There was no mistaking then—no need to contrast her feeling of anxiety of _ew moments ago lest some other woman had preceded her in his affections, wit_er indifference on former occasions when her admirers had proved faithless, to make the Girl realise that she was experiencing love and was dominated by _assion for this man.
So that, with no reason whatever in her mind to question the sincerity o_ohnson's love for her, it would seem as if nothing were wanting to make th_irl perfectly happy; that there could be no room in her heart for any feelin_ther than elation. And yet, curiously enough, the Girl could not doze off t_leep. Some mysterious force—a vague foreboding of something about t_appen—impelled her to open her eyes again and again.
It was an odd and wholly new sensation, this conjuring up of distressin_pectres, for no girl was given less to that sort of thing; all the same, i_as with difficulty that she checked an impulse to cry out to her lover—who_he believed to be asleep—and make him dissipate, by renewed assurances, th_ysterious barrier which she felt was hemming her in.
As for Johnson, the moment that his head had touched the pillows, he fell t_hinking of the awkward situation in which he was placed, the man_omplications in which his heart had involved him and, finally, he foun_imself wondering whether the woman whom he loved so dearly was also lyin_leepless in her rug on the floor.
And so it was not surprising that he should spring up the moment that he hear_ries from outside.
"Who's that knockin', I wonder?"
Although her voice showed no signs of distress or annoyance, the questio_oming from her in a calm tone, the Girl was upon her feet almost before sh_new it. In a trice she removed all evidences that she had been lying upon th_loor, flinging the pillows and silk coverlet to the wardrobe top.
In that same moment Johnson was standing in the parting of the curtains, hi_and raised warningly. In another moment he was over to the door where, afte_aking his pistols from his overcoat pockets, he stood in a cool, determine_ttitude, fingering his weapons.
"But some one's ben callin'," the Girl was saying, at the very moment whe_bove the loud roaring of the wind another knock was heard on the cabin door.
"Who can it be?" she asked as if to herself, and calmly went over to th_able, where she took up the candle and lit it.
Springing to her side, Johnson whispered tensely:
"Don't answer—you can't let anyone in—they wouldn't understand."
The Girl eyed him quizzically.
"Understand what?" And before he had time to explain, much less to check her, she was standing at the window, candle in hand, peering out into the night.
"Why, it's the posse!" she cried, wheeling round suddenly. "How did they eve_isk it in this storm?"
At these words a crushed expression appeared on Johnson's countenance; a_ncanny sense of insecurity seized him. Once more the loud, insistent poundin_as repeated, and as before, the outlaw, his hands on his guns, commanded he_ot to answer.
"But what on earth do the boys want?" inquired the Girl, seemingly obliviou_o what he was saying. Indeed, so much so that as the voice of Nick rose hig_bove the other sounds of the night, calling,
"Min-Minnie-Girl, let us in!" she hurriedly brushed past him and yelle_hrough the door:
"What do you want?"
Again Johnson's hand went up imperatively.
"Don't let him come in!" he whispered.
But even then she heard not his warning, but silently, tremulously listened t_onora, who shouted through the door: "Say, Girl, you all right?" And no_ntil her answering voice had called back her assurance that she was safe di_he turn to the man at her side and whisper in a voice that showed plainly he_gitation and fear:
"Jack Rance is there! If he was to see you here—he's that jealous I'd b_fraid—" She checked her words and quickly put her ear close to the door, th_oices outside having become louder and more distinct. Presently she spu_ound on her heel and announced excitedly: "Ashby's there, too!" And again sh_ut her ear to the door.
"Ashby!" The exclamation fell from Johnson's lips before he was aware of it.
It was impossible to deceive himself any longer—the posse had tracked him!
"We want to come in, Girl!" suddenly rang out from the well-known voice o_ick.
"But you can't come in!" shouted back the Girl above the noise of the storm; then, taking advantage of a particularly loud howl of the blast, she turned t_ohnson and inquired: "What will I say? What reason will I give?"
Serious as was Johnson's predicament, he could not suppress a smile. In _urprisedly calm voice he told her to say that she had gone to bed.
The Girl's eyes flooded with admiration.
"Why, o' course—that's it," she said, and turned back to the door and calle_hrough it: "I've gone to bed, Nick! I'm in bed now!"
The barkeeper's answer was lost in another loud howl of the blast. Soo_fterwards, however, the Girl made out that Nick was endeavouring to convey t_er a warning of some kind.
"You say you've come to warn me?" she cried.
"What? Say that again?"
"Ramerrez is on the trail—"
"Ramerrez's on the trail!" repeated the Girl in tones of alarm; and no_aiting to hear further she motioned to Johnson to conceal himself behind th_urtains of the bed, muttering the while:
"I got to let 'em in—I can't keep 'em out there on such a night…" He ha_arely reached his place of concealment when the Girl slid back the bolts an_ade the boys to come in.
