Whatever may be said to the contrary, there are few more humiliating moment_n a man's life than when he learns that some other person has supplanted hi_n the affections of his adored one. And it was the Girl's knowledge of this, together with her desire to spare the feelings of her two old admirers,—for i_er nature there was ever that thoughtfulness of others which never permitte_er to do a mean thing to anyone,—that had caused her to flee so precipitousl_rom the room.
But painful as was their humiliation as they stood in silence, gazing wit_addened faces at the door through which the Girl had gone out, their cup o_itterness was not yet full. The next moment the Sheriff, his lips curle_nscrutably, said mockingly:
"Well, boys, the right man has come at last. Take your medicine, gentlemen."
His words cut Sonora to the quick, and it was with difficulty that he brace_imself to hear the worst.
"Who's the man?" he inquired gruffly.
The Sheriff's eyes fastened themselves upon him; at length with deadl_oldness he drawled out:
"Johnson's the man."
All the colour went out of Sonora's face, while his lips ejaculated:
"You lie!" blazed Trinidad in the next breath, and made a quick movemen_owards the Sheriff.
But Rance was not to be denied. Seeing Nick advancing towards them he calle_pon him to verify his words; but that individual merely looked first at on_nd then the other and did not answer, which silence infuriated Sonora.
"Why, you tol' me…?" he said with an angry look in his eye.
"Tol' you, Sonora? Why he tol' me the same thing," protested Trinidad with a_arnestness that, at any other time, would have sent his listeners into fit_f laughter.
This was too much for Sonora; he flew into a paroxysm of rage.
"Well, for a first-class liar…!"
"You bet!" corroborated Trinidad, relapsing, despite his anger, into his pe_hrase.
For some minutes the dejected suitors continued in this strain, now arguin_nd then condoling with one another, the boys, meanwhile, proceeding to clea_he school-room of the benches, casks and planks, lifting or rolling them bac_nto place as if they were made of paper.
All of a sudden Sonora's face cleared perceptibly. Turning swiftly to th_heriff, who sat tilted back in a chair before the fire, he said wit_nexpected cheerfulness of voice:
"Why, Johnson's dead. He got away, an'—"
"Yes, he got away," remarked Rance, dully, shaking the ashes from his cigar, which answer, together with the peculiar look which Sonora saw on the other'_ace, made him at once suspicious that something was being held back from the_hich they had a right to know. It came about, therefore, that, with a hast_ovement towards the Sheriff, his eyes glaring, his voice husky, Sonor_emanded:
"Jack Rance, I call on you as Sheriff for Johnson! He was in your county."
Instantly the cry was taken up by the others, but it was Trinidad who, shakin_is fist in Rance's face, supplemented:
"You hustle up an' run a bridle through your p'int o' teeth or your boom fo_e-election 's over, you lily-fingered gambler!"
But the Sheriff did not move a muscle, though after a moment he answere_oolly:
"Oh, I don't know as I give a damn…!" Which reply, to say the least, wa_omewhat disconcerting to the men who had surrounded him and were eyeing hi_hreateningly.
"No talk—we want Johnson," insisted Trinidad, hotly.
"We want Johnson," echoed the crowd in low, tense voices, their fist_lenched.
And still Rance did not waver, but calmly puffing sway at his long, blac_igar he looked blankly into space. Presently a voice outside calling, "Boys!"
sounded throughout the room and brought him back to actuality. He sat straigh_p in his chair while Nick, shifting uneasily about on his feet, muttered:
"Why, that's Ashby!"
"Oh, if—" began the Sheriff and stopped. The next instant the Wells Farg_gent, a cool, triumphant look on his face, stood framed in the doorway. Wit_ hasty movement towards him Rance asked tensely: "Did you get him?"
The answer came back, almost before the question was asked:
"Yes—we've got him."
"Not Johnson?" demanded Sonora, truculently.
"Yes, Johnson," affirmed the Wells Fargo Agent with a hard laugh, his eyes th_hile upon Handsome, who, unaided, was lifting a heavy cask to a bench nearby.
"Not alive?" questioned Trinidad, unwilling to trust his own ears.
"You bet!" was Ashby's sententious confirmation, at which pandemonium brok_oose, Nick alone appearing dejected and morose-looking. For his love an_evotion to the Girl were too genuine to permit of his taking any par_hatsoever in what he believed was opposed to her happiness. On the othe_and, Rance, as may be inferred, was inwardly rejoicing, though when h_erceived that Nick was eyeing him steadily he was careful to lower his eye_est the little barkeeper should see the triumph shining beneath them. And, finally, unable to bear Nick's scrutiny any longer, he explained with a feebl_ttempt at self-defence:
"Well, I didn't do it, Nick, I didn't do it." But a moment later, his fac_ard and set, he added: "Now he be damned! There's an end of Johnson!"
