It was true and every one of the four knew it. The suspicion of the guide had become certainty. Was it instinct or reason that controlled the animal? Who shall draw the line in explaining many of the actions of the brute creation?
Vose Adams was silent a moment and then emitted a low whistle.
"Hang me, if I don't b'leve you're right, captain. I've been told that that dog knowed more than a good many folks and there ain't no doubt of it now."
The disgusted parson exclaimed:
"Why didn't one of us think of that? The idea of all four being fooled by a dog!"
"It wouldn't have been so bad if there had been two dogs," said Ruggles, who saw the grim humor of the thing, "but it is tough to have our eyes shet by only one."
It was impossible for Vose Adams wholly to restrain all evidence of his pleasure. When in the depths of despair, he was awakened to the fact that the canine had performed one of the most brilliant exploits conceivable. He could not help smiling. The captain was in an ugly mood and in a threatening voice asked:
"Did you have anything to do with this?"
"Certainly; me and Timon fixed up the thing afore he left Dead Man's Gulch; it took us a good while; the dog didn't think it would work, but I stuck to it and finally he promised to have a try at it; certainly we fixed it up atween us."
The guide did a clever thing in thus turning the fantastic belief of the captain into ridicule. Had he protested, he might have added to the suspicion against himself. It was further in his favor that it was known he had never had much to do with Timon. As already related, the brute had few friends among the miners and Vose Adams never sought his acquaintance.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to brush out of sight one significant fact,—the long absence of Adams the day before. But for the last occurrence, nothing would have been thought of the former, but it was clear that Captain Dawson had begun to entertain doubts of the loyalty of his guide.
"He'll never repeat his trick anyway," exclaimed the officer, facing about and bringing his rifle to his shoulder. But his intention of shooting Timon was frustrated, for the brute was nowhere in sight. Unreasonable as it might sound, it looked as if he suspected how things would turn out and took the occasion to place himself beyond danger from the indignant men.
"In the army we shoot spies and traitors," remarked the captain, so angered by his repeated disappointments that he could not govern his feelings. In giving expression to the remark, the officer made a serious mistake, which he saw the moment the words left his lips. He was suspicious of Vose Adams, but he should have concealed all evidence of it, until the proof appeared. When that took place, he would shoot the man with no more hesitation that he would have shot the dog. But he had now put Vose on his guard and the difficulty of detecting him was increased tenfold.
As if to obliterate the memory of his words, the captain said in the most matter of fact tone he could assume:
"The mistake we made has taken us from the right spot; they must have been near the rocks where Timon showed himself."
"No doubt," said the parson, "and were watching us."
"The one thing to do is to retrace our steps; perhaps the two may be fools enough," bitterly added the captain, "to wait for us, since that seems to be the only way by which we shall ever come up with them."
A single short bark startled them. The captain wheeled like a flash with his gun at his shoulder. But Timon was too cunning to show himself. It is not improbable that he meant the expression for a note of triumph over his inimitable exploit, while such a wonderful dog was too wise to run any risk of punishment from his indignant victims.
The hunter is sustained against fatigue by the excitement of the chase; and, despite the severe labor of following the canine guide, all four men stood it far better than the return to the spot where the pursuit began. Angered, chagrined and in desperate mood, even the grim leader was forced occasionally to stop and rest. Nearly two hours passed before they descried the familiar pile of rocks in their front.
"That's the spot," he said, "but what good can it do us? It's a wonder if they have not run off with our horses; it would be a fitting climax to this folly."
It was the secret wish of Adams, from the moment of discovering the cleverness of Timon, that this very thing should be done. If Lieutenant Russell took such a precaution, it could not fail to be effective. Returning to the main trail after his pursuers were out of the way, he would have an open path through the mountains to Sacramento. If the lameness of Nellie's pony continued, her saddle could be transferred to one of the other horses, and, leading or driving the remainder of the animals, the four men would soon find their task a hopeless one.
