Part 3 out of 4
know. In five minutes either her father will be here, or them
hell-hounds of Harrison's who've sold him out will swarm round
this barn to git possesshun. Ef this yer"--she again pointed
contemptuously to the objects just indicated--"means that you've
cast your lot with US and kalkilate to take our bitter with our
sweet, ye'll lift up that stack of hay and bring out a gun to help
defend it. Ef you're meanin' anythin' else, Ford, you'll hide
yourself in that hay till Hiram comes and has time enough to attend
"And if I choose to do neither?" he said haughtily.
She looked at him in unutterable scorn. "There's the winder--take
it while there's time, afore I bar it. Ef you see Hiram, tell him
ye left an old woman behind ye to defend the place whar you uster
hide with her darter."
Before he could reply there was a distant report, followed almost
directly by another. With a movement of irritation he walked to
the window, turned and looked at her--bolted it, and came back.
"Where's that gun?" he said almost rudely.
"I reckon's that would fetch ye," she said, dragging away the hay
and disclosing a long trough-like box covered with tarpaulin. It
proved to contain powder, shot, and two guns. He took one.
"I suppose I may know what I am fighting for?" he said dryly.
"Ye might say 'Cress' ef they"--indicating the direction of the
reports--"happen to ask ye," she returned with equal sobriety.
"Jess now ye kin take your stand up thar in the loft and see what's
He did not linger, but climbed to the place assigned him, glad to
escape the company of the woman who at that moment he almost hated.
In his unreflecting passion for Cressy he had always evaded the
thought of this relationship or propinquity; the mother had
recalled it to him in a way that imperilled even his passion for
the daughter; his mind was wholly preoccupied with the idiotic,
exasperating, and utterly hopeless position that had been forced
upon him. In the bitterness of his spirit his sense of personal
danger was so far absorbed that he speculated on the chance
bullet in the melee that might end his folly and relieve him of
responsibility. Shut up in a barn with a furious woman, in a
lawless defence of questionable rights--with the added consciousness
that an equally questionable passion had drawn him into it, and
that SHE knew it--death seemed to offer the only escape from the
explanation he could never give. If another sting could have been
added it was the absurd conviction that Cressy would not appreciate
his sacrifice, but was perhaps even at that moment calmly
congratulating herself on the felicitousness of the complication
in which she had left him.
Suddenly he heard a shout and the tramping of horse. The sides of
the loft were scantily boarded to allow the extension of the pent-
up grain, and between the interstices Ford, without being himself
seen, had an uninterrupted view of the plain between him and the
line of willows. As he gazed, five men hurriedly issued from the
extreme left and ran towards the barn. McKinstry and his followers
simultaneously broke from the same covert further to the right and
galloped forward to intercept them. But although mounted, the
greater distance they had to traverse brought them to the rear of
the building only as the Harrison party came to a sudden halt
before the closed and barricaded doors of the usually defenceless
barn. The discomfiture of the latter was greeted by a derisive
shout from the McKinstry party--albeit, equally astonished. But in
that brief moment Ford recognized in the leader of the Harrisons
the well-known figure of the Sheriff of Tuolumne. It needed only
this to cap the climax of the fatality that seemed to pursue him.
He was no longer a lawless opposer of equally lawless forces, but
he was actually resisting the law itself. He understood the
situation now. It was some idiotic blunder of Uncle Ben's that
had precipitated this attack.
The belligerents had already cocked their weapons, although the
barn was still a rampart between the parties. But an adroit
flanker of McKinstry's, creeping through the tall mustard, managed
to take up an enfilading position as the Harrisons advanced to
break in the door. A threatening shout from the ambuscaded
partisans caused them to hurriedly fall back towards the rear of
the barn. There was a pause, and then began the usual Homeric
chaff,--with this Western difference that it was cunningly intended
to draw the other's fire.
"Why don't you blaze away at the door, you ---- ----! It won't
"He's afraid the bolt will shoot back!" Laughter from the
"Come outer the tall grass and show yourself, you black, mud-eating
"He can't. He's dropped his grit and is sarchin' for it." Goading
laughter from the Harrisons.
Each man waited for that single shot which would precipitate the
fight. Even in their lawlessness the rude instinct of the duello
swayed them. The officer of the law recognized the principle as
well as its practical advantage in a collision, but he hesitated to
sacrifice one of his men in an attack on the barn, which would draw
the fire of McKinstry at that necessarily fatal range. As a brave
man he would have taken the risk himself, but as a prudent one, he
reflected that his hurriedly collected posse were all partisans,
and if he fell the conflict would resolve itself into a purely
partisan struggle without a single unprejudiced witness to justify
his conduct in the popular eye. The master also knew this; it had
checked his first impulse to come forward as a mediator; his only
reliance now was on Mrs. McKinstry's restraint and the sheriff's
forbearance. The next instant both seemed to be imperilled.
"Well, why don't you wade in?" sneered Dick McKinstry; "who do you
reckon's hidden in the barn?"
"I'll tell ye," said a harsh, passionate voice from the hill-side.
"It's Cressy McKinstry and the school-master hidin' in the hay."
Both parties turned quickly towards the intruder who had approached
them unperceived. But the speech was followed by a more startling
revulsion of sentiment as Mrs. McKinstry's voice rang out from the
barn, "You lie, Seth Davis!"
The brief advantage offered to the sheriff in Davis's advent as a
neutral witness, was utterly lost by this unlooked-for revelation
of Mrs. McKinstry's presence in the barn! The fates were clearly
against him! A woman in the fight, and an old one at that! A
white woman to be forcibly ejected! In the whole unwritten code of
Southwestern chivalry there was no such precedent.
"Stand back," he said disgustedly to his followers, "stand back and
let the d----d barn slide. But you, Hiram McKinstry, I'll give YOU
five minutes to shake yourself clear of your wife's petticoats and
git!" His blood was up now--the quicker from his momentary
weakness and the trick of which he thought himself a dupe.
Again the fatal signal seemed imminent, again it was delayed. For
Hiram McKinstry, with clanking spurs and rifle in hand stepped from
behind the barn, full in the presence of his antagonists.
"Ez to my gitten in five minits," he began in his laziest,
drowsiest manner, "we'll see when the time's up. But jest now
words hev passed betwixt my wife and Seth Davis. Afore anythin'
else goes on yer, he's got to take HIS back. My wife allows he
lies; I allow he lies too, and I stan' here to say it."
The right of personal insult to precedence of redress was too old a
frontier principle to be gainsaid now. Both parties held back and
every eye was turned to where Seth Davis had been standing. But he
When Mrs. McKinstry hurled her denial from the barn, he had taken
advantage of the greater surprise to leap to one of the trusses of
hay that projected beyond the loft, and secure a footing from which
he quickly scrambled through the open scantling to the interior.
The master who, startled by his voice, had made his way through the
loose grain to the rear, reached it as Seth half crawled, half
tumbled through. Their eyes met in a single flash of rage, but
before Seth could utter an outcry, the master had dropped his gun,
seized him around the neck and crammed a thick handful of the soft
hay he had hurriedly snatched up into his face and gasping mouth.
A furious but silent struggle ensued; the yielding hay on which
they both fell deadened all sound of a scuffle and concealed them
from view; masses of it, already loosened by the intruder's
entrance, and dislodged in their contortions began to slip through
the opening to the ground. The master, still uppermost and holding
Seth firmly down, allowed himself to slip with them, shoving his
adversary before him; the maddened Missourian detecting his
purpose, made a desperate attempt to change his position, and
succeeded in raising his knee against the master's chest. Ford,
guarding against what seemed to be only a wrestler's strategy,
contented himself by locking the bent knee firmly in that position,
and thus unwittingly gave Seth the looked-for opportunity of
drawing the bowie-knife concealed in his boot leg. He knew his
mistake only as Seth violently freed his arm, and threw it upward
for the blow. He heard the steel slither like a scythe through the
hay, and unlocking his hold desperately threw himself on the
uplifted arm. The movement saved him. For the released body of
Seth slipped rapidly through the opening, upheld for a single
instant on the verge by the grasp of the master's two hands on the
arm that still held the knife, and then dropped heavily downward.
Even then, the hay that had slipped before him would have broken
his fall, but his head came in violent contact with some farming
implements standing against the wall, and without a cry he was
stretched senseless on the ground. The whole occurrence passed so
rapidly and so noiselessly that not only did McKinstry's challenge
fall upon his already unconscious ears, but the loosened hay which
in the master's struggles to recover himself still continued to
slide gently from the loft, actually hid him from the eyes of the
spectators who sought him a moment afterwards. A mass of hay and
wild oats, dislodged apparently by Mrs. McKinstry in securing her
defences, was all that met their eyes; even the woman herself was
unconscious of the deadly struggle that had taken place above her.
The master staggered to an upright position half choked and half
blinded with dust, turgid and bursting with the rush of blood to
his head, but clear and collected in mind, and unremorsefully
triumphant. Unconscious of the real extent of Seth's catastrophe
he groped for and seized his gun, examined the cap and eagerly
waited for a renewed attack. "He tried to kill me; he would have
killed me; if he comes again I must kill him," he kept repeating to
himself. It never occurred to him that this was inconsistent with
his previous thought--indeed with the whole tenor of his belief.
Perhaps the most peaceful man who has been once put in peril of
life by an adversary, who has recognized death threatening him in
the eye of his antagonist, is by some strange paradox not likely to
hold his own life or the life of his adversary as dearly as before.
Everything was silent now. The suspense irritated him, he no
longer dreaded but even longed for the shot that would precipitate
hostilities. What were they doing? Guided by Seth, were they
concerting a fresh attack?
Listening more intently he became aware of a distant shouting, and
even more distinctly, of the dull, heavy trampling of hoofs. A
sudden angry fear that the McKinstrys had been beaten off and were
flying--a fear and anger that now for the first time identified him
with their cause--came over him, and he scrambled quickly towards
the opening below. But the sound was approaching and with it came
"Hold on there, sheriff!"
It was the voice of the agent Stacey.
There was a pause of reluctant murmuring. But the warning was
enforced by a command from another voice--weak, unheroic, but
familiar, "I order this yer to stop--right yer!"
A burst of ironical laughter followed. The voice was Uncle Ben's.
"Stand back! This is no time for foolin'," said the sheriff
"He's right, Sheriff Briggs," said Stacey's voice hurriedly;
"you're acting for HIM; he's the owner of the land."
"What? That Ben Dabney?"
"Yes; he's Daubigny, who bought the title from us."
There was a momentary hush, and then a hurried murmur.
"Which means, gents," rose Uncle Ben's voice persuasively, "that
this yer young man, though fair-minded and well-intended, hez bin a
leetle too chipper and previous in orderin' out the law. This yer
ain't no law matter with ME, boys. It ain't to be settled by law-
papers, nor shot-guns and deringers. It's suthin' to be chawed
over sociable-like, between drinks. Ef any harm hez bin done, ef
anythin's happened, I'm yer to 'demnify the sheriff, and make it
comf'ble all round. Yer know me, boys. I'm talkin'. It's me--
Dabney, or Daubigny, which ever way you like it."
