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Judith Of The Plains
by Marie Manning
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The "XXX" men, who had remained aloof from the dancers and the merriment, keeping a faithful vigil in the bunk-room, where the hospitable bottles were to be found, seemed to awaken from the spell that had bound them all day. Henderson, the foreman, whose face had not lost its tallow paleness despite the number of his potations, put his head through the door to have a look at the dancing Mrs. Dax, was caught in the outermost eddy of the whirling throng, and was soon dancing as madly as the others. The rest of the "XXX" party still hugged the bunk-room, where the bottles gleamed hospitable. They were still dusty from their long ride of the early morning, and more than once their fear-quickened imaginations had been haunted by the spectre of the dead cotton-woods, from which something heavy and limp and warm had been swaying when they left it. Henderson had secured the dancing Mrs. Dax for a partner. The "caller-out," stationed between the two rooms, warmed to his genial task. He improvised, he put a wealth of imagination and personality into his work, he showered compliments on the nimbleness of Mrs. Dax's feet, he joked Henderson on his pallor, he attempted a florid venture at Kitty. Miguel put fresh magic into his bowing, Jose's fiddle rioted with the madness of it.

Judith stood for a moment in the kindly enveloping darkness, and her heart cried out in protest at the thing she must do. It was the utmost cruelty of fate that forced her here to dance on the evening of the day that they had killed him. But she must do it, that his children might evade the stigma of "cattle-thief," that the shadow of the gallows-tree might not fall across their young lives, that the neighbors might give credence to the tale of Jim's escape from his enemies, that Alida and she might earn the pittance that would give the children the "clean start" that Jim had set his heart on so confidently. And she must dance and be the merriest of them all that these things might happen, but again and again she deferred the dread moment. The light, the music, the voices, the shuffle of the feet came to her as she stood forlorn in the grateful darkness. On the wall the shadows of the dancers, magnified and grotesque, parodied their movements, as they contended there, monstrous, uncouth shapes, like prehistoric monsters gripping, clinching in some mighty struggle; and above it all sang out the wild rhythm of Miguel's fiddle, and young Jose's bow capered madly.

Judith drew close to the window, and the merriment struck chill at her heart like the tolling of a knell. She saw the pale face of Henderson gleam yellow-white among the dancers, and, watching him, the blood-lust of the Indian woke in her heart. The rest of the room was but a blur; the dancers faded into swaying shadows; she saw nothing but Henderson as he danced that he might forget the gray of morning, the black, dead trees, and the grotesque thing with head awry that swayed in the breeze like a pendulum. He dreaded the long, black ride that would bring him to his camp, for he alone of the lynchers remained. Something was drawing his gaze out into the blackness of the night. He struggled against the temptation to look towards the window. He whirled the Dax woman till her twinkling feet cleared the floor. He sang to the accompaniment of Miguel's fiddle. He was outwitting the thing that dangled before his eyes, having the incontrovertible last word with a vengeance. And as he danced and swayed, all unwittingly his glance fell on the window opposite, and Jim Rodney's face looked in at him, beautiful in its ecstasy of hate—Rodney's face, refined, sharpened, tried in some bitter crucible, but Rodney's face! Henderson could not withdraw his fascinated gaze. He stood in the midst of the dancers like a man turned to stone. He put up his hand to his eyes as if to brush away a cloud of swarming gnats, then threw up his arms and rushed from the room. The dancers paused in their mad whirl. Miguel's bow stopped with a wailing shriek. Every eye turned towards the window for an explanation of Henderson's sudden panic, but all was dark without on the prairie. The magic had gone from the dance, the whirlwind of drapery that had swung like flags in a breeze dropped in dead air. "What was it?" the dancers asked one another in whispers.

And for answer Judith entered, but a Judith that was strange to them. There was about her a white radiance that kept the dancers back, and in her eyes something of Mary's look, as she turned from Calvary. The dancers still kept the position of the figures, the men with their arms about their partners' waists, the women stepping forward; they were like the painted figures of dancers in a fresco. And among them stood Judith, waiting to play her part, waiting to show her world that she could dance and be merry because all was well with her and hers. But the bronzed sons of the saddle hung back, they who a day before would have quarrelled for the honor of a dance. They were afraid of her; it would be like dancing with the death angel. She looked from face to face. Surely some one would ask her to dance, and her eyes fell on Henderson, returning from the bottled courage in the bunk-room. Some word was due from him to explain his terror of a moment ago.

"Oh, Miss Judith, I thought you was a ghost when I seen you at the window."