But the young officer was restrained from such action by a certain chivalry that governed all his actions. He could not consent to take so unfair an advantage of an enemy, even though the fate of one dearer than his own life was at stake. And yet it must be confessed that the lieutenant drew it very fine. His course did not win the respect of his enemies, who were inclined to attribute it to stupidity, rather than courtesy.
But no time was to be lost in deciding their line of action.
"I think we'd better make a hunt among them rocks," suggested Wade Ruggles.
The others studied them with as much interest as if it were the first time they had been seen. If the couple had taken refuge among the caverns and crevices of this immense pile of stone, they must have left their animals on the ground below where they could be readily discovered.
"We may as well have a look," remarked the captain; "what do you think, Vose?"
"I don't think anything; don't ask me any questions."
He never looked more angry. He had not forgotten the slur of the captain and had spirit enough to resent it. Dawson was too proud to apologize and he could not do so, when his suspicion of the fellow's loyalty was as strong as ever. On the contrary, having made his blunder, the officer drove the arrow home.
"I am sorry you didn't take that resolution in the first place; it would have been better for all of us, though not so good for those we are looking for."
The captain and Ruggles now turned to the right, while the other two took the opposite direction. They were thus enabled, after more hard work, practically to pass around the mass of rocks, returning to their starting point, without having discovered any traces of man, woman or their animals. On the journey, Adams and the parson exchanged few words, but it was different with the other couple.
"What do you think of his long absence yesterday?" asked the captain.
"It has a bad look,—worse than I thought when he come back."
"I take it with the action of that dog. You didn't fail to notice that Timon took us along the exact route that Vose was leadin' us over and we found out that it was the wrong one."
"And you believe he purposely misled us?"
"It's almost sartin."
"Suppose it was certain, Wade?"
"I'd shoot him quicker'n lightning."
"So would I."
"But you see we can't be sartin just yit; if Vose is in that kind of bus'ness, he'll give himself away purty soon."
"I agree with you and we'll watch him."
Thus was the momentous bargain made.
When the four came together once more, the parson remarked:
"It's my belief that after we were well out of the way, the two went down the gorge to the main trail and are now making haste to Sacramento."
The exact line of action that had been agreed upon! Vose Adams was firmly convinced that this was the very thing that had taken place and the utmost he could do was to prevent the horsemen from acting on that theory until the fugitives were given opportunity to pass beyond reach.
Except for the words of Captain Dawson, the guide would have striven to delay the pursuit, but he dared not attempt it after the warning. Ignoring the captain, he said to Felix Brush:
"It's more'n likely you're right, parson; that would have been the most nat'ral thing for them to do and it's no use of our standing here and talking, when every minute counts."
"We can quickly learn the truth; it isn't far to the gorge, where they must have left traces; leave the horses here, for we can soon return for them if it proves necessary."
Forgetting their fatigue, the four walked back over their own trail. The forenoon was well advanced, and, by this time, the fugitives were probably a good way off. Adams was relieved because of this action, for it promised more delay.
Reaching the beginning of the gorge, all began an examination of the ground, for the imprints of the horses' feet were plainly seen. To the amazement of every one, each hoof pointed upward, that is away from the canyon. There was no evidence that any quadruped had descended the slope. All had gone up. Vose Adams was in despair.
"They have let their only chance go by," he bitterly reflected; "it's too late now to save them!"
Lieutenant Russell held a long consultation with Nellie Dawson, after the departure of Vose Adams. His first intention had been to press their flight with all possible vigor, and, as will be recalled, Adams carried away that belief with him.
"My view of matters has undergone a change," he said after a time to his companion, who looked up in his face for an explanation.
"Instead of waiting until we reach Sacramento for a meeting with your father, I believe it will be much better to have it as soon as possible."
"Why?" she asked, though curious to say, she had been wavering for some time in her belief.
