Mr. Percy Parrott appeared once more in the dinner clothes which upon a previous occasion had given Crowheart its first sight of the habiliment of polite society. If their exceeding snugness had caused him discomfiture then his present sensations were nothing less than anguish. His collar was too high, his collar-band too tight, the arm-holes of his jacket checked his circulation, and his waistcoat interfered with the normal action of his diaphragm, while Mr. Parrott firmly refused to sit out dances for reasons of his own. It was apparent too that he selected partners only for such numbers on the programme as called for steps of a sliding or gliding nature, for Mr. Parrott had the timid caution of an imaginative mind. Following him with anxious eyes was Mrs. Parrott looking like an India famine sufferer decollete.
From the bottom of that mysterious wardrobe trunk, which resembled the widow's cruse in that it seemed to have no limitations, Mrs. Abe Tutts had resurrected an aigrette which sprouted from a knob of hair tightly twisted on the top of her head. As the evening advanced and the exercise of the dance loosened Mrs. Tutts's simple coiffure, the aigrette slipped forward until that lady resembled nothing so much as a sportive unicorn.
Mrs. Terriberry was unique and also warm in a long pink boa of curled chicken feathers which she kept wound closely about her neck.
The red and feverish appearance of Mrs. Alva Jackson's eyelids was easily accounted for by the numberless French knots on her new peach-blow silk, but she felt more than repaid for so small a matter as strained eyes by the look of astonishment and envy which she surprised from Mrs. Abe Tutts, who had exhausted her ingenuity in trying to discover what she meant to wear.
Mrs. "Ed" Ricketts in black jet and sequins, decollete, en train, leaning on the arm of her husband, who was attired in a pair of copper-riveted overalls, new and neat, was as noticeable a figure as any lady present.
Mrs. Ricketts's French creation was a souvenir of a brief but memorable period in the history of the Ricketts family.
A few years previous Mr. Ricketts had washed $15,000 from a placer claim in an adjoining State and started at once for Europe to spend it, meaning to wash $15,000 more upon his return. In his absence some one washed it for him. When he came back with a wide knowledge of Parisian cafes, a carved bedstead, two four-foot candelabra and six trunks filled with Mrs. Ricketts's gowns, but no cash, it was a shock to learn that financially he was nil. After months of endeavor in other lines there seemed no alternative but to light his four-foot candelabra and die of starvation in his carved bedstead, or herd sheep, so he wisely decided upon the latter. Mrs. Ricketts adapted herself to the situation and made petticoats of her court trains and drove the sheep-wagon decollete, so Crowheart was more or less accustomed to Mrs. Ricketts in silk and satin.
Dr. Harpe did not come down until the evening was well along, but the delay produced the effect she intended. As she appeared, fresh and cool with her hair in perfect order, at the end of a number which left the dancers red and dishevelled, she caused a sensation that could not well have been otherwise than flattering. Crowheart stared in candid amazement and admiration.
Her sheer, white gown fell from sloping, well powdered shoulders and its filminess softened wonderfully the lines which were beginning to harden her face. She had dressed with the eagerness of a debutante, and her eyes were luminous, her cheeks delicately flushed with the excitement of it and with happiness at the visible impression she was making.
Dr. Harpe could, upon occasions, assume an air which gave her a certain distinction of carriage and manner which was the direct antithesis of the careless, swaggering, unfeminine creature that Crowheart knew, and as she now came slowly into the ballroom it is little wonder that a buzz went round after the first flattering silence of astonishment, for even a stranger would have singled her out at a glance from the perspiring female crudities upon the floor.
She looked younger by years and with that unexpected winsomeness which was her charm. The murmur of approval was a tribute to her femininity that was music in her ears. The night promised to be one of triumph which she intended to enjoy to the utmost, but to her it ensured more than that, for Ogden Van Lennop was there, as she had seen in one swift glance, and it meant, perhaps, her "chance."
For reasons of his own Van Lennop finally decided to accept the invitation which at first thought he fully intended to refuse. He figured that he had time to telegraph for his clothes, and this he did with the result that Crowheart stared as hard almost at him as at Dr. Harpe's amazing transformation. The reserved, unapproachable stranger in worn corduroys, who had come to be tacitly recognized as an object of suspicion, was not readily reconciled with this suave, self-possessed young man in clothes which they felt intuitively were correct in every detail. He moved among them with a savoir-faire which was new to Crowheart, talking easily and with flattering deference to this neglected lady and that, agreeable to a point which left them animated and coquettish. He danced with Mrs. Terriberry, he escorted Mrs. Tutts to the punch bowl, he threw Mrs. Jackson's scarf about her shoulders with a gallantry that turned Jackson green, a neat compliment sent Mrs. Percy Parrott off in a series of the hysterical shrieks which always followed when Mrs. Parrott found herself at a loss for words. Long before Dr. Harpe's appearance it had begun to dawn upon Crowheart that in holding aloof in unfriendly suspicion the loss had been theirs, for it was being borne in even upon their ignorance that Van Lennop's sphere was one in which they did not "belong."
Dr. Harpe quickly demonstrated that she was easily the best dancer in the room, and there was no dearth of partners after the first awe of her had worn off, but her satisfaction in her night of triumph was not complete until Van Lennop's name was upon her programme.
Essie Tisdale, busy elsewhere, had her first glimpse of the ballroom where Van Lennop claimed his dance. She grew white even to her lips, and her knees shook unaccountably beneath her as she watched Dr. Harpe glide the length of the room in Van Lennop's arms. The momentary pain she felt in her heart had the poignancy of an actual stab. It was so—so unexpected; he had so unequivocally ranged himself upon her side, he had seen so plainly Dr. Harpe's illy-concealed venom and resented it in his quiet way, as she had thought, that this seemed like disloyalty, and in the first shock of bewilderment and pain Essie Tisdale was conscious only that the one person in all the world upon whom she had felt she could count was being taken from her.
Van Lennop had told her of his invitation in amusement and later had remarked carelessly that he might accept, but apparently had given it no further thought. Even in her unhappiness the girl was fair to her merciless enemy. She looked well—far, far more attractive than Essie would have believed possible, softer, more feminine and—more dangerous. Van Lennop was human; and, after all, as she was forced to recognize more and more fully, she was only the pretty biscuit-shooter of the Terriberry House. Essie Tisdale pushed the swinging doors from her with a shaking hand and managed somehow to get back into the kitchen where, as she thought, with a strange, new bitterness, she belonged.
Van Lennop did not leave Dr. Harpe when the waltz was done, but seated himself beside her, first parting the curtain that she might get the air and showing a solicitude for her comfort so different from the cold, impersonal courtesy of months that her heart beat high with triumph. Verily, this propitious beginning was all she needed and, she told herself again, was all she asked. While she believed in herself and her personal charm when she chose to exercise it, Van Lennop's tacit recognition of it brightened her eyes and softened her face into smiling curves of happiness.
Van Lennop toyed with her fan and talked idly of impersonal things, but there was a veiled look of curiosity in his eyes, a kind of puzzled wonder each time that they rested upon her face. As he covertly studied her altered expression and manner, strongly conscious of the different atmosphere which she created, there rose persistently in his mind Stevenson's story of the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could not conceive a more striking example of dual personality or double consciousness than Dr. Harpe now presented. There was a girlish shyness in her fluttering glance, honesty in the depths of her limpid hazel eyes, while her white, unmarred forehead suggested the serenity of a good woman, and Van Lennop was dimly conscious that for some undefined reason he never had thought of her as that. She had personal magnetism—that he had conceded from the first, for invariably he had found himself sensible of her presence even when disliking her the most. To-night he was more strongly aware of it than ever.
"You are enjoying the evening?"
"Isn't that apparent?" A twinkle shone for a moment in his eyes. "And you?" adding quickly, "An unnecessary question—your face is the answer."
She laughed lightly.
"It doesn't belie me, for I like this—immensely. Flossying up occasionally helps me keep my self-respect. You didn't expect to find this sort of thing out here, did you?"
He looked at her oddly, not sure that she was serious. Was it possible that she did not see the raw absurdity of it all? Somehow he had thought that she "belonged" a little more than this; her unusual self-possession gave the impression perhaps. He glanced at the attenuated Mrs. Percy Parrott, at Mrs. Sylvanus Starr, exhilarated by numerous glasses of punch, capering through an impromptu cakewalk with Tinhorn Frank, at Mrs. Andy P. Symes, solemn and as stiffly erect as a ramrod, trying to manage her first train, and Van Lennop's lips curved upward ever so slightly, but his voice had the proper gravity when he replied:
She shot a quick look at him.
"You don't like it," she asserted.
Van Lennop smiled slightly at her keenness.
"To be candid, I don't. The West has always been a bit of a hobby of mine since I was a lad and adored Davy Crockett and strained my eyes over the adventures of Lewis and Clark. I like the picturesqueness, the naturalness, the big, kind spirit of the old days and I'm sorry to see them go—prematurely—for that which takes their place makes no appeal to the heart or the imagination. It is only a—well—a poor imitation of something else.
"With no notion of criticising my host, I must say, that in my opinion those who introduce these innovations"—he included the ballroom with a slight movement of her folded fan—"are robbing the West of its greatest charm. But then," he concluded lightly, and with a slight inclination of his head, "if I were a woman and the results of—er—'flossying up' were as gratifying as in your case, for instance, I might welcome such opportunities."
Dr. Harpe raised her eyes to his for one fluttering second and achieved a blush while he smiled down upon her with the faint, impersonal smile which was oftenest on his face.
* * * * *
"Just this once, my dear, and I won't ask you to go in there again. I know how hard it must be for you."
