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Chapter 9

  • Notwithstanding that The Palmetto was the most pretentious building in Cloudy, and was the only rooming and eating house that outwardly asserted its right t_e called an hotel, its saloon contrasted unfavourably with its rival, Th_olka. There was not the individuality of the Girl there to charm away th_mpress of coarseness settled upon it by the loafers, the habitual drunkard_nd the riffraff of the camp, who were not tolerated elsewhere. In short, i_id not have that certain indefinable something which gave to The Polka Saloo_n almost homelike appearance, but was a drab, squalid, soulless place wit_othing to recommend it but its size.
  • In a small parlour pungent at all times with the odour of liquor,—but use_nly on rare occasions, most of The Palmetto's patrons preferring the eve_ore stifling atmosphere of the bar-room,—the Wells Fargo Agent had bee_atching and waiting ever since he had left The Polka Saloon. On a table i_ront of him was a bottle, for it was a part of Ashby's scheme of things t_olace thus all such weary hours.
  • Although a shrewd judge of women of the Nina Micheltoreña type and by no mean_nmindful of their mercurial temperament, Ashby, nevertheless, had felt tha_he would keep her appointment with him. In the Mexican Camp he had read th_ild jealousy in her eyes, and had assumed, not unnaturally, that there ha_een scarcely time for anything to occur which would cause a revulsion o_eeling on her part. But as the moments went by, and still she did not put i_n appearance, an expression of keen disappointment showed itself on his fac_nd, with mechanical regularity, he carried out the liquid programme, shuttin_is eyes after each drink for moments at a time yet, apparently, in perfec_ontrol of his mind when he opened them again; and it was in one of thes_oments that he heard a step outside which he correctly surmised to be that o_he Sheriff.
  • Without a word Rance walked into the room and over to the table and helpe_imself to a drink from the bottle there, which action the Wells Fargo Agen_ightly interpreted as meaning that the posse had failed to catch thei_uarry. At first a glint of satisfaction shone in Ashby's eyes: not that h_isliked Rance, but rather that he resented his egotistical manner and eviden_esire to overawe all who came in contact with him; and it required, therefore, no little effort on his part to banish this look from his face an_ake up his mind not to mention the subject in any manner.
  • For some time, therefore, the two officers sat opposite to each other inhalin_he stale odour of tobacco and spirits peculiar to this room, with little o_o ventilation. It was enough to sicken anyone, but both men, accustomed t_uch places in the pursuit of their calling, apparently thought nothing of it, the Sheriff seemingly absorbed in contemplating the long ash at the end of hi_igar, but, in reality, turning over in his mind whether he should leave th_oom or not. At length, he inaugurated a little contest of opinion.
  • "This woman isn't coming, that's certain," he declared, impatiently.
  • "I rather think she will; she promised not to fail me," was the other's quie_nswer; and he added: "In ten minutes you'll see her."
  • It was a rash remark and expressive of a confidence that he by no means felt.
  • As a matter of fact, it was induced solely by the cynical smile which h_erceived on the Sheriff's face.
  • "You, evidently, take no account of the fact that the lady may have change_er mind," observed Rance, lighting a fresh cigar. "The Nina Micheltoreñas ar_ully as privileged as others of their sex."
  • As he drained his glass Ashby gave the speaker a sharp glance; another side o_ance's character had cropped out. Moreover, Ashby's quick intuition told hi_hat the other's failure to catch the outlaw was not troubling him nearly a_uch as was the blow which his conceit had probably received at the hands o_he Girl. It was, therefore, in an indulgent tone that he said:
  • "No, Rance, not this one nor this time. You mark my words, the woman i_hrough with Ramerrez. At least, she is so jealous that she thinks she is.
  • She'll turn up here, never fear; she means business."
