarm that hound and turn him loose outside, and make no noise. And
you, Manuel! tell him what his and your chances are if he shows his
black face here again."

Manuel cast a single, terrified, supplicating glance, more suggestive
than words, at his confederate, as Falkner shoved him before him from
the room. The next moment they were silently descending the stairs.

"May I go too, captain?" entreated Manuel. "I swear to God--"

"Shut the door!" The man obeyed.

"Now, then," said Lee, with a broad, gratified smile, laying down his
whip and pistol within reach, and comfortably settling the pillows
behind his back, "we'll have a quiet confab. A sort of old-fashioned
talk, eh? You're not looking well, Manuel. You're drinking too much
again. It spoils your complexion."

"Let me go, captain," pleaded the man, emboldened by the good-humored
voice, but not near enough to notice a peculiar light in the speaker's
eye.

"You've only just come, Manuel; and at considerable trouble, too. Well,
what have you got to say? What's all this about? What are you doing
here?"

The captured man shuffled his feet nervously, and only uttered an uneasy
laugh of coarse discomfiture.

"I see. You're bashful. Well, I'll help you along. Come! You knew that
Hale was away and these women were here without a man to help them. You
thought you'd find some money here, and have your own way generally,
eh?"

The tone of Lee's voice inspired him to confidence; unfortunately, it
inspired him with familiarity also.

"I reckoned I had the right to a little fun on my own account, cap.
I reckoned ez one gentleman in the profession wouldn't interfere with
another gentleman's little game," he continued coarsely.

"Stand up."

"Wot for?"

"Up, I say!"

Manuel stood up and glanced at him.

"Utter a cry that might frighten these women, and by the living God
they'll rush in here only to find you lying dead on the floor of the
house you'd have polluted."

He grasped the whip and laid the lash of it heavily twice over the
ruffian's shoulders. Writhing in suppressed agony, the man fell
imploringly on his knees.

"Now, listen!" said Lee, softly twirling the whip in the air. "I want to
refresh your memory. Did you ever learn, when you were with me--before
I was obliged to kick you out of gentlemen's company--to break into a
private house? Answer!"

"No," stammered the wretch.

"Did you ever learn to rob a woman, a child, or any but a man, and that
face to face?"

"No," repeated Manuel.

"Did you ever learn from me to lay a finger upon a woman, old or young,
in anger or kindness?"

"No."

"Then, my poor Manuel, it's as I feared; civilization has ruined you.
Farming and a simple, bucolic life have perverted your morals. So you
were running off with the stock and that mustang, when you got stuck in
the snow; and the luminous idea of this little game struck you? Eh? That
was another mistake, Manuel; I never allowed you to think when you were
with me."

"No, captain."

"Who's your friend?"

"A d--d cowardly nigger from the Summit."

"I agree with you for once; but he hasn't had a very brilliant example.
Where's he gone now?"

"To h-ll, for all I care!"

"Then I want you to go with him. Listen. If there's a way out of the
place, you know it or can find it. I give you two days to do it--you and
he. At the end of that time the order will be to shoot you on sight. Now
take off your boots."

The man's dark face visibly whitened, his teeth chattered in
superstitious terror.

"I'm not going to shoot you now," said Lee, smiling, "so you will have a
chance to die with your boots on,* if you are superstitious. I only want
you to exchange them for that pair of Hale's in the corner. The fact
is I have taken a fancy to yours. That fashion of wearing the stockings
outside strikes me as one of the neatest things out."

     * "To die with one's boots on."  A synonym for death by
     violence, popular among Southwestern desperadoes, and the
     subject of superstitious dread.

Manuel suddenly drew off his boots with their muffled covering, and put
on the ones designated.

"Now open the door."

He did so. Falkner was already waiting at the threshold, "Turn Manuel
loose with the other, Ned, but disarm him first. They might quarrel. The
habit of carrying arms, Manuel," added Lee, as Falkner took a pistol and
bowie-knife from the half-breed, "is of itself provocative of violence,
and inconsistent with a bucolic and pastoral life."

When Falkner returned he said hurriedly to his companion, "Do you think
it wise, George, to let those hell-hounds loose? Good God! I could
scarcely let my grip of his throat go, when I thought of what they were
hunting."

"My dear Ned," said Lee, luxuriously ensconcing himself under the
bedclothes again with a slight shiver of delicious warmth, "I must warn
you against allowing the natural pride of a higher walk to prejudice you
against the general level of our profession. Indeed, I was quite struck
with the justice of Manuel's protest that I was interfering with certain
rude processes of his own towards results aimed at by others."

"George!" interrupted Falkner, almost savagely.

"Well. I admit it's getting rather late in the evening for pure
philosophical inquiry, and you are tired. Practically, then, it WAS wise
to let them get away before they discovered two things. One, our exact
relations here with these women; and the other, HOW MANY of us were
here. At present they think we are three or four in possession and with
the consent of the women."

"The dogs!"

"They are paying us the highest compliment they can conceive of by
supposing us cleverer scoundrels than themselves. You are very unjust,
Ned."

"If they escape and tell their story?"

"We shall have the rare pleasure of knowing we are better than people
believe us. And now put those boots away somewhere where we can produce
them if necessary, as evidence of Manuel's evening call. At present
we'll keep the thing quiet, and in the early morning you can find out
where they got in and remove any traces they have left. It is no use to
frighten the women. There's no fear of their returning."

"And if they get away?"

"We can follow in their tracks."

"If Manuel gives the alarm?"

"With his burglarious boots left behind in the house? Not much!
Good-night, Ned. Go to bed."

With these words Lee turned on his side and quietly resumed his
interrupted slumber. Falkner did not, however, follow this sensible
advice. When he was satisfied that his friend was sleeping he opened the
door softly and looked out. He did not appear to be listening, for
his eyes were fixed upon a small pencil of light that stole across the
passage from the foot of Kate's door. He watched it until it suddenly
disappeared, when, leaving the door partly open, he threw himself on
his couch without removing his clothes. The slight movement awakened
the sleeper, who was beginning to feel the accession of fever. He moved
restlessly.

"George," said Falkner, softly.

"Yes."

"Where was it we passed that old Mission Church on the road one dark
night, and saw the light burning before the figure of the Virgin through
the window?"

There was a moment of crushing silence. "Does that mean you're wanting
to light the candle again?"

"No."

"Then don't lie there inventing sacrilegious conundrums, but go to
sleep."

Nevertheless, in the morning his fever was slightly worse. Mrs. Hale,
offering her condolence, said, "I know that you have not been resting
well, for even after your friend met with that mishap in the hall, I
heard your voices, and Kate says your door was open all night. You have
a little fever too, Mr. Falkner."

George looked curiously at Falkner's pale face--it was burning.




CHAPTER V


The speed and fury with which Clinch's cavalcade swept on in the
direction of the mysterious shot left Hale no chance for reflection. He
was conscious of shouting incoherently with the others, of urging his
horse irresistibly forward, of momentarily expecting to meet or overtake
something, but without any further thought. The figures of Clinch and
Rawlins immediately before him shut out the prospect of the narrowing
trail. Once only, taking advantage of a sudden halt that threw them
confusedly together, he managed to ask a question.

"Lost their track--found it again!" shouted the ostler, as Clinch, with
a cry like the baying of a hound, again darted forward. Their horses
were panting and trembling under them, the ascent seemed to be growing
steeper, a singular darkness, which even the density of the wood did not
sufficiently account for, surrounded them, but still their leader
madly urged them on. To Hale's returning senses they did not seem in a
condition to engage a single resolute man, who might have ambushed in
the woods or beaten them in detail in the narrow gorge, but in another
instant the reason of their furious haste was manifest. Spurring his
horse ahead, Clinch dashed out into the open with a cheering shout--a
shout that as quickly changed to a yell of imprecation. They were on
the Ridge in a blinding snow-storm! The road had already vanished under
their feet, and with it the fresh trail they had so closely followed!
They stood helplessly on the shore of a trackless white sea, blank and
spotless of any trace or sign of the fugitives.

"'Pears to me, boys," said the ostler, suddenly ranging before them,
"ef you're not kalkilatin' on gittin' another party to dig ye out, ye'd
better be huntin' fodder and cover instead of road agents. 'Skuse me,
gentlemen, but I'm responsible for the hosses, and this ain't no time
for circus-ridin'. We're a matter o' six miles from the station in a bee
line."

"Back to the trail, then," said Clinch, wheeling his horse towards the
road they had just quitted.

"'Skuse me, Kernel," said the ostler, laying his hand on Clinch's rein,
"but that way only brings us back the road we kem--the stage road--three
miles further from home. That three miles is on the divide, and by the
time we get there it will be snowed up worse nor this. The shortest cut
is along the Ridge. If we hump ourselves we ken cross the divide afore
the road is blocked. And that, 'skuse me, gentlemen, is MY road."

There was no time for discussion. The road was already palpably
thickening under their feet. Hale's arm was stiffened to his side by
a wet, clinging snow-wreath. The figures of the others were almost
obliterated and shapeless. It was not snowing--it was snowballing! The
huge flakes, shaken like enormous feathers out of a vast blue-black
cloud, commingled and fell in sprays and patches. All idea of their
former pursuit was forgotten; the blind rage and enthusiasm that had
possessed them was gone. They dashed after their new leader with only an
instinct for shelter and succor.

They had not ridden long when fortunately, as it seemed to Hale, the
character of the storm changed. The snow no longer fell in such large
flakes, nor as heavily. A bitter wind succeeded; the soft snow began
to stiffen and crackle under the horses' hoofs; they were no longer
weighted and encumbered by the drifts upon their bodies; the smaller
flakes now rustled and rasped against them like sand, or bounded from
them like hail. They seemed to be moving more easily and rapidly, their
spirits were rising with the stimulus of cold and motion, when suddenly
their leader halted.

"It's no use, boys. It can't be done! This is no blizzard, but a regular
two days' snifter! It's no longer meltin', but packin' and driftin'
now. Even if we get over the divide, we're sure to be blocked up in the
pass."

It was true! To their bitter disappointment they could now see that
the snow had not really diminished in quantity, but that the now
finely-powdered particles were rapidly filling all inequalities of
the surface, packing closely against projections, and swirling in
long furrows across the levels. They looked with anxiety at their
self-constituted leader.

"We must make a break to get down in the woods again before it's too
late," he said briefly.

But they had already drifted away from the fringe of larches and dwarf
pines that marked the sides of the Ridge, and lower down merged into
the dense forest that clothed the flank of the mountain they had lately
climbed, and it was with the greatest difficulty that they again reached
it, only to find that at that point it was too precipitous for the
descent of their horses. Benumbed and speechless, they continued to toil
on, opposed to the full fury of the stinging snow, and at times obliged
to turn their horses to the blast to keep from being blown over the
Ridge. At the end of half an hour the ostler dismounted, and, beckoning
to the others, took his horse by the bridle, and began the descent. When
it came to Hale's turn to dismount he could not help at first recoiling
from the prospect before him. The trail--if it could be so called--was
merely the track or furrow of some fallen tree dragged, by accident
or design, diagonally across the sides of the mountain. At times it
appeared scarcely a foot in width; at other times a mere crumbling
gully, or a narrow shelf made by the projections of dead boughs and
collected debris. It seemed perilous for a foot passenger, it appeared
impossible for a horse. Nevertheless, he had taken a step forward when
Clinch laid his hand on his arm.

"You'll bring up the rear," he said not unkindly, "ez you're a stranger
here. Wait until we sing out to you."

"But if I prefer to take the same risks as you all?" said Hale stiffly.

"You kin," said Clinch grimly. "But I reckoned, as you wern't familiar
with this sort o' thing, you wouldn't keer, by any foolishness o' yours,
to stampede the rocks ahead of us, and break down the trail, or send
down an avalanche on top of us. But just ez you like."

"I will wait, then," said Hale hastily.