"Not at all"—Essie had looked at Mrs. Terriberry bravely—"I will do whatever is to be done."
She picked up a tray of fresh glasses for the table in the well patronized anteroom as she spoke and passed through the swinging door in time to see Dr. Harpe's uplifted eyes and blush and Van Lennop's answering smile.
The glasses jingled upon the tray in her unsteady hand, but her little mouth shut in a red, straight line as she nerved herself for the ordeal of passing them. She came toward them with her head erect and a set look upon her young, almost childish face, and Van Lennop catching sight of her intuitively guessed something of her thoughts and interpreted aright the strained look upon her white face.
"She thinks me disloyal," flashed into his mind, and he all but smiled at the idea.
Swift as was the passing of the softly interested expression upon Van Lennop's face, Dr. Harpe caught it and involuntarily turned her head to follow his gaze.
Essie Tisdale! Her face hardened and all her slumbering jealousy and hatred of the girl leaped to life in a mad, unreasoning desire to do her harm, bodily harm; she tingled with a longing to inflict physical pain.
The whirling dancers made it necessary for Essie to pass close, close enough to brush the skirts of the women occupying the chairs along the wall, and as she came toward them with her head erect, looking straight before her, Dr. Harpe acted upon an unconquerable impulse and slid her slippered toe from beneath her skirt. There was a crash of glass as the girl tripped and fell headlong. Tinhorn Frank guffawed; a few of his ilk did likewise, but the laughter died upon their lips at the blazing glance Van Lennop flashed them.
"Essie, you are hurt! Your hand is bleeding!"
Dr. Harpe shut her teeth hard at the concern in Van Lennop's voice as he helped the girl to her feet, but there was solicitude in her tone when she said:
"Let me see if there's glass in it, Essie."
The girl hesitated for an instant, then with an enigmatical smile extended her hand, but there was nothing enigmatical in the sidelong look which Van Lennop gave Dr. Harpe, a look that, had she seen it, would for once have made her grateful for her sex. Subconsciously he had seen the slight movement of her foot and leg as Essie Tisdale passed, but had not grasped its significance until the girl fell.
"I don't think there's any glass in it, but wash it out well and bring me a bandage. You got a hard fall; you must have slipped."
"Yes, I must have slipped." Her smile this time was ironic.
The night fulfilled the promise of the evening. It was a succession of triumphs for Dr. Harpe. The floor was air beneath her feet and the combination of insidious punch and sensuous music turned her cold, slow-running blood to fire. She was the undisputed belle of the evening, and they took the trailing smilax from the side lamps on the wall and made her a wreath in laughing acknowledgment of the fact. It was such an hour as she had dreamed of and the reality fulfilled every expectation.
She had attracted Van Lennop to herself at last; she had aroused and held his interest as she had known she could and she had sent Essie Tisdale sprawling ridiculously at his feet. She had shown Crowheart how she could look when she tried—what she could do and be with only half an effort. In other words, she had proved to Van Lennop and to Crowheart that she was a success as a woman as well as a doctor. What more could any one person ask? The road to the end looked smooth before her. She wanted to scream, to shriek aloud in exultation. Her cheeks burned, her eyes blazed triumph. She had the feeling that it was the climax of her career, that no more satisfying hour could come to her unless perhaps it was the day she married Ogden Van Lennop. And she owed nothing, she thought as she whirled dizzily in Mr. Terriberry's arms, to anyone but herself. Every victory, every step forward since she arrived penniless and unknown in Crowheart had been due to her brains and efforts. She raised her chin arrogantly. She had never been thwarted and the person was not born who could defeat her ultimately in any ambition! Her mental elation gave her a feeling akin to omnipotence.
A clicking sound in Mr. Terriberry's throat due to an ineffectual effort to moisten his lips brought the realization that her own throat and mouth were parched.
"Let's stop and hit one up," she whispered feverishly. "I'm dry as a fish."
Mr. Terriberry seemed to check himself in midair.
"I kin hardly swaller."
He led the way to the anteroom and she followed, swaying a little both from the dizzy dance and the effects of previous visits to the punch bowl. The hour was late and the remaining guests were rapidly casting aside the strained dignity which their clothes and the occasion had seemed to demand. Observing that Van Lennop had made his adieux, Dr. Harpe also felt a sudden freedom from restraint.
Mr. Terriberry filled a glass to the brim and executed a notable bow as he handed it to her.
"To the fairest of the fair," said Mr. Terriberry gallantly, protruding his upper lip over the edge of his glass something in the manner of a horse gathering in the last oat in his box.
Dr. Harpe raised her glass to arms' length and cried exultantly—
"To my Supreme Moment!"
Mr. Terriberry, who had closed his eyes while the cooling beverage flowed down his throat, opened them again.
Again she swung her glass above her head and shrilled—
"My Supreme Moment—drink to it if you're a friend of mine!"
"Frien' of yours? Frien' of yours! Why, Doc, I'd die fer you. But that's all same Ogollalah Sioux 'bout your S'preme Moment! Many of 'em, Doc, many of 'em, and here's t'you!"
They drained their glasses together.
"Always liked you, Doc. H'nest t'God, from the first minute I laid eyes on you." Mr. Terriberry reached for her fan dangling from the end of its chain and began to fan her with tender solicitude.
"Come on, let's have another drink; I don't cut loose often." Her eyes and voice were reckless.
"Me and you don't want to go out of here with our ropes draggin'," protested Mr. Terriberry in feeble hesitation. "Let's go out on the porch fer a minute an' look at the meller moon."
"Meller moon nothin'! Come on, don't be a piker." She was ladling punch into each of their glasses.
"Ah-h-h! Ain't that great cough mixture!" Mr. Terriberry rolled his eyes in ecstasy as he once more saw the bottom of his glass. "Doc, 'bout one more and me and you couldn't hit the groun' with our hats." Mr. Terriberry speared a bit of pineapple with the long nail of his forefinger and added ambiguously: "M'bet you."
"Aw, g'long! Food for infants, this—wish I had a barrel of it."
"Doc, you got a nawful capac'ty." Mr. Terriberry looked at her in languishing admiration. "That's why I like you. Honest t'God I hate to see a lady go under the table firs' shot out o' the box. Now my wife,"—suddenly remembering the existence of that lady Mr. Terriberry tiptoed to the door and endeavored to locate her—"my wife," he continued in a confidential whisper, "can't take two drinks t'hout showing it. Doc,"—Mr. Terriberry's chin quivered as the pathos of the fact swept over him—"Doc, Merta's no sport." Mr. Terriberry buried his face in his highly perfumed handkerchief as he confessed his wife's shortcomings.
"Aw, dry up! Take another and forget it," replied his unsympathetic confidante crossly.
Mr. Terriberry looked up in quick cheerfulness.
"Le's do, Doc. Do you know I hate water—just plain water. If it'll rot your boots what'll it do to your stummick!"
A man breathless from haste appeared in the doorway of the anteroom.
"What is it?" She did not turn around.
"A case came in at the hospital—feller shot, down the street."
"Where's Lamb?" she demanded irritably.
"Out of town."
"Thunder!" She stamped her foot impatiently. "Who is it?" she scowled.
"Billy Duncan. He's bleedin' bad, Doc." There was a note of entreaty in his voice.
"All right," she answered shortly, "I'll be down."
"Frien' of yours?" inquired Terriberry.
"Friend? No. One of those damned hoboes on the Ditch. Looks like he might have taken some other night than this."
"Don't blame you 'tall, Doc. I gotta get to work and fin' Merta. If you see Merta——" Mr. Terriberry suddenly realized that he was talking to himself.
As Dr. Harpe made her way to the cloak-room she was conscious that it was well she was leaving. The lights were blurring rapidly, the dancers in the ballroom were unrecognizable and indistinct, she was sensible, too, of the increasing thickness of her tongue. Yet more than ever she wanted to laugh hysterically, to scream, to boast before them all of the things she had done and of those she meant to do. Yes, decidedly, it was time she was leaving, her saner self told her.
She fumbled among the wraps in the cloak-room until she found her own, then, steadying herself by running her fingertips along the wall, she slipped from the hotel without being observed.
"Made a good getaway that time," she muttered.
Her lips felt stiff and dry and she moistened them frequently as she stumbled across the hummocks of sagebrush growing on the vacant lots between the hospital and the hotel. She fell, and cursed aloud as she felt the sting of cacti spines in her palm. She sat where she fell and tried to extract them by the light of the moon. Then she arose and stumbled on.
"God! I'm drunk—jus' plain drunk," she said thickly, and was glad that there would be no one but Nell Beecroft about.
Nell was safe. She had long since attended to that. They shared too many secrets in common for Nell to squeal. Nell was not easily shocked. She laughed foolishly at the thought of Nell being shocked and wondered what could do it.
Her contract with Symes called for a graduate nurse—Dr. Harpe snorted—a graduate nurse for hoboes! Nell was cheaper, and even if her reputation was more than doubtful she was big and husky—and they understood each other. The right woman in the right place, and with Lamb helped form a trio that stood for harmony and self-protection.
"Graduate nurse for hoboes!" She muttered it scornfully again. "Not on your tintype!"
She fell against the kitchen door and it opened with her weight.
"Hullo, Nell!" She blinked foolishly in the glare of the light.
The woman looked at her in silence.
"Hullo, I say!" The cloak slipped from her bare shoulders and she lunged toward a chair.
