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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Girl of the Golden West By David Belasco Characters: 42725

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


There was no mistaking then-no need to contrast her feeling of anxiety of a few moments ago lest some other woman had preceded her in his affections, with her indifference on former occasions when her admirers had proved faithless, to make the Girl realise that she was experiencing love and was dominated by a passion for this man.

So that, with no reason whatever in her mind to question the sincerity of Johnson's love for her, it would seem as if nothing were wanting to make the Girl perfectly happy; that there could be no room in her heart for any feeling other than elation. And yet, curiously enough, the Girl could not doze off to sleep. Some mysterious force-a vague foreboding of something about to happen-impelled her to open her eyes again and again.

It was an odd and wholly new sensation, this conjuring up of distressing spectres, for no girl was given less to that sort of thing; all the same, it was with difficulty that she checked an impulse to cry out to her lover-whom she believed to be asleep-and make him dissipate, by renewed assurances, the mysterious barrier which she felt was hemming her in.

As for Johnson, the moment that his head had touched the pillows, he fell to thinking of the awkward situation in which he was placed, the many complications in which his heart had involved him and, finally, he found himself wondering whether the woman whom he loved so dearly was also lying sleepless in her rug on the floor.

And so it was not surprising that he should spring up the moment that he heard cries from outside.

"Who's that knockin', I wonder?"

Although her voice showed no signs of distress or annoyance, the question coming from her in a calm tone, the Girl was upon her feet almost before she knew it. In a trice she removed all evidences that she had been lying upon the floor, flinging the pillows and silk coverlet to the wardrobe top.

In that same moment Johnson was standing in the parting of the curtains, his hand raised warningly. In another moment he was over to the door where, after taking his pistols from his overcoat pockets, he stood in a cool, determined attitude, fingering his weapons.

"But some one's ben callin'," the Girl was saying, at the very moment when above the loud roaring of the wind another knock was heard on the cabin door. "Who can it be?" she asked as if to herself, and calmly went over to the table, where she took up the candle and lit it.

Springing to her side, Johnson whispered tensely:

"Don't answer-you can't let anyone in-they wouldn't understand."

The Girl eyed him quizzically.

"Understand what?" And before he had time to explain, much less to check her, she was standing at the window, candle in hand, peering out into the night.

"Why, it's the posse!" she cried, wheeling round suddenly. "How did they ever risk it in this storm?"

At these words a crushed expression appeared on Johnson's countenance; an uncanny sense of insecurity seized him. Once more the loud, insistent pounding was repeated, and as before, the outlaw, his hands on his guns, commanded her not to answer.

"But what on earth do the boys want?" inquired the Girl, seemingly oblivious to what he was saying. Indeed, so much so that as the voice of Nick rose high above the other sounds of the night, calling,

"Min-Minnie-Girl, let us in!" she hurriedly brushed past him and yelled through the door:

"What do you want?"

Again Johnson's hand went up imperatively.

"Don't let him come in!" he whispered.

But even then she heard not his warning, but silently, tremulously listened to Sonora, who shouted through the door: "Say, Girl, you all right?" And not until her answering voice had called back her assurance that she was safe did she turn to the man at her side and whisper in a voice that showed plainly her agitation and fear:

"Jack Rance is there! If he was to see you here-he's that jealous I'd be afraid-" She checked her words and quickly put her ear close to the door, the voices outside having become louder and more distinct. Presently she spun round on her heel and announced excitedly: "Ashby's there, too!" And again she put her ear to the door.

"Ashby!" The exclamation fell from Johnson's lips before he was aware of it. It was impossible to deceive himself any longer-the posse had tracked him!

"We want to come in, Girl!" suddenly rang out from the well-known voice of Nick.

"But you can't come in!" shouted back the Girl above the noise of the storm; then, taking advantage of a particularly loud howl of the blast, she turned to Johnson and inquired: "What will I say? What reason will I give?"

Serious as was Johnson's predicament, he could not suppress a smile. In a surprisedly calm voice he told her to say that she had gone to bed.

The Girl's eyes flooded with admiration.

"Why, o' course-that's it," she said, and turned back to the door and called through it: "I've gone to bed, Nick! I'm in bed now!"

The barkeeper's answer was lost in another loud howl of the blast. Soon afterwards, however, the Girl made out that Nick was endeavouring to convey to her a warning of some kind.

"You say you've come to warn me?" she cried.

"Yes, Ramerrez…!"

"What? Say that again?"

"Ramerrez is on the trail-"

"Ramerrez's on the trail!" repeated the Girl in tones of alarm; and not waiting to hear further she motioned to Johnson to conceal himself behind the curtains of the bed, muttering the while:

"I got to let 'em in-I can't keep 'em out there on such a night…" He had barely reached his place of concealment when the Girl slid back the bolts and bade the boys to come in.