Headed by Rance, the men quickly filed in and deposited their lanterns on th_loor. It was evident that they had found the storm most severe, for thei_oots were soaked through and their heavy buffalo overcoats, caps and ear- muffs were covered with snow, which all, save Rance, proceeded to remove b_haking their shoulders and stamping their feet. The latter, however, calml_ook off his gloves, pulled out a beautifully-creased handkerchief from hi_ocket, and began slowly to flick off the snow from his elegant mink overcoa_efore hanging it carefully upon a peg on the wall. After that he went over t_he table and warmed his hands over the lighted candle there. Meanwhile, Sonora, his nose, as well as his hands which with difficulty he removed fro_is heavy fur mittens, showing red and swollen from the effects of the bitin_old, had gone over to the fire, where he ejaculated:
"Ouf, I'm cold! Glad you're safe, Girl!"
"Yes, Girl, The Polka's had a narrow squeak," observed Nick, stamping his fee_hich, as well as his legs, were wrapped with pieces of blankets for adde_armth.
Unconsciously, at his words, the Girl's eyes travelled to the bed; then, drawing her robe snugly about her, and seating herself, she asked wit_uppressed excitement:
"Why, Nick, what's the matter? What's—"
Rance took it upon himself to do the answering. Sauntering over to the Girl, he drawled out:
"It takes you a long time to get up, seems to me. You haven't so much on, either," he went on, piercing her with his eyes.
Smilingly and not in the least disconcerted by the Sheriff's remark, the Gir_icked up a rug from the floor and wound it about her knees.
"Well?" she interrogated.
"Well, we was sure that you was in trouble," put in Sonora. "My breath jes_topped."
"Me? Me in trouble, Sonora?" A little laugh that was half-gay, half-derisive, accompanied her words.
"See here, that man Ramerrez—" followed up Rance with a grim look.
"—feller you was dancin' with," interposed Sonora, but checked himsel_nstantly lest he wound the Girl's feelings.
Whereupon, Rance, with no such compunctions, became the spokesman, a grimac_f pleasure spreading over his countenance as he thought of the unpleasan_urprise he was about to impart. Stretching out his stiffened fingers over th_laze, he said in his most brutal tones:
"Your polkying friend is none other than Ramerrez."
The Girl's eyes opened wide, but they did not look at the Sheriff. They looke_traight before her.
"I warned you, girl," spoke up Ashby, "that you should bank with us oftener."
The Girl gave no sign of having heard him. Her slender figure seemed to hav_hrunken perceptibly as she stared stupidly, uncomprehendingly, into space.
"We say that Johnson was—" repeated Rance, impatiently.
"—what?" fell from the Girl's lips, her face pale and set.
"Are you deaf?" demanded Rance; and then, emphasising every word, he raspe_ut: "The fellow you've been polkying with is the man that has been askin_eople to hold up their hands."
"Oh, go on—you can't hand me out that!" Nevertheless the Girl looked wildl_bout the room.
Angrily Rance strode over to her and sneered bitingly:
"You don't believe it yet, eh?"
"No, I don't believe it yet!" rapped out the Girl, laying great stress upo_he last word. "I know he isn't."
"Well, he _is_ Ramerrez, and he _did_ come to The Polka to rob it,"
retorted the Sheriff.
All at once the note of resentment in the Girl's voice became positive; sh_lared back at him, though she flushed in spite of herself.
"But he didn't rob it!"
"That's what gits me," fretted Sonora. "He didn't."
"I should think it would git you," snapped back the Girl, both in her look an_oice rebuking him for his words.
It was left to Ashby to spring another surprise.
"We've got his horse," he said pointedly.
"An' I never knowed one o' these men to separate from his horse," commente_onora, still smarting under the Girl's reprimand.
"Right you are! And now that we've got his horse and this storm is on, we'v_ot him," said Rance, triumphantly. "But the last seen of Johnson," he went o_ith a hasty movement towards the Girl and eyeing her critically, "he wa_eading this way. You seen anything of him?"
The Girl struggled hard to appear composed.
"Heading this way?" she inquired, reddening.
"So Nick said," declared Sonora, looking towards that individual for proof o_is words.
But Nick had caught the Girl's lightning glance imposing silence upon him; i_ome embarrassment he stammered out:
"That is, he was—Sid said he saw 'im take the trail, too."
"But the trail ends here," pointed out Rance, at the same time looking hard a_he Girl. "And if she hasn't seen him, where was he going?"
At this juncture Nick espied a cigar butt on the floor; unseen by the others, he hurriedly picked it up and threw it in the fire.
"One o' our dollar Havanas! Good Lord, he's here!" he muttered to himself.
"Rance is right. Where was he goin'?" was the question with which he wa_onfronted by Sonora when about to return to the others.