The flush on her face had faded and her color was ghastly, a grayish white, the pallor of an anaemic; the many short hairs on her forehead and temples hung straight in her eyes, the filmy flounce of her gown was torn and trailing, while a scraggly bunch of Russian thistle clung to the chiffon ruffles of her silk drop-skirt.
The woman stood in the centre of the kitchen with her arms akimbo—a huge raw-boned creature of a rough, frontier type.
She spoke at last.
"Well, you're a sight!"
"Been celebratin', Nell," she chuckled gleefully, "been celebratin' my S'preme Moment."
"You'd better git in there and fix that feller's arm or we'll be celebratin' a funeral," the woman answered curtly. "He's bleedin' like a stuck pig."
"That's what he is—good joke, Nell. Where'd it happen?" She seated herself in a chair and slid until her head rested on the back, her sprawling legs outstretched.
"Gun fight at the dance hall. Look here," she took her roughly by the arm, "I tell you he's bad off. You gotta git in there and do somethin'."
"Shut up! Lemme be!" She pulled loose from the nurse's grasp, but arose, nevertheless, and staggered down the long hallway into the room where the new patient lay moaning softly upon the narrow iron cot.
"Hullo, Bill Duncan!"
His moaning ceased and he said faintly in relief—
"Oh, I'm glad! I thought you'd never come, Doc."
"Say," her voice was quarrelsome, "do you think I've nothin' to do but wait at the beck and call of you wops?"
The boy, for he was only that, looked surprise and resentment at the epithet, but he was too weak to waste his strength in useless words.
She raised his arm bound in its blood-soaked rags roughly and he groaned.
"Keep still, you calf!"
He shut his teeth hard and the sweat of agony stood out on his pallid face as she twisted and pulled and probed with clumsy, drunken fingers.
"Nell!" she called thickly.
The woman was watching from the doorway.
"Get the hypodermic and I'll give him a shot of hop, then I'm goin' to bed. Lamb can look after him when he comes. I'm not goin' to monkey with him now."
"But, Doc," the boy protested, "don't leave me like this. The bullet's in there yet, and a piece of my shirt. The boys pulled out some, but they couldn't reach the rest. Ain't you goin' to clean out the hole or something? I'm scart of blood-poisonin', Doc, for I've seen how it works," he pleaded.
His protest angered her.
"God! but you're wise with your talk of blood-poisonin'! You bums from the Ditch give me more trouble and do more kickin' than all my private patients put together. What do you want for a dollar a month"—she sneered—"a special nurse? A shot in the arm will shut your mouth till morning anyhow."
She shoved up the sleeve of his night clothes on the good arm and gripped his wrist; then she jabbed the needle viciously.
His colorless lips were shut in a straight line and in his pain-stricken eyes there was not so much anger now as a great wonder. Was this the woman of whose acquaintance he had been proud, by whose bow of recognition he always had felt flattered; this woman whose free speech and careless good-nature he had defended against the occasional criticism of coarser minds? This woman with her reeking breath and an expression which seen through a mist of pain made her face look like that of Satan himself, was it possible that she had had his liking and respect? He was still wondering when the drowsiness of the drug seized him and he slipped away into sleep.
Dr. Harpe gathered his clothes from the foot of the bed as she passed out.
"Did he have anything on him, Nell?"
"They must have cleaned him out down below." She jerked her head toward the dance hall as she turned a pocket inside out. "A dollar watch and a jack-knife." She threw them both contemptuously upon the kitchen table. "If he wakes up bellerin', shove the needle into him—you can do it as well as I can. I'm goin' to bed."
She lunged down the corridor once more and Nell Beecroft stood looking after with a curious expression of derision and contempt upon her hard face.
Dr. Harpe threw herself upon the bed in one of the private rooms and soon her loud breathing told Nell Beecroft that she was in the heavy sleep of drink. The nurse opened the door and stood by the bedside looking down upon her as she lay dressed as she had come from the dance, on the outside of the counterpane. One bare arm was thrown over her head, the other was hanging limply over the edge of the bed, her loose hair was a snarled mass upon the pillow and her open mouth gave her face an empty, sodden look that was bestial.
"I wonder what your swell friends would say to you now?" the woman muttered, staring at her through narrowed lids. "Those private patients that you're always bragging swear by you? What would they say if I should tell 'em that just bein' plain drunk like any common prostitute was the least of——" she checked herself and glanced into the hallway. "What would they think if they knew you as I know you—what would they say if I told them only half?" Her mouth dropped in a contemptuous smile. "They wouldn't believe me—they'd say I lied about their 'lady doc.'"
She went on in sneering self-condemnation—
"I'm nothin'—just nothin'; drug up among the worst; no learnin'—no raisin'—but her—HER!" Nell Beecroft's lips curled in indescribable scorn. "She's worse than nothin', for she's had her chanst!"
There was no color in the East, only a growing light which made Dr. Harpe look ashen and haggard when she crawled from the bed and looked at herself in a square of glass on the wall.
"You sure don't look like a spring chicken in the cold, gray dawn, Harpe," she said aloud as she made a wry face and ran out her tongue. "Bilious! A dose of nux vomica for you. That mixed stuff does knock a fellow's stomach out and no mistake. Moses! I look fierce."
Her head ached dully, her mouth and throat felt parched, and yet withal she had a feeling of contentment the reason for which did not immediately penetrate her dull consciousness. She realized only that some agreeable happening had left her with a sensation of warmth about her heart.
As she fumbled on the floor for hair-pins, yawning sleepily until her jaws cracked, she wondered what it was. She stopped in the midst of twisting her loose hair and her face lighted in sudden recollection. Ogden Van Lennop! Ah, that was it. She remembered now. She had broken down his prejudice; she had partially won him over; she had been the "hit" of the evening; further conquests were in sight and within easy reach if she played her cards right. And Essie Tisdale—her long upper lip stretched in its mirthless smile—she would not have her feelings this morning for a goodly sum.
The thought of Van Lennop accelerated her movements. She must get back to the hotel before Crowheart was astir, for it might be her ill-luck to bump into Van Lennop starting on one of his early morning rides. She had no desire that he should see her in her present plight.
The closeness of the illy-ventilated hospital, with its odors of disinfectants and sickness, nauseated her slightly as she opened the door and stepped into the hallway. She frowned at the delirious mutterings of a typhoid patient at the end of the corridor, for it reminded her of a threatening epidemic in one of the camps. The sharper moans of Billy Duncan, whose inflamed and swollen arm was wringing from him ejaculations of pain, recalled vaguely to her mind something of the incident of the night before.
Hearing her step, he called aloud as she passed the door—
"Won't somebody give me a drink? Please, please give me a drink! I'm choked!"
"Nell will be up directly," she answered over her shoulder. There was no time to lose, for the day was coming fast.
She lifted her torn and trailing flounce and pulled her cloak about her bare shoulders as she opened the street door. The air felt good upon her hot forehead and she breathed deep of it. The East was pink now, but the town was still as silent as the grave save for the sound of escaping steam from the early morning train. Happening to glance toward the station, something in the appearance of a man carrying a suitcase across the cinders attracted her attention and caused her to slacken her pace. It looked like Ogden Van Lennop. It was Ogden Van Lennop. He was leaving! What did it mean? Her air-castles collapsed with a thud which left her limp.
She kept on toward the hotel, but her step lagged. What did she care who saw her now? Surely, she reassured herself, he was not leaving for good—like this. It was certainly strange.
Entering the hotel through the unlocked office door she found the night lamp still burning and Terriberry was nowhere about. That was curious, for he was always up when any of his guests were leaving on the early train.
Van Lennop's decision must have been sudden. What could be the explanation?
There was a letter propped against the lamp on a table behind the office desk and, as she surmised, it was addressed to Mr. Terriberry in Van Lennop's handwriting. Looking closer she saw the end of a second envelope behind the first. To whom could he have written? In some respects Dr. Harpe had the curiosity of a servant and it now prompted her to walk behind the desk and gratify it.
"Miss Essie Tisdale" was the address on the second envelope. Instantly her face changed and the swift, jealous rage of the evening before swept over her again.
She ground her teeth together as she regarded the letter with malice glittering in her heavy eyes. He was writing to her, then, the little upstart, that infernal little biscuit-shooter!
Shorty, the cook, was rattling the kitchen range. She listened a moment. There was no other sound. She thrust the letter quickly beneath the line of her low-cut bodice and tiptoed up the stairs with slinking, feline stealth.
"DOWN AND OUT"
Dr. Harpe ripped open the envelope addressed to Essie Tisdale and devoured its contents standing by the window, bare-shouldered in the dawn. Long before she had finished reading her hand shook with excitement, and her nose looked pinched and drawn about the nostrils. As a matter of fact the woman was being dealt a staggering blow. Until the moment she had not herself realized how strongly she had built upon the outcome of this self-constructed romance of hers.
In her wildest dreams she had not considered Van Lennop's attentions to Essie Tisdale serious or, indeed, his motives good. That Ogden Van Lennop had entertained the remotest notion of asking Essie Tisdale to be his wife was furthest from her thoughts. Yet there it was in black and white, staring at her in words which burned themselves upon her brain, searing the deeper because she learned from them that her own deed had precipitated the crisis.
"I wasn't sure of myself until last night," Van Lennop wrote, "but that creature's disgraceful act left me in no doubt. If I had been sure of you, Essie Tisdale, I would have put my arm about you then and there and told that braying crowd that any indignity offered you was offered to my future wife.
"But I was not sure, I am not sure now, and only business of the utmost urgency could take me away from you in this state of uncertainty. If you want me to come back won't you send me a telegram telling me so to the address I am giving below? Just a word, Essie Tisdale, to let me know that you care a little bit, that your sweet friendship holds something more for me than just friendship? I shall haunt the office until I hear from you, so lose no time."