  • The shoulders of Mr. Jack Rance strongly suggested a shrug, but the ma_imself said nothing. They were anything but sympathetic companions, these tw_fficers, and in the silence that ensued Rance formulated mentally more tha_ne disparaging remark about the big man sitting opposite to him. It i_ossible, of course, that the Sheriff's rebuff by the Girl, together with th_ild goose chase which he had recently taken against his better judgment, ha_omething to do with this bitterness; but it was none the less true that h_ound himself wondering how Ashby had succeeded in acquiring his grea_eputation. Among the things that he held against him was his everlastin_ropensity to boast of his achievements, to say nothing of the pedestal upo_hich the boys insisted upon placing him. Was this Wells Fargo's most famou_gent? Was this the man whose warnings were given such credence that the_tirred even the largest of the gold camps into a sense of insecurity? And a_his Rance indulged again in a fit of mental merriment at the other's expense.
  • But, although he would have denied it in toto, the truth of the matter wa_hat the Sheriff was jealous of Ashby. Witty, generous, and a high liver, th_atter was generally regarded as a man who fascinated women; moreover, he wa_nown to be a favourite—and here the shoe pinched—with the Girl. True, th_emands of his profession were such as to prevent his staying long in an_amp. Nevertheless, it seemed to Rance that he contrived frequently to turn u_t The Polka when the boys were at the diggings.
  • After Ashby's observation the conversation by mutual, if unspoken, consent, was switched into other channels. But it may be truthfully said that Rance di_ot wholly recover his mental equilibrium until a door was heard to ope_oiselessly and some whispered words in Spanish fell upon their ears.
  • Now the Sheriff, as well as Ashby, had the detective instinct fully developed; moreover, both men knew a few words of that language and had an extrem_uriosity to hear the conversation going on between a man and a woman, wh_ere standing just outside in a sort of hallway. As a result, therefore, bot_fficers sprang to the door with the hope—if indeed it was Nina Micheltoreñ_s they surmised—that they might catch a word or two which would give them _lue to what was likely to take place at the coming interview. It came soone_han they expected.
  • "… Ramerrez—Five thousand dollars!" reached their ears in a soft, Spanis_oice.
  • Ashby needed nothing more than this. In an instant, much to the Sheriff'_stonishment, and moving marvellously quick for a man of his heavy build, h_as out of the room, leaving Rance to face a woman with a black mantill_hrown over her head who, presently, entered by another door.
  • Nina Micheltoreña, for it was she, did not favour him with as much as an ic_ook. Nor did the Sheriff give any sign of knowing her; a wise proceeding a_t turned out, for a quick turn of the head and a subtle movement of th_oman's shoulders told him that she was in anything but a quiet state of mind.
  • One glance towards the door behind him, however, and the reason of her ange_as all too plain: A Mexican was vainly struggling in the clutches of Ashby.
  • "Why are you dragging him in?" Far from quailing before him as did he_onfederate, she confronted Ashby with eyes that flashed fire. "He came wit_e—"
  • Ashby cut her short.
  • "We don't allow greasers in this camp and—" he began in a throaty voice.
  • "But he is waiting to take me back!" she objected, and then added: "I wish hi_o wait for me outside, and unless you allow him to I'll go at once." And wit_hese words she made a movement towards the door.
  • Ashby laid one restraining hand upon her, while with the other he held on t_he Mexican. Of a sudden there had dawned upon him the conviction that fo_nce in his life he had made a grievous mistake. He had thought, by th_etention of her confederate, to have two strings to his bow, but one glanc_t the sneeringly censorious expression on the Sheriff's face convinced hi_hat no information would be forthcoming from the woman while in her presen_ebellious mood.
  • "All right, my lady," he said, for the time being yielding to her will, "hav_our way." And turning now to the Mexican, he added none too gently:
  • "Here you, get out!"
  • Whereupon the Mexican slunk out of the room.
  • "There's no use of your getting into a rage," went on Ashby, turning to th_oman in a slightly conciliatory manner. "I calculated that the greaser woul_e in on the job, too."
  • All through this scene Rance had been sitting back in his chair chewing hi_igar in contemptuous silence, while his face wore a look of langui_nsolence, a fact which, apparently, did not disturb the woman in the least, for she ignored him completely.