"Well, I tho't I seen him," evaded Nick with considerable uneasiness. "_ouldn't swear to it. You see it was dark, an'—Moses but the Sidney Duck's _iar!"
At length, Ashby decided that the man had in all probability been snowe_nder, ending confidently with:
"Something scared him off and he lit out without his horse." Which remar_rought temporary relief to the Girl, for Nick, watching her, saw the colou_eturn to her face.
Unconsciously, during this discussion, the Girl had risen to her feet, bu_nly to fall back in her chair again almost as suddenly, a sign of nervousnes_hich did not escape the sharp eye of the Sheriff.
"How do you know the man's a road agent?" A shade almost of contempt was i_he Girl's question.
Sonora breathed on his badly nipped fingers before answering:
"Well, two greasers jest now were pretty positive before they quit."
Instantly the Girl's head went up in the air.
"Greasers!" she ejaculated scornfully, while her eyes unfalteringly me_ance's steady gaze.
"But the woman knew him," was the Sheriff's vindictive thrust.
The Girl started; her face went white.
"The woman—the woman d'you say?"
"Why, yes, it was a woman that first tol' them that Ramerrez was in the cam_o rob The Polka," Sonora informed her, though his tone showed plainly hi_urprise at being compelled to repeat a thing which, he wrongly believed, sh_lready knew.
"We saw her at The Palmetto," leered Rance.
"And we missed the reward," frowned Ashby; at which Rance quickly turned upo_he speaker with:
"But Ramerrez is trapped."
There was a moment's startled pause in which the Girl struggled with he_assions; at last, she ventured:
"Who's this woman?"
The Sheriff laughed discordantly.
"Why, the woman of the back trail," he sneered.
"Nina Micheltoreña! Then she does know 'im—it's true—it goes through me!"
unwittingly burst from the Girl's lips.
The Sheriff, evidently, found the Situation amusing, for he laughed outright.
"He's the sort of a man who polkas with you first and then cuts your throat,"
was his next stab.
The Girl turned upon him with eyes flashing and retorted:
"Well, it's my throat, ain't it?"
"Well I'll be!—" The Sheriff's sentence was left unfinished, for Nick, quickl_ulling him to one side, whispered:
"Say, Rance, the Girl's cut up because she vouched for 'im. Don't rub it in."
Notwithstanding, Rance, to the Girl's query of "How did this Nina Micheltoreñ_now it?" took a keen delight in telling her:
"She's his girl."
"His girl?" repeated the Girl, mechanically.
"Yes. She gave us his picture," went on Rance; and taking the photograph ou_f his pocket, he added maliciously, "with love written on the back of it."
A glance at the photograph, which she fairly snatched out of his hands, convinced the Girl of the truthfulness of his assertion. With a movement o_ain she threw it upon the floor, crying out bitterly:
"Nina Micheltoreña! Nina Micheltoreña!" Turning to Ashby with an abrupt chang_f manner she said contritely: "I'm sorry, Mr. Ashby, I vouched for 'im."
The Wells Fargo Agent softened at the note in the Girl's voice; he was abou_o utter some comforting words to her when suddenly she spoke again.
"I s'pose they had one o' them little lovers' quarrels an' that made 'er tel_ou, eh?" She laughed a forced little laugh, though her heart was beatin_trangely as she kept on: "He's the kind o' man who sort o' polkas with ever_irl he meets." And at this she began to laugh almost hysterically.
Rance, who resented her apologising to anyone but himself, stood scowling a_er.
"What are you laughing at?" he questioned.
"Oh, nothin', Jack, nothin'," half-cried, half-laughed the Girl. "Only it'_ind o' funny how things come out, ain't it? Took in! Nina Micheltoreña! Nic_ompany he keeps—one o' them Cachuca girls with eyelashes at half-mast!"
Once more, she broke out into a fit of laughter.
"Well, well," she resumed, "an' she sold 'im out for money! Ah, Jack Rance, you're a better guesser'n I am!" And with these words she sank down at th_able in an apathy of misery. Horror and hatred and hopelessness ha_ossession of her. A fierce look was in her eyes when a moment later sh_aised her head and abruptly dismissed the boys, saying:
"Well, boys, it's gittin' late—good-night!"
Sonora was the first to make a movement towards the door.
"Come on, boys," he growled in his deep bass voice; "don't you intend to let _ady go to bed?"
One by one the men filed through the door which Nick held open for them; bu_hen all but himself had left, the devoted little barkeeper turned to the Gir_ith a look full of meaning, and whispered:
"Do you want me to stay?"
"Me? Oh, no, Nick!" And with a "Good-night, all! Good-night, Sonora, an' than_ou! Good-night, Nick!" the Girl closed the door upon them. The last that sh_eard from them was the muffled ejaculation:
"Oh, Lordy, we'll never git down to Cloudy to-night!"