Further on she read:
"I love you mightily, Essie Tisdale, and I have not closed my eyes for making plans for you and me. It is quite the most delirious happiness I have ever known. I long to take you away from Crowheart and place you in the environment in which you rightly belong, for, while we know nothing of your parentage, I would stake my life that in it you have no cause for shame. I am filled with all a lover's eagerness to give, to heap upon you the things which women like—to share with you my possessions and my pleasures.
"But in the midst of my castle building comes the chilling thought that I am taking everything for granted and the fear that I have been presumptuous in mistaking your dear, loyal comradeship for something more makes me fairly tremble. I am very humble, Essie Tisdale, when I think of you, but I am going to believe you will say 'yes' until you have said 'no'."
Dr. Harpe crumpled the letter and hurled it into the farthermost corner of the room, half sick with a feeling of helplessness, of passionate regret and despair. She realized to the fullest what she was losing, or, as she phrased it to herself, what was "slipping through her fingers," And this was to be the future of the girl whom it seemed to her she hated above all others and all else in the world! The thought was maddening. She strode to and fro, kicking her torn flounce and trailing skirt out of the way with savage resentment. Van Lennop's letter temporarily punctured her conceit, chagrin and mortification adding to her feeling the anguish of that bad half hour. "That creature" he was calling her while in her ridiculous self-complacency she was drinking to her Supreme Moment. Oh, it was unbearable! She covered her reddening face with both hands.
When she raised it at last there was a light in her eyes, new purpose in her face. Her moment of weakness and defeat had passed. She would make good her boast that that person was not yet born who could ultimately defeat her. She would not go so far as to say that in the end she would marry Van Lennop nor would she admit that it was impossible, but she swore that whatever else might happen, Essie Tisdale should never be his wife. In every clash between herself and this girl she had won, so why not again? There must be—there was—some way to prevent it!
She had no plan in mind as yet, but something would suggest itself, she knew, for her crafty resourcefulness had helped her since her childhood in many a tight place, from seemingly hopeless situations. She picked up the crumpled letter and seating herself by the window smoothed the sheets upon her knee.
She read it through again, calmly, critically this time, lingering over the paragraph which hinted at the things he had to offer the woman who became his wife.
"Diamonds and good clothes that means, a box at the Opera, fine horses and a limousine. The trollop! the——!" The epithet was the most offensive that she knew. "He knows she would like such things," she reasoned.
Her mind was working in a circuitous way toward a definite goal which she herself had not as yet perceived, but when she did see it, it came with the flash of inspiration. She all but bounded to her feet and began to pace the floor in the quick strides of mental excitement. A plan suddenly outlined itself before her with the clearness of a written text. Her crushing disappointment was almost forgotten in the keen joy of working out the details of her plot. If only she could influence certain minds—could manipulate conditions.
"I can! I will!" She emphasized her determination with clenched fist.
After a hasty toilette she surveyed herself in the glass with satisfaction. The jaded look was fast fading under the stimulus of the congenial work ahead of her and little trace of her intemperate indulgence of the night remained.
"You're standing up well under the jolt, Harpe," she commented. "That letter was sure a body blow."
She seated herself at the breakfast table and in her habitual attitude of slouching nonchalance sat with half-lowered lids watching Essie Tisdale as she moved about the dining-room. There was something in her crouching pose, the cruel eagerness of her eyes, which suggested a bird of prey, but it was not until they were alone that she asked carelessly—
"How's the hand, Ess?"
The girl gave no sign of having heard.
"That was rather a bad fall you got."
Essie turned upon her with blazing eyes.
"Not so bad as you intended."
Dr. Harpe laughed softly and asked with a mocking pretence of surprise—
"Why, what do you mean?"
"You know perfectly well that I know you tripped me. You need not pretend with me. Don't you think I know by this time that you would go to any length to injure me—in any way—that you already have done so?"
"You flatter me; you overestimate my power."
"Not at all. How can I when I see the evidence of it every day? You have left me practically without a friend; if that flatters you, enjoy it to the utmost." The girl's eyes filled with tears.
"Not without one," she sneered significantly; "surely you don't mean that?"
The peach-blow color rose in the girl's cheeks.
"No," she answered with a touch of defiance, "not without one, or two when it comes to that."
"And who is—the other?"
"I can count on Mrs. Terriberry. Even you have no influence with her, Dr. Harpe."
"You are very sure of your two friends." The woman slouching over the table looked more than ever like a bird of prey.
"Very sure," Essie Tisdale answered, again in proud defiance.
"Then of course you know that Van Lennop left Crowheart this morning?" She drawled the words in cruel enjoyment with her eyes fixed upon the girl's face.
Her eyes shone malevolently as she saw it blanch.
"Didn't he tell you he was going? I'm amazed."
The girl stood in stunned silence.
"Yes, a telegram sent him to Mexico to look after some important interests there. Quite unexpected. He left a letter for me saying good-by and regretting that he would not be back. So you see, my dear Essie, that when it comes to the actual count your friends have simmered down to one." It was not enough that she should crush her, she wanted somehow to wring from her a cry of pain.
"You made a fool of yourself over him, Ess! The whole town laughed at you. You should have known that a man like Van Lennop, of his position, doesn't take a biscuit-shooter seriously. Green as you are you should have known that. You've ruined yourself in Crowheart, doggin' his footsteps every time he turned and all that sort of thing; he simply couldn't shake you. You're done for here; you're down and out and you might as well quit the flat. It's the best thing you can do, or marry the first man that asks you and settle down."
Essie Tisdale looked at her, speechless with pain and shock. She had no reply; in the face of such a leave-taking there seemed nothing for her to say. Every taunt was like a stab in her aching heart because she felt they must be true. It was true, else he would not have left her without a word. What did it all mean? How could such sincerity be false! Was no one true in all the world? Oh, the sickening misery of it all—of life!
She turned away and left the dining-room, swaying a little as she walked.
Dr. Harpe returned to her room with a smirk of deep satisfaction upon her face.
"I soaked the knife home that time," she murmured, pinning on her stiff-brimmed Stetson before the mirror, but, mingled with her gratification was a slight feeling of uneasiness because she had gone farther than she had intended in mentioning Van Lennop's letter and boasting that it had been left for her.
The pair of horses which she and Lamb owned in common was at the stable already harnessed for their semi-weekly trip to the camps along the Ditch, but Dr. Harpe turned their heads in the opposite direction and by noon had reached the sheep-camp of old Edouard Dubois.
She hitched her horses to the shearing-pen and opened the unlocked door of the cabin. A pan of freshly-made biscuit and a table covered with unwashed breakfast dishes told her that the cabin was being occupied, so she reasoned that it was safer to wait until some one returned than to search the hills for Dubois.
A barking sheep-dog told her of some one's approach, and in relief she went out to meet him, for she was restless and impatient of any delay. But instead of the lumbering old French Canadian she saw the Dago Duke coming leisurely from a near-by coulee, picturesque in the unpicturesque garb of a sheep-herder.
If there was no welcoming smile upon her face the Dago Duke was the last person to be embarrassed by the omission.
"Ah, 'Angels unawares' and so forth." The Dago Duke swept his hat from his head in a low bow. "A rare pleasure, Doctor, to return and find a lady——"
She flushed at the mocking emphasis.
"Cut that out; any fool can be sarcastic."
"You surprise and pain me. If it is sarcasm to refer to you as a lady——?"
He waved his hand toward the coulee and she walked away.
The Dago Duke looked after her with an expression of amused speculation in his handsome eyes. What deviltry was she up to now?
"Addio, mia bella Napoli," he whistled. "Addio! addio!" What difference did it make so long as she confined her activities to Dubois?—since he had no more liking for one than the other.
The Dago Duke had applied to Dubois for work as a sheep-herder and got it.
After the memorable midnight session with pink lizards and the Gila monster, the Dago Duke applied for work as a sheep-herder and got it, chiefly because of his indifference to the question of wages.
"I want to get away from the gilded palaces of vice and my solicitous friends; I want to lead the simple, virtuous life of a sheep-herder until my system recovers from a certain shock," explained the applicant glibly, "and something within me tells me that you are not the man to refuse a job to a youth filled with such a worthy ambition."
Dubois grinned understandingly and gave him work at half a sheep-herder's usual pay.
Whatever the nature of Dr. Harpe's business with his employer, the interview appeared to have been eminently satisfactory to them both, for she was smiling broadly, while Dubois seemed not only excited but elated when they returned together.
He looked after her buggy as she drove away, and chuckled—
"Ha—she brings me good news—zat woman!"
While the Dago Duke was warming up the fried potatoes and bacon, which remained from breakfast, over the rusty camp-stove, Dubois was diving under his bunk for a box from which he produced a yellowed shirt and collar, together with a suit of black clothes, nearly new.
"Per Iddio! 'Tis the Day of Judgment and you've gotten inside information!" jeered the Dago Duke.
Dubois showed his yellowed teeth.
"Mais oui, 'eet is ze Resurrection."
"I swear, you look like Napoleon, Dubois!" gibed the Dago Duke, when he was fully arrayed.
"Why not?" The Frenchman's face wore a complacent smirk. "Ze Little Corporal, he married a queen."
The frying-pan of fried potatoes all but dropped from the Dago Duke's hand, while his employer enjoyed to the utmost the amazement upon his face.
"The lady doc?"
Dubois threw up both hands in vehement protest.
"Non, non! Mon Dieu, non, non!"
The Dago Duke shrugged his shoulders impertinently.
