Cressy by Bret Harte
As the master of the Indian Spring school emerged from the pine woods
into the little clearing before the schoolhouse, he stopped whistling,
put his hat less jauntily on his head, threw away some wild flowers he
had gathered on his way, and otherwise assumed the severe demeanor of his
profession and his mature age—which was at least twenty. Not that
he usually felt this an assumption; it was a firm conviction of his
serious nature that he impressed others, as he did himself, with the
blended austerity and ennui of deep and exhausted experience.
The building which was assigned to him and his flock by the Board of
Education of Tuolumne County, California, had been originally a church.
It still bore a faded odor of sanctity, mingled, however, with a later
and slightly alcoholic breath of political discussion, the result of its
weekly occupation under the authority of the Board as a Tribune for the
enunciation of party principles and devotion to the Liberties of the
People. There were a few dog- eared hymn-books on the teacher's desk, and
the blackboard but imperfectly hid an impassioned appeal to the citizens
of Indian Spring to "Rally" for Stebbins as Supervisor. The master had
been struck with the size of the black type in which this placard was
printed, and with a shrewd perception of its value to the round wandering
eyes of his smaller pupils, allowed it to remain as a pleasing example of
orthography. Unfortunately, although subdivided and spelt by them in its
separate letters with painful and perfect accuracy, it was collectively
known as "Wally," and its general import productive of vague
Taking a large key from his pocket, the master unlocked the door and
threw it open, stepping back with a certain precaution begotten of his
experience in once finding a small but sociable rattlesnake coiled up
near the threshold. A slight disturbance which followed his intrusion
showed the value of that precaution, and the fact that the room had been
already used for various private and peaceful gatherings of animated
nature. An irregular attendance of yellow-birds and squirrels dismissed
themselves hurriedly through the broken floor and windows, but a golden
lizard, stiffened suddenly into stony fright on the edge of an open
arithmetic, touched the heart of the master so strongly by its
resemblance to some kept-in and forgotten scholar who had succumbed over
the task he could not accomplish, that he was seized with
Recovering himself, and re-establishing, as it were, the decorous
discipline of the room by clapping his hands and saying "Sho!" he passed
up the narrow aisle of benches, replacing the forgotten arithmetic, and
picking up from the desks here and there certain fragmentary pieces of
plaster and crumbling wood that had fallen from the ceiling, as if this
grove of Academus had been shedding its leaves overnight. When he reached
his own desk he lifted the lid and remained for some moments motionless,
gazing into it. His apparent meditation however was simply the combined
reflection of his own features in a small pocket-mirror in its recesses
and a perplexing doubt in his mind whether the sacrifice of his budding
moustache was not essential to the professional austerity of his
countenance. But he was presently aware of the sound of small voices,
light cries, and brief laughter scattered at vague and remote distances
from the schoolhouse—not unlike the birds and squirrels he had just
dispossessed. He recognized by these signs that it was nine o'clock, and
his scholars were assembling.
They came in their usual desultory fashion—the fashion of
country school-children the world over—irregularly, spasmodically,
and always as if accidentally; a few hand-in-hand, others driven ahead of
or dropped behind their elders; some in straggling groups more or less
coherent and at times only connected by far-off intermediate voices
scattered on a space of half a mile, but never quite alone; always
preoccupied by something else than the actual business on hand; appearing
suddenly from ditches, behind trunks, and between fence-rails; cropping
up in unexpected places along the road after vague and purposeless
detours—seemingly going anywhere and everywhere but to school! So
unlooked-for, in fact, was their final arrival that the master, who had a
few moments before failed to descry a single torn straw hat or ruined
sun-bonnet above his visible horizon, was always startled to find them
suddenly under his windows, as if, like the birds, they had alighted from
the trees. Nor was their moral attitude towards their duty any the more
varied; they always arrived as if tired and reluctant, with a doubting
sulkiness that perhaps afterwards beamed into a charming hypocrisy, but
invariably temporizing with their instincts until the last moment, and
only relinquishing possible truancy on the very threshold. Even after
they were marshalled on their usual benches they gazed at each other
every morning with a perfectly fresh astonishment and a daily recurring
enjoyment of some hidden joke in this tremendous rencontre.
It had been the habit of the master to utilize these preliminary
vagrancies of his little flock by inviting them on assembling to recount
any interesting incident of their journey hither; or failing this, from
their not infrequent shyness in expressing what had secretly interested
them, any event that had occurred within their knowledge since they last
met. He had done this, partly to give them time to recover themselves in
that more formal atmosphere, and partly, I fear, because, notwithstanding
his conscientious gravity, it greatly amused him. It also diverted them
from their usual round-eyed, breathless contemplation of himself—a
regular morning inspection which generally embraced every detail of his
dress and appearance, and made every change or deviation the subject of
whispered comment or stony astonishment. He knew that they knew him more
thoroughly than he did himself, and shrank from the intuitive vision of
these small clairvoyants.
"Well?" said the master gravely.
There was the usual interval of bashful hesitation, verging on nervous
hilarity or hypocritical attention. For the last six months this question
by the master had been invariably received each morning as a veiled
pleasantry which might lead to baleful information or conceal some query
out of the dreadful books before him. Yet this very element of danger had
its fascinations. Johnny Filgee, a small boy, blushed violently, and,
without getting up, began hurriedly in a high key, "Tige ith got," and
then suddenly subsided into a whisper.
"Speak up, Johnny," said the master encouragingly.
"Please, sir, it ain't anythin' he's seed—nor any real news,"
said Rupert Filgee, his elder brother, rising with family concern and
frowning openly upon Johnny; "it's jest his foolishness; he oughter be
licked." Finding himself unexpectedly on his feet, and apparently at the
end of a long speech, he colored also, and then said hurriedly, "Jimmy
Snyder—HE seed suthin'. Ask HIM!" and sat down—a recognized
Every eye, including the master's, was turned on Jimmy Snyder. But
that youthful observer, instantly diving his head and shoulders into his
desk, remained there gurgling as if under water. Two or three nearest him
endeavored with some struggling to bring him to an intelligible surface
again. The master waited patiently. Johnny Filgee took advantage of the
diversion to begin again in a high key, "Tige ith got thix," and
"Come, Jimmy," said the master, with a touch of peremptoriness. Thus
adjured, Jimmy Snyder came up glowingly, and bristling with full stops
and exclamation points. "Seed a black b'ar comin' outer Daves' woods," he
said excitedly. "Nigh to me ez you be. 'N big ez a hoss; 'n snarlin'! 'n
snappin'!—like gosh! Kem along—ker— clump torords me.
Reckoned he'd skeer me! Didn't skeer me worth a cent. I heaved a rock at
him—I did now!" (in defiance of murmurs of derisive
comment)—"'n he slid. Ef he'd kem up furder I'd hev up with my
slate and swotted him over the snoot—bet your boots!"
The master here thought fit to interfere, and gravely point out that
the habit of striking bears as large as a horse with a school- slate was
equally dangerous to the slate (which was also the property of Tuolumne
County) and to the striker; and that the verb "to swot" and the noun
substantive "snoot" were likewise indefensible, and not to be tolerated.
Thus admonished Jimmy Snyder, albeit unshaken in his faith in his own
courage, sat down.
A slight pause ensued. The youthful Filgee, taking advantage of it,
opened in a higher key, "Tige ith"—but the master's attention was
here diverted by the searching eyes of Octavia Dean, a girl of eleven,
who after the fashion of her sex preferred a personal recognition of her
presence before she spoke. Succeeding in catching his eye, she threw back
her long hair from her shoulders with an easy habitual gesture, rose, and
with a faint accession of color said:
"Cressy McKinstry came home from Sacramento. Mrs. McKinstry told
mother she's comin' back here to school."
The master looked up with an alacrity perhaps inconsistent with his
cynical austerity. Seeing the young girl curiously watching him with an
expectant smile, he regretted it. Cressy McKinstry, who was sixteen years
old, had been one of the pupils he had found at the school when he first
came. But as he had also found that she was there in the extraordinary
attitude of being "engaged" to one Seth Davis, a fellow-pupil of
nineteen, and as most of the courtship was carried on freely and
unceremoniously during school- hours with the full permission of the
master's predecessor, the master had been obliged to point out to the
parents of the devoted couple the embarrassing effects of this
association on the discipline of the school. The result had been the
withdrawal of the lovers, and possibly the good-will of the parents. The
return of the young lady was consequently a matter of some significance.
Had the master's protest been accepted, or had the engagement itself been
Either was not improbable. His momentary loss of attention was Johnny
Filgee's great gain.
"Tige," said Johnny, with sudden and alarming distinctness, "ith got
thix pupths—mothly yaller."
In the laugh which followed this long withheld announcement of an
increase in the family of Johnny's yellow and disreputable setter
"Tiger," who usually accompanied him to school and howled outside, the
master joined with marked distinctness. Then he said, with equally marked
severity, "Books!" The little levee was ended, and school began.
It continued for two hours with short sighs, corrugations of small
foreheads, the complaining cries and scratchings of slate pencils over
slates, and other signs of minor anguish among the more youthful of the
flock; and with more or less whisperings, movements of the lips, and
unconscious soliloquy among the older pupils. The master moved slowly up
and down the aisle with a word of encouragement or explanation here and
there, stopping with his hands behind him to gaze abstractedly out of the
windows to the wondering envy of the little ones. A faint hum, as of
invisible insects, gradually pervaded the school; the more persistent
droning of a large bee had become dangerously soporific. The hot breath
of the pines without had invaded the doors and windows; the warped
shingles and weather-boarding at times creaked and snapped under the rays
of the vertical and unclouded sun. A gentle perspiration broke out like a
mild epidemic in the infant class; little curls became damp, brief lashes
limp, round eyes moist, and small eyelids heavy. The master himself
started, and awoke out of a perilous dream of other eyes and hair to
collect himself severely. For the irresolute, half-embarrassed, half-lazy
figure of a man had halted doubtingly before the porch and open door.
Luckily the children, who were facing the master with their backs to the
entrance, did not see it.
Yet the figure was neither alarming nor unfamiliar. The master at once
recognized it as Ben Dabney, otherwise known as "Uncle Ben," a
good-humored but not over-bright miner, who occupied a small cabin on an
unambitious claim in the outskirts of Indian Spring. His avuncular title
was evidently only an ironical tribute to his amiable incompetency and
heavy good-nature, for he was still a young man with no family ties, and
by reason of his singular shyness not even a visitor in the few families
of the neighborhood. As the master looked up, he had an irritating
recollection that Ben had been already haunting him for the last two
days, alternately appearing and disappearing in his path to and from
school as a more than usually reserved and bashful ghost. This, to the
master's cynical mind, clearly indicated that, like most ghosts, he had
something of essentially selfish import to communicate. Catching the
apparition's half-appealing eye, he proceeded to exorcise it with a
portentous frown and shake of the head, that caused it to timidly wane
and fall away from the porch, only however to reappear and wax larger a
few minutes later at one of the side windows. The infant class hailing
his appearance as a heaven-sent boon, the master was obliged to walk to
the door and command him sternly away, when, retreating to the fence, he
mounted the uppermost rail, and drawing a knife from his pocket, cut a
long splinter from the rail, and began to whittle it in patient and
meditative silence. But when recess was declared, and the relieved
feelings of the little flock had vent in the clearing around the
schoolhouse, the few who rushed to the spot found that Uncle Ben had
already disappeared. Whether the appearance of the children was too
inconsistent with his ghostly mission, or whether his heart failed him at
the last moment, the master could not determine. Yet, distasteful as the
impending interview promised to be, the master was vaguely and
A few hours later, when school was being dismissed, the master found
Octavia Dean lingering near his desk. Looking into the girl's mischievous
eyes, he good-humoredly answered their expectation by referring to her
morning's news. "I thought Miss McKinstry had been married by this time,"
he said carelessly.
Octavia, swinging her satchel like a censer, as if she were performing
some act of thurification over her completed tasks, replied demurely: "Oh
no! dear no—not THAT."
"So it would seem," said the master.
"I reckon she never kalkilated to, either," continued Octavia, slyly
looking up from the corner of her lashes.
"No—she was just funning with Seth Davis—that's all."
"Funning with him?"
"Yes, sir. Kinder foolin' him, you know."
"Kinder foolin' him!"
For an instant the master felt it his professional duty to protest
against this most unmaidenly and frivolous treatment of the matrimonial
engagement, but a second glance at the significant face of his youthful
auditor made him conclude that her instinctive knowledge of her own sex
could be better trusted than his imperfect theories. He turned towards
his desk without speaking. Octavia gave an extra swing to her satchel,
tossing it over her shoulder with a certain small coquettishness and
moved towards the door. As she did so the infant Filgee from the safe
vantage of the porch where he had lingered was suddenly impelled to a
crowning audacity! As if struck with an original idea, but apparently
addressing himself to space, he cried out, "Crethy M'Kinthry likth
teacher," and instantly vanished.
Putting these incidents sternly aside, the master addressed himself to
the task of setting a few copies for the next day as the voices of his
departing flock faded from the porch. Presently a silence fell upon the
little school-house. Through the open door a cool, restful breath stole
gently as if nature were again stealthily taking possession of her own. A
squirrel boldly came across the porch, a few twittering birds charging in
stopped, beat the air hesitatingly for a moment with their wings, and
fell back with bashfully protesting breasts aslant against the open door
and the unlooked-for spectacle of the silent occupant. Then there was
another movement of intrusion, but this time human, and the master looked
up angrily to behold Uncle Ben.
He entered with a slow exasperating step, lifting his large boots very
high and putting them down again softly as if he were afraid of some
insecurity in the floor, or figuratively recognized the fact that the
pathways of knowledge were thorny and difficult. Reaching the master's
desk and the ministering presence above it, he stopped awkwardly, and
with the rim of his soft felt hat endeavored to wipe from his face the
meek smile it had worn when he entered. It chanced also that he had
halted before the minute stool of the infant Filgee, and his large figure
instantly assumed such Brobdingnagian proportions in contrast that he
became more embarrassed than ever. The master made no attempt to relieve
him, but regarded him with cold interrogation.
"I reckoned," he began, leaning one hand on the master's desk with
affected ease, as he dusted his leg with his hat with the other, "I
reckoned—that is—I allowed—I orter say—that I'd
find ye alone at this time. Ye gin'rally are, ye know. It's a nice,
soothin', restful, stoodious time, when a man kin, so to speak, run back
on his eddication and think of all he ever knowed. Ye're jist like me,
and ye see I sorter spotted your ways to onct."
"Then why did you come here this morning and disturb the school?"
demanded the master sharply.
"That's so, I sorter slipped up thar, didn't I?" said Uncle Ben with a
smile of rueful assent. "You see I didn't allow to COME IN then, but on'y
to hang round a leetle and kinder get used to it, and it to me."
"Used to what?" said the master impatiently, albeit with a slight
softening at his intruder's penitent expression.
Uncle Ben did not reply immediately, but looked around as if for a
seat, tried one or two benches and a desk with his large hand as if
testing their security, and finally abandoning the idea as dangerous,
seated himself on the raised platform beside the master's chair, having
previously dusted it with the flap of his hat. Finding, however, that the
attitude was not conducive to explanation, he presently rose again, and
picking up one of the school-books from the master's desk eyed it
unskilfully upside down, and then said hesitatingly,—
"I reckon ye ain't usin' Dobell's 'Rithmetic here?"
"No," said the master.
"That's bad. 'Pears to be played out—that Dobell feller. I was
brought up on Dobell. And Parsings' Grammar? Ye don't seem to be a using
Parsings' Grammar either?"
"No," said the master, relenting still more as he glanced at Uncle
Ben's perplexed face with a faint smile.
"And I reckon you'd be saying the same of Jones' 'Stronomy and
Algebry? Things hev changed. You've got all the new style here," he
continued, with affected carelessness, but studiously avoiding the
master's eye. "For a man ez wos brought up on Parsings, Dobell, and
Jones, thar don't appear to be much show nowadays."
The master did not reply. Observing several shades of color chase each
other on Uncle Ben's face, he bent his own gravely over his books. The
act appeared to relieve his companion, who with his eyes still turned
towards the window went on:
"Ef you'd had them books—which you haven't—I had it in my
mind to ask you suthen'. I had an idea of—of—sort of
reviewing my eddication. Kinder going over the old books agin—jist
to pass the time. Sorter running in yer arter school hours and doin' a
little practisin', eh? You looking on me as an extry scholar—and I
payin' ye as sich—but keepin' it 'twixt ourselves, you
know—just for a pastime, eh?"
As the master smilingly raised his head, he became suddenly and
ostentatiously attracted to the window.
"Them jay birds out there is mighty peart, coming right up to the
school-house! I reckon they think it sort o' restful too."
"But if you really mean it, couldn't you use these books, Uncle Ben?"
said the master cheerfully. "I dare say there's little
difference—the principle is the same, you know."
Uncle Ben's face, which had suddenly brightened, as suddenly fell. He
took the book from the master's hand without meeting his eyes, held it at
arm's length, turned it over and then laid it softly down upon the desk
as if it were some excessively fragile article. "Certingly," he murmured,
with assumed reflective ease. "Certingly. The principle's all there."
Nevertheless he was quite breathless and a few beads of perspiration
stood out upon his smooth, blank forehead.
"And as to writing, for instance," continued the master with
increasing heartiness as he took notice of these phenomena, "you know ANY
copy-book will do."
He handed his pen carelessly to Uncle Ben. The large hand that took it
timidly not only trembled but grasped it with such fatal and hopeless
unfamiliarity that the master was fain to walk to the window and observe
the birds also.
"They're mighty bold—them jays," said Uncle Ben, laying down the
pen with scrupulous exactitude beside the book and gazing at his fingers
as if he had achieved a miracle of delicate manipulation. "They don't
seem to be afeared of nothing, do they?"
There was another pause. The master suddenly turned from the window.
"I tell you what, Uncle Ben," he said with prompt decision and unshaken
gravity, "the only thing for you to do is to just throw over Dobell and
Parsons and Jones and the old quill pen that I see you're accustomed to,
and start in fresh as if you'd never known them. Forget 'em all, you
know. It will be mighty hard of course to do that," he continued, looking
out of the window, "but you must do it."
He turned back, the brightness that transfigured Uncle Ben's face at
that moment brought a slight moisture into his own eyes. The humble
seeker of knowledge said hurriedly that he would try.
"And begin again at the beginning," continued the master cheerfully.
"Exactly like one of those—in fact, as if you REALLY were a child
"That's so," said Uncle Ben, rubbing his hands delightedly, "that's
me! Why, that's jest what I was sayin' to Roop"—
"Then you've already been talking about it?" intercepted the master in
some surprise. "I thought you wanted it kept secret?"
"Well, yes," responded Uncle Ben dubiously. "But you see I sorter
agreed with Roop Filgee that if you took to my ideas and didn't object,
I'd give him two bits* every time he'd kem here and help me of an
arternoon when you was away and kinder stand guard around the
school-house, you know, so as to keep the fellows off. And Roop's mighty
sharp for a boy, ye know."
* Two bits, i. e., twenty-five cents.
The master reflected a moment and concluded that Uncle Ben was
probably right. Rupert Filgee, who was a handsome boy of fourteen, was
also a strongly original character whose youthful cynicism and blunt,
honest temper had always attracted him. He was a fair scholar, with a
possibility of being a better one, and the proposed arrangement with
Uncle Ben would not interfere with the discipline of school hours and
might help them both. Nevertheless he asked good-humoredly, "But couldn't
you do this more securely and easily in your own house? I might lend you
the books, you know, and come to you twice a week."
Uncle Ben's radiant face suddenly clouded. "It wouldn't be exactly the
same kind o' game to me an' Roop," he said hesitatingly. "You see thar's
the idea o' the school-house, ye know, and the restfulness and the quiet,
and the gen'ral air o' study. And the boys around town ez wouldn't think
nothin' o' trapsen' into my cabin if they spotted what I was up to thar,
would never dream o' hunting me here."
"Very well," said the master, "let it be here then." Observing that
his companion seemed to be struggling with an inarticulate gratitude and
an apparently inextricable buckskin purse in his pocket, he added
quietly, "I'll set you a few copies to commence with," and began to lay
out a few unfinished examples of Master Johnny Filgee's scholastic
"After thanking YOU, Mr. Ford," said Uncle Ben, faintly, "ef you'll
jest kinder signify, you know, what you consider a fair"—
Mr. Ford turned quickly and dexterously offered his hand to his
companion in such a manner that he was obliged to withdraw his own from
his pocket to grasp it in return. "You're very welcome," said the master,
"and as I can only permit this sort of thing gratuitously, you'd better
NOT let me know that you propose giving anything even to Rupert." He
shook Uncle Ben's perplexed hand again, briefly explained what he had to
do, and saying that he would now leave him alone a few minutes, he took
his hat and walked towards the door.
"Then you reckon," said Uncle Ben slowly, regarding the work before
him, "that I'd better jest chuck them Dobell fellers overboard?"
"I certainly should," responded the master with infinite gravity.
"And sorter waltz in fresh, like one them children?"
"Like a child," nodded the master as he left the porch.
A few moments later, as he was finishing his cigar in the clearing, he
paused to glance in at the school-room window. Uncle Ben, stripped of his
coat and waistcoat, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up on his powerful
arms, had evidently cast Dobell and all misleading extraneous aid aside,
and with the perspiration standing out on his foolish forehead, and his
perplexed face close to the master's desk, was painfully groping along
towards the light in the tottering and devious tracks of Master Johnny
Filgee, like a very child indeed!
As the children were slowly straggling to their places the next
morning, the master waited for an opportunity to speak to Rupert. That
beautiful but scarcely amiable youth was, as usual, surrounded and
impeded by a group of his small female admirers, for whom, it is but just
to add, he had a supreme contempt. Possibly it was this healthy quality
that inclined the master towards him, and it was consequently with some
satisfaction that he overheard fragments of his openly disparaging
comments upon his worshippers.
"There!" to Clarinda Jones, "don't flop! And don't YOU," to Octavia
Dean, "go on breathing over my head like that. If there's anything I hate
it's having a girl breathing round me. Yes, you were! I felt it in my
hair. And YOU too—you're always snoopin' and snoodgin'. Oh, yes,
you want to know WHY I've got an extry copy-book and another 'Rithmetic,
Miss Curiosity. Well, what would you give to know? Want to see if they're
PRETTY" (with infinite scorn at the adjective). "No, they ain't PRETTY.
That's all you girls think about—what's PRETTY and what's curious!
Quit now! Come! Don't ye see teacher lookin' at you? Ain't you
He caught the master's beckoning eye and came forward, slightly
abashed, with a flush of irritation still on his handsome face, and his
chestnut curls slightly rumpled. One, which Octavia had covertly accented
by twisting round her forefinger, stood up like a crest on his head.