The words were hardly out of his mouth, however, than Johnson, his arms bound, followed by the Deputy, strode into the room with the courage of one who ha_ong faced death, and stood before the men who glared at him with fire i_heir eyes and murder in their hearts.
"How do you do, Mr. Johnson. I think, Mr. Johnson, five minutes will do fo_ou." Rance gave to the words a peculiar accent and inflection, but thi_aused the prisoner to look even more composed and calm than before; h_eturned crisply:
"I think so."
"So this is the gentleman the Girl loves?" Sonora's face wore a cruel grin a_e stood with arms folded leering at the prisoner.
The biting humour of the thought appealed to Rance, and he smiled grimly t_imself.
"That's the gentleman"—he was saying when a voice outside broke in upon hi_ords with:
"Nick! Boys! Boys!"
"It's the Girl!" cried Nick in dismay, at the same time rushing over to th_oor to intercept her; while Ashby, desirous of preventing any communicatio_etween the Girl and the prisoner took up a position between them—unnecessar_recautions, since the Girl had no intention of re-entering the room, bu_ished merely to say that she had forgotten that it was recess and that th_oys might have one drink.
At the sound of her voice Johnson paled. He listened to her retreating steps, then turning towards Nick he asked him to lock the door.
"Why, the devil…!" objected the Sheriff, angrily.
"Please," urged the prisoner with such a look of entreaty in his eyes tha_ick could not find it in his heart to deny him, and went forthwith to th_oor and locked it.
"Why, you—" began Sonora with a hurried movement towards the prisoner.
"You keep out of this, Sonora," enjoined the Sheriff, coming forward to take _and in the proceedings. "I handle the rope—pick the tree…"
"Then hurry…" said Sonora, impatiently, while Trinidad interposed with hi_sual, "You bet!"
"One moment," said the prisoner as the miners started to go out; and, strang_o relate, the Sheriff ordered the men to halt. Turning once more to th_risoner, he said:
"Be quick—what is it?"
"It is true," began the unfortunate road agent in an even, unemotional voice,
"that I love the Girl."
At these words Rance's arms flew up threateningly, while a mocking smil_prang to his lips.
"Well, you won't in a minute," he reminded him grimly.
The taunt brought no change of expression to the prisoner's face or change o_one in his voice as he went on to say that he did not care what they did t_im; that he was prepared for anything; and that every man who travelled th_ath that he did faced death every day for a drink of water or ten minutes'
sleep, concluding calmly:
"You've got me and I wouldn't care but for the Girl."
"You've got just three minutes!" A shade almost of contempt was in Sonora'_xclamation.
"Yes…!" blazed Trinidad.
There was an impressive silence; then in a voice that trembled strangel_etween pride and humility Johnson continued:
"I don't want her to know my end. Why, that would be an awful thought for he_o go on with all her life—that I died out there—near at hand. Why, boys, sh_ouldn't stay here after that—she couldn't…"
"That's understood," replied Rance, succinctly.
"I'd like her to think," went on the prisoner, with difficulty choking bac_he tears, "that I got away clear and went East and changed my way of living.
So you just drag me a good ways from here before you—" He stopped abruptly an_egan to swallow nervously. When he spoke again it was with a perceptibl_hange of manner. "And when I don't write and she never hears why she wil_ay, 'he's forgotten me,' and that will be about enough for her to remember, because she loved me before she knew what I was—and you can't change love in _inute."
All the while Johnson had been speaking the Sheriff's jealousy had bee_rowing steadily until, finally, turning upon the other with a succession o_aths he struck him a fierce blow in the face.
"I don't blame you," returned the prisoner without a trace of malice in hi_oice. "Strike me again—strike me—one death is not enough for me. Damn me—_ish you could… Oh, why couldn't I have let her pass! I'm sorry I came he_ay—but it's too late now, it's too late…"
Rance, not in the least affected by what the prisoner had been saying, aske_f that was his last word.
Trinidad, simultaneously with his nod, snapped his finger, indicating that th_risoner's time was up.
"Dep!" called the Sheriff, sharply.
The Deputy came forward and took his prisoner in charge.
"Good-bye, sir!" said Nick, who was visibly affected.
"Good-bye!" returned the prisoner, briefly. "You tell the Girl—no, come t_hink of it, Nick, don't say anything…"
"Come on, you!" ordered Happy.
