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.