"It will add to rather than lessen his anger, if he is obliged to follow us that far, and the fact that he is in a city instead of the mountains will not decrease his determination to do me injury."
"What about those who are with him?"
"Your father is the only one to be considered. My proposal is that we wait here till to-morrow morning until they come up; what is your opinion?"
"I believe you are right; let us do so; I don't think father will cast me off when I go to him."
The plan was carried out, though the young man felt more misgiving than his companion suspected. He remained on guard a part of the night, sharing the duty with Timon, whose almost human intelligence made him as reliable as a trained scout himself.
Straight to the spot came the pursuers soon after daylight, when the horses were saddled and bridled. Nellie was in a state of feverish expectancy. When she caught sight of her father, leading the others, she joyfully uttered his name and ran toward him with outstretched arms.
"Father, my own father, are you not glad to see your Nellie?"
Still holding his Winchester half-raised, he glanced sternly at her and replied:
"Come no nearer; you are no daughter of mine!"
She stopped as if shot, and with hands still outstretched stood motionless, with her eyes fixed yearningly upon him. She was like a marble statue, without the breath of life in her body. All were silent. Even Timon looked from one to another without moving. The whole thing was beyond his comprehension.
Then the dreadful truth seemed to force itself upon the consciousness of the girl, who staggered backward to the nearest boulder, upon which she sank and covered her face with her hands. She did not weep, for her grief was too deep.
And who shall picture the sorrow that wrenched the heart strings of the parent? There was a strange look on his face and his massive frame trembled. But he quickly recovered his self-poise, and looking away from his child, fixed his eyes upon Lieutenant Russell.
"It is with you that I have to settle."
"I am ready."
The young officer was standing beside his pony, with one arm resting on the saddle, across which his rifle was supported, while the other hand lay idly on his hip, and his body was borne upon one foot. His pose was one of negligence, as if he and his animal had taken position before the camera, and the world contained no such thing as hatred and enmity. He looked calmly into the angered countenance, while he waited for the next words of the man who was impatient to send a bullet through his heart.
Wade Ruggles and Felix Brush would have been glad of the privilege of doing this, but they felt that for the time they were out of it. The right of calling Lieutenant Russell to account lay with the father of Nellie. They had nothing to do or say until that tragedy was ended, and they stood apart, silent, grim and watchful of everything.
The coolness of the young man disconcerted the captain for the moment. Feeling it unnecessary to hold his weapon, he lowered the point, but, never once removing his eyes from the face of the other, said:
"I will give you the same chance as myself for your life; though you do not deserve to live, it shall never be said I took any advantage over you. Each of us has a revolver and knows how to use it; you may pace off the distance for yourself, but make it short."
"Captain, I decline to fight you," replied Lieutenant Russell, without a change of pose and in his usual voice.
"Why?" demanded the other.
"You have saved my life on the battle field; we have been comrades; we have drank from the same canteen; shoot me if you wish; I will keep the position I now hold and you may stand where you are; you have your Winchester in your hands; you have but to raise it and it will be all over in a twinkling, but nothing that you can say or do will induce me to harm one of your gray hairs."
This reply was unexpected to all, but it served if possible to intensify the wrath of Captain Dawson. He shook with tempestuous rage, and it was several seconds before he could command his voice. Ruggles, Brush and Adams did not stir or whisper a word to one another. The white-faced Nellie remained seated on the boulder, but she lowered her hands and stared at the two, as if she could not comprehend it all. Once she made a motion to rise, but sank back and stared with a fixidity of gaze that went to the hearts of the three spectators.
"You are a sneaking scoundrel to use those words," said Captain Dawson, when able to command his voice; "all the past is wiped out except that of the last two days; I shall shoot you for stealing my child from me."
The lieutenant looked calmly into the countenance of the man, and, lowering his tones almost to a whisper, that was perfectly audible to all, replied:
"I am at your disposal."
