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Chapter 17

  • 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:
  • "Gol A'mighty!"
  • "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.
  • Johnson nodded.
  • 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:
  • "Come, boys—come."
  • 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—
  • "Stop!"
  • "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.
  • "Has gone."
  • "Gone where?"
  • "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:
  • "Good-bye!"
  • 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:
  • "He's gone, he's gone, he's gone! Dick! Dick! Dick…!"
  • 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:
  • "Dick! Dick! You're free! You're free! You're free…!"
  • 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."