"You aim higher, perhaps?"
"Mais certes," he leered. "Old Dubois has thirty thousand sheep."
"To exchange for——"
"A queen, ze belle of Crowheart—Mees Essie Teesdale!"
The Dago Duke stared and continued to regard his employer fixedly. Essie Tisdale! Had the solitude affected the old man's mind at last? Was he crazy? How else account for the preposterous suggestion, his colossal egotism? Why, Essie Tisdale, even to the Dago Duke's critical eye, was like a delicately tinted prairie rose, while old Dubois with his iron-gray hair bristling on his bullet-shaped head, his thick, furrow-encircled neck, his swarthy, obstinate, brutal face, was seventy, a remarkable seventy, it is true, but seventy, and far from prepossessing. It was too absurd! It must be one of the lady doc's practical jokes—it was sufficiently indelicate, he told himself. At any rate he would soon see Dubois returning crestfallen from his courting expedition, and the sight, he felt, was one he should relish.
"I'll reserve my congratulations until you come," said the Dago Duke as he picked up his sheep-herder's staff and returned to his band of sheep.
"You will have ze opportunity, my frien'," grinned Dubois confidently.
Dr. Harpe had advised—
"Give her a night to cry her eyes out. Twenty-four hours will put a crimp in her courage. Let the fact that she's jilted soak in. Give her time to realize what she's up against in Crowheart."
And the woman had been right in her reasoning, for a night of tears and grief, of shame and humiliation left Essie Tisdale with weakened courage, mentally and physically spent.
Back of everything, above all else loomed in black and gigantic proportions the fact that Van Lennop had gone away forever without a word to her, that he even had thought less of her when it came to leaving than of the woman whom he had seemed to avoid.
In the long hours of the night her tired brain constantly recalled the things which he had said that had made her glow with happiness at the time, but which she knew now were only the pleasant, idle words of the people who came from the world east of the big hills. Dr. Harpe was right when she had told her that in her ignorance of the world and its men she had misunderstood the kindness Van Lennop would have shown to any person in her position.
"But he didn't show it to her—he didn't show it to anyone else but me!" she would whisper in a fierce joy, which was short-lived, for, instantly, the crushing remembrance of his leave-taking confronted her.
Her face burned in the darkness when she remembered that Dr. Harpe had taunted her with having displayed her love to all the town. She no longer made any attempt to conceal it from herself, the sure knowledge had come with Van Lennop's departure, and she whispered it aloud in the darkness in glorious defiance, but the mood as quickly passed and her face flamed scarlet at the thought that she had unwittingly showed her precious secret to the unfriendly and curious.
She crept from bed and sat on the floor, with her folded arms upon the window-sill, finding the night air good upon her hot face. She felt weak, the weakness of black despair, for it seemed to her that her faith in human nature had received its final shock. If only there was some one upon whose shoulder she could lay her head she imagined that it might not be half so hard. There was Mrs. Terriberry, but after what had happened could she be sure even of Mrs. Terriberry? Could any inconsequential person like herself be sure of anybody if it conflicted with their interests? It seemed not. She shrank from voicing the thought, but the truth was she dared not put Mrs. Terriberry's friendship to any test.
"The best way to have friends," she whispered bitterly with a lump in her aching throat, "is not to need them."
She dreaded the beginning of another day, but it must be gotten through somehow, and not only that day but the day after that and all the innumerable, dreary days ahead of her. Finally she crept shivering to bed to await the ordeal of another to-morrow.
The long shadows of the afternoon's sun lay in the backyard of the Terriberry House when Essie sat down in the doorway to rest before her evening's work began. The girl's sad face rested in the palm of her hand and her shoulders drooped wearily as Mrs. Abe Tutts in her blue flannel yachting cap came down the road beside her friend Mrs. Jackson, who rustled richly in the watered silk raincoat which advertised the fact that she was either going to or returning from a social function. Mrs. Jackson's raincoat was a sure signal of social activity.
"Let's walk up clost along the fence and see how she's takin' it," suggested Mrs. Tutts amiably. "Gittin' the mitten is some of a pill to swaller. Don't you speak to her, Mis' Jackson?"
Mrs. Jackson glanced furtively over her shoulder and observed that Mrs. Symes was still standing on the veranda.
"If I come upon her face to face, but I don't go out of my way a-tall," she added in unconscious imitation of Mrs. Symes's newly-acquired languor of speech. "One rully can't afford to after her bein' so indiscreet and all."
"Rotten, I says" declared Mrs. Tutts tersely.
"She looks kinda pale around the gills s'well as I can see from here," opined Mrs. Jackson, staring critically as they passed along. They tittered audibly. "I tell you what, Mrs. Tutts, Essie ought to get to work and marry some man what'll put her right up in society where Alva put me."
A biting comment which it caused Mrs. Tutts real suffering to suppress was upon the tip of that lady's tongue, but it was gradually being borne in upon her that the first families were not given to actual hand-to-hand conflicts, so she checked it and inquired significantly instead—
"But could he, after ridin' over the country t'hout no chaperon and all?"
Mrs. Tutts had only recently found out about chaperons and their function, but, since she had she insisted upon them fiercely, and Mrs. Jackson was finally forced to admit that this violation of the conventions was indeed hard to overlook.
Essie Tisdale was too unhappy either to observe the passing of the women or their failure to recognize her. In the presence of this new, real grief their friendliness or lack of it seemed a small affair. The only thing which mattered was Ogden Van Lennop's going. The sun, for her, had gone down and with the inexperience of youth she did not believe it ever would rise again.
The girl sat motionless, her chin still resting in her palm, until a tremulous voice behind her spoke her name.
She turned to see Mrs. Terriberry, buttoned into her steel-colored bodice and obviously flustered.
"Yes?" There was a trace of wonder in her voice.
At the sight of the pale face the girl upturned to her, Mrs. Terriberry's courage nearly failed her in the task to which she had nerved herself.
"Essie," she faltered, twisting her rings nervously, finally blurting out, "I'm afraid you'll have to go, Essie."
The girl started violently.
"Go?" she gasped. "Go?"
Mrs. Terriberry nodded, relieved that it was out.
"But why? Why?" It seemed too incredible to believe. This was the very last thing she had expected, or thought of.
Mrs. Terriberry avoided her eyes; it was even harder than she had anticipated. Why hadn't she let "Hank" Terriberry tell her himself! Mrs. Terriberry was one of that numerous class whose naturally kind hearts are ever warring with their bump of caution.
She was sorry now that she had been so impulsive in telling him all that Dr. Harpe had whispered over the afternoon tea at Mrs. Symes's now fashionable Thursday "At Home." It was the first of the coveted cards which Mrs. Terriberry had received and Dr. Harpe took care to adroitly convey the information that the invitation was due to her, and Mrs. Terriberry was correspondingly grateful.
"You can't afford to keep her; you simply can't afford it, Mrs. Terriberry," Dr. Harpe had whispered earnestly in a confidential corner.
"But," she had protested in feeble loyalty, "but I like Essie."
"Of course you do," Dr. Harpe had agreed magnanimously; "so do I; she's a really beautiful girl, but you know how it is in a small town and I am telling you for your own good that you can't afford to harbor her."
"I couldn't think of turning her out just when she needs a friend," Mrs. Terriberry had replied with some decision, and Dr. Harpe's face had hardened slightly at the answer.
"It's your own affair, naturally," she had returned indifferently; "but I'll have to find accomodations elsewhere. If living in the same house would injure me professionally, merely a boarder, you can guess what it will do to you in a business way, and," she had added significantly, "socially."
Mrs. Terriberry had looked startled. After hanging to the fringe until she was all but exhausted, it was small wonder that she had no desire to again go through the harrowing experience of overcoming Society's objections to a hotelkeeper's wife.
"Certainly I don't blame you for hanging on to her as long as you can," Dr. Harpe had added, "and of course you would be the last to hear all the gossip that there is about her. But, on the whole, isn't it rather a high price to pay for—well, for a biscuit-shooter's friendship? Such people really don't count, you know."
Mrs. Terriberry who had once shot biscuits in a "Harvey's Eating House" murmured meekly—
"Of course not." But instantly ashamed of her weak disloyalty she had declared with a show of spirit, "However, unless Hank says she must go she can stay, for Essie has come pretty close to bein' like my own girl to me."
Dr. Harpe had been satisfied to let it rest at that, for she felt sure enough of Terriberry's answer.
"He needs my money, but if more pressure is necessary,"—she sniggered at the recollection of Mr. Terriberry's sentimental leanings—"I can spend an hour with him in the light of the 'meller moon.'"
Again Dr. Harpe was right. Mr. Terriberry needed the money, also his fears took instant alarm at the thought of losing so popular and influential a guest, one, who, as he told Mrs. Terriberry emphatically, could do him a power of harm. The actual dismissal of the girl who had grown to womanhood under his eyes he wisely left to his wife.
The girl stood up now, a slender, swaying figure: white, desolate, with uplifted arms outstretched, she looked like a storm-whipped flower.
"Oh, what shall I do! Where shall I go!"
The low, broken-hearted cry of despair set Mrs. Terriberry's plain face in lines of distress.
"Essie, Essie, don't feel so bad!" she begged chokingly.
The girl's answer was a swift look of bitter reproach.
"You can stay here until you find some place that suits you."
The girl shook her head.
"To-morrow I'll go—somewhere."
"Don't feel hard toward me, Essie," and she would have taken the girl's hand, but she drew it quietly away and stood with folded arms in an attitude of aloofness which was new to her.