Now the Girl slid the bolts and stood with her back against the door as if t_ake extra precautions to bar out any intrusion, and with eyes that blazed sh_elled out:
"Come out o' that, now! Step out there, Mr. Johnson!"
Slowly the road agent parted the curtains and came forward in an attitude o_ejection.
"You came here to rob me," at once began the Girl, but her anger made i_mpossible for her to continue.
"I didn't," denied the road agent, quietly, his countenance reflecting ho_eeply hurt he was by her words.
"You lie!" insisted the Girl, beside herself with rage.
"I admit that every circumstance points to—"
"Stop! Don't you give me any more o' that Webster Unabridged. You git t_ases. If you didn't come here to steal you came to The Polka to rob it, didn't you?"
Johnson, his eyes lowered, was forced to admit that such were his intentions, adding swiftly:
"But when I knew about you—" He broke off and took a step towards her.
"Wait! Wait! Wait where you are! Don't you take a step further or I'll—" Sh_ade a significant gesture towards her bosom, and then, laughing harshly, wen_n denouncingly: "A road agent! A road agent! Well, ain't it my luck! Wouldn'_nybody know to look at me that a gentleman wouldn't fall my way! A roa_gent! A road agent!" And again she laughed bitterly before going on: "But no_ou can git—git, you thief, you imposer on a decent woman! I ought to hav_ol' 'em all, but I wa'n't goin' to be the joke o' the world with you behin_he curtains an' me eatin' charlotte rusks an' lemming turnovers an'
a-polkyin' with a road agent! But now you can git—git, do you hear me?"
Johnson heard her to the end with bowed head; and so scathing had been he_enunciations of his actions that the fact that pride alone kept her fro_reaking down completely escaped his notice. With his eyes still downcast b_aid in painful fragments:
"One word only—only a word and I'm not going to say anything in defence o_yself. For it's all true—everything is true except that I would have stole_rom you. I _am_ called Ramerrez; I _have_ robbed; I _am_ a roa_gent—an outlaw by profession. Yes, I'm all that—and my father was that befor_e. I was brought up, educated, thrived on thieves' money, I suppose, bu_ntil six months ago when my father died, I did not know it. I lived much i_onterey—I lived there as a gentleman. When we met that day I wasn't the thin_ am to-day. I only learned the truth when my father died and left me with _ancho and a band of thieves—nothing else—nothing for us all, and I—but what'_he good of going into it—the circumstances. You wouldn't understand if I did.
I was my father's son; I have no excuse; I guess, perhaps, it was in me—in th_lood. Anyhow, I took to the road, and I didn't mind it much after the firs_ime. But I drew the line at killing—I wouldn't have that. That's the man tha_ am, the blackguard that I am. But—" here he raised his eyes and said with _oice that was charged with feeling—"I swear to you that from the moment _issed you to-night I meant to change, I meant to—"
"The devil you did!" broke from the Girl's lips, but with a sound that was no_nlike a sob.
"I did, believe me, I did," insisted the man. "I meant to go straight and tak_ou with me—but only honestly—when I could honestly. I meant to work for you.
Why, every word you said to me to-night about being a thief cut into me like _nife. Over and over again I have said to myself, she must never know. An_ow—well, it's all over—I have finished."
"An' that's all?" questioned the Girl with averted face.
"No—yes—what's the use…?"
The Girl's anger blazed forth again.
"But there's jest one thing you've overlooked explainin', Mr. Johnson. I_hows exactly what you are. It wasn't so much your bein' a road agent I go_gainst you. It's this:" And here she stamped her foot excitedly. "You kisse_e—you got my first kiss."
Johnson hung his head.
"You said," kept on the Girl, hotly, "you'd ben thinkin' o' me ever since yo_aw me at Monterey, an' all the time you walked straight off an' ben kissin'
that other woman." She shrugged her shoulder and laughed grimly. "You've got _irl," she continued, growing more and more indignant. "It's that I've go_gainst you. It's my first kiss I've got against you. It's that Nin_icheltoreña that I can't forgive. So now you can git—git!" And with thes_ords she unbolted the door and concluded tensely:
"If they kill you I don't care. Do you hear, I don't care…"
At those bitter words spoken by lips which failed so utterly to hide thei_isery, the Girl's face became colourless.
With the instinct of a brave man to sell his life as dearly as possible, Johnson took a couple of guns from his pocket; but the next moment, as i_oming to the conclusion that death without the Girl would be preferable, h_ut them back, saying:
"You're right, Girl."
The next instant he had passed out of the door which she held wide open fo_im.
"That's the end o' that—that's the end o' that," she wound up, slamming th_oor after him. But all the way from the threshold to the bureau she kep_urmuring to herself: "I don't care, I don't care… I'll be like the rest o'
the women I've seen. I'll give that Nina Micheltoreña cards an' spades.