Whereupon with a shout and an imprecation the men removed en masse to th_oor.
"Boys," intervened Nick at this juncture, rushing into their midst, "whe_lliger was hanged Rance let 'im see his sweetheart. I think, considerin' a_ow she ain't goin' to see no more o' Mr. Johnson here, an' knowin' the Girl'_eelin's—well, I think she ought to have a chance to—"
Nick was not allowed to finish, for instantly the men were up in arms raisin_ most vigorous objection to his proposal; but, notwithstanding, Nick, evidently bent upon calling the Girl, started for the door.
"No," objected Rance, obstinately.
The road agent took a step forward and, turning upon the Sheriff with _esperately hopeless expression upon his face, he said:
"Jack Rance, there were two of us—I've had my chance. Inside of ten minute_'ll be dead and it will be all your way. Couldn't you let me—"
He paused, and ended almost piteously with:
"Oh, I thought I'd have the courage not to ask, but, Oh, couldn't you le_e—couldn't you—"
Once more Nick intervened by shrewdly prevaricating:
"Here's the Girl, boys!"
But this ruse of Nick's met with no greater success than his previous efforts, for Rance, putting his foot down heavily upon the stove, voiced a vigorou_rotest.
"All right," said the prisoner, resignedly. Nevertheless, his face reflecte_is disappointment. Turning now to Nick he thanked him for his efforts in hi_ehalf.
"You must excuse Rance," remarked the little barkeeper with a significant loo_t the Sheriff, "for bein' so small a man as to deny the usual courtesies, bu_e ain't quite himself."
Weary of their cavilling, for he believed that in the end the Sheriff woul_arry his point, and determined to go before his courage failed him, Johnso_ade a movement towards the door. Speaking bravely, though his voice trembled, he said:
But, odd as it may seem, Nick's words had taken root.
"Wait a minute," Rance temporised.
The prisoner halted.
"I don't know that I'm so small a man as to deny the usual courtesies, sinc_ou put it that way," continued Rance. "I always have extended them. But we'l_ear what you have to say—that's our protection. And it might interest some o_s to hear what the Girl will have to say to you, Mr. Johnson—after a week i_er cabin there may be more to know than—"
Fire leapt to Johnson's eyes; he cried hoarsely—
"Rance, you don't know what you're sayin'," resented Nick, casting hard look_t him; while Sonora put a heavy hand upon the Sheriff and threatened hi_ith:
"Now, Rance, you stop that!"
"We'll hear every word he has to say," insisted the Sheriff, doggedly.
"You bet!" affirmed Trinidad.
"Nick! Nick!" called the Girl once more, and while the little barkeeper wen_ver to admit her the Wells Fargo Agent took his leave, calling back afte_im:
"Well, boys, you've got him safe—I can't wait—I'm off!"
"Dep, untie the prisoner! Boys, circle round the bar! Trin, put a man at tha_oor! And Sonora, put a couple of men at those windows!" And so swift were th_en in carrying out his instructions, that even as he spoke, everyone was a_is post, the Sheriff himself and Sonora remaining unseen but on guard at th_oors, while the prisoner, edging up close to the door, was not in evidenc_hen the Girl entered.
"You can think of something to tell her—lie to her," had been the Sheriff'_arting suggestion.
"I'll let her think I risked coming back to see her again," had replied th_risoner, his throat trembling.
"She won't know it's for the last time—we'll be there," had come warningl_rom the Sheriff as he pointed to the door that led to the bar-room.
* * * * * * ---
"Why, what have you got the door barred for?" asked the Girl as she came int_he room; and then without waiting for an answer: "Why, where are the boys?"
"Well, you see, the boys—the boys has—has—" began Nick confusedly and stopped.
"The boys—" There was a question in the Girl's voice.
"Why, to the Palmetter," came out feebly from Nick; and then with a sudde_hange of manner, he added: "Oh, say, Girl, I likes you!" And here he laid hi_and affectionately upon her shoulder. "You've been my religion—the bar an'
you. Why, you don't never want to leave us—why, I'd drop dead for you."
"Nick, you're very nice to—" began the Girl, gratefully, and stopped, for a_hat instant a gentle tap came upon the door. Turning swiftly, she saw Johnso_oming towards her.
"Girl!" he cried in an agony of joy, and held out his arms to receive her.
"You? You?" she admonished softly.
"Don't say a word," he whispered hurriedly.
"You shouldn't have come back," she said with knitted brow.
"I had to—to say good-bye once more." And his voice was so filled wit_enderness that she readily forgave him for the indiscretion.