The rebuke, however, did him good service. It preoccupied his mind,
so that it remained unaffected by the dizzy depths, and enabled him
to abandon himself mechanically to the sagacity of his horse, who was
contented simply to follow the hoofprints of the preceding animal, and
in a few moments they reached the broader trail without a mishap. A
discussion regarding their future movements was already taking place.
The impossibility of regaining the station at the Summit was admitted;
the way down the mountain to the next settlement was still left to them,
or the adjacent woods, if they wished for an encampment. The ostler once
more assumed authority.

"'Skuse me, gentlemen, but them horses don't take no pasear down the
mountain to-night. The stage-road ain't a mile off, and I kalkilate to
wait here till the up stage comes. She's bound to stop on account of the
snow; and I've done my dooty when I hand the horses over to the driver."

"But if she hears of the block up yer, and waits at the lower station?"
said Rawlins.

"Then I've done my dooty all the same. 'Skuse me, gentlemen, but them ez
hez their own horses kin do ez they like."

As this clearly pointed to Hale, he briefly assured his companions that
he had no intention of deserting them. "If I cannot reach Eagle's Court,
I shall at least keep as near it as possible. I suppose any messenger
from my house to the Summit will learn where I am and why I am delayed?"

"Messenger from your house!" gasped Rawlins. "Are you crazy, stranger?
Only a bird would get outer Eagle's now; and it would hev to be an eagle
at that! Between your house and the Summit the snow must be ten feet by
this time, to say nothing of the drift in the pass."

Hale felt it was the truth. At any other time he would have worried over
this unexpected situation, and utter violation of all his traditions.
He was past that now, and even felt a certain relief. He knew his
family were safe; it was enough. That they were locked up securely,
and incapable of interfering with HIM, seemed to enhance his new,
half-conscious, half-shy enjoyment of an adventurous existence.

The ostler, who had been apparently lost in contemplation of the steep
trail he had just descended, suddenly clapped his hand to his leg with
an ejaculation of gratified astonishment.

"Waal, darn my skin ef that ain't Hennicker's 'slide' all the time! I
heard it was somewhat about here."

Rawlins briefly explained to Hale that a slide was a rude incline for
the transit of heavy goods that could not be carried down a trail.

"And Hennicker's," continued the man, "ain't more nor a mile away. Ye
might try Hennicker's at a push, eh?"

By a common instinct the whole party looked dubiously at Hale. "Who's
Hennicker?" he felt compelled to ask.

The ostler hesitated, and glanced at the others to reply. "There ARE
folks," he said lazily, at last, "ez beleeves that Hennicker ain't much
better nor the crowd we're hunting; but they don't say it TO Hennicker.
We needn't let on what we're after."

"I for one," said Hale stoutly, "decidedly object to any concealment of
our purpose."

"It don't follow," said Rawlins carelessly, "that Hennicker even knows
of this yer robbery. It's his gineral gait we refer to. Ef yer think it
more polite, and it makes it more sociable to discuss this matter afore
him, I'm agreed."

"Hale means," said Clinch, "that it wouldn't be on the square to take
and make use of any points we might pick up there agin the road agents."

"Certainly," said Hale. It was not at all what he had meant, but he felt
singularly relieved at the compromise.

"And ez I reckon Hennicker ain't such a fool ez not to know who we are
and what we're out for," continued Clinch, "I reckon there ain't any
concealment."

"Then it's Hennicker's?" said the ostler, with swift deduction.

"Hennicker's it is! Lead on."

The ostler remounted his horse, and the others followed. The trail
presently turned into a broader track, that bore some signs of
approaching habitations, and at the end of five minutes they came upon
a clearing. It was part of one of the fragmentary mountain terraces, and
formed by itself a vast niche, or bracketed shelf, in the hollow flank
of the mountain that, to Hale's first glance, bore a rude resemblance
to Eagle's Court. But there was neither meadow nor open field; the few
acres of ground had been wrested from the forest by axe and fire, and
unsightly stumps everywhere marked the rude and difficult attempts at
cultivation. Two or three rough buildings of unplaned and unpainted
boards, connected by rambling sheds, stood in the centre of the
amphitheatre. Far from being protected by the encircling rampart, it
seemed to be the selected arena for the combating elements. A whirlwind
from the outer abyss continually filled this cave of AEolus with driving
snow, which, however, melted as it fell, or was quickly whirled away
again.

A few dogs barked and ran out to meet the cavalcade, but there was no
other sign of any life disturbed or concerned at their approach.

"I reckon Hennicker ain't home, or he'd hev been on the lookout afore
this," said the ostler, dismounting and rapping on the door.

After a silence, a female voice, unintelligibly to the others,
apparently had some colloquy with the ostler, who returned to the party.

"Must go in through the kitchin--can't open the door for the wind."

Leaving their horses in the shed, they entered the kitchen, which
communicated, and presently came upon a square room filled with smoke
from a fire of green pine logs. The doors and windows were tightly
fastened; the only air came in through the large-throated chimney in
voluminous gusts, which seemed to make the hollow shell of the apartment
swell and expand to the point of bursting. Despite the stinging of the
resinous smoke, the temperature was grateful to the benumbed travellers.
Several cushionless arm-chairs, such as were used in bar-rooms, two
tables, a sideboard, half bar and half cupboard, and a rocking-chair
comprised the furniture, and a few bear and buffalo skins covered
the floor. Hale sank into one of the arm-chairs, and, with a lazy
satisfaction, partly born of his fatigue and partly from some
newly-discovered appreciative faculty, gazed around the room, and then
at the mistress of the house, with whom the others were talking.

She was tall, gaunt, and withered; in spite of her evident years, her
twisted hair was still dark and full, and her eyes bright and piercing;
her complexion and teeth had long since succumbed to the vitiating
effects of frontier cookery, and her lips were stained with the yellow
juice of a brier-wood pipe she held in her mouth. The ostler had
explained their intrusion, and veiled their character under the vague
epithet of a "hunting party," and was now evidently describing them
personally. In his new-found philosophy the fact that the interest of
his hostess seemed to be excited only by the names of his companions,
that he himself was carelessly, and even deprecatingly, alluded to as
the "stranger from Eagle's" by the ostler, and completely overlooked by
the old woman, gave him no concern.

"You'll have to talk to Zenobia yourself. Dod rot ef I'm gine to
interfere. She knows Hennicker's ways, and if she chooses to take in
transients it ain't no funeral o' mine. Zeenie! You, Zeenie! Look yer!"

A tall, lazy-looking, handsome girl appeared on the threshold of the
next room, and with a hand on each door-post slowly swung herself
backwards and forwards, without entering. "Well, Maw?"

The old woman briefly and unalluringly pictured the condition of the
travellers.

"Paw ain't here," began the girl doubtfully, "and--How dy, Dick! is that
you?" The interruption was caused by her recognition of the ostler, and
she lounged into the room. In spite of a skimp, slatternly gown, whose
straight skirt clung to her lower limbs, there was a quaint, nymph-like
contour to her figure. Whether from languor, ill-health, or more
probably from a morbid consciousness of her own height, she moved with
a slightly affected stoop that had become a habit. It did not seem
ungraceful to Hale, already attracted by her delicate profile, her
large dark eyes, and a certain weird resemblance she had to some
half-domesticated dryad.

"That'll do, Maw," she said, dismissing her parent with a nod. "I'll
talk to Dick."

As the door closed on the old woman, Zenobia leaned her hands on
the back of a chair, and confronted the admiring eyes of Dick with a
goddess-like indifference.

"Now wot's the use of your playin' this yer game on me, Dick? Wot's the
good of your ladlin' out that hogwash about huntin'? HUNTIN'! I'll tell
yer the huntin' you-uns hev been at! You've been huntin' George Lee
and his boys since an hour before sun up. You've been followin' a blind
trail up to the Ridge, until the snow got up and hunted YOU right here!
You've been whoopin' and yellin' and circus-ridin' on the roads like
ez yer wos Comanches, and frightening all the women folk within
miles--that's your huntin'! You've been climbin' down Paw's old slide
at last, and makin' tracks for here to save the skins of them condemned
government horses of the Kempany! And THAT'S your huntin'!"

To Hale's surprise, a burst of laughter from the party followed this
speech. He tried to join in, but this ridiculous summary of the result
of his enthusiastic sense of duty left him--the only earnest believer
mortified and embarrassed. Nor was he the less concerned as he found the
girl's dark eyes had rested once or twice upon him curiously. Zenobia
laughed too, and, lazily turning the chair around, dropped into it. "And
by this time George Lee's loungin' back in his chyar and smokin' his
cigyar somewhar in Sacramento," she added, stretching her feet out to
the fire, and suiting the action to the word with an imaginary cigar
between the long fingers of a thin and not over-clean hand.

"We cave, Zeenie!" said Rawlins, when their hilarity had subsided to a
more subdued and scarcely less flattering admiration of the unconcerned
goddess before them. "That's about the size of it. You kin rake down the
pile. I forgot you're an old friend of George's."

"He's a white man!" said the girl decidedly.

"Ye used to know him?" continued Rawlins.

"Once. Paw ain't in that line now," she said simply.

There was such a sublime unconsciousness of any moral degradation
involved in this allusion that even Hale accepted it without a shock.
She rose presently, and, going to the little sideboard, brought out
a number of glasses; these she handed to each of the party, and then,
producing a demijohn of whiskey, slung it dexterously and gracefully
over her arm, so that it rested on her elbow like a cradle, and, going
to each one in succession, filled their glasses. It obliged each one to
rise to accept the libation, and as Hale did so in his turn he met the
dark eyes of the girl full on his own. There was a pleased curiosity in
her glance that made this married man of thirty-five color as awkwardly
as a boy.

The tender of refreshment being understood as a tacit recognition of
their claims to a larger hospitality, all further restraint was removed.
Zenobia resumed her seat, and placing her elbow on the arm of her chair,
and her small round chin in her hand, looked thoughtfully in the fire.
"When I say George Lee's a white man, it ain't because I know him.
It's his general gait. Wot's he ever done that's underhanded or mean?
Nothin'! You kant show the poor man he's ever took a picayune from. When
he's helped himself to a pile it's been outer them banks or them express
companies, that think it mighty fine to bust up themselves, and swindle
the poor folks o' their last cent, and nobody talks o' huntin' THEM!
And does he keep their money? No; he passes it round among the boys that
help him, and they put it in circulation. HE don't keep it for himself;
he ain't got fine houses in Frisco; he don't keep fast horses for show.
Like ez not the critter he did that job with--ef it was him--none of
you boys would have rid! And he takes all the risks himself; you ken bet
your life that every man with him was safe and away afore he turned his
back on you-uns."

"He certainly drops a little of his money at draw poker, Zeenie," said
Clinch, laughing. "He lost five thousand dollars to Sheriff Kelly last
week."

"Well, I don't hear of the sheriff huntin' him to give it back, nor do
I reckon Kelly handed it over to the Express it was taken from. I heard
YOU won suthin' from him a spell ago. I reckon you've been huntin' him
to find out whar you should return it." The laugh was clearly against
Clinch. He was about to make some rallying rejoinder when the young girl
suddenly interrupted him. "Ef you're wantin' to hunt somebody, why don't
you take higher game? Thar's that Jim Harkins: go for him, and I'll join
you."

"Harkins!" exclaimed Clinch and Hale simultaneously.

"Yes, Jim Harkins; do you know him?" she said, glancing from one to the
other.

"One of my friends do," said Clinch laughing; "but don't let that stop
you."

"And YOU--over there," continued Zenobia, bending her head and eyes
towards Hale.

"The fact is--I believe he was my banker," said Hale, with a smile. "I
don't know him personally."

"Then you'd better hunt him before he does you."

"What's HE done, Zeenie?" asked Rawlins, keenly enjoying the
discomfiture of the others.

"What?" She stopped, threw her long black braids over her shoulder,
clasped her knee with her hands, and rocking backwards and forwards,
sublimely unconscious of the apparition of a slim ankle and
half-dropped-off slipper from under her shortened gown, continued, "It
mightn't please HIM," she said slyly, nodding towards Hale.

"Pray don't mind me," said Hale, with unnecessary eagerness.

