The clock, striking the hour of two, filled in a lull that might otherwis_ave seemed to require conversation. For some minutes, Johnson, raised to _igher level of exaltation, even, than was the Girl, had been secretl_ejoicing in the Fate that had brought them together.
"It's wonderful that I should have found her at last and won her love," h_oliloquised. "We must be Fortune's children—she and I."
The minutes ticked away and still they were silent. Then, of a sudden, wit_nfinite tenderness in his voice, Johnson asked:
"What is your name, Girl—your real name?"
"Min—Minnie; my father's name was Smith," she told him, her eyes cast dow_nder delicately tremulous lids.
"Oh, Minnie Sm—"
"But 'twa'n't his right name," quickly corrected the Girl, and unconsciousl_oth rose to their feet. "His right name was Falconer."
"Minnie Falconer—well, that is a pretty name," commented Johnson; and raisin_er hand to his lips he pressed them against it.
"I ain't sure that's what he said it was—I ain't sure o' anythin' only jes_ou," she said coyly, burying her face in his neck.
"You may well be sure of me since I've loved—" Johnson's sentence was cu_hort, a wave of remorse sweeping over him. "Turn your head away, Girl, an_on't listen to me," he went on, gently putting her away from him. "I'm no_orthy of you. Don't listen but just say no, no, no, no."
The Girl, puzzled, was even more so when Johnson began to pace the floor.
"Oh, I know—I ain't good enough for you !" she cried with a little tremour i_er voice. "But I'll try hard, hard… If you see anythin' better in me, wh_on't you bring it out, 'cause I've loved you ever since I saw you first,
'cause I knowed that you—that you were the right man."
"The right man," repeated Johnson, dismally, for his conscience was beginnin_o smite him hard.
"I'm not laughing," as indeed he was not.
"O' course every girl kind o' looks ahead," went on the Girl in explanation.
"Yes, I suppose," he observed seriously.
"An' figgers about bein'—well, Oh, you know—about bein' settled. An' when th_ight man comes, why, she knows 'im, you bet! Jest as we both knowed eac_ther standin' on the road to Monterey. I said that day, he's good, he's gran'
an' he can have me."
"I could have you," murmured Johnson, meditatively.
The Girl nodded eagerly.
There was a long silence in which Johnson was trying to make up his mind t_ear himself away from her,—the one woman whom he loved in the world,—for i_ad been slowly borne in upon him that he was not a fit mate for this pur_oung girl. Nor was his unhappiness lessened when he recalled how she ha_truggled against yielding to him. At last, difficult though it was, he too_is courage in both hands, and said:
"Girl, I have looked into your heart and my own and now I realise what thi_eans for us both—for you, Girl—and knowing that, it seems hard to say good- bye as I should, must and will…"
At those clear words spoken by lips which failed so utterly to hide hi_isery, the Girl's face turned pale.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Johnson coloured, hesitated, and finally with a swift glance at the clock, h_riefly explained:
"I mean it's hard to go and leave you here. The clock reminded me that lon_efore this I should have been on my way. I shouldn't have come up here a_ll. God bless you, dear," and here their eyes came together and seemed unabl_o part,—"I love you as I never thought I could…"
But at Johnson's queer look she hastened to inquire:
"But it ain't for long you're goin'?"
For long! Then she had not understood that he meant to go for all time. Ho_ell her the truth? While he pondered over the situation there came to hi_ith great suddenness the thought that, perhaps, after all, Life neve_ntended that she should be given to him only to be taken away almost a_uddenly; and seized with a desire to hold on to her at any cost, he spran_orward as if to take her in his arms, but before he reached her, he stoppe_hort.
"Such happiness is not for me," he muttered under his breath; and then alou_e added: "No, no, I've got to go now while I have the courage, I mean." H_roke off as suddenly as he had begun, and taking her face in his hands h_issed her good-bye.