Headed by Rance, the men quickly filed in and deposited their lanterns on the floor. It was evident that they had found the storm most severe, for their boots were soaked through and their heavy buffalo overcoats, caps and ear-muffs were covered with snow, which all, save Rance, proceeded to remove by shaking their shoulders and stamping their feet. The latter, however, calmly took off his gloves, pulled out a beautifully-creased handkerchief from his pocket, and began slowly to flick off the snow from his elegant mink overcoat before hanging it carefully upon a peg on the wall. After that he went over to the table and warmed his hands over the lighted candle there. Meanwhile, Sonora, his nose, as well as his hands which with difficulty he removed from his heavy fur mittens, showing red and swollen from the effects of the biting cold, had gone over to the fire, where he ejaculated:

"Ouf, I'm cold! Glad you're safe, Girl!"

"Yes, Girl, The Polka's had a narrow squeak," observed Nick, stamping his feet which, as well as his legs, were wrapped with pieces of blankets for added warmth.

Unconsciously, at his words, the Girl's eyes travelled to the bed; then, drawing her robe snugly about her, and seating herself, she asked with suppressed excitement:

"Why, Nick, what's the matter? What's-"

Rance took it upon himself to do the answering. Sauntering over to the Girl, he drawled out:

"It takes you a long time to get up, seems to me. You haven't so much on, either," he went on, piercing her with his eyes.

Smilingly and not in the least disconcerted by the Sheriff's remark, the Girl picked up a rug from the floor and wound it about her knees.

"Well?" she interrogated.

"Well, we was sure that you was in trouble," put in Sonora. "My breath jest stopped."

"Me? Me in trouble, Sonora?" A little laugh that was half-gay, half-derisive, accompanied her words.

"See here, that man Ramerrez-" followed up Rance with a grim look.

"-feller you was dancin' with," interposed Sonora, but checked himself instantly lest he wound the Girl's feelings.

Whereupon, Rance, with no such compunctions, became the spokesman, a grimace of pleasure spreading over his countenance as he thought of the unpleasant surprise he was about to impart. Stretching out his stiffened fingers over the blaze, he said in his most brutal tones:

"Your polkying friend is none other than Ramerrez."

The Girl's eyes opened wide, but they did not look at the Sheriff. They looked straight before her.

"I warned you, girl," spoke up Ashby, "that you should bank with us oftener."

The Girl gave no sign of having heard him. Her slender figure seemed to have shrunken perceptibly as she stared stupidly, uncomprehendingly, into space.

"We say that Johnson was-" repeated Rance, impatiently.

"-what?" fell from the Girl's lips, her face pale and set.

"Are you deaf?" demanded Rance; and then, emphasising every word, he rasped out: "The fellow you've been polkying with is the man that has been asking people to hold up their hands."

"Oh, go on-you can't hand me out that!" Nevertheless the Girl looked wildly about the room.

Angrily Rance strode over to her and sneered bitingly:

"You don't believe it yet, eh?"

"No, I don't believe it yet!" rapped out the Girl, laying great stress upon the last word. "I know he isn't."

"Well, he is Ramerrez, and he did come to The Polka to rob it," retorted the Sheriff.

All at once the note of resentment in the Girl's voice became positive; she flared back at him, though she flushed in spite of herself.

"But he didn't rob it!"

"That's what gits me," fretted Sonora. "He didn't."

"I should think it would git you," snapped back the Girl, both in her look and voice rebuking him for his words.

It was left to Ashby to spring another surprise.

"We've got his horse," he said pointedly.

"An' I never knowed one o' these men to separate from his horse," commented Sonora, still smarting under the Girl's reprimand.

"Right you are! And now that we've got his horse and this storm is on, we've got him," said Rance, triumphantly. "But the last seen of Johnson," he went on with a hasty movement towards the Girl and eyeing her critically, "he was heading this way. You seen anything of him?"

The Girl struggled hard to appear composed.

"Heading this way?" she inquired, reddening.

"So Nick said," declared Sonora, looking towards that individual for proof of his words.

But Nick had caught the Girl's lightning glance imposing silence upon him; in some embarrassment he stammered out:

"That is, he was-Sid said he saw 'im take the trail, too."

"But the trail ends here," pointed out Rance, at the same time looking hard at the Girl. "And if she hasn't seen him, where was he going?"

At this juncture Nick espied a cigar butt on the floor; unseen by the others, he hurriedly picked it up and threw it in the fire.

"One o' our dollar Havanas! Good Lord, he's here!" he muttered to himself.