"It's not that; it's only that I don't want your—pity. I don't think that I want anything you have to give. You have hurt me; you have cut me to the quick and something is happening—has happened—here!" She laid both hands upon her heart. "I feel still and cold and sort of—impersonal inside."
"I understand perfectly, Mrs. Terriberry. You like me—you like me very much, but you are one kind of a coward, and of what value is a coward's friendship or regard? I don't mean to be impertinent—I'm just trying to explain how I feel. In your heart you believe in me, but you are afraid—afraid of public opinion—afraid of being left out of the teas and card parties which mean more to you than I do. You've known me all my life and fail me at the first test."
"I hate to hear you talk like that; it doesn't sound like Essie Tisdale." But in her heart she knew the girl was right. She was a coward; she had not the requisite courage to set her face against the crowd, but must needs turn and run with them while every impulse and instinct within her pulled the other way.
"Doesn't it?" The girl smiled bitterly. "Why should it? Can't you see—don't you understand that you've helped kill that Essie Tisdale—that blundering, ignorant Essie Tisdale who liked everybody and believed in everybody as she thought they liked and believed in her?"
"Dear me! oh, dear me!" Mrs. Terriberry rubbed her forehead and groaned pathetically.
Any consecutive line of thought outside the usual channels pulled Mrs. Terriberry down like a spell of sickness. She looked jaded from the present conversation and her thoughts ran together bewilderingly.
"I know to-night how an outlaw feels when the posse's at his heels and he rides with murder in his heart," the girl went on with hardness in her young voice. "I know to-night why he makes them pay dear for his life when he takes his last stand behind a rock."
"Oh, Essie, don't!" Mrs. Terriberry wrung her garnet and moonstone-ringed fingers together in distress. "You mustn't get reckless!"
"What real difference does it make to you or anybody else how I get?" she demanded fiercely, and added: "You are showing me how much when you advertise to all the town by turning me out that you believe their evil tongues."
"I'm goin' to talk to Hank again——" but Essie stopped her with a vehement gesture.
"You needn't. I don't want pity, I tell you, I don't want favors. I am going to-morrow. There is some way out. There is a place in the world for me somewhere and I'll find it."
She turned away and walked toward the corral where the black omnibus horses nickered softly at her coming, while Alphonse and Gaston stood on their hind legs and squealed a vociferous welcome.
"My only friends——" and she smiled bitterly.
She winced when she saw a new face passing the kitchen door and realized that Mr. Terriberry already had filled her place. It was only one small thing more, but it brought again the feeling that the world was sinking beneath her feet.
She stood for a long time with her forehead resting on her folded arms which lay upon the top rail of the corral. The big 'bus horses shoved her gently with their soft muzzles, impatient to be noticed, but she did not lift her head until a step upon the hard-trodden yard roused her from her apathy of dull misery. She glanced around indifferently to see old Edouard Dubois lumbering toward her in the fast gathering dusk.
Dubois's self-conscious, ingratiating smile did not fade because she drew her arched eyebrows together in a slight frown. It took more than an unwelcoming face to divert the obstinate old Frenchman from any purpose firmly fixed in his mind.
"Ha—I am ver' glad to find you alone, Mees Teesdale, I lak have leetle talk with you." There was a purposeful look behind his set smile of agreeableness.
She shrank from him a little as he came close to her, but he appeared not to notice the movement, and went on—
"I hear you are in trouble—eh? I hear you get fire from ze hotel?"
Again the girl's face took on its new look of bitterness. That was the way in which they were expressing it, spreading the news throughout the town. They were losing no time—her friends.
"'Fired' is the word when a biscuit-shooter is dismissed," she returned coldly.
"I hear you get lef' by that loafer, too. I tole you, mam'selle, that fellow Van Lennop no good. I know that kind, I see that kind before, Mees Teesdale. Lak every pretty girl an' have good time, then 'pouf!—zat is all!"
She turned upon him hotly, her face a mixture of humiliation and angry resentment.
"You can't criticise him to me, Mr. Dubois! I won't listen. If I have been fool enough to misunderstand his kindness that's my fault, not his."
Dubois's eyes became suddenly inscrutable. After a moment's silence he said quietly—
"You love heem, I think. Zat iss too bad for you. What you do now, Mees Teesdale? Where you go?"
He saw that her clasped hands tightened at the question, though she replied calmly—
"I don't know, not yet."
"Perhaps you marry me, mam'selle? I ask you once—I haf not change my mind."
She stared at him with a kind of terror in her eyes.
Was this her way out! Was this the place that somewhere in the world she had declared defiantly was meant for her? Was it the purpose of the Fates to crowd her down and out—until she was glad to fill it—a punishment for her ambitions—for daring to believe she was intended for some other life than this?
Upon that previous occasion when the old Frenchman had made her the offer of marriage which had seemed so grotesque and impossible at the time, he had asserted in his pique, "You might be glad to marry old Edouard Dubois some day," and she had turned her back upon him in light contempt—now she was, not glad, she could never be that, but grateful.
"But I—don't love you." Her voice sounded strained and hoarse.
"Zat question I did not ask you—I ask you will you marry me?" He did not wait for an answer, but went on persuasively, yet stating the bald and hopeless facts that seemed so crushing to her youth and inexperience. "You have no parent—no home, Mees Teesdale; you have no money and not so many friend in Crowheart. You marry me and all is change. You have good home and many friends, because," he chuckled shrewdly, "when I die you have thirty thousand sheep. Plenty sheep, plenty friends, my girl. How you like be the richest woman in this big county, mam'selle?"
The girl was listening, that was something; and she was thinking hard.
Money! how they all harped upon it!—when she had thought the most important thing in the world was love. Even Ogden Van Lennop she remembered had called it the great essential and now she saw that old Edouard Dubois who had lived for seventy years regarded it in a wholly reverent light.
"When you marry me you have no more worry, no more trouble, no more tears."
Her lips moved; she was repeating to herself—
"No more worry, no more trouble, no more tears."
She was bewildered with the problems which confronted her, frightened by the overwhelming odds against her, tired of thinking, sick to death of the humiliation of her position. She stopped the guttural, wheedling voice with a quick, vehement gesture.
"Give me time to think—give me until to-morrow morning."
"What time to-morrow morning?"
"At ten o'clock,"—there was desperation in her face—"at ten to-morrow I will tell you 'yes' or 'no.'"
She was clutching at a straw, clinging to a faint hope which had not entirely deserted her: she might yet get a letter from Van Lennop, just a line to let her know that he cared enough to send it; and if it came, a single sentence, she knew well enough what her answer to Dubois would be.
"Until to-morrow." The old Frenchman bowed low in clumsy and unaccustomed politeness, but gloating satisfaction shone from his deep-set eyes, small and hard as two gray marbles.
AN UNFORTUNATE AFFAIR
Billy Duncan was in a bad way, so it was reported to the men upon the works, and the men to show their sympathy and liking for the fair-haired, happy-go-lucky Billy Duncan made up a purse of $90 and sent it to him by Dan Treu, the big deputy-sheriff, who also was Billy Duncan's friend.
"It'll buy fruit for the kid, something to read, and a special nurse if he needs one," they told the deputy and they gave the money with the warmest of good wishes.
Dan Treu took their gift to the hospital, and Billy Duncan burst into tears when he saw him.
"Oh, come, come! Buck up, Billy, you're goin' to pull through all right."
"Dan! Dan! Take me out of here—take me away! Quick!"
The deputy looked his surprise.
"What's the matter, Billy? What's wrong?"
"Everything's wrong, Dan, everything!" His voice was shrill in his weakness. "I'm goin' to croak if you don't get me out of here!"
Dan Treu bent over him and patted his shoulder as he would have comforted a child.
"There, there, don't talk like that, Billy. You're not goin' to croak. You're a little down in the mouth, that's all." He glanced around the tiny room. "It looks clean and comfortable here; you're lucky to have a place like this to go to and Doc's a blamed good fellow. She'll pull you through."
"But she ain't, Dan—she ain't anything that we thought. Lay here sick if you want to find her out. She thinks we don't count, us fellows on the works, and Lamb's no better, only he's more sneakin'—he hasn't her gall." He searched the deputy's face for a moment then cried pitifully, "You don't believe me, Dan. You think I'm sore about something and stretchin' the truth. It's so, Dan—I tell you they left me here the night I was brought in until the next forenoon without touchin' my arm. They've never half cleaned the hole out. It's swelled to the shoulder and little pieces of my shirt keep sloughing out. Any cowpuncher with a jack-knife could do a better job than they have done. They don't know how, Dan, and what's worse they don't care!"
He reached for the deputy's hand and clung to it as he begged again—
"My God! Dan, won't you believe me and get me out of here? Honest, honest, I'm goin' to die if you don't!"
In his growing excitement the boy's voice rose to a penetrating pitch and it brought Lamb quickly from the office in the front. He looked disconcerted for an instant when he saw the deputy, for he had not known of his presence in the hospital. Glancing from one to the other he read something of the situation in Billy Duncan's excited face and Dan Treu's puzzled look. Stepping back from the doorway he beckoned the deputy into the hall.
"I guess he was talkin' wild, wasn't he?" He walked out of the sick boy's hearing. "Kickin', wasn't he?"
Dan Treu hesitated.
"I thought as much," nodded Lamb. "But you mustn't pay any attention to him. His fever's way up and he's out of his head most of the time."
"He seems to think his arm ain't had the care it should,"—Treu's voice was troubled—"that the wound ain't clean and it's swellin' bad."
"His hallucination; he's way off at times. Everything's been done for him. We like the boy and he's havin' the best of care. Why, we couldn't afford to have it get around that we neglect our patients, so you see what he says ain't sense."