From the moment Captain Dawson learned of the flight of his child, he had been eager for but one thing,—the opportunity to draw bead on the miscreant, without giving him an instant to prepare for death. That opportunity was his but he hesitated. Something that he could not explain, but which incensed him, held his hand motionless.
But perhaps the end would have been the same, when he rallied from the momentary struggle, had not his daughter awakened from the daze that had held her mute and motionless. Like Pocahontas, she sprang forward, with arms again outstretched, and with a faint shriek, flung them about the form of her lover.
"Shoot father, if you will, but you shall kill me too!"
Felix Brush shivered and turning away his head, muttered in a broken voice:
"My God, Wade! I can't stand this!"
Ruggles attempted to reply, but the words choked in his throat. Still he and Adams kept their eyes upon the three before them. Ruggles was on the point of interfering when Nellie Dawson averted the necessity.
Lieutenant Russell was disconcerted. His lip quivered, and, with infinite tenderness, he sought to loosen the arms that entwined him, but she would not permit it.
"No, no, no! He shall not part us! Let him slay us both! Do not repulse me! I will die with you!"
The situation of Captain Dawson was awful. He was scarcely himself. The dainty form of his child could not fully shield the athletic figure of Lieutenant Russell, strive as much as she might, and the opening for the threatened shot was as clear as ever. Whether he would have persisted in his intention can never be known, for at that juncture the startling incidents were succeeded by one still more startling and unexpected.
NO BRAVER DEED EVER WAS DONE
The hearts of two of the party were wrung as never before. Wade Ruggles and Felix Brush saw with noonday clearness the dreadful mistake they had made in the past in hoping to win the heart of the maiden who had declared that if her beloved was to die she would die with him. It was contrary to nature and the laws of God, and it was characteristic of each that he felt a thrill of gratitude over the belief that no person suspected his secret. Both would have died rather than allow it ever to become known.
With this awakening came a transformation of feeling toward the couple. They sympathized with Lieutenant Russell, but more than all, they pitied her whose soul was distraught with grief. They had never before seen her in the agony of distress and neither could stand it.
"Brush," whispered Ruggles, "this must stop."
"Hold!" called Brush in a loud voice, striding commandingly forward with his arm upraised; "I have something to say!"
There was a majesty and an impressiveness of mien like that of the Hebrew prophet who hushed the tempest. Captain Dawson, without moving body or limb, turned and glared at the intruder; Ruggles kept his position; Nellie Dawson, with arms still clasping the neck of her betrothed, looked over her shoulder at her old friend; Lieutenant Russell reached up so as to hold the wrists of the girl, while still retaining his grip upon his rifle and fixed his eyes upon the tall, gaunt figure that halted between him and Captain Dawson and a little to one side of him.
"Lieutenant Frederic Russell, do you love Nellie Dawson?" was the astounding question that fell from the lips of Brush.
"Aye, more than my life," was the prompt response.
"And you have started for Sacramento with the purpose of making her your wife?"
"That was my resolve with the help of heaven."
"And, Nellie, you agreed to this?"
"Yes, yes; we shall not be parted in life or death."
"Such being your feelings," continued Felix Brush, in the same loud, clear tones, "I pronounce you man and wife, and whom God hath joined together let not man put asunder!"
It was a thunderclap. No one moved or spoke for a full minute. Felix Brush was the only one who seemed to retain command of his senses. Stepping forward, with a strange smile on his seamed countenance, he extended his hand to the groom.
"Allow me to congratulate you, lieutenant; and, Nellie, I don't think you will deny me my fee."
With which he bent over and tenderly kissed her.
"O, Mr. Brush, are we really married?" she asked in a faint, wild voice.
"As legally as if it were done by the archbishop of Canterbury and if—"
But he got no further, for her arms were transferred from the neck of her husband to those of the parson, whom she smothered with her caresses.
"Bless your heart! You are the nicest, best, sweetest, loveliest man that ever lived,—excepting Fred and father—"
"And me," added Wade Ruggles, stepping forward.