"Well," said Zenobia, "I reckon you all know Ned Falkner and the
Excelsior Ditch?"

"Yes, Falkner's the superintendent of it," said Rawlins. "And a square
man too. Thar ain't anything mean about him."

"Shake," said Zenobia, extending her hand. Rawlins shook the proffered
hand with eager spontaneousness, and the girl resumed: "He's about
ez good ez they make 'em--you bet. Well, you know Ned has put all his
money, and all his strength, and all his sabe, and--"

"His good looks," added Clinch mischievously.

"Into that Ditch," continued Zenobia, ignoring the interruption. "It's
his mother, it's his sweetheart, it's his everything! When other chaps
of his age was cavortin' round Frisco, and havin' high jinks, Ned was in
his Ditch. 'Wait till the Ditch is done,' he used to say. 'Wait till she
begins to boom, and then you just stand round.' Mor'n that, he got all
the boys to put in their last cent--for they loved Ned, and love him
now, like ez ef he wos a woman."

"That's so," said Clinch and Rawlins simultaneously, "and he's worth
it."

"Well," continued Zenobia, "the Ditch didn't boom ez soon ez they
kalkilated. And then the boys kept gettin' poorer and poorer, and Ned
he kept gettin' poorer and poorer in everything but his hopefulness and
grit. Then he looks around for more capital. And about this time, that
coyote Harkins smelt suthin' nice up there, and he gits Ned to give him
control of it, and he'll lend him his name and fix up a company. Soon ez
he gets control, the first thing he does is to say that it wants half a
million o' money to make it pay, and levies an assessment of two hundred
dollars a share. That's nothin' for them rich fellows to pay, or pretend
to pay, but for boys on grub wages it meant only ruin. They couldn't
pay, and had to forfeit their shares for next to nothing. And Ned made
one more desperate attempt to save them and himself by borrowing money
on his shares; when that hound Harkins got wind of it, and let it be
buzzed around that the Ditch is a failure, and that he was goin' out
of it; that brought the shares down to nothing. As Ned couldn't raise
a dollar, the new company swooped down on his shares for the debts THEY
had put up, and left him and the boys to help themselves. Ned couldn't
bear to face the boys that he'd helped to ruin, and put out, and ain't
been heard from since. After Harkins had got rid of Ned and the boys
he manages to pay off that wonderful debt, and sells out for a hundred
thousand dollars. That money--Ned's money--he sends to Sacramento, for
he don't dare to travel with it himself, and is kalkilatin' to leave the
kentry, for some of the boys allow to kill him on sight. So ef you're
wantin' to hunt suthin', thar's yer chance, and you needn't go inter the
snow to do it."

"But surely the law can recover this money?" said Hale indignantly. "It
is as infamous a robbery as--" He stopped as he caught Zenobia's eye.

"Ez last night's, you were goin' to say. I'll call it MORE. Them road
agents don't pretend to be your friend--but take yer money and run their
risks. For ez to the law--that can't help yer."

"It's a skin game, and you might ez well expect to recover a gambling
debt from a short-card sharp," explained Clinch; "Falkner oughter shot
him on sight."

"Or the boys lynched him," suggested Rawlins.

"I think," said Hale, more reflectively, "that in the absence of legal
remedy a man of that kind should have been forced under strong physical
menace to give up his ill-gotten gains. The money was the primary
object, and if that could be got without bloodshed--which seems to me a
useless crime--it would be quite as effective. Of course, if there was
resistance or retaliation, it might be necessary to kill him."

He had unconsciously fallen into his old didactic and dogmatic habit of
speech, and perhaps, under the spur of Zenobia's eyes, he had given
it some natural emphasis. A dead silence followed, in which the others
regarded him with amused and gratified surprise, and it was broken only
by Zenobia rising and holding out her hand. "Shake!"

Hale raised it gallantly, and pressed his lips on the one spotless
finger.

"That's gospel truth. And you ain't the first white man to say it."

"Indeed," laughed Hale. "Who was the other?"

"George Lee!"




CHAPTER VI


The laughter that followed was interrupted by a sudden barking of
the dogs in the outer clearing. Zenobia rose lazily and strode to the
window. It relieved Hale of certain embarrassing reflections suggested
by her comment.

"Ef it ain't that God-forsaken fool Dick bringing up passengers from
the snow-bound up stage in the road! I reckon I'VE got suthin' to say
to that!" But the later appearance of the apologetic Dick, with the
assurance that the party carried a permission from her father, granted
at the lower station in view of such an emergency, checked her active
opposition. "That's like Paw," she soliloquized aggrievedly; "shuttin'
us up and settin' dogs on everybody for a week, and then lettin' the
whole stage service pass through one door and out at another. Well, it's
HIS house and HIS whiskey, and they kin take it, but they don't get me
to help 'em."

They certainly were not a prepossessing or good-natured acquisition to
the party. Apart from the natural antagonism which, on such occasions,
those in possession always feel towards the new-comer, they were
strongly inclined to resist the dissatisfied querulousness and
aggressive attitude of these fresh applicants for hospitality. The most
offensive one was a person who appeared to exercise some authority over
the others. He was loud, assuming, and dressed with vulgar pretension.
He quickly disposed himself in the chair vacated by Zenobia, and called
for some liquor.

"I reckon you'll hev to help yourself," said Rawlins dryly, as the
summons met with no response. "There are only two women in the house,
and I reckon their hands are full already."

"I call it d--d uncivil treatment," said the man, raising his voice;
"and Hennicker had better sing smaller if he don't want his old den
pulled down some day. He ain't any better than men that hev been picked
up afore now."

"You oughter told him that, and mebbe he'd hev come over with yer,"
returned Rawlins. "He's a mild, soft, easy-going man, is Hennicker!
Ain't he, Colonel Clinch?"

The casual mention of Clinch's name produced the effect which the
speaker probably intended. The stranger stared at Clinch, who,
apparently oblivious of the conversation, was blinking his cold gray
eyes at the fire. Dropping his aggressive tone to mere querulousness,
the man sought the whiskey demijohn, and helped himself and his
companions. Fortified by liquor he returned to the fire.

"I reckon you've heard about this yer robbery, Colonel," he said,
addressing Clinch, with an attempt at easy familiarity.

Without raising his eyes from the fire, Clinch briefly assented, "I
reckon."

"I'm up yer, examining into it, for the Express."

"Lost much?" asked Rawlins.

"Not so much ez they might hev. That fool Harkins had a hundred thousand
dollars in greenbacks sealed up like an ordinary package of a thousand
dollars, and gave it to a friend, Bill Guthrie, in the bank to pick out
some unlikely chap among the passengers to take charge of it to Reno. He
wouldn't trust the Express. Ha! ha!"

The dead, oppressive silence that followed his empty laughter made it
seem almost artificial. Rawlins held his breath and looked at Clinch.
Hale, with the instincts of a refined, sensitive man, turned hot with
the embarrassment Clinch should have shown. For that gentleman, without
lifting his eyes from the fire, and with no apparent change in his
demeanor, lazily asked--

"Ye didn't ketch the name o' that passenger?"

"Naturally, no! For when Guthrie heard what was said agin him he
wouldn't give his name until he heard from him."

"And WHAT was said agin him?" asked Clinch musingly.

"What would be said agin a man that give up that sum o' money, like a
chaw of tobacco, for the asking? Why, there were but three men, as far
ez we kin hear, that did the job. And there were four passengers inside,
armed, and the driver and express messenger on the box. Six were robbed
by THREE!--they were a sweet-scented lot! Reckon they must hev felt
mighty small, for I hear they got up and skedaddled from the station
under the pretext of lookin' for the robbers." He laughed again, and the
laugh was noisily repeated by his five companions at the other end of
the room.

Hale, who had forgotten that the stranger was only echoing a part of
his own criticism of eight hours before, was on the point of rising with
burning cheeks and angry indignation, when the lazily uplifted eye of
Clinch caught his, and absolutely held him down with its paralyzing and
deadly significance. Murder itself seemed to look from those cruelly
quiet and remorseless gray pupils. For a moment he forgot his own rage
in this glimpse of Clinch's implacable resentment; for a moment he
felt a thrill of pity for the wretch who had provoked it. He remained
motionless and fascinated in his chair as the lazy lids closed like a
sheath over Clinch's eyes again. Rawlins, who had probably received the
same glance of warning, remained equally still.

"They haven't heard the last of it yet, you bet," continued the
infatuated stranger. "I've got a little statement here for the
newspaper," he added, drawing some papers from his pocket; "suthin' I
just run off in the coach as I came along. I reckon it'll show things up
in a new light. It's time there should be some change. All the cussin'
that's been usually done hez been by the passengers agin the express and
stage companies. I propose that the Company should do a little cussin'
themselves. See? P'r'aps you don't mind my readin' it to ye? It's just
spicy enough to suit them newspaper chaps."

"Go on," said Colonel Clinch quietly.

The man cleared his throat, with the preliminary pose of authorship, and
his five friends, to whom the composition was evidently not unfamiliar,
assumed anticipatory smiles.

"I call it 'Prize Pusillanimous Passengers.' Sort of runs easy off the
tongue, you know.

"'It now appears that the success of the late stagecoach robbery near
the Summit was largely due to the pusillanimity--not to use a more
serious word'"--He stopped, and looked explanatorily towards Clinch:
"Ye'll see in a minit what I'm gettin' at by that pusillanimity of the
passengers themselves. 'It now transpires that there were only three
robbers who attacked the coach, and that although passengers, driver,
and express messenger were fully armed, and were double the number of
their assailants, not a shot was fired. We mean no reflections upon
the well-known courage of Yuba Bill, nor the experience and coolness of
Bracy Tibbetts, the courteous express messenger, both of whom have
since confessed to have been more than astonished at the Christian and
lamb-like submission of the insiders. Amusing stories of some laughable
yet sickening incidents of the occasion--such as grown men kneeling in
the road, and offering to strip themselves completely, if their lives
were only spared; of one of the passengers hiding under the seat, and
only being dislodged by pulling his coat-tails; of incredible sums
promised, and even offers of menial service, for the preservation of
their wretched carcases--are received with the greatest gusto; but we
are in possession of facts which may lead to more serious accusations.
Although one of the passengers is said to have lost a large sum of
money intrusted to him, while attempting with barefaced effrontery to
establish a rival "carrying" business in one of the Express Company's
own coaches--'I call that a good point." He interrupted himself to allow
the unrestrained applause of his own party. "Don't you?"

"It's just h-ll," said Clinch musingly.

"'Yet the affair," resumed the stranger from his manuscript, "'is locked
up in great and suspicious mystery. The presence of Jackson N. Stanner,
Esq.' (that's me), 'special detective agent to the Company, and his
staff in town, is a guaranty that the mystery will be thoroughly
probed.' Hed to put that in to please the Company," he again
deprecatingly explained. "'We are indebted to this gentleman for the
facts.'"

"The pint you want to make in that article," said Clinch, rising, but
still directing his face and his conversation to the fire, "ez far ez I
ken see ez that no three men kin back down six unless they be cowards,
or are willing to be backed down."

"That's the point what I start from," rejoined Stanner, "and work up. I
leave it to you ef it ain't so."

"I can't say ez I agree with you," said the Colonel dryly. He turned,
and still without lifting his eyes walked towards the door of the room
which Zenobia had entered. The key was on the inside, but Clinch gently
opened the door, removed the key, and closing the door again locked
it from his side. Hale and Rawlins felt their hearts beat quickly; the
others followed Clinch's slow movements and downcast mien with amused
curiosity. After locking the other outlet from the room, and putting the
keys in his pocket, Clinch returned to the fire. For the first time he
lifted his eyes; the man nearest him shrank back in terror.

"I am the man," he said slowly, taking deliberate breath between his
sentences, "who gave up those greenbacks to the robbers. I am one of the
three passengers you have lampooned in that paper, and these gentlemen
beside me are the other two." He stopped and looked around him. "You
don't believe that three men can back down six! Well, I'll show you how
it can be done. More than that, I'll show you how ONE man can do it;
for, by the living G-d, if you don't hand over that paper I'll kill you
where you sit! I'll give you until I count ten; if one of you moves he
and you are dead men--but YOU first!"