The deputy-sheriff's face cleared gradually at Lamb's explanation and solicitude.
"Yes, I guess he is a little 'off,' though I must say he don't exactly look it. But do all you can for him, Lamb, for Billy's a fine chap at heart and he's a friend of mine. The boys have raised some money for any extras that he wants—I put it under his pillow."
Lamb brightened perceptibly.
"That's a good thing, because seein' as how he wasn't hurt on the works he'll have to pay like any private patient and of course we'd like to see where our money is comin' from. I've asked him for the money—his week is up to-day—but he don't seem to think he owes it."
"Kind of strikes me the same way," replied the deputy obviously surprised.
"That's accordin' to contract—that's the written agreement." Lamb's nasal voice immediately became argumentative.
"It may be that,"—the deputy looked at him soberly—"but it don't sound like common humanity to me—or fairness. He's been paying a dollar a month to you and your hospital ever since it started and hundreds of men who have no need of its services have been doin' the same, and I must say, Lamb, it sounds like pretty small potatoes for you to charge him for an outside accident like this because your contract will let you do it and get away with it."
"We ain't here for our health, be we?" demanded Lamb, offensively on the defensive.
"It don't look like it," Treu replied shortly.
"But he'll want for nothin' while he's under our care." Lamb's tone grew suddenly conciliatory. "You'd better go now, your presence excites him and he must have quiet. Step to the door and say good-by, if you like, but no conversation, please."
"Adios, Billy!" The deputy thrust his head and broad shoulders in the doorway. "I'll come again soon."
"Good-by, Dan, good-by for keeps, old man. I don't believe I'll be here when you come again." All the excitement was gone and the boy spoke in the quiet voice of conviction. "You're quittin' me, Dan. You don't believe me and the jig's up. You'd risk your life to save me if I was drowning or up against it in a fight, but you're walkin' away and leavin' me here to die. You don't believe me now, but I know you're goin' to find out some time for yourself that I'm tellin' the truth when I say that I've been murdered. There's more ways to kill a man than with a gun. Ignorance and neglect does the trick as well. Tell the boys 'much obliged,' Dan." He turned his white face to the wall and the tears slipped hot from beneath his lashes.
Dan Treu's troubled eyes sought Lamb's, who waited in the hallway.
"He'll be himself when you come again," said Lamb reassuringly. "We're doin' everything to git his fever down. Don't let his talk worry you."
But in spite of Lamb's confident assurance Dan Treu walked away from the hospital filled with a sense of oppression which lasted throughout the day. The next morning he heard upon the street that they had amputated Billy Duncan's arm.
"Amputated Billy Duncan's arm!" The deputy-sheriff kept saying it over and over to himself as he hurried to the hospital. He was shocked; he was filled with a regret that was personal in its poignancy. He knew exactly what such a loss meant to Billy Duncan, who earned his living with his hands and gloried in his strength—independent young Billy Duncan an object of pity in his mutilated manhood! Dan Treu could not entirely realize it yet.
Lamb met him at the hospital door as though he had awaited his coming.
"Blood-poisonin' set in," he began with a haste which seemed due to excitement. "Developed sudden. Had to amputate to save his life. He was willin' enough; he knew it was for the best, his only chance in fact."
Dan Treu was seized with a sudden aversion for Lamb's shifty, dark-circled eyes, his unconvincing nasal voice.
"Blood-poisonin' set in, you say?" He eyed Lamb steadily.
"His habits, you know, battin' around and all that. Bad blood."
"Bad blood—hell!" said Dan Treu sharply. "His blood was as good as yours or mine, and his habits too."
He made to step inside, but Lamb stopped him.
"He hasn't come out of the ether yet—I'll let you know when you can see him."
There was nothing more to say, so Dan Treu turned on his heel and walked away, angry, sceptical—without exactly knowing why.
The aversion which Lamb had inspired was still strong within him when he stopped on a street corner to ruminate and incidentally roll a cigarette.
"When he gets close I feel like I do when a wet dog comes out of the crick and is goin' to shake." The deputy felt uncommonly pleased with the simile which so well described his feelings.
Dan Treu did not receive the promised notification that Billy Duncan was in a condition to be seen, which was not strange, since Billy Duncan was dying—dying because a man and woman whose diplomas licensed them to juggle with human life and limb were unable in their ignorance and inexperience to stop the flow of blood. Vital, life-loving, happy-go-lucky Billy Duncan lay limp on his narrow bed in the bare, white room, filled with a great heart-sickness at the uselessness of it, the helpless ignominy of dying like a stuck pig! With a last effort he turned his head upon his pillow and through the window by his bedside watched the colors of the distant foothills change from gold to purple—purple like the shadows of the Big Dark for which he was bound. And when at last the night shut out the world he loved so well, Billy Duncan coughed—a choking, strangling cough and died alone.
Nell Beecroft learned it first when she brought the soup and prunes which she was pleased to call his supper. She set the tray upon the bed and stood with arms akimbo looking down upon him. The boyish look of him as he lay so still brought the thought home to her for the first time that somewhere in the world there was some one—a mother—a woman like herself who loved young Billy Duncan. She stooped and with rough gentleness brushed a lock of fair hair from his forehead.
"Poor devil!" she murmured.
"He's dead." She conveyed the news shortly when Lamb came to make his nightly round.
"The kid—Billy Duncan."
Lamb looked startled. It had come sooner than he thought. Recovering himself, he wagged his head and sighed in his pious whine:
"Ah, truly, 'the wages of sin is death.' Altogether a most unfortunate affair, but no human skill could save him." His voice faltered a little, at the end, for pretence seemed ridiculous beneath Nell Beecroft's hard eyes, and her unpleasant laugh nettled him as she strode back to the kitchen.
Yes, Billy Duncan was dead—there was no doubt about that—perfectly and safely dead. There was no question of it in Dr. Lamb's mind when he slipped his hand beneath the pillow and withdrew the $90 which Billy Duncan had so obstinately refused to turn over toward his hospital expenses. Ninety dollars; yes, it was all there; Lamb counted it carefully. Little enough for the trouble and anxiety he had been. The eminent surgeon's waistcoat bulged with the gift of Billy Duncan's friends when he closed the door behind him.
A curious stillness came over Dan Treu when Lamb himself brought the news that Billy Duncan was dead. His jaw dropped slightly and he forgot to smoke.
"The shock—his weakened condition—it was to be expected, though we hoped for the best." Lamb found it something of an effort to speak naturally beneath the Deputy-sheriff's fixed gaze. "But he wanted for nothing. Me and the nurse was with him at the last."
A mist blurred Dan Treu's eyes and he turned abruptly on his heel.
"Wait a minute! Ahem! there's one thing more."
The deputy halted.
"You will arrange with the County about his funeral expenses?"
"With the County? Billy Duncan's no pauper."
"Why ain't he? I've been around and found out he's got nothin' in the bank."
"You have?" He eyed Lamb for a moment. "Billy Duncan will not be buried by the County," he finished curtly.
"I'm glad to hear that," said Lamb conciliatingly, and added: "Of course you're not counting on that $90?"
"There must be some left."
"Oh, no—nothing. Arm amputations are a $100. We are really out $10—more than that with his board and all, but"—his tone was magnanimity itself—"let it go."
When the Deputy-sheriff went out on the works and raised $125 more among Billy Duncan's friends, he handed it to Lutz, the hospital undertaker, and said—
"The best you can do for the money, Lutz. I've got to go to the County seat on a case and I can't be here myself. Billy was a personal friend of mine, so treat him right."
"Sure; we can turn him out first-class for that money; a new suit of clothes and a tony coffin. Any friend of yours I'll handle like he was my own."
There was something slightly jocular in his tone, a flippancy which Dan Treu felt and silently resented. He looked at Lutz in his shiny, black diagonals, undersized, sallow, his meaningless brown eyes as dull as the eyes of a dead fish, and he thought to himself as he walked away—
"That feller's in the right business, and, by gosh, he's thrown in with the right bunch."
The grave-digger's mouth puckered in a whistle when Lutz went to his home to notify him that his services were needed.
The undertaker grinned.
"I'm about used up from gittin' robbed of my rest," complained the grave-digger. "This night-work ain't to my taste."
"It's no use kickin'; you know what Lamb says—that these daylight buryin's makes talk amongst the neighbors."
"Should think it would," retorted the grave-digger, "with them typhoids dyin' like flies."
"I thought of a joke, Lem."
"Undertakin' is a comical business; what is it?"
"When an undertaker's sick ought he to go to the doctor what gives him the most work or the least?"
"You got me; I'll think it over and let you know."
In spite of his garrulous complaints the grave-digger was at work in a new grave on the sagebrush flat a mile or more from town when the undertaker and the liveryman drove up at midnight with all that remained of Billy Duncan jolting in the box of a lumber wagon.
The coffin of unplaned lumber was unloaded at the grave and the liveryman hastened away, for he himself had no liking for these nocturnal drives, but neither was he the man to quarrel with his own interests. If the Health Officer and His Honor, the mayor, asked no questions when the hospital deaths went unreported, he felt that these frequent midnight pilgrimages were no concern of his.
The undertaker peered into the shallow grave.
"This hole looks like a chicken had been dustin' itself."
"You'd think it was deep enough if you was diggin' in these rocks and drawin' only $5.00 for it," was the tart reply. "I told you I wouldn't dig but three feet for that money. 'Tain't like diggin' in nice, easy Nebrasky soil. Gimme $10 a grave an' I'll dig 'em regalation depth."