"I've told Uncle Ben that you might help him here after school hours,"
said the master, taking him aside. "You may therefore omit your writing
exercise in the morning and do it in the afternoon."
The boy's dark eyes sparkled. "And if it would be all the same to you,
sir," he added earnestly, "you might sorter give out in school that I was
to be kept in."
"I'm afraid that would hardly do," said the master, much amused. "But
Rupert's color deepened. "So ez to keep them darned girls from foolin'
round me and followin' me back here."
"We will attend to that," said the master smiling; a moment after he
added more seriously, "I suppose your father knows that you are to
receive money for this? And he doesn't object?"
"He! Oh no!" returned Rupert with a slight look of astonishment, and
the same general suggestion of patronizing his progenitor that he had
previously shown to his younger brother. "You needn't mind HIM." In
reality Filgee pere, a widower of two years' standing, had tacitly
allowed the discipline of his family to devolve upon Rupert. Remembering
this, the master could only say, "Very well," and good-naturedly dismiss
the pupil to his seat and the subject from his mind. The last laggard had
just slipped in, the master had glanced over the occupied benches with
his hand upon his warning bell, when there was a quick step on the
gravel, a flutter of skirts like the sound of alighting birds, and a
young woman lightly entered.
In the rounded, untouched, and untroubled freshness of her cheek and
chin, and the forward droop of her slender neck, she appeared a girl of
fifteen; in her developed figure and the maturer drapery of her full
skirts she seemed a woman; in her combination of naive recklessness and
perfect understanding of her person she was both. In spite of a few
school-books that jauntily swung from a strap in her gloved hand, she
bore no resemblance to a pupil; in her pretty gown of dotted muslin with
bows of blue ribbon on the skirt and corsage, and a cluster of roses in
her belt, she was as inconsistent and incongruous to the others as a
fashion-plate would have been in the dry and dog-eared pages before them.
Yet she carried it off with a demure mingling of the naivete of youth and
the aplomb of a woman, and as she swept down the narrow aisle, burying a
few small wondering heads in the overflow of her flounces, there was no
doubt of her reception in the arch smile that dimpled her cheek. Dropping
a half curtsey to the master, the only suggestion of her equality with
the others, she took her place at one of the larger desks, and resting
her elbow on the lid began to quietly remove her gloves. It was Cressy
Irritated and disturbed at the girl's unceremonious entrance, the
master for the moment recognized her salutation coldly, and affected to
ignore her elaborate appearance. The situation was embarrassing. He could
not decline to receive her as she was no longer accompanied by her lover,
nor could he plead entire ignorance of her broken engagement; while to
point out the glaring inappropriateness of costume would be a fresh
interference he knew Indian Spring would scarcely tolerate. He could only
accept such explanation as she might choose to give. He rang his bell as
much to avert the directed eyes of the children as to bring the scene to
She had removed her gloves and was standing up.
"I reckon I can go on where I left off?" she said lazily, pointing to
the books she had brought with her.
"For the present," said the master dryly.
The first class was called. Later, when his duty brought him to her
side, he was surprised to find that she was evidently already prepared
with consecutive lessons, as if she were serenely unconscious of any
doubt of her return, and as coolly as if she had only left school the day
before. Her studies were still quite elementary, for Cressy McKinstry had
never been a brilliant scholar, but he perceived, with a cynical doubt of
its permanency, that she had bestowed unusual care upon her present
performance. There was moreover a certain defiance in it, as if she had
resolved to stop any objection to her return on the score of
deficiencies. He was obliged in self-defence to take particular note of
some rings she wore, and a large bracelet that ostentatiously glittered
on her white arm—which had already attracted the attention of her
companions, and prompted the audible comment from Johnny Filgee that it
was "truly gold." Without meeting her eyes he contented himself with
severely restraining the glances of the children that wandered in her
direction. She had never been quite popular with the school in her
previous role of fiancee, and only Octavia Dean and one or two older
girls appreciated its mysterious fascination; while the beautiful Rupert,
secure in his avowed predilection for the middle-aged wife of the
proprietor of the Indian Spring hotel, looked upon her as a precocious
chit with more than the usual propensity to objectionable "breathing."
Nevertheless the master was irritatingly conscious of her
presence—a presence which now had all the absurdity of her
ridiculous love-experiences superadded to it. He tried to reason with
himself that it was only a phase of frontier life, which ought to have
amused him. But it did not. The intrusion of this preposterous girl
seemed to disarrange the discipline of his life as well as of his school.
The usual vague, far-off dreams in which he was in the habit of indulging
during school-hours, dreams that were perhaps superinduced by the
remoteness of his retreat and a certain restful sympathy in his little
auditors, which had made him—the grown-up dreamer— acceptable
to them in his gentle understanding of their needs and weaknesses, now
seemed to have vanished forever.
At recess, Octavia Dean, who had drawn near Cressy and reached up to
place her arm round the older girl's waist, glanced at her with a
patronizing smile born of some rapid free-masonry, and laughingly retired
with the others. The master at his desk, and Cressy who had halted in the
aisle were left alone.
"I have had no intimation yet from your father or mother that you were
coming back to school again," he began. "But I suppose THEY have decided
upon your return?"
An uneasy suspicion of some arrangement with her former lover had
prompted the emphasis.
The young girl looked at him with languid astonishment. "I reckon paw
and maw ain't no objection," she said with the same easy ignoring of
parental authority that had characterized Rupert Filgee, and which seemed
to be a local peculiarity. "Maw DID offer to come yer and see you, but I
told her she needn't bother."
She rested her two hands behind her on the edge of a desk, and leaned
against it, looking down upon the toe of her smart little shoe which was
describing a small semicircle beyond the hem of her gown. Her attitude,
which was half-defiant, half-indolent, brought out the pretty curves of
her waist and shoulders. The master noticed it and became a trifle more
"Then I am to understand that this is a permanent thing?" he asked
"What's that?" said Cressy interrogatively.
"Am I to understand that you intend coming regularly to school?"
repeated the master curtly, "or is this merely an arrangement for a few
"Oh," said Cressy comprehendingly, lifting her unabashed blue eyes to
his, "you mean THAT. Oh, THAT'S broke off. Yes," she added
contemptuously, making a larger semicircle with her foot, "that's
over—three weeks ago."
"And Seth Davis—does HE intend returning too?"
"He!" She broke into a light girlish laugh. "I reckon not much!
S'long's I'm here, at least." She had just lifted herself to a sitting
posture on the desk, so that her little feet swung clear of the floor in
their saucy dance. Suddenly she brought her heels together and alighted.
"So that's all?" she asked.
"Kin I go now?"
She laid her books one on the top of the other and lingered an
"Been quite well?" she asked with indolent politeness.
"You're lookin' right peart."
She walked with a Southern girl's undulating languor to the door,
opened it, then charged suddenly upon Octavia Dean, twirled her round in
a wild waltz and bore her away; appearing a moment after on the
playground demurely walking with her arm around her companion's waist in
an ostentatious confidence at once lofty, exclusive, and exasperating to
the smaller children.
When school was dismissed that afternoon and the master had remained
to show Rupert Filgee how to prepare Uncle Ben's tasks, and had given his
final instructions to his youthful vicegerent, that irascible Adonis
unburdened himself querulously:
"Is Cressy McKinstry comin' reg'lar, Mr. Ford?"
"She is," said the master dryly. After a pause he asked, "Why?"
Rupert's curls had descended on his eyebrows in heavy discontent.
"It's mighty rough, jest ez a feller reckons he's got quit of her and her
jackass bo', to hev her prancin' back inter school agin, and rigged out
like ez if she'd been to a fire in a milliner's shop."
"You shouldn't allow your personal dislikes, Rupert, to provoke you to
speak of a fellow-scholar in that way—and a young lady, too,"
corrected the master dryly.
"The woods is full o' sich feller-scholars and sich young ladies, if
yer keer to go a gunning for 'em," said Rupert with dark and slangy
significance. "Ef I'd known she was comin' back I'd"—he stopped and
brought his sunburnt fist against the seam of his trousers with a boyish
gesture, "I'd hev jist"—
"What?" said the master sharply.
"I'd hev played hookey till she left school agin! It moutn't hev bin
so long, neither," he added with a mysterious chuckle.
"That will do," said the master peremptorily. "For the present you'll
attend to your duty and try to make Uncle Ben see you're something more
than a foolish, prejudiced school-boy, or," he added significantly, "he
and I may both repent our agreement. Let me have a good account of you
both when I return."
He took his hat from its peg on the wall, and in obedience to a
suddenly formed resolution left the school-room to call upon the parents
of Cressy McKinstry. He was not quite certain what he should say, but,
after his habit, would trust to the inspiration of the moment. At the
worst he could resign a situation that now appeared to require more tact
and delicacy than seemed consistent with his position, and he was obliged
to confess to himself that he had lately suspected that his present
occupation—the temporary expedient of a poor but clever young man
of twenty—was scarcely bringing him nearer a realization of his
daily dreams. For Mr. Jack Ford was a youthful pilgrim who had sought his
fortune in California so lightly equipped that even in the matter of kin
and advisers he was deficient. That prospective fortune had already
eluded him in San Francisco, had apparently not waited for him in
Sacramento, and now seemed never to have been at Indian Spring.
Nevertheless, when he was once out of sight of the school-house he lit a
cigar, put his hands in his pockets, and strode on with the cheerfulness
of that youth to which all things are possible.
The children had already dispersed as mysteriously and completely as
they had arrived. Between him and the straggling hamlet of Indian Spring
the landscape seemed to be without sound or motion. The wooded upland or
ridge on which the schoolhouse stood, half a mile further on, began to
slope gradually towards the river, on whose banks, seen from that
distance, the town appeared to have been scattered irregularly or thrown
together hastily, as if cast ashore by some overflow—the
Cosmopolitan Hotel drifting into the Baptist church, and dragging in its
tail of wreckage two saloons and a blacksmith's shop; while the County
Court-house was stranded in solitary grandeur in a waste of gravel half a
mile away. The intervening flat was still gashed and furrowed by the
remorseless engines of earlier gold-seekers.
Mr. Ford was in little sympathy with this unsuccessful record of
frontier endeavor—the fortune HE had sought did not seem to lie in
that direction—and his eye glanced quickly beyond it to the pine-
crested hills across the river, whose primeval security was so near and
yet so inviolable, or back again to the trail he was pursuing along the
ridge. The latter prospect still retained its semi- savage character in
spite of the occasional suburban cottages of residents, and the few
outlying farms or ranches of the locality. The grounds of the cottages
were yet uncleared of underbrush; bear and catamount still prowled around
the rude fences of the ranches; the late alleged experience of the infant
Snyder was by no means improbable or unprecedented.
A light breeze was seeking the heated flat and river, and thrilling
the leaves around him with the strong vitality of the forest. The
vibrating cross-lights and tremulous chequers of shade cast by the
stirred foliage seemed to weave a fantastic net around him as he walked.
The quaint odors of certain woodland herbs known to his scholars, and
religiously kept in their desks, or left like votive offerings on the
threshold of the school-house, recalled all the primitive simplicity and
delicious wildness of the little temple he had left. Even in the
mischievous glances of evasive squirrels and the moist eyes of the
contemplative rabbits there were faint suggestions of some of his own
truants. The woods were trembling with gentle memories of the
independence he had always known here— of that sweet and grave
retreat now so ridiculously invaded.
He began to hesitate, with one of those revulsions of sentiment
characteristic of his nature: Why should he bother himself about this
girl after all? Why not make up his mind to accept her as his predecessor
had done? Why was it necessary for him to find her inconsistent with his
ideas of duty to his little flock and his mission to them? Was he not
assuming a sense of decorum that was open to misconception? The absurdity
of her school costume, and any responsibility it incurred, rested not
with him but with her parents. What right had he to point it out to them,
and above all how was he to do it? He halted irresolutely at what he
believed was his sober second thought, but which, like most reflections
that take that flattering title, was only a reaction as impulsive and
illogical as the emotion that preceded it.
Mr. McKinstry's "snake rail" fence was already discernible in the
lighter opening of the woods, not far from where he had halted. As he
stood there in hesitation, the pretty figure and bright gown of Cressy
McKinstry suddenly emerged from a more secluded trail that intersected
his own at an acute angle a few rods ahead of him. She was not alone, but
was accompanied by a male figure whose arm she had evidently just
dislodged from her waist. He was still trying to resume his lost vantage;
she was as resolutely evading him with a certain nymph-like agility,
while the sound of her half-laughing, half-irate protest could be faintly
heard. Without being able to identify the face or figure of her companion
at that distance, he could see that it was NOT her former betrothed, Seth
A superior smile crossed his face; he no longer hesitated, but at once
resumed his former path. For some time Cressy and her companion moved on
quietly before him. Then on reaching the rail- fence they turned abruptly
to the right, were lost for an instant in the intervening thicket, and
the next moment Cressy appeared alone, crossing the meadow in a shorter
cut towards the house, having either scaled the fence or slipped through
some familiar gap. Her companion had disappeared. Whether they had
noticed that they were observed he could not determine. He kept steadily
along the trail that followed the line of fence to the lane that led
directly to the farm-building, and pushed open the front gate as Cressy's
light dress vanished round an angle at the rear of the house.
The house of the McKinstrys rose, or rather stretched, itself before
him, in all the lazy ungainliness of Southwestern architecture. A
collection of temporary make-shifts of boards, of logs, of canvas,
prematurely decayed, and in some instances abandoned for a newer
erection, or degraded to mere outhouses—it presented with singular
frankness the nomadic and tentative disposition of its founder. It had
been repaired without being improved; its additions had seemed only to
extend its primitive ugliness over a larger space. Its roofs were roughly
shingled or rudely boarded and battened, and the rafters of some of its
"lean- to's" were simply covered with tarred canvas. As if to settle any
doubt of the impossibility of this heterogeneous mass ever taking upon
itself any picturesque combination, a small building of corrugated iron,
transported in sections from some remoter locality, had been set up in
its centre. The McKinstry ranch had long been an eyesore to the master:
even that morning he had been mutely wondering from what convolution of
that hideous chrysalis the bright butterfly Cressy had emerged. It was
with a renewal of this curiosity that he had just seen her flutter back
to it again.
A yellow dog who had observed him hesitating in doubt where he should
enter, here yawned, rose from the sunlight where he had been blinking,
approached the master with languid politeness, and then turned towards
the iron building as if showing him the way. Mr. Ford followed him
cautiously, painfully conscious that his hypocritical canine introducer
was only availing himself of an opportunity to gain ingress into the
house, and was leading him as a responsible accomplice to probable
exposure and disgrace. His expectation was quickly realized: a lazily
querulous, feminine outcry, with the words, "Yer's that darned hound
agin!" came from an adjacent room, and his exposed and abashed companion
swiftly retreated past him into the road again. Mr. Ford found himself
alone in a plainly-furnished sitting-room confronting the open door
leading to another apartment at which the figure of a woman, preceded
hastily by a thrown dishcloth, had just appeared. It was Mrs. McKinstry;
her sleeves were rolled up over her red but still shapely arms, and as
she stood there wiping them on her apron, with her elbows advanced, and
her closed hands raised alternately in the air, there was an odd
pugilistic suggestion in her attitude. It was not lessened on her sudden
discovery of the master by her retreating backwards with her hands up and
her elbows still well forward as if warily retiring to an imaginary
Mr. Ford at once tactfully stepped back from the doorway. "I beg your
pardon," he said, delicately addressing the opposite wall, "but I found
the door open and I followed the dog."
"That's just one of his pizenous tricks," responded Mrs. McKinstry
dolefully from within. "On'y last week he let in a Chinaman, and in the
nat'ral hustlin' that follered he managed to help himself outer the pork
bar'l. There ain't no shade o' cussedness that or'nary hound ain't up
to." Yet notwithstanding this ominous comparison she presently made her
appearance with her sleeves turned down, her black woollen dress
"tidied," and a smile of fatigued but not unkindly welcome and protection
on her face. Dusting a chair with her apron and placing it before the
master, she continued maternally, "Now that you're here, set ye right
down and make yourself to home. My men folks are all out o' door, but
some of 'em's sure to happen in soon for suthin'; that day ain't yet
created that they don't come huntin' up Mammy McKinstry every five
minutes for this thing or that."
The glow of a certain hard pride burned through the careworn languor
of her brown cheek. What she had said was strangely true. This raw-boned
woman before him, although scarcely middle-aged, had for years occupied a
self-imposed maternal and protecting relation, not only to her husband
and brothers, but to the three or four men, who as partners, or hired
hands, lived at the ranch. An inherited and trained sympathy with what
she called her "boys's" and her "men folk," and their needs had partly
unsexed her. She was a fair type of a class not uncommon on the
Southwestern frontier; women who were ruder helpmeets of their rude
husbands and brothers, who had shared their privations and sufferings
with surly, masculine endurance, rather than feminine patience; women who
had sent their loved ones to hopeless adventure or terrible vendetta as a
matter of course, or with partisan fury; who had devotedly nursed the
wounded to keep alive the feud, or had received back their dead dry-eyed
and revengeful. Small wonder that Cressy McKinstry had developed
strangely under this sexless relationship. Looking at the mother, albeit
not without a certain respect, Mr. Ford found himself contrasting her
with the daughter's graceful femininity, and wondering where in Cressy's
youthful contour the possibility of the grim figure before him was even
"Hiram allowed to go over to the schoolhouse and see you this
mornin'," said Mrs. McKinstry, after a pause; "but I reckon ez how he had
to look up stock on the river. The cattle are that wild this time o'
year, huntin' water, and hangin' round the tules, that my men are nigh
worrited out o' their butes with 'em. Hank and Jim ain't been off their
mustangs since sun up, and Hiram, what with partrollen' the West Boundary
all night, watchin' stakes whar them low down Harrisons hev been
trespassin'—hasn't put his feet to the ground in fourteen hours.
Mebbee you noticed Hiram ez you kem along? Ef so, ye didn't remember what
kind o' shootin' irons he had with him? I see his rifle over yon. Like ez
not he'z only got his six-shooter, and them Harrisons are mean enough to
lay for him at long range. But," she added, returning to the less
important topic, "I s'pose Cressy came all right."
"Yes," said the master hopelessly.
"I reckon she looked so," continued Mrs. McKinstry, with tolerant
abstraction. "She allowed to do herself credit in one of them new store
gownds that she got at Sacramento. At least that's what some of our men
said. Late years, I ain't kept tech with the fashions myself." She passed
her fingers explanatorily down the folds of her own coarse gown, but
without regret or apology.
"She seemed well prepared in her lessons," said the master, abandoning
for the moment that criticism of his pupil's dress, which he saw was
utterly futile, "but am I to understand that she is coming regularly to
school—that she is now perfectly free to give her entire attention
to her studies—that—that—her— engagement is
"Why, didn't she tell ye?" echoed Mrs. McKinstry in languid
"SHE certainly did," said the master with slight embarrassment,
"Ef SHE said so," interrupted Mrs. McKinstry abstractedly, "she
oughter know, and you kin tie to what she says."
"But as I'm responsible to PARENTS and not to scholars for the
discipline of my school," returned the young man a little stiffly, "I
thought it my duty to hear it from YOU."
"That's so," said Mrs. McKinstry meditatively; "then I reckon you'd
better see Hiram. That ar' Seth Davis engagement was a matter of hern and
her father's, and not in MY line. I 'spose that Hiram nat'rally allows to
set the thing square to you and inquirin' friends."
"I hope you understand," said the master, slightly resenting the
classification, "that my reason for inquiring about the permanency of
your daughter's attendance was simply because it might be necessary to
arrange her studies in a way more suitable to her years; perhaps even to
suggest to you that a young ladies' seminary might be more
"Sartain, sartain," interrupted Mrs. McKinstry hurriedly, but whether
from evasion of annoying suggestion or weariness of the topic, the master
could not determine. "You'd better speak to Hiram about it. On'y," she
hesitated slightly, "ez he's got now sorter set and pinted towards your
school, and is a trifle worrited with stock and them Harrisons, ye might
tech it lightly. He oughter be along yer now. I can't think what keeps
him." Her eye wandered again with troubled preoccupation to the corner
where her husband's Sharps' rifle stood. Suddenly she raised her voice as
if forgetful of Mr. Ford's presence.
The response came from the inner room. The next moment Cressy appeared
at the door with an odd half-lazy defiance in her manner, which the
master could not understand except upon the hypothesis that she had been
listening. She had already changed her elaborate toilet for a long
clinging, coarse blue gown, that accented the graceful curves of her
slight, petticoat-less figure. Nodding her head towards the master, she
said, "Howdy?" and turned to her mother, who practically ignored their
personal acquaintance. "Cressy," she said, "Dad's gone and left his
Sharps' yer, d'ye mind takin' it along to meet him, afore he passes the
Boundary corner. Ye might tell him the teacher's yer, wantin' to see
"One moment," said the master, as the young girl carelessly stepped to
the corner and lifted the weapon. "Let ME take it. It's all on my way
back to school and I'll meet him."
Mrs. McKinstry looked perturbed. Cressy opened her clear eyes on the
master with evident surprise. "No, Mr. Ford," said Mrs. McKinstry, with
her former maternal manner. "Ye'd better not mix yourself up with these
yer doin's. Ye've no call to do it, and Cressy has; it's all in the
family. But it's outer YOUR line, and them Harrison whelps go to your
school. Fancy the teacher takin' weppins betwixt and between!"
"It's fitter work for the teacher than for one of his scholars, and a
young lady at that," said Mr. Ford gravely, as he took the rifle from the
hands of the half-amused, half-reluctant girl. "It's quite safe with me,
and I promise I shall deliver it into Mr. McKinstry's hands and none
"Perhaps it wouldn't be ez likely to be gin'rally noticed ez it would
if one of US carried it," murmured Mrs. McKinstry in confidential
abstraction, gazing at her daughter sublimely unconscious of the presence
of a third party.
"You're quite right," said the master composedly, throwing the rifle
over his shoulder and turning towards the door. "So I'll say
good-afternoon, and try and find your husband."
Mrs. McKinstry constrainedly plucked at the folds of her coarse gown.
"Ye'll like a drink afore ye go," she said, in an ill- concealed tone of
relief. "I clean forgot my manners. Cressy, fetch out that demijohn."
"Not for me, thank you," returned Mr. Ford smiling.
"Oh, I see—you're temperance, nat'rally," said Mrs. McKinstry
with a tolerant sigh.
"Hardly that," returned the master, "I follow no rule, I drink
sometimes—but not to-day."
Mrs. McKinstry's dark face contracted. "Don't you see, Maw," struck in
Cressy quickly. "Teacher drinks sometimes, but he don't USE whiskey.
