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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Girl of the Golden West By David Belasco Characters: 18829

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


No man had more of a dread of the obvious than the Sheriff. His position, he felt, was decidedly an unpleasant one. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed the Girl's discovery of his presence, he struggled to appear his old self. He was by no means unconscious of the fact that he had omitted his usual cordial greeting to her, and he felt that she must be scrutinising him, feature by feature. When, therefore, he shot a covert glance at her, it was with surprise that he saw an appealing look in her eyes.

"Oh, Jack, I want to thank you-" she began, but stopped quickly, deterred by the hard expression that instantly spread itself over the Sheriff's face. Resentment, all the more bitter because he believed it to be groundless, followed hard on the heels of her words which he thought to be inspired solely by a delicate tactfulness.

"Oh, don't thank me that he got away," he said icily. "It was the three aces and the pair you held-"

This was the Girl's opportunity; she seized it.

"About the three aces, I want to say that-"

It was Rance's turn to interrupt, which he did brutally.

"He'd better keep out of my country, that's all."

"Yes, yes."

To the Girl, any reference to her lover was a stab. Her face was pale with her terrible anxiety; notwithstanding, the contrast of her pallid cheeks and masses of golden hair gave her a beauty which Rance, as he met her eyes, found so extraordinarily tempting that he experienced a renewed fury at his utter helplessness. At the point, however, when it would seem from his attitude that all his self-control was about to leave him, the Girl picked up the bell on the desk and rang it vigorously.

Began then the long procession of miners walking around the room before taking their seats on the benches. At their head was Happy Halliday, who carried in his hands a number of slates, the one on the top having a large sponge attached. These were all more or less in bad condition, some having no frames, while others were mere slits of slate, but all had slate-pencils fastened to them by strings.

"Come along, boys, get your slates!" sang out Happy as he left the line and let the others file past him.

"Whoop!" vociferated Trinidad in a burst of enthusiasm.

"Trin, you're out o' step there!" reprimanded the teacher a little sharply; and then addressing Happy she ordered him to take his place once more in the line.

In a little while they were all seated, and now, at last, it seemed to the barkeeper as if the air of the room had been freed of its tension. No longer did he experience a sense of alertness, a feeling that something out of the ordinary was going to happen, and it was with immense relief that he heard the Girl take up her duties and ask:

"What books were left from last year?"

At first no one was able to give a scrap of information on this important matter; maybe it was because all lips were too dry to open; in the end, however, when the silence was becoming embarrassing, Happy moistened his lips with his tongue, and answered:

"Why, we scared up jest a whole book left. The name of it is-is-is-" The effort was beyond his mental powers and he came to a helpless pause.

Swelling with importance, and drawing forth the volume in question from his pocket, Sonora stood up and finished:

"-is 'Old Joe Miller's Jokes.'"

"That will do nicely," declared the Girl and seated herself on the pine-decorated box.

"Now, boys," continued Sonora, ever the most considerate of pupils, "before we begin I propose no drawin' of weppings, drinkin' or swearin' in school hours. The conduct of certain members wore on teacher last term. I don't want to mention no names, but I want Handsome an' Happy to hear what I'm sayin'." And after a sweeping glance at his mates, who, already, had begun to disport themselves and jeer at the unfortunate pair, he wound up with: "Is that straight?"

"You bet it is!" yelled the others in chorus; whereupon Sonora dropped into his seat.

In time order was restored and now the Girl, looking at Rance out of her big, frightened, blue eyes, observed:

"Rance, last year you led off with an openin' address, an'-"

"Yes, yes, go on Sheriff!" cried the boys, hailing her suggestion with delight.

Nevertheless, the Sheriff hesitated, seeing which, Trinidad contributed:

"Let 'er go, Jack!"

At length, fixing a look upon the Girl, Rance rose and said significantly:

"I pass."

"Oh, then, Sonora," suggested the Girl, covering up her embarrassment as best she could, "won't you make a speech?"

"Me-speak?" exploded Sonora; and again; "Me-speak? Oh, the devil!"

"Sh-sh!" came warningly from several of the boys.