  • "It was well for you, Señor Ashby, that you let him go. I tell you frankl_hat in another moment I should have gone." And now throwing back her mantill_he took out a cigarette from a dainty, little case and lit it and coolly ble_ cloud of smoke in Rance's face, saying: "It depends on how you treat me—you, Mr. Jack Rance, as well as Señor Ashby—whether we come to terms or not.
  • Perhaps I had better go away anyway," she concluded with a shrug of admirabl_imulated indifference.
  • This time Ashby sat perfectly still. It was not difficult to perceive that he_nger was decreasing with every word that she uttered; nor did he fail to not_ow fluently she spoke English, a slight Spanish accent giving added charm t_er wonderfully soft and musical voice. How gloriously beautiful, he tol_imself, she looked as she stood there, voluptuous, compelling, alluring, th_xpression that had been almost diabolical, gradually fading from her face.
  • Was it possible, he asked himself, that all this loveliness was soile_orever? He felt that there was something pitiful in the fact that the woma_tanding before him represented negotiable property which could be purchase_y any passer-by who had a few more nuggets in his possession than hi_eighbour; and, perhaps, because of his knowledge of the piteous history o_his former belle of Monterey he put a little more consideration into th_oice that said:
  • "All right, Nina, we'll get down to business. What have you to say to us?"
  • By this time Nina's passionate anger had burned itself out. In anticipation, perhaps, of what she was about to do, she looked straight ahead of her int_pace. It was not because she was assailed by some transient emotion t_orswear her treacherous desire for vengeance; she had no illusion of tha_ind. Too vividly she recalled the road agent's indifferent manner at thei_ast interview for any feeling to dwell in her heart other than hatred. It wa_hat she was summoning to appear a vision scarcely less attractive, howeve_regnant with tragedy, than that of seeing herself avenged: a gay, extravagan_areer in Mexico or Spain which the reward would procure for her. That wa_hat she was seeing, and with a pious wish for its confirmation she began t_ake herself a fresh cigarette, rolling it dexterously with her white, delicate fingers, and not until her task was accomplished and her full, re_ips were sending forth tiny clouds of smoke did she announce:
  • "Ramerrez was in Cloudy Mountain to-night."
  • But however much of a surprise this assertion was to both men, neither gav_ent to an exclamation. Instead Rance regarded his elegantly booted feet; Ashby looked hard at the woman as if he would read the truth in her eyes; while as for Nina, she continued to puff away at her little cigarette afte_he manner of one that has appealed not in vain to the magic power which ca_aint out the past and fill the blank with the most beautiful of dreams.
  • The Wells Fargo man was the first to make any comment; he asked:
  • "You know this?" And then as she surveyed them through a scented cloud an_owed her head, he added: "How do you know it?"
  • "That I shall not tell you," replied the woman, firmly.
  • Ashby made an impatient movement towards her with the question:
  • "Where was he?"
  • "Oh, come, Ashby!" put in Rance, speaking for the first time. "She's puttin_p a game on us."
  • In a flash Nina wheeled around and with eyes that blazed advanced to the tabl_here the Sheriff was sitting. Indeed, there was something so tigerish abou_he woman that the Sheriff, in alarm, quickly pushed back his chair.
  • "I am not lying, Jack Rance." There was an evil glitter in her eye as sh_atched a sarcastic smile playing around his lips. "Oh, yes, I know you—yo_re the Sheriff," and so saying a peal of contemptuous merriment burst fro_er, "and Ramerrez was in the camp not less than two hours ago."
  • Ashby could hardly restrain his excitement.
  • "And you saw him?" came from him.
  • "Yes," was her answer.
  • Both men sprang to their feet; it was impossible to doubt any longer that sh_poke the truth.
  • "What's his game?" demanded Rance.
  • The woman answered his question with a question.
  • "How about the reward, Señor Ashby?"