Her mother's face relaxed. Cressy slipped out of the door before the
master, and preceded him to the gate. When she had reached it she turned
and looked into his face.
"What did Maw say to yer about seein' me just now?"
"I don't understand you."
"To your seein' me and Joe Masters on the trail?"
"She said nothing."
"Humph," said Cressy meditatively. "What was it you told her about
"Then you DIDN'T see us?"
"I saw you with some one—I don't know whom."
"And you didn't tell Maw?"
"I did not. It was none of my business."
He instantly saw the utter inconsistency of this speech in connection
with the reason he believed he had in coming. But it was too late to
recall it, and she was looking at him with a bright but singular
"That Joe Masters is the conceitedest fellow goin'. I told him you
could see his foolishness."
Mr. Ford pushed open the gate. As the girl still lingered he was
obliged to hold it a moment before passing through.
"Maw couldn't quite hitch on to your not drinkin'. She reckons you're
like everybody else about yer. That's where she slips up on you. And
everybody else, I kalkilate."
"I suppose she's somewhat anxious about your father, and I dare say is
expecting me to hurry," returned the master pointedly.
"Oh, dad's all right," said Cressy mischievously. "You'll come across
him over yon, in the clearing. But you're looking right purty with that
gun. It kinder sets you off. You oughter wear one."
The master smiled slightly, said "Good-by," and took leave of the
girl, but not of her eyes, which were still following him. Even when he
had reached the end of the lane and glanced back at the rambling
dwelling, she was still leaning on the gate with one foot on the lower
rail and her chin cupped in the hollow of her hand. She made a slight
gesture, not clearly intelligible at that distance; it might have been a
mischievous imitation of the way he had thrown the gun over his shoulder,
it might have been a wafted kiss.
The master however continued his way in no very self-satisfied mood.
Although he did not regret having taken the place of Cressy as the
purveyor of lethal weapons between the belligerent parties, he knew he
was tacitly mingling in the feud between people for whom he cared little
or nothing. It was true that the Harrisons sent their children to his
school, and that in the fierce partisanship of the locality this simple
courtesy was open to misconstruction. But he was more uneasily conscious
that this mission, so far as Mrs. McKinstry was concerned, was a
miserable failure. The strange relations of the mother and daughter
perhaps explained much of the girl's conduct, but it offered no hope of
future amelioration. Would the father, "worrited by stock" and boundary
quarrels—a man in the habit of cutting Gordian knots with a bowie
knife—prove more reasonable? Was there any nearer sympathy between
father and daughter? But she had said he would meet McKinstry in the
clearing: she was right, for here he was coming forward at a gallop!
When within a dozen paces of the master, McKinstry, scarcely checking
his mustang, threw himself from the saddle, and with a sharp cut of his
riata on the animal's haunches sent him still galloping towards the
distant house. Then, with both hands deeply thrust in the side pockets of
his long, loose linen coat, he slowly lounged with clanking spurs towards
the young man. He was thick- set, of medium height, densely and reddishly
bearded, with heavy- lidded pale blue eyes that wore a look of drowsy
pain, and after their first wearied glance at the master, seemed to rest
anywhere but on him.
"Your wife was sending you your rifle by Cressy," said the master,
"but I offered to bring it myself, as I thought it scarcely a proper
errand for a young lady. Here it is. I hope you didn't miss it before and
don't require it now," he added quietly.
Mr. McKinstry took it in one hand with an air of slightly embarrassed
surprise, rested it against his shoulder, and then with the same hand and
without removing the other from his pocket, took off his soft felt hat,
showed a bullet-hole in its rim, and returned lazily, "It's about half an
hour late, but them Harrisons reckoned I was fixed for 'em and war too
narvous to draw a clear bead on me."
The moment was evidently not a felicitous one for the master's
purpose, but he was determined to go on. He hesitated an instant, when
his companion, who seemed to be equally but more sluggishly embarrassed,
in a moment of preoccupied perplexity withdrew from his pocket his right
hand swathed in a blood-stained bandage, and following some instinctive
habit, attempted, as if reflectively, to scratch his head with two
"You are hurt," said the master, genuinely shocked, "and here I am
"I had my hand up—so," explained McKinstry, with heavy
deliberation, "and the ball raked off my little finger after it went
through my hat. But that ain't what I wanted to say when I stopped ye. I
ain't just kam enough yet," he apologized in the calmest manner, "and I
clean forgit myself," he added with perfect self-possession. "But I was
kalkilatin' to ask you"—he laid his bandaged hand familiarly on the
master's shoulder—"if Cressy kem all right?"
"Perfectly," said the master. "But shan't I walk on home with you, and
we can talk together after your wound is attended to?"
"And she looked purty?" continued McKinstry without moving.
"And you thought them new store gownds of hers right peart?"
"Yes," said the master. "Perhaps a little too fine for the school, you
know," he added insinuatingly, "and"—
"Not for her—not for her," interrupted McKinstry. "I reckon
thar's more whar that cam from! Ye needn't fear but that she kin keep up
that gait ez long ez Hiram McKinstry hez the runnin' of her."
Mr. Ford gazed hopelessly at the hideous ranch in the distance, at the
sky, and the trail before him; then his glance fell upon the hand still
upon his shoulder, and he struggled with a final effort. "At another time
I'd like to have a long talk with you about your daughter, Mr.
"Talk on," said McKinstry, putting his wounded hand through the
master's arm. "I admire to hear you. You're that kam, it does me
Nevertheless the master was conscious that his own arm was scarcely as
firm as his companion's. It was however useless to draw back now, and
with as much tact as he could command he relieved his mind of its
purpose. Addressing the obtruding bandage before him, he dwelt upon
Cressy's previous attitude in the school, the danger of any relapse, the
necessity of her having a more clearly defined position as a scholar, and
even the advisability of her being transferred to a more advanced school
with a more mature teacher of her own sex. "This is what I wished to say
to Mrs. McKinstry to- day," he concluded, "but she referred me to
"In course, in course," said McKinstry, nodding complacently. "She's a
good woman in and around the ranch, and in any doin's o' this kind," he
lightly waved his wounded arm in the air, "there ain't a better, tho' I
say it. She was Blair Rawlins' darter; she and her brother Clay bein' the
only ones that kem out safe arter their twenty years' fight with the
McEntees in West Kaintuck. But she don't understand gals ez you and me
do. Not that I'm much, ez I orter be more kam. And the old woman jest
sized the hull thing when she said SHE hadn't any hand in Cressy's
engagement. No more she had! And ez far ez that goes, no more did me, nor
Seth Davis, nor Cressy." He paused, and lifting his heavy-lidded eyes to
the master for the second time, said reflectively, "Ye mustn't mind my
tellin' ye—ez betwixt man and man—that THE one ez is most
responsible for the makin' and breakin' o' that engagement is YOU!"
"Me!" said the master in utter bewilderment.
"You!" repeated McKinstry quietly, reinstalling the hand Ford had
attempted to withdraw. "I ain't sayin' ye either know'd it or kalkilated
on it. But it war so. Ef ye'd hark to me, and meander on a little, I'll
tell ye HOW it war. I don't mind walkin' a piece YOUR way, for if we go
towards the ranch, and the hounds see me, they'll set up a racket and
bring out the old woman, and then good- by to any confidential talk
betwixt you and me. And I'm, somehow, kammer out yer."
He moved slowly down the trail, still holding Ford's arm
confidentially, although, owing to his large protecting manner, he seemed
to offer a ridiculous suggestion of supporting HIM with his wounded
"When you first kem to Injin Spring," he began, "Seth and Cressy was
goin' to school, boy and girl like, and nothin' more. They'd known each
other from babies—the Davises bein' our neighbors in Kaintuck, and
emigraten' with us from St. Joe. Seth mout hev cottoned to Cress, and
Cress to him, in course o' time, and there wasn't anythin' betwixt the
families to hev kept 'em from marryin' when they wanted. But there never
war any words passed, and no engagement."
"But," interrupted Ford hastily, "my predecessor, Mr. Martin,
distinctly told me that there was, and that it was with YOUR
"That's only because you noticed suthin' the first day you looked over
the school with Martin. 'Dad,' sez Cress to me, 'that new teacher's very
peart; and he's that keen about noticin' me and Seth that I reckon you'd
better giv out that we're engaged.' 'But are you?' sez I. 'It'll come to
that in the end,' sez Cress, 'and if that yer teacher hez come here with
Northern ideas o' society, it's just ez well to let him see Injin Spring
ain't entirely in the woods about them things either.' So I agreed, and
Martin told you it was all right; Cress and Seth was an engaged couple,
and you was to take no notice. And then YOU ups and objects to the hull
thing, and allows that courtin' in school, even among engaged pupils,
The master turned his eyes with some uneasiness to the face of
Cressy's father. It was heavy but impassive.
"I don't mind tellin' you, now that it's over, what happened. The
trouble with me, Mr. Ford, is—I ain't kam! and YOU air, and that's
what got me. For when I heard what you'd said, I got on that mustang and
started for the school-house to clean you out and giv' you five minutes
to leave Injin Spring. I don't know ez you remember that day. I'd
kalkilated my time so ez to ketch ye comin' out o' school, but I was too
airly. I hung around out o' sight, and then hitched my hoss to a buckeye
and peeped inter the winder to hev a good look at ye. It was very quiet
and kam. There was squirrels over the roof, yellow-jackets and bees
dronin' away, and kinder sleeping-like all around in the air, and
jay-birds twitterin' in the shingles, and they never minded me. You were
movin' up and down among them little gals and boys, liftin' up their
heads and talkin' to 'em softly and quiet like, ez if you was one of them
yourself. And they looked contented and kam. And onct—I don't know
if YOU remember it—you kem close up to the winder with your hands
behind you, and looked out so kam and quiet and so far off, ez if
everybody else outside the school was miles away from you. It kem to me
then that I'd given a heap to hev had the old woman see you thar. It kem
to me, Mr. Ford, that there wasn't any place for ME thar; and it kem to
me, too—and a little rough like—that mebbee there wasn't any
place there for MY Cress either! So I rode away without disturbin' you
nor the birds nor the squirrels. Talkin' with Cress that night, she said
ez how it was a fair sample of what happened every day, and that you'd
always treated her fair like the others. So she allowed that she'd go
down to Sacramento, and get some things agin her and Seth bein' married
next month, and she reckoned she wouldn't trouble you nor the school
agin. Hark till I've done, Mr. Ford," he continued, as the young man made
a slight movement of deprecation. "Well, I agreed. But arter she got to
Sacramento and bought some fancy fixin's, she wrote to me and sez ez how
she'd been thinkin' the hull thing over, and she reckoned that she and
Seth were too young to marry, and the engagement had better be broke. And
I broke it for her."
"But how?" asked the bewildered master.
"Gin'rally with this gun," returned McKinstry with slow gravity,
indicating the rifle he was carrying, "for I ain't kam. I let on to
Seth's father that if I ever found Seth and Cressy together again, I'd
shoot him. It made a sort o' coolness betwixt the families, and hez given
some comfort to them low-down Harrisons; but even the law, I reckon,
recognizes a father's rights. And ez Cress sez, now ez Seth's out o' the
way, thar ain't no reason why she can't go back to school and finish her
eddication. And I reckoned she was right. And we both agreed that ez
she'd left school to git them store clothes, it was only fair that she'd
give the school the benefit of 'em."
The case seemed more hopeless than ever. The master knew that the man
beside him might hardly prove as lenient to a second objection at his
hand. But that very reason, perhaps, impelled him, now that he knew his
danger, to consider it more strongly as a duty, and his pride revolted
from a possible threat underlying McKinstry's confidences. Nevertheless
he began gently:
"But you are quite sure you won't regret that you didn't avail
yourself of this broken engagement, and your daughter's outfit—to
send her to some larger boarding-school in Sacramento or San Francisco?
Don't you think she may find it dull, and soon tire of the company of
mere children when she has already known the excitement of"—he was
about to say "a lover," but checked himself, and added, "a young girl's
"Mr. Ford," returned McKinstry, with the slow and fatuous
misconception of a one-ideaed man, "when I said just now that, lookin'
inter that kam, peaceful school of yours, I didn't find a place for
Cress, it warn't because I didn't think she OUGHTER hev a place thar.
Thar was that thar wot she never had ez a little girl with me and the old
woman, and that she couldn't find ez a grownd up girl in any
boarding-school—the home of a child; that kind o' innocent
foolishness that I sometimes reckon must hev slipped outer our emigrant
wagon comin' across the plains, or got left behind at St. Joe. She was a
grownd girl fit to marry afore she was a child. She had young fellers
a-sparkin' her afore she ever played with 'em ez boy and girl. I don't
mind tellin' you that it wern't in the natur of Blair Rawlins' darter to
teach her own darter any better, for all she's been a mighty help to me.
So if it's all the same to you, Mr. Ford, we won't talk about a grownd up
school; I'd rather Cress be a little girl again among them other
children. I should be a powerful sight more kam if I knowed that when I
was away huntin' stock or fightin' stakes with them Harrisons, that she
was a settin' there with them and the birds and the bees, and listenin'
to them and to you. Mebbee there's been a little too many scrimmages
goin' on round the ranch sence she's been a child; mebbee she orter know
suthin' more of a man than a feller who sparks her and fights for
The master was silent. Had this dull, narrow-minded partisan stumbled
upon a truth that had never dawned upon his own broader comprehension?
Had this selfish savage and literally red-handed frontier brawler been
moved by some dumb instinct of the power of gentleness to understand his
daughter's needs better than he? For a moment he was staggered. Then he
thought of Cressy's later flirtations with Joe Masters, and her
concealment of their meeting from her mother. Had she deceived her father
also? Or was not the father deceiving him with this alternate suggestion
of threat and of kindliness—of power and weakness. He had heard of
this cruel phase of Southwestern cunning before. With the feeble
sophistry of the cynic he mistrusted the good his scepticism could not
understand. Howbeit, glancing sideways at the slumbering savagery of the
man beside him, and his wounded hand, he did not care to show his lack of
confidence. He contented himself with that equally feeble resource of
weak humanity in such cases—good- natured indifference. "All
right," he said carelessly; "I'll see what can be done. But are you quite
sure you are fit to go home alone? Shall I accompany you?" As McKinstry
waived the suggestion with a gesture, he added lightly, as if to conclude
the interview, "I'll report progress to you from time to time, if you
"To ME," emphasized McKinstry; "not over THAR," indicating the ranch.
"But p'rhaps you wouldn't mind my ridin' by and lookin' in at the
school-room winder onct in a while? Ah—you WOULD," he added, with
the first deepening of color he had shown. "Well, never mind."
"You see it might distract the children from their lessons," explained
the master gently, who had however contemplated with some concern the
infinite delight which a glimpse of McKinstry's fiery and fatuous face at
the window would awaken in Johnny Filgee's infant breast.
"Well, no matter!" returned McKinstry slowly. "Ye don't keer, I
s'pose, to come over to the hotel and take suthin'? A julep or a
"I shouldn't think of keeping you a moment longer from Mrs.
McKinstry," said the master, looking at his companion's wounded hand.
"Thank you all the same. Good-by."
They shook hands, McKinstry transferring his rifle to the hollow of
his elbow to offer his unwounded left. The master watched him slowly
resume his way towards the ranch. Then with a half uneasy and half
pleasurable sense that he had taken some step whose consequences were
more important than he would at present understand, he turned in the
opposite direction to the school- house. He was so preoccupied that it
was not until he had nearly reached it that he remembered Uncle Ben. With
an odd recollection of McKinstry's previous performance, he approached
the school from the thicket in the rear and slipped noiselessly to the
open window with the intention of looking in. But the school-house, far
from exhibiting that "kam" and studious abstraction which had so touched
the savage breast of McKinstry, was filled with the accents of youthful
and unrestrained vituperation. The voice of Rupert Filgee came sharply to
the master's astonished ears.
"You needn't try to play off Dobell or Mitchell on ME—you hear!
Much YOU know of either, don't you? Look at that copy. If Johnny couldn't
do better than that, I'd lick him. Of course it's the pen—it ain't
your stodgy fingers—oh, no! P'r'aps you'd like to hev a few more
boxes o' quills and gold pens and Gillott's best thrown in, for two bits
a lesson? I tell you what! I'll throw up the contract in another minit!
There goes another quill busted! Look here, what YOU want ain't a pen,
but a clothes-pin and a split nail! That'll about jibe with your dilikit
The master at once stepped to the window and, unobserved, took a quick
survey of the interior. Following some ingenious idea of his own
regarding fitness, the beautiful Filgee had induced Uncle Ben to seat
himself on the floor before one of the smallest desks, presumably his
brother's, in an attitude which, while it certainly gave him considerable
elbow-room for those contortions common to immature penmanship, offered
his youthful instructor a superior eminence, from which he hovered,
occasionally swooping down upon his grown-up pupil like a mischievous but
graceful jay. But Mr. Ford's most distinct impression was that, far from
resenting the derogatory position and the abuse that accompanied it,
Uncle Ben not only beamed upon his persecutor with unquenchable good
humor, but with undisguised admiration, and showed not the slightest
inclination to accept his proposed resignation.
"Go slow, Roop," he said cheerfully. "You was onct a boy yourself.
Nat'rally I kalkilate to stand all the damages. You've got ter waste some
powder over a blast like this yer, way down to the bed rock. Next time
I'll bring my own pens."
"Do. Some from the Dobell school you uster go to," suggested the
darkly ironical Rupert. "They was iron-clad injin-rubber, warn't
"Never you mind wot they were," said Uncle Ben good-humoredly. "Look
at that string of 'C's' in that line. There's nothing mean about
He put his pen between his teeth, raised himself slowly on his legs,
and shading his eyes with his hand from the severe perspective of six
feet, gazed admiringly down upon his work. Rupert, with his hands in his
pockets and his back to the window, cynically assisted at the
"Wot's that sick worm at the bottom of the page?" he asked.
"Wot might you think it wos?" said Uncle Ben beamingly.
"Looks like one o' them snake roots you dig up with a little mud stuck
to it," returned Rupert critically.
"That's my name."
They both stood looking at it with their heads very much on one side.
"It ain't so bad as the rest you've done. It MIGHT be your name. That ez,
it don't look like anythin' else," suggested Rupert, struck with a new
idea that it was perhaps more professional occasionally to encourage his
pupil. "You might get on in course o' time. But what are you doin' all
this for?" he asked suddenly.
"This yer comin' to school when you ain't sent, and you ain't got no
call to go—you, a grown-up man!"
The color deepened in Uncle Ben's face to the back of his ears. "Wot
would you giv' to know, Roop? S'pose I reckoned some day to make a strike
and sorter drop inter saciety easy—eh? S'pose I wanted to be ready
to keep up my end with the other fellers, when the time kem? To be able
to sling po'try and read novels and sich—eh?"
An expression of infinite and unutterable scorn dawned in the eyes of
Rupert. "You do? Well," he repeated with slow and cutting deliberation,
"I'll tell you what you're comin' here for, and the only thing that makes
Uncle Ben broke into a boisterous laugh that made the roof shake,
stamping about and slapping his legs till the crazy floor trembled. But
at that moment the master stepped to the perch and made a quiet but
The return of Miss Cressida McKinstry to Indian Spring and her
interrupted studies was an event whose effects were not entirely confined
to the school. The broken engagement itself seemed of little moment in
the general estimation compared to her resumption of her old footing as a
scholar. A few ill-natured elders of her own sex, and naturally exempt
from the discriminating retort of Mr. McKinstry's "shot-gun," alleged
that the Seminary at Sacramento had declined to receive her, but the
majority accepted her return with local pride as a practical compliment
to the educational facilities of Indian Spring. The Tuolumne "Star," with
a breadth and eloquence touchingly disproportionate to its actual size
and quality of type and paper, referred to the possible "growth of a
grove of Academus at Indian Spring, under whose cloistered boughs future
sages and statesmen were now meditating," in a way that made the master
feel exceedingly uncomfortable. For some days the trail between the
McKinstrys' ranch and the school-house was lightly patrolled by reliefs
of susceptible young men, to whom the enfranchised Cressida, relieved
from the dangerous supervision of the Davis-McKinstry clique, was an
object of ambitious admiration. The young girl herself, who, in spite of
the master's annoyance, seemed to be following some conscientious duty in
consecutively arraying herself in the different dresses she had bought,
however she may have tantalized her admirers by this revelation of bridal
finery, did not venture to bring them near the limits of the play-ground.
It struck the master with some surprise that Indian Spring did not seem
to trouble itself in regard to his own privileged relations with its
rustic enchantress; the young men clearly were not jealous of him; no
matron had suggested any indecorum in a young girl of Cressy's years and
antecedents being intrusted to the teachings of a young man scarcely her
senior. Notwithstanding the attitude which Mr. Ford had been pleased to
assume towards her, this implied compliment to his supposed monastic
vocations affected him almost as uncomfortably as the "Star's"
extravagant eulogium. He was obliged to recall certain foolish
experiences of his own to enable him to rise superior to this presumption
of his asceticism.
In pursuance of his promise to McKinstry, he had procured a few
elementary books of study suitable to Cressy's new position, without,
however, taking her out of the smaller classes or the discipline of the
school. In a few weeks he was enabled to further improve her attitude by
making her a "monitor" over the smaller girls, thereby dividing certain
functions with Rupert Filgee, whose ministrations to the deceitful and
"silly" sex had been characterized by perhaps more vigilant scorn and
disparagement than was necessary. Cressy had accepted it as she had
accepted her new studies, with an indolent good-humor, and at times a
frankly supreme ignorance of their abstract or moral purpose that was
discouraging. "What's the good of that?" she would ask, lifting her eyes
abruptly to the master. Mr. Ford, somewhat embarrassed by her look, which
always, sooner or later, frankly confessed itself an excuse for a
perfectly irrelevant examination of his features in detail, would end in
giving her some severely practical answer. Yet, if the subject appealed
to any particular idiosyncrasy of her own, she would speedily master the
study. A passing predilection for botany was provoked by a single
incident. The master deeming this study a harmless young-lady-like
occupation, had one day introduced the topic at recess, and was met by
the usual answer. "But suppose," he continued artfully, "somebody sent
you anonymously some flowers."
"Her ho!" suggested Johnny Filgee hoarsely, with bold bad
recklessness. Ignoring the remark and the kick with which Rupert had
resented it on the person of his brother, the master continued:
"And if you couldn't find out who sent them, you would want at least
to know what they were and where they grew."
"Ef they grew anywhere 'bout yer we could tell her that," said a
chorus of small voices.
