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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Girl of the Golden West By David Belasco Characters: 25086

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Whatever may be said to the contrary, there are few more humiliating moments in a man's life than when he learns that some other person has supplanted him in the affections of his adored one. And it was the Girl's knowledge of this, together with her desire to spare the feelings of her two old admirers,-for in her nature there was ever that thoughtfulness of others which never permitted her to do a mean thing to anyone,-that had caused her to flee so precipitously from the room.

But painful as was their humiliation as they stood in silence, gazing with saddened faces at the door through which the Girl had gone out, their cup of bitterness was not yet full. The next moment the Sheriff, his lips curled inscrutably, said mockingly:

"Well, boys, the right man has come at last. Take your medicine, gentlemen."

His words cut Sonora to the quick, and it was with difficulty that he braced himself to hear the worst.

"Who's the man?" he inquired gruffly.

The Sheriff's eyes fastened themselves upon him; at length with deadly coldness he drawled out:

"Johnson's the man."

All the colour went out of Sonora's face, while his lips ejaculated:

"Gol A'mighty!"

"You lie!" blazed Trinidad in the next breath, and made a quick movement towards the Sheriff.

But Rance was not to be denied. Seeing Nick advancing towards them he called upon him to verify his words; but that individual merely looked first at one and then the other and did not answer, which silence infuriated Sonora.

"Why, you tol' me…?" he said with an angry look in his eye.

"Tol' you, Sonora? Why he tol' me the same thing," protested Trinidad with an earnestness that, at any other time, would have sent his listeners into fits of laughter.

This was too much for Sonora; he flew into a paroxysm of rage.

"Well, for a first-class liar…!"

"You bet!" corroborated Trinidad, relapsing, despite his anger, into his pet phrase.

For some minutes the dejected suitors continued in this strain, now arguing and then condoling with one another, the boys, meanwhile, proceeding to clear the school-room of the benches, casks and planks, lifting or rolling them back into place as if they were made of paper.

All of a sudden Sonora's face cleared perceptibly. Turning swiftly to the sheriff, who sat tilted back in a chair before the fire, he said with unexpected cheerfulness of voice:

"Why, Johnson's dead. He got away, an'-"

"Yes, he got away," remarked Rance, dully, shaking the ashes from his cigar, which answer, together with the peculiar look which Sonora saw on the other's face, made him at once suspicious that something was being held back from them which they had a right to know. It came about, therefore, that, with a hasty movement towards the Sheriff, his eyes glaring, his voice husky, Sonora demanded:

"Jack Rance, I call on you as Sheriff for Johnson! He was in your county."

Instantly the cry was taken up by the others, but it was Trinidad who, shaking his fist in Rance's face, supplemented:

"You hustle up an' run a bridle through your p'int o' teeth or your boom for re-election 's over, you lily-fingered gambler!"

But the Sheriff did not move a muscle, though after a moment he answered coolly:

"Oh, I don't know as I give a damn…!" Which reply, to say the least, was somewhat disconcerting to the men who had surrounded him and were eyeing him threateningly.

"No talk-we want Johnson," insisted Trinidad, hotly.

"We want Johnson," echoed the crowd in low, tense voices, their fists clenched.

And still Rance did not waver, but calmly puffing sway at his long, black cigar he looked blankly into space. Presently a voice outside calling, "Boys!" sounded throughout the room and brought him back to actuality. He sat straight up in his chair while Nick, shifting uneasily about on his feet, muttered:

"Why, that's Ashby!"

"Oh, if-" began the Sheriff and stopped. The next instant the Wells Fargo Agent, a cool, triumphant look on his face, stood framed in the doorway. With a hasty movement towards him Rance asked tensely: "Did you get him?"

The answer came back, almost before the question was asked:

"Yes-we've got him."

"Not Johnson?" demanded Sonora, truculently.

"Yes, Johnson," affirmed the Wells Fargo Agent with a hard laugh, his eyes the while upon Handsome, who, unaided, was lifting a heavy cask to a bench nearby.

"Not alive?" questioned Trinidad, unwilling to trust his own ears.

"You bet!" was Ashby's sententious confirmation, at which pandemonium broke loose, Nick alone appearing dejected and morose-looking. For his love and devotion to the Girl were too genuine to permit of his taking any part whatsoever in what he believed was opposed to her happiness. On the other hand, Rance, as may be inferred, was inwardly rejoicing, though when he perceived that Nick was eyeing him steadily he was careful to lower his eyes lest the little barkeeper should see the triumph shining beneath them. And, finally, unable to bear Nick's scrutiny any longer, he explained with a feeble attempt at self-defence:

"Well, I didn't do it, Nick, I didn't do it." But a moment later, his face hard and set, he added: "Now he be damned! There's an end of Johnson!"