"Rance is right. Where was he goin'?" was the question with which he was confronted by Sonora when about to return to the others.

"Well, I tho't I seen him," evaded Nick with considerable uneasiness. "I couldn't swear to it. You see it was dark, an'-Moses but the Sidney Duck's a liar!"

At length, Ashby decided that the man had in all probability been snowed under, ending confidently with:

"Something scared him off and he lit out without his horse." Which remark brought temporary relief to the Girl, for Nick, watching her, saw the colour return to her face.

Unconsciously, during this discussion, the Girl had risen to her feet, but only to fall back in her chair again almost as suddenly, a sign of nervousness which did not escape the sharp eye of the Sheriff.

"How do you know the man's a road agent?" A shade almost of contempt was in the Girl's question.

Sonora breathed on his badly nipped fingers before answering:

"Well, two greasers jest now were pretty positive before they quit."

Instantly the Girl's head went up in the air.

"Greasers!" she ejaculated scornfully, while her eyes unfalteringly met Rance's steady gaze.

"But the woman knew him," was the Sheriff's vindictive thrust.

The Girl started; her face went white.

"The woman-the woman d'you say?"

"Why, yes, it was a woman that first tol' them that Ramerrez was in the camp to rob The Polka," Sonora informed her, though his tone showed plainly his surprise at being compelled to repeat a thing which, he wrongly believed, she already knew.

"We saw her at The Palmetto," leered Rance.

"And we missed the reward," frowned Ashby; at which Rance quickly turned upon the speaker with:

"But Ramerrez is trapped."

There was a moment's startled pause in which the Girl struggled with her passions; at last, she ventured:

"Who's this woman?"

The Sheriff laughed discordantly.

"Why, the woman of the back trail," he sneered.

"Nina Micheltore?a! Then she does know 'im-it's true-it goes through me!" unwittingly burst from the Girl's lips.

The Sheriff, evidently, found the Situation amusing, for he laughed outright.

"He's the sort of a man who polkas with you first and then cuts your throat," was his next stab.

The Girl turned upon him with eyes flashing and retorted:

"Well, it's my throat, ain't it?"

"Well I'll be!-" The Sheriff's sentence was left unfinished, for Nick, quickly pulling him to one side, whispered:

"Say, Rance, the Girl's cut up because she vouched for 'im. Don't rub it in."

Notwithstanding, Rance, to the Girl's query of "How did this Nina Micheltore?a know it?" took a keen delight in telling her:

"She's his girl."

"His girl?" repeated the Girl, mechanically.

"Yes. She gave us his picture," went on Rance; and taking the photograph out of his pocket, he added maliciously, "with love written on the back of it."

A glance at the photograph, which she fairly snatched out of his hands, convinced the Girl of the truthfulness of his assertion. With a movement of pain she threw it upon the floor, crying out bitterly:

"Nina Micheltore?a! Nina Micheltore?a!" Turning to Ashby with an abrupt change of manner she said contritely: "I'm sorry, Mr. Ashby, I vouched for 'im."

The Wells Fargo Agent softened at the note in the Girl's voice; he was about to utter some comforting words to her when suddenly she spoke again.

"I s'pose they had one o' them little lovers' quarrels an' that made 'er tell you, eh?" She laughed a forced little laugh, though her heart was beating strangely as she kept on: "He's the kind o' man who sort o' polkas with every girl he meets." And at this she began to laugh almost hysterically.

Rance, who resented her apologising to anyone but himself, stood scowling at her.

"What are you laughing at?" he questioned.

"Oh, nothin', Jack, nothin'," half-cried, half-laughed the Girl. "Only it's kind o' funny how things come out, ain't it? Took in! Nina Micheltore?a! Nice company he keeps-one o' them Cachuca girls with eyelashes at half-mast!"

Once more, she broke out into a fit of laughter.

"Well, well," she resumed, "an' she sold 'im out for money! Ah, Jack Rance, you're a better guesser'n I am!" And with these words she sank down at the table in an apathy of misery. Horror and hatred and hopelessness had possession of her. A fierce look was in her eyes when a moment later she raised her head and abruptly dismissed the boys, saying:

"Well, boys, it's gittin' late-good-night!"

Sonora was the first to make a movement towards the door.

"Come on, boys," he growled in his deep bass voice; "don't you intend to let a lady go to bed?"

One by one the men filed through the door which Nick held open for them; but when all but himself had left, the devoted little barkeeper turned to the Girl with a look full of meaning, and whispered:

"Do you want me to stay?"

"Me? Oh, no, Nick!" And with a "Good-night, all! Good-night, Sonora, an' thank you! Good-night, Nick!" the Girl closed the door upon them. The last that she heard from them was the muffled ejaculation:

"Oh, Lordy, we'll never git down to Cloudy to-night!"