The master hesitated. He was conscious of being on delicate ground. He
was surrounded by a dozen pairs of little keen eyes from whom Nature had
never yet succeeded in hiding her secrets— eyes that had waited for
and knew the coming up of the earliest flowers; little fingers that had
never turned the pages of a text- book, but knew where to scrape away the
dead leaves above the first anemone, or had groped painfully among the
lifeless branches in forgotten hollows for the shy dog-rose; unguided
little feet that had instinctively made their way to remote southern
slopes for the first mariposas, or had unerringly threaded the
tule-hidden banks of the river for flower-de-luce. Convinced that he
could not hold his own on their level, he shamelessly struck at once
"Suppose that one of those flowers," he continued, "was not like the
rest; that its stalks and leaves, instead of being green and soft, were
white and stringy like flannel as if to protect it from cold, wouldn't it
be nice to be able to say at once that it had lived only in the snow, and
that some one must have gone all that way up there above the snow line to
pick it?" The children, taken aback by this unfair introduction of a
floral stranger, were silent. Cressy thoughtfully accepted botany on
those possibilities. A week later she laid on the master's desk a
limp-looking plant with a stalk like heavy frayed worsted yarn. "It ain't
much to look at after all, is it?" she said. "I reckon I could cut a
better one with scissors outer an old cloth jacket of mine."
"And you found it here?" asked the master in surprise.
"I got Masters to look for it when he was on the Summit. I described
it to him. I didn't allow he had the gumption to get it. But he did."
Although botany languished slightly after this vicarious effort, it
kept Cressy in fresh bouquets, and extending its gentle influence to her
friends and acquaintances became slightly confounded with horticulture,
led to the planting of one or two gardens, and was accepted in school as
an implied concession to berries, apples, and nuts. In reading and
writing Cressy greatly improved, with a marked decrease in grammatical
solecisms, although she still retained certain characteristic words, and
always her own slow Southwestern, half musical intonation. This languid
deliberation was particularly noticeable in her reading aloud, and gave
the studied and measured rhetoric a charm of which her careless
colloquial speech was incapable. Even the "Fifth Reader," with its
imposing passages from the English classics carefully selected with a
view of paralyzing small, hesitating, or hurried voices, in Cressy's
hands became no longer an unintelligible incantation. She had quietly
mastered the difficulties of pronunciation by some instinctive sense of
euphony if not of comprehension. The master with his eyes closed hardly
recognized his pupil. Whether or not she understood what she read he
hesitated to inquire; no doubt, as with her other studies, she knew what
attracted her. Rupert Filgee, a sympathetic if not always a correct
reader, who boldly took four and five syllabled fences flying only to
come to grief perhaps in the ditch of some rhetorical pause beyond, alone
expressed his scorn of her performance. Octavia Dean, torn between her
hopeless affection for this beautiful but inaccessible boy, and her
soul-friendship for this bigger but many-frocked girl, studied the
master's face with watchful anxiety.
It is needless to say that Hiram McKinstry was, in the intervals of
stake-driving and stock-hunting, heavily contented with this latest
evidence of his daughter's progress. He even intimated to the master that
her reading being an accomplishment that could be exercised at home was
conducive to that "kam" in which he was so deficient. It was also rumored
that Cressy's oral rendering of Addison's "Reflections in Westminster
Abbey" and Burke's "Indictment of Warren Hastings," had beguiled him one
evening from improving an opportunity to "plug" one of Harrison's
The master shared in Cressy's glory in the public eye. But although
Mrs. McKinstry did not materially change her attitude of tolerant
good-nature towards him, he was painfully conscious that she looked upon
her daughter's studies and her husband's interests in them as a weakness
that might in course of time produce infirmity of homicidal purpose and
become enervating of eye and trigger-finger. And when Mr. McKinstry got
himself appointed as school-trustee, and was thereby obliged to mingle
with certain Eastern settlers,—colleagues on the Board,—this
possible weakening of the old sharply drawn sectional line between
"Yanks" and themselves gave her grave doubts of Hiram's physical
"The old man's worrits hev sorter shook out a little of his sand," she
had explained. On those evenings when he attended the Board, she sought
higher consolation in prayer meeting at the Southern Baptist Church, in
whose exercises her Northern and Eastern neighbors, thinly disguised as
"Baal" and "Astaroth," were generally overthrown and their temples made
If Uncle Ben's progress was slower, it was no less satisfactory.
Without imagination and even without enthusiasm, he kept on with a dull
laborious persistency. When the irascible impatience of Rupert Filgee at
last succumbed to the obdurate slowness of his pupil, the master himself,
touched by Uncle Ben's perspiring forehead and perplexed eyebrows, often
devoted the rest of the afternoon to a gentle elucidation of the
mysteries before him, setting copies for his heavy hand, or even guiding
it with his own, like a child's, across the paper. At times the appalling
uselessness of Uncle Ben's endeavors reminded him of Rupert's taunting
charge. Was he really doing this from a genuine thirst for knowledge? It
was inconsistent with all that Indian Spring knew of his antecedents and
his present ambitions; he was a simple miner without scientific or
technical knowledge; his already slight acquaintance with arithmetic and
the scrawl that served for his signature were more than sufficient for
his needs. Yet it was with this latter sign-manual that he seemed to take
infinite pains. The master, one afternoon, thought fit to correct the
apparent vanity of this performance.
"If you took as much care in trying to form your letters according to
copy, you'd do better. Your signature is fair enough as it is."
"But it don't look right, Mr. Ford," said Uncle Ben, eying it
distrustfully; "somehow it ain't all there."
"Why, certainly it is. Look, D A B N E Y—not very plain, it's
true, but there are all the letters."
"That's just it, Mr. Ford; them AIN'T all the letters that ORTER be
there. I've allowed to write it D A B N E Y to save time and ink, but it
orter read DAUBIGNY," said Uncle Ben, with painful distinctness.
"But that spells d'Aubigny!"
"Is that your name?"
The master looked at Uncle Ben doubtfully. Was this only another form
of the Dobell illusion? "Was your father a Frenchman?" he asked
Uncle Ben paused as if to recall the trifling circumstances of his
father's nationality. "No."
"I reckon not. At least ye couldn't prove it by me."
"Was your father or grandfather a voyageur or trapper, or
"They were from Pike County, Mizzoori."
The master regarded Uncle Ben still dubiously. "But you call yourself
Dabney. What makes you think your real name is d'Aubigny?"
"That's the way it uster be writ in letters to me in the States. Hold
on. I'll show ye." He deliberately began to feel in his pockets, finally
extracting his old purse from which he produced a crumpled envelope, and
carefully smoothing it out, compared it with his signature.
"Thar, you see. It's the same—d'Aubigny."
The master hesitated. After all, it was not impossible. He recalled
other instances of the singular transformation of names in the
Californian emigration. Yet he could not help saying, "Then you concluded
d'Aubigny was a better name than Dabney?"
"Do YOU think it's better?"
"Women might. I dare say your wife would prefer to be called Mrs.
d'Aubigny rather than Dabney."
The chance shot told. Uncle Ben suddenly flushed to his ears.
"I didn't think o' that," he said hurriedly. "I had another idee. I
reckoned that on the matter o' holdin' property and passin' in money it
would be better to hev your name put on the square, and to sorter go down
to bed rock for it, eh? If I wanted to take a hand in them lots or Ditch
shares, for instance—it would be only law to hev it made out in the
name o' d'Aubigny."
Mr. Ford listened with certain impatient contempt. It was bad enough
for Uncle Ben to have exposed his weakness in inventing fictions about
his early education, but to invest himself now with a contingency of
capital for the sake of another childish vanity, was pitiable as it was
preposterous. There was no doubt that he had lied about his school
experiences; it was barely probable that his name was really d'Aubigny,
and it was quite consistent with all this—even setting apart the
fact that he was perfectly well known to be only a poor miner—that
he should lie again. Like most logical reasoners Mr. Ford forgot that
humanity might be illogical and inconsistent without being insincere. He
turned away without speaking as if indicating a wish to hear no more.
"Some o' these days," said Uncle Ben, with dull persistency, "I'll
tell ye suthen'."
"I'd advise you just now to drop it and stick to your lessons," said
the master sharply.
"That's so," said Uncle Ben hurriedly, hiding himself as it were in an
all-encompassing blush. "In course lessons first, boys, that's the
motto." He again took up his pen and assumed his old laborious attitude.
But after a few moments it became evident that either the master's curt
dismissal of his subject or his own preoccupation with it, had somewhat
unsettled him. He cleaned his pen obtrusively, going to the window for a
better light, and whistling from time to time with a demonstrative
carelessness and a depressing gayety. He once broke into a murmuring,
meditative chant evidently referring to the previous conversation, in
its— "That's so—Yer we go—Lessons the first, boys, Yo,
heave O." The rollicking marine character of this refrain, despite its
utter incongruousness, apparently struck him favorably, for he repeated
it softly, occasionally glancing behind him at the master who was coldly
absorbed at his desk. Presently he arose, carefully put his books away,
symmetrically piling them in a pyramid beside Mr. Ford's motionless
elbow, and then lifting his feet with high but gentle steps went to the
peg where his coat and hat were hanging. As he was about to put them on
he appeared suddenly struck with a sense of indecorousness in dressing
himself in the school, and taking them on his arm to the porch resumed
them outside. Then saying, "I clean disremembered I'd got to see a man.
So long, till to-morrow," he disappeared whistling softly.
The old woodland hush fell back upon the school. It seemed very quiet
and empty. A faint sense of remorse stole over the master. Yet he
remembered that Uncle Ben had accepted without reproach and as a good
joke much more direct accusations from Rupert Filgee, and that he himself
had acted from a conscientious sense of duty towards the man. But a
conscientious sense of duty to inflict pain upon a fellow-mortal for his
own good does not always bring perfect serenity to the
inflicter—possibly because, in the defective machinery of human
compensation, pain is the only quality that is apt to appear in the
illustration. Mr. Ford felt uncomfortable, and being so, was naturally
vexed at the innocent cause. Why should Uncle Ben be offended because he
had simply declined to follow his weak fabrications any further? This was
his return for having tolerated it at first! It would be a lesson to him
henceforth. Nevertheless he got up and went to the door. The figure of
Uncle Ben was already indistinct among the leaves, but from the motion of
his shoulders he seemed to be still stepping high and softly as if not
yet clear of insecure and engulfing ground.
The silence still continuing, the master began mechanically to look
over the desks for forgotten or mislaid articles, and to rearrange the
pupils' books and copies. A few heartsease gathered by the devoted
Octavia Dean, neatly tied with a black thread and regularly left in the
inkstand cavity of Rupert's desk, were still lying on the floor where
they had been always hurled with equal regularity by that disdainful
Adonis. Picking up a slate from under a bench, his attention was
attracted by a forgotten cartoon on the reverse side. Mr. Ford at once
recognized it as the work of that youthful but eminent caricaturist,
Johnny Filgee. Broad in treatment, comprehensive in subject, liberal in
detail and slate-pencil—it represented Uncle Ben lying on the floor
with a book in his hand, tyrannized over by Rupert Filgee and regarded in
a striking profile of two features by Cressy McKinstry. The daring
realism of introducing the names of each character on their
legs—perhaps ideally enlarged for that purpose—left no doubt
of their identity. Equally daring but no less effective was the rendering
of a limited but dramatic conversation between the parties by the aid of
emotional balloons attached to their mouths like a visible gulp bearing
the respective legends: "I luv you," "O my," and "You git!"
The master was for a moment startled at this unlooked-for but graphic
testimony to the fact that Uncle Ben's visits to the school were not only
known but commented upon. The small eyes of those youthful observers had
been keener than his own. He had again been stupidly deceived, in spite
of his efforts. Love, albeit deficient in features and wearing an
improperly short bell-shaped frock, had boldly re-entered the peaceful
school, and disturbing complications on abnormal legs were following at
While this simple pastoral life was centred around the school-house in
the clearing, broken only by an occasional warning pistol-shot in the
direction of the Harrison-McKinstry boundaries, the more business part of
Indian Spring was overtaken by one of those spasms of enterprise peculiar
to all Californian mining settlements. The opening of the Eureka Ditch
and the extension of stagecoach communication from Big Bluff were events
of no small importance, and were celebrated on the same day. The double
occasion overtaxing even the fluent rhetoric of the editor of the "Star"
left him struggling in the metaphorical difficulties of a Pactolian
Spring, which he had rashly turned into the Ditch, and obliged him to
transfer the onerous duty of writing the editorial on the Big Bluff
Extension to the hands of the Honorable Abner Dean, Assemblyman from
Angel's. The loss of the Honorable Mr. Dean's right eye in an early
pioneer fracas did not prevent him from looking into the dim vista of the
future and discovering with that single unaided optic enough to fill
three columns of the "Star." "It is not too extravagant to say," he
remarked with charming deprecation, "that Indian Spring, through its own
perfectly organized system of inland transportation, the confluence of
its North Fork with the Sacramento River, and their combined effluence
into the illimitable Pacific, is thus put not only into direct
communication with far Cathay but even remoter Antipodean markets. The
citizen of Indian Spring taking the 9 A. M. Pioneer Coach and arriving at
Big Bluff at 2.40 is enabled to connect with the through express to
Sacramento the same evening, reaching San Francisco per the Steam
Navigation Company's palatial steamers in time to take the Pacific Mail
Steamer to Yokohama on the following day at 8.30 P. M." Although no
citizen of Indian Spring appeared to avail himself of this admirable
opportunity, nor did it appear at all likely that any would, everybody
vaguely felt that an inestimable boon lay in the suggestion, and even the
master professionally intrusting the reading aloud of the editorial to
Rupert Filgee with ulterior designs of practice in the pronunciation of
five-syllable words, was somewhat affected by it. Johnny Filgee and Jimmy
Snyder accepting it as a mysterious something that made Desert Islands
accessible at a moment's notice and a trifling outlay, were round-eyed
and attentive. And the culminating information from the master that this
event would be commemorated by a half-holiday, combined to make the
occasion as exciting to the simple school-house in the clearing as it was
to the gilded saloon in the main street.
And so the momentous day arrived, with its two new coaches from Big
Bluff containing the specially invited speakers—always specially
invited to those occasions, and yet strangely enough never before feeling
the extreme "importance and privilege" of it as they did then. Then there
were the firing of two anvils, the strains of a brass band, the hoisting
of a new flag on the liberty-pole, and later the ceremony of the Ditch
opening, when a distinguished speaker in a most unworkman-like tall hat,
black frock coat, and white cravat, which gave him the general air of a
festive grave- digger, took a spade from the hands of an apparently
hilarious chief mourner and threw out the first sods. There were anvils,
brass bands, and a "collation" at the hotel. But everywhere—
overriding the most extravagant expectation and even the laughter it
provoked—the spirit of indomitable youth and resistless enterprise
intoxicated the air. It was the spirit that had made California possible;
that had sown a thousand such ventures broadcast through its wilderness;
that had enabled the sower to stand half-humorously among his scant or
ruined harvests without fear and without repining, and turn his undaunted
and ever hopeful face to further fields. What mattered it that Indian
Spring had always before its eyes the abandoned trenches and ruined
outworks of its earlier pioneers? What mattered it that the eloquent
eulogist of the Eureka Ditch had but a few years before as prodigally
scattered his adjectives and his fortune on the useless tunnel that
confronted him on the opposite side of the river? The sublime
forgetfulness of youth ignored its warning or recognized it as a joke.
The master, fresh from his little flock and prematurely aged by their
contact, felt a stirring of something like envy as he wandered among
these scarcely older enthusiasts.
Especially memorable was the exciting day to Johnny Filgee, not only
for the delightfully bewildering clamor of the brass band, in which,
between the trombone and the bass drum, he had got inextricably mixed;
not only for the half-frightening explosions of the anvils and the
maddening smell of the gunpowder which had exalted his infant soul to
sudden and irrelevant whoopings, but for a singular occurrence that
whetted his always keen perceptions. Having been shamelessly abandoned on
the veranda of the Eureka Hotel while his brother Rupert paid bashful
court to the pretty proprietress by assisting her in her duties, Johnny
gave himself up to unlimited observation. The rosettes of the six horses,
the new harness, the length of the driver's whiplash, his enormous
buckskin gloves and the way he held his reins; the fascinating odor of
shining varnish on the coach, the gold-headed cane of the Honorable Abner
Dean: all these were stored away in the secret recesses of Johnny's
memory, even as the unconsidered trifles he had picked up en route were
distending his capacious pockets. But when a young man had alighted from
the second or "Truly" coach among the REAL passengers, and strolled
carelessly and easily in the veranda as if the novelty and the occasion
were nothing to him, Johnny, with a gulp of satisfaction, knew that he
had seen a prince! Beautifully dressed in a white duck suit, with a
diamond ring on his finger, a gold chain swinging from his fob, and a
Panama hat with a broad black ribbon jauntily resting on his curled and
scented hair, Johnny's eyes had never rested on a more resplendent
vision. He was more romantic than Yuba Bill, more imposing and less
impossible than the Honorable Abner Dean, more eloquent than the
master—far more beautiful than any colored print that he had ever
seen. Had he brushed him in passing Johnny would have felt a thrill; had
he spoken to him he knew he would have been speechless to reply. Judge
then of his utter stupefaction when he saw Uncle Ben— actually
Uncle Ben!—approach this paragon of perfection, albeit with some
embarrassment, and after a word or two of unintelligible conversation
walk away with him! Need it be wondered that Johnny, forgetful at once of
his brother, the horses, and even the collation with its possible
"goodies," instantly followed.
The two men turned into the side street, which, after a few hundred
yards, opened upon the deserted mining flat, crossed and broken by the
burrows and mounds made by the forgotten engines of the early
gold-seekers. Johnny, at times hidden by these irregularities, kept
closely in their rear, sauntering whenever he came within the range of
their eyes in that sidelong, spasmodic and generally diagonal fashion
peculiar to small boys, but ready at any moment to assume utter
unconsciousness and the appearance of going somewhere else or of
searching for something on the ground. In this way appearing, if noticed
at all, each time in some different position to the right or left of
them, Johnny followed them to the fringe of woodland which enabled him to
draw closer to their heels.
Utterly oblivious of this artistic "shadowing" in the insignificant
person of the small boy who once or twice even crossed their path with
affected timidity, they continued an apparently confidential previous
interview. The words "stocks" and "shares" were alone intelligible.
Johnny had heard them during the day, but he was struck by the fact that
Uncle Ben seemed to be seeking information from the paragon and was
perfectly submissive and humble. But the boy was considerably mystified
when after a tramp of half an hour they arrived upon the debatable ground
of the Harrison-McKinstry boundary. Having been especially warned never
to go there, Johnny as a matter of course was perfectly familiar with it.
But what was the incomprehensible stranger doing there? Was he brought by
Uncle Ben with a view of paralyzing both of the combatants with the
spectacle of his perfections? Was he a youthful sheriff, a young judge,
or maybe the son of the Governor of California? Or was it that Uncle Ben
was "silly" and didn't know the locality? Here was an opportunity for
him, Johnny, to introduce himself, and explain and even magnify the
danger, with perhaps a slight allusion to his own fearless familiarity
with it. Unfortunately, as he was making up his small mind behind a tree,
the paragon turned and with the easy disdain that so well became him,
"Well, I wouldn't offer a dollar an acre for the whole ranch. But if
YOU choose to give a fancy price—that's your lookout."
To Johnny's already prejudiced mind, Uncle Ben received this just
contempt submissively, as he ought, but nevertheless he muttered
something "silly" in reply, which Johnny was really too disgusted to
listen to. Ought he not to step forward and inform the paragon that he
was wasting his time on a man who couldn't even spell "ba-ker," and who
was taught his letters by his, Johnny's, brother?
The paragon continued:
"And of course you know that merely your buying the title to the land
don't give you possession. You'll have to fight these squatters and
jumpers just the same. It'll be three instead of two
Uncle Ben's imbecile reply did not trouble Johnny. He had ears now
only for the superior intellect before him. IT continued coolly:
"Now let's take a look at that yield of yours. I haven't much time to
give you, as I expect some men to be looking for me here—and I
suppose you want this thing still kept a secret. I don't see how you've
managed to do it so far. Is your claim near? You live on it—I think
But that the little listener was so preoccupied with the stranger,
this suggestion of Uncle Ben's having a claim worth the attention of that
distinguished presence would have set him thinking; the little that he
understood he set down to Uncle Ben's "gassin'." As the two men moved
forward again, he followed them until Uncle Ben's house was reached.
It was a rude shanty of boards and rough boulders, half burrowing in
one of the largest mounds of earth and gravel, which had once represented
the tailings or refuse of the abandoned Indian Spring Placer. In fact it
was casually alleged by some that Uncle Ben eked out the scanty "grub
wages," he made by actual mining, in reworking and sifting the tailings
at odd times—a degrading work hitherto practised only by Chinese,
and unworthy the Caucasian ambition. The mining code of honor held that a
man might accept the smallest results of his daily labor, as long as he
was sustained by the prospect of a larger "strike," but condemned his
contentment with a modest certainty. Nevertheless a little of this
suspicion encompassed his dwelling and contributed to its loneliness,
even as a long ditch, the former tail-race of the claim, separated him
from his neighbors. Prudently halting at the edge of the wood, Johnny saw
his resplendent vision cross the strip of barren flat, and enter the
cabin with Uncle Ben like any other mortal. He sat down on a stump and
awaited its return, which he fondly hoped might be alone! At the end of
half an hour he made a short excursion to examine the condition of a
blackberry bramble, and returned to his post of observation. But there
was neither sound nor motion in the direction of the cabin. When another
ten minutes had elapsed, the door opened and to Johnny's intense
discomfiture, Uncle Ben appeared alone and walked leisurely towards the
woods. Burning with anxiety Johnny threw himself in Uncle Ben's way. But
here occurred one of those surprising inconsistencies known only to
children. As Uncle Ben turned his small gray eyes upon him in a half
astonished, half questioning manner, the potent spirit of childish
secretiveness suddenly took possession of the boy. Wild horses could not
now have torn from him that question which only a moment before was on
"Hullo, Johnny! What are ye doin' here?" said Uncle Ben kindly.
"Nothin'." After a pause, in which he walked all round Uncle Ben's
large figure, gazing up at him as if he were a monument, he added,
"Why ain't you over at the collation?"
"Ruperth there," he answered promptly.
The idea of being thus vicariously present in the person of his
brother seemed a sufficient excuse. He leap-frogged over the stump on
which he had been sitting as an easy unembarrassing pause for the next
question. But Uncle Ben was apparently perfectly satisfied with Johnny's
reply, and nodding to him, walked away.