But in the silence that followed, the passions had not yet
evidently cooled. It was broken by the sarcastic drawl of Dick
McKinstry: "If them Harrisons don't mind heven had their medders
trampled over by a few white men, why"--
"The sheriff ez 'demnified for that," interrupted Uncle Ben
"'N ef Dick McKinstry don't mind the damage to his pants in
crawlin' out o' gunshot in the tall grass"--retorted Joe Harrison.
"I'm yer to settle that, boys," said Uncle Ben cheerfully.
"But who'll settle THIS?" clamored the voice of the older Harrison
from behind the barn where he had stumbled in crossing the fallen
hay. "Yer's Seth Davis lyin' in the hay with the top of his head
busted. Who's to pay for that?"
There was a rush to the spot, and a quick cry of reaction.
"Whose work is this?" demanded the sheriff's voice, with official
The master uttered an instinctive exclamation of defiance, and
dropping quickly to the barn floor, would the next moment have
opened the door and declared himself, but Mrs. McKinstry, after a
single glance at his determined face, suddenly threw herself before
him with an imperious gesture of silence. Then her voice rang
clearly from the barn:--
"Well, if it's the hound that tried to force his way in yer, I
reckon ye kin put that down to ME!"
It was known to Indian Spring, the next day, amid great excitement,
that a serious fracas had been prevented on the ill-fated boundary
by the dramatic appearance of Uncle Ben Dabney, not only as a
peacemaker, but as Mr. Daubigny the bona fide purchaser and owner
of the land. It was known and accepted with great hilarity that
"old marm McKinstry" had defended the barn alone and unaided, with--
as variously stated--a pitchfork, an old stable-broom, and a pail
of dirty water, against Harrison, his party, and the entire able
posse of the Sheriff of Tuolumne County, with no further damage
than a scalp wound which the head of Seth Davis received while
falling from the loft of the barn from which he had been dislodged
by Mrs. McKinstry and the broom aforesaid. It was known with
unanimous approbation that the acquisition of the land-title by a
hitherto humble citizen of Indian Spring was a triumph of the
settlement over foreign interference. But it was not known that
the school-master was a participant in the fight, or even present
on the spot. At Mrs. McKinstry's suggestion he had remained
concealed in the loft until after the withdrawal of both parties
and the still unconscious Seth. When Ford had remonstrated, with
the remark that Seth would be sure to declare the truth when he
recovered his senses, Mrs. McKinstry smiled grimly: "I reckon when
he comes to know I was with ye all the time, he'd rather hev it
allowed that I licked him than YOU. I don't say he'll let it pass
ez far ez you're concerned or won't try to get even with ye, but he
won't go round tellin' WHY. However," she added still more grimly,
"if you think you're ekul to tellin' the hull story--how ye kem to
be yer and that Seth wasn't lyin' arter all when he blurted it out
afore 'em--why I sha'n't hinder ye." The master said no more. And
indeed for a day or two nothing transpired to show that Seth was
not equally reticent.
Nevertheless Mr. Ford was far from being satisfied with the issue
of his adventure. His relations with Cressy were known to the
mother, and although she had not again alluded to them, she would
probably inform her husband. Yet he could not help noticing, with
a mingling of unreasoning relief and equally unreasoning distrust,
that she exhibited a scornful unconcern in the matter, apart from
the singular use to which she had put it. He could hardly count
upon McKinstry, with his heavy, blind devotion to Cressy, being as
indifferent. On the contrary, he had acquired the impression,
without caring to examine it closely, that her father would not be
displeased at his marrying Cressy, for it would really amount to
that. But here again he was forced to contemplate what he had
always avoided, the possible meaning and result of their intimacy.
In the reckless, thoughtless, extravagant--yet thus far innocent--
indulgence of their mutual passion, he had never spoken of
marriage, nor--and it struck him now with the same incongruous
mingling of relief and uneasiness--had SHE! Perhaps this might
have arisen from some superstitious or sensitive recollection on
her part of her previous engagement to Seth, but he remembered now
that they had not even exchanged the usual vows of eternal
constancy. It may seem strange that, in the half-dozen stolen and
rapturous interviews which had taken place between these young
lovers, there had been no suggestion of the future, nor any of
those glowing projects for a united destiny peculiar to their years
and inexperience. They had lived entirely in a blissful present,
with no plans beyond their next rendezvous. In that mysterious and
sudden absorption of each other, not only the past, but the future
seemed to have been forgotten.
These thoughts were passing through his mind the next afternoon to
the prejudice of that calm and studious repose which the deserted
school-house usually superinduced, and which had been so fondly
noted by McKinstry and Uncle Ben. The latter had not arrived for
his usual lesson; it was possible that undue attention had been
attracted to his movements now that his good fortune was known; and
the master was alone save for the occasional swooping incursion of
a depredatory jay in search of crumbs from the children's
luncheons, who added apparently querulous insult to the larcenous
act. He regretted Uncle Ben's absence, as he wanted to know more
about his connection with the Harrison attack and his eventual
intentions. Ever since the master emerged from the barn and
regained his hotel under cover of the darkness, he had heard only
the vaguest rumors, and he purposely avoided direct inquiry.
He had been quite prepared for Cressy's absence from school that
morning--indeed in his present vacillating mood he had felt that
her presence would have been irksome and embarrassing; but it
struck him suddenly and unpleasantly that her easy desertion of him
at that critical moment in the barn had not since been followed by
the least sign of anxiety to know the result of her mother's
interference. What did she imagine had transpired between Mrs.
McKinstry and himself? Had she confidently expected her mother's
prompt acceptance of the situation and a reconciliation? Was that
the reason why she had treated that interruption as lightly as if
she were already his recognized betrothed? Had she even calculated
upon it? had she--? He stopped, his cheek glowing from irritation
under the suspicion, and shame at the disloyalty of entertaining it.
Opening his desk, he began to arrange his papers mechanically, when
he discovered, with a slight feeling of annoyance, that he had
placed Cressy's bouquet--now dried and withered--in the same
pigeon-hole with the mysterious letters with which he had so often
communed in former days. He at once separated them with a half
bitter smile, yet after a moment's hesitation, and with his old
sense of attempting to revive a forgotten association, he tried to
re-peruse them. But they did not even restrain his straying
thoughts, nor prevent him from detecting a singular occurrence.
The nearly level sun was, after its old fashion, already hanging
the shadowed tassels of the pine boughs like a garland on the wall.
But the shadow seemed to have suddenly grown larger and more
compact, and he turned, with a quick consciousness of some
interposing figure at the pane. Nothing however was to be seen.
Yet so impressed had he been that he walked to the door and stepped
from the porch to discover the intruder. The clearing was
deserted, there was a slight rustling in the adjacent laurels, but
no human being was visible. Nevertheless the old feeling of
security and isolation which had never been quite the same since
Mr. McKinstry's confession, seemed now to have fled the sylvan
school-house altogether, and he somewhat angrily closed his desk,
locked it, and determined to go home.
His way lay through the first belt of pines towards the mining-
flat, but to-day from some vague impulse he turned and followed the
ridge. He had not proceeded far when he perceived Rupert Filgee
lounging before him on the trail, and at a little distance further
on his brother Johnny. At the sight of these two favorite pupils
Mr. Ford's heart smote him with a consciousness that he had of late
neglected them, possibly because Rupert's lofty scorn of the
"silly" sex was not as amusing to him as formerly, and possibly
because Johnny's curiosity had been at times obtrusive. He however
quickened his pace and joined Rupert, laying his hand familiarly as
of old on his shoulder. To his surprise the boy received his
advances with some constraint and awkwardness, glancing uneasily in
the direction of Johnny. A sudden idea crossed Mr. Ford's mind.
"Were you looking for me at the schoolroom just now?"
"You didn't look in at the window to see if I was there?" continued
The master glanced at Rupert. Truth-telling was a part of Rupert's
truculent temper, although, as the boy had often bitterly remarked,
it had always "told agin' him."
"All right," said the master, perfectly convinced. "It must have
been my fancy; but I thought somebody looked in--or passed by the
But here Johnny, who had overheard the dialogue and approached
them, suddenly threw himself upon his brother's unoffending legs
and commenced to beat and pull them about with unintelligible
protests. Rupert, without looking down, said quietly, "Quit that
now--I won't, I tell ye," and went through certain automatic
movements of dislodging Johnny as if he were a mere impeding puppy.
"What's the matter, Johnny?" said the master, to whom these
gyrations were not unfamiliar.
Johnny only replied by a new grip of his brother's trousers.
"Well, sir," said Rupert, slightly recovering his dimples and his
readiness, "Johnny, yer, wants me to tell ye something. Ef he
wasn't the most original self-cocking, God-forsaken liar in Injin
Spring--ef he didn't lie awake in his crib mornin's to invent lies
fer the day, I wouldn't mind tellin' ye, and would hev told you
before. However, since you ask, and since you think you saw
somebody around the school-house, Johnny yer allows that Seth Davis
is spyin' round and followin' ye wherever you go, and he dragged me
down yer to see it. He says he saw him doggin' ye."
"With a knife and pithtolth," added Johnny's boundless imagination,
to the detriment of his limited facts.
Mr. Ford looked keenly from the one to the other, but rather with a
suspicion that they were cognizant of his late fracas than belief
in the truth of Johnny's statement.
"And what do YOU think of it, Rupert?" he asked carelessly.
I think, sir," said Rupert, "that allowin'--for onct--that Johnny
ain't lying, mebbee it's Cressy McKinstry that Seth's huntin'
round, and knowin' that she's always runnin' after you"--he
stopped, and reddening with a newborn sense that his fatal
truthfulness had led him into a glaring indelicacy towards the
master, hurriedly added: "I mean, sir, that mebbee it's Uncle Ben
he's jealous of, now that he's got rich enough for Cressy to hev
him, and knowin' he comes to school in the afternoon perhaps"--
"'Tain't either!" broke in Johnny promptly. "Theth's over ther
beyond the thchool, and Crethy's eatin' ithecream at the bakerth
with Uncle Ben."
"Well, suppose she is, Seth don't know it, silly!" answered Rupert,
sharply. Then more politely to the master: "That's it! Seth has
seen Uncle Ben gallivanting with Cressy and thinks he's bringing
her over yer. Don't you see?"
The master however did not see but one thing. The girl who had
only two days ago carelessly left it to him to explain a compromising
situation to her mother--this girl who had precipitated him into a
frontier fight to the peril of his position and her good name, was
calmly eating ices with an available suitor without the least
concern of the past! The connection was perhaps illogical, but it
was unpleasant. It was the more awkward from the fact that he
fancied that not only Rupert's beautiful eyes, but even the infant
Johnny's round ones, were fixed upon him with an embarrassed
expression of hesitating and foreboding sympathy.