There'll be another hussy around here. There'll be—" The threat was neve_inished. Instead, with eyes that fairly started out of their sockets, sh_istened to the sound of a couple of shots, the last one exploding so loud an_istinct that there was no mistaking its nearness to the cabin.
"They've got 'im!" she cried. "Well, I don't care—I don't—" But again she di_ot finish what she intended to say. For at the sound of a heavy body fallin_gainst the cabin door she flew to it, opened it and, throwing her arms abou_he sorely-wounded man, dragged him into the cabin and placed him in a chair.
Quick as lightning she was back at the door bolting it.
With his eyes Johnson followed her action.
"Don't lock that door—I'm going out again—out there. Don't bar that door," h_ommanded feebly, struggling to his feet and attempting to walk towards it; but he lurched forward and would have fallen to the floor had she not caugh_im. Vainly he strove to break away from her, all the time crying out: "Don'_ou see, don't you see, Girl—open the door." And then again with almost a sob:
"Do you think me a man to hide behind a woman?" He would have collapsed excep_or the strong arms that held him.
"I love you an' I'm goin' to save you," the Girl murmured while strugglin_ith him. "You asked me to go away with you; I will when you git out o' this.
If you can't save your own soul—" She stopped and quickly went over to th_antel where she took down a bottle of whisky and a glass; but in the act o_ouring out a drink for him there came a loud rap on the window, and quickl_ooking round she saw Rance's piercing eyes peering into the room. For a_nstant she paled, but then there flashed through her mind the comfortin_hought that the Sheriff could not possibly see Johnson from his position. So, after giving the latter his drink, she waited quietly until a rap at the doo_old her that Rance had left the window when, her eye having lit on the ladde_hat was held in place on the ceiling, she quickly ran over to it and let i_own, saying:
"Go up the ladder! Climb up there to the loft You're the man that's got m_irst kiss an' I'm goin' to save you…"
"Oh, no, not here," protested Johnson, stubbornly.
"Do you want them to see you in my cabin?" she cried reproachfully, trying t_ift him to his feet.
"Oh, hurry, hurry…!"
With the utmost difficulty Johnson rose to his feet and catching the rounds o_he ladder he began to ascend. But after going up a few rounds he reeled an_lmost fell off, gasping:
"I can't make it—no, I can't…"
"Yes, you can," encouraged the Girl; and then, simultaneously with anothe_oud knock on the door: "You're the man I love an' you must—you've got to sho_e the man that's in you. Oh, go on, go on, jest a step an' you'll git there."
"But I can't," came feebly from the voice above. Nevertheless, the nex_nstant he fell full length on the boarded floor of the loft with the han_utstretched in which was the handkerchief he had been staunching the bloo_rom the wound in his side.
With a whispered injunction that he was all right and was not to move on an_ccount, the Girl put the ladder back in its place. But no sooner was thi_one than on looking up she caught sight of the stained handkerchief. Sh_alled softly up to him to take it away, explaining that the cracks betwee_he boards were wide and it could plainly be seen from below.
"That's it!" she exclaimed on observing that he had changed the position o_is hand. "Now, don't move!"
Finally, with the lighted candle in her hand, the Girl made a quick survey o_he room to see that nothing was in sight that would betray her lover'_resence there, and then throwing open the door she took up such a position b_t that it made it impossible for anyone to get past her without using force.
"You can't come in here, Jack Rance," she said in a resolute voice. "You ca_ell me what you want from where you are."
Roughly, almost brutally, Rance shoved her to one side and entered.
"No more Jack Rance. It's the Sheriff coming after Mr. Johnson," he said, emphasizing each word.
The Girl eyed him defiantly.
"Yes, I said Mr. Johnson," reiterated the Sheriff, cocking the gun that h_eld in his hand. "I saw him coming in here."
"It's more 'n I did," returned the Girl, evenly, and bolted the door. "Do yo_hink I'd want to shield a man who tried to rob me?" she asked, facing him.
Ignoring the question, Rance removed the glove of his weaponless hand an_trode to the curtains that enclosed the Girl's bed and parted them. When h_urned back he was met by a scornful look and the words:
"So, you doubt me, do you? Well, go on—search the place. But this ends you_cquaintance with The Polka. Don't you ever speak to me again. We're through."
Suddenly there came a smothered groan from the man in the loft; Rance wheele_ound quickly and brought up his gun, demanding:
"What's that? What's that?"
Leaning against the bureau the Girl laughed outright and declared that th_heriff was becoming as nervous as an old woman. Her ridicule was not withou_ts effect, and, presently, Rance uncocked his gun and replaced it in it_olster. Advancing now to the table where the Girl was standing, he took of_is cap and shook it before laying it down; then, pointing to the door, hi_yes never leaving the Girl's face, he went on accusingly:
"I saw someone standing out there against the snow. I fired. I could hav_worn it was a man."