The words were hardly out of his mouth, however, than Johnson, his arms bound, followed by the Deputy, strode into the room with the courage of one who has long faced death, and stood before the men who glared at him with fire in their eyes and murder in their hearts.

"How do you do, Mr. Johnson. I think, Mr. Johnson, five minutes will do for you." Rance gave to the words a peculiar accent and inflection, but this caused the prisoner to look even more composed and calm than before; he returned crisply:

"I think so."

"So this is the gentleman the Girl loves?" Sonora's face wore a cruel grin as he stood with arms folded leering at the prisoner.

The biting humour of the thought appealed to Rance, and he smiled grimly to himself.

"That's the gentleman"-he was saying when a voice outside broke in upon his words with:

"Nick! Boys! Boys!"

"It's the Girl!" cried Nick in dismay, at the same time rushing over to the door to intercept her; while Ashby, desirous of preventing any communication between the Girl and the prisoner took up a position between them-unnecessary precautions, since the Girl had no intention of re-entering the room, but wished merely to say that she had forgotten that it was recess and that the boys might have one drink.

At the sound of her voice Johnson paled. He listened to her retreating steps, then turning towards Nick he asked him to lock the door.

"Why, the devil…!" objected the Sheriff, angrily.

"Please," urged the prisoner with such a look of entreaty in his eyes that Nick could not find it in his heart to deny him, and went forthwith to the door and locked it.

"Why, you-" began Sonora with a hurried movement towards the prisoner.

"You keep out of this, Sonora," enjoined the Sheriff, coming forward to take a hand in the proceedings. "I handle the rope-pick the tree…"

"Then hurry…" said Sonora, impatiently, while Trinidad interposed with his usual, "You bet!"

"One moment," said the prisoner as the miners started to go out; and, strange to relate, the Sheriff ordered the men to halt. Turning once more to the prisoner, he said:

"Be quick-what is it?"

"It is true," began the unfortunate road agent in an even, unemotional voice, "that I love the Girl."

At these words Rance's arms flew up threateningly, while a mocking smile sprang to his lips.

"Well, you won't in a minute," he reminded him grimly.

The taunt brought no change of expression to the prisoner's face or change of tone in his voice as he went on to say that he did not care what they did to him; that he was prepared for anything; and that every man who travelled the path that he did faced death every day for a drink of water or ten minutes' sleep, concluding calmly:

"You've got me and I wouldn't care but for the Girl."

"You've got just three minutes!" A shade almost of contempt was in Sonora's exclamation.

"Yes…!" blazed Trinidad.

There was an impressive silence; then in a voice that trembled strangely between pride and humility Johnson continued:

"I don't want her to know my end. Why, that would be an awful thought for her to go on with all her life-that I died out there-near at hand. Why, boys, she couldn't stay here after that-she couldn't…"

"That's understood," replied Rance, succinctly.

"I'd like her to think," went on the prisoner, with difficulty choking back the tears, "that I got away clear and went East and changed my way of living. So you just drag me a good ways from here before you-" He stopped abruptly and began to swallow nervously. When he spoke again it was with a perceptible change of manner. "And when I don't write and she never hears why she will say, 'he's forgotten me,' and that will be about enough for her to remember, because she loved me before she knew what I was-and you can't change love in a minute."

All the while Johnson had been speaking the Sheriff's jealousy had been growing steadily until, finally, turning upon the other with a succession of oaths he struck him a fierce blow in the face.

"I don't blame you," returned the prisoner without a trace of malice in his voice. "Strike me again-strike me-one death is not enough for me. Damn me-I wish you could… Oh, why couldn't I have let her pass! I'm sorry I came her way-but it's too late now, it's too late…"

Rance, not in the least affected by what the prisoner had been saying, asked if that was his last word.

Johnson nodded.

Trinidad, simultaneously with his nod, snapped his finger, indicating that the prisoner's time was up.

"Dep!" called the Sheriff, sharply.

The Deputy came forward and took his prisoner in charge.

"Good-bye, sir!" said Nick, who was visibly affected.

"Good-bye!" returned the prisoner, briefly. "You tell the Girl-no, come to think of it, Nick, don't say anything…"

"Come on, you!" ordered Happy.