Before he had finished speaking Hale and Rawlins had both risen, as if
in concert, with their weapons drawn. Hale could not tell how or why
he had done so, but he was equally conscious, without knowing why, of
fixing his eye on one of the other party, and that he should, in the
event of an affray, try to kill him. He did not attempt to reason;
he only knew that he should do his best to kill that man and perhaps
others.

"One," said Clinch, lifting his derringer, "two--three--"

"Look here, Colonel--I swear I didn't know it was you. Come--d--m it!
I say--see here," stammered Stanner, with white cheeks, not daring to
glance for aid to his stupefied party.

"Four--five--six--"

"Wait! Here!" He produced the paper and threw it on the floor.

"Pick it up and hand it to me. Seven--eight--"

Stanner hastily scrambled to his feet, picked up the paper, and handed
it to the Colonel. "I was only joking, Colonel," he said, with a forced
laugh.

"I'm glad to hear it. But as this joke is in black and white, you
wouldn't mind saying so in the same fashion. Take that pen and ink
and write as I dictate. 'I certify that I am satisfied that the above
statement is a base calumny against the characters of Ringwood Clinch,
Robert Rawlins, and John Hale, passengers, and that I do hereby
apologize to the same.' Sign it. That'll do. Now let the rest of your
party sign as witnesses."

They complied without hesitation; some, seizing the opportunity of
treating the affair as a joke, suggested a drink.

"Excuse me," said Clinch quietly, "but ez this house ain't big enough
for me and that man, and ez I've got business at Wild Cat Station with
this paper, I think I'll go without drinkin'." He took the keys from his
pocket, unlocked the doors, and taking up his overcoat and rifle turned
as if to go.

Rawlins rose to follow him; Hale alone hesitated. The rapid occurrences
of the last half hour gave him no time for reflection. But he was by
no means satisfied of the legality of the last act he had aided and
abetted, although he admitted its rude justice, and felt he would have
done so again. A fear of this, and an instinct that he might be led into
further complications if he continued to identify himself with Clinch
and Rawlins; the fact that they had professedly abandoned their quest,
and that it was really supplanted by the presence of an authorized
party whom they had already come in conflict with--all this urged him to
remain behind. On the other hand, the apparent desertion of his comrades
at the last moment was opposed both to his sense of honor and the liking
he had taken to them. But he reflected that he had already shown his
active partisanship, that he could be of little service to them at Wild
Cat Station, and would be only increasing the distance from his home;
and above all, an impatient longing for independent action finally
decided him. "I think I'll stay here," he said to Clinch, "unless you
want me."

Clinch cast a swift and meaning glance at the enemy, but looked
approval. "Keep your eyes skinned, and you're good for a dozen of 'em,"
he said sotto voce, and then turned to Stanner. "I'm going to take this
paper to Wild Cat. If you want to communicate with me hereafter you know
where I am to be found, unless"--he smiled grimly--"you'd like to see me
outside for a few minutes before I go?"

"It is a matter that concerns the Stage Company, not me," said Stanner,
with an attempt to appear at his ease.

Hale accompanied Clinch and Rawlins through the kitchen to the stables.
The ostler, Dick, had already returned to the rescue of the snow-bound
coach.

"I shouldn't like to leave many men alone with that crowd," said Clinch,
pressing Hale's hand; "and I wouldn't have allowed your staying behind
ef I didn't know I could bet my pile on you. Your offerin' to stay just
puts a clean finish on it. Look yer, Hale, I didn't cotton much to you
at first; but ef you ever want a friend, call on Ringwood Clinch."

"The same here, old man," said Rawlins, extending his hand as he
appeared from a hurried conference with the old woman at the woodshed,
"and trust to Zeenie to give you a hint ef there's anythin' underhanded
goin' on. So long."

Half inclined to resent this implied suggestion of protection, yet half
pleased at the idea of a confidence with the handsome girl he had seen,
Hale returned to the room. A whispered discussion among the party ceased
on his entering, and an awkward silence followed, which Hale did not
attempt to break as he quietly took his seat again by the fire. He
was presently confronted by Stanner, who with an affectation of easy
familiarity crossed over to the hearth.

"The old Kernel's d--d peppery and high toned when he's got a little
more than his reg'lar three fingers o' corn juice, eh?"

"I must beg you to understand distinctly, Mr. Stanner," said Hale, with
a return of his habitual precision of statement, "that I regard any
slighting allusion to the gentleman who has just left not only as in
exceedingly bad taste coming from YOU, but very offensive to myself. If
you mean to imply that he was under the influence of liquor, it is
my duty to undeceive you; he was so perfectly in possession of his
faculties as to express not only his own but MY opinion of your conduct.
You must also admit that he was discriminating enough to show his
objection to your company by leaving it. I regret that circumstances do
not make it convenient for me to exercise that privilege; but if I am
obliged to put up with your presence in this room, I strongly insist
that it is not made unendurable with the addition of your conversation."

The effect of this deliberate and passionless declaration was more
discomposing to the party than Clinch's fury. Utterly unaccustomed to
the ideas and language suddenly confronting them, they were unable to
determine whether it was the real expression of the speaker, or whether
it was a vague badinage or affectation to which any reply would involve
them in ridicule. In a country terrorized by practical joking, they did
not doubt but that this was a new form of hoaxing calculated to provoke
some response that would constitute them as victims. The immediate
effect upon them was that complete silence in regard to himself that
Hale desired. They drew together again and conversed in whispers, while
Hale, with his eyes fixed on the fire, gave himself up to somewhat late
and useless reflection.

He could scarcely realize his position. For however he might look at it,
within a space of twelve hours he had not only changed some of his most
cherished opinions, but he had acted in accordance with that change in
a way that made it seem almost impossible for him ever to recant. In the
interests of law and order he had engaged in an unlawful and disorderly
pursuit of criminals, and had actually come in conflict not with the
criminals, but with the only party apparently authorized to pursue them.
More than that, he was finding himself committed to a certain sympathy
with the criminals. Twenty-four hours ago, if anyone had told him that
he would have condoned an illegal act for its abstract justice, or
assisted to commit an illegal act for the same purpose, he would have
felt himself insulted. That he knew he would not now feel it as an
insult perplexed him still more. In these circumstances the fact that he
was separated from his family, and as it were from all his past life and
traditions, by a chance accident, did not disturb him greatly; indeed,
he was for the first time a little doubtful of their probable criticism
on his inconsistency, and was by no means in a hurry to subject himself
to it.

Lifting his eyes, he was suddenly aware that the door leading to the
kitchen was slowly opening. He had thought he heard it creak once or
twice during his deliberate reply to Stanner. It was evidently moving
now so as to attract his attention, without disturbing the others. It
presently opened sufficiently wide to show the face of Zeenie, who, with
a gesture of caution towards his companions, beckoned him to join her.
He rose carelessly as if going out, and, putting on his hat, entered
the kitchen as the retreating figure of the young girl glided lightly
towards the stables. She ascended a few open steps as if to a hay-loft,
but stopped before a low door. Pushing it open, she preceded him into
a small room, apparently under the roof, which scarcely allowed her to
stand upright. By the light of a stable lantern hanging from a beam he
saw that, though poorly furnished, it bore some evidence of feminine
taste and habitation. Motioning to the only chair, she seated herself on
the edge of the bed, with her hands clasping her knees in her familiar
attitude. Her face bore traces of recent agitation, and her eyes were
shining with tears. By the closer light of the lantern he was surprised
to find it was from laughter.

"I reckoned you'd be right lonely down there with that Stanner crowd,
particklerly after that little speech o' your'n, so I sez to Maw I'd get
you up yer for a spell. Maw and I heerd you exhort 'em! Maw allowed you
woz talkin' a furrin' tongue all along, but I--sakes alive!--I hed to
hump myself to keep from bustin' into a yell when yer jist drawed them
Webster-unabridged sentences on 'em." She stopped and rocked backwards
and forwards with a laugh that, subdued by the proximity of the roof and
the fear of being overheard, was by no means unmusical. "I'll tell ye
whot got me, though! That part commencing, 'Suckamstances over which
I've no controul.'"

"Oh, come! I didn't say that," interrupted Hale, laughing.

"'Don't make it convenient for me to exercise the privilege of kickin'
yer out to that extent,'" she continued; "'but if I cannot dispense with
your room, the least I can say is that it's a d--d sight better than
your company--'or suthin' like that! And then the way you minded your
stops, and let your voice rise and fall just ez easy ez if you wos a
First Reader in large type. Why, the Kernel wasn't nowhere. HIS cussin'
didn't come within a mile o' yourn. That Stanner jist turned yaller."

"I'm afraid you are laughing at me," said Hale, not knowing whether to
be pleased or vexed at the girl's amusement.

"I reckon I'm the only one that dare do it, then," said the girl simply.
"The Kernel sez the way you turned round after he'd done his cussin',
and said yer believed you'd stay and take the responsibility of the
whole thing--and did, in that kam, soft, did-anybody-speak-to-me
style--was the neatest thing he'd seen yet. No! Maw says I ain't much on
manners, but I know a man when I see him."

For an instant Hale gave himself up to the delicious flattery of
unexpected, unintended, and apparently uninterested compliment. Becoming
at last a little embarrassed under the frank curiosity of the girl's
dark eyes, he changed the subject.

"Do you always come up here through the stables?" he asked, glancing
round the room, which was evidently her own.

"I reckon," she answered half abstractedly. "There's a ladder down thar
to Maw's room"--pointing to a trapdoor beside the broad chimney that
served as a wall--"but it's handier the other way, and nearer the bosses
if you want to get away quick."

This palpable suggestion--borne out by what he remembered of the other
domestic details--that the house had been planned with reference to
sudden foray or escape reawakened his former uneasy reflections. Zeenie,
who had been watching his face, added, "It's no slouch, when b'ar or
painters hang round nights and stampede the stock, to be able to swing
yourself on to a boss whenever you hear a row going on outside."

"Do you mean that YOU--"

"Paw USED, and I do NOW, sense I've come into the room." She pointed
to a nondescript garment, half cloak, half habit, hanging on the wall.
"I've been outer bed and on Pitchpine's back as far ez the trail five
minutes arter I heard the first bellow."

Hale regarded her with undisguised astonishment. There was nothing at
all Amazonian or horsey in her manners, nor was there even the
robust physical contour that might have been developed through such
experiences. On the contrary, she seemed to be lazily effeminate in body
and mind. Heedless of his critical survey of her, she beckoned him to
draw his chair nearer, and, looking into his eyes, said--

"Whatever possessed YOU to take to huntin' men?"

Hale was staggered by the question, but nevertheless endeavored to
explain. But he was surprised to find that his explanation appeared
stilted even to himself, and, he could not doubt, was utterly
incomprehensible to the girl. She nodded her head, however, and
continued--

"Then you haven't anythin' agin' George?"

"I don't know George," said Hale, smiling. "My proceeding was against
the highwayman."

"Well, HE was the highwayman."

"I mean, it was the principle I objected to--a principle that I consider
highly dangerous."

"Well HE is the principal, for the others only HELPED, I reckon," said
Zeenie with a sigh, "and I reckon he IS dangerous."

Hale saw it was useless to explain. The girl continued--

"What made you stay here instead of going on with the Kernel? There was
suthin' else besides your wanting to make that Stanner take water. What
is it?"

A light sense of the propinquity of beauty, of her confidence, of their
isolation, of the eloquence of her dark eyes, at first tempted Hale to
a reply of simple gallantry; a graver consideration of the same
circumstances froze it upon his lips.

"I don't know," he returned awkwardly.

"Well, I'll tell you," she said. "You didn't cotton to the Kernel and
Rawlins much more than you did to Stanner. They ain't your kind."

In his embarrassment Hale blundered upon the thought he had honorably
avoided.