"Quit jawin' and take holt of this here box."
"Is he heavy?"
"Never heard of any of 'em comin' out of there fat. Slide the strap under your end."
"He's heavier than most," grunted the grave-digger. "He couldn't a been in there long."
"They made a quick job of this one. Steady now—let her slide."
The grave-digger was sleepy and cross and careless. The strap slipped through his fingers and the box fell with a heavy thud. It fell upon its side and the lid came off.
"My God!" The grave-digger was staring into the hole with all his bulging eyes.
"You fool! You clumsy, blunderin' fool!"
The epithet passed unheard, for the grave-digger was looking at the stark body rolled in a soiled blanket now lying face downward in the dirt of the grave.
"Jump in there and put him back!" cried Lutz excitedly.
The grave-digger backed off and shook his head emphatically.
"What are you here for—you?"
"Not for jobs like this; this sure don't look right to me."
"What do I care how it looks to you! Get busy and help me roll him back and be quick about it!"
"I ain't paid for no such crooked work as this."
"I've heard it straight that every pauper had a suit o' clothes, a coffin, a six-foot grave, and a headboard comin' to him from the County. That's the law."
"Look here, Lem, use a little sense. Now what's the use spendin' County money on these paupers from God knows where? That's a good blanket."
"Oh, yes, that's a peach of a blanket. Kind of a shame to waste such a good blanket, ain't it? Why don't you take it off him? He'll never tell. But say, are you sure the County don't pay for that suit of clothes and coffin and six feet of diggin' he didn't git?"
"Are you goin' to lend a hand here or not?"
"Not." The grave-digger picked up his shovel and started off looking like a gnome in the moonlight under his high-crowned Stetson.
"Come back here! Don't be a fool."
"I'm not the man you're lookin' for," he replied stubbornly.
The undertaker started after him and laid a hand roughly upon his arm.
"See here, Lem, you goin' to blab this all over town?"
Remembering the graves he had dug for $5.00, the grave-digger began to enjoy Lutz's anxiety.
"Can't tell what I'll do when I get a few drinks in me."
"You start somethin' and you'll be sorry." Lutz's tone was threatening.
"I'm naturally truthful; I aims to stick strictly to facts if I does talk."
"Facts don't cut any ice in a libel suit," replied the undertaker significantly.
Libel suit! That sounded like the law and the grave-digger had a poor man's fear of the law. There was less assurance in his voice when he asserted—
"No man don't own me."
"I don't want to see you get in trouble, Lem, and I'm tellin' you for your own good that you better keep your trap shut on this. Who'd believe you if you'd tell any such story? You couldn't prove anything with the mayor and town officer against you if it was anything likely to get out and hurt the town. Who of Lamb and Harpe's friends that see them pikin' off to church every Sunday, singin' their sa'ms and the first at the altar of a Communion Sunday, who, I say, would believe us if we'd tell what we knew about that hospital and the whole lot more that we suspect? They could bluff you out because you haven't got the money it would take to prove you're right. Come back here and behave yourself and I'll try and get you that $10."
"If I wasn't a family man——" mumbled the grave-digger.
"But you are, and it's no use bein' squeamish over somethin' that's none of your business. This is your bread and butter."
It was the argument which has tied men's tongues since the world began and it never grows less effective. The shovel dropped from the grave-digger's shoulder.
"Hop in here and help me roll him back."
The grave-digger reluctantly obeyed.
"This looks fierce to me." He wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead.
"Take a rock and hammer in them shingle-nails and forget it!"
When Dan Treu returned from his business trip to the County seat the undertaker met him smilingly.
"I made a fine show for the money, Dan; you'd have been pleased. Everything was plain but good and went off without a slip. I handled him as I promised—like he was my own."
The few in Crowheart who heard the story laughed openly at the statement which Giovanni Pelezzo made when he returned to camp one day and declared that while seated in the doorway of the operating room of the hospital he had turned in time to see Dr. Harpe take five dollars and some small change from the pocket of his cousin Antonio Pelezzo, whom she had etherized for a minor operation.
Although Antonio turned his empty pockets inside out to verify Giovanni's stoutly reiterated assertion, the camp ridiculed their story and none laughed more heartily at the absurdity of the tale than Dr. Harpe herself. When she declared that it was only one illustration of the lengths to which ignorant and suspicious foreigners would go, her listeners agreed that she must indeed have much with which to contend in practising her profession among such a class of people as were employed upon the project.
The only person who did not laugh, beside the countrymen of the two Italians, was Dan Treu. He made no comment when he heard the tale, but he sat for a long time on the corner of the White Elephant's billiard table, holding a cigarette which he forgot to smoke.
TURNING A CORNER
Andy P. Symes was much occupied with his own thoughts, he was not sleeping well and all food tasted much alike, while the adulation of his fellow-townsmen did not afford him the usual pleasure. These symptoms are most frequently associated with lack of funds, and in this respect Mr. Symes's case was not a peculiar one, the fact being that the total of the month's payroll exceeded the amount in the treasury—with no relief in sight—interest in the great Symes Irrigation Project having seemed suddenly to lag in financial circles.
"Maybe I imagine it," Mudge, the promoter, had written, "but it looks to me as though Capital was giving us the frosty mitt. They won't even listen. I can't raise a dollar among the stockholders or sell a bond. Could anybody have been knocking the proposition?"
Symes had written back—
"Ridiculous! Who would knock? I have no enemies of sufficient importance to hurt me, and particularly back there. Do your utmost, for the situation is growing critical here—desperate, in fact."
And desperate was the word when Symes contemplated going into his own pocket for money to make up the deficit—money which he had told himself he would salt away against that rainy day with which he had become all too familiar.
Symes's private bank account had grown to quite a respectable sum since that memorable morning when he had received word that his balance was in the red. If he was given a confidential discount upon machinery for which he charged the company full price, was he not entitled to the difference? If he received a modest revenue from his manipulation of the commissary, and the hospital contract contributed its mite, was it not all in the game? Wasn't it done every day by men in similar positions and as honest as himself? It was legitimate enough, certainly, and, if he did not mention it, it was because it was his own affair.
The longer and harder Symes walked the floor the more he realized that payday must be met. Labor was not an account which could wait. Nothing would so arouse suspicion and hurt his credit as a dilatory payday. Local merchants would come down upon him like a thousand of brick for the settlement of the large accounts which at the present moment they were rather proud of his owing.
The impression was general that the affairs of the Symes Irrigation Company were entirely satisfactory, and Symes's credit had only been limited by the local merchants' own credit.
Heretofore the treasury had been replenished through the activities of Mudge, but it was now disturbingly low and payday was close, while instead of the expected check from the promoter came his disquieting letter.
"Mudge is losin' his grip; he's gettin' timid," Symes thought irritably. "I may have to go back myself and raise the wind." His success with J. Collins Prescott had given him added confidence in his abilities along this line.
The estate which Prescott represented were now the largest bondholders and at the time of the purchase Symes had chortled—
"If we can just get this crowd in deep enough they won't dare lay down if we get in a hole. They've got to see the proposition through to save themselves."
"Yes," Mudge had agreed doubtfully, "but you gotta be careful." And added in the tone of a specialist in the delicate art of handling capital: "You can't force or crowd 'em, for once they get their necks bowed they'd sooner drop their pile than give an inch."
The question which Symes was now trying to decide was whether it was better to meet payday with his own money and trust Mudge to raise sufficient to reimburse him and meet the next payday or to bare the situation to the stock and bondholders and make an imperative demand for funds.
In the end Symes's own money met the payroll, and the sensation of checking it out was much like parting with his heart's blood. Though it was a relief to feel that his credit was still good and that he could continue to shine in the community for another month as its one large, luminous star, it also brought the cold perspiration out on him when he woke up in the night and remembered where this noble act had placed him. He was worse than penniless if Mudge could not raise more money, but this he refused to believe a possibility.
In the days which followed, the circles deepened beneath his eyes, his high color faded and Mudge's laconic messages "Nothing doing" were not calculated to restore it. As the time shortened toward another payday there were moments when Symes felt that his overtaxed nerves nearly had reached their limit. There was no rest or solace for him in his home, for when Augusta was not away with Dr. Harpe the latter was there to remind him of the skeleton jangling in his closet. He came and went beneath the cold eyes of the one and the half-contemptuous glances of the other, like, as he told himself, a necessary but objectionable boarder.
He no longer found diversion in his nightly game of "slough" in the card room of the Terriberry House, for they became only occasions to remind him that he owed his fellow-players more than he could ever hope to pay if Mudge did not dispose of more bonds quickly or the stockholders did not "come through," as he phrased it. He knew fairly well the financial resources of those whom he had favored with his liberal patronage and realized that they were doomed to go down with him to that limbo provided for the over-sanguine and the over-trusting.
At last the black day came when the treasury could not meet the smallest bills. Delay was no longer possible. He must play his last card. An imperative call must be made upon the stockholders and Symes telegraphed Mudge to this effect.
Symes dreaded the reply, yet he tried to bolster his courage with the argument which had seemed so potent at the time he used it, namely, that they were all in too deep to refuse aid at this crisis. Symes imagined that he could almost see himself growing old in the hours of suspense which followed the sending of the telegram.
Symes's hand shook noticeably when he took the yellow sheet from the operator who delivered it in person. The message read:
Turned down cold. Something wrong. Letter follows.
Symes's towering figure seemed to crumple in the office chair.
Abe Tutts to whom he owed $2500 for hay and grain waved a genial hand as he passed the door.
"How goes it?" he called.
"Great!" and the boastful reply sickened him.
Great—when he was ruined!