"I think Johnny believes what he says--don't you, Johnny?" he
smiled with an assumption of cheerful ease, "but I see no necessity
just yet for binding Seth Davis over to keep the peace. Tell me
about yourself, Rupe. I hope Uncle Ben doesn't think of changing
his young tutor with his good fortune?"
"No, sir," returned Rupert brightening; "he promises to take me to
Sacramento with him as his private secretary or confidential clerk,
you know, ef--ef"--he hesitated again with very un-Rupert-like
caution, "ef things go as he wants 'em." He stopped awkwardly and
his brown eyes became clouded. "Like ez not, Mr. Ford, he's only
foolin' me--and--HIMSELF." The boy's eyes sought the master's
"I don't know about that," returned Mr. Ford uneasily, with a
certain recollection of Uncle Ben's triumph over his own
incredulity; "he surely hasn't shown himself a fool or a boaster so
far. I consider your prospect a very fair one, and I wish you joy
of it, my boy." He ran his fingers through Rupert's curls in his
old caressing fashion, the more tenderly perhaps that he fancied he
still saw symptoms of stormy and wet weather in the boy's brown
eyes. "Run along home, both of you, and don't worry yourselves
He turned away, but had scarcely proceeded half a dozen yards
before he felt a tug at his coat. Looking down he saw the
diminutive Johnny. "They'll be comin' home thith way," he said,
reaching up in a hoarse confidential whisper.
"Crethy and 'im."
But before the master could make any response to this presumably
gratifying information, Johnny had rejoined his brother. The two
boys waved their hands towards him with the same diffident and
mysterious sympathy that left him hesitating between a smile and a
frown. Then he proceeded on his way. Nevertheless, for no other
reason than that he felt a sudden distaste to meeting any one, when
he reached the point where the trail descended directly to the
settlement, he turned into a longer and more solitary detour by the
The sun was already so low that its long rays pierced the forest
from beneath, and suffused the dim colonnade of straight pine
shafts with a golden haze, while it left the dense intercrossed
branches fifty feet above in deeper shadow. Walking in this yellow
twilight, with his feet noiselessly treading down the yielding
carpet of pine needles, it seemed to the master that he was passing
through the woods in a dream. There was no sound but the dull
intermittent double knock of the wood-pecker, or the drowsy croak
of some early roosting bird; all suggestion of the settlement, with
all traces of human contiguity, were left far behind. It was
therefore with a strange and nervous sense of being softly hailed
by some woodland sprite that he seemed to hear his own name faintly
wafted upon the air. He turned quickly; it was Cressy, panting
behind him! Even then, in her white closely gathered skirts, her
bared head and graceful arching neck bent forward, her flying
braids freed from the straw hat which she had swung from her arm so
as not to impede her flight, there was so much of the following
Maenad about her that he was for an instant startled.
He stopped; she bounded to him, and throwing her arms around his
neck with a light laugh, let herself hang for a moment breathless
on his breast. Then recovering her speech she said slowly:--
"I started on an Injin trot after you, just as you turned off the
trail, but you'd got so far ahead while I was shaking myself clear
of Uncle Ben that I had to jist lope the whole way through the
woods to catch up." She stopped, and looking up into his troubled
face caught his cheeks between her hands, and bringing his knit
brows down to the level of her humid blue eyes said, "You haven't
kissed me yet. What's the matter?"
"Doesn't it strike you that I might ask that question, considering
that it's three days since I've seen you, and that you left me, in
a rather awkward position, to explain matters to your mother?" he
said coldly. He had formulated the sentence in his mind some
moments before, but now that it was uttered, it appeared singularly
weak and impotent.
"That's so," she said with a frank laugh, burying her face in his
waistcoat. "You see, dandy boy"--his pet name--"I reckoned for
that reason we'd better lie low for a day or two. Well," she
continued, untying his cravat and retying it again, "how DID you
crawl out of it?"
"Do you mean to say your mother did not tell you?" he asked
"Why should she?" returned Cressy lazily. "She never talks to me
of these things, honey."
"And you knew nothing about it?"
Cressy shook her head, and then winding one of her long braids
around the young man's neck, offered the end of it to his mouth,
and on his sternly declining it, took it in her own.
Yet even her ignorance of what had really happened did not account
to the master for the indifference of her long silence, and albeit
conscious of some inefficiency in his present unheroic attitude, he
continued sarcastically, "May I ask WHAT you imagined would happen
when you left me?"
"Well," said Cressy confidently, "I reckoned, chile, you could lie
as well as the next man, and that, being gifted, you'd sling Maw
something new and purty. Why, I ain't got no fancy, but I fixed up
something against Paw's questioning ME. I made that conceited
Masters promise to swear that HE was in the barn with me. Then I
calculated to tell Paw that you came meandering along just before
Maw popped in, and that I skedaddled to join Masters. Of course,"
she added quickly, tightening her hold of the master as he made a
sudden attempt at withdrawal, "I didn't let on to Masters WHY I
wanted him to promise, or that you were there."
"Cressy," said Ford, irritated beyond measure, "are you mad, or do
you think I am?"
The girl's face changed. She cast a half frightened, half
questioning glance at his eyes and then around the darkening aisle.
"If we're going to quarrel, Jack," she said hurriedly, "don't let's
do it BEFORE FOLKS."
"In the name of Heaven," he said, following her eyes indignantly,
"what do you mean?"
"I mean," she said, with a slight shiver of resignation and scorn,
"if you--oh dear! if IT'S ALL going to be like THEM, let's keep it
He gazed at her in hopeless bewilderment. Did she really mean that
she was more frightened at the possible revelation of their
disagreement than of their intimacy?
"Come," she continued tenderly, still glancing, however, uneasily
around her, "come! We'll be more comfortable in the hollow. It's
only a step." Still holding him by her braid she half led, half
dragged him away. To the right was one of those sudden depressions
in the ground caused by the subsidence of the earth from hidden
springs and the uprooting of one or two of the larger trees. When
she had forced him down this declivity below the level of the
needle-strewn forest floor, she seated him upon a mossy root, and
shaking out her skirts in a half childlike, half coquettish way,
comfortably seated herself in his lap, with her arm supplementing
the clinging braid around his neck.
"Now hark to me, and don't holler so loud," she said turning his
face to her questioning eyes. "What's gone of you anyway, nigger
boy?" It should be premised that Cressy's terms of endearment were
mainly negro-dialectical, reminiscences of her brief babyhood, her
slave-nurse, and the only playmates she had ever known.
Still implacable, the master coldly repeated the counts of his
indictment against the girl's strange indifference and still
stranger entanglements, winding up by setting forth the whole story
of his interview with her mother, his forced defence of the barn,
Seth's outspoken accusation, and their silent and furious struggle
in the loft. But if he had expected that this daughter of a
Southwestern fighter would betray any enthusiasm over her lover's
participation in one of their characteristic feuds--if he looked
for any fond praise for his own prowess, he was bitterly mistaken.
She loosened her arm from his neck of her own accord, unwound the
braid, and putting her two little hands clasped between her knees,
crossed her small feet before her, and, albeit still in his lap,
looked the picture of languid dejection.
"Maw ought to have more sense, and you ought to have lit out of the
window after me," she said with a lazy sigh. "Fightin' ain't in
your line--it's too much like THEM. That Seth's sure to get even
"I can protect myself," he said haughtily. Nevertheless he had a
depressing consciousness that his lithe and graceful burden was
somewhat in the way of any heroic expression.
"Seth can lick you out of your boots, chile," she said with naive
abstraction. Then, as he struggled to secure an upright position,
"Don't git riled, honey. Of course you'd let them kill you before
YOU'D give in. But that's their best holt--that's their trade!
That's all they can do--don't you see? That's where YOU'RE not
like THEM--that's why you're not their low down kind! That's why
you're my boy--that's why I love you!"
She had thrown her whole weight again upon his shoulders until she
had forced him back to his seat. Then, with her locked hands again
around his neck, she looked intently into his face. The varying
color dropped from her cheeks, her eyes seemed to grow larger, the
same look of rapt absorption and possession that had so transfigured
her young face at the ball was fixed upon it now. Her lips parted
slightly, she seemed to murmur rather than speak:--
"What are these people to us? What are Seth's jealousies, Uncle
Ben's and Masters's foolishness, Paw and Maw's quarr'ls and
tantrums to you and me, dear? What is it what THEY think, what
they reckon, what they plan out, and what they set themselves
against--to us? We love each other, we belong to each other,
without their help or their hindrance. From the time we first saw
each other it was so, and from that time Paw and Maw, and Seth and
Masters, and even YOU and ME, dear, had nothing else to do. That
was love as I know it; not Seth's sneaking rages, and Uncle Ben's
sneaking fooleries, and Masters's sneaking conceit, but only love.
And knowing that, I let Seth rage, and Uncle Ben dawdle, and
Masters trifle--and for what? To keep them from me and my boy.
They were satisfied, and we were happy."
Vague and unreasoning as he knew her speech to be, the rapt and
perfect conviction with which it was uttered staggered him.
"But how is this to end, Cressy?" he said passionately.
The abstracted look passed, and the slight color and delicate
mobility of her face returned. "To end, dandy boy?" she repeated
lazily. "You didn't think of marrying me--did you?"
He blushed, stammered, and said "Yes," albeit with all his past
vacillation and his present distrust of her, transparent on his
cheek and audible in his voice.
"No, dear," she said quietly, reaching down, untying her little
shoe and shaking the dust and pine needles from its recesses, "no!
I don't know enough to be a wife to you, just now, and you know it.
And I couldn't keep a house fit for you, and you couldn't afford to
keep ME without it. And then it would be all known, and it
wouldn't be us two, dear, and our lonely meetings any more. And we
couldn't be engaged--that would be too much like me and Seth over
again. That's what you mean, dandy boy--for you're only a dandy
boy, you know, and they don't get married to backwood Southern
girls who haven't a nigger to bless themselves with since the war!
No," she continued, lifting her proud little head so promptly after
Ford had recovered from his surprise as to make the ruse of
emptying her shoe perfectly palpable, "no, that's what we've both
allowed, dear, all along. And now, honey, it's near time for me to
go. Tell me something good--before I go. Tell me that you love me
as you used to--tell me how you felt that night at the ball when
you first knew we loved each other. But stop--kiss me first--
there, once more--for keeps."
When Uncle Ben, or "Benjamin Daubigny, Esq.," as he was already
known in the columns of the "Star," accompanied Miss Cressy
McKinstry on her way home after the first display of attention and
hospitality since his accession to wealth and position, he remained
for some moments in a state of bewildered and smiling idiocy. It
was true that their meeting was chance and accidental; it was true
that Cressy had accepted his attention with lazy amusement; it was
true that she had suddenly and audaciously left him on the borders
of the McKinstry woods in a way that might have seemed rude and
abrupt to any escort less invincibly good-humored than Uncle Ben,
but none of these things marred his fatuous felicity. It is even
probable that in his gratuitous belief that his timid attentions
had been too marked and impulsive, he attributed Cressy's flight to
a maidenly coyness that pleasurably increased his admiration for
her and his confidence in himself. In his abstraction of enjoyment
and in the gathering darkness he ran against a fir-tree very much
as he had done while walking with her, and he confusedly apologized
to it as he had to her, and by her own appellation. In this way he
eventually overran his trail and found himself unexpectedly and
apologetically in the clearing before the school-house.