"It's all right, it's all right," murmured Nick, his hand still on the door, which he had taken the precaution to bolt after the Girl had passed throug_t.
There was a moment's silence; then, going over to the windows, the Girl pulle_own the curtains.
"The boys are good for quite a little bit," she said as she came back. "Don'_it nervous—I'll give you warnin'…"
Nick, unwilling to witness the heartrending scene which he foresaw woul_ollow, noiselessly withdrew into the bar-room, leaving the prisoner alon_ith the Girl.
"Don't be afraid, my Girl," said Johnson, softly.
But the Girl's one thought, after her first gladness, was of his safety:
"But you can't git away now without bein' seen?"
"Yes, there's another way out of Cloudy,—and I'm going to take it."
The grimness of his meaning was lost on the Girl, who answered urgently:
"Then go—go! Don't wait, go now!"
Johnson smiled a sad little smile:
"But remember that I'm sorry for the past, and—and don't forget me," he said, with an odd break in his voice,—so odd that it roused the Girl into startle_onderment.
"Forget you? Why, Dick…!"
"I mean, till we meet again," he reassured her hastily.
The Girl heaved a troubled sigh. Her fears for him were still on edge. Then, with a nervous start, she asked:
"Did he call?"
"No. He'll—he'll warn me," Johnson told her unsteadily.
"Oh, every day that dawns I'll wait for a message from you. I'll feel yo_anting me. Every night I'll say to-morrow, and every to-morrow I'll say to- day… Oh, you've changed the whole world for me! I can't let you go, but _ust, Dick, I must…" And bursting into tears, she buried her face on hi_houlder, repeating piteously, between shaking sobs, "Oh, I'm so afraid,—I'_o afraid!"
He held her close, the strength of his arms around her reassuring he_ilently. "Why, you mustn't be afraid," he said in tones that were almos_teady. "In a few minutes I'll be quite free, and then—"
"An' you'll make a little home for me when you're free—soon—will you?" aske_he Girl, with a wan smile dawning on her trembling lips. She was drying he_yes and did not see how the light died out of the man's face, as he gaze_own at her hungrily, hopelessly. This time he could not trust himself t_peak, but merely nodded "yes."
"A strange feelin' has come over me," went on the Girl, brokenly, "a feelin'
to hold you—to cling to you—not to let you go. Somethin' in my heart keep_ayin', 'Don't let him go!'"
Johnson felt his knees sagging oddly beneath him. The Girl's sure instinct o_anger, the piteousness of their case, were making a coward of him. He tor_imself from her in a panic desire to go while he still had the manhood t_lay his part to the end; then suddenly broke down completely, and with hi_ace buried in his hands, sobbed aloud.
"Why, Girl," he managed to say, brokenly, "it's been worth—the whole of lif_ust—to know you. You've brought me nearer Heaven,—you, to love a man lik_e!"
"Don't say that, Oh, don't say that," she hastened to say with a grea_enderness in her voice. "S'pose you was only a road agent an' I was a saloo_eeper. We both came out o' nothin' an' we met, but through lovin' we're goin'
to reach things now—that's us. We had to be lifted up like this to be saved."
Johnson tried to speak, but the words would not come. It was, therefore, wit_ feeling of relief that, presently, he heard Nick at the door, saying, "It'_ll clear now."
Johnson wheeled round, but Nick had flown. Turning once more to the Girl, h_aid with trembling lips:
The Girl's face wore a puzzled look, and she told him that he acted as if the_ere never going to meet again.
"An' we are, we are, ain't we?" she questioned eagerly.
A faint little smile hovered about the corners of the road agent's mouth whe_resently he answered:
"Why, surely we are…"
His words cleared her face instantly.
"I want you to think o' me here jest waitin'," she said. "You was th_irst—there'll never be anyone but you. Why, you're the man I'd want sittin'
across the table if there was a little kid like I was playin' under it. _an't say no more 'n that. Only you—you will—you must get through safe an'
come back—an' well, think o' me here jest waitin', jest waitin', waitin'…"
At these words a tightness gripped the man's throat, and in the silence tha_ollowed the tears ran steadily down his cheeks.
"Oh, Girl, Girl," at last he said, "that first night I went to your cabin _aw you kneeling, praying. Say that in your heart again for me now. Perhaps _elieve it—perhaps I don't… I hope I do—I want to—but say it, say it, Girl, just for the luck of it—say it…"
Quickly the Girl crossed herself, and while she sent a silent prayer to Heave_ohnson knelt at her knees, his head bowed low.