"Why, I didn't mean that, o' course," apologised Sonora, colouring, and incidentally expectorating on Bucking Billy's boots. But to his infinite sorrow no protest worthy of the word was forthcoming from the apparently insensible Bucking Billy.

"Go on! Go on!" urged the school.

Sonora coughed behind his hand; then he began his address.

"Gents, I look on this place as something more 'n a place to sit around an' spit on-the stove. I claim that there's culture in the air o' Californay an' we're here to buck up again it an' hook on."

"Hear! Hear! Hear!" voiced the men together, while their fists came down heavily upon the improvised desks before them.

"With these remarks," concluded Sonora, "I set." And suiting the action to the word he plumped himself down heavily upon the bench, but only to rise again quickly with a cry of pain and strike Trinidad a fierce blow, who, he rightly suspected, was responsible for the pin that had found a lodging-place in the seat of his trousers.

At that not even the Girl's remonstrances prevented the boys, who had been silent as mice all the time that the instrument of torture was being adjusted, from giving vent to roars of laughter; and for a moment things in the school-room were decidedly boisterous.

"Sit down, boys, sit down!" ordered the Girl again and again; but it was some moments before she could get the school under control. When, finally, the skylarking had ceased, the Girl said in a voice which, despite its strange weariness, was music to their ears:

"Once more we meet together. There's ben a lot happened o' late that has learned me that p'r'aps I don't know as much as I tho't I did, an' I can't teach you much more. But if you're willin' to take me for what I am-jest a woman who wants things better, who wants everybody all they ought to be, why I'm willin' to rise with you an' help reach out-" She stopped abruptly, for Handsome was waving his hand excitedly at her, and asked a trifle impatiently: "What is it, Handsome?"

Handsome rose and hurriedly went over to her.

"Whisky, teacher, whisky! I want it so bad-"

The school rose to its feet as one man.

"Teacher! Teacher!" came tumultuously from all, their hands waving frantically in the air. And then without waiting for permission to speak the cry went up: "Whisky! Whisky!"

"No, no whisky," she denied them flatly.

Gradually the commotion subsided, for all knew that she meant what she said, at least for the moment.

"An' now jest a few words more on the subject o' not settin' judgment on the errin'-a subject near my heart."

This remark of the Girl's brought forth murmurs of wonder, and in the midst of them the door was pushed slowly inward and The Sidney Duck, wearing the deuce of spades which the Sheriff had pinned to his jacket when he banished him from their presence for cheating at cards, stood on the threshold, looking uncertainly about him. At once all eyes were focused upon him.

"Git! Git!" shouted the men, angrily. This was followed by a general movement towards him, which so impressed The Sidney Duck that he turned on his heel and was fleeing for his life when a cry from the Girl stopped him.

"Boys, boys," said the Girl in a reproving voice, which silenced them almost instantly; then, beckoning to Sid to approach, she went on in her most gentle tones: "I was jest gittin' to you, Sid, as I promised. You can stay."

Looking like a whipped dog The Sidney Duck advanced warily towards her.

Sonora's brow grew thunderous.

"What, here among gentlemen?"

And that his protest met with instantaneous approval was shown by the way the miners shifted uneasily in their seats and shouted threateningly:

"Git! Git!"

"Why, the fellow's a-" began Trinidad, but got no further, for the Girl stopped him by exclaiming:

"I know, I know, Trin-I've tho't it all over!"

For the next few minutes the Girl stood strangely still and her face became very grave. Never before had the men seen her in a mood like this, and they exchanged wondering glances. Presently she said:

"Boys, of late a man in trouble has been on my mind-" She paused, her glance having caught the peculiar light which her words had caused to appear in Rance's eyes, and lest he should misunderstand her meaning, she hastened to add: "Sid, o' course,-an' I fell to thinkin' o' the Prodigal Son. He done better, didn't he?"

"But a card sharp," objected Sonora from the depths of his big voice.

"Yes, that's what!" interjected Trinidad, belligerently.

The Girl's eyebrows lifted and a shade of resentment was in the answering voice:

"But s'pose there was a moment in his life when he was called upon to find a extra ace-can't we forgive

'im? He says he's sorry-ain't you, Sid?"