When his figure had disappeared in the bushes, Johnny cautiously
approached the cabin. At a certain distance he picked up a stone and
threw it against the door, immediately taking to his heels and the
friendly copse again. No one appearing he repeated the experiment twice
and even thrice with a larger stone and at a nearer distance. Then he
boldly skirted the cabin and dropped into the race-way at its side.
Following it a few hundred yards he came upon a long disused shaft
opening into it, which had been covered with a rough trap of old planks,
as if to protect incautious wayfarers from falling in. Here a sudden and
inexplicable fear overtook Johnny, and he ran away. When he reached the
hotel, almost the first sight that met his astounded eyes was the
spectacle of the paragon, apparently still in undisturbed possession of
all his perfections—driving coolly off in a buggy with a fresh
Meantime Mr. Ford, however touched by the sentimental significance of
the celebration, became slightly wearied of its details. As his own room
in the Eureka Hotel was actually thrilled by the brass band without and
the eloquence of speakers below, and had become redolent of gunpowder and
champagne exploded around it, he determined to return to the school-house
and avail himself of its woodland quiet to write a few letters.
The change was grateful, the distant murmur of the excited settlement
came only as the soothing sound of wind among the leaves. The pure air of
the pines that filled every cranny of the quiet school-room, and seemed
to disperse all taint of human tenancy, made the far-off celebrations as
unreal as a dream. The only reality of his life was here.
He took from his pocket a few letters one of which was worn and soiled
with frequent handling. He re-read it in a half methodical, half patient
way, as if he were waiting for some revelation it inspired, which was
slow that afternoon in coming. At other times it had called up a youthful
enthusiasm which was wont to transfigure his grave and prematurely
reserved face with a new expression. To-day the revelation and expression
were both wanting. He put the letter back with a slight sigh, that
sounded so preposterous in the silent room that he could not forego an
embarrassed smile. But the next moment he set himself seriously to work
on his correspondence.
Presently he stopped; once or twice he had been overtaken by a vague
undefinable sense of pleasure, even to the dreamy halting of his pen. It
was a sensation in no way connected with the subject of his
correspondence, or even his previous reflections—it was partly
physical, and yet it was in some sense suggestive. It must be the
intoxicating effect of the woodland air. He even fancied he had noticed
it before, at the same hour when the sun was declining and the fresh
odors of the undergrowth were rising. It certainly was a perfume. He
raised his eyes. There lay the cause on the desk before him—a
little nosegay of wild Californian myrtle encircling a rose-bud which had
escaped his notice.
There was nothing unusual in the circumstance. The children were in
the habit of making their offerings generally without particular
reference to time or occasion, and it might have been overlooked by him
during school-hours. He felt a pity for the forgotten posy already
beginning to grow limp in its neglected solitude. He remembered that in
some folk-lore of the children's, perhaps a tradition of the old
association of the myrtle with Venus, it was believed to be emblematic of
the affections. He remembered also that he had even told them of this
probable origin of their superstition. He was still holding it in his
hand when he was conscious of a silken sensation that sent a magnetic
thrill through his fingers. Looking at it more closely he saw that the
sprigs were bound together, not by thread or ribbon, but by long
filaments of soft brown hair tightly wound around them. He unwound a
single hair and held it to the light. Its length, color, texture, and
above all a certain inexplicable instinct, told him it was Cressy
McKinstry's. He laid it down quickly, as if he had, in that act,
familiarly touched her person.
He finished his letter, but presently found himself again looking at
the myrtle and thinking about it. From the position in which it had been
placed it was evidently intended for him; the fancy of binding it with
hair was also intentional and not a necessity, as he knew his feminine
scholars were usually well provided with bits of thread, silk, or ribbon.
If it had been some new absurdity of childish fashion introduced in the
school, he would have noticed it ere this. For it was this obtrusion of a
personality that vaguely troubled him. He remembered Cressy's hair; it
was certainly very beautiful, in spite of her occasional vagaries of
coiffure. He recalled how, one afternoon, it had come down when she was
romping with Octavia in the play-ground, and was surprised to find what a
vivid picture he retained of her lingering in the porch to put it up; her
rounded arms held above her head, her pretty shoulders, full throat, and
glowing face thrown back, and a wisp of the very hair between her white
teeth! He began another letter.
When it was finished the shadow of the pine-branch before the window,
thrown by the nearly level sun across his paper, had begun slowly to
reach the opposite wall. He put his work away, lingered for a moment in
hesitation over the myrtle sprays, and then locked them in his desk with
an odd feeling that he had secured in some vague way a hold upon Cressy's
future vagaries; then reflecting that Uncle Ben, whom he had seen in
town, would probably keep holiday with the others, he resolved to wait no
longer, but strolled back to the hotel. The act however had not recalled
Uncle Ben to him by any association of ideas, for since his discovery of
Johnny Filgee's caricature he had failed to detect anything to
corroborate the caricaturist's satire, and had dismissed the subject from
On entering his room at the hotel he found Rupert Filgee standing
moodily by the window, while his brother Johnny, overcome by a repletion
of excitement and collation, was asleep on the single arm-chair. Their
presence was not unusual, as Mr. Ford, touched by the loneliness of these
motherless boys, had often invited them to come to his rooms to look over
his books and illustrated papers.
"Well?" he said cheerfully.
Rupert did not reply or change his position. Mr. Ford, glancing at him
sharply, saw a familiar angry light in the boy's beautiful eyes, slightly
dimmed by a tear. Laying his hand gently on Rupert's shoulder he said,
"What's the matter, Rupert?"
"Nothin'," said the boy doggedly, with his eyes still fixed on the
"Has—has—Mrs. Tripp" (the fair proprietress) "been
unkind?" he went on lightly.
"You know, Rupe," continued Mr. Ford demurely, "she must show SOME
reserve before company—like to-day. It won't do to make a
Rupert maintained an indignant silence. But the dimple (which he
usually despised as a feminine blot) on the cheek nearer the master
became slightly accented. Only for a moment; the dark eyes clouded
"I wish I was dead, Mr. Ford."
"That's better. What do you want to do?"
"To work—make a livin' myself. Quit toten' wood and water at
home; quit cookin' and makin' beds, like a yaller Chinaman; quit nussin'
babies and dressin' 'em and undressin' 'em, like a girl. Look at HIM
now," pointing to the sweetly unconscious Johnny, "look at him there. Do
you know what that means? It means I've got to pack him home through the
town jist ez he is thar, and then make a fire and bile his food for him,
and wash him and undress him and put him to bed, and 'Now I lay me down
to sleep' him, and tuck him up; and Dad all the while 'scootin' round
town with other idjits, jawin' about 'progress' and the 'future of Injin
Spring.' Much future we've got over our own house, Mr. Ford. Much future
he's got laid up for me!"
The master, to whom those occasional outbreaks from Rupert were not
unfamiliar, smiled, albeit with serious eyes that belied his lips, and
consoled the boy as he had often done before. But he was anxious to know
the cause of this recent attack and its probable relations to the
fascinating Mrs. Tripp.
"I thought we talked all that over some time ago, Rupe. In a few
months you'll be able to leave school, and I'll advise your father about
putting you into something to give you a chance for yourself. Patience,
old fellow; you're doing very well. Consider—there's your pupil,
"Oh, yes! That's another big baby to tot round in school when I ain't
niggerin' at home."
"And I don't see exactly what else you could do at Indian Spring,"
continued Mr. Ford.
"No," said Rupert gloomily, "but I could get away to Sacramento. Yuba
Bill says they take boys no bigger nor me in thar express offices or
banks—and in a year or two they're as good ez anybody and get paid
as big. Why, there was a fellow here, just now, no older than you, Mr.
Ford, and not half your learnin', and he dressed to death with jewelry,
and everybody bowin' and scrapin' to him, that it was perfectly
Mr. Ford lifted his eyebrows. "Oh, you mean the young man of Benham
and Co., who was talking to Mrs. Tripp?" he said.
A quick flush of angry consciousness crossed Rupert's face. "Maybe; he
has just cheek enough for anythin'."
"And you want to be like him?" said Mr. Ford.
"You know what I mean, Mr. Ford. Not LIKE him. Why YOU'RE as good as
he is, any day," continued Rupert with relentless naivete; "but if a
jay-bird like that can get on, why couldn't I?"
There was no doubt that the master here pointed out the defectiveness
of Rupert's logic and the beneficence of patience and study, as became
their relations of master and pupil, but with the addition of a certain
fellow sympathy and some amusing recital of his own boyish experiences,
that had the effect of calling Rupert's dimples into action again. At the
end of half an hour the boy had become quite tractable, and, getting
ready to depart, approached his sleeping brother with something like
resignation. But Johnny's nap seemed to have had the effect of
transforming him into an inert jelly-like mass. It required the joint
exertions of both the master and Rupert to transfer him bodily into the
latter's arms, where, with a single limp elbow encircling his brother's
neck, he lay with his unfinished slumber still visibly distending his
cheeks, his eyelids, and even lifting his curls from his moist forehead.
The master bade Rupert "good-night," and returned to his room as the boy
descended the stairs with his burden.
But here Providence, with, I fear, its occasional disregard of mere
human morality, rewarded Rupert after his own foolish desires. Mrs. Tripp
was at the foot of the stairs as Rupert came slowly down. He saw her, and
was covered with shame; she saw him and his burden, and was touched with
kindliness. Whether or not she was also mischievously aware of Rupert's
admiration, and was not altogether displeased with it, I cannot say. In a
voice that thrilled him, she said:—
"What! Rupert, are you going so soon?"
"Yes, ma'am—-on account of Johnny."
"But let me take him—I can keep him here to-night."
It was a great temptation, but Rupert had strength to refuse, albeit
with his hat pulled over his downcast eyes.
"Poor dear, how tired he looks."
She approached her still fresh and pretty face close to Rupert and
laid her lips on Johnny's cheek. Then she lifted her audacious eyes to
his brother, and pushing back his well-worn chip hat from his clustering
curls, she kissed him squarely on the forehead.
The boy stumbled, and then staggered blindly forward into the outer
darkness. But with a gentleman's delicacy he turned almost instantly into
a side street, as if to keep this consecration of himself from vulgar
eyes. The path he had chosen was rough and weary, the night was dark, and
Johnny was ridiculously heavy, but he kept steadily on, the woman's kiss
in the fancy of the foolish boy shining on his forehead and lighting him
onward like a star.
When the door closed on Rupert the master pulled down the blind, and,
trimming his lamp, tried to compose himself by reading. Outside, the
"Great Day for Indian Spring" was slowly evaporating in pale mists from
the river, and the celebration itself spasmodically taking flight here
and there in Roman candles and rockets. An occasional outbreak from
revellers in the bar-room below, a stumbling straggler along the planked
sidewalk before the hotel, only seemed to intensify the rustic stillness.
For the future of Indian Spring was still so remote that Nature
insensibly re-invested its boundaries on the slightest relaxation of
civic influence, and Mr. Ford lifted his head from the glowing columns of
the "Star" to listen to the far-off yelp of a coyote on the opposite
He was also conscious of the recurrence of that vague, pleasurable
recollection, so indefinite that, when he sought to identify it with
anything—even the finding of the myrtle sprays on his desk—
it evaded him. He tried to work, with the same interruption. Then an
uneasy sensation that he had not been sufficiently kind to Rupert in his
foolish love-troubles remorsefully seized him. A half pathetic, half
humorous picture of the miserable Rupert staggering under the double
burden of his sleeping brother and a misplaced affection, or possibly
abandoning the one or both in the nearest ditch in a reckless access of
boyish frenzy and fleeing his home forever, rose before his eyes. He
seized his hat with the intention of seeking him—or forgetting him
in some other occupation by the way. For Mr. Ford had the sensitive
conscience of many imaginative people; an unfailing monitor, it was
always calling his whole moral being into play to evade it.
As he crossed the passage he came upon Mrs. Tripp hooded and
elaborately attired in a white ball dress, which however did not, to his
own fancy, become her as well as her ordinary costume. He was passing her
with a bow, when she said, with complacent consciousness of her
appearance, "Aren't you going to the ball to- night?"
He remembered then that "an opening ball" at the Court-house was a
part of the celebration. "No," he said smiling; "but it is a pity that
Rupert couldn't have seen you in your charming array."
"Rupert," said the lady, with a slightly coquettish laugh; "you have
made him as much a woman-hater as yourself. I offered to take him in our
party, and he ran away to you." She paused, and giving him a furtive
critical glance said, with an easy mingling of confidence and audacity,
"Why don't YOU go? Nobody'll hurt you."
"I'm not so sure of that," replied Mr. Ford gallantly. "There's the
melancholy example of Rupert always before me."
Mrs. Tripp tossed her chignon and descended a step of the stairs.
"You'd better go," she continued, looking up over the balusters. "You can
look on if you can't dance."
Now Mr. Ford COULD dance, and it so chanced, rather well, too. With
this consciousness he remained standing in half indignant hesitation on
the landing as she disappeared. Why shouldn't he go? It was true, he had
half tacitly acquiesced in the reserve with which he had been treated,
and had never mingled socially in the gatherings of either sex at Indian
Spring—but that was no reason. He could at least dress himself,
walk to the Court-house and—look on.
Any black coat and white shirt was sufficiently de rigueur for Indian
Spring. Mr. Ford added the superfluous elegance of a forgotten white
waistcoat. When he reached the sidewalk it was only nine o'clock, but the
windows of the Court-house were already flaring like a stranded steamer
on the barren bank where it had struck. On the way thither he was once or
twice tempted to change his mind, and hesitated even at the very door.
But the fear that his hesitation would be noticed by the few loungers
before it, and the fact that some of them were already hesitating through
bashfulness, determined him to enter.
The clerks' office and judges' chambers on the lower floor had been
invaded by wraps, shawls, and refreshments, but the dancing was reserved
for the upper floor or courtroom, still unfinished. Flags,
laurel-wreaths, and appropriate floral inscriptions hid its bare walls;
but the coat of arms of the State, already placed over the judges' dais
with its illimitable golden sunset, its triumphant goddess, and its
implacable grizzly, seemed figuratively to typify the occasion better
than the inscriptions. The room was close and crowded. The flickering
candles in tin sconces against the walls, or depending in rude
chandeliers of barrel-hoops from the ceiling, lit up the most astounding
diversity of female costume the master had ever seen. Gowns of bygone
fashions, creased and stained with packing and disuse, toilets of
forgotten festivity revised with modern additions; garments in and out of
season—a fur-trimmed jacket and a tulle skirt, a velvet robe under
a pique sacque; fresh young faces beneath faded head-dresses, and mature
and buxom charms in virgin' white. The small space cleared for the
dancers was continually invaded by the lookers-on, who in files of three
deep lined the room.
As the master pushed his way to the front, a young girl, who had been
standing in the sides of a quadrille, suddenly darted with a nymph-like
quickness among the crowd and was for an instant hidden. Without
distinguishing either face or figure, Mr. Ford recognized in the quick,
impetuous action a characteristic movement of Cressy's; with an
embarrassing instinct that he could not account for, he knew she had seen
him, and that, for some inexplicable reason, he was the cause of her
But it was only for a moment. Even while he was vaguely scanning the
crowd she reappeared and took her place beside her mystified
partner—the fascinating stranger of Johnny's devotion and Rupert's
dislike. She was pale; he had never seen her so beautiful. All that he
had thought distasteful and incongruous in her were but accessories of
her loveliness at that moment, in that light, in that atmosphere, in that
strange assembly. Even her full pink gauze dress, from which her fair
young shoulders slipped as from a sunset cloud, seemed only the
perfection of virginal simplicity; her girlish length of limb and the
long curves of her neck and back were now the outlines of thorough
breeding. The absence of color in her usually fresh face had been
replaced by a faint magnetic aurora that seemed to him half spiritual. He
could not take his eyes from her; he could not believe what he saw. Yet
that was Cressy McKinstry—his pupil! Had he ever really seen her?
Did he know her now? Small wonder that all eyes were bent upon her, that
a murmur of unspoken admiration, or still more intense hush of silence
moved the people around him. He glanced hurriedly at them, and was oddly
relieved by this evident participation in his emotions.
She was dancing now, and with that same pale restraint and curious
quiet that had affected him so strongly. She had not even looked in his
direction, yet he was aware by the same instinct that had at first
possessed him that she knew he was present. His desire to catch her eye
was becoming mingled with a certain dread, as if in a single interchange
of glances the illusions of the moment would either vanish utterly or
become irrevocably fixed. He forced himself, when the set was finished,
to turn away, partly to avoid contact with some acquaintances who had
drifted before him, and whom politeness would have obliged him to ask to
dance, and partly to collect his thoughts. He determined to make a tour
of the rooms and then go quietly home. Those who recognized him made way
for him with passive curiosity; the middle-aged and older adding a
confidential sympathy and equality that positively irritated him. For an
instant he had an idea of seeking out Mrs. Tripp and claiming her as a
partner, merely to show her that he danced.
He had nearly made the circuit of the room when he was surprised by
the first strains of a waltz. Waltzing was not a strong feature of Indian
Spring festivity, partly that the Church people had serious doubts if
David's saltatory performances before the Ark included "round dances,"
and partly that the young had not yet mastered its difficulties. When he
yielded to his impulse to look again at the dancers he found that only
three or four couples had been bold enough to take the floor. Cressy
McKinstry and her former partner were one of them. In his present
exaltation he was not astonished to find that she had evidently picked up
the art in her late visit, and was now waltzing with quiet grace and
precision, but he was surprised that her partner was far from being
equally perfect, and that after a few turns she stopped and smilingly
disengaged her waist from his arm. As she stepped back she turned with
unerring instinct to that part of the room where the master stood, and
raised her eyes through the multitude of admiring faces to his. Their
eyes met in an isolation as supreme as if they had been alone. It was an
attraction the more dangerous because unformulated—a possession
without previous pledge, promise, or even intention—a love that did
not require to be "made."
He approached her quietly and even more coolly than he thought
possible. "Will you allow me a trial?" he asked.
She looked in his face, and as if she had not heard the question but
was following her own thought, said, "I knew you would come; I saw you
when you first came in." Without another word she put her hand in his,
and as if it were part of an instinctive action of drawing closer to him,
caught with her advancing foot the accent of the waltz, and the next
moment the room seemed to slip away from them into whirling space.
The whole thing had passed so rapidly from the moment he approached
her to the first graceful swing of her full skirt at his side, that it
seemed to him almost like the embrace of a lovers' meeting. He had often
been as near her before, had stood at her side at school, and even leaned
over her desk, but always with an irritated instinct of reserve that had
equally affected her, and which he now understood. With her conscious but
pale face so near his own, with the faint odor of her hair clinging to
her, and with the sweet confusion of the half lingering, half withheld
contact of her hand and arm, all had changed. He did not dare to reflect
that he could never again approach her except with this feeling. He did
not dare to think of anything; he abandoned himself to the sense that had
begun with the invasion of her hair-bound myrtle in the silent
school-room, and seemed to have at last led her to his arms. They were
moving now in such perfect rhythm and unison that they seemed scarcely
conscious of motion. Once when they neared the open window he caught a
glimpse of the round moon rising above the solemn heights of the opposite
shore, and felt the cool breath of mountain and river sweep his cheek and
mingle a few escaped threads of her fair hair with his own. With that
glimpse and that sensation the vulgarity and the tawdriness of their
surroundings, the guttering candles in their sconces, the bizarre
figures, the unmeaning faces seemed to be whirled far into distant space.
They were alone with night and nature; it was they who were still; all
else had receded in a vanishing perspective of dull reality, in which
they had no part.
Play on, O waltz of Strauss! Whirl on, O love and youth! For you
cannot whirl so swiftly but that this receding world will return again
with narrowing circle to hem you in. Faster, O cracked clarionet! Louder,
O too brazen bassoon! Keep back, O dull and earthy environment, till
master and pupil have dreamed their foolish dream!
They are in fancy alone on the river-bank, only the round moon above
them and their linked shadows faintly fluttering in the stream. They have
drawn so closely together now that her arm is encircling his neck, her
soft eyes uplifted like the moon's reflection and drowning into his;
closer and closer till their hearts stop beating and their lips have met
in a first kiss. Faster, O little feet! swing clear, O Cressy's skirt and
keep the narrowing circle back! . . . They are again alone; the judges'
dais and the emblazoning of the State caught in a single whirling flash
of consciousness are changed to an altar, seen dimly through the bridal
veil that covers her fair head. There is the murmur of voices mingling
two lives in one. They turn and pass proudly down between the aisles of
wondering festal faces. Ah! the circle is drawing closer. One more quick
whirl to keep them back, O flying skirt and dainty-winged feet! Too late!
The music stops. The tawdry walls shut in again, the vulgar crowds
return, they stand pale and quiet, the centre of a ring of breathless
admiring, frightened, or forbidding faces. Her arms fold like wings at
her side. The waltz is over.
A shrill feminine chorus assail her with praises, struck here and
there with a metallic ring of envy; a dozen all-daring cavaliers, made
reckless by her grace and beauty, clamor for her hand in the next waltz.
She replies, not to them, but to him, "Not again," and slips away in the
crowd with that strange new shyness that of all her transformations seems
the most delicious. Yet so conscious are they of their mutual passion
that they do not miss each other, and he turns away as if their next
meeting were already an appointed tryst. A few congratulate him on his
skill. Johnny's paragon looks after him curiously; certain elders shake
hands with him perplexedly, as if not quite sure of the professional
consistency of his performance. Those charming tide-waiters on social
success, the fair, artfully mingling expectation with compliment, only
extract from him the laughing statement that this one waltz was the
single exception allowed him from the rule of his professional conduct,
and he refers them to his elder critics. A single face, loutish, looming,
and vindictive, stands on among the crowd—the face of Seth Davis.
He had not seen him since he left the school; he had forgotten his
existence; even now he only remembered his successor, Joe Masters, and he
looked curiously around to see if that later suitor of Cressy's was
present. It was not until he reached the door that he began to think
seriously of Seth Davis's jealous face, and was roused to a singular
indignation. "Why hadn't this great fool vented his jealousy on the
openly compromising Masters," he thought. He even turned and walked back
with some vaguely aggressive instinct, but the young man had disappeared.
With this incident still in his mind he came upon Uncle Ben and Hiram
McKinstry standing among the spectators in the doorway. Why might not
Uncle Ben be jealous too? and if his single waltz had really appeared so
compromising why should not Cressy's father object? But both
men—albeit, McKinstry usually exhibited a vague unreasoning
contempt for Uncle Ben—were unanimous in their congratulations and
"When I see'd you sail in, Mr. Ford," said Uncle Ben, with abstract
reflectiveness, "I sez to the fellers, 'lie low, boys, and you'll see
style.' And when you put on them first steps, I sez, 'that's
French—the latest high-toned French style—outer the best
masters, and—and outer the best books. For why?' sez I. 'It's the
same long, sliding stroke you see in his copies. There's that long up
sweep, and that easy curve to the right with no hitch. That's the sorter
swing he hez in readin' po'try too. That's why it's called the po'try of
motion,' sez I. 'And you ken bet your boots, boys, it's all in the
trainin' o' education.'"