"Suppose," he said, with a constrained laugh, "I had stayed to see you."

"I reckon I ain't your kind, neither," she replied promptly. There was
a momentary pause when she rose and walked to the chimney. "It's
very quiet down there," she said, stooping and listening over the
roughly-boarded floor that formed the ceiling of the room below. "I
wonder what's going on."

In the belief that this was a delicate hint for his return to the party
he had left, Hale rose, but the girl passed him hurriedly, and, opening
the door, cast a quick glance into the stable beyond.

"Just as I reckoned--the horses are gone too. They've skedaddled," she
said blankly.

Hale did not reply. In his embarrassment a moment ago the idea of taking
an equally sudden departure had flashed upon him. Should he take this as
a justification of that impulse, or how? He stood irresolutely gazing
at the girl, who turned and began to descend the stairs silently. He
followed. When they reached the lower room they found it as they had
expected--deserted.

"I hope I didn't drive them away," said Hale, with an uneasy look at the
troubled face of the girl. "For I really had an idea of going myself a
moment ago."

She remained silent, gazing out of the window. Then, turning with a
slight shrug of her shoulders, said half defiantly: "What's the use now?
Oh, Maw! the Stanner crowd has vamosed the ranch, and this yer stranger
kalkilates to stay!"




CHAPTER VII


A week had passed at Eagle's Court--a week of mingled clouds and
sunshine by day, of rain over the green plateau and snow on the
mountain by night. Each morning had brought its fresh greenness to the
winter-girt domain, and a fresh coat of dazzling white to the barrier
that separated its dwellers from the world beyond. There was little
change in the encompassing wall of their prison; if anything, the snowy
circle round them seemed to have drawn its lines nearer day by day. The
immediate result of this restricted limit had been to confine the range
of cattle to the meadows nearer the house, and at a safe distance from
the fringe of wilderness now invaded by the prowling tread of predatory
animals.

Nevertheless, the two figures lounging on the slope at sunset gave very
little indication of any serious quality in the situation. Indeed,
so far as appearances were concerned, Kate, who was returning from an
afternoon stroll with Falkner, exhibited, with feminine inconsistency,
a decided return to the world of fashion and conventionality apparently
just as she was effectually excluded from it. She had not only discarded
her white dress as a concession to the practical evidence of the
surrounding winter, but she had also brought out a feather hat and sable
muff which had once graced a fashionable suburb of Boston. Even Falkner
had exchanged his slouch hat and picturesque serape for a beaver
overcoat and fur cap of Hale's which had been pressed upon him by Kate,
under the excuse of the exigencies of the season. Within a stone's throw
of the thicket, turbulent with the savage forces of nature, they walked
with the abstraction of people hearing only their own voices; in the
face of the solemn peaks clothed with white austerity they talked
gravely of dress.

"I don't mean to say," said Kate demurely, "that you're to give up the
serape entirely; you can wear it on rainy nights and when you ride over
here from your friend's house to spend the evening--for the sake of old
times," she added, with an unconscious air of referring to an already
antiquated friendship; "but you must admit it's a little too gorgeous
and theatrical for the sunlight of day and the public highway."

"But why should that make it wrong, if the experience of a people has
shown it to be a garment best fitted for their wants and requirements?"
said Falkner argumentatively.

"But you are not one of those people," said Kate, "and that makes all
the difference. You look differently and act differently, so that there
is something irreconcilable between your clothes and you that makes you
look odd."

"And to look odd, according to your civilized prejudices, is to be
wrong," said Falkner bitterly.

"It is to seem different from what one really is--which IS wrong. Now,
you are a mining superintendent, you tell me. Then you don't want to
look like a Spanish brigand, as you do in that serape. I am sure if you
had ridden up to a stage-coach while I was in it, I'd have handed you my
watch and purse without a word. There! you are not offended?" she added,
with a laugh, which did not, however, conceal a certain earnestness.
"I suppose I ought to have said I would have given it gladly to such
a romantic figure, and perhaps have got out and danced a saraband or
bolero with you--if that is the thing to do nowadays. Well!" she said,
after a dangerous pause, "consider that I've said it."

He had been walking a little before her, with his face turned towards
the distant mountain. Suddenly he stopped and faced her. "You would have
given enough of your time to the highwayman, Miss Scott, as would have
enabled you to identify him for the police--and no more. Like your
brother, you would have been willing to sacrifice yourself for the
benefit of the laws of civilization and good order."

If a denial to this assertion could have been expressed without the
use of speech, it was certainly transparent in the face and eyes of the
young girl at that moment. If Falkner had been less self-conscious he
would have seen it plainly. But Kate only buried her face in her lifted
muff, slightly raised her pretty shoulders, and, dropping her tremulous
eyelids, walked on. "It seems a pity," she said, after a pause, "that
we cannot preserve our own miserable existence without taking something
from others--sometimes even a life!" He started. "And it's horrid to
have to remind you that you have yet to kill something for the invalid's
supper," she continued. "I saw a hare in the field yonder."

"You mean that jackass rabbit?" he said, abstractedly.

"What you please. It's a pity you didn't take your gun instead of your
rifle."

"I brought the rifle for protection."

"And a shot gun is only aggressive, I suppose?"

Falkner looked at her for a moment, and then, as the hare suddenly
started across the open a hundred yards away, brought the rifle to his
shoulder. A long interval--as it seemed to Kate--elapsed; the animal
appeared to be already safely out of range, when the rifle suddenly
cracked; the hare bounded in the air like a ball, and dropped
motionless. The girl looked at the marksman in undisguised admiration.
"Is it quite dead?" she said timidly.

"It never knew what struck it."

"It certainly looks less brutal than shooting it with a shot gun, as
John does, and then not killing it outright," said Kate. "I hate what is
called sport and sportsmen, but a rifle seems--"

"What?" said Falkner.

"More--gentlemanly."

She had raised her pretty head in the air, and, with her hand shading
her eyes, was looking around the clear ether, and said meditatively, "I
wonder--no matter."

"What is it?"

"Oh, nothing."

"It is something," said Falkner, with an amused smile, reloading his
rifle.

"Well, you once promised me an eagle's feather for my hat. Isn't that
thing an eagle?"

"I am afraid it's only a hawk."

"Well, that will do. Shoot that!"

Her eyes were sparkling. Falkner withdrew his own with a slight smile,
and raised his rifle with provoking deliberation.

"Are you quite sure it's what you want?" he asked demurely.

"Yes--quick!"

Nevertheless, it was some minutes before the rifle cracked again. The
wheeling bird suddenly struck the wind with its wings aslant, and then
fell like a plummet at a distance which showed the difficulty of the
feat. Falkner started from her side before the bird reached the ground.
He returned to her after a lapse of a few moments, bearing a trailing
wing in his hand. "You shall make your choice," he said gayly.

"Are you sure it was killed outright?"

"Head shot off," said Falkner briefly.

"And besides, the fall would have killed it," said Kate conclusively.
"It's lovely. I suppose they call you a very good shot?"

"They--who?"

"Oh! the people you know--your friends, and their sisters."

"George shoots better than I do, and has had more experience. I've seen
him do that with a pistol. Of course not such a long shot, but a more
difficult one."

Kate did not reply, but her face showed a conviction that as an artistic
and gentlemanly performance it was probably inferior to the one she
had witnessed. Falkner, who had picked up the hare also, again took his
place by her side, as they turned towards the house.

"Do you remember the day you came, when we were walking here, you
pointed out that rock on the mountain where the poor animals had taken
refuge from the snow?" said Kate suddenly.

"Yes," answered Falkner; "they seem to have diminished. I am afraid you
were right; they have either eaten each other or escaped. Let us hope
the latter."

"I looked at them with a glass every day," said Kate, "and they've got
down to only four. There's a bear and that shabby, over-grown cat you
call a California lion, and a wolf, and a creature like a fox or a
squirrel."

"It's a pity they're not all of a kind," said Falkner.

"Why?"

"There'd be nothing to keep them from being comfortable together."

"On the contrary, I should think it would be simply awful to be shut up
entirely with one's own kind."

"Then you believe it is possible for them, with their different
natures and habits, to be happy together?" said Falkner, with sudden
earnestness.

"I believe," said Kate hurriedly, "that the bear and the lion find the
fox and the wolf very amusing, and that the fox and the wolf--"

"Well?" said Falkner, stopping short.

"Well, the fox and the wolf will carry away a much better opinion of the
lion and bear than they had before."

They had reached the house by this time, and for some occult reason Kate
did not immediately enter the parlor, where she had left her sister and
the invalid, who had already been promoted to a sofa and a cushion by
the window, but proceeded directly to her own room. As a manoeuvre to
avoid meeting Mrs. Hale, it was scarcely necessary, for that lady was
already in advance of her on the staircase, as if she had left the
parlor for a moment before they entered the house. Falkner, too, would
have preferred the company of his own thoughts, but Lee, apparently
the only unpreoccupied, all-pervading, and boyishly alert spirit in the
party, hailed him from within, and obliged him to present himself on
the threshold of the parlor with the hare and hawk's wing he was still
carrying. Eying the latter with affected concern, Lee said gravely:
"Of course, I CAN eat it, Ned, and I dare say it's the best part of the
fowl, and the hare isn't more than enough for the women, but I had no
idea we were so reduced. Three hours and a half gunning, and only one
hare and a hawk's wing. It's terrible."

Perceiving that his friend was alone, Falkner dropped his burden in the
hall and strode rapidly to his side. "Look here, George, we must, I must
leave this place at once. It's no use talking; I can stand this sort of
thing no longer."

"Nor can I, with the door open. Shut it, and say what you want quick,
before Mrs. Hale comes back. Have you found a trail?"

"No, no; that's not what I mean."

"Well, it strikes me it ought to be, if you expect to get away. Have
you proposed to Beacon Street, and she thinks it rather premature on a
week's acquaintance?"

"No; but--"

"But you WILL, you mean? DON'T, just yet."

"But I cannot live this perpetual lie."

"That depends. I don't know HOW you're lying when I'm not with you. If
you're walking round with that girl, singing hymns and talking of
your class in Sunday-school, or if you're insinuating that you're a
millionaire, and think of buying the place for a summer hotel, I should
say you'd better quit that kind of lying. But, on the other hand, I
don't see the necessity of your dancing round here with a shot gun, and
yelling for Harkins's blood, or counting that package of greenbacks in
the lap of Miss Scott, to be truthful. It seems to me there ought to be
something between the two."

"But, George, don't you think--you are on such good terms with Mrs. Hale
and her mother--that you might tell them the whole story? That is, tell
it in your own way; they will hear anything from you, and believe it."

"Thank you; but suppose I don't believe in lying, either?"

"You know what I mean! You have a way, d--n it, of making everything
seem like a matter of course, and the most natural thing going."

"Well, suppose I did. Are you prepared for the worst?"

Falkner was silent for a moment, and then replied, "Yes, anything would
be better than this suspense."

"I don't agree with you. Then you would be willing to have them forgive
us?"

"I don't understand you."

"I mean that their forgiveness would be the worst thing that could
happen. Look here, Ned. Stop a moment; listen at that door. Mrs. Hale
has the tread of an angel, with the pervading capacity of a cat. Now
listen! I don't pretend to be in love with anybody here, but if I were I
should hardly take advantage of a woman's helplessness and solitude with
a sensational story about myself. It's not giving her a fair show. You
know she won't turn you out of the house."

"No," said Falkner, reddening; "but I should expect to go at once, and
that would be my only excuse for telling her."

"Go! where? In your preoccupation with that girl you haven't even found
the trail by which Manuel escaped. Do you intend to camp outside the
house, and make eyes at her when she comes to the window?"

"Because you think nothing of flirting with Mrs. Hale," said Falkner
bitterly, "you care little--"

"My dear Ned," said Lee, "the fact that Mrs. Hale has a husband, and
knows that she can't marry me, puts us on equal terms. Nothing that she
could learn about me hereafter would make a flirtation with me any less
wrong than it would be now, or make her seem more a victim. Can you say
the same of yourself and that Puritan girl?"