Now the Girl slid the bolts and stood with her back against the door as if to take extra precautions to bar out any intrusion, and with eyes that blazed she yelled out:

"Come out o' that, now! Step out there, Mr. Johnson!"

Slowly the road agent parted the curtains and came forward in an attitude of dejection.

"You came here to rob me," at once began the Girl, but her anger made it impossible for her to continue.

"I didn't," denied the road agent, quietly, his countenance reflecting how deeply hurt he was by her words.

"You lie!" insisted the Girl, beside herself with rage.

"I don't-"

"You do!"

"I admit that every circumstance points to-"

"Stop! Don't you give me any more o' that Webster Unabridged. You git to cases. If you didn't come here to steal you came to The Polka to rob it, didn't you?"

Johnson, his eyes lowered, was forced to admit that such were his intentions, adding swiftly:

"But when I knew about you-" He broke off and took a step towards her.

"Wait! Wait! Wait where you are! Don't you take a step further or I'll-" She made a significant gesture towards her bosom, and then, laughing harshly, went on denouncingly: "A road agent! A road agent! Well, ain't it my luck! Wouldn't anybody know to look at me that a gentleman wouldn't fall my way! A road agent! A road agent!" And again she laughed bitterly before going on: "But now you can git-git, you thief, you imposer on a decent woman! I ought to have tol' 'em all, but I wa'n't goin' to be the joke o' the world with you behind the curtains an' me eatin' charlotte rusks an' lemming turnovers an' a-polkyin' with a road agent! But now you can git-git, do you hear me?"

Johnson heard her to the end with bowed head; and so scathing had been her denunciations of his actions that the fact that pride alone kept her from breaking down completely escaped his notice. With his eyes still downcast be said in painful fragments:

"One word only-only a word and I'm not going to say anything in defence of myself. For it's all true-everything is true except that I would have stolen from you. I am called Ramerrez; I have robbed; I am a road agent-an outlaw by profession. Yes, I'm all that-and my father was that before me. I was brought up, educated, thrived on thieves' money, I suppose, but until six months ago when my father died, I did not know it. I lived much in Monterey-I lived there as a gentleman. When we met that day I wasn't the thing I am to-day. I only learned the truth when my father died and left me with a rancho and a band of thieves-nothing else-nothing for us all, and I-but what's the good of going into it-the circumstances. You wouldn't understand if I did. I was my father's son; I have no excuse; I guess, perhaps, it was in me-in the blood. Anyhow, I took to the road, and I didn't mind it much after the first time. But I drew the line at killing-I wouldn't have that. That's the man that I am, the blackguard that I am. But-" here he raised his eyes and said with a voice that was charged with feeling-"I swear to you that from the moment I kissed you to-night I meant to change, I meant to-"

"The devil you did!" broke from the Girl's lips, but with a sound that was not unlike a sob.

"I did, believe me, I did," insisted the man. "I meant to go straight and take you with me-but only honestly-when I could honestly. I meant to work for you. Why, every word you said to me to-night about being a thief cut into me like a knife. Over and over again I have said to myself, she must never know. And now-well, it's all over-I have finished."

"An' that's all?" questioned the Girl with averted face.

"No-yes-what's the use…?"

The Girl's anger blazed forth again.

"But there's jest one thing you've overlooked explainin', Mr. Johnson. It shows exactly what you are. It wasn't so much your bein' a road agent I got against you. It's this:" And here she stamped her foot excitedly. "You kissed me-you got my first kiss."

Johnson hung his head.

"You said," kept on the Girl, hotly, "you'd ben thinkin' o' me ever since you saw me at Monterey, an' all the time you walked straight off an' ben kissin' that other woman." She shrugged her shoulder and laughed grimly. "You've got a girl," she continued, growing more and more indignant. "It's that I've got against you. It's my first kiss I've got against you. It's that Nina Micheltore?a that I can't forgive. So now you can git-git!" And with these words she unbolted the door and concluded tensely:

"If they kill you I don't care. Do you hear, I don't care…"

At those bitter words spoken by lips which failed so utterly to hide their misery, the Girl's face became colourless.

With the instinct of a brave man to sell his life as dearly as possible, Johnson took a couple of guns from his pocket; but the next moment, as if coming to the conclusion that death without the Girl would be preferable, he put them back, saying:

"You're right, Girl."

The next instant he had passed out of the door which she held wide open for him.

"That's the end o' that-that's the end o' that," she wound up, slamming the door after him. But all the way from the threshold to the bureau she kept murmuring to herself: "I don't care, I don't care… I'll be like the rest o' the women I've seen. I'll give that Nina Micheltore?a cards an' spades. There'll be another hussy around here. There'll be-" The threat was never finished. Instead, with eyes that fairly started out of their sockets, she

listened to the sound of a couple of shots, the last one exploding so loud and distinct that there was no mistaking its nearness to the cabin.