"Mr. Ford," said Mr. McKinstry gravely, slightly waving a lavender-
colored kid glove, with which he had elected to conceal his maimed hand,
and at the same moment indicate a festal occasion: "I hev to thank ye for
the way you took out that child o' mine, like ez she woz an ontried
filly, and put her through her paces. I don't dance myself, partikly in
that gait—which I take to be suthin' betwixt a lope and a canter
and I don't get to see much dancin' nowadays on account o' bein' worrited
by stock, but seein' you two together just now, suthin' came over me, and
I don't think I ever felt so kam in my life."
The blood rushed to the master's cheek with an unexpected
consciousness of guilt and shame. "But," he stammered awkwardly, "your
daughter dances beautifully herself; she has certainly had practice."
"That," said McKinstry, laying his gloved hand impressively on the
master's shoulder, with the empty little finger still more emphasized by
being turned backward in the net; "that may be ez it ez, but I wanted to
say that it was the simple, easy, fammily touch that you gev it, that
took me. Toward the end, when you kinder gathered her up and she sorter
dropped her head into your breast- pocket, and seemed to go to sleep,
like ez ef she was still a little girl, it so reminded me of the times
when I used to tote her myself walkin' by the waggin at Platt River, that
it made me wish the old woman was here to see it."
Still coloring, the master cast a rapid, sidelong glance at
McKinstry's dark red face and beard, but in the slow satisfaction of his
features there was no trace of that irony which the master's
"Then your wife is not here?" said Mr. Ford abstractedly.
"She war at church. She reckoned that I'd do to look arter
Cressy— she bein', so to speak, under conviction. D'ye mind walkin'
this way a bit; I want to speak a word with ye?" He put his maimed hand
through the master's arm, after his former fashion, and led him to a
"Did ye happen to see Seth Davis about yer?"
"I believe I saw him a moment ago," returned Mr. Ford half
"Did he get off anythin' rough on ye?"
"Certainly not," said the master haughtily. "Why should he dare?"
"That's so," said McKinstry meditatively. "You had better keep right
on in that line. That's your gait, remember. Leave him—or his
father—it's the same thing—to ME. Don't YOU let yourself be
roped in to this yer row betwixt me and the Davises. You ain't got no
call to do it. It's already been on my mind your bringin' that gun to me
in the Harrison row. The old woman hadn't oughter let you—nor Cress
either. Hark to me, Mr. Ford! I reckon to stand between you and both the
Davises till the cows come home—only— mind YOU give him the
go-by when he happens to meander along towards you."
"I'm very much obliged to you," said Ford with disproportionately
sudden choler; "but I don't propose to alter my habits for a ridiculous
school-boy whom I have dismissed." The unjust and boyish petulance of his
speech instantly flashed upon him, and he felt his cheek burn again.
McKinstry regarded him with dull, red, slumbrous eyes. "Don't you go
to lose your best holt, Mr. Ford—and that's kam. Keep your
kam—and you've allus got the dead wood on Injin Springs. I ain't
got it," he continued, in his slowest, most passionless manner, "and a
row more or less ain't much account to me—but YOU, you keep your
kam." He paused, stepped back, and regarding the master, with a slight
wave of his crippled hand over his whole person, as if indicating some
personal adornment, said, "It sets you off!"
He nodded, turned, and re-entered the ball-room. Mr. Ford, without
trusting himself to further speech, elbowed his way through the crowded
staircase to the street. But even there his strange anger, as well as the
equally strange remorse, which had seized him in McKinstry's presence,
seemed to evaporate in the clear moonlight and soft summer air. There was
the river-bank, with the tremulous river glancing through the dreamy
mist, as they had seen it from the window together. He even turned to
look back on the lighted ball-room, as if SHE might have been looking
out, too. But he knew he should see her again to-morrow, and he hurriedly
put aside all reserve, all thought of the future, all examination of his
conduct, to walk home enwrapped in the vaguer pleasure of the past.
Rupert Filgee, to whom he had never given a second thought, now
peacefully slumbering beside his baby brother, had not gone home in more
foolish or more dangerous company.
When he reached the hotel, he was surprised to find it only eleven
o'clock. No one had returned, the building was deserted by all but the
bar-keeper and a flirting chambermaid, who regarded him with aggrieved
astonishment. He began to feel very foolish, and half regretted that he
had not stayed to dance with Mrs. Tripp; or, at least, remained as a
quiet onlooker apart from the others. With a hasty excuse about returning
to write letters for the morning's post, he took a candle and slowly
remounted the stairs to his room. But on entering he found himself
unprepared for that singular lack of sympathy with which familiar haunts
always greet our new experiences; he could hardly believe that he had
left that room only two hours before; it seemed so uncongenial and
strange to the sensation that was still possessing him. Yet there were
his table, his books, his arm-chair, his bed as he had left them; even a
sticky fragment of gingerbread that had fallen from Johnny's pocket. He
had not yet reached that stage of absorbing passion where he was able to
put the loved one in his own surroundings; she as yet had no place in
this quiet room; he could scarcely think of her here, and he MUST think
of her, if he had to go elsewhere. An extravagant idea of walking the
street until his restless dream was over seized him, but even in his
folly the lackadaisical, moonstruck quality of such a performance was too
obvious. The school-house! He would go there; it was only a pleasant
walk, the night was lovely, and he could bring the myrtle-spray from his
desk. It was too significant now—if not too precious—to be
kept there. Perhaps he had not examined it closely, nor the place where
it had lain; there might be an additional sign, word, or token he had
overlooked. The thought thrilled him, even while he was calmly arguing to
himself that it was an instinct of caution.
The air was quieter and warmer than usual, though still characteristic
of the locality in its dry, dewless clarity. The grass was yet warm from
the day-long sun, and when he entered the pines that surrounded the
schoolhouse, they had scarcely yet lost their spicy heat. The moon,
riding high, filled the dark aisles with a delicious twilight that lent
itself to his waking dreams. It was not long before to-morrow; he could
easily manage to bring her here in the grove at recess, and would speak
with her there. It did not occur to him what he should say, or why he
should say it; it did not occur to him that he had no other provocation
than her eyes, her conscious manner, her eloquent silence, and her
admission that she had expected him. It did not occur to him that all
this was inconsistent with what he knew of her antecedents, her
character, and her habits. It was this very inconsistency that charmed
and convinced him. We are always on the lookout for these miracles of
passion. We may doubt the genuineness of an affection that is first-hand,
but never of one that is transferred.
He approached the school-house and unlocking the door closed it behind
him, not so much to keep out human intrusion as the invasion of bats and
squirrels. The nearly vertical moon, while it perfectly lit the
playground and openings in the pines around the house, left the interior
in darkness, except the reflection upon the ceiling from the shining
gravel without. Partly from a sense of precaution and partly because he
was familiar with the position of the benches, he did not strike a light,
and reached his own desk unerringly, drew his chair before it and
unlocked it, groped in its dark recess for the myrtle spray, felt its
soft silken binding with an electrical thrill, drew it out, and in the
security of the darkness, raised it to his lips.
To make room for it in his breast pocket he was obliged to take out
his letters—among them the well-worn one he had tried to read that
morning. A mingling of pleasure and remorse came over him as he felt that
it was already of the past, and as he dropped it carelessly into the
empty desk it fell with a faint, hollow sound as if it were ashes to
What was that?
The noise of steps upon the gravel, light laughter, the moving of two
or three shadows on the ceiling, the sound of voices, a man's, a child's,
Could it be possible? Was not he mistaken? No! the man's voice was
Masters'; the child's, Octavia's; the woman's, HERS.
He remained silent in the shadow. The school-room was not far from the
trail where she would have had to pass going home from the ball. But why
had she come there? had they seen him arrive? and were mischievously
watching him? The sound of Cressy's voice and the lifting of the
unprotected window near the door convinced him to the contrary.
"There, that'll do. Now you two can step aside. 'Tave, take him over
to yon fence, and keep him there till I get in. No—thank you,
sir—I can assist myself. I've done it before. It ain't the first
time I've been through this window, is it, 'Tave?"
Ford's heart stopped beating. There was a moment of laughing
expostulation, the sound of retreating voices, the sudden darkening of
the window, the billowy sweep of a skirt, the faint quick flash of a
little ankle, and Cressy McKinstry swung herself into the room and
dropped lightly on the floor.
She advanced eagerly up the moonlit passage between the two rows of
benches. Suddenly she stopped; the master rose at the same moment with
outstretched warning hand to check the cry of terror he felt sure would
rise to her lips. But he did not know the lazy nerves of the girl before
him. She uttered no outcry. And even in the faint dim light he could see
only the same expression of conscious understanding come over her face
that he had seen in the ball-room, mingled with a vague joy that parted
her breathless lips. As he moved quickly forward their hands met; she
caught his with a quick significant pressure and darted back to the
"Oh, 'Tave!" (very languidly.)
"You two had better wait for me at the edge of the trail yonder, and
keep a lookout for folks going by. Don't let them see you hanging round
so near. Do you hear? I'm all right."
With her hand still meaningly lifted, she stood gazing at the two
figures until they slowly receded towards the distant trail. Then she
turned as he approached her, the reflection of the moonlit road striking
up into her shining eyes and eager waiting face. A dozen questions were
upon his lips, a dozen replies were ready upon hers. But they were never
uttered, for the next moment her eyes half closed, she leaned forward and
fell—into a kiss.
She was the first to recover, holding his face in her hands, turned
towards the moonlight, her own in passionate shadow. "Listen," she said
quickly. "They think I came here to look for something I left in my desk.
They thought it high fun to come with me—these two. I did come to
look for something—not in my desk, but yours."
"Was it this?" he whispered, taking the myrtle from his breast. She
seized it with a light cry, putting it first to her lips and then to his.
Then clasping his face again between her soft palms, she turned it to the
window and said: "Look at them and not at me."
He did so—seeing the two figures slowly walking in the trail.
And holding her there firmly against his breast, it seemed a blasphemy to
ask the question that had been upon his lips.
"That's not all," she murmured, moving his face backwards and forwards
to her lips as if it were something to which she was giving breath. "When
we came to the woods I felt that you would be here."
"And feeling that, you brought HIM?" said Ford, drawing back.
"Why not?" she replied indolently. "Even if he had seen you, I could
have managed to have you walk home with me."
"But do you think it's quite fair? Would he like it?"
"Would HE like it?" she echoed lazily.
"Cressy," said the young man earnestly, gazing into her shadowed face.
"Have you given him any right to object? Do you understand me?"
She stopped as if thinking. "Do you want me to call him in?" she said
quietly, but without the least trace of archness or coquetry. "Would you
rather he were here—or shall we go out now and meet him? I'll say
you just came as I was going out."
What should he say? "Cressy," he asked almost curtly, "do you love
It seemed such a ridiculous thing to ask, holding her thus in his
arms, if it were true; it seemed such a villainous question, if it were
"I think I loved you when you first came," she said slowly. "It must
have been that that made me engage myself to him," she added simply. "I
knew I loved you, and thought only of you when I was away. I came back
because I loved you. I loved you the day you came to see Maw—even
when I thought you came to tell her of Masters, and to say that you
couldn't take me back."
"But you don't ask me if I love you?"
"But you do—you couldn't help it now," she said confidently.
What could he do but reply as illogically with a closer embrace,
albeit a slight tremor as if a cold wind had blown across the open
window, passed over him. She may have felt it too, for she presently
said, "Kiss me and let me go."
"But we must have a longer talk,
darling—when—when—others are not waiting."
"Do you know the far barn near the boundary?" she asked.
"I used to take your books there, afternoons to—to—be with
you," she whispered, "and Paw gave orders that no one was to come nigh it
while I was there. Come to-morrow, just before sundown."
A long embrace followed, in which all that they had not said seemed,
to them at least, to become articulate on their tremulous and clinging
lips. Then they separated, he unlocking the door softly to give her
egress that way. She caught up a book from a desk in passing, and then
slipped like a rosy shaft of the coming dawn across the fading moonlight,
and a moment after her slow voice, without a tremor of excitement, was
heard calling to her companions.
The conversation which Johnny Filgee had overheard between Uncle Ben
and the gorgeous stranger, although unintelligible to his infant mind,
was fraught with some significance to the adult settlers of Indian
Spring. The town itself, like most interior settlements, was originally a
mining encampment, and as such its founders and settlers derived their
possession of the soil under the mining laws that took precedence of all
other titles. But although that title was held to be good even after the
abandonment of their original occupation, and the establishment of shops,
offices, and dwellings on the site of the deserted places, the suburbs of
the town and outlying districts were more precariously held by squatters,
under the presumption of their being public land open to preemption, or
the settlement of school-land warrants upon them. Few of the squatters
had taken the trouble to perfect even these easy titles, merely holding
"possession" for agricultural or domiciliary purposes, and subject only
to the invasion of "jumpers," a class of adventurers who, in the abeyance
of recognized legal title, "jumped" or forcibly seized such portions of a
squatter's domains as were not protected by fencing or superior force. It
was therefore with some excitement that Indian Spring received the news
that a Mexican grant of three square leagues, which covered the whole
district, had been lately confirmed by the Government, and that action
would be taken to recover possession. It was understood that it would not
affect the adverse possessions held by the town under the mining laws,
but it would compel the adjacent squatters like McKinstry, Davis,
Masters, and Filgee, and jumpers like the Harrisons, to buy the legal
title, or defend a slow but losing lawsuit. The holders of the
grant— rich capitalists of San Francisco—were open to
compromise to those in actual possession, and in the benefits of this
compromise the unscrupulous "jumper," who had neither sown nor reaped,
but simply dispossessed the squatter who had done both, shared equally
A diversity of opinion as to the effect of the new claim naturally
obtained; the older settlers still clung to their experiences of an easy
aboriginal holding of the soil, and were sceptical both as to the
validity and justice of these revived alien grants; but the newer
arrivals hailed this certain tenure of legal titles as a guarantee to
capital and an incentive to improvement. There was also a growing and
influential party of Eastern and Northern men, who were not sorry to see
a fruitful source of dissension and bloodshed removed. The feuds of the
McKinstrys and Harrisons, kept alive over a boundary to which neither had
any legal claim, would seem to bring them hereafter within the statute
law regarding ordinary assaults without any ethical mystification. On the
other hand McKinstry and Harrison would each be able to arrange any
compromise with the new title holders for the lands they possessed, or
make over that "actual possession" for a consideration. It was feared
that both men, being naturally lawless, would unite to render any legal
eviction a long and dangerous process, and that they would either be left
undisturbed till the last, or would force a profitable concession. But a
greater excitement followed when it was known that a section of the land
had already been sold by the owners of the grant, that this section
exactly covered the debatable land of the McKinstry-Harrison boundaries,
and that the new landlord would at once attempt its legal possession. The
inspiration of genius that had thus effected a division of the
Harrison-McKinstry combination at its one weak spot excited even the
admiration of the sceptics. No one in Indian Spring knew its real author,
for the suit was ostensibly laid in the name of a San Francisco banker.
But the intelligent reader of Johnny Filgee's late experience during the
celebration will have already recognized Uncle Ben as the man, and it
becomes a part of this veracious chronicle at this moment to allow him to
explain, not only his intentions, but the means by which he carried them
out, in his own words.
It was one afternoon at the end of his usual solitary lesson, and the
master and Uncle Ben were awaiting the arrival of Rupert. Uncle Ben's
educational progress lately, through dint of slow tenacity, had somewhat
improved, and he had just completed from certain forms and examples in a
book before him a "Letter to a Consignee" informing him that he, Uncle
Ben, had just shipped "2 cwt. Ivory Elephant Tusks, 80 peculs of rice and
400bbls. prime mess pork from Indian Spring;" and another beginning
"Honored Madam," and conveying in admirably artificial phraseology the
"lamented decease" of the lady's husband from yellow fever, contracted on
the Gold Coast, and Uncle Ben was surveying his work with critical
satisfaction when the master, somewhat impatiently, consulted his watch.
Uncle Ben looked up.
"I oughter told ye that Rupe didn't kalkilate to come to day."
"I reckon because I told him he needn't. I allowed to—to hev a
little private talk with ye, Mr. Ford, if ye didn't mind."
Mr. Ford's face did not shine with invitation. "Very well," he said,
"only remember I have an engagement this afternoon."
"But that ain't until about sundown, said Uncle Ben quietly. "I won't
keep ye ez long ez that."
Mr. Ford glanced quickly at Uncle Ben with a rising color. "What do
you know of my engagements?" he said sharply.
"Nothin', Mr. Ford," returned Uncle Ben simply; "but hevin' bin layin'
round, lookin' for ye here and at the hotel for four or five days allus
about that time and not findin' you, I rather kalkilated you might hev
suthin' reg'lar on hand."
There was certainly nothing in his face or manner to indicate the
least evasion or deceit, or indeed anything but his usual naivete,
perhaps a little perturbed and preoccupied by what he was going to say.
"I had an idea of writin' you a letter," he continued, "kinder combinin'
practice and confidential information, you know. To be square with you,
Mr. Ford, in pint o' fact, I've got it HERE. But ez it don't seem to
entirely gibe with the facts, and leaves a heap o' things onsaid and
onseen, perhaps it's jest ez wall ez I read it to you
myself—putten' in a word here and there, and explainin' it
gin'rally. Do you sabe?"
The master nodded, and Uncle Ben drew from his desk a rude portfolio
made from the two covers of a dilapidated atlas, and took from between
them a piece of blotting-paper, which through inordinate application had
acquired the color and consistency of a slate, and a few pages of
copy-book paper, that to the casual glance looked like sheets of
exceedingly difficult music. Surveying them with a blending of
chirographic pride, orthographic doubt, and the bashful consciousness of
a literary amateur, he traced each line with a forefinger inked to the
second joint, and slowly read aloud as follows:—
"'Mr. Ford, Teacher.
"'DEAR SIR,—Yours of the 12th rec'd and contents noted.'" ("I
did'nt," explained Uncle Ben parenthetically, "receive any letter of
yours, but I thought I might heave in that beginning from copy for
practice. The rest is ME.") "'In refference to my having munney,"'
continued Uncle Ben reading and pointing each word as he read, "'and
being able to buy Ditch Stocks an' Land'"—
"One moment," said Mr. Ford interrupting, "I thought you were going to
leave out copy. Come to what you have to say."
"But I HEV—this is all real now. Hold on and you'll see," said
Uncle Ben. He resumed with triumphant emphasis:—
"'When it were gin'rally allowed that I haddent a red cent, I want to
explain to you Mister Ford for the first time a secret. This here is how
it was done. When I first came to Injian Spring, I settled down into the
old Palmetto claim, near a heap of old taillings. Knowin' it were against
rools, and reg'lar Chinyman's bizness to work them I diddn't let on to
enyboddy what I did—witch wos to turn over some of the quarts what
I thought was likely and Orrifferus. Doing this I kem uppon some pay ore
which them Palmetto fellers had overlookt, or more likely had kaved in
uppon them from the bank onknown. Workin' at it in od times by and large,
sometimes afore sun up and sometimes after sundown, and all the time
keeping up a day's work on the clame for a show to the boys, I emassed a
honist fortun in 2 years of 50,000 dolers and still am. But it will be
askd by the incredjulos Reeder How did you never let out anything to
Injian Spring, and How did you get rid of your yeald? Mister Ford, the
Anser is I took it twist a month on hoss back over to La Port and sent it
by express to a bank in Sacramento, givin' the name of Daubigny, witch no
one in La Port took for me. The Ditch Stok and the Land was all took in
the same name, hens the secret was onreviled to the General
Eye—stop a minit,'" he interrupted himself quickly as the master in
an accession of impatient scepticism was about to break in upon him, "it
ain't all." Then dropping his voice to a tremulous and almost funereal
climax, he went on:—
"'Thus we see that pashent indurstry is Rewarded in Spite of Mining
Rools and Reggylashuns, and Predgudisses agin Furrin Labor is played out
and fleeth like a shad-or contenueyeth not long in One Spot, and that a
Man may apear to be off no Account and yet Emass that witch is far abov
rubles and Fadith not Away.
"'Hoppin' for a continneyance
"'of your fevors I remain,
"'Yours to command,
The gloomy satisfaction with which Uncle Ben regarded this
peroration—a satisfaction that actually appeared to be equal to the
revelation itself—only corroborated the master's indignant
"Come," he said, impulsively taking the paper from Uncle Ben's
reluctant hand, "how much of this is a concoction of yours and
Rupe's—and how much is a true story? Do you really
"Hold on, Mr. Ford!" interrupted Uncle Ben, suddenly fumbling in the
breast-pocket of his red shirt, "I reckoned on your being a little hard
with me, remembering our first talk 'bout these things— so I
allowed I'd bring you some proof." Slowly extracting a long legal
envelope from his pocket, he opened it, and drew out two or three crisp
certificates of stock, and handed them to the master.
"Ther's one hundred shares made out to Benj Daubigny. I'd hev brought
you over the deed of the land too, but ez it's rather hard to read
off-hand, on account of the law palaver, I've left it up at the shanty to
tackle at odd times by way of practising. But ef you like we'll go up
thar, and I'll show it to you."
Still haunted by his belief in Uncle Ben's small duplicities, Mr. Ford
hesitated. These were certainly bona fide certificates of stock made out
to "Daubigny." But he had never actually accepted Uncle Ben's statement
of his identity with that person, and now it was offered as a
corroboration of a still more improbable story. He looked at Uncle Ben's
simple face slightly deepening in color under his scrutiny—perhaps
with conscious guilt.
"Have you made anybody your confidant? Rupe, for instance?" he asked
"In course not," replied Uncle Ben with a slight stiffening of wounded
pride. "On'y yourself, Mr. Ford, and the young feller Stacey from the
bank—ez was obligated to know it. In fact, I wos kalkilatin' to ask
you to help me talk to him about that yer boundary land."
Mr. Ford's scepticism was at last staggered. Any practical joke or
foolish complicity between the agent of the bank and a man like Uncle Ben
was out of the question, and if the story were his own sole invention, he
would have scarcely dared to risk so accessible and uncompromising a
denial as the agent had it in his power to give.
He held out his hand to Uncle Ben. "Let me congratulate you," he said
heartily, "and forgive me if your story really sounded so wonderful I
couldn't quite grasp it. Now let me ask you something more. Have you had
any reason for keeping this a secret, other than your fear of confessing
that you violated a few bigoted and idiotic mining rules—which,
after all, are binding only upon sentiment—and which your success
has proved to be utterly impractical?"