Whereupon with a shout and an imprecation the men removed en masse to the door.

"Boys," intervened Nick at this juncture, rushing into their midst, "when Alliger was hanged Rance let 'im see his sweetheart. I think, considerin' as how she ain't goin' to see no more o' Mr. Johnson here, an' knowin' the Girl's feelin's-well, I think she ought to have a chance to-"

Nick was not allowed to finish, for instantly the men were up in arms raising a most vigorous objection to his proposal; but, notwithstanding, Nick, evidently bent upon calling the Girl, started for the door.

"No," objected Rance, obstinately.

The road agent took a step forward and, turning upon the Sheriff with a desperately hopeless expression upon his face, he said:

"Jack Rance, there were two of us-I've had my chance. Inside of ten minutes I'll be dead and it will be all your way. Couldn't you let me-"

He paused, and ended almost piteously with:

"Oh, I thought I'd have the courage not to ask, but, Oh, couldn't you let me-couldn't you-"

Once more Nick intervened by shrewdly prevaricating:

"Here's the Girl, boys!"

But this ruse of Nick's met with no greater success than his previous efforts, for Rance, putting his foot down heavily upon the stove, voiced a vigorous protest.

"All right," said the prisoner, resignedly. Nevertheless, his face reflected his disappointment. Turning now to Nick he thanked him for his efforts in his behalf.

"You must excuse Rance," remarked the little barkeeper with a significant look at the Sheriff, "for bein' so small a man as to deny the usual courtesies, but he ain't quite himself."

Weary of their cavilling, for he believed that in the end the Sheriff would carry his point, and determined to go before his courage failed him, Johnson made a movement towards the door. Speaking bravely, though his voice trembled, he said:

"Come, boys-come."

But, odd as it may seem, Nick's words had taken root.

"Wait a minute," Rance temporised.

The prisoner halted.

"I don't know that I'm so small a man as to deny the usual courtesies, since you put it that way," continued Rance. "I always have extended them. But we'll hear what you have to say-that's our protection. And it might interest some of us to hear what the Girl will have to say to you, Mr. Johnson-after a week in her cabin there may be more to know than-"

Fire leapt to Johnson's eyes; he cried ho

arsely-

"Stop!"

"Rance, you don't know what you're sayin'," resented Nick, casting hard looks at him; while Sonora put a heavy hand upon the Sheriff and threatened him with:

"Now, Rance, you stop that!"

"We'll hear every word he has to say," insisted the Sheriff, doggedly.

"You bet!" affirmed Trinidad.

"Nick! Nick!" called the Girl once more, and while the little barkeeper went over to admit her the Wells Fargo Agent took his leave, calling back after him:

"Well, boys, you've got him safe-I can't wait-I'm off!"

"Dep, untie the prisoner! Boys, circle round the bar! Trin, put a man at that door! And Sonora, put a couple of men at those windows!" And so swift were the men in carrying out his instructions, that even as he spoke, everyone was at his post, the Sheriff himself and Sonora remaining unseen but on guard at the doors, while the prisoner, edging up close to the door, was not in evidence when the Girl entered.

"You can think of something to tell her-lie to her," had been the Sheriff's parting suggestion.

"I'll let her think I risked coming back to see her again," had replied the prisoner, his throat trembling.

"She won't know it's for the last time-we'll be there," had come warningly from the Sheriff as he pointed to the door that led to the bar-room.

* * * * * *

"Why, what have you got the door barred for?" asked the Girl as she came into the room; and then without waiting for an answer: "Why, where are the boys?"

"Well, you see, the boys-the boys has-has-" began Nick confusedly and stopped.

"The boys-" There was a question in the Girl's voice.

"Has gone."

"Gone where?"

"Why, to the Palmetter," came out feebly from Nick; and then with a sudden change of manner, he added: "Oh, say, Girl, I likes you!" And here he laid his hand affectionately upon her shoulder. "You've been my religion-the bar an' you. Why, you don't never want to leave us-why, I'd drop dead for you."

"Nick, you're very nice to-" began the Girl, gratefully, and stopped, for at that instant a gentle tap came upon the door. Turning swiftly, she saw Johnson coming towards her.

"Girl!" he cried in an agony of joy, and held out his arms to receive her.

"You? You?" she admonished softly.

"Don't say a word," he whispered hurriedly.

"You shouldn't have come back," she said with knitted brow.

"I had to-to say good-bye once more." And his voice was so filled with tenderness that she readily forgave him for the indiscretion.