"They've got 'im!" she cried. "Well, I don't care-I don't-" But again she did not finish what she intended to say. For at the sound of a heavy body falling against the cabin door she flew to it, opened it and, throwing her arms about the sorely-wounded man, dragged him into the cabin and placed him in a chair. Quick as lightning she was back at the door bolting it.

With his eyes Johnson followed her action.

"Don't lock that door-I'm going out again-out there. Don't bar that door," he commanded feebly, struggling to his feet and attempting to walk towards it; but he lurched forward and would have fallen to the floor had she not caught him. Vainly he strove to break away from her, all the time crying out: "Don't you see, don't you see, Girl-open the door." And then again with almost a sob: "Do you think me a man to hide behind a woman?" He would have collapsed except for the strong arms that held him.

"I love you an' I'm goin' to save you," the Girl murmured while struggling with him. "You asked me to go away with you; I will when you git out o' this. If you can't save your own soul-" She stopped and quickly went over to the mantel where she took down a bottle of whisky and a glass; but in the act of pouring out a drink for him there came a loud rap on the window, and quickly looking round she saw Rance's piercing eyes peering into the room. For an instant she paled, but then there flashed through her mind the comforting thought that the Sheriff could not possibly see Johnson from his position. So, after giving the latter his drink, she waited quietly until a rap at the door told her that Rance had left the window when, her eye having lit on the ladder that was held in place on the ceiling, she quickly ran over to it and let it down, saying:

"Go up the ladder! Climb up there to the loft You're the man that's got my first kiss an' I'm goin' to save you…"

"Oh, no, not here," protested Johnson, stubbornly.

"Do you want them to see you in my cabin?" she cried reproachfully, trying to lift him to his feet.

"Oh, hurry, hurry…!"

With the utmost difficulty Johnson rose to his feet and catching the rounds of the ladder he began to ascend. But after going up a few rounds he reeled and almost fell off, gasping:

"I can't make it-no, I can't…"

"Yes, you can," encouraged the Girl; and then, simultaneously with another loud knock on the door: "You're the man I love an' you must-you've got to show me the man that's in you. Oh, go on, go on, jest a step an' you'll git there."

"But I can't," came feebly from the voice above. Nevertheless, the next instant he fell full length on the boarded floor of the loft with the hand outstretched in which was the handkerchief he had been staunching the blood from the wound in his side.

With a whispered injunction that he was all right and was not to move on any account, the Girl put the ladder back in its place. But no sooner was this done than on looking up she caught sight of the stained handkerchief. She called softly up to him to take it away, explaining that the cracks between the boards were wide and it could plainly be seen from below.

"That's it!" she exclaimed on observing that he had changed the position of his hand. "Now, don't move!"

Finally, with the lighted candle in her hand, the Girl made a quick survey of the room to see that nothing was in sight that would betray her lover's presence there, and then throwing open the door she took up such a position by it that it made it impossible for anyone to get past her without using force.

"You can't come in here, Jack Rance," she said in a resolute voice. "You can tell me what you want from where you are."

Roughly, almost brutally, Rance shoved her to one side and entered.

"No more Jack Rance. It's the Sheriff coming after Mr. Johnson," he said, emphasizing each word.

The Girl eyed him defiantly.

"Yes, I said Mr. Johnson," reiterated the Sheriff, cocking the gun that he held in his hand. "I saw him coming in here."

"It's more 'n I did," returned the Girl, evenly, and bolted the door. "Do you think I'd want to shield a man who tried to rob me?" she asked, facing him.

Ignoring the question, Rance removed the glove of his weaponless hand and strode to the curtains that enclosed the Girl's bed and parted them. When he turned back he was met by a scornful look and the words:

"So, you doubt me, do you? Well, go on-search the place. But this ends your acquaintance with The Polka. Don't you ever speak to me again. We're through."

Suddenly there came a smothered groan from the man in the loft; Rance wheeled round quickly and brought up his gun, demanding:

"What's that? What's that?"

Leaning against the bureau the Girl laughed outright and declared that the Sheriff was becoming as nervous as an old woman. Her ridicule was not without its effect, and, presently, Rance uncocked his gun and replaced it in its holster. Advancing now to the table where the Girl was standing, he took off his cap and shook it before laying it down; then, pointing to the door, his eyes never leaving the Girl's face, he went on accusingly:

"I saw someone standing out there against the snow. I fired. I could have sworn it was a man."