"God bless you," he murmured when the prayer was finished and arose to hi_eet; then bending over her hand he touched it softly with his lips.
"Good-bye!" he said chokingly and started for the door.
"Good-bye!" came slowly in return, her face no less moist than his. Presentl_he murmured like one in a dream: "Dick, Dick!"
The man hastened his steps and did not turn. At the door, however, he burs_ut in an agony of despair: "Girl! Girl…!"
But when the Girl looked up he had reached the open. She listened a moment t_he retreating steps, then raising her tear-stained face above her arms, sh_obbed out: "He's gone—he's gone—he's gone…!" She started in pursuit of him, but half-way across the room she fell into Nick's arms, crying out:
Terribly affected at the sight of the Girl's sorrow, the little barkeeper di_is best to soothe her, now patting her little blonde head as it rested upo_is arm, now murmuring words of loving tenderness.
Suddenly she raised her head, and then it was that she saw for the first tim_he men standing huddled together near the door. In a flash the truth of th_ituation dawned upon her. With a look of indescribable horror upon her fac_he turned upon Nick, turned upon them all with:
"You knew, Nick—you all knew you had 'im! You knew you had 'im an' you'r_oin' to kill 'im! But you shan't—no, you shan't kill 'im—you shan't—yo_han't…!"
Once more she started in pursuit of her lover, but only to fall with her fac_gainst the door, sobbing as if her heart would break.
Outside there was nothing in the enchanting scene to suggest finality. Natur_ever was more prodigal of her magic beauties. The sun still shone on th_inter whiteness of the majestic mountains; the great arch of sky was still a_zure blue; the wild things still roamed the great forest at will.
Life indeed was very beautiful.
Minutes passed and still the Girl wept.
A wonderful thing happened then—and as suddenly as it was characteristic o_hese impulsive and tender-hearted men. In thinking over their action lon_fterwards the Girl recalled how for an instant she could believe neither he_ars nor her eyes. With Sonora it was credible, at least; but with Rance—i_eemed wonderful to her even when observed through the vista of many years.
And yet, men like Rance more often than not exhibit to the world the wors_ide of their nature. It is only when some cataclysm of feeling bursts tha_heir inner soul is disclosed and joyously viewed by eyes which have long bee_ccustomed to judging them solely from the icy and impenetrable reserve whic_hey invariably wear.
And so it came about that Sonora—first of the two—went over to her and laid a_ffectionate hand upon her shoulder.
"Why, Girl," he said, all the kindliness of his gentle nature flooding hi_yes, "the boys an' me ain't perhaps realised jest what Johnson stood for you, an' hearin' what you said, an' seein' you prayin' over the cuss—"
Rance's face lit up scornfully.
"The cuss?" he cut in, objecting to a term which is not infrequently use_ffectionately.
"Yes, the cuss," repeated Sonora, all the vindictiveness gone from his hear_ow. "I got an idee maybe God's back of this 'ere game."
The Girl's heart was beating fast; she was hoping against hope when, a momen_ater, she asked:
"You're not goin' to pull the rope on 'im?"
"You mean I set him free," came from Rance, his tone softer, gentler tha_nyone had heard it in some time.
"You set 'im free?" repeated the Girl, timidly, and not daring to meet hi_aze.
"I let him go," announced the Sheriff in spite of himself.
"You let 'im go?" questioned the Girl, still in a daze.
"That's our verdict, an' we're prepared to back it up," declared Sonora with _mile on his weathered face, though the tears streamed down his cheeks.
The Girl's face illumined with a great joy. She did not stop now to dissipat_he tears which she saw rolling down Sonora's face, as was her wont when an_f the boys were grieved or distressed, but fairly flew out of the cabin, calling half-frantically, half-ecstatically:
The minutes passed and still the miners did not move. They stood with an ai_f solemnity gazing silently at one another. Only too well did they realis_hat was happening to them. They were inconsolable. Presently, Sonora, all i_ heap on a bench, took out some tobacco and began to chew it as fast as hi_outh would let him; Happy, going over to the teacher's desk, picked up th_unch of berries which he had presented her at the opening of the schoo_ession and began to fondle them; while Trinidad, too overcome to speak, stoo_eaning against the door, gazing sadly in the direction that the Girl ha_aken. As for Rance, after calling to Nick to bring him a drink, he quietl_rought out a pack of cards from his pocket and, seemingly, became absorbed i_ game of solitaire.
A little while later, his eyes still red from weeping, Nick remarked:
"The Polka won't never be the same, boys—the Girl's gone."