All the while the Girl had been speaking The Sidney Duck kept his eyes lowered and was swallowing nervously. Now he raised them and, with a feeble attempt to simulate penitence, he acknowledged that he had done wrong. Nevertheless, he declared:

"But if I 'adn't got caught things would 'a' been different. Oh, yes, I'm sorry."

In an instant the Girl was at his side removing the deuce of spades from his coat.

"Sid, you git your chance," she said with trembling lips. "Now go an' sit down."

A broad smile was creeping over The Sidney Duck's countenance as he moved towards the others; but Happy took it upon himself to limit its spread.

"Take that!" he blazed, striking the man in the face. "And git out of here!

"Happy, Happy!" cried the Girl. Her voice was so charged with reproach that The Sidney Duck was allowed by the men to pass on without any further molestation. Nevertheless, when he attempted to sit beside them, they moved as far away as possible from him and compelled him to take a stool that stood apart from the benches which held them together in friendly proximity.

At this point Trinidad inquired of the Girl whether she meant to infer that honesty was not the best policy, and by way of illustration, he went on to say:

"S'posin' my watch had no works an' I was to sell it to the Sheriff for one hundred dollars. Would you have much respect for me?"

For the briefest part of a second the Girl seemed to be reflecting.

"I'd have more respect for you than for the Sheriff," she answered succinctly.

"Hurrah! Whoopee! Whoop!" yelled the men, who were delighted both with what she said as well as her pert way of saying it.

It was in the midst of these shouts that Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle, unobserved by the others, quietly stole into the room and squatted themselves down under the blackboard. When the merriment had subsided Rance rose and took the floor. His face was paler than usual, though his voice was calm when presently he said:

"Well, bein' Sheriff, I'm careful about my company-I'll sit in the bar. Cheats and road agents"-and here he paused meaningly and glanced from The Sidney Duck to the Girl-"ar'n't jest in my line. I walk in the open road with my head up and my face to the sun, and whatever I've pulled up, you'll remark I've always played square and stood by the cyards."

"I know, I know," observed the Girl and fell wearily into her seat; the next instant she went on more confidently: "An' that's the way to travel-in the straight road. But if ever I don't travel that road, or you-"

"You always will, you bet," observed Nick with feeling.

"You bet she will!" shouted the others.

"But if I don't," continued the Girl, insistently, "I hope there'll be someone to lead me back-back to the right road. 'Cause remember, Rance, some of us are lucky enough to be born good, while others have to be 'lected."

"That's eloquence!" cried Sonora, moved almost to tears; while Rance took a step forward as if about to make some reply; but the next instant, his head held no longer erect and his face visibly twitching, he passed into the bar-room.

A silence reigned for a time, which was broken at last by the Girl announcing with great solemnity:

"If anybody can sing 'My Country 'Tis,' Academy's opened."

At this request, really of a physical nature, and advanced in a spirit of true modesty, all present, curiously enough, seemed to have lost their voices and nudged one another in an endeavour to get the hymn started. Someone insisted that Sonora should go ahead, but that worthy pupil objected giving as his excuse, obviously a paltry one and trumped up for the occasion, that he did not know the words. There was nothing to it, therefore, but that the Indians should render the great American anthem. And so, standing stolidly facing the others, their high-pitched, nasal voices presently began:

"My country 'tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing."

"Well, if that ain't sarkism!" interjected Sonora between the lines of the hymn.

"Land where our fathers died-"

"You bet they died hard!" cut in Trinidad, rolling his eyes upward in a comical imitation of the Indians.

"Land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountain side

Let freedom ring."

All the while the Indians were singing the last lines of the hymn the Girl's face was a study in reminiscent dreams, but when they had finished and were leaving the room, she came back to earth, as it were, and clapped her hands, an appreciation which brought forth from Wowkle a grateful "Huh!"

"I would like to read you a little verse from a book of poems," presently went on the teacher; and when the men had given her their attention, she read with much feeling:

"'No star is ever lost we once have seen,

We always may be what we might have been.'"