The Girl winced. But as she stood watching him calmly remove his coat an_hake it with the air of one determined to make himself at home, she cried ou_auntingly:
"Why do you stop? Why don't you go on—finish your search—only don't ever spea_o me again."
At that, Rance became conciliatory.
"Say, Min, I don't want to quarrel with you."
Turning her back on him the Girl moved over to the bureau where she snappe_ut over her shoulder:
"Go on with your search, then p'r'aps you'll leave a lady to herself to go t_ed."
The Sheriff followed her up with the declaration:
"I'm plumb crazy about you, Min."
The Girl shrugged her shoulder.
"I could have sworn I saw—I—Oh, you know it's just you for me—just you, an_urse the man you like better. I—I—even yet I can't get over the queer look i_our face when I told you who that man really was." He stopped and flung hi_vercoat down on the floor, and fixing her with a look he demanded: "You don'_ove him, do you?"
Again the Girl sent over her shoulder a forced little laugh.
The Sheriff's face brightened. Taking a few steps nearer to her, he hazarded:
"Say, Girl, was your answer final to-night about marrying me?"
Without turning round the Girl answered coyly:
"I might think it over, Jack."
Instantly the man's passion was aroused. He strode over to her, put his arm_round her and kissed her forcibly.
"I love you, I love you, Minnie!" he cried passionately.
In the struggle that followed, the Girl's eyes fell on the bottle on th_antel. With a cry she seized it and raised it threateningly over her head.
Another second, however, she sank down upon a chair and began to sob, her fac_uried in her hands.
Rance regarded her coldly; at last he gave vent to a mirthless laugh, th_asty laugh of a man whose vanity is hurt.
"So, it's as bad as that," he sneered. "I didn't quite realise it. I'm muc_bliged to you. Good-night." He snatched up his coat, hesitated, then repeate_ little less angrily than before: "Good-night!"
But the Girl, with her face still hidden, made no answer. For a moment h_atched the crouching form, the quivering shoulders, then asked, with sudde_nd unwonted gentleness:
"Can't you say good-night to me, Girl!"
Slowly the Girl rose to her feet and faced him, aversion and pity strugglin_or mastery. Then, as she noted the spot where he was now standing, his grea_eight bringing him so near to the low boards of the loft where her lover wa_ying that it seemed as though he must hear the wounded man's breathing, al_ther feelings were swept away by overwhelming fear. With the one thought tha_he must get rid of him,—do anything, say anything, but get rid of hi_uickly, she forced herself forward, with extended hand, and said in a voic_hat held out new promise:
"Good-night. Jack Rance,—good-night!"
Rance seized the hand with an almost fierce gladness in both his own, his kee_lance hungrily striving to read her face. Then, suddenly, he released her, drawing back his hand with a quick sharpness.
"Why, look at my hand! There's blood on it!" he said.
And even as he spoke, under the yellow flare of the lamp, the Girl saw _econd drop of blood fall at her feet. Like a flash, the terrible significanc_f it came upon her. Only by self-violence could she keep her glance fro_ising, tell-tale, to the boards above.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she heard herself saying contritely, all the tim_esperately groping to invent a reason; at length, she added futilely: "I mus_ave scratched you."
Rance looked puzzled, staring at the spatter of red as though hypnotised.
"No, there's no scratch there," he contended, wiping off the blood with hi_andkerchief.
"Oh, yes, there is," insisted the Girl tremulously; "that is, there will be i_he mornin'. You'll see in the mornin' that there'll be—" She stopped an_tared in frozen terror at the sinister face of the Sheriff, who was cooll_atching his handkerchief turn from white to red under the slow rain of bloo_rom the loft above.
"Oho!" he emitted sardonically, stepping back and pointing his gun towards th_oft. "So, he's up there!"
The Girl's fingers clutched his arm, dragging desperately.
"No, he isn't, Jack—no, he isn't!" she iterated in blind, mechanical denial.
With an abrupt movement, Rance flung her violently from him, made a grab a_he suspended ladder and lowered it into position; then, deaf to the Girl'_leadings, harshly ordered Johnson to come down, meanwhile covering the sourc_f the blood-drops with his gun.
"Oh, wait,—wait a minute!" begged the Girl helplessly. What would happen if h_ouldn't obey the summons? He had spent himself in his climb to safety.
Perhaps he was unconscious, slowly bleeding to death! But even as she torture_erself with fears, the boards above creaked as though a heavy body wa_ragging itself slowly across them. Johnson was evidently doing his best t_each the top of the ladder; but he did not move quickly enough to suit th_heriff.
"Come down, or I'll—"
"Oh, just a minute, Jack, just a minute!" broke in the Girl frantically.
"Don't shoot!—Don't you see he's tryin' to—?"
"Come down here, Mr. Johnson!" reiterated the Sheriff, with a face inhuman a_ fiend.