"A ghost that's ready to dance." She held out her hand to him. In her gesture there was something of royal command, and Henderson, reading the meaning in her eyes, stepped forward. Her face, almost a perfect replica of the dead man's, looked at him.

"I bring you greeting from my brother," she said. "He has gone on a long journey."

Henderson started. Through the still room ran the murmur, "Rodney's outwitted them; he's played a joke on the rope!" And Judith, his dare-devil sister, had come with his greetings to Henderson, leader of the faction against him! The tide had turned. The applause that is ever the meed of the winner was hers to command. The cattle faction were ready to sing the praises of her splendid audacity. In their hearts they were glad in the thought that Jim had outwitted them.

Miguel's bow dashed across the strings, and he drew from the little brown fiddle music that again made them merry and glowing. The magic came back to the dance, the blood leaped again with the merry madness, and they swept to the bowing like leaves when the first faint wail of winter cries in the trees.

Hamilton, standing apart with Kitty Colebrooke, had been a dazed witness of the scene. With the rest he had watched the entrance of Judith, had been stunned by the change in her appearance, had seen her triumph and heard the rumor of Jim's escape, and his heart had warmed with the good word. She had probably managed the plan, and had come to-night, in the joy of her triumph, to hurl in their faces that she had outwitted them. And she had paid the penalty of her courage—her face told that. What a woman she was! Her heart would pay the penalty to the last throb, and yet she could dance with the merriest of them. And as she danced she seemed to Peter Hamilton, in her white draperies, like a cloud of whirling snow-flakes drifting across the silence of the desert night. She was the one woman in all the world for him, though his blind eyes had faced the light for years and had not known it. He had squandered the strength of his youth in the pursuit of a little wax light, and had not marked the serene shining of the moon.

"And a man there was and he made his prayer—" he quoted to himself. Well, thank God that it had not been answered. He would take her away from here. She could take her place in his family and reflect credit on his choice. His family, his friends—he winced at the thought of their possible reception of the news. But Judith's presence would adjust these difficulties. He would present her to Kitty now, that his old friend might see what manner of woman she was. Kitty, he felt, would be kind in memory of the old days. She would give to them both in friendship what she had denied him in love. And as he warmed to the thought he turned to the woman of his youth. And she read a look in his face that had not been there in a long time. Had he, then, come back to her? Was the distance from bark to shore lessening as the sea of misunderstanding diminished?

"Kitty, we were speaking a moment ago of Miss Rodney. You would like to know her, I'm sure. We've been such good friends all these years while you were deciding that what I wanted was not good for us—and deciding wisely, as I know now. Look at her! You'll understand how she has helped me keep the balance of things. When she's finished dancing you'll let me bring her to you, won't you?"

And Kitty, who had expected much different words, struggled with the meaning of these unexpected ones. The strangeness of the pain bewildered her. Her dazed consciousness refused to accept that Peter was asking permission to present to her a woman whom she thought should not have been permitted to enter her presence. There was about her a white flame of anger that seemed to lick up the red blood in her veins as she turned to answer:

"She is undeniably handsome, Peter, but I do not care to meet your mistress."

He bowed low to her as Lieutenant Swift, of Fort Washakie, who was of the Wetmore party, came to claim Kitty's hand for the next dance. Judith and Henderson were leading the last figure, their hands clasped high in an arch through which the dancers trooped in couples. Again and again he tried to catch Judith's eye, but her glance never once met his. Her great, wide eyes had a far-away look as if they saw some tragedy, the shadow of which would never fall from her. She was, indeed, the tragic muse in her floating white drapery, the tragic muse whose grief is too deep for tears. He watched her as she swept towards him in the figure of the dance, the head thrown back, slightly foreshortened, the mouth smiling with the smile that knows all things, the eyes holy wells of truth. He saw in her something of the tenderness of Eve, for all the blending of the calm modern woman, capable in affairs, equal to emergency. It was like her to contrive her brother's escape and then to dance with the very men who had knotted the noose for his hanging. Henderson was bowing to her, the dance was over, and the next moment she was alone.

"Is it you, Peter?" She thrust a strand of hair back from her temple. Her eyes rested on him for a moment, then wandered, till in their absent look was the rapt expression of the sleep-walker. The dark-rimmed eyes had in their depths the quiet of a conflagration, and Peter, seeing these things, and knowing the gamut of all her moods, saw that he had been mistaken. She had not come, to dance in triumph, in the face of her brother's enemies. There was no triumph in her face, but white, consuming despair.

"Did you ask me to dance?" Again she put back the strand of hair. "Forgive me for being so stupid, but I've kept post-office to-day, and had a long ride, and I danced with Henderson."