"Why, what's the matter?" inquired Sonora, greatly moved at the sight of the tears which, of a sudden, began to run down the teacher's cheeks.

"Why, what's-?" came simultaneously from the others, words failing them.

"Nothin', nothin', only it jest came over me that I'll be leavin' you soon," stammered the Girl. "How can I do it? How can I do it?" she wailed.

Sonora gazed at her unbelievingly.

"Do what?" he said.

"What did she say?" questioned Trinidad.

Now Sonora went over to her, and asked:

"What d'you say? Why, what's the matter?"

Slowly the Girl raised her head and looked at him through half-closed lids, the tears that still clung to them, blinding her almost. Plainly audible in the silence of the room the seconds ticked away on the clock, and still she did not speak; at last she murmured:

"Oh, it's nothin', nothin', only I jest remembered I've promised to leave Cloudy soon an', p'r'aps, we might never be together again-you an' me an' The Polka. Oh, it took me jest like that when I seen your dear, ol' faces, your dear, plucky, ol' faces an' realised that-" She could not go on, and buried her face in her hands, her glistening blonde head shaking with her sobs.

It was thus that the Sheriff, entering a moment later, found her. Without a word he resumed his seat in front of the fire.

Sonora continued to stare blankly at her. He was too dazed to speak, much less to think. He broke silence slowly.

"What-you leavin' us?"

"Leavin' us?" inquired Happy, incredulously.

"Careful, girl, careful," warned Nick, softly.

The Girl hesitated a moment, and then went recklessly on:

"It's bound to happen soon."

Sonora looked more puzzled than ever; he rested his hand upon her desk as if to support himself, and said:

"I don't quite understand. Great Gilead! We done anythin' to offend you?"

"Oh, no, no, no!" she hastened to assure him, at the same time letting her hand rest upon his.

But this explanation did not satisfy Sonora. Anxious to discover what she had at heart he went on sounding:

"Tired of us? Ain't we got style enough for you?"

The Girl did not answer; her breathing, swift and short, painfully intensified the hush that had fallen on the room; at last, the boys becoming impatient began to bombard her with questions.

"Be you goin' to show them Ridge boys we've petered out an' culture's a dead dog here?" began Happy, rising.

"Do you want them to think Academy's busted?" asked Handsome.

"Ain't we your boys no more?" put in Trinidad, wistfully.

"Ain't I your boy?" asked Sonora, sentimentally. "Why, what is it, Girl? Has anybody-tell me-perhaps-"

The Girl raised her head and dried her eyes; when she spoke one could have heard a pin drop.

"Oh, no, no, no," she said with averted face, and added tremulously: "There, we won't say no more about it. Let's forgit it. Only when I go away I want to leave the key o' my cabin with Old Sonora here, an' I want you all to come up sometimes, an' to think o' me as the girl who loved you all, an' sometimes is wishin' you well, an' I want to think o' little Nick here runnin' my bar an' not givin' the boys too much whisky." Her words died away in a sob and her head fell forward, her hand, the while, resting upon Nick's shoulder.

At last, Sonora saw what lay beneath her tears; the situation was all too clear to him now.

"Hold on!" he cried hoarsely. "There's jest one reason for the Girl to leave her home an' friends-only one: There must be some fellow away from here that she-that she likes better 'n she does any of us." And turning once more upon the Girl, he demanded excitedly: "Is that it? Speak!"

The Girl raised her tear-stained face and looked him in the eye.

"Likes-" she repeated with a world of meaning in her voice-"in a different way, yes."

"Well, so help me!" ejaculated Happy, unhappily, while Sonora, with head bent low, went over to his seat.

The next moment the boys of the front rows had joined those of the rear and were grouping themselves together to discuss the situation.

"Sure you ain't makin' a mistake?" Trinidad questioned suddenly.

The Girl came down from her seat on the platform and went over to them.

"Mistake," she repeated dreamily. "Oh, no, no, no, boys, there's no mistake about this. Oh, Trin!" she burst out tearfully, and two soft arms crept gently about his neck. "An' Sonora-Ah, Sonora!" She raised herself on her tiny toes and kissed him on the left cheek.

The next instant she was gone.

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