"Ef this ain't the singlerest thing, miss," he said, and then
stopped suddenly. A faint noise in the school-house like the sound
of splintered wood attracted his attention. The master was
evidently there. If he was alone he would speak to him.
He went to the window, looked in, and in an instant his amiable
abstraction left him. He crept softly to the door, tried it, and
then putting his powerful shoulder against the panel, forced the
lock from its fastenings. He entered the room as Seth Davis,
frightened but furious, lifted himself from before the master's
desk which he had just broken open. He had barely time to conceal
something in his pocket and close the lid again before Uncle Ben
"What mouut ye be doin' here, Seth Davis?" he asked with the slow
deliberation which in that locality meant mischief.
"And what mouut YOU be doin' here, Mister Ben Dabney?" said Seth,
resuming his effrontery.
"Well," returned Uncle Ben, planting himself in the aisle before
his opponent, "I ain't doin' no sheriff's posse business jest now,
but I reckon to keep my hand in far enuff to purtect other folks'
property," he added, with a significant glance at the broken lock
of the desk.
"Ben Dabney," said Seth in snarling expostulation, "I hain't got no
quar'll with ye!"
"Then hand me over whatever you took just now from teacher's desk
and we'll talk about that afterwards," said Uncle Ben advancing.
"I tell ye I hain't got no quar'll with ye, Uncle Ben," continued
Seth, retreating with a malignant sneer; "and when you talk of
protectin' other folks' property, mebbe ye'd better protect YOUR
OWN--or what ye'd like to call so--instead of quar'llin' with the
man that's helpin' ye. I've got yer the proofs that that sneakin'
hound of a Yankee school-master that Cress McKinstry's hell bent
on, and that the old man and old woman are just chuckin' into her
arms, is a lyin', black-hearted, hypocritical seducer"--
"Stop!" said Uncle Ben in a voice that made the crazy casement
He strode towards Seth Davis, no longer with his habitual careful,
hesitating step, but with a tread that seemed to shake the whole
school-room. A single dominant clutch of his powerful right hand
on the young man's breast forced him backwards into the vacant
chair of the master. His usually florid face had grown as gray as
the twilight; his menacing form in a moment filled the little room
and darkened the windows. Then in some inexplicable reaction his
figure slightly drooped, he laid one heavy hand tremblingly on the
desk, and with the other affected to wipe his mouth after his old
"What's that you were sayin' o' Cressy?" he said huskily.
"Wot everybody says," said the frightened Seth, gaining a cowardly
confidence under his adversary's emotion. "Wot every cub that sets
yer under his cantin' teachin', and sees 'em together, knows. It's
wot you'd hev knowed ef he and Roop Filgee hadn't played ye fer a
softy all the time. And while you've bin hangin' round yer fer a
flicker of Cressy's gownd as she prances out o' school, he's bin
lyin' low and laffin' at ye, and while he's turned Roop over to
keep you here, pretendin' to give ye lessons, he's bin gallivantin'
round with her and huggin' and kissin' her in barns and in the
brush--and now YOU want to quar'll with me."
He stopped, panting for breath, and stared malignantly in the gray
face of his hearer. But Uncle Ben only lifted his heavy hand
mildly with an awkward gesture of warning, stepped softly in his
old cautious hesitating manner to the open door, closed it, and
"I reckon ye got in through the winder, didn't ye, Seth?" he said,
with a labored affectation of unemotional ease, "a kind o' one leg
over, and one, two, and then you're in, eh?"
"Never you mind HOW I got in, Ben Dabney," returned Seth, his
hostility and insolence increasing with his opponent's evident
weakness, "ez long ez I got yer and got, by G-d! what I kem here
fer! For whiles all this was goin' on, and whiles the old fool man
and old fool woman was swallowin' what they did see and blinkin' at
what they didn't, and huggin' themselves that they'd got high-toned
kempany fer their darter, that high-toned kempany was playin' THEM
too, by G-d! Yes, Sir! that high-toned, cantin' school-teacher was
keepin' a married woman in 'Frisco, all the while he was here
honey-foglin' with Cressy, and I've got the papers yer to prove
it." He tapped his breast-pocket with a coarse laugh and thrust
his face forward into the gray shadow of his adversary's.
"An' you sorter spotted their bein' in this yer desk and bursted
it?" said Uncle Ben, gravely examining the broken lock in the
darkness as if it were the most important feature of the incident.
Seth nodded. "You bet your life. I saw him through the winder
only this afternoon lookin over 'em alone, and I reckoned to lay
my hands on 'em if I had to bust him or his desk. And I did!" he
added with a triumphant chuckle.
"And you did--sure pop!" said Uncle Ben with slow deliberate
admiration, passing his heavy hand along the splintered lid. "And
you reckon, Seth, that this yer showin' of him up will break off
enythin' betwixt him and this yer--this yer Miss--Miss McKinstry?"
he continued with labored formality.
"I reckon ef the old fool McKinstry don't shoot him in his tracks
thar'll be white men enough in Injin Springs to ride this high-
toned, pizenous hypocrit on a rail outer the settlement!"
"That's so!" said Uncle Ben musingly, after a thoughtful pause, in
which he still seemed to be more occupied with the broken desk than
his companion's remark. Then he went on cautiously: "And ez this
thing orter be worked mighty fine, Seth, p'r'aps, on the hull,
you'd better let me have them papers."
"What! YOU?" snarled Seth, drawing back with a glance of angry
suspicion; "not if I know it!"
"Seth," said Uncle Ben, resting his elbows on the desk
confidentially, and speaking with painful and heavy deliberation,
"when you first interdoosed this yer subject you elluded to my
hevin', so to speak, rights o' preemption and interference with
this young lady, and that in your opinion, I wasn't purtectin' them
rights. It 'pears to me that, allowin' that to be gospel truth,
them ther papers orter be in MY possession--you hevin' so to speak
no rights to purtect, bein' off the board with this yer young lady,
and bein' moved gin'rally by free and independent cussedness. And
ez I sed afore, this sort o' thing havin' to be worked mighty fine,
and them papers manniperlated with judgment, I reckon, Seth, if you
don't objeck, I'll hev--hev--to trouble you."
Seth started to his feet with a rapid glance at the door, but Uncle
Ben had risen again with the same alarming expression of completely
filling the darkened school-room, and of shaking the floor beneath
him at the slightest movement. Already he fancied he saw Uncle
Ben's powerful arm hovering above him ready to descend. It
suddenly occurred to him that if he left the execution of his
scheme of exposure and vengeance to Uncle Ben, the onus of stealing
the letters would fall equally upon their possessor. This
advantage seemed more probable than the danger of Uncle Ben's
weakly yielding them up to the master. In the latter case he,
Seth, could still circulate the report of having seen the letters
which Uncle Ben had himself stolen in a fit of jealousy--a
hypothesis the more readily accepted from the latter's familiar
knowledge of the schoolhouse and his presumed ambitious jealousy of
Cressy in his present attitude as a man of position. With affected
reluctance and hesitation he put his hand to his breast-pocket.
"Of course," he said, "if you're kalkilatin' to take up the quar'll
on YOUR rights, and ez Cressy ain't anythin' more to me, YOU orter
hev the proofs. Only don't trust them into that hound's hands.
Once he gets 'em again he'll secure a warrant agin you for stealin'.
That'll be his game. I'd show 'em to HER first--don't ye see?--and
I reckon ef she's old Ma'am McKinstry's darter, she'll make it
lively for him."
He handed the letters to the looming figure before him. It seemed
to become again a yielding mortal, and said in a hesitating voice,
"P'r'aps you'd better make tracks outer this, Seth, and leave me
yer to put things to rights and fix up that door and the desk agin
to-morrow mornin'. He'd better not know it to onct, and so start a
row about bein' broken into."
The proposition seemed to please Seth; he even extended his hand in
the darkness. But he met only an irresponsive void. With a slight
shrug of his shoulders and a grunting farewell, he felt his way to
the door and disappeared. For a few moments it seemed as if Uncle
Ben had also deserted the schoolhouse, so profound and quiet was
the hush that fell upon it. But as the eye became accustomed to
the shadow a grayish bulk appeared to grow out of it over the
master's desk and shaped itself into the broad figure of Uncle Ben.
Later, when the moon rose and looked in at the window, it saw him
as the master had seen him on the first day he had begun his
lessons in the school-house, with his face bent forward over the
desk and the same look of child-like perplexity and struggle that
he had worn at his allotted task. Unheroic, ridiculous, and no
doubt blundering and idiotic as then, but still vaguely persistent
in his thought, he remained for some moments in this attitude.
Then rising and taking advantage of the moonlight that flooded the
desk, he set himself to mend the broken lock with a large
mechanical clasp-knife he produced from his pocket, and the aid of
his workmanlike thumb and finger. Presently he began to whistle
softly, at first a little artificially and with relapses of
reflective silence. The lock of the desk restored, he secured into
position again that part of the door-lock which he had burst off in
his entrance. This done, he closed the door gently and once more
stepped out into the moonlit clearing. In replacing his knife in
his pocket he took out the letters which he had not touched since
they were handed to him in the darkness. His first glance at the
handwriting caused him to stop. Then still staring at it, he began
to move slowly and automatically backwards to the porch. When he
reached it he sat down, unfolded the letter, and without attempting
to read it, turned its pages over and over with the unfamiliarity
of an illiterate man in search of the signature. This when found
apparently plunged him again into motionless abstraction. Only
once he changed his position to pull up the legs of his trousers,
open his knees, and extend the distance between his feet, and then
with the unfolded pages carefully laid in the moonlit space thus
opened before him, regarded them with dubious speculation. At the
end of ten minutes he rose with a sigh of physical and mental
relaxation, refolded the letter, put it in his pocket, and made his
way to the town.
When he reached the hotel he turned into the bar-room, and
observing that it happened to be comparatively deserted, asked for
a glass of whiskey. In response to the barkeeper's glance of
curiosity--as Uncle Ben seldom drank, and then only as a social
function with others--he explained:--
"I reckon straight whiskey is about ez good ez the next thing for
The bar-keeper here interposed that in his larger medical
experience he had found the exhibition of ginger in combination
with gin attended with effect, although it was evident that in his
business capacity he regarded Uncle Ben, as a drinker, with
"Ye ain't seen Mr. Ford hanging round yer lately?" continued Uncle
Ben with laborious ease.