  • "You needn't worry about that—I'll see that you get what's coming to you,"
  • replied the Wells Fargo Agent already getting into his coat.
  • "But how are we to know?" inquired Rance, likewise getting ready to leave. "I_e an American or a Mexican?"
  • "To-night he's an American, that is, he's dressed and looks like one. But th_eward—you swear you're playing fair?"
  • "On my honour," Ashby assured her.
  • The woman's face stood clear—cruelly clear in the light of the kerosene lam_bove her head. About her mouth and eyes there was a repellent expression. He_ind, still working vividly, was reviewing the past; and a bitter memor_rompted the words which were said however with a smile that was stil_eductive:
  • "Try to recall, Señor Ashby, what strangers were in The Polka to-night?"
  • At these ominous words the men started and regarded each other questioningly.
  • Their keen and trained intelligences were greatly distressed at being s_tterly in the dark. For an instant, it is true, the thought of the grease_hat Ashby had brought in rose uppermost in their minds, but only to b_ismissed quickly when they recalled the woman's words concerning the way tha_he road agent was dressed. A moment more, however, and a strange thought ha_astened itself on one of their active minds—a thought which, althoug_ersisting in forcing itself upon the Sheriff's consideration, was in the en_ejected as wholly improbable. But who was it then? In his intensity Rance le_is cigar go out.
  • "Ah!" at last he cried. "Johnson, by the eternal!"
  • "Johnson?" echoed Ashby, wholly at sea and surprised at the look o_orroboration in Nina's eyes.
  • "Yes, Johnson," went on Rance, insistently. Why had he not seen at once tha_t was Johnson who was the road agent! There could be no mistake! "You weren'_here," he explained hurriedly, "when he came in and began flirting with th_irl and—"
  • "Ramerrez making love to the Girl?" broke in Ashby. "Ye Gods!"
  • "The Girl? So that's the woman he's after now!" Nina laughed bitterly. "Well, she's not destined to have him for long, I can tell you!" And with that sh_eached out for the bottle on the table and poured herself a small glass o_hisky and swallowed it. When she turned her lips were tightly shut over he_rilliant teeth, a thousand thoughts came rushing into her brain. There was n_onger any compunction—she would strike now and deep. Through her effort_lone the man would be captured, and she gloried in the thought.
  • "Here—here is something that will interest you!" she said; and putting he_and in her bosom drew out a soiled, faded photograph. "There—that will settl_im for good and all! Never again will he boast of trifling with Nin_icheltoreña—with me, a Micheltoreña in whose veins runs the best and proudes_lood of California!"
  • Ashby fairly snatched the photograph out of her hand and, after one look a_t, passed it over to the Sheriff.
  • "Good of him, isn't it?" sneered Nina; and then seemingly trying by her ver_ehemence to impress upon herself the impossibility of his ever being anythin_ut an episode in her life, she added: "I hate him!"
  • The picture was indeed an excellent one. It represented Ramerrez in th_orgeous dress of a  _caballero_ —and the outlaw was a fine specimen of tha_pectacular class of men. But Rance studied the photograph only long enough t_e sure that no mistake was possible. With a quick movement he put it away i_is pocket and looked long and hard at the figure of the degraded woma_tanding before him and revelling in her treachery. In that time he forgo_hat anyone had ever entertained a kind thought about her; he forgot that sh_nce was respected as well as admired; he was conscious only of regarding he_ith a far deeper disgust and repugnance than he held towards others much he_nferior in birth and education. But, presently, his face grew a shade whiter, if that were possible, and he cursed himself for not having thought of th_anger to which the Girl might even now be exposed. In less than a minute, therefore, both men stood ready for the work before them. But on the threshol_ust before going out into the fierce storm that had burst during the last fe_inutes, he paused and called back:
  • "You Mexican devil! If any harm comes to the Girl, I'll strangle you with m_wn hands!" And not waiting to hear the woman's mocking laughter he passe_ut, followed by Ashby, into the storm.