"But you did not advise me to keep aloof from her; on the contrary,
you--"

"I thought you might make the best of the situation, and pay her some
attention, BECAUSE you could not go any further."

"You thought I was utterly heartless and selfish, like--"

"Ned!"

Falkner walked rapidly to the fireplace, and returned.

"Forgive me, George--I'm a fool--and an ungrateful one."

Lee did not reply at once, although he took and retained the hand
Falkner had impulsively extended. "Promise me," he said slowly, after a
pause, "that you will say nothing yet to either of these women. I ask it
for your own sake, and this girl's, not for mine. If, on the contrary,
you are tempted to do so from any Quixotic idea of honor, remember that
you will only precipitate something that will oblige you, from that same
sense of honor, to separate from the girl forever."

"I don't understand."

"Enough!" said he, with a quick return of his old reckless gayety.
"Shoot-Off-His-Mouth--the Beardless Boy Chief of the Sierras--has
spoken! Let the Pale Face with the black moustache ponder and beware how
he talks hereafter to the Rippling Cochituate Water! Go!"

Nevertheless, as soon as the door had closed upon Falkner, Lee's smile
vanished. With his colorless face turned to the fading light at the
window, the hollows in his temples and the lines in the corners of his
eyes seemed to have grown more profound. He remained motionless and
absorbed in thought so deep that the light rustle of a skirt, that would
at other times have thrilled his sensitive ear, passed unheeded. At
last, throwing off his reverie with the full and unrestrained sigh of
a man who believes himself alone, he was startled by the soft laugh of
Mrs. Hale, who had entered the room unperceived.

"Dear me! How portentous! Really, I almost feel as if I were
interrupting a tete-a-tete between yourself and some old flame. I
haven't heard anything so old-fashioned and conservative as that sigh
since I have been in California. I thought you never had any Past out
here?"

Fortunately his face was between her and the light, and the unmistakable
expression of annoyance and impatience which was passed over it was
spared her. There was, however, still enough dissonance in his manner to
affect her quick feminine sense, and when she drew nearer to him it was
with a certain maiden-like timidity.

"You are not worse, Mr. Lee, I hope? You have not over-exerted
yourself?"

"There's little chance of that with one leg--if not in the grave at
least mummified with bandages," he replied, with a bitterness new to
him.

"Shall I loosen them? Perhaps they are too tight. There is nothing so
irritating to one as the sensation of being tightly bound."

The light touch of her hand upon the rug that covered his knees,
the thoughtful tenderness of the blue-veined lids, and the delicate
atmosphere that seemed to surround her like a perfume cleared his face
of its shadow and brought back the reckless fire into his blue eyes.

"I suppose I'm intolerant of all bonds," he said, looking at her
intently, "in others as well as myself!"

Whether or not she detected any double meaning in his words, she was
obliged to accept the challenge of his direct gaze, and, raising her
eyes to his, drew back a little from him with a slight increase of
color. "I was afraid you had heard bad news just now."

"What would you call bad news?" asked Lee, clasping his hands behind
his head, and leaning back on the sofa, but without withdrawing his eyes
from her face.

"Oh, any news that would interrupt your convalescence, or break up our
little family party," said Mrs. Hale. "You have been getting on so well
that really it would seem cruel to have anything interfere with our life
of forgetting and being forgotten. But," she added with apprehensive
quickness, "has anything happened? Is there really any news from--from,
the trails? Yesterday Mr. Falkner said the snow had recommenced in the
pass. Has he seen anything, noticed anything different?"

She looked so very pretty, with the rare, genuine, and youthful
excitement that transfigured her wearied and wearying regularity of
feature, that Lee contented himself with drinking in her prettiness as
he would have inhaled the perfume of some flower.

"Why do you look at me so, Mr. Lee?" she asked, with a slight smile.
"I believe something HAS happened. Mr. Falkner HAS brought you some
intelligence."

"He has certainly found out something I did not foresee."

"And that troubles you?"

"It does."

"Is it a secret?"

"No."

"Then I suppose you will tell it to me at dinner," she said, with a
little tone of relief.

"I am afraid, if I tell it at all, I must tell it now," he said,
glancing at the door.

"You must do as you think best," she said coldly, "as it seems to be a
secret, after all." She hesitated. "Kate is dressing, and will not be
down for some time."

"So much the better. For I'm afraid that Ned has made a poor return to
your hospitality by falling in love with her."

"Impossible! He has known her for scarcely a week."

"I am afraid we won't agree as to the length of time necessary to
appreciate and love a woman. I think it can be done in seven days and
four hours, the exact time we have been here."

"Yes; but as Kate was not in when you arrived, and did not come until
later, you must take off at least one hour," said Mrs. Hale gayly.

"Ned can. I shall not abate a second."

"But are you not mistaken in his feelings?" she continued hurriedly. "He
certainly has not said anything to her."

"That is his last hold on honor and reason. And to preserve that little
intact he wants to run away at once."

"But that would be very silly."

"Do you think so?" he said, looking at her fixedly.

"Why not?" she asked in her turn, but rather faintly.

"I'll tell you why," he said, lowering his voice with a certain
intensity of passion unlike his usual boyish lightheartedness. "Think of
a man whose life has been one of alternate hardness and aggression, of
savage disappointment and equally savage successes, who has known no
other relaxation than dissipation and extravagance; a man to whom
the idea of the domestic hearth and family ties only meant weakness,
effeminacy, or--worse; who had looked for loyalty and devotion only in
the man who battled for him at his right hand in danger, or shared his
privations and sufferings. Think of such a man, and imagine that an
accident has suddenly placed him in an atmosphere of purity, gentleness,
and peace, surrounded him by the refinements of a higher life than he
had ever known, and that he found himself as in a dream, on terms of
equality with a pure woman who had never known any other life, and yet
would understand and pity his. Imagine his loving her! Imagine that the
first effect of that love was to show him his own inferiority and the
immeasurable gulf that lay between his life and hers! Would he not fly
rather than brave the disgrace of her awakening to the truth? Would
he not fly rather than accept even the pity that might tempt her to a
sacrifice?"

"But--is Mr. Falkner all that?"

"Nothing of the kind, I assure you!" said he demurely. "But that's the
way a man in love feels."

"Really! Mr. Falkner should get you to plead his cause with Kate," said
Mrs. Hale with a faint laugh.

"I need all my persuasive powers in that way for myself," said Lee
boldly.

Mrs. Hale rose. "I think I hear Kate coming," she said. Nevertheless,
she did not move away. "It IS Kate coming," she added hurriedly,
stooping to pick up her work-basket, which had slipped with Lee's hand
from her own.

It was Kate, who at once flew to her sister's assistance, Lee deploring
from the sofa his own utter inability to aid her. "It's all my fault,
too," he said to Kate, but looking at Mrs. Hale. "It seems I have
a faculty of upsetting existing arrangements without the power of
improving them, or even putting them back in their places. What shall I
do? I am willing to hold any number of skeins or rewind any quantity of
spools. I am even willing to forgive Ned for spending the whole day with
you, and only bringing me the wing of a hawk for supper."

"That was all my folly, Mr. Lee," said Kate, with swift mendacity; "he
was all the time looking after something for you, when I begged him to
shoot a bird to get a feather for my hat. And that wing is SO pretty."

"It is a pity that mere beauty is not edible," said Lee, gravely, "and
that if the worst comes to the worst here you would probably prefer me
to Ned and his moustachios, merely because I've been tied by the leg to
this sofa and slowly fattened like a Strasbourg goose."

Nevertheless, his badinage failed somehow to amuse Kate, and she
presently excused herself to rejoin her sister, who had already slipped
from the room. For the first time during their enforced seclusion a
sense of restraint and uneasiness affected Mrs. Hale, her sister, and
Falkner at dinner. The latter addressed himself to Mrs. Scott, almost
entirely. Mrs. Hale was fain to bestow an exceptional and marked
tenderness on her little daughter Minnie, who, however, by some
occult childish instinct, insisted upon sharing it with Lee--her great
friend--to Mrs. Hale's uneasy consciousness. Nor was Lee slow to profit
by the child's suggestion, but responded with certain vicarious caresses
that increased the mother's embarrassment. That evening they retired
early, but in the intervals of a restless night Kate was aware, from
the sound of voices in the opposite room, that the friends were equally
wakeful.

A morning of bright sunshine and soft warm air did not, however, bring
any change to their new and constrained relations. It only seemed to
offer a reason for Falkner to leave the house very early for his
daily rounds, and gave Lee that occasion for unaided exercise with an
extempore crutch on the veranda which allowed Mrs. Hale to pursue her
manifold duties without the necessity of keeping him company. Kate also,
as if to avoid an accidental meeting with Falkner, had remained at home
with her sister. With one exception, they did not make their guests the
subject of their usual playful comments, nor, after the fashion of their
sex, quote their ideas and opinions. That exception was made by Mrs.
Hale.

"You have had no difference with Mr. Falkner?" she said carelessly.

"No," said Kate quickly. "Why?"

"I only thought he seemed rather put out at dinner last night, and you
didn't propose to go and meet him to-day."

"He must be bored with my company at times, I dare say," said Kate, with
an indifference quite inconsistent with her rising color. "I shouldn't
wonder if he was a little vexed with Mr. Lee's chaffing him about his
sport yesterday, and probably intends to go further to-day, and bring
home larger game. I think Mr. Lee very amusing always, but I sometimes
fancy he lacks feeling."

"Feeling! You don't know him, Kate," said Mrs. Hale quickly. She stopped
herself, but with a half-smiling recollection in her dropped eyelids.

"Well, he doesn't look very amiable now, stamping up and down the
veranda. Perhaps you'd better go and soothe him."

"I'm really SO busy just now," said Mrs. Hale, with sudden and
inconsequent energy; "things have got dreadfully behind in the last
week. You had better go, Kate, and make him sit down, or he'll be
overdoing it. These men never know any medium--in anything."

Contrary to Kate's expectation, Falkner returned earlier than usual,
and, taking the invalid's arm, supported him in a more ambitious walk
along the terrace before the house. They were apparently absorbed in
conversation, but the two women who observed them from the window could
not help noticing the almost feminine tenderness of Falkner's manner
towards his wounded friend, and the thoughtful tenderness of his
ministering care.

"I wonder," said Mrs. Hale, following them with softly appreciative
eyes, "if women are capable of as disinterested friendship as men? I
never saw anything like the devotion of these two creatures. Look! if
Mr. Falkner hasn't got his arm round Mr. Lee's waist, and Lee, with his
own arm over Falkner's neck, is looking up in his eyes. I declare, Kate,
it almost seems an indiscretion to look at them."

Kate, however, to Mrs. Hale's indignation, threw her pretty head back
and sniffed the air contemptuously. "I really don't see anything but
some absurd sentimentalism of their own, or some mannish wickedness
they're concocting by themselves. I am by no means certain, Josephine,
that Lee's influence over that young man is the best thing for him."

"On the contrary! Lee's influence seems the only thing that checks
his waywardness," said Mrs. Hale quickly. "I'm sure, if anyone makes
sacrifices, it is Lee; I shouldn't wonder that even now he is making
some concession to Falkner, and all those caressing ways of your friend
are for a purpose. They're not much different from us, dear."

"Well, I wouldn't stand there and let them see me looking at them as if
I couldn't bear them out of my sight for a moment," said Kate, whisking
herself out of the room. "They're conceited enough, Heaven knows,
already."

That evening, at dinner, however, the two men exhibited no trace of the
restraint or uneasiness of the previous day. If they were less impulsive
and exuberant, they were still frank and interested, and if the term
could be used in connection with men apparently trained to neither
self-control nor repose, there was a certain gentle dignity in their
manner which for the time had the effect of lifting them a little
above the social level of their entertainers. For even with all their
predisposition to the strangers, Kate and Mrs. Hale had always retained
a conscious attitude of gentle condescension and superiority towards
them--an attitude not inconsistent with a stronger feeling, nor
altogether unprovocative of it; yet this evening they found themselves
impressed with something more than an equality in the men who had amused
and interested them, and they were perhaps a little more critical
and doubtful of their own power. Mrs. Hale's little girl, who had
appreciated only the seriousness of the situation, had made her own
application of it. "Are you dow'in' away from aunt Kate and mamma?" she
asked, in an interval of silence.