"Yes, and you, you great big angel," she replied, bestowing an equally warm embrace upon him.
The two rugged fellows had won the greatest victory that can be achieved by man, for they had conquered themselves. When the great light broke in upon their consciousness, each resolved to let the dead past bury its dead and to face the future like the manly heroes they were.
And no braver deed ever was done.
Poor Captain Dawson! For a time he believed he was dreaming. Then, when he grasped the meaning of it all, his Winchester dropped from his nerveless grasp and he staggered and would have fallen, had not Lieutenant Russell leaped forward and caught him in his arms. He helped him to the boulder from which Nellie had risen and then he collapsed utterly. The soldier who had faced unmoved the hell blast of battle had fainted for the first time in his life.
Nellie ran to the brook a few paces away, and catching some of the water in the hollow of her hand darted back and flung it into his face.
"There, dear father; it is all right; rouse yourself; O, Mr. Brush, suppose he is dead!" she exclaimed, turning terrifiedly toward him.
"He is as likely to die as you are, and you don't look just now as if you mean to put on wings and fly away."
In a few minutes the veteran revived and looked confusedly around him. He seemed unable to comprehend what it all meant and his gaze wandered in a dazed way from one countenance to another without speaking. Nellie was still caressing him, while Lieutenant Russell stood back a couple of steps, looking pityingly into the face of the man who had suffered so much.
Felix Brush was the hero of the occasion. Turning to the group, he said:
"Leftenant, you and Nellie and Ruggles and Vose move off for a short distance and leave him with me for a little while."
Understanding his purpose the three withdrew, and the two men were left alone. The captain instantly roused himself.
"What does all this mean, Brush?"
"It means that you and Ruggles and I have been the three infernalist fools that ever pretended to have sense."
"How? In every way conceivable. Wade and I, as we told you, saw that those two were in love with each other; instead of persuading you to consent, we have helped you to prevent it. I must say, captain, that though Wade and I played the idiot, I think the championship belongs to you."
"I begin to suspect it."
"There's no doubt of it."
"But, you see, parson, I had never thought of anything like this."
"Which goes to prove the truth of what I have just said. If you hadn't been blind you would have seen it."
"I got the belief into my head that his intentions were not honorable toward Nellie."
"You never made a greater mistake; Lieutenant Russell is the soul of honor; heaven intended him for the husband of Nellie, and we were flying in the face of Providence when we tried to prevent it."
"I suppose it is all right; but how is it possible for a man to make such a consummate ass of himself?"
"You have just given a demonstration of how it is done, Wade and I adding material help in the demonstration."
The captain looked to the ground in deep thought. When he raised his eyes there was an odd twinkle in them.
"I say, parson, wasn't that a rather cheeky performance of yours, when you made them man and wife?"
"The circumstances warranted it. There's no saying what might have happened, if it had been deferred for only a few minutes."
"True," replied the veteran thoughtfully; "it begins to look as if the hand of Providence was in it."
"It is in everything that occurs in this life. It was in your coming to New Constantinople; in the blessed influence of your child upon that barbarous community; in the impulse that led you to bring Lieutenant Russell to us, and now comes the crowning Providence of all in their marriage."
"Parson, you ain't such a poor preacher after all."
"Perhaps I can preach a little, but my practice has been away off, though I hope to get back one of these days to where I was, but—"
He suddenly turned and beckoned to his friends to join them. They came smilingly forward, for they suspected what it meant.
Captain Dawson rose to his feet, and, without speaking extended his single arm toward his child. With a glad cry she flew into his embrace and pillowed her head on his breast. No one spoke, but there was not a dry eye among the spectators, while the silent embrace lasted.
Finally the daughter was released and then the captain reached his hand toward his son-in-law, who eagerly stepped forward and grasped it.
"Yes, lieutenant, we have drunk from the same canteen," he said, "and now let's all go home."
And it was accordingly so done.