"It's all right, it's all right," murmured Nick, his hand still on the door, which he had taken the precaution to bolt after the Girl had passed through it.

There was a moment's silence; then, going over to the windows, the Girl pulled down the curtains.

"The boys are good for quite a little bit," she said as she came back. "Don't git nervous-I'll give you warnin'…"

Nick, unwilling to witness the heartrending scene which he foresaw would follow, noiselessly withdrew into the bar-room, leaving the prisoner alone with the Girl.

"Don't be afraid, my Girl," said Johnson, softly.

But the Girl's one thought, after her first gladness, was of his safety:

"But you can't git away now without bein' seen?"

"Yes, there's another way out of Cloudy,-and I'm going to take it."

The grimness of his meaning was lost on the Girl, who answered urgently:

"Then go-go! Don't wait, go now!"

Johnson smiled a sad little smile:

"But remember that I'm sorry for the past, and-and don't forget me," he said, with an odd break in his voice,-so odd that it roused the Girl into startled wonderment.

"Forget you? Why, Dick…!"

"I mean, till we meet again," he reassured her hastily.

The Girl heaved a troubled sigh. Her fears for him were still on edge. Then, with a nervous start, she asked:

"Did he call?"

"No. He'll-he'll warn me," Johnson told her unsteadily.

"Oh, every day that dawns I'll wait for a message from you. I'll feel you wanting me. Every night I'll say to-morrow, and every to-morrow I'll say to-day… Oh, you've changed the whole world for me! I can't let you go, but I must, Dick, I must…" And bursting into tears, she buried her face on his shoulder, repeating piteously, between shaking sobs, "Oh, I'm so afraid,-I'm so afraid!"

He held her close, the strength of his arms around her reassuring her silently. "Why, you mustn't be afraid," he said in tones that were almost steady. "In a few minutes I'll be quite free, and then-"

"An' you'll make a little home for me when you're free-soon-will you?" asked the Girl, with a wan smile dawning on her trembling lips. She was drying her eyes and did not see how the light died out of the man's face, as he gazed down at her hungrily, hopelessly. This time he could not trust himself to speak, but merely nodded "yes."

"A strange feelin' has come over me," went on the Girl, brokenly, "a feelin' to hold you-to cling to you-not to let you go. Somethin' in my heart keeps sayin', 'Don't let him go!'"

Johnson felt his knees sagging oddly beneath him. The Girl's sure instinct of danger, the piteousness of their case, were making a coward of him. He tore himself from her in a panic desire to go while he still had the manhood to play his part to the end; then suddenly broke down completely, and with his face buried in his hands, sobbed aloud.

"Why, Girl," he managed to say, brokenly, "it's been worth-the whole of life just-to know you. You've brought me nearer Heaven,-you, to love a man like me!"

"Don't say that, Oh, don't say that," she hastened to say with a great tenderness in her voice. "S'pose you was only a road agent an' I was a saloon keeper. We both came out o' nothin' an' we met, but through lovin' we're goin' to reach things now-that's us. We had to be lifted up like this to be saved."

Johnson tried to speak, but the words would not come. It was, therefore, with a feeling of relief that, presently, he heard Nick at the door, saying, "It's all clear now."

Johnson wheeled round, but Nick had flown. Turning once more to the Girl, he said with trembling lips:

"Good-bye!"

The Girl's face wore a puzzled look, and she told him that he acted as if they were never going to meet again.

"An' we are, we are, ain't we?" she questioned eagerly.

A faint little smile hovered about the corners of the road agent's mouth when presently he answered:

"Why, surely we are…"

His words cleared her face instantly.

"I want you to think o' me here jest waitin'," she said. "You was the first-there'll never be anyone but you. Why, you're the man I'd want sittin' across the table if there was a little kid like I was playin' under it. I can't say no more 'n that. Only you-you will-you must get through safe an' come back-an' well, think o' me here jest waitin', jest waitin', waitin'…"

At these words a tightness gripped the man's throat, and in the silence that followed the tears ran steadily down his cheeks.

"Oh, Girl, Girl," at last he said, "that first night I went to your cabin I saw you kneeling, praying. Say that in your heart again for me now. Perhaps I believe it-perhaps I don't… I hope I do-I want to-but say it, say it, Girl, just for the luck of it-say it…"

Quickly the Girl crossed herself, and while she sent a silent prayer to Heaven Johnson knelt at her knees, his head bowed low.