"There WAS another reason, Mr. Ford," said Uncle Ben, wiping away an
embarrassed smile with the back of his hand, "that is, to be square with
you, WHY I thought of consultin' you. I didn't keer to have McKinstry,
and"—he added hurriedly, "in course Harrison, too, know that I
bought up the title to thur boundary."
"I understand," nodded the master. "I shouldn't think you would."
"Why shouldn't ye?" asked Uncle Ben quickly.
"Well—I don't suppose you care to quarrel with two passionate
Uncle Ben's face changed. Presently, however, with his hand to his
face, he managed to manipulate another smile, only it appeared for the
purpose of being as awkwardly wiped away.
"Say ONE passionate man, Mr. Ford."
"Well, one if you like," returned the master cheerfully. "But for the
matter of that, why any? Come—do you mind telling me why you bought
the land at all? You know it's of little value to any but McKinstry and
"Soppose," said Uncle Ben slowly, with a great affectation of wiping
his ink-spotted desk with his sleeve, "soppose that I had got kinder
tired of seein' McKinstry and Harrison allus fightin' and scrimmagin'
over their boundary line. Soppose I kalkilated that it warn't the sort o'
thing to induce folks to settle here. Soppose I reckoned that by gettin'
the real title in my hands I'd have the deadwood on both o' them, and
settle the thing my own way, eh?"
"That certainly was a very laudable intention," returned Mr. Ford,
observing Uncle Ben curiously, "and from what you said just now about one
passionate man, I suppose you have determined already WHO to favor. I
hope your public spirit will be appreciated by Indian Spring at
least—if it isn't by those two men."
"You lay low and keep dark and you'll see," returned his companion
with a hopefulness of speech which his somewhat anxious eagerness however
did not quite bear out. "But you're not goin' yet, surely," he added, as
the master again absently consulted his watch. "It's on'y half past four.
It's true thar ain't any more to tell," he added simply, "but I had an
idea that you might hev took to this yer little story of mine more than
you 'pear to be, and might be askin' questions and kinder bedevlin' me
with jokes ez to what I was goin' to do—and all that. But p'raps it
don't seem so wonderful to you arter all. Come to think of
it—squarely now," he said, with a singular despondency, "I'm rather
sick of it myself—eh?"
"My dear old boy," said Ford, grasping both his hands, with a swift
revulsion of shame at his own utterly selfish abstraction, "I am
overjoyed at your good luck. More than that, I can say honestly, old
fellow, that it couldn't have fallen in more worthy hands, or to any one
whose good fortune would have pleased me more. There! And if I've been
slow and stupid in taking it in, it is because it's so wonderful, so like
a fairy tale of virtue rewarded—as if you were a kind of male
Cinderella, old man!" He had no intention of lying—he had no belief
that he was: he had only forgotten that his previous impressions and
hesitations had arisen from the very fact that he DID doubt the
consistency of the story with his belief in Uncle Ben's weakness. But he
thought himself now so sincere that the generous reader, who no doubt is
ready to hail the perfect equity of his neighbor's good luck, will
readily forgive him.
In the plenitude of this sincerity, Ford threw himself at full length
on one of the long benches, and with a gesture invited Uncle Ben to make
himself equally at his ease. "Come," he said with boyish gayety, "let's
hear your plans, old man. To begin with, who's to share them with you? Of
course there are 'the old folks at home' first; then you have
brothers—and perhaps sisters?" He stopped and glanced with a smile
at Uncle Ben; the idea of there being a possible female of his species
struck his fancy.
Uncle Ben, who had hitherto always exercised a severe restraint—
partly from respect and partly from caution—over his long limbs in
the school-house, here slowly lifted one leg over another bench, and sat
himself astride of it, leaning forward on his elbow, his chin resting
between his hands.
"As far as the old folks goes, Mr. Ford, I'm a kind of an orphan."
"A KIND of orphan?" echoed Ford.
"Yes," said Uncle Ben, leaning heavily on his chin, so that the action
of his jaws with the enunciation of each word slightly jerked his head
forward as if he were imparting confidential information to the bench
before him. "Yes, that is, you see, I'm all right ez far as the old man
goes—HE'S dead; died way back in Mizzouri. But ez to my mother,
it's sorter betwixt and between— kinder unsartain. You see, Mr.
Ford, she went off with a city feller—an entire stranger to
me—afore the old man died, and that's wot broke up my schoolin'.
Now whether she's here, there, or yon, can't be found out, though Squire
Tompkins allowed—and he were a lawyer—that the old man could
get a divorce if he wanted, and that you see would make me a whole
orphan, ef I keerd to prove title, ez the lawyers say. Well—thut
sorter lets the old folks out. Then my brother was onc't drowned in the
North Platt, and I never had any sisters. That don't leave much family
for plannin' about—does it?"
"No," said the master reflectively, gazing at Uncle Ben, "unless you
avail yourself of your advantages now and have one of your own. I suppose
now that you are rich, you'll marry."
Uncle Ben slightly changed his position, and then with his finger and
thumb began to apparently feed himself with certain crumbs which had
escaped from the children's luncheon-baskets and were still lying on the
bench. Intent on this occupation and without raising his eyes to the
master, he returned slowly, "Well, you see, I'm sorter married
The master sat up quickly.
"What, YOU married—now?"
"Well, perhaps that's a question. It's a good deal like my beein' an
orphan—oncertain and onsettled." He paused to pursue an evasive
crumb to the end of the bench and having captured it, went on: "It was
when I was younger than you be, and she warn't very old neither. But she
knew a heap more than I did; and ez to readin' and writin', she was thar,
I tell you, every time. You'd hev admired to see her, Mr. Ford." As he
paused here as if he had exhausted the subject, the master said
impatiently, "Well, where is she now?"
Uncle Ben shook his head slowly. "I ain't seen her sens I left
Mizzouri, goin' on five years ago."
"But why haven't you? What was the matter?" persisted the master.
"Well—you see—I runned away. Not SHE, you know, but
I—I scooted, skedaddled out here."
"But what for?" asked the master, regarding Uncle Ben with hopeless
wonder. "Something must have happened. What was it? Was she"—
"She WAS a good schollard," said Uncle Ben gravely, "and allowed to be
sech, by all. She stood about so high," he continued, indicating with his
hand a medium height. "War little and dark complected."
"But you must have had some reason for leaving her?"
"I've sometimes had an idea," said Uncle Ben cautiously, "that mebbee
runnin' away ran in some fam'lies. Now, there war my mother run off with
an entire stranger, and yer's me ez run off by myself. And what makes it
the more one-like is that jest as dad allus allowed he could get a
devorce agin mother, so my wife could hev got one agin me for leavin'
her. And it's almost an evenhanded game that she hez. It's there where
the oncertainty comes in."
"But are you satisfied to remain in this doubt? or do you propose, now
that you are able, to institute a thorough search for her?"
"I was kalkilatin' to look around a little," said Uncle Ben
"And return to her if you find her?" continued the master.
"I didn't say that, Mr. Ford."
"But if she hasn't got a divorce from you that's what you'll have to
do, and what you ought to do—if I understand your story. For by
your own showing, a more causeless, heartless, and utterly inexcusable
desertion than yours, I never heard of."
"Do you think so?" said Uncle Ben with exasperating simplicity.
"Do I think so?" repeated Mr. Ford, indignantly. "Everybody'll think
so. They can't think otherwise. You say you deserted her, and you admit
she did nothing to provoke it."
"No," returned Uncle Ben quickly, "nothin'. Did I tell you, Mr. Ford,
that she could play the pianner and sing?"
"No," said Mr. Ford, curtly, rising impatiently and crossing the room.
He was more than half convinced that Uncle Ben was deceiving him. Either
under the veil of his hide-bound simplicity he was an utterly selfish,
heartless, secretive man, or else he was telling an idiotic
"I'm sorry I can neither congratulate you nor condole with you on what
you have just told me. I cannot see that you have the least excuse for
delaying a single moment to search for your wife and make amends for your
conduct. And if you want my opinion it strikes me as being a much more
honorable way of employing your new riches than mediating in your
neighbors' squabbles. But it's getting late and I'm afraid we must bring
our talk to an end. I hope you'll think this over before we meet
again—and think differently."
Nevertheless, as they both left the schoolhouse, Mr. Ford lingered
over the locking of the door to give Uncle Ben a final chance for further
explanation. But none came. The new capitalist of Indian Spring regarded
him with an intensification of his usual half sad, half embarrassed
smile, and only said: "You understand this yer's a secret, Mr. Ford?"
"Certainly," said Ford with ill-concealed irritation.
"'Bout my bein' sorter married?"
"Don't be alarmed," he responded dryly; "it's not a taking story."
They separated; Uncle Ben, more than ever involved in his usual
unsatisfactory purposes, wending his way towards his riches; the master
lingering to observe his departure before he plunged, in virtuous
superiority, into the woods that fringed the Harrison and McKinstry
The religious attitude which Mrs. McKinstry had assumed towards her
husband's weak civilized tendencies was not entirely free from human
rancor. That strong loyal nature which had unsexed itself in the one idea
of duty, now that duty seemed to be no longer appreciated took refuge in
her forgotten womanhood and in the infinitesimally small arguments,
resources, and manoeuvres at its command. She had conceived a singular
jealousy of this daughter who had changed her husband's nature, and who
had supplanted the traditions of the household life; she had acquired an
exaggerated depreciation of those feminine charms which had never been a
factor in her own domestic happiness. She saw in her husband's desire to
mitigate the savage austerities of their habits only a weak concession to
the powers of beauty and adornment—degrading vanities she had never
known in their life-long struggle for frontier supremacy—that had
never brought them victorious out of that struggle. "Frizzles,"
"furblows," and "fancy fixin's" had never helped them in their exodus
across the plains; had never taken the place of swift eyes, quick ears,
strong hands, and endurance; had never nursed the sick or bandaged the
wounded. When envy or jealousy invades the female heart after forty it is
apt to bring a bitterness which knows no attenuating compensation in that
coquetry, emulation, passionate appeal, or innocent tenderness, which
makes tolerable the jealous caprices of the younger woman. The struggle
for rivalry is felt to be hopeless, the power of imitation is gone. Of
her forgotten womanhood Mrs. McKinstry revived only a capacity to suffer
meanly and inflict mean suffering upon others. In the ruined castle of
her youth, and the falling in of banqueting hall and bower, the dungeon
and torture-chamber appeared to have been left, or, to use her own
metaphor, she had querulously complained to the parson that, "Accordin'
to some folks, she mout hev bin the barren fig-tree e-lected to bear
Her methods were not entirely different from those employed by her
suffering sisterhood in like emergencies. The unlucky Hiram, "worrited by
stock," was hardly placated or consoled by learning from her that it was
only the result of his own weakness, acting upon the 'cussedness of the
stock-dispersing Harrisons; the perplexity into which he was thrown by
the news of the new legal claim to his land was not soothed by the
suggestion that it was a trick of that Yankee civilization to which he
was meanly succumbing. She who had always been a rough but devoted nurse
in sickness was now herself overtaken by vague irregular disorders which
involved the greatest care and the absence of all exciting causes. The
attendance of McKinstry and Cressy at a "crazy quilting party" had
brought on "blind chills;" the importation of a melodeon for Cressy to
play on had superinduced an "innerd rash," and a threatened attack of
"palsy creeps" had only been warded off by the timely postponement of an
evening party suggested by her daughter. The old nomadic instinct,
morbidly excited by her discontent, caused her to lay artful plans for a
further emigration. She knew she had the germs of "mash fever" caught
from the adjacent river; she related mysterious information, gathered in
"class meeting," of the superior facilities for stock raising on the
higher foot-hills; she resuscitated her dead and gone Missouri relations
in her daily speech, to a manifest invidious comparison with the living;
she revived even the incidents of her early married life with the same
baleful intent. The acquisition of a few "biled shirts" by Hiram for
festive appearances with Cressy painfully reminded her that he had
married her in "hickory;" she further accented the change by herself
appearing in her oldest clothes, on the hypothesis that it was necessary
for some one to keep up the traditions of the past.
Her attitude towards Cressy would have been more decided had she ever
possessed the slightest influence over her, or had even understood her
with the intuitive sympathies of the maternal relations. Yet she went so
far as to even openly regret the breaking off of the match with Seth
Davis, whose family, at least, still retained the habits and traditions
she revered; but she was promptly silenced by her husband informing her
that words "that had to be tuk back" had already passed between him and
Seth's father, and that, according to those same traditions, blood was
more likely to be spilled than mingled. Whether she was only withheld
from attempting a reconciliation herself through lack of tact and
opportunity remains to be seen. For the present she encouraged Masters's
attentions under a new and vague idea that a flirtation which distracted
Cressy from her studies was displeasing to McKinstry and inimical to his
plans. Blindly ignorant of Mr. Ford's possible relations to her daughter,
and suspecting nothing, she felt towards him only a dull aversion as
being the senseless pivot of her troubles. Seeing no one, and habitually
closing her ears to any family allusion to Cressy's social triumphs, she
was unaware of even the popular admiration their memorable waltz had
On the morning of the day that Uncle Ben had confided to the master
his ingenious plan for settling the boundary disputes, the barking of
McKinstry's yellow dog announced the approach of a stranger to the ranch.
It proved to be Mr. Stacey—not only as dazzlingly arrayed as when
he first rose above Johnny Filgee's horizon, but wearing, in addition to
his jaunty business air, a look of complacent expectation of the pretty
girl whom he had met at the ball. He had not seen her for a month. It was
a happy inspiration of his own that enabled him to present himself that
morning in the twin functions of a victorious Mercury and Apollo.
McKinstry had to be summoned from an adjacent meadow, while Cressy, in
the mean time, undertook to entertain the gallant stranger. This was
easily done. It was part of her fascinations that, disdaining the
ordinary real or assumed ignorance of the ingenue of her class, she
generally exhibited to her admirers (with perhaps the single exception of
the master) a laughing consciousness of the state of mind into which her
charms had thrown them. She understood their passion if she could not
accept it. This to a bashful rustic community was helpful, but in the
main unsatisfactory; with advances so promptly unmasked, the most
strategic retreat was apt to become an utter rout. Leaning against the
lintel of the door, her curved hand shading the sparkling depths of her
eyes, and the sunlight striking down upon the pretty curves of her
languid figure, she awaited the attack.
"I haven't seen you, Miss Cressy, since we danced together—a
"That was mighty rough papers," said Cressy, who was purposely
dialectical to strangers, "considering that you trapsed up and down the
lane, past the house, twice yesterday."
"Then you saw me?" said the young man, with a slightly discomfited
"I did. And so did the hound, and so, I reckon, did Joe Masters and
the hired man. And when you pranced back on the home stretch, there was
the hound, Masters, the hired man, and Maw all on your trail, and Paw
bringin' up the rear with a shot-gun. There was about a half a mile of
you altogether." She removed her hand from her eyes to indicate with a
lazily graceful sweep this somewhat imaginative procession, and
"You are certainly well guarded," said Stacey hesitatingly; "and
looking at you, Miss Cressy," he added boldly, "I don't wonder at
"Well, it IS reckoned that next to Paw's boundaries I'm pretty well
protected from squatters and jumpers."
Forceful and quaint as her language was, the lazy sweetness of her
intonation, and the delicate refinement of her face, more than atoned for
it. It was unconventional and picturesque as her gestures. So at least
thought Mr. Stacey, and it emboldened him to further gallantry.
"Well, Miss Cressy, as my business with your father to-day was to try
to effect a compromise of his boundary claims, perhaps you might accept
my services in your own behalf."
"Which means," responded the young lady pertly, "the same thing to ME
as to Paw. No trespassers but yourself. Thank you, sir." She twirled
lightly on her heel and dropped him that exaggerated curtsey known to the
school-children as a "cheese." It permitted in its progress the glimpse
of a pretty little slipper which completed his subjugation.
"Well, if it's only a fair compromise," he began laughingly.
"Compromise means somebody giving up. Who is it?" she asked.
The infatuated Stacey had reached the point of thinking this repartee
if possible more killing than his own.
"Ha! That's for Miss Cressy to say."
But the young lady leaning back against the lintel with the
comfortable ease of being irresponsibly diverted, sagely pointed out that
that was the function of the arbitrator.
"Ah well, suppose we begin by giving up Seth Davis, eh? You see that
I'm pretty well posted, Miss Cressy."
"You alarm me," said Cressy sweetly. "But I reckon he HAD given
"He was in the running that night at the ball. Looked half savage
while I was dancing with you. Wanted to eat me."
"Poor Seth! And he used to be SO particular in his food," said the
Mr. Stacey was convulsed. "And there's Mr. Dabney—Uncle Ben," he
continued, "eh? Very quiet but very sly. A dark horse, eh? Pretends to
take lessons for the sake of being near some one, eh? Would he were a boy
again because somebody else is a girl?"
"I should be frightened of you if you lived here always," returned
Cressy with invincible naivete; "but perhaps then you wouldn't know so
Stacey simply accepted this as a compliment. "And there's Masters," he
"Not Joe?" said Cressy with a low laugh, turning her eyes to the
"Yes," said Stacey with a quick, uneasy smile. "Ah! I see we mustn't
drop HIM. Is he out THERE?" he added, trying to follow the direction of
But the young girl kept her face studiously averted. "Is that all?"
she asked after a pause.
"Well—there's that solemn school-master, who cut me out of the
waltz with you—that Mr. Ford."
Had he been a perfectly cool and impartial observer he would have seen
the slight tremor cross Cressy's soft eyelids even in profile, followed
by that momentary arrest of her whole face, mouth, dimples, and eyes,
which had overtaken it the night the master entered the ball-room. But he
was neither, and it passed quickly and unnoticed. Her usual lithe but
languid play of expression and color came back, and she turned her head
lazily towards the speaker. "There's Paw coming. I suppose you wouldn't
mind giving me a sample of your style of arbitrating with him, before you
try it on me?"
"Certainly not," said Stacey, by no means displeased at the prospect
of having so pretty and intelligent a witness in the daughter of what he
believed would form an attractive display of his diplomatic skill and
graciousness to the father. "Don't go away. I've got nothing to say Miss
Cressy could not understand and answer."
The jingling of spurs, and the shadow of McKinstry and his shot-gun
falling at this moment between the speaker and Cressy, spared her the
necessity of a reply. McKinstry cast an uneasy glance around the
apartment, and not seeing Mrs. McKinstry looked relieved, and even the
deep traces of the loss of a valuable steer that morning partly faded
from his Indian-red complexion. He placed his shot- gun carefully in the
corner, took his soft felt hat from his head, folded it and put it in one
of the capacious pockets of his jacket, turned to his daughter, and
laying his maimed hand familiarly on her shoulder, said gravely, without
looking at Stacey, "What might the stranger be wantin', Cress?"
"Perhaps I'd better answer that myself," said Stacey briskly. "I'm
acting for Benham and Co., of San Francisco, who have bought the Spanish
title to part of this property. I"—
"Stop there!" said McKinstry, in a voice dull but distinct. He took
his hat from his pocket, put it on, walked to the corner and took up his
gun, looked at Stacey for the first time with narcotic eyes that seemed
to drowsily absorb his slight figure, then put the gun back half
contemptuously, and with a wave of his hand towards the door, said:
"We'll settle this yer outside. Cress, you stop in here. There's man's
talk goin' on."
"But, Paw," said Cressy, laying her hand languidly on her father's
sleeve without the least change of color or amused expression. "This
gentleman has come over here on a compromise."
"On a—WHICH?" said McKinstry, glancing scornfully out of the
door for some rare species of mustang vaguely suggested to him in that
"To see if we couldn't come to some fair settlement," said Stacey.
"I've no objection to going outside with you, but I think we can discuss
this matter here just as well." His fine feathers had not made him a
coward, although his heart had beaten a little faster at this sudden
recollection of the dangerous reputation of his host.
"Go on," said McKinstry.
"The plain facts of the case are these," continued Stacey, with more
confidence. "We have sold a strip of this property covering the land in
dispute between you and Harrison. We are bound to put our purchaser in
peaceable possession. Now to save time we are willing to buy that
possession of any man who can give it. We are told that you can."
"Well, considerin' that for the last four years I've been fightin'
night and day agin them low-down Harrisons for it, I reckon you've been
lied to," said McKinstry deliberately. "Why—except the clearing on
the north side, whar I put up a barn, thar ain't an acre of it as hasn't
been shifted first this side and then that as fast ez I druv boundary
stakes and fences, and the Harrisons pulled 'em up agin. Thar ain't more
than fifty acres ez I've hed a clear hold on, and I wouldn't hev had that
ef it hadn't bin for the barn, the raisin' alone o' which cost me a man,
two horses, and this yer little finger."
"Put us in possession of even that fifty acres, and WE'LL undertake to
hold the rest and eject those Harrisons from it," returned Stacey
complacently. "You understand that the moment we've made a peaceable
entrance to even a foothold on your side, the Harrisons are only
trespassers, and with the title to back us we can call on the whole
sheriff's posse to put them off. That's the law."
"That ar the law?" repeated McKinstry meditatively.
"Yes," said Stacey. "So," he continued, with a self-satisfied smile to
Cressy, "far from being hard on you, Mr. McKinstry, we're rather inclined
to put you on velvet. We offer you a fair price for the only thing you
can give us—actual possession; and we help you with your old grudge
against the Harrisons. We not only clear them out, but we pay YOU for
even the part they held adversely to you."
Mr. McKinstry passed his three whole fingers over his forehead and
eyes as if troubled by a drowsy aching. "Then you don't reckon to hev
anythin' to say to them Harrisons?"
"We don't propose to recognize them in the matter at all," returned
"Nor allow 'em anythin'?"
"Not a cent! So you see, Mr. McKinstry," he continued magnanimously,
yet with a mischievous smile to Cressy, "there is nothing in this
amicable discussion that requires to be settled outside."
"Ain't there?" said McKinstry, in a dull, deliberate voice, raising
his eyes for the second time to Stacey. They were bloodshot, with a
heavy, hanging furtiveness, not unlike one of his own hunted steers. "But
I ain't kam enuff in yer." He moved to the door with a beckoning of his
fateful hand. "Outside a minit—EF you please."
Stacey started, shrugged his shoulders, and half defiantly stepped
beyond the threshold. Cressy, unchanged in color or expression, lazily
followed to the door.
"Wot," said McKinstry, slowly facing Stacey; "wot ef I refoose? Wot ef
I say I don't allow any man, or any bank, or any compromise, to take up
my quo'r'lls? Wot ef I say that low-down and mean as them Harrisons is,
they don't begin to be ez mean, ez low-down, ez underhanded, ez sneakin'
ez that yer compromise? Wot ef I say that ef that's the kind o' hogwash
that law and snivelization offers me for peace and quietness, I'll take
the fightin', and the law- breakin', and the sheriff, and all h-ll for
his posse instead? Wot ef I say that?"