He drew her arm within his and led the way out through the crowd of dancers to the star-strewn night. She did not speak again, nor did she seem to notice that they had left the room with the dancers. She turned her face towards the lonely valley, where the drama of her brother's passing had been consummated, and something there was in her look as it turned towards the hills that told Peter.

"Tell me, Judith, 'what has happened?"

For answer she pointed towards the valley. "They did it last night at the dead cotton-woods. Henderson led them. I could not stay with Alida. I had to come here to dance that no one might suspect."

Her voice was steady, but low and thrilling. In its deep resonance was the echo of all human sorrow. There was no hint of accusation, yet Peter felt accused. He felt, now when it was too late, that his position had been one of almost pusillanimous negligence. From the beginning he had taken a firm stand against violent measures. He had talked, argued, reasoned, inveighed against violence; no later than a week ago he had ridden across the desert to tell Henderson that the Wetmore outfit would take no part in violence of any sort, and that the cattle outfit that did resort to extreme measures would miss the support of the "W-Square" in any future range business. But it had not been enough. He should have made plain his position in regard to Judith. With her as his future wife the tragedy of the valley would not have been possible.

From the ranch-house came the swell of the fiddles, the rhythmic shuffle of feet, the song of the dancers, dulled by distance. Beside him was Judith, a white spirit, the woman in her dead of grief. And yet, through all the grim horror of the tragedy she remembered the part that had been allotted to her, threw all the weight of her personality on the side of the game she was playing.

"You must be on our side, Peter, and when there is talk of Jim's absence you must imply that he is East somewhere. You will know how to meet such inquiries better than we women. Henderson will be only too glad. You should have seen the wretch when I held out my hand to him and told him to dance with me. He came, white and shambling; we have nothing to fear from Henderson. Alida has no money to go away with. She and I must stay here and make a beginning for the children, and, Peter, we want you to help us."

He had no voice to answer her brave words for a minute, and then his sentences came uncertain and halting.

"You must think me a poor sort of friend, Judith, one who has been blind till the eleventh hour and is then found wanting. I feel so guilty to you, to your brother's wife, to that little child who put out his arms so trustfully to me that night, but I never imagined that things would come to such a pass as this. The smaller cattle outfits have been doing a good deal of blustering, but the more conservative element supposed that they had them in check, and did not for a moment think that they would take the law into their own hands. Believe me, this lawlessness has been in the face of every influence that could be brought to bear, and it shall not go unpunished."

She spoke to him from the darkness, as the spirit of grief might speak. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that is the justice of the plains. But, Peter, it is but poor justice. What's done is done, and fresh violence will not give back Alida her husband nor the little ones their father. What we need is friends, one or two loyal souls who, though knowing the hideous truth of this thing, will stand by us in our pitiful falsehood. I have told no one, nor shall I, but you and—Peter, you must not laugh at your fellow-conspirator—Leander."

He took her hands in his and pressed them; big hands they were, and hardened by many a homely task, but withal tender and with the healing quality of womanliness in the touch of their warm, supple fingers. But to-night she did not seem to know that he held them, nor to be conscious of his presence. The woman in her was dead of grief. The white spirit in her place, that plotted and planned that Jim's children and Jim's wife might not from henceforth walk in the shadow of the gallows, was beyond the prompting of the flesh. And again she spoke to him in the same far-away voice, with the same far-away look in her eyes.

"You must know, Peter, that Leander is at heart of the salt of the earth. I told him about it all, and he asked to be given the commission to deal with the men. He has risen to his post magnificently. I heard him swear the wretches to secrecy, hint to them that he had a great story to tell them. They were frightened, and listened. And the poor little man that we have so despised told them convincingly how Jim had made good his escape—even Henderson half believes we saved him."

Peter hoped that she would accuse him of his half-heartedness indirectly, if not openly. It would have made his conscience more comfortable, and his conscience troubled him sorely to-night. It was that fatal habit of procrastination that had brought this thing about. He had hesitated all these weeks about Judith, and while he had threshed out the pro and con of her disadvantageous family connection, this hideous tragedy had happened.