Now, accustomed as was the Girl to the strange comings and goings of the me_t the camp, it did not occur to her to question him further when he told he_hat he should have been away before now. Moreover, she trusted and loved him.
And so it was without the slightest feeling of misgiving that she watched he_over quickly take down his coat and hat from the peg on the wall and star_or the door. On the other hand, it must have required not a little courage o_he man's part to have torn himself away from this lovely, if unconventional, creature, just as he was beginning to love truly and appreciate her. But, then, Johnson was a man of no mean determination!
Not daring to trust himself to words, Johnson paused to look back over hi_houlder at the Girl before plunging forth into the night. But on opening th_oor all the multitudinous wild noises of the forests reached his ears: Sound_f whispering and rocking storm-tossed pines, sounds of the wind making th_ounds of the deep canyon below them, sounds that would have made the bloo_un cold of a man more daring, even, than himself. Like one petrified he stoo_linded, almost, by the great drifts of snow that were being driven into th_oom, while the cabin rocked and shook and the roof cracked and snapped, th_ights flickered, smoked, or sent their tongues of fire upward towards th_eiling, the curtains swayed like pendants in the air, and while baskets, boxes, and other small furnishings of the cabin were blown in every direction.
But it was the Girl's quick presence of mind that saved them from bein_uried, literally, under the snow. In an instant she had rushed past him an_losed both the outer and inner doors of the cabin; then, going over to th_indow, she tried to look through the heavily frosted panes; but the fallin_f the sleet and snow, striking the window like fine shot, made it impossibl_or her to see more than a few inches away.
"Why, it's the first time I knew that it—" She cut her sentence short an_nded with: "That's the way we git it up here! Look! Look!"
Whereupon, Johnson went over to the window and put his face close to hers o_he frosted panes; a great sea of white snow met his gaze!
"This means—" he said, turning away from the window and meeting he_lance—"surely it doesn't mean that I can't leave Cloudy to-night?"
"It means you can't get off the mountain to-night," calmly answered the Girl.
"Good Lord!" fell from the man's lips.
"You can't leave this room to-night," went on the Girl, decidedly. "Why, yo_ouldn't find your way three feet from this door—you a stranger! You don'_now the trail anyway unless you can see it."
"But I can't stay here?" incredulously.
"Why not? Why, that's all right! The boys'll come up an' dig us out to-morro_r day after. There's plenty o' wood an' you can have my bed." And with n_ore ado than that, the Girl went over to the bed to remove the covers an_ake it ready for his occupancy.
"I wouldn't think of taking that," protested the man, stoutly, while his fac_louded over.
The Girl felt a thrill at the note of regard in his voice and hastened t_xplain:
"I never use it cold nights; I always roll up in my rug in front of the fire."
All of a sudden she broke out into a merry little laugh. "Jest think of i_tormin' all this time an' we didn't know it!"
But Johnson was not in a laughing mood. Indeed, he looked very grave an_erious when presently he said:
"But people coming up here and finding me might—"
The Girl looked up at him in blank amazement.
"Might what?" And then, while she waited for his answer, two shots in clos_uccession rang out in the night with great distinctness.
There was no mistaking the nearness of the sound. Instantly scenting troubl_nd alert at the possibility of danger, Johnson inquired:
"What's that? What's that?"
"Wait! Wait!" came back from the Girl, unconsciously in the same tone, whil_he strained her ears for other sounds. She did not have long to wait, however, before other shots followed, the last ones coming from further away, so it seemed, and at greater intervals.
"They've got a road agent—it's the posse—p'r'aps they've got Ramerrez or on_' his band!" suddenly declared the Girl, at the same time rushing over to th_indow for some verification of her words. But, as before, the wind wa_eating with great force against the frosted panes, and only a vast stretch o_now met her gaze. Turning away from the window she now came towards him with:
"You see, whoever it is, they're snowed in—they can't get away."
Johnson knitted his brows and muttered something under his breath which th_irl did not catch.
Again a shot was fired.
"Another thief crep' into camp," coldly observed the Girl almos_imultaneously with the report.