The bar-keeper, with his eye still scornfully fixed on his
customer, but his hands which were engaged in washing his glasses
under the counter giving him the air of humorously communicating
with a hidden confederate, had not seen the school-master that
Uncle Ben turned away and slowly mounted the staircase to the
master's room. After a moment's pause on the landing, which must
have been painfully obvious to any one who heard his heavy ascent,
he gave two timid raps on the door which were equally ridiculous in
contrast with his powerful tread. The door was opened promptly by
"Oh, it's you, is it?" he said shortly. "Come in."
Uncle Ben entered without noticing the somewhat ungracious form of
invitation. "It war me," he said, "dropped in, not finding ye
downstairs. Let's have a drink."
The master gazed at Uncle Ben, who, owing to his abstraction, had
not yet wiped his mouth of the liquor he had imperfectly swallowed,
and was in consequence more redolent of whiskey than a confirmed
toper. He rang the bell for the desired refreshment with a
slightly cynical smile. He was satisfied that his visitor, like
many others of humble position, was succumbing to his good fortune.
"I wanted to see ye, Mr. Ford," he began, taking an unproffered
chair and depositing his hat after some hesitation outside the
door, "in regard to what I onct told ye about my wife in Mizzouri.
P'r'aps you disremember?"
"I remember," returned the master resignedly.
"You know it was that arternoon that fool Stacey sent the sheriff
and the Harrisons over to McKinstry's barn."
"Go on!" petulantly said the master, who had his own reasons for
not caring to recall it.
"It was that arternoon, you know, that you hadn't time to hark to
me--hevin' to go off on an engagement," continued Uncle Ben with
protracted deliberation, "and"--
"Yes, yes, I remember," interrupted the master exasperatedly, "and
really unless you get on faster, I'll have to leave you again."
"It was that arternoon," said Uncle Ben without heeding him, "when
I told you I hadn't any idea what had become o' my wife ez I left
"Yes," said the master sharply, "and I told you it was your bounden
duty to look for her."
"That's so," said Uncle Ben nodding comfortably, "them's your very
words; on'y a leetle more strong than that, ef I don't disremember.
Well, I reckon I've got an idee!" The master assumed a sudden
expression of interest, but Uncle Ben did not vary his monotonous
"I kem across that idee, so to speak, on the trail. I kem across
it in some letters ez was lying wide open in the brush. I picked
em up and I've got 'em here."
He slowly took the letters from his pocket with one hand, while he
dragged the chair on which he was sitting beside the master. But
with a quick flush of indignation Mr. Ford rose and extended his
"These are MY letters, Dabney," he said sternly, "stolen from my
desk. Who has dared to do this?"
But Uncle Ben had, as if accidentally, interposed his elbow between
the master and Seth's spoils.
"Then it's all right?" he returned deliberately. "I brought 'em
here because I thought they might give an idee where my wife was.
For them letters is in her own handwrite. You remember ez I told
ez how she was a scollard."
The master sat back in his chair white and dumb. Incredible,
extraordinary, and utterly unlooked for as was this revelation, he
felt instinctively that it was true.
"I couldn't read it myself--ez you know. I didn't keer to ax any
one else to read it for me--you kin reckon why, too. And that's
why I'm troublin' you to-night, Mr. Ford--ez a friend."
The master with a desperate effort recovered his voice. "It is
impossible. The lady who wrote those letters does not bear your
name. More than that," he added with hasty irrelevance, "she is so
free that she is about to be married, as you might have read. You
have made a mistake, the handwriting may be like, but it cannot be
really your wife's."
Uncle Ben shook his head slowly. "It's her'n--there's no mistake.
When a man, Mr. Ford, hez studied that handwrite--havin', so to
speak, knowed it on'y from the OUTSIDE--from seein' it passin' like
between friends--that man's chances o' bein' mistook ain't ez great
ez the man's who on'y takes in the sense of the words that might
b'long to everybody. And her name not bein' the same ez mine,
don't foller. Ef she got a divorce she'd take her old gal's name--
the name of her fammerly. And that would seem to allow she DID get
a divorce. What mowt she hev called herself when she writ this?"
The master saw his opportunity and rose to it with a chivalrous
indignation, that for the moment imposed even upon himself. "I
decline to answer that question," he said angrily. "I refuse to
allow the name of any woman who honors me with her confidence to be
dragged into the infamous outrage that has been committed upon me
and common decency. And I shall hold the thief and scoundrel--
whoever he may be--answerable to myself in the absence of her
Uncle Ben surveyed the hero of these glittering generalities with
undisguised admiration. He extended his hand to him gravely.
"Shake! Ef another proof was wantin', Mr. Ford, of that bein' my
wife's letter," he said, "that high-toned style of yours would
settle it. For, ef thar was one thing she DID like, it was that
sort of po'try. And one reason why her and me didn't get on, and
why I skedaddled, was because it wasn't in my line. Et's all in
trainin'! On'y a man ez had the Fourth Reader at his fingers' ends
could talk like that. Bein' brought up on Dobell--ez is nowhere--
it sorter lets me outer you, ez it did outer HER. But allowin' it
ain't the square thing for YOU to mention her name, that wouldn't
be nothin' agin' MY doin' it, and callin' her, well--Lou Price in a
keerless sort o' way, eh?"
"I decline to answer further," replied the master quickly, although
his color had changed at the name. "I decline to say another word
on the matter until this mystery is cleared up--until I know who
dared to break into my desk and steal my property, and the purpose
of this unheard-of outrage. And I demand possession of those
letters at once."
Uncle Ben without a word put them in the master's hand, to his
slight surprise, and it must be added to his faint discomfiture,
nor was it decreased when Uncle Ben added, with grave naivete and a
patronizing pressure of his hand on his shoulder,--"In course ez
you're taken' it on to yourself, and ez Lou Price ain't got no
further call on ME, they orter be yours. Ez to who got 'em outer
the desk, I reckon you ain't got no suspicion of any one spyin'
round ye--hev ye?"
In an instant the recollection of Seth Davis's face at the window
and the corroboration of Rupert's warning flashed across Ford's
mind. The hypothesis that Seth had imagined that they were
Cressy's letters, and had thrown them down without reading them
when he had found out his mistake, seemed natural. For if he had
read them he would undoubtedly have kept them to show to Cressy.
The complex emotions that had disturbed the master on the discovery
of Uncle Ben's relationship to the writer of the letters were
resolving themselves into a furious rage at Seth. But before he
dared revenge himself he must be first assured that Seth was
ignorant of their contents. He turned to Uncle Ben.
"I have a suspicion, but to make it certain I must ask you for the
present to say nothing of this to any one."
Uncle Ben nodded. "And when you hev found out and you're settled
in your mind that you kin make my mind easy about this yer Lou
Price, ez we'll call her, bein' divorced squarely, and bein', so to
speak, in the way o' gettin' married agin, ye might let me know ez
a friend. I reckon I won't trouble you any more to-night--onless
you and me takes another sociable drink together in the bar. No?
Well, then, good-night." He moved slowly towards the door. With
his hand on the lock he added: "Ef yer writin' to her agin, you
might say ez how you found ME lookin' well and comf'able, and
hopin' she's enjyin' the same blessin'. 'So long."
He disappeared, leaving the master in a hopeless collapse of
conflicting, and, it is to be feared, not very heroic emotions.
The situation, which had begun so dramatically, had become suddenly
unromantically ludicrous, without, however, losing any of its
embarrassing quality. He was conscious that he occupied the
singular position of being more ridiculous than the husband--whose
invincible and complacent simplicity stung him like the most
exquisite irony. For an instant he was almost goaded into the fury
of declaring that he had broken off from the writer of the letters
forever, but its inconsistency with the chivalrous attitude he had
just taken occurred to him in time to prevent him from becoming
doubly absurd. His rage with Seth Davis seemed to him the only
feeling left that was genuine and rational, and yet, now that Uncle
Ben had gone, even that had a spurious ring. It was necessary for
him to lash himself into a fury over the hypothesis that the
letters MIGHT have been Cressy's, and desecrated by that scoundrel's
touch. Perhaps he had read them and left them to be picked up by
others. He looked over them carefully to see if their meaning
would, to the ordinary reader, appear obvious and compromising.
His eye fell on the first paragraph.
"I should not be quite fair with you, Jack, if I affected to
disbelieve in your faith in your love for me and its endurance, but
I should be still more unfair if I didn't tell you what I honestly
believe, that at your age you are apt to deceive yourself, and,
without knowing it, to deceive others. You confess you have not
yet decided upon your career, and you are always looking forward so
hopefully, dear Jack, for a change in the future, but you are
willing to believe that far more serious things than that will
suffer no change in the mean time. If we continued as we were, I,
who am older than you and have more experience, might learn the
misery of seeing you change towards ME as I have changed towards
another, and for the same reason. If I were sure I could keep pace
with you in your dreams and your ambition, if I were sure that I
always knew WHAT they were, we might still be happy--but I am not
sure, and I dare not again risk my happiness on an uncertainty. In
coming to my present resolution I do not look for happiness, but at
least I know I shall not suffer disappointment, nor involve others
in it. I confess I am growing too old not to feel the value to a
woman--a necessity to her in this country--of security in her
present and future position. Another can give me that. And
although you may call this a selfish view of our relations, I
believe that you will soon--if you do not, even as you read this
now--feel the justice of it, and thank me for taking it."
With a smile of scorn he tore up the letter, in what he fondly
believed was the bitterness of an outraged trustful nature,
forgetting that for many weeks he had scarcely thought of its
writer, and that he himself in his conduct had already anticipated
The master awoke the next morning, albeit after a restless night,
with that clarity of conscience and perception which it is to be
feared is more often the consequence of youth and a perfect
circulation than of any moral conviction or integrity. He argued
with himself that as the only party really aggrieved in the
incident of the previous night, the right of remedy remained with
him solely, and under the benign influence of an early breakfast
and the fresh morning air he was inclined to feel less sternly even
towards Seth Davis. In any event, he must first carefully weigh
the evidence against him, and examine the scene of the outrage
closely. For this purpose, he had started for the school-house
fully an hour before his usual time. He was even light-hearted
enough to recognize the humorous aspect of Uncle Ben's appeal to
him, and his own ludicrously paradoxical attitude, and as he at
last passed from the dreary flat into the fringe of upland pines,
he was smiling. Well for him, perhaps, that he was no more
affected by any premonition of the day before him than the lately
awakened birds that lightly cut the still sleeping woods around him
in their long flashing sabre-curves of flight. A yellow-throat,
destined to become the breakfast of a lazy hawk still swinging
above the river, was especially moved to such a causeless and
idiotic roulade of mirth that the master listening to the foolish
bird was fain to whistle too. He presently stopped, however, with
a slight embarrassment. For a few paces before him Cressy had
She had evidently been watching for him. But not with her usual
indolent confidence. There was a strained look of the muscles of
her mouth, as of some past repression, and a shaded hollow under
her temples beneath the blonde rings of her shorter hair. Her
habitually slow, steady eye was troubled, and she cast a furtive
glance around her before she searched him with her glance. Without
knowing why, yet vaguely fearing that he did, he became still more
embarrassed, and in the very egotism of awkwardness, stammered
without a further salutation: "A disgraceful thing has happened
last night, and I'm up early to find the perpetrator. My desk was
broken into, and"--
"I know it," she interrupted, with a half-impatient, half uneasy
putting away of the subject with her little hand--"there--don't go
all over it again. Paw and Maw have been at me about it all night--
ever since those Harrisons in their anxiousness to make up their
quarrel, rushed over with the news. I'm tired of it!"