"How else can I get you the red snow we saw at sunset, the other day, on
the peak yonder?" said Lee gayly. "I'll have to get up some morning very
early, and catch it when it comes at sunrise."

"What is this wonderful snow, Minnie, that you are tormenting Mr. Lee
for?" asked Mrs. Hale.

"Oh! it's a fairy snow that he told me all about; it only comes when
the sun comes up and goes down, and if you catch ever so little of it
in your hand it makes all you fink you want come true! Wouldn't that be
nice?" But to the child's astonishment her little circle of auditors,
even while assenting, sighed.

The red snow was there plain enough the next morning before the valley
was warm with light, and while Minnie, her mother, and aunt Kate were
still peacefully sleeping. And Mr. Lee had kept his word, and was
evidently seeking it, for he and Falkner were already urging their
horses through the pass, with their faces towards and lit up by its
glow.




CHAPTER VIII


Kate was stirring early, but not as early as her sister, who met her
on the threshold of her room. Her face was quite pale, and she held a
letter in her hand. "What does this mean, Kate?"

"What is the matter?" asked Kate, her own color fading from her cheek.

"They are gone--with their horses. Left before day, and left this."

She handed Kate an open letter. The girl took it hurriedly, and read--

"When you get this we shall be no more; perhaps not even as much. Ned
found the trail yesterday, and we are taking the first advantage of it
before day. We dared not trust ourselves to say 'Good-by!' last evening;
we were too cowardly to face you this morning; we must go as we came,
without warning, but not without regret. We leave a package and a letter
for your husband. It is not only our poor return for your gentleness and
hospitality, but, since it was accidentally the means of giving us the
pleasure of your society, we beg you to keep it in safety until his
return. We kiss your mother's hands. Ned wants to say something more,
but time presses, and I only allow him to send his love to Minnie, and
to tell her that he is trying to find the red snow.

"GEORGE LEE."


"But he is not fit to travel," said Mrs. Hale. "And the trail--it may
not be passable."

"It was passable the day before yesterday," said Kate drearily, "for I
discovered it, and went as far as the buck-eyes."

"Then it was you who told them about it," said Mrs. Hale reproachfully.

"No," said Kate indignantly. "Of course I didn't." She stopped, and,
reading the significance of her speech in the glistening eyes of her
sister, she blushed. Josephine kissed her, and said--

"It WAS treating us like children, Kate, but we must make them pay for
it hereafter. For that package and letter to John means something, and
we shall probably see them before long. I wonder what the letter is
about, and what is in the package?"

"Probably one of Mr. Lee's jokes. He is quite capable of turning the
whole thing into ridicule. I dare say he considers his visit here a
prolonged jest."

"With his poor leg, Kate? You are as unfair to him as you were to
Falkner when they first came."

Kate, however, kept her dark eyebrows knitted in a piquant frown.

"To think of his intimating WHAT he would allow Falkner to say! And yet
you believe he has no evil influence over the young man."

Mrs. Hale laughed. "Where are you going so fast, Kate?" she called
mischievously, as the young lady flounced out of the room.

"Where? Why, to tidy John's room. He may be coming at any moment now. Or
do you want to do it yourself?"

"No, no," returned Mrs. Hale hurriedly; "you do it. I'll look in a
little later on."

She turned away with a sigh. The sun was shining brilliantly outside.
Through the half-open blinds its long shafts seemed to be searching the
house for the lost guests, and making the hollow shell appear doubly
empty. What a contrast to the dear dark days of mysterious seclusion
and delicious security, lit by Lee's laughter and the sparkling hearth,
which had passed so quickly! The forgotten outer world seemed to have
returned to the house through those open windows and awakened its
dwellers from a dream.

The morning seemed interminable, and it was past noon, while they
were deep in a sympathetic conference with Mrs. Scott, who had drawn a
pathetic word-picture of the two friends perishing in the snow-drift,
without flannels, brandy, smelling-salts, or jelly, which they had
forgotten, when they were startled by the loud barking of "Spot" on the
lawn before the house. The women looked hurriedly at each other.

"They have returned," said Mrs. Hale.

Kate ran to the window. A horseman was approaching the house. A single
glance showed her that it was neither Falkner, Lee, nor Hale, but a
stranger.

"Perhaps he brings some news of them," said Mrs. Scott quickly. So
complete had been their preoccupation with the loss of their guests that
they could not yet conceive of anything that did not pertain to it.

The stranger, who was at once ushered into the parlor, was evidently
disconcerted by the presence of the three women.

"I reckoned to see John Hale yer," he began, awkwardly.

A slight look of disappointment passed over their faces. "He has not yet
returned," said Mrs. Hale briefly.

"Sho! I wanter know. He's hed time to do it, I reckon," said the
stranger.

"I suppose he hasn't been able to get over from the Summit," returned
Mrs. Hale. "The trail is closed."

"It ain't now, for I kem over it this mornin' myself."

"You didn't--meet--anyone?" asked Mrs. Hale timidly, with a glance at
the others.

"No."

A long silence ensued. The unfortunate visitor plainly perceived
an evident abatement of interest in himself, yet he still struggled
politely to say something. "Then I reckon you know what kept Hale away?"
he said dubiously.

"Oh, certainly--the stage robbery."

"I wish I'd known that," said the stranger reflectively, "for I ez good
ez rode over jist to tell it to ye. Ye see John Hale, he sent a note to
ye 'splainin' matters by a gentleman; but the road agents tackled that
man, and left him for dead in the road."

"Yes," said Mrs. Hale impatiently.

"Luckily he didn't die, but kem to, and managed to crawl inter the
brush, whar I found him when I was lookin' for stock, and brought him to
my house--"

"YOU found him? YOUR house?" interrupted Mrs. Hale.

"Inter MY house," continued the man doggedly. "I'm Thompson of
Thompson's Pass over yon; mebbe it ain't much of a house; but I brought
him thar. Well, ez he couldn't find the note that Hale had guv him, and
like ez not the road agents had gone through him and got it, ez soon ez
the weather let up I made a break over yer to tell ye."

"You say Mr. Lee came to your house," repeated Mrs. Hale, "and is there
now?"

"Not much," said the man grimly; "and I never said LEE was thar. I mean
that Bilson waz shot by Lee and kem--"

"Certainly, Josephine!" said Kate, suddenly stepping between her sister
and Thompson, and turning upon her a white face and eyes of silencing
significance; "certainly--don't you remember?--that's the story we got
from the Chinaman, you know, only muddled. Go on sir," she continued,
turning to Thompson calmly; "you say that the man who brought the note
from my brother was shot by Lee?"

"And another fellow they call Falkner. Yes, that's about the size of
it."

"Thank you; it's nearly the same story that we heard. But you have had
a long ride, Mr. Thompson; let me offer you a glass of whiskey in the
dining-room. This way, please."

The door closed upon them none too soon. For Mrs. Hale already felt the
room whirling around her, and sank back into her chair with a hysterical
laugh. Old Mrs. Scott did not move from her seat, but, with her eyes
fixed on the door, impatiently waited Kate's return. Neither spoke, but
each felt that the young, untried girl was equal to the emergency, and
would get at the truth.

The sound of Thompson's feet in the hall and the closing of the front
door was followed by Kate's reappearance. Her face was still pale, but
calm.

"Well?" said the two women in a breath.

"Well," returned Kate slowly; "Mr. Lee and Mr. Falkner were undoubtedly
the two men who took the paper from John's messenger and brought it
here."

"You are sure?" said Mrs. Scott.

"There can be no mistake, mother."

"THEN," said Mrs. Scott, with triumphant feminine logic, "I don't want
anything more to satisfy me that they are PERFECTLY INNOCENT!"

More convincing than the most perfect masculine deduction, this
single expression of their common nature sent a thrill of sympathy and
understanding through each. They cried for a few moments on each other's
shoulders. "To think," said Mrs. Scott, "what that poor boy must have
suffered to have been obliged to do--that to--to--Bilson--isn't that the
creature's name? I suppose we ought to send over there and inquire after
him, with some chicken and jelly, Kate. It's only common humanity, and
we must be just, my dear; for even if he shot Mr. Lee and provoked the
poor boy to shoot him, he may have thought it his duty. And then, it
will avert suspicions."

"To think," murmured Mrs. Hale, "what they must have gone through while
they were here--momentarily expecting John to come, and yet keeping up
such a light heart."

"I believe, if they had stayed any longer, they would have told us
everything," said Mrs. Scott.

Both the younger women were silent. Kate was thinking of Falkner's
significant speech as they neared the house on their last walk;
Josephine was recalling the remorseful picture drawn by Lee, which she
knew was his own portrait. Suddenly she started.

"But John will be here soon; what are we to tell him? And then that
package and that letter."

"Don't be in a hurry to tell him anything at present, my child," said
Mrs. Scott gently. "It is unfortunate this Mr. Thompson called here, but
we are not obliged to understand what he says now about John's message,
or to connect our visitors with his story. I'm sure, Kate, I should have
treated them exactly as we did if they had come without any message from
John; so I do not know why we should lay any stress on that, or even
speak of it. The simple fact is that we have opened our house to
two strangers in distress. Your husband," continued Mr. Hale's
mother-in-law, "does not require to know more. As to the letter and
package, we will keep that for further consideration. It cannot be of
much importance, or they would have spoken of it before; it is probably
some trifling present as a return for your hospitality. I should use no
INDECOROUS haste in having it opened."

The two women kissed Mrs. Scott with a feeling of relief, and fell
back into the monotony of their household duties. It is to be feared,
however, that the absence of their outlawed guests was nearly as
dangerous as their presence in the opportunity it afforded for
uninterrupted and imaginative reflection. Both Kate and Josephine were
at first shocked and wounded by the discovery of the real character of
the two men with whom they had associated so familiarly, but it was no
disparagement to their sense of propriety to say that the shock did not
last long, and was accompanied with the fascination of danger. This was
succeeded by a consciousness of the delicate flattery implied in their
indirect influence over the men who had undoubtedly risked their lives
for the sake of remaining with them. The best woman is not above being
touched by the effect of her power over the worst man, and Kate at first
allowed herself to think of Falkner in that light. But if in her later
reflections he suffered as a heroic experience to be forgotten, he
gained something as an actual man to be remembered. Now that the
proposed rides from "his friend's house" were a part of the illusion,
would he ever dare to visit them again? Would she dare to see him? She
held her breath with a sudden pain of parting that was new to her; she
tried to think of something else, to pick up the scattered threads of
her life before that eventful day. But in vain; that one week had filled
the place with implacable memories, or more terrible, as it seemed to
her and her sister, they had both lost their feeble, alien hold
upon Eagle's Court in the sudden presence of the real genii of these
solitudes, and henceforth they alone would be the strangers there.
They scarcely dared to confess it to each other, but this return to the
dazzling sunlight and cloudless skies of the past appeared to them to be
the one unreal experience; they had never known the true wild flavor
of their home, except in that week of delicious isolation. Without
breathing it aloud, they longed for some vague denoument to this
experience that should take them from Eagle's Court forever.

It was noon the next day when the little household beheld the last shred
of their illusion vanish like the melting snow in the strong sunlight
of John Hale's return. He was accompanied by Colonel Clinch and Rawlins,
two strangers to the women. Was it fancy, or the avenging spirit of
their absent companions? but HE too looked a stranger, and as the little
cavalcade wound its way up the slope he appeared to sit his horse and
wear his hat with a certain slouch and absence of his usual restraint
that strangely shocked them. Even the old half-condescending,
half-punctilious gallantry of his greeting of his wife and family was
changed, as he introduced his companions with a mingling of familiarity
and shyness that was new to him. Did Mrs. Hale regret it, or feel a
sense of relief in the absence of his usual seignorial formality? She
only knew that she was grateful for the presence of the strangers, which
for the moment postponed a matrimonial confidence from which she shrank.