The Girl winced. But as she stood watching him calmly remove his coat and shake it with the air of one determined to make himself at home, she cried out tauntingly:

"Why do you stop? Why don't you go on-finish your search-only don't ever speak to me again."

At that, Rance became conciliatory.

"Say, Min, I don't want to quarrel with you."

Turning her back on him the Girl moved over to the bureau where she snapped out over her shoulder:

"Go on with your search, then p'r'aps you'll leave a lady to herself to go to bed."

The Sheriff followed her up with the declaration:

"I'm plumb crazy about you, Min."

The Girl shrugged her shoulder.

"I could have sworn I saw-I-Oh, you know it's just you for me-just you, and curse the man you like better. I-I-even yet I can't get over the queer look in your face when I told you who that man really was." He stopped and flung his overcoat down on the floor, and fixing her with a look he demanded: "You don't love him, do you?"

Again the Girl sent over her shoulder a forced little laugh.

"Who-me?"

The Sheriff's face brightened. Taking a few steps nearer to her, he hazarded:

"Say, Girl, was your answer final to-night about marrying me?"

Without turning round the Girl answered coyly:

"I might think it over, Jack."

Instantly the man's passion was aroused. He strode over to her, put his arms around her and kissed her forcibly.

"I love you, I love you, Minnie!" he cried passionately.

In the struggle that followed, the Girl's eyes fell on the bottle on the mantel. With a cry she seized it and raised it threateningly over her head. Another second, however, she sank down upon a chair and began to sob, her face buried in her hands.

Rance regarded her coldly; at last he gave vent to a mirthless laugh, the nasty laugh of a man whose vanity is hurt.

"So, it's as bad as that," he sneered. "I didn't quite realise it. I'm much obliged to you. Good-night." He snatched up his coat, hesitated, then repeated a little less angrily than before: "Good-night!"

But the Girl, with her face still hidden, made no answer. For a moment he watched the crouching form, the quivering shoulders, then asked, with sudden and unwonted gentleness:

"Can't you say good-night to me, Girl!"

Slowly the Girl rose to her feet and faced him, aversion and pity struggling for mastery. Then, as she noted the spot where he was now standing, his great height bringing him so near to the low boards of the loft where her lover was lying that it seemed as though he must hear the wounded man's breathing, all other feelings were swept away by overwhelming fear. With the one thought that she must get rid of him,-do anything, say anything, but get rid of him quickly, she forced herself forward, with extended hand, and said in a voice that held out new promise:

"Good-night. Jack Rance,-good-night!"

Rance seized the hand with an almost fierce gladness in both his own, his keen glance hungrily striving to read her face. Then, suddenly, he released her, drawing back his hand with a quick sharpness.

"Why, look at my hand! There's blood on it!" he said.

And even as he spoke, under the yellow flare of the lamp, the Girl saw a second drop of blood fall at her feet. Like a flash, the terrible significance of it came upon her. Only by self-violence could she keep her glance from rising, tell-tale, to the boards above.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she heard herself saying contritely, all the time desperately groping to invent a reason; at length, she added futilely: "I must have scratched you."

Rance looked puzzled, staring at the spatter of red as though hypnotised.

"No, there's no scratch there," he contended, wiping off the blood with his handkerchief.

"Oh, yes, there is," insisted the Girl tremulously; "that is, there will be in the mornin'. You'll see in the mornin' that there'll be-" She stopped and stared in frozen terror at the sinister face of the Sheriff, who was coolly watching his handkerchief turn from white to red under the slow rain of blood from the loft above.

"Oho!" he emitted sardonically, stepping back and pointing his gun towards the loft. "So, he's up there!"

The Girl's fingers clutched his arm, dragging desperately.

"No, he isn't, Jack-no, he isn't!" she iterated in blind, mechanical denial.

With an abrupt movement, Rance flung her violently from him, made a grab at the suspended ladder and lowered it into position; then, deaf to the Girl's pleadings, harshly ordered Johnson to come down, meanwhile covering the source of the blood-drops with his gun.

"Oh, wait,-wait a minute!" begged the Girl helplessly. What would happen if he couldn't obey the summons? He had spent himself in his climb to safety. Perhaps he was unconscious, slowly bleeding to death! But even as she tortured herself with fears, the boards above creaked as though a heavy body was dragging itself slowly across them. Johnson was evidently doing his best to reach the top of the ladder; but he did not move quickly enough to suit the Sheriff.

"Come down, or I'll-"

"Oh, just a minute, Jack, just a minute!" broke in the Girl frantically. "Don't shoot!-Don't you see he's tryin' to-?"

"Come down here, Mr. Johnson!" reiterated the Sheriff, with a face inhuman as a fiend.