For an instant he was staggered. How much had she learned! With
the same awkward indirectness, he said vaguely, "But it might have
been YOUR letters, you know?"
"But it wasn't," she said, simply. "It OUGHT to have been. I wish
it had"-- She stopped, and again regarded him with a strange
expression. "Well," she said slowly, "what are you going to do?"
"To find out the scoundrel who has done this," he said firmly, "and
punish him as he deserves."
The almost imperceptible shrug that had raised her shoulders gave
way as she regarded him with a look of wearied compassion.
"No," she said, gravely, "you cannot. They're too many for you.
You must go away, at once."
"Never," he said indignantly. "Even if it were not a cowardice.
It would be more--a confession!"
"Not more than they already know," she said wearily. "But, I tell
you, you MUST go. I have sneaked out of the house and run here all
the way to warn you. If you--you care for me, Jack--you will go."
"I should be a traitor to you if I did," he said quickly. "I shall
"But if--if--Jack--if"--she drew nearer him with a new-found
timidity, and then suddenly placed her two hands upon his
shoulders: "If--if--Jack--I were to go with you?"
The old rapt, eager look of possession had come back to her face
now; her lips were softly parted. Yet even then she seemed to be
waiting some reply more potent than that syllabled on the lips of
the man before her.
Howbeit that was the only response. "Darling," he said kissing
her, "but wouldn't that justify them"--
"Stop," she said suddenly. Then putting her hand over his mouth,
she continued with the same half-weary expression: "Don't let us go
over all that again either. It is SO tiresome. Listen, dear.
You'll do one or two little things for me--won't you, dandy boy?
Don't linger long at the school-house after lessons. Go right
home! Don't look after these men TO-DAY--to-morrow, Saturday, is
your holiday--you know--and you'll have more time. Keep to
yourself to-day as much as you can, dear, for twelve hours--until--
until--you hear from me, you know. It will be all right then," she
added, lifting her eyelids with a sudden odd resemblance to her
father's look of drowsy pain, which Ford had never noticed before.
"Promise me that, dear, won't you?"
With a mental reservation he promised hurriedly--preoccupied in his
wonder why she seemed to avoid his explanation, in his desire to
know what had happened, in the pride that had kept him from asking
more or volunteering a defence, and in his still haunting sense of
having been wronged. Yet he could not help saying as he caught and
held her hand:--
"YOU have not doubted me, Cressy? YOU have not allowed this
infamous raking up of things that are past and gone to alter your
She looked at him abstractedly. "You think it might alter ANYBODY'S
"Nobody's who really loved another"--he stammered.
"Don't let us talk of it any more," she said suddenly stretching
out her arms, lifting them above her head with a wearied gesture,
and then letting them fall clasped before her in her old habitual
fashion. "It makes my head ache; what with Paw and Maw and the
rest of them--I'm sick of it all."
She turned away as Ford drew back coldly and let her hand fall from
his arm. She took a few steps forward, stopped, ran back to him
again, crushed his face and head in a close embrace, and then
seemed to dip like a bird into the tall bracken, and was gone.
The master stood for some moments chagrined and bewildered; it was
characteristic of his temperament that he had paid less heed to
what she told him than what he IMAGINED had passed between her
mother and herself. She was naturally jealous of the letters--he
could forgive her for that; she had doubtless been twitted about
them, but he could easily explain them to her parents--as he would
have done to her. But he was not such a fool as to elope with her
at such a moment, without first clearing his character--and knowing
more of hers. And it was equally characteristic of him that in his
sense of injury he confounded her with the writer of the letters--
as sympathizing with his correspondent in her estimate of his
character, and was quite carried away with the belief that he was
equally wronged by both.
It was not until he reached the schoolhouse that the evidences of
last night's outrage for a time distracted his mind from his
singular interview. He was struck with the workmanlike manner in
which the locks had been restored, and the care that had evidently
been taken to remove the more obvious and brutal traces of
burglary. This somewhat staggered his theory that Seth Davis was
the perpetrator; mechanical skill and thoughtfulness were not among
the lout's characteristics. But he was still more disconcerted on
pushing back his chair to find a small india-rubber tobacco pouch
lying beneath it. The master instantly recognized it: he had seen
it a hundred times before--it was Uncle Ben's. It was not there
when he had closed the room yesterday afternoon. Either Uncle Ben
had been there last night, or had anticipated him this morning.
But in the latter case he would scarcely have overlooked his fallen
property--that, in the darkness of the night, might have readily
escaped detection. His brow darkened with a sudden conviction that
it was Uncle Ben who was the real and only offender, and that his
simplicity of the previous night was part of his deception. A
sickening sense that he had been again duped--but why or to what
purpose he hardly dared to think--overcame him. Who among these
strange people could he ever again trust? After the fashion of
more elevated individuals, he had accepted the respect and kindness
of those he believed his inferiors as a natural tribute to his own
superiority; any change in THEIR feelings must therefore be
hypocrisy or disloyalty; it never occurred to him that HE might
have fallen below their standard.
The arrival of the children and the resumption of his duties for a
time diverted him. But although the morning's exercise restored
the master's self-confidence, it cannot be said to have improved
his judgment. Disdaining to question Rupert Filgee, as the
possible confidant of Uncle Ben, he answered the curious inquiries
of the children as to the broken doorlock with the remark that it
was a matter that he should have to bring before the Trustees of
the Board, and by the time that school was over and the pupils
dismissed he had quite resolved upon this formal disposition of it.
In spite of Cressy's warning--rather because of it--in the new
attitude he had taken towards her and her friends, he lingered in
the school-house until late. He had occupied himself in drawing up
a statement of the facts, with an intimation that his continuance
in the school would depend upon a rigid investigation of the
circumstances, when he was aroused by the clatter of horses' hoofs.
The next moment the school-house was surrounded by a dozen men.
He looked up; half of them dismounted and entered the room. The
other half remained outside darkening the windows with their
motionless figures. Each man carried a gun before him on the
saddle; each man wore a rude mask of black cloth partly covering
Although the master was instinctively aware that he was threatened
by serious danger, he was far from being impressed by the arms and
disguise of his mysterious intruders. On the contrary, the obvious
and glaring inconsistency of this cheaply theatrical invasion of
the peaceful school-house; of this opposition of menacing figures
to the scattered childish primers and text-books that still lay on
the desks around him, only extracted from him a half scornful smile
as he coolly regarded them. The fearlessness of ignorance is often
as unassailable as the most experienced valor, and the awe-
inspiring invaders were at first embarrassed and then humanly
angry. A lank figure to the right made a forward movement of
impotent rage, but was checked by the evident leader of the party.
"Ef he likes to take it that way, there ain't no Regulators law
agin it, I reckon," he said, in a voice which the master instantly
recognized as Jim Harrison's, "though ez a gin'ral thing they don't
usually find it FUN." Then turning to the master he added, "Mister
Ford, ef that's the name you go by everywhere, we're wantin' a man
about your size."
Ford knew that he was in hopeless peril. He knew that he was
physically defenceless and at the mercy of twelve armed and lawless
men. But he retained a preternatural clearness of perception, and
audacity born of unqualified scorn for his antagonists, with a
feminine sharpness of tongue. In a voice which astonished even
himself by its contemptuous distinctness, he said: "My name IS
Ford, but as I only SUPPOSE your name is Harrison perhaps you'll be
fair enough to take that rag from your face and show it to me like
The man removed the mask from his face with a slight laugh.
"Thank you," said Ford. "Now, perhaps you will tell me which one
of you gentlemen broke into the school-house, forced the lock of my
desk, and stole my papers. If he is here I wish to tell him he is
not only a thief, but a cur and a coward, for the letters are a
woman's--whom he neither knows nor has the right to know."
If he had hoped to force a personal quarrel and trust his life to
the chance of a single antagonist, he was disappointed, for
although his unexpected attitude had produced some effect among the
group, and even attracted the attention of the men at the windows,
Harrison strode deliberately towards him.
"That kin wait," he said; "jest now we propose to take you and your
letters and drop 'em and you outer this yer township of Injin
Springs. You kin take 'em back to the woman or critter you got 'em
of. But we kalkilate you're a little too handy and free in them
sorter things to teach school round yer, and we kinder allow we
don't keer to hev our gals and boys eddicated up to your high-toned
standard. So ef you choose to kem along easy we'll mak' you
comf'ble on a hoss we've got waitin' outside, an' escort you across
the line. Ef you don't--we'll take you anyway."
The master cast a rapid glance around him. In his quickness of
perception he had already noted that the led horse among the
cavalcade was fastened by a lariat to one of the riders so that
escape by flight was impossible, and that he had not a single
weapon to defend himself with or even provoke, in his desperation,
the struggle that could forestall ignominy by death. Nothing was
left him but his voice, clear and trenchant as he faced them.
"You are twelve to one," he said calmly, "but if there is a single
man among you who dare step forward and accuse me of what you only
TOGETHER dare do, I will tell him he is a liar and a coward, and
stand here ready to make it good against him. You come here as
judge and jury condemning me without trial, and confronting me with
no accusers; you come here as lawless avengers of your honor, and
you dare not give ME the privilege of as lawlessly defending my
There was another slight murmur among the men, but the leader moved
impatiently forward. "We've had enough o' your preachin': we want
YOU," he said roughly. "Come."
"Stop," said a dull voice.
It came from a mute figure which had remained motionless among the
others. Every eye was turned upon it as it rose and lazily pushed
the cloth from its face.
"Hiram McKinstry!" said the others in mingled tones of astonishment
"That's me!" said McKinstry, coming forward with heavy deliberation.
"I joined this yer delegation at the crossroads instead o' my
brother, who had the call. I reckon et's all the same--or mebbe
better. For I perpose to take this yer gentleman off your hands."
He lifted his slumbrous eyes for the first time to the master, and
at the same time put himself between him and Harrison. "I
perpose," he continued, "to take him at his word; I perpose ter
give him a chance to answer with a gun. And ez I reckon, by all
accounts, there's no man yer ez hez a better right than ME, I
perpose to be the man to put that question to him in the same way.
Et may not suit some gents," he continued slowly, facing an angry
exclamation from the lank figure behind him, "ez would prefer to
hev eleven men to take up THEIR private quo'lls, but even then I
reckon that the man who is the most injured hez the right to the
first say and that man's ME."