"Peter"—and now her eyes seemed to come back to earth again, to lose something of the far-away look of the sleep-walker—"Peter, I'm cruel to speak to you of these things now. When your heart is full of your own happiness, I come to you like a dark shadow with this tragedy. But I am glad for the good that has come to you, Peter. Perhaps Miss Colebrooke told you of the day I met her in the wood, the day of the wolf-hunt. She was so beautiful, I understood—"

"Judith, I hardly know how to say what I am going to, I feel that I have been such a bad friend to you, but you must hear me patiently. Together, if you are willing, after knowing all of me that you do, we must look after your brother's children. That night in the little house in the valley, when the little chap came to me, don't you remember, there was something fine and fearless in the way he did it. 'You may belong to the cattle side of the argument,' he seemed to say, 'but I trust you.' Now, Judith dear, that boy's faith in me is not going to be shaken. We must look after them together. It is a very little thing you have asked of me, my dearest, but a very big one that I am asking of you. Do you understand, my Judith, it is you that I want? Don't think of me as I have been, Judith, but as you are going to make me. I want you to give me the right now, this evening, to share all this trouble with you. Do we understand each other, Judith? Is it to be? And will you come back with me now, into the room where they are dancing, and let me present you to them, to the Wetmores, as my Judith, my betrothed?"

"But, Peter, I don't understand. I—I thought you and Miss Colebrooke were—"

"That's all over, Judith. I did love her once. Oh, you dear, brave woman, I'm not a hero from any point of view, and you know it. It's but a sorry lover that's making his prayer to you, my dearest; but you won't judge, I know, beloved, you will love me instead?"

Judith turned towards the valley. Her whole being throbbed with a passionate response to the man who stood so humbly before her, but there were duties that came first. Her mind was full of Alida and her children, and her eyes still sought Peter's imploringly.

"You will be a good friend to them, Peter—to Jim's people? I cannot talk to you of anything else to-night. Your heart is big, Peter, but you cannot feel, perhaps—"

"Listen, Judith. Whatever friendship and protection I can give your family you may count upon from now till the end of time. I will be theirs as I am yours. I feel your grief, but I want to soothe it, too. And if you love me, and I feel, Judith, that you do, you must let them all see to-night, these people who know us both, that we stand together before all the world for better or worse. Think, Judith, and you will see that you owe it to yourself, to me, to all these men, who reverence you as the one woman, the one ideal in their lonely lives."

She could not speak. The moment was too full, the strain had been too great; but she smiled surrender, and Peter caught her tenderly in his arms and kissed her once—his Judith she was now, his heroine. Then, without another word, he drew her arm through his and led her back to the lights, where the dancers still held high carnival.

Judith's half-sister, Eudora, was making a pretty quarrel by perversely forgetting the order in which she had given her dances. The girl was so undeniably happy that Judith dreaded the grim news she must tell her. Eudora blushed as she encountered Judith's eye. Her half-sister ever offered a check on Eudora's exuberant coquetry, with its precipitation of discussions that often ended in bullets. Leander stood on the outermost fringe of Eudora's potential partners. He would not have dared to maintain it openly, yet he was sure the pretty minx had promised that dance to him.

"Dance with Leander, dear, and don't let those men begin quarrelling. I've something to tell you, presently," said Judith.

Texas Tyler stood glowering at them from the doorway. He would not catch Judith's eye as she tried to speak to him. Kitty sat alone for the moment. She had sent the young lieutenant to fetch her a cup of coffee, but as Peter approached with Judith she averted her eyes.

"Kitty, may I present to you my fiancee, Miss Rodney?"

Kitty rose superbly to the situation. She might, indeed, have made the match she was so overjoyed in the good-fortune of her old friend Peter. She made no reference to the woodland meeting—she hoped for the happiness of seeing them in town. And she bade Peter tell the good news to Nannie Wetmore, they would be so glad. Nannie swallowed a grimace and proffered a cousinly hand. She had suspected some such news as this when she saw that things were not going well with Kitty and Peter.

"Better one dance with a good partner that can swing ye than several with a feeble partner that leaves ye to swing your own corners!"

Judith looked up, smiling. She recognized the characteristic utterance of her old friend Mrs. Yellett. The matriarch had sustained a breakdown, and arrived, in consequence, when the dance was half over, but she was philosophical, as always, in the face of misfortune, and loudly attested her pleasure in the renowned pedal feats of her partner, Costigan.

Behind came Mary Carmichael, looking brown and happy. From the attitude of the group around Judith and Peter Mary divined what had happened, and came to add her congratulations. Even Mrs. Yellett forgot to choose an axiom as her medium of expression, and kissed Judith publicly, with affectionate unction. Henderson had effaced himself, and Leander, proud of his triumph and Judith's commendation, sat in a corner and smiled contentedly. Ignorant of the drama to which they had played chorus, the dancers still riotously swung one another up and down the length of the room, and from the little brown fiddles came the gay music of Judith's betrothal.

*THE END*

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