The Girl clenched her hands, heedless of the nails cutting into her palms: "Won't you wait a moment,-please, wait, Jack!"

"Wait? What for?" the Sheriff flung at her brutally, his finger twitching on the trigger.

The Girl's lips parted to answer, then closed again dumbly,-for it was then that she saw the boots, then the legs of the road agent slide uncertainly through the open trap, fumble clumsily for the rungs of the ladder, then slip and stumble as the weight of the following body came upon them while the weak fingers strained desperately for a hold. The whole heart and soul and mind of the Girl seemed to be reaching out impotently to give her lover strength, to hurry him down fast enough to forestall a shot from the Sheriff. It seemed hours until the road agent reached the bottom of the ladder, then lurched with unseeing eyes to a chair and, finally, fell forward limply, with his arms and head resting on the table. Still dumb with dread, the Girl watched Rance slowly circle round the wounded man; it was not until the Sheriff returned his pistol to its holster that she breathed freely again.

"So, you dropped into The Polka to-night to play a little game of poker? Funny how things change about in an hour or two!" Rance chuckled mirthlessly; it seemed to suit his sardonic humour to taunt his helpless rival. "You think you can play poker,-that's your conviction, is it? Well, you can play freeze-out as to your chances, Mr. Johnson of Sacramento. Come, speak up,-it's shooting or the tree,-which shall it be?"

Goaded beyond endurance by Rance's taunting of the unconscious man, the Girl, fumbling in her bosom for her pistol, turned upon him in a sudden, cold fury:

"You better stop that laughin', Jack Rance, or I'll send you to finish it in some place where things ain't so funny."

Something in the Girl's altered tone so struck the Sheriff that he obeyed her. He said nothing, but on his lips were the words, "By Heaven, the Girl means it!" and his eyes showed a smouldering admiration.

"He doesn't hear you,-he's out of it. But me-me-I hear you-I ain't out of it," the Girl went on in compelling tones. "You're a gambler; he was, too; well, so am I." She crossed deliberately to the bureau, and laid her pistol away in the drawer, Rance meanwhile eyeing her with puzzled interest. Returning, she went on, incisively as a whip lash:

"I live on chance money, drink money, card money, saloon money. We're gamblers,-we're all gamblers!" She paused, an odd expression coming over her face,-an expression that baffled Rance's power to read. Presently she resumed: "Now, you asked me to-night if my answer was final,-well, here's your chance. I'll play you the game,-straight poker. It's two out o' three for me. Hatin' the sight o' you, it's the nearest chance you'll ever get for me."

"Do you mean-" began Rance, his hands resting on the table, his hawk-like glance burning into her very thoughts.

"Yes, with a wife in Noo Orleans all right," she interrupted him feverishly. "If you're lucky,-you'll git 'im an' me. But if you lose,-this man settin' between us is mine-mine to do with as I please, an' you shut up an' lose like a gentleman."

"You must be crazy about him!" The words seemed wrung from the Sheriff against his will.

"That's my business!" came like a knife-cut from the Girl.

"Do you know you're talkin' to the Sheriff?"

"I'm talkin' to Jack Rance, the gambler," she amended evenly.

"You're right,-and he's just fool enough to take you up," returned Rance with sudden decision. He looked around him for a chair; there was one near the table, and the Girl handed it to him. With one hand he swung it into place before the table, while with the other he jerked off the table-cover, and flung it across the room. Johnson neither moved nor groaned, as the edge slid from beneath his nerveless arms.

"You and the cyards have got into my blood. I'll take you up," he said, seating himself.

"Your word," demanded the Girl, leaning over the table, but still standing.

"I can lose like a gentleman," returned Rance curtly; then, with a swift seizure of her hand, he continued tensely, in tones that made the Girl shrink and whiten, "I'm hungry for you, Min, and if I win, I'll take it out on you as long as I have breath."

A moment later, the Girl had freed her hand from his clasp, and was saying evenly, "Fix the lamp." And while the Sheriff was adjusting the wick that had begun to flare up smokily, she swiftly left the room, saying casually over her shoulder that she was going to fetch something from the closet.

"What you goin' to get?" he called after her suspiciously. The Girl made no reply. Rance made no movement to follow her, but instead drew a pack of cards from his pocket and began to shuffle them with practiced carelessness. But when a minute had passed and the girl had not returned, he called once more, with growing impatience, to know what was keeping her.

"I'm jest gettin' the cards an' kind o' steadyin' my nerves," she answered somewhat queerly through the doorway. The next moment she had returned, quickly closing the closet door behind her, blew out her candle, and laying a pack of cards upon the table, said significantly:

"We'll use a fresh deck. There's a good deal depends on this, Jack." She seated herself opposite the Sheriff and so close to the unconscious form of the man she loved that from time to time her left arm brushed his shoulder.