With a careful deliberation that had a double significance to the
malcontents, he handed his own rifle to the master and without
looking at him continued: "I reckon, sir, you've seen that afore,
but ef it ain't quite to your hand, any of those gents, I
kalkilate, will be high-toned enuff to giv you the chyce o' theirs.
And there's no need o' trapsin' beyon' the township lines, to fix
this yer affair; I perpose to do it in ten minutes in the brush
Whatever might have been the feelings and intentions of the men
around him, the precedence of McKinstry's right to the duello was a
principle too deeply rooted in their traditions to deny; if any
resistance to it had been contemplated by some of them, the fact
that the master was now armed, and that Mr. McKinstry would quickly
do battle at his side with a revolver in defence of his rights,
checked any expression. They silently drew back as the master and
McKinstry slowly passed out of the school-house together, and then
followed in their rear. In that interval the master turned to
McKinstry and said in a low voice: "I accept your challenge and
thank you for it. You have never done me a greater kindness--
whatever I have done to YOU--yet I want you to believe that neither
now nor THEN--I meant you any harm."
"Ef you mean by that, sir, that ye reckon ye won't return my fire,
ye're blind and wrong. For it will do you no good with them," he
said with a significant wave of his crippled hand towards the
following crowd, "nor me neither."
Firmly resolved, however, that he would not fire at McKinstry, and
clinging blindly to this which he believed was the last idea of his
foolish life, he continued on without another word until they
reached the open strip of chemisal that flanked the clearing.
The rude preliminaries were soon settled. The parties armed with
rifles were to fire at the word from a distance of eighty yards,
and then approach each other, continuing the fight with revolvers
until one or the other fell. The selection of seconds was effected
by the elder Harrison acting for McKinstry, and after a moment's
delay by the volunteering of the long, lank figure previously noted
to act for the master. Preoccupied by other thoughts, Mr. Ford
paid little heed to his self-elected supporter, who to the others
seemed to be only taking that method of showing his contempt for
McKinstry's recent insult. The master received the rifle
mechanically from his hand and walked to position. He noticed,
however, and remembered afterwards that his second was half hidden
by the trunk of a large pine to his right that marked the limit of
In that supreme moment it must be recorded, albeit against all
preconceived theory, that he did NOT review his past life, was NOT
illuminated by a flash of remorseful or sentimental memory, and did
NOT commend his soul to his Maker, but that he was simply and
keenly alive to the very actual present in which he still existed
and to his one idea of not firing at his adversary. And if
anything could render his conduct more theoretically incorrect it
was a certain exalted sense that he was doing quite right and was
not only NOT a bad sort of fellow, but one whom his survivors might
"Are you ready, gentlemen? One--two--three--fi . . . !"
The explosions were singularly simultaneous--so remarkable in fact
that it seemed to the master that his rifle, fired in the air, had
given a DOUBLE report. A light wreath of smoke lay between him and
his opponent. He was unhurt--so evidently was his adversary, for
the voice rose again.
"Advance! . . . Hallo there! Stop!"
He looked up quickly to see McKinstry stagger and then fall heavily
to the ground.
With an exclamation of horror, the first and only terrible emotion
he had felt, he ran to the fallen man, as Harrison reached his side
at the same moment.
"For God's sake," he said wildly, throwing himself on his knees
beside McKinstry, "what has happened? For I swear to you, I never
aimed at you! I fired in the air. Speak! Tell him, you," he
turned with a despairing appeal to Harrison, "you must have seen it
all--tell him it was not me!"
A half wondering, half incredulous smile passed quickly over
Harrison's face. "In course you didn't MEAN it," he said dryly,
"but let that slide. Get up and get away from yer, while you kin,"
he added impatiently, with a significant glance at one or two men
who lingered after the sudden and general dispersion of the crowd
at McKinstry's fall. "Get--will ye!"
"Never!" said the young man passionately, "until he knows that it
was not my hand that fired that shot."
McKinstry painfully struggled to his elbow. "It took me yere," he
said with a slow deliberation, as if answering some previous
question, and pointing to his hip, "and it kinder let me down when
I started forward at the second call."
"But it was not I who did it, McKinstry, I swear it. Hear me! For
God's sake, say you believe me."
McKinstry turned his drowsy troubled eyes upon the master as if he
were vaguely recalling something. "Stand back thar a minit, will
ye," he said to Harrison, with a languid wave of his crippled hand;
"I want ter speak to this yer man."
Harrison drew back a few paces and the master sought to take the
wounded man's hand, but he was stopped by a gesture. "Where hev
you put Cressy?" McKinstry said slowly.
"I don't understand you," stammered Ford.
"Where are you hidin' her from me?" repeated McKinstry with painful
distinctness. "Whar hev you run her to, that you're reckonin' to
jine her arter--arter--THIS?"
"I am not hiding her! I am not going to her! I do not know where
she is. I have not seen her since we parted early this morning
without a word of meeting again," said the master rapidly, yet with
a bewildered astonishment that was obvious even to the dulled
faculties of his hearer.
"That war true?" asked McKinstry, laying his hand upon the master's
shoulder and bringing his dull eyes to the level of the young
"It is the whole truth," said Ford fervently, "and true also that I
never raised my hand against you."
McKinstry beckoned to Harrison and the two others who had joined
him, and then sank partly back with his hand upon his side, where
the slow empurpling of his red shirt showed the slight ooze of a
"You fellers kin take me over to the ranch," he said calmly, "and
let him," pointing to Ford, "ride your best hoss fer the doctor. I
don't," he continued in grave explanation, "gin'rally use a doctor,
but this yer is suthin' outside the old woman's regular gait." He
paused, and then drawing the master's head down towards him, he
added in his ear, "When I get to hev a look at the size and shape
o' this yer ball that's in my hip, I'll--I'll--I'll--be--a--little
more kam!" A gleam of dull significance struggled into his eye.
The master evidently understood him, for he rose quickly, ran to
the horse, mounted him and dashed off for medical assistance, while
McKinstry, closing his heavy lids, anticipated this looked-for calm
by fainting gently away.
Of the various sentimental fallacies entertained by adult humanity
in regard to childhood, none are more ingeniously inaccurate and
gratuitously idiotic than a comfortable belief in its profound
ignorance of the events in which it daily moves, and the motives
and characters of the people who surround it. Yet even the
occasional revelations of an enfant terrible are as nothing
compared to the perilous secrets which a discreet infant daily
buttons up, or secures with a hook-and-eye, or even fastens with a
safety-pin across its gentle bosom. Society can never cease to be
grateful for that tact and consideration--qualities more often
joined with childish intuition and perception than with matured
observation--that they owe to it; and the most accomplished man or
woman of the great world might take a lesson from this little
audience who receive from their lips the lie they feel too
palpable, with round-eyed complacency, or outwardly accept as moral
and genuine the hollow sentiment they have overheard rehearsed in
private for their benefit.
It was not strange therefore that the little people of the Indian
Spring school knew perhaps more of the real relations of Cressy
McKinstry to her admirers than the admirers themselves. Not that
this knowledge was outspoken--for children rarely gossip in the
grown-up sense--or even communicable by words intelligent to the
matured intellect. A whisper, a laugh that often seemed vague and
unmeaning, conveyed to each other a world of secret significance,
and an apparently senseless burst of merriment in which the whole
class joined and that the adult critic set down to "animal
spirits"--a quality much more rare with children than generally
supposed--was only a sympathetic expression of some discovery
happily oblivious to older preoccupation. The childish simplicity
of Uncle Ben perhaps appealed more strongly to their sympathy, and
although, for that very reason, they regarded him with no more
respect than they did each other, he was at times carelessly
admitted to their confidence. It was especially Rupert Filgee who
extended a kind of patronizing protectorate over him--not unmixed
with doubts of his sanity, in spite of the promised confidential
clerkship he was to receive from his hands.
On the day of the events chronicled in the preceding chapter,
Rupert on returning from school was somewhat surprised to find
Uncle Ben perched upon the rail-fence before the humble door of the
Filgee mansion and evidently awaiting him. Slowly dismounting as
Rupert and Johnny approached, he beamed upon the former for some
moments with arch and yet affable mystery.
"Roopy, old man, I s'pose ye've got yer duds all ready in yer pack,
A flush of pleasure passed over the boy's handsome face. He cast,
however, a hurried look down on the all-pervading Johnny.
"'Cause ye see we kalkilate to take the down stage to Sacramento
at four o'clock," continued Uncle Ben, enjoying Rupert's half
sceptical surprise. "Ye enter into office, so to speak, with me
at that hour, when the sellery, seventy-five dollars a month and
board, ez private and confidential clerk, begins--eh?"
Rupert's dimples deepened in charming, almost feminine,
embarrassment. "But dad--?" he stammered.
"Et's all right with HIM. He's agreeable."
Uncle Ben followed Rupert's glance at Johnny, who however appeared
to be absorbed in the pattern of Uncle Ben's new trousers.
"That's fixed," he said with a meaning smile. "There's a sort o'
bonus we pays down, you know--for a Chinyman to do the odd jobs."
"And teacher--Mr. Ford--did ye tell him?" said Rupert brightening.
Uncle Ben coughed slightly. "He's agreeable, too, I reckon. That
is," he wiped his mouth meditatively, "he ez good ez allowed it in
gin'ral conversation a week ago, Roop."
A swift shadow of suspicion darkened the boy's brown eyes. "Is
anybody else goin' with us?" he said quickly.
"Not this yer trip," replied Uncle Ben complacently. "Ye see,
Roop," he continued, drawing him aside with an air of comfortable
mystery, "this yer biz'ness b'longs to the private and confidential
branch of the office. From informashun we've received"--
"WE?" interrupted Rupert.
"'We,' that's the OFFICE, you know," continued Uncle Ben with a
heavy assumption of business formality, "wot we've received per
several hands and consignee--we--that's YOU and ME, Roop--we goes
down to Sacramento to inquire into the standin' of a certing party,
as per invoice, and ter see--ter see--ter negotiate you know, ter
find out if she's married or di-vorced," he concluded quickly, as
if abandoning for the moment his business manner in consideration
of Rupert's inexperience. "We're to find out her standin', Roop,"
he began again with a more judicious blending of ease and
technicality, "and her contracts, if any, and where she lives and
her way o' life, and examine her books and papers ez to marriages
and sich, and arbitrate with her gin'rally in conversation--you
inside the house and me out on the pavement, ready to be called in
if an interview with business principals is desired."
Observing Rupert somewhat perplexed and confused with these
technicalities, he tactfully abandoned them for the present, and
consulting a pocket-book said, "I've made a memorandum of some
pints that we'll talk over on the journey," again charged Rupert
to be punctually at the stage office with his carpetbag, and
When he had disappeared Johnny Filgee, without a single word of
explanation, fell upon his brother, and at once began a violent
attack of kicks and blows upon his legs and other easily accessible
parts of his person, accompanying his assault with unintelligible
gasps and actions, finally culminating in a flood of tears and the
casting of himself on his back in the dust with the copper-fastened
toes of his small boots turning imaginary wheels in the air.