"God bless you," he murmured when the prayer was finished and arose to his feet; then bending over her hand he touched it softly with his lips.

"Good-bye!" he said chokingly and started for the door.

"Good-bye!" came slowly in return, her face no less moist than his. Presently she murmured like one in a dream: "Dick, Dick!"

The man hastened his steps and did not turn. At the door, however, he burst out in an agony of despair: "Girl! Girl…!"

But when the Girl looked up he had reached the open. She listened a moment to the retreating steps, then raising her tear-stained face above her arms, she sobbed out: "He's gone-he's gone-he's gone…!" She started in pursuit of him, but half-way across the room she fell into Nick's arms, crying out:

"He's gone, he's gone, he's gone! Dick! Dick! Dick…!"

Terribly affected at the sight of the Girl's sorrow, the little barkeeper did his best to soothe her, now patting her little blonde head as it rested upon his arm, now murmuring words of loving tenderness.

Suddenly she raised her head, and then it was that she saw for the first time the men standing huddled together near the door. In a flash the truth of the situation dawned upon her. With a look of indescribable horror upon her face she turned upon Nick, turned upon them all with:

"You knew, Nick-you all knew you had 'im! You knew you had 'im an' you're goin' to kill 'im! But you shan't-no, you shan't kill 'im-you shan't-you shan't…!"

Once more she started in pursuit of her lover, but only to fall with her face against the door, sobbing as if her heart would break.

Outside there was nothing in the enchanting scene to suggest finality. Nature never was more prodigal of her magic beauties. The sun still shone on the winter whiteness of the majestic mountains; the great arch of sky was still an azure blue; the wild things still roamed the great forest at will.

Life indeed was very beautiful.

Minutes passed and still the Girl wept.

A wonderful thing happened then-and as suddenly as it was characteristic of these impulsive and tender-hearted men. In thinking over their action long afterwards the Girl recalled how for an instant she could believe neither her ears nor her eyes. With Sonora it was credible, at least; but with Rance-it seemed wonderful to her even when observed through the vista of many years. And yet, men like Rance more often than not exhibit to the world the worst side of their nature. It is only when some cataclysm of feeling bursts that their inner soul is disclosed and joyously viewed by eyes which have long been accustomed to judging them solely from the icy and impenetrable reserve which they invariably wear.

And so it came about that Sonora-first of the two-went over to her and laid an affectionate hand upon her shoulder.

"Why, Girl," he said, all the kindliness of his gentle nature flooding his eyes, "the boys an' me ain't perhaps realised jest what Johnson stood for you, an' hearin' what you said, an' seein' you prayin' over the cuss-"

Rance's face lit up scornfully.

"The cuss?" he cut in, objecting to a term which is not infrequently used affectionately.

"Yes, the cuss," repeated Sonora, all the vindictiveness gone from his heart now. "I got an idee maybe God's back of this 'ere game."

The Girl's heart was beating fast; she was hoping against hope when, a moment later, she asked:

"You're not goin' to pull the rope on 'im?"

"You mean I set him free," came from Rance, his tone softer, gentler than anyone had heard it in some time.

"You set 'im free?" repeated the Girl, timidly, and not daring to meet his gaze.

"I let him go," announced the Sheriff in spite of himself.

"You let 'im go?" questioned the Girl, still in a daze.

"That's our verdict, an' we're prepared to back it up," declared Sonora with a smile on his weathered face, though the tears streamed down his cheeks.

The Girl's face illumined with a great joy. She did not stop now to dissipate the tears which she saw rolling down Sonora's face, as was her wont when any of the boys were grieved or distressed, but fairly flew out of the cabin, calling half-frantically, half-ecstatically:

"Dick! Dick! You're free! You're free! You're free…!"

The minutes passed and still the miners did not move. They stood with an air of solemnity gazing silently at one another. Only too well did they realise what was happening to them. They were inconsolable. Presently, Sonora, all in a heap on a bench, took out some tobacco and began to chew it as fast as his mouth would let him; Happy, going over to the teacher's desk, picked up the bunch of berries which he had presented her at the opening of the school session and began to fondle them; while Trinidad, too overcome to speak, stood leaning against the door, gazing sadly in the direction that the Girl had taken. As for Rance, after calling to Nick to bring him a drink, he quietly brought out a pack of cards from his pocket and, seemingly, became absorbed in a game of solitaire.

A little while later, his eyes still red from weeping, Nick remarked:

"The Polka won't never be the same, boys-the Girl's gone."

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