"Poor devil!" he muttered. "But of course, as you say, he's only a thief."
In reply to which the Girl uttered words to the effect that she was glad h_ad been caught.
"Well, you're right," said Johnson, thoughtfully, after a short silence; the_eterminedly and in short jerky sentences, he went on: "I've been thinkin_hat I must go—tear myself away. I have very important business a_awn—imperative business…"
The Girl, who now stood by the table folding up the white cloth cover, watche_im out of the corner of her eye, take down his coat from the peg on the wall.
"Ever sample one o' our mountain blizzards?" she asked as he slipped on hi_oat. "In five minutes you wouldn't know where you was. Your importan_usiness would land you at the bottom of a canyon 'bout twenty feet fro_ere."
Johnson cleared his throat as if to speak but said nothing; whereupon the Gir_ontinued:
"You say you believe in Fate. Well, Fate has caught up with you—you got t_tay here."
Johnson was strangely silent. He was wondering how his coming there to-nigh_ad really come about. But he could find no solution to the problem unless i_as in response to that perverse instinct which prompts us all at times to d_he very thing which in our hearts we know to be wrong. The Girl, meanwhile, after a final creasing of the neatly-folded cover, started for the cupboard, stopping on the way to pick up various articles which the wind had strew_bout the room. Flinging them quickly into the cupboard she now went over t_he window and once more attempted to peer out into the night. But as before, it was of no avail. With a shrug she straightened the curtains at the window_nd started for the door. Her action seemed to quicken his decision, for, presently, with a gesture of resignation, he threw down his hat and coat o_he table and said as if speaking to himself:
"Well, it is Fate—my Fate that has always made the thing I shouldn't do s_asy." And then, turning to the Girl, he added: "Come, Girl, as you say, if _an't go, I can't. But I know as I stand here that I'll never give you up."
The Girl looked puzzled.
"Why, what do you mean?"
"I mean," began Johnson, pacing the floor slowly. Now he stopped by a chai_nd pointed as though to the falling snow. "Suppose we say that's an omen—tha_he old trail is blotted out and there is a fresh road. Would you take it wit_e a stranger, who says: From this day I mean to be all you'd have me. Woul_ou take it with me far away from here and forever?"
It did not take the Girl long to frame an answer. Taking Johnson's hand sh_aid with great feeling:
"Well, show me the girl that would want to go to Heaven alone! I'll sell ou_he saloon—I'll go anywhere with you, you bet!"
Johnson bent low over her hand and kissed it. The Girl's straightforwar_nswer had filled his heart to overflowing with joy.
"You know what that means, don't you?" a moment later he asked.
Sudden joy leapt to her blue eyes.
"Oh, yes," she told him with a world of understanding in her voice. There wa_ silence; then she went on reminiscently: "There's a little Spanish Missio_hurch—I pass it 'most every day. I can look in an' see the light burnin'
before the Virgin an' see the saints standin' round with glassy eyes an' fade_atin slippers. An' I often tho't what they'd think if I was to walk right i_o be made—well, some man's wife. It makes your blood like pin-points thinkin'
about it. There's somethin' kind o' holy about love, ain't they?"
Johnson nodded. He had never regarded love in that light before, much les_nown it. For many moments he stood motionless, a new problem of right an_rong throbbing in his bosom.
At last, it being settled that Johnson was to pass the night in the Girl'_abin, she went over to the bed and, once more, began to make it ready for hi_ccupancy. Meanwhile, Johnson, seated in the barrel rocker before the fire, watched her with a new interest. The Girl had not gone very far with he_uties, however, when she suddenly came over to him, plumping herself down o_he floor at his feet.
"Say, did you ever ask any other woman to marry you?" she asked as she leane_ar back in his arms.
"No," was the man's truthful answer.
"Oh, how glad I am! Take me—ah, take me I don't care where as long as it i_ith you!" cried the Girl in an ecstasy of delight.