"It will only be my duty to repeat it," said Stacey, with an affected
carelessness which, however, did not conceal his surprise and his
discomfiture. "It's no affair of mine."
"Unless," said Cressy, assuming her old position against the lintel of
the door, and smoothing the worn bear-skin that served as a mat with the
toe of her slipper, "unless you've mixed it up with your other
arbitration, you know."
"Wot other arbitration?" asked McKinstry suddenly, with murky
Stacey cast a rapid, half indignant glance at the young girl, who
received it with her hands tucked behind her back, her lovely head bent
submissively forward, and a prolonged little laugh.
"Oh nothing, Paw," she said, "only a little private foolishness
betwixt me and the gentleman. You'd admire to hear him talk, Paw—
about other things than business. He's just that chipper and gay."
Nevertheless, as with a muttered "Good-morning" the young fellow
turned away, she quietly brushed past her father, and followed him—
with her hands still penitently behind her, and the rosy palms turned
upward—as far as the gate. Her single long Marguerite braid of hair
trailing down her back nearly to the hem of her skirt, appeared to accent
her demure reserve. At the gate she shaded her eyes with her hand, and
"It don't seem to be a good day for arbitrating. A trifle early in the
season, ain't it?"
"Good-morning, Miss McKinstry."
She held out her hand. He took it with an affected ease but
cautiously, as if it had been the velvet paw of a young panther who had
scratched him. After all, what was she but the cub of the untamed beast,
McKinstry? He was well out of it! He was not revengeful—but
business was business, and he had given them the first chance.
As his figure disappeared behind the buckeyes of the lane, Cressy cast
a glance at the declining sun. She re-entered the house, and went
directly to her room. As she passed the window, she could see her father
already remounted galloping towards the tules, as if in search of that
riparian "kam" his late interview had disturbed. A few straggling bits of
color in the sloping meadows were the children coming home from school.
She hastily tied a girlish sun- bonnet under her chin, and slipping out
of the back door, swept like a lissom shadow along the line of fence
until she seemed to melt into the umbrage of the woods that fringed the
distant north boundary.
Meanwhile, unaware of her husband's sudden relapse to her old border
principles and of the visit that had induced it, Mrs. McKinstry was
slowly returning from a lugubrious recital of her moods and feelings at
the parson's. As she crossed the barren flat and reached the wooded
upland midway between the school-house and the ranch, she saw before her
the old familiar figure of Seth Davis lounging on the trail. In her
habitual loyalty to her husband's feuds she would probably have stalked
defiantly past him, notwithstanding her late regrets of the broken
engagement, but Seth began to advance awkwardly towards her. In fact, he
had noticed the tall, gaunt, plaid-shawled and holland-bonneted figure
approaching, and had waited for it.
As he seemed intent upon getting in her way she stopped and raised her
right hand warningly before her. In spite of the shawl and the
sun-bonnet, suffering had implanted a rude Runic dignity to her attitude.
"Words that hev to be took back, Seth Davis," she said hastily, "hev
passed between you and my man. Out of my way, then, that I may pass,
"Not much betwixt you and me, Aunt Rachel," he said with slouching
deprecation, using the old household title by which he had familiarly
known her. "I've nothin agin you—and I kin prove it by wot I'm yer
to say. And I ain't trucklin' to yer for myself, for ez far ez me and
your'n ez concerned," he continued, with a malevolent glance, "thar ain't
gold enough in Caleforny to mak the weddin' ring that could hitch me and
Cress together. I want to tell you that you're bein' played; that you're
bein' befooled and bamboozled and honey-fogled. Thet while you're
groanin' at class- meetin' and Hiram's quo'llin' with Dad, and Joe
Masters waitin' round to pick up any bone that's throwed him, that
sneakin', hypocritical Yankee school-master is draggin' your daughter to
h-ll with him on the sly."
"Quit that, Seth Davis," said Mrs. McKinstry sternly, "or be man
enough to tell it to a man. That's Hiram's business to know."
"And what if he knows it well enough and winks at it? What if he's
willin' enough to truckle to it, to curry favor with them sneakin'
Yanks?" said Seth malignantly.
A spasm of savage conviction seized Mrs. McKinstry. But it was more
from her jealous fears of her husband's disloyalty than concern for her
daughter's transgression. Nevertheless, she said desperately, "It's a
lie. Where are your proofs?"
"Proofs?" returned Seth. "Who is it sneaks around the school-house to
have private talks with the school-master, and edges him on with Cressy
afore folks? Your husband. Who goes sneakin' off every arternoon with
that same cantin' hound of a school-master? Your daughter. Who's been
carryin' on together, and hidin' thick enough to be ridden out on a rail
together? Your daughter and the school- master. Proofs?—ask
anybody. Ask the children. Look yar—you, Johnny—come
He had suddenly directed his voice to a blackberry bush near the
trail, from which the curly head of Johnny Filgee had just appeared. That
home-returning infant painfully disengaged himself, his slate, his books,
and his small dinner-pail half filled with fruit as immature as himself,
and came towards them sideways.
"Yer's a dime, Johnny, to git some candy," said Seth, endeavoring to
distort his passion-set face into a smile.
Johnny Filgee's small, berry-stained palm promptly closed over the
"Now, don't lie. Where's Cressy?"
"Kithin' her bo."
"Good boy. What bo?"
Johnny hesitated. He had once seen the school-master and Cressy
together; he had heard it whispered by the other children that they loved
each other. But looking at Seth and Mrs. McKinstry he felt that something
more tremendous than this stupid fact was required of him for grown-up
people, and being honest and imaginative, he determined that it should be
worth the money.
"Speak up, Johnny, don't be afeard to tell."
Johnny was not "afeard"—he was only thinking. He had it! He
remembered that he had just seen his paragon, the brilliant Stacey,
coming from the boundary woods. What more poetical and startlingly
effective than to connect him with Cressy? He replied
"Mithter Thtathy. He gived her a watch and ring of truly gold. Goin'
to be married at Thacramento."
"You lyin' limb," said Seth, seizing him roughly. But Mrs. McKinstry
"Let that brat go," she said with gleaming eyes. "I want to talk to
you." Seth released Johnny. "It's a trick,' he said, "he's bin put up to
it by that Ford."
But Johnny, after securing a safe vantage behind the blackberry bush,
determined to give them another trial—with facts.
"I know mor'n that," he called out.
"Git—you measly pup," said Seth savagely.
"I know Theriff Briggth, he rid over the boundary with a lot o' men
and horthes," said Johnny, with that hurried delivery with which he was
able to estop interruption. "Theed 'em go by. Maur Harrithon theth his
dad's goin' to chuck out ole McKinthtry. Hooray!"
Mrs. McKinstry turned her dark face sharply on Seth. "What's that he
"Nothin' but children's gassin'," he answered, meeting her eyes with
an evil consciousness half loutish, half defiant, "and ef it war true, it
would only sarve Hiram McKinstry right."
She laid her hand upon his shoulder with swift suspicion. "Out o' my
way, Seth Davis," she said suddenly, pushing him aside. "Ef this ez any
underhanded work of yours, you'll pay for it."
She strode past him in the direction of Johnny, but at the approach of
the tall woman with the angry eyes, the boy flew. She hesitated a moment,
turned again with a threatening wave of the hand to Seth, and started off
rapidly in the direction of the boundary.
She had not placed so much faith in the boy's story as in the vague
revelation of evil in Davis's manner. If there was any "cussedness"
afoot, Seth, convinced of Cressy's unfaithfulness, and with no further
hope of any mediation from the parents, would know it. Unless Hiram had
been warned, he was still lulled in his fatuous dream of civilization. At
that time he and his men were in the tules with the stock; to be
satisfied, she herself must go to the boundary.
She reached the ridge of the cottonwoods and sycamores, and a few
hundred yards further brought her to the edge of that gentle southern
slope which at last sank into the broad meadow of the debatable ground.
In spite of Stacey's invidious criticism of its intrinsic value, this
theatre of savage dissension, violence, and bloodshed was by some irony
of nature a pastoral landscape of singular and peaceful repose. The soft
glacis stretching before her was in spring cerulean with lupins, and
later starred with mariposas. The meadow was transversely crossed by a
curving line of alders that indicated a rare water-course, of which in
the dry season only a single pool remained to flash back the unvarying
sky. There had been no attempt at cultivation of this broad expanse; wild
oats, mustard, and rank grasses left it a tossing sea of turbulent and
variegated color whose waves rode high enough to engulf horse and rider
in their choking depths. Even the traces of human struggle, the uprooted
stakes, scattered fence-rails, and empty post-holes were forever hidden
under these billows of verdure. Midway of the field and near the
water-course arose McKinstry's barn—the solitary human structure
whose rude, misshapen, bulging sides and swallow-haunted eaves bursting
with hay from the neighboring pasture, seemed however only an extravagant
growth of the prolific soil. Mrs. McKinstry gazed at it anxiously. There
was no sign of life or movement near or around it; it stood as it had
always stood, deserted and solitary. But turning her eyes to the right,
beyond the water-course, she could see a slight regular undulation of the
grassy sea and what appeared to be the drifting on its surface of half a
dozen slouched hats in the direction of the alders. There was no longer
any doubt; a party from the other side was approaching the border.
A shout and the quick galloping of hoofs behind her sent a thrill of
relief to her heart. She had barely time to draw aside as her husband and
his followers swept past her down the slope. But it needed not his
furious cry, "The Harrisons hev sold us out," to tell her that the crisis
She held her breath as the cavalcade diverged, and in open order
furiously approached the water-course, and she could see a sudden check
and hesitation in the movement in the meadow at that unlooked-for onset.
Then she thought of the barn. It would be a rallying-point for them if
driven back—a tower of defence if besieged. There were arms
secreted beneath the hay for such an emergency. She would run there,
swing-to its open doors, and get ready to barricade them.
She ran crouchingly, seeking the higher grasses and brambles of the
ridge to escape observation from the meadow until she could descend upon
the barn from the rear. She threw aside her impeding shawl; her brown
holland sun-bonnet, torn off her head and hanging by its strings from her
shoulders, let her coarse silver-threaded hair stream like a mane over
her back; her face and hands were bleeding from thorns and whitened by
dust. But she struggled on fiercely like some hunted animal until she
reached the descending trail, when, letting herself go blindly, only
withheld by the long grasses she clutched at wildly on either side, she
half fell, half stumbled down the slope and emerged beside the barn,
breathless and exhausted.
But what a contrast was there! For an instant she could scarcely
believe that she had left the ridge with her husband's savage outcry in
her ears, and in her eyes the swift vision of his furious cavalcade. The
boundary meadow was hidden by the soft lines of graceful willows in whose
dim recesses the figures of the passionate horsemen seemed to have melted
forever. There was nothing now to interrupt the long vista of peaceful
beauty that stretched before her through this lonely hollow to the
distant sleeping hills. The bursting barn in the foreground, heaped with
grain that fringed its eaves and bristled from its windows and doors
until its unlovely bulk was hidden in trailing feathery outlines; the
gentle flutter of wings and soothing twitter of swallows and jays around
its open rafters, and the drifting shadows of a few circling crows above
it; the drowsy song of bees on the wild mustard that half hid its walls
with yellow bloom; the sound of faintly-trickling water in one of those
old Indian-haunted springs that had given its name to the locality; all
these for an instant touched the senses of this hard, fierce woman as she
had not been touched since she was a girl. For one brief moment the joys
of peace and that matured repose that never had been hers flashed upon
her; but with it came the savage consciousness that even now it was being
wrested away, and the thought fired her blood again. She listened eagerly
for a second in the direction of the meadow; there was no report of
fire-arms—there was yet time to prepare the barn for defence. She
ran to the front of the building and seized the latch of the half-closed
door. A little feminine cry that was half a laugh came from within, with
the rapid rustle of a skirt and as the door swung open a light figure
vanished through the rear window. The slanting sunlight falling in the
shadowed interior disclosed only the single erect figure of the
school-master John Ford.
The first confusion and embarrassment of an interrupted rendezvous
that had colored Ford's cheeks, gave way to a look of alarm as he caught
sight of the bleeding face and dishevelled figure of Mrs. McKinstry. She
saw it. To her distorted fancy it seemed only a proof of deeper guilt.
Without a word she closed the heavy door behind her and swung the huge
cross-bar unaided to its place. She then turned and confronted him,
wiping the dust from her face and arms with her torn and dangling
sun-bonnet in a way that recalled her attitude on the first day he had
"That was Cress with ye?" she said.
He hesitated, still gazing at her in wonder.
He started. "I don't propose to," he retorted indignantly. "It
"I don't ask ye how long this yer's bin goin' on," she said, pointing
to Cressy's sun-bonnet, a few books, and a scattered nosegay of wild
flowers lying on the hay; "and I don't want to 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 to ye."
"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
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 hurt ye!"
"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
"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 had
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
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 a
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"'Tain't either!" broke in Johnny promptly. "Theth's over ther beyond
the thchool, and Crethy's eatin' ithecream at the bakerth with Uncle
"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
"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 about me."
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
"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 woods.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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 to
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 with
"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 approached him.
"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,
"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 embarrassed fashion.
"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 returned
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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 distrust.
"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 afternoon.
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 the master.
"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
"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 in
"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 tone.
"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 hand.
"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
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
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 natural
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
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
"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
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 its truths.
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 unexpectedly appeared.
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
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
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
"YOU have not doubted me, Cressy? YOU have not allowed this infamous
raking up of things that are past and gone to alter your feelings?"
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 his face.
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 a man."
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
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 own."
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 yonder."
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 the
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 possibly regret!
"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
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
"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
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.
"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
"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
"That war true?" asked McKinstry, laying his hand upon the master's
shoulder and bringing his dull eyes to the level of the young man's.
"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 deeply-seated
"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
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
"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
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
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 cheerfully departed.
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
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 away.
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 Seth!
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
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
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
"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 fellow
"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 was so utterly
incomprehensible and inconsistent with Seth's avowed hatred of the master
that the boy must have been delirious.
He was roused by the entrance of the surgeon. "It's not so bad as I
thought," he said, with a reassuring nod. "It was a mighty close shave
between a shattered bone and a severed artery, but we've got the ball,
and he'll pull through in a week. By Jove! though—the old
fire-eater was more concerned about finding the ball than living or
dying! Go in there—he wants to see you. Don't let him talk too
much. He's called in a lot of his friends for some reason or
other—and there's a regular mass-meeting in there. Go in, and get
rid of 'em. I'll look after baby Filgee—though the little chap will
be all right again after another dressing."
The master cast a hurried look of relief at the surgeon, and re-
entered the front room. It was filled with men whom the master
instinctively recognized as his former adversaries. But they gave way
before him with a certain rude respect and half abashed sympathy as
McKinstry called him to his side. The wounded man grasped his hand. "Lift
me up a bit," he whispered. The master assisted him with difficulty to
"Gentlemen!" said McKinstry, with a characteristic wave of his
crippled hand towards the crowd as he laid the other on the master's
shoulder. "Ye heerd me talkin' a minit ago; ye heer me now. This yer
young man as we've slipped up on and meskalkilated has told the
truth—every time! Ye ken tie to him whenever and wherever ye want
to. Ye ain't expected to feel ez I feel, in course, but the man ez goes
back on HIM—quo'lls with me. That's all—and thanks for
inquiring friends. Ye'll git now, boys, and leave him a minit with
The men filed slowly out, a few lingering long enough to shake the
master's hand with grave earnestness, or half smiling, half abashed
embarrassment. The master received the proffered reconciliation of these
men, who but a few hours before would have lynched him with equal
sincerity, with cold bewilderment. As the door closed on the last of the
party he turned to McKinstry. The wounded man had sunk down again, but
was regarding with drowsy satisfaction a leaden bullet he was holding
between his finger and thumb.
"This yer shot, Mr. Ford," he said in a slow voice, whose weakness was
only indicated by its extreme deliberation, "never kem from the gun I
gave ye—and was never fired by you." He paused and then added with
his old dull abstraction, "It's a long time since I've run agin anythin'
that makes me feel more—kam."
In Mr. McKinstry's weak condition the master did not dare to make
Johnny's revelation known to him, and contented himself by simply
pressing his hand, but the next moment the wounded man
"That ball jest fits Seth's navy revolver—and the hound hes made
tracks outer the country."
"But what motive could he have in attacking YOU at such a time?" asked
"He reckoned that either I'd kill you and so he'd got shut of us both
in that way, without it being noticed; or if I missed you, the others
would hang YOU—ez they kalkilated to—for killing ME! The idea
kem to him when he overheard you hintin' you wouldn't return my
A shuddering conviction that McKinstry had divined the real truth
passed over the master. In the impulse of the moment he again would have
corroborated it by revealing Johnny's story, but a glance at the growing
feverishness of the wounded man checked his utterance. "Don't talk of it
now," he said hurriedly. "Enough for me to know that you acquit ME. I am
here now only to beg you to compose yourself until the doctor comes
back—as you seemed to be alone, and Mrs. McKinstry"—he
stopped in awkward embarrassment.
A singular confusion overspread the invalid's face. "She hed steppt
out afore this happened, owin' to contrairy opinions betwixt me and her.
Ye mout hev noticed, Mr. Ford, that gin'rally she didn't 'pear to cotton
to ye! Thar ain't a woman a goin' ez is the ekal of Blair Rawlins' darter
in nussin' a man and keeping him in fightin' order, but in matters like
things that consarn herself and Cress, I begin to think, Mr. Ford, that
somehow, she ain't exakly— kam! Bein' kam yourself, ye'll put any
unpleasantness down to that. Wotever you hear from HER, and, for the
matter o' that, from her own darter too—for I'm takin' back the
foolishness I said to ye over yon about your runnin' off with
Cress—you'll remember, Mr. Ford, it warn't from no ill feeling to
YOU, in her or Cress—but on'y a want of kam! I mout hev had MY
idees about Cress, you mout hev had YOURS, and that fool Dabney mout hev
had HIS; but it warn't the old woman's—nor Cressy's—it warn't
Blair Rawlins' darter's idea—nor yet HER darter's! And why? For
want o' kam! Times I reckon it was left out o' woman's nater. And bein'
kam yourself, you understand it, and take it all in."
The old look of drowsy pain had settled so strongly in his red eyes
again that the master was fain to put his hand gently over them, and with
a faint smile beg him to compose himself to sleep. This he finally did
after a whispered suggestion that he himself was feeling "more kam." The
master sat for some moments with his hand upon the sleeping man's eyes,
and a vague and undefinable sense of loneliness seemed to fall upon him
from the empty rafters of the silent and deserted house. The rising wind
moaned fitfully around its bleak shell with the despairing sound of far
and forever receding voices. So strong was the impression that when the
doctor and McKinstry's attending brother re-entered the room, the master
still lingered beside the bed with a dazed sensation of abandonment that
the doctor's practical reassuring smile could hardly dispel.
"He's doing splendidly now," he said, listening to the sleeper's more
regular respiration: "and I'd advise you to go now, Mr. Ford, before he
wakes, lest he might be tempted to excite himself by talking to you
again. He's really quite out of danger now. Good- night! I'll drop in on
you at the hotel when I return."
The master, albeit still confused and bewildered, felt his way to the
door and out into the open night. The wind was still despairingly
wrestling with the tree-tops, but the far receding voices seemed to be
growing fainter in the distance, until, as he passed on, they too seemed
to pass away forever.
. . . . . .
Monday morning had come again, and the master was at his desk in the
school house early, with a still damp and inky copy of the Star fresh
from the press before him. The free breath of the pines was blowing in
the window, and bringing to his ears the distant voices of his slowly
gathering flock, as he read as follows:—
"The perpetrator of the dastardly outrage at the Indian Spring Academy
on Thursday last—which, through unfortunate misrepresentation of
the facts, led to a premature calling out of several of our most
public-spirited citizens, and culminated in a most regrettable encounter
between Mr. McKinstry and the accomplished and estimable principal of the
school—has, we regret to say, escaped condign punishment by leaving
the country with his relations. If, as is seriously whispered, he was
also guilty of an unparalleled offence against a chivalrous code which
will exclude him in the future from ever seeking redress at the Court of
Honor, our citizens will be only too glad to get rid of the contamination
of being obliged to arrest him. Those of our readers who know the high
character of the two gentlemen who were thus forced into a hostile
meeting, will not be surprised to know that the most ample apologies were
tendered on both sides, and that the entente cordiale has been thoroughly
restored. The bullet—which it is said played a highly important
part in the subsequent explanation, proving to have come from a REVOLVER
fired by some outsider—has been extracted from Mr. McKinstry's
thigh, and he is doing well, with every prospect of a speedy
Smiling, albeit not uncomplacently, at this valuable contribution to
history from an unfettered press, his eye fell upon the next paragraph,
perhaps not so complacently:—
"Benjamin Daubigny, Esq., who left town for Sacramento on important
business, not entirely unconnected with his new interests in Indian
Springs, will, it is rumored, be shortly joined by his wife, who has been
enabled by his recent good fortune to leave her old home in the States,
and take her proper proud position at his side. Although personally
unknown to Indian Springs, Mrs. Daubigny is spoken of as a beautiful and
singularly accomplished woman, and it is to be regretted that her
husband's interests will compel them to abandon Indian Springs for
Sacramento as a future residence. Mr. Daubigny was accompanied by his
private secretary Rupert, the eldest son of H. G. Filgee, Esq., who has
been a promising graduate of the Indian Spring Academy, and offers a
bright example to the youth of this district. We are happy to learn that
his younger brother is recovering rapidly from a slight accident received
last week through the incautious handling of firearms."
The master, with his eyes upon the paper, remained so long plunged in
a reverie that the school-room was quite filled and his little flock was
wonderingly regarding him before he recalled himself. He was hurriedly
reaching his hand towards the bell when he was attracted by the rising
figure of Octavia Dean.
"Please, sir, you didn't ask if we had any news!"
"True—I forgot," said the master smiling. "Well, have you
anything to tell us?"
"Yes, sir. Cressy McKinstry has left school."
"Yes, sir; she's married."
"Married," repeated the master with an effort, yet conscious of the
eyes concentrated upon his colorless face. "Married—and to
"To Joe Masters, sir, at the Baptist Chapel at Big Bluff, Sunday, an'
Marm McKinstry was thar with her."
There was a momentary and breathless pause. Then the voices of his
little pupils—those sage and sweet truants from tradition, those
gentle but relentless historians of the future—rose around him in
shrill chorus—"WHY, WE KNOWED IT ALL ALONG, SIR!"