"Proud to know you," said Colonel Clinch, with a sudden outbreak of the
antique gallantry of some remote Huguenot ancestor. "My friend, Judge
Hale, must be a regular Roman citizen to leave such a family and such a
house at the call of public duty. Eh, Rawlins?"

"You bet," said Rawlins, looking from Kate to her sister in undisguised
admiration.

"And I suppose the duty could not have been a very pleasant one," said
Mrs. Hale, timidly, without looking at her husband.

"Gad, madam, that's just it," said the gallant Colonel, seating himself
with a comfortable air, and an easy, though by no means disrespectful,
familiarity. "We went into this fight a little more than a week ago. The
only scrimmage we've had has been with the detectives that were on the
robbers' track. Ha! ha! The best people we've met have been the friends
of the men we were huntin', and we've generally come to the conclusion
to vote the other ticket! Ez Judge Hale and me agreed ez we came along,
the two men ez we'd most like to see just now and shake hands with are
George Lee and Ned Falkner."

"The two leaders of the party who robbed the coach," explained Mr. Hale,
with a slight return of his usual precision of statement.

The three women looked at each other with a blaze of thanksgiving in
their grateful eyes. Without comprehending all that Colonel Clinch had
said, they understood enough to know that their late guests were safe
from the pursuit of that party, and that their own conduct was spared
criticism. I hardly dare write it, but they instantly assumed the
appearance of aggrieved martyrs, and felt as if they were!

"Yes, ladies!" continued the Colonel, inspired by the bright eyes fixed
upon him. "We haven't taken the road ourselves yet, but--pohn honor--we
wouldn't mind doing it in a case like this." Then with the fluent, but
somewhat exaggerated, phraseology of a man trained to "stump" speaking,
he gave an account of the robbery and his own connection with it. He
spoke of the swindling and treachery which had undoubtedly provoked
Falkner to obtain restitution of his property by an overt act of
violence under the leadership of Lee. He added that he had learned since
at Wild Cat Station that Harkins had fled the country, that a suit had
been commenced by the Excelsior Ditch Company, and that all available
property of Harkins had been seized by the sheriff.

"Of course it can't be proved yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that
Lee, who is an old friend of Ned Falkner's, got up that job to help him,
and that Ned's off with the money by this time--and I'm right glad of
it. I can't say ez we've done much towards it, except to keep tumbling
in the way of that detective party of Stanner's, and so throw them off
the trail--ha, ha! The Judge here, I reckon, has had his share of
fun, for while he was at Hennicker's trying to get some facts from
Hennicker's pretty daughter, Stanner tried to get up some sort of
vigilance committee of the stage passengers to burn down Hennicker's
ranch out of spite, but the Judge here stepped in and stopped that."

"It was really a high-handed proceeding, Josephine, but I managed to
check it," said Hale, meeting somewhat consciously the first direct
look his wife had cast upon him, and falling back for support on his old
manner. "In its way, I think it was worse than the robbery by Lee and
Falkner, for it was done in the name of law and order; while, as far
as I can judge from the facts, the affair that we were following up
was simply a rude and irregular restitution of property that had been
morally stolen."

"I have no doubt you did quite right, though I don't understand it,"
said Mrs. Hale languidly; "but I trust these gentlemen will stay to
luncheon, and in the meantime excuse us for running away, as we are
short of servants, and Manuel seems to have followed the example of the
head of the house and left us, in pursuit of somebody or something."

When the three women had gained the vantage-ground of the drawing-room,
Kate said, earnestly, "As it's all right, hadn't we better tell him
now?"

"Decidedly not, child," said Mrs. Scott, imperatively. "Do you suppose
they are in a hurry to tell us THEIR whole story? Who are those
Hennicker people? and they were there a week ago!"

"And did you notice John's hat when he came in, and the vulgar
familiarity of calling him 'Judge'?" said Mrs. Hale.

"Well, certainly anything like the familiarity of this man Clinch I
never saw," said Kate. "Contrast his manner with Mr. Falkner's."

At luncheon the three suffering martyrs finally succeeded in reducing
Hale and his two friends to an attitude of vague apology. But their
triumph was short-lived. At the end of the meal they were startled by
the trampling of hoofs without, followed by loud knocking. In another
moment the door was opened, and Mr. Stanner strode into the room. Hale
rose with a look of indignation.

"I thought, as Mr. Stanner understood that I had no desire for his
company elsewhere, he would hardly venture to intrude upon me in my
house, and certainly not after--"

"Ef you're alluding to the Vigilantes shakin' you and Zeenie up at
Hennicker's, you can't make ME responsible for that. I'm here now on
business--you understand--reg'lar business. Ef you want to see the
papers yer ken. I suppose you know what a warrant is?"

"I know what YOU are," said Hale hotly; "and if you don't leave my
house--"

"Steady, boys," interrupted Stanner, as his five henchmen filed into the
hall. "There's no backin' down here, Colonel Clinch, unless you and Hale
kalkilate to back down the State of Californy! The matter stands like
this. There's a half-breed Mexican, called Manuel, arrested over at the
Summit, who swears he saw George Lee and Edward Falkner in this house
the night after the robbery. He says that they were makin' themselves
at home here, as if they were among friends, and considerin' the kind of
help we've had from Mr. John Hale, it looks ez if it might be true."

"It's an infamous lie!" said Hale.

"It may be true, John," said Mrs. Scott, suddenly stepping in front of
her pale-cheeked daughters. "A wounded man was brought here out of
the storm by his friend, who claimed the shelter of your roof. As your
mother I should have been unworthy to stay beneath it and have denied
that shelter or withheld it until I knew his name and what he was. He
stayed here until he could be removed. He left a letter for you. It will
probably tell you if he was the man this person is seeking."

"Thank you, mother," said Hale, lifting her hand to his lips quietly;
"and perhaps you will kindly tell these gentlemen that, as your son does
not care to know who or what the stranger was, there is no necessity for
opening the letter, or keeping Mr. Stanner a moment longer."

"But you will oblige ME, John, by opening it before these gentlemen,"
said Mrs. Hale recovering her voice and color. "Please to follow me,"
she said preceding them to the staircase.

They entered Mr. Hale's room, now restored to its original condition. On
the table lay a letter and a small package. The eyes of Mr. Stanner, a
little abashed by the attitude of the two women, fastened upon it and
glistened.

Josephine handed her husband the letter. He opened it in breathless
silence and read--

"JOHN HALE,

"We owe you no return for voluntarily making yourself a champion of
justice and pursuing us, except it was to offer you a fair field and no
favor. We didn't get that much from you, but accident brought us into
your house and into your family, where we DID get it, and were fairly
vanquished. To the victors belong the spoils. We leave the package of
greenbacks which we took from Colonel Clinch in the Sierra coach, but
which was first stolen by Harkins from forty-four shareholders of the
Excelsior Ditch. We have no right to say what YOU should do with it, but
if you aren't tired of following the same line of justice that induced
you to run after US, you will try to restore it to its rightful owners.

"We leave you another trifle as an evidence that our intrusion into your
affairs was not without some service to you, even if the service was as
accidental as the intrusion. You will find a pair of boots in the corner
of your closet. They were taken from the burglarious feet of Manuel,
your peon, who, believing the three ladies were alone and at his mercy,
entered your house with an accomplice at two o'clock on the morning of
the 21st, and was kicked out by

"Your obedient servants,

"GEORGE LEE & EDWARD FALKNER"


Hale's voice and color changed on reading this last paragraph. He turned
quickly towards his wife; Kate flew to the closet, where the muffled
boots of Manuel confronted them. "We never knew it. I always suspected
something that night," said Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Scott in the same breath.

"That's all very well, and like George Lee's high falutin'," said
Stanner, approaching the table, "but as long ez the greenbacks are here
he can make what capital he likes outer Manuel. I'll trouble you to pass
over that package."

"Excuse me," said Hale, "but I believe this is the package taken from
Colonel Clinch. Is it not?" he added, appealing to the Colonel.

"It is," said Clinch.

"Then take it," said Hale, handing him the package. "The first
restitution is to you, but I believe you will fulfil Lee's instructions
as well as myself."

"But," said Stanner, furiously interposing, "I've a warrant to seize
that wherever found, and I dare you to disobey the law."

"Mr. Stanner," said Clinch, slowly, "there are ladies present. If you
insist upon having that package I must ask them to withdraw, and I'm
afraid you'll find me better prepared to resist a SECOND robbery than I
was the first. Your warrant, which was taken out by the Express Company,
is supplanted by civil proceedings taken the day before yesterday
against the property of the fugitive swindler Harkins! You should have
consulted the sheriff before you came here."

Stanner saw his mistake. But in the faces of his grinning followers he
was obliged to keep up his bluster. "You shall hear from me again, sir,"
he said, turning on his heel.

"I beg your pardon," said Clinch grimly, "but do I understand that at
last I am to have the honor--"

"You shall hear from the Company's lawyers, sir," said Stanner turning
red, and noisily leaving the room.

"And so, my dear ladies," said Colonel Clinch, "you have spent a week
with a highwayman. I say A highwayman, for it would be hard to call my
young friend Falkner by that name for his first offence, committed under
great provocation, and undoubtedly instigated by Lee, who was an old
friend of his, and to whom he came, no doubt, in desperation."

Kate stole a triumphant glance at her sister, who dropped her lids over
her glistening eyes. "And this Mr. Lee," she continued more gently, "is
he really a highwayman?"

"George Lee," said Clinch, settling himself back oratorically in his
chair, "my dear young lady, IS a highwayman, but not of the common sort.
He is a gentleman born, madam, comes from one of the oldest families of
the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He never mixes himself up with anything
but some of the biggest strikes, and he's an educated man. He is very
popular with ladies and children; he was never known to do or say
anything that could bring a blush to the cheek of beauty or a tear to
the eye of innocence. I think I may say I'm sure you found him so."

"I shall never believe him anything but a gentleman," said Mrs. Scott,
firmly.

"If he has a defect, it is perhaps a too reckless indulgence in draw
poker," said the Colonel, musingly; "not unbecoming a gentleman,
understand me, Mrs. Scott, but perhaps too reckless for his own good.
George played a grand game, a glittering game, but pardon me if I say an
UNCERTAIN game. I've told him so; it's the only point on which we ever
differed."

"Then you know him?" said Mrs. Hale, lifting her soft eyes to the
Colonel.

"I have that honor."

"Did his appearance, Josephine," broke in Hale, somewhat ostentatiously,
"appear to--er--er--correspond with these qualities? You know what I
mean."

"He certainly seemed very simple and natural," said Mrs. Hale, slightly
drawing her pretty lips together. "He did not wear his trousers rolled
up over his boots in the company of ladies, as you're doing now, nor did
he make his first appearance in this house with such a hat as you wore
this morning, or I should not have admitted him."

There were a few moments of embarrassing silence.

"Do you intend to give that package to Mr. Falkner yourself, Colonel?"
asked Mrs. Scott.

"I shall hand it over to the Excelsior Company," said the Colonel, "but
I shall inform Ned of what I have done."

"Then," said Mrs. Scott, "will you kindly take a message from us to
him?"

"If you wish it."

"You will be doing ME a great favor, Colonel," said Hale, politely.


Whatever the message was, six months later it brought Edward Falkner,
the reestablished superintendent of the Excelsior Ditch, to Eagle's
Court. As he and Kate stood again on the plateau, looking towards the
distant slopes once more green with verdure, Falkner said--

"Everything here looks as it did the first day I saw it, except your
sister."

"The place does not agree with her," said Kate hurriedly. "That is why
my brother thinks of leaving it before the winter sets in."

"It seems so sad," said Falkner, "for the last words poor George said to
me, as he left to join his cousin's corps at Richmond, were: 'If I'm
not killed, Ned, I hope some day to stand again beside Mrs. Hale, at the
window in Eagle's Court, and watch you and Kate coming home!'"





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