The Girl clenched her hands, heedless of the nails cutting into her palms:
"Won't you wait a moment,—please, wait, Jack!"
"Wait? What for?" the Sheriff flung at her brutally, his finger twitching o_he trigger.
The Girl's lips parted to answer, then closed again dumbly,—for it was the_hat she saw the boots, then the legs of the road agent slide uncertainl_hrough the open trap, fumble clumsily for the rungs of the ladder, then sli_nd stumble as the weight of the following body came upon them while the wea_ingers strained desperately for a hold. The whole heart and soul and mind o_he Girl seemed to be reaching out impotently to give her lover strength, t_urry him down fast enough to forestall a shot from the Sheriff. It seeme_ours until the road agent reached the bottom of the ladder, then lurched wit_nseeing eyes to a chair and, finally, fell forward limply, with his arms an_ead resting on the table. Still dumb with dread, the Girl watched Ranc_lowly circle round the wounded man; it was not until the Sheriff returned hi_istol to its holster that she breathed freely again.
"So, you dropped into The Polka to-night to play a little game of poker? Funn_ow things change about in an hour or two!" Rance chuckled mirthlessly; i_eemed to suit his sardonic humour to taunt his helpless rival. "You think yo_an play poker,—that's your conviction, is it? Well, you can play freeze-ou_s to your chances, Mr. Johnson of Sacramento. Come, speak up,—it's shootin_r the tree,—which shall it be?"
Goaded beyond endurance by Rance's taunting of the unconscious man, the Girl, fumbling in her bosom for her pistol, turned upon him in a sudden, cold fury:
"You better stop that laughin', Jack Rance, or I'll send you to finish it i_ome place where things ain't so funny."
Something in the Girl's altered tone so struck the Sheriff that he obeyed her.
He said nothing, but on his lips were the words, "By Heaven, the Girl mean_t!" and his eyes showed a smouldering admiration.
"He doesn't hear you,—he's out of it. But me—me—I hear you—I ain't out of it,"
the Girl went on in compelling tones. "You're a gambler; he was, too; well, s_m I." She crossed deliberately to the bureau, and laid her pistol away in th_rawer, Rance meanwhile eyeing her with puzzled interest. Returning, she wen_n, incisively as a whip lash:
"I live on chance money, drink money, card money, saloon money. We'r_amblers,—we're all gamblers!" She paused, an odd expression coming over he_ace,—an expression that baffled Rance's power to read. Presently she resumed:
"Now, you asked me to-night if my answer was final,—well, here's your chance.
I'll play you the game,—straight poker. It's two out o' three for me. Hatin'
the sight o' you, it's the nearest chance you'll ever get for me."
"Do you mean—" began Rance, his hands resting on the table, his hawk-lik_lance burning into her very thoughts.
"Yes, with a wife in Noo Orleans all right," she interrupted him feverishly.
"If you're lucky,—you'll git 'im an' me. But if you lose,—this man settin'
between us is mine—mine to do with as I please, an' you shut up an' lose lik_ gentleman."
"You must be crazy about him!" The words seemed wrung from the Sheriff agains_is will.
"That's my business!" came like a knife-cut from the Girl.
"Do you know you're talkin' to the Sheriff?"
"I'm talkin' to Jack Rance, the gambler," she amended evenly.
"You're right,—and he's just fool enough to take you up," returned Rance wit_udden decision. He looked around him for a chair; there was one near th_able, and the Girl handed it to him. With one hand he swung it into plac_efore the table, while with the other he jerked off the table-cover, an_lung it across the room. Johnson neither moved nor groaned, as the edge sli_rom beneath his nerveless arms.
"You and the cyards have got into my blood. I'll take you up," he said, seating himself.
"Your word," demanded the Girl, leaning over the table, but still standing.
"I can lose like a gentleman," returned Rance curtly; then, with a swif_eizure of her hand, he continued tensely, in tones that made the Girl shrin_nd whiten, "I'm hungry for you, Min, and if I win, I'll take it out on you a_ong as I have breath."
A moment later, the Girl had freed her hand from his clasp, and was sayin_venly, "Fix the lamp." And while the Sheriff was adjusting the wick that ha_egun to flare up smokily, she swiftly left the room, saying casually over he_houlder that she was going to fetch something from the closet.
"What you goin' to get?" he called after her suspiciously. The Girl made n_eply. Rance made no movement to follow her, but instead drew a pack of card_rom his pocket and began to shuffle them with practiced carelessness. Bu_hen a minute had passed and the girl had not returned, he called once more, with growing impatience, to know what was keeping her.
"I'm jest gettin' the cards an' kind o' steadyin' my nerves," she answere_omewhat queerly through the doorway. The next moment she had returned, quickly closing the closet door behind her, blew out her candle, and laying _ack of cards upon the table, said significantly:
"We'll use a fresh deck. There's a good deal depends on this, Jack." Sh_eated herself opposite the Sheriff and so close to the unconscious form o_he man she loved that from time to time her left arm brushed his shoulder.
Rance, without protest other than a shrug, took up his own deck of cards, wrapped them in a handkerchief, and stowed them away in his pocket. It was th_irl who spoke first:
"Are you ready?"
"Ready? Yes. I'm ready. Cut for deal."
With unfaltering fingers, the Girl cut. Of the man beside her, dead or dying, she must not, dared not think. For the moment she had become one incarnat_urpose: to win, to win at any cost,—nothing else mattered.
Rance won the deal; and taking up the pack he asked, as he shuffled:
"A case of show-down?"
"Cut!" once more peremptorily from Rance; and then, when she had cut, on_uestion more: "Best two out of three?"
"Best two out of three." Swift, staccato sentences, like the rapid crossing o_words, the first preliminary interchange of strokes before the true due_egins.
Rance dealt the cards. Before either looked at them, he glanced across at th_irl and asked scornfully, perhaps enviously:
"What do you see in him?"
"What do you see in me?" she flashed back instantly, as she picked up he_ards; and then: "What have you got?"
"King high," declared the gambler.
"King high here," echoed the Girl.
"Jack next," and he showed his hand.
"Queen next," and the Girl showed hers.
"You've got it," conceded the gambler, easily. Then, in another tone, "bu_ou're making a mistake—"
"If I am, it's my mistake! Cut!"
Rance cut the cards. The Girl dealt them steadily. Then,
"What have you got?" she asked.
"One pair,—aces. What have you?"
"Nothing," throwing her cards upon the table.
With just a flicker of a smile, the Sheriff once more gathered up the pack, saying smoothly:
"Even now,—we're even."
"It's the next hand that tells, Jack, ain't it?"
"It's the next hand that tells me,—I'm awfully sorry,—" the words seemed t_ome awkwardly; her glance was troubled, almost contrite, "at any rate, I wan_o say jest now that no matter how it comes out—"
"Cut!" interjected Rance mechanically.
"—that I'll always think of you the best I can," completed the Girl with muc_eeling. "An' I want you to do the same for me."
Silently, inscrutably, the gambler dealt the ten cards, one by one. But as th_irl started to draw hers toward her, his long, thin fingers reached acros_nce more and closed not ungently upon hand and cards.
"The last hand, Girl!" he reminded her. "And I've a feeling that I win,—tha_n one minute I'll hold you in my arms." And still covering her fingers wit_is own, he stole a glance at his cards.
"I win," he announced, briefly, his eyes alone betraying the inward fever. H_ropped the cards before her on the table. "Three kings,—and the _las_and_!"
Suddenly, as though some inward cord had snapped under the strain, the Gir_ollapsed. Limply she slid downward in her chair, one groping hand strayin_imlessly to her forehead, then dropping of its own weight. "Quick, Jack,—I'_ll,—git me somethin'!" The voice trailed off to nothingness as the droopin_yelids closed.
In real consternation, the Sheriff sprang to his feet. In one sweeping glanc_is alert eye caught the whisky bottle upon the mantel. "All right, Girl, I'l_ix you in no time," he said cheeringly over his shoulder. But where the deuc_id she keep her tumblers? The next minute he was groping for them in the dar_f the adjoining closet and softly cursing himself for his own slowness.
Instantaneously, the Girl came to life. The unturned cards upon the tabl_anished with one lightning movement; the Girl's hand disappeared beneath he_kirts, raised for the moment knee-high; then the same, swift reverse motion, and the cards were back in place, while the Girl's eyes trembled shut again, to hide the light of triumph in them. A smile flickered on her lips as th_heriff returned with the glass and bottle.
"Never mind,—I'm better now," her lips shaped weakly.
The Sheriff set down the bottle, and put his arm around the Girl with a roug_enderness.
"Oh, you only fainted because you lost," he told her.
Averting her gaze, the Girl quietly disengaged herself, rose to her feet an_urned her five cards face upwards.
"No, Jack, it's because I've won,—three aces and a pair."
The Sheriff shot one glance at the girl, keen, searching. Then, without s_uch as the twitch of an eyelid, he accepted his defeat, took a cigar from hi_ocket and lit it, the flame of the match revealing no expression other tha_he nonchalance for which he was noted; then, picking up his hat and coat h_alked slowly to the door. Here he halted and wished her a polite good- night—so ceremoniously polite that at any other time it would have compelle_er admiration.
Pale as death and almost on the point of collapse, the Girl staggered back t_he table where the wounded road agent was half-sitting, half-lying.
Thrusting her hand now into the stocking from which she had obtained th_inning, if incriminating, cards, she drew forth those that remained an_cattered them in the air, crying out hysterically:
"Three aces an' a pair an' a stockin' full o' pictures—but his life belongs t_e!"