"So help me, God, I'm going to…!" promised Johnson, his voice strained, tense.
"You're worth something better than me, Girl," he added, a moment later, "bu_hey say love works miracles every hour, that it weakens the strong an_trengthens the weak. With all my soul I love you, with all my soul I—" Th_an let his voice die out, leaving his sentence unfinished. Suddenly h_alled: "Why, Min-Minnie!"
"I wasn't really asleep," spoke up the Girl, blinking sleepily. "I'm jest s_appy an' let down, that's all." The next moment, however, she was forced t_cknowledge that she was awfully sleepy and would have to say good-night.
"All right," said Johnson, rising, and kissed her good-night.
"That's your bed over there," she told him, pointing in the direction of th_urtains.
"But hadn't you better take the bed and let me sleep over here?"
"You're sure you would be more comfortable by the fire—sure, now?"
"Yes, you bet!"
And so it was that Johnson decided to pass the night in the Girl's canopie_ed while she herself, rolled up in a blanket rug before the fire, slept o_he floor.
"This beats a bed any time," remarked the Girl, spreading out the ru_moothly; and then, reaching up for the old patchwork, silk quilt that hun_rom the loft, she added: "There's one thing—you don't have to make it up i_he mornin'."
"You're splendid, Girl!" laughed Johnson. Presently, he saw her quietly close_erself in the cupboard, only to emerge a few minutes later dressed for th_ight. Over her white cambric gown with its coarse lace trimming showing a_he throat, she wore a red woollen blanket robe held in at the waist by _eavy, twisted, red cord which, to the man who got a glimpse of her as sh_rossed the room, made her prettier, even, than she had seemed at any tim_et.
Quietly, now, the Girl began to put her house in order. All the lights, sav_he quaintly-shaded lamp that was suspended over the table, were extinguished; that one, after many unsuccessful attempts, was turned down so as to give th_ight minimum of light which would not interfere with her lover's sleep. The_he went over to the door to make sure that it was bolted. Outside the win_owled and shrieked and moaned; but inside the cabin it had never seemed mor_osey and secure and peaceful to her.
"Now you can talk to me from your bunk an' I'll talk to you from mine," sh_aid in a sleepy, lazy voice.
Except for a prodigious yawn which came from the Girl there was an ominou_uiet hanging over the place that chilled the man. Sudden sounds startled him, and he found it impossible to make any progress with his preparations for th_ight. He was about to make some remark, however, when to his well-attune_ars there came the sound of approaching footsteps. In an instant he wa_tanding in the parting made by the curtains, his face eager, animated, tense.
"What's that?" he whispered.
"That's snow slidin'," the Girl informed him without the slightest trace o_nxiety in her voice.
"God bless you, Girl," he murmured, and retreated back of the curtains. It wa_nly an instant before he was back again with: "Why, there is something ou_here—sounded like people calling," he again whispered.
"That's only the wind," she said, adding as she drew her robe tightly abou_er: "Gettin' cold, ain't it?"
But, notwithstanding her assurances, Johnson did not feel secure, and it wa_ith many misgivings that he now directed his footsteps towards the bed behin_he curtains.
"Good-night!" he said uneasily.
"Good-night!" unconsciously returned the Girl in the same tone.
Taking off her slippers the Girl now put on a pair of moccasins and quietl_ent over to her bed, where she knelt down and made a silent prayer.
"Good-night!" presently came from a little voice in the rug.
"Good-night!" answered the man now settled in the centre of the much-befrille_ed.
There was a silence; then the little voice in the rug called out:
"Say, what's your name?"
"Dick," whispered the man behind the curtains.
"So long, Dick!" drowsily.
"So long, Girl!" dreamily.
There was a brief silence; then, of a sudden, the Girl bolted upright in bed, and asked:
"Say, Dick, are you sure you don't know that Nina Micheltoreña?"
"Sure," prevaricated the man, not without some compunction.
Whereupon the Girl fell back on her pillows and called out contentedly a final