Rupert received these characteristic marks of despairing and
outraged affection with great forbearance, only saying, "There,
now, Johnny, quit that," and eventually bearing him still
struggling into the house. Here Johnny, declaring that he would
kill any "Chinyman" that offered to dress him, and burn down the
house after his brother's infamous desertion of it, Rupert was
constrained to mingle a few nervous, excited tears with his
brother's outbreak. Whereat Johnny, admitting the alleviation of
an orange, a four-bladed knife, and the reversionary interest in
much of Rupert's personal property, became more subdued. Sitting
there with their arms entwined about each other, the sunlight
searching the shiftless desolation of their motherless home, the
few cheap playthings they had known lying around them, they
beguiled themselves with those charming illusions of their future
intentions common to their years--illusions they only half believed
themselves and half accepted of each other. Rupert was quite
certain that he would return in a few days with a gold watch and a
present for Johnny, and Johnny, with a baleful vision of never
seeing him again, and a catching breath, magnificently undertook to
bring in the wood and build the fire and wash the dishes "all of
himself." And then there were a few childish confidences regarding
their absent father--then ingenuously playing poker in the Magnolia
Saloon--that might have made that public-spirited, genial companion
somewhat uncomfortable, and more tears that were half smiling and
some brave silences that were wholly pathetic, and then the hour
for Rupert's departure all too suddenly arrived. They separated
with ostentatious whooping, and then Johnny, suddenly overcome with
the dreadfulness of all earthly things, and the hollowness of life
generally, instantly resolved to run away!
To do this he prepared himself with a purposeless hatchet, an
inconsistent but long-treasured lump of putty and all the sugar
that was left in the cracked sugar-bowl. Thus accoutred he sallied
forth, first to remove all traces of his hated existence that might
be left in his desk at school. If the master were there he would
say Rupert had sent him; if he wasn't, he would climb in at the
window. The sun was already sinking when he reached the clearing
and found a cavalcade of armed men around the building.
Johnny's first conviction was that the master had killed Uncle Ben
or Masters, and that the men, taking advantage of the absence of
his--Johnny's--big brother, were about to summarily execute him.
Observing no struggle from within, his second belief was that the
master had been suddenly elected Governor of California and was
about to start with a state escort from the school-house, and that
he, Johnny, was in time to see the procession. But when the master
appeared with McKinstry, followed by part of the crowd afoot, this
quick-witted child of the frontier, from his secure outlook in the
"brush," gathered enough from their fragmentary speech to guess the
serious purport of their errand, and thrill with anticipation and
slightly creepy excitement.
A duel! A thing hitherto witnessed only by grown-up men,
afterwards swaggering with importance and strange technical
bloodthirsty words, and now for the first time reserved for a BOY--
and that boy him, Johnny!--to behold in all its fearful
completeness! A duel! of which, he, Johnny, meanly abandoned by
his brother, was now exalted perhaps to be the only survivor! He
could scarcely credit his senses. It was too much!
To creep through the brush while the preliminaries were being
settled, reach a certain silver fir on the appointed ground, and
with the aid of his now lucky hatchet, climb unseen to its upper
boughs, was an exciting and difficult task, but one eventually
overcome by his short but energetic legs. Here he could not only
see all that occurred, but by a fortunate chance the large pine
next to him had been selected as the limit of the ground. The
sharp eyes of the boy had long since penetrated the disguises of
the remaining masked men, and when the long, lank figure of the
master's self-appointed second took up its position beneath the
pines in full view of him, although hidden from the spectators,
Johnny instantly recognized it to be none other than Seth Davis.
The manifest inconsistency of his appearance as Mr. Ford's second
with what Johnny knew of his relations to the master was the one
thing that firmly fixed the incident in the boy's memory.
The men were already in position. Harrison stepped forward to give
the word. Johnny's down-hanging legs tingled with cramp and
excitement. Why didn't they begin? What were they waiting for?
What if it were interrupted, or--terrible thought--made up at the
last moment? Would they "holler" out when they were hit, or
stagger round convulsively as they did at the "cirkiss"? Would
they all run away afterwards and leave Johnny alone to tell the
tale? And--horrible thought!--would any body believe him? Would
Rupert? Rupert, had he "on'y knowed this," he wouldn't have gone
With a child's perfect faith in the invulnerable superiority of his
friends, he had not even looked at the master, but only at his
destined victim. Yet as the word "two" rang out Johnny's attention
was suddenly attracted to the surprising fact that the master's
second, Seth Davis, had also drawn a pistol, and from behind his
tree was deliberately and stealthily aiming at McKinstry! He
understood it all now--he was a friend of the master's. Bully for
Crack! Z-i-i-p! Crackle! What a funny noise! And yet he was
obliged to throw himself flat upon the bough to keep from falling.
It seemed to have snapped beneath him and benumbed his right leg.
He did not know that the master's bullet, fired in the air, had
ranged along the bough, stripping the bark throughout its length,
and glancing with half-spent force to inflict a slight flesh wound
on his leg!
He was giddy and a little frightened. And he had seen nobody hit,
nor nothin'. It was all a humbug! Seth had disappeared. So had
the others. There was a faint sound of voices and something like a
group in the distance--that was all. It was getting dark, too, and
his leg was still asleep, but warm and wet. He would get down.
This was very difficult, for his leg would not wake up, and but for
the occasional support he got by striking his hatchet in the tree
he would have fallen in descending. When he reached the ground his
leg began to pain, and looking down he saw that his stocking and
shoe were soaked with blood.
His small and dirty handkerchief, a hard wad in his pocket, was
insufficient to staunch the flow. With a vague recollection of a
certain poultice applied to a boil on his father's neck, he
collected a quantity of soft moss and dried yerba buena leaves, and
with the aid of his check apron and of one of his torn suspenders
tightly wound round the whole mass, achieved a bandage of such
elephantine proportions that he could scarcely move with it. In
fact, like most imaginative children, he became slightly terrified
at his own alarming precautions. Nevertheless, although a word or
an outcry from him would have at that moment brought the distant
group to his assistance, a certain respect to himself and his
brother kept him from uttering even a whimper of weakness.
Yet he found refuge, oddly enough, in a suppressed but bitter
denunciation of the other boys of his acquaintance. What was Cal.
Harrison doing, while he, Johnny, was alone in the woods, wounded
in a grown-up duel--for nothing would convince this doughty infant
that he had not been an active participant? Where was Jimmy Snyder
that he didn't come to his assistance with the other fellers?
Cowards all; they were afraid. Ho, ho! And he, Johnny, wasn't
afraid! ho--he didn't mind it! Nevertheless he had to repeat the
phrase two or three times until, after repeated struggles to move
forward through the brush, he at last sank down exhausted. By this
time the distant group had slowly moved away, carrying something
between them, and leaving Johnny alone in the fast coming darkness.
Yet even this desertion did not affect him as strongly as his
implicit belief in the cowardly treachery of his old associates.
It grew darker and darker, until the open theatre of the late
conflict appeared enclosed in funereal walls; a cool searching
breath of air that seemed to have crept through the bracken and
undergrowth like a stealthy animal, lifted the curls on his hot
forehead. He grasped his hatchet firmly as against possible wild
beasts, and as a medicinal and remedial precaution, took another
turn with his suspender around his bandage. It occurred to him
then that he would probably die. They would all feel exceedingly
sorry and alarmed, and regret having made him wash himself on
Saturday night. They would attend his funeral in large numbers in
the little graveyard, where a white tombstone inscribed to "John
Filgee, fell in a duel at the age of seven," would be awaiting him.
He would forgive his brother, his father, and Mr. Ford. Yet even
then he vaguely resented a few leaves and twigs dropped by a
woodpecker in the tree above him, with a shake of his weak fist and
an incoherent declaration that they couldn't "play no babes in the
wood on HIM." And then having composed himself he once more turned
on his side to die, as became the scion of a heroic race! The free
woods, touched by an upspringing wind, waved their dark arms above
him, and higher yet a few patient stars silently ranged themselves
around his pillow.
But with the rising wind and stars came the swift trampling of
horses' hoofs and the flashing of lanterns, and Doctor Duchesne and
the master swept down into the opening.
"It was here," said the master quickly, "but they must have taken
him on to his own home. Let us follow."
"Hold on a moment," said the doctor, who had halted before the
tree. "What's all this? Why, it's baby Filgee--by thunder!"
In another moment they had both dismounted and were leaning over
the half conscious child. Johnny turned his feverishly bright eyes
from the lantern to the master and back again.
"What is it, Johnny boy?" asked the master tenderly. "Were you
With a gleam of feverish exaltation, Johnny rose, albeit
wanderingly, to the occasion!
"Hit!" he lisped feebly, "Hit in a doell! at the age of theven."
"What!" asked the bewildered master.
But Doctor Duchesne, after a single swift scrutiny of the boy's
face, had unearthed him from his nest of leaves, laid him in his
lap, and deftly ripped away the preposterous bandage. "Hold the
light here. By Jove! he tells the truth. Who did it, Johnny?"
But Johnny was silent. In an interval of feverish consciousness
and pain, his perception and memory had been quickened; a suspicion
of the real cause of his disaster had dawned upon him--but his
childish lips were heroically sealed. The master glanced
appealingly at the Doctor.
"Take him before you in the saddle to McKinstry's," said the latter
promptly. "I can attend to both."
The master lifted the boy tenderly in his arms. Johnny, stimulated
by the prospect of a free ride, became feebly interested in his
"Did Theth hit him bad?" he asked.
"Seth?" echoed the master, wildly.
"Yeth. I theed him when he took aim."
The master did not reply, but the next moment Johnny felt himself
clasped in his arms in the saddle before him, borne like a
whirlwind in the direction of the McKinstry ranch.
They found the wounded man lying in the front room upon a rudely
extemporized couch of bear-skins, he having sternly declined the
effeminacy of his wife's bedroom. In the possibility of a fatal
termination to his wound, and in obedience to a grim frontier
tradition, he had also refused to have his boots removed in order
that he might "die with them on," as became his ancestral custom.
Johnny was therefore speedily made comfortable in the McKinstry
bed, while Dr. Duchesne gave his whole attention to his more
serious patient. The master glanced hurriedly around for Mrs.
McKinstry. She was not only absent from the room, but there seemed
to be no suggestion of her presence in the house. To his greater
surprise the hurried inquiry that rose to his lips was checked by a
significant warning from the attendant. He sat down beside the now
sleeping boy, and awaited the doctor's return with his mind
wandering between the condition of the little sufferer and the
singular revelation that had momentarily escaped his childish lips.
If Johnny had actually seen Seth fire at McKinstry, the latter's
mysterious wound was accounted for--but not Seth's motive. The act