Rance, without protest other than a shrug, took up his own deck of cards, wrapped them in a handkerchief, and stowed them away in his pocket. It was the Girl who spoke first:

"Are you ready?"

"Ready? Yes. I'm ready. Cut for deal."

With unfaltering fingers, the Girl cut. Of the man beside her, dead or dying, she must not, dared not think. For the moment she had become one incarnate purpose: to win, to win at any cost,-nothing else mattered.

Rance won the deal; and taking up the pack he asked, as he shuffled:

"A case of show-down?"

"Show-down."

"Cut!" once more peremptorily from Rance; and then, when she had cut, one question more: "Best two out of three?"

"Best two out of three." Swift, staccato sentences, like the rapid crossing of swords, the first preliminary interchange of strokes before the true duel begins.

Rance dealt the cards. Before either looked at them, he glanced across at the Girl and asked scornfully, perhaps enviously:

"What do you see in him?"

"What do you see in me?" she flashed back instantly, as she picked up her cards; and then: "What have you got?"

"King high," declared the gambler.

"King high here," echoed the Girl.

"Jack next," and he showed his hand.

"Queen next," and the Girl showed hers.

"You've got it," conceded the gambler, easily. Then, in another tone, "but you're making a mistake-"

"If I am, it's my mistake! Cut!"

Rance cut the cards. The Girl dealt them steadily. Then,

"What have you got?" she asked.

"One pair,-aces. What have you?"

"Nothing," throwing her cards upon the table.

With just a flicker of a smile, the Sheriff once more gathered up the pack, saying smoothly:

"Even now,-we're even."

"It's the next hand that tells, Jack, ain't it?"

"Yes."

"It's the next hand that tells me,-I'm awfully sorry,-" the words seemed to come awkwardly; her glance was troubled, almost contrite, "at any rate, I want to say jest now that no matter how it comes out-"

"Cut!" interjected Rance mechanically.

"-that I'll always think of you the best I can," completed the Girl with much feeling. "An' I want you to do the same for me."

Silently, inscrutably, the gambler dealt the ten cards, one by one. But as the Girl started to draw hers toward her, his long, thin fingers reached across once more and closed not ungently upon hand and cards.

"The last hand, Girl!" he reminded her. "And I've a feeling that I win,-that in one minute I'll hold you in my arms." And still covering her fingers with his own, he stole a glance at his cards.

"I win," he announced, briefly, his eyes alone betraying the inward fever. He dropped the cards before her on the table. "Three kings,-and the last hand!"

Suddenly, as though some inward cord had snapped under the strain, the Girl collapsed. Limply she slid downward in her chair, one groping hand straying aimlessly to her forehead, then dropping of its own weight. "Quick, Jack,-I'm ill,-git me somethin'!" The voice trailed off to nothingness as the drooping eyelids closed.

In real consternation, the Sheriff sprang to his feet. In one sweeping glance his alert eye caught the whisky bottle upon the mantel. "All right, Girl, I'll fix you in no time," he said cheeringly over his shoulder. But where the deuce did she keep her tumblers? The next minute he was groping for them in the dark of the adjoining closet and softly cursing himself for his own slowness.

Instantaneously, the Girl came to life. The unturned cards upon the table vanished with one lightning movement; the Girl's hand disappeared beneath her skirts, raised for the moment knee-high; then the same, swift reverse motion, and the cards were back in place, while the Girl's eyes trembled shut again, to hide the light of triumph in them. A smile flickered on her lips as the Sheriff returned with the glass and bottle.

"Never mind,-I'm better now," her lips shaped weakly.

The Sheriff set down the bottle, and put his arm around the Girl with a rough tenderness.

"Oh, you only fainted because you lost," he told her.

Averting her gaze, the Girl quietly disengaged herself, rose to her feet and turned her five cards face upwards.

"No, Jack, it's because I've won,-three aces and a pair."

The Sheriff shot one glance at the girl, keen, searching. Then, without so much as the twitch of an eyelid, he accepted his defeat, took a cigar from his pocket and lit it, the flame of the match revealing no expression other than the nonchalance for which he was noted; then, picking up his hat and coat he walked slowly to the door. Here he halted and wished her a polite good-night-so ceremoniously polite that at any other time it would have compelled her admiration.

Pale as death and almost on the point of collapse, the Girl staggered back to the table where the wounded road agent was half-sitting, half-lying.

Thrusting her hand now into the stocking from which she had obtained the winning, if incriminating, cards, she drew forth those that remained and scattered them in the air, crying out hysterically:

"Three aces an' a pair an' a stockin' full o' pictures-but his life belongs to me!"

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