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Chapter 13

  • 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.
  • "Yes, Ramerrez…!"
  • "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 don't—"
  • "You do!"
  • "I admit that every circumstance points to—"
  • "Stop! Don't you give me any more o' that Webster Unabridged. You git 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.
  • "Who—me?"
  • The Sheriff's face brightened. Taking a few steps nearer to her, he hazarded:
  • "Say, Girl, was your answer final to-night about marrying me?"
  • Without turning round the Girl answered coyly:
  • "I might think it over, Jack."
  • Instantly the man's passion was aroused. He strode over to her, put his 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?"
  • "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?"
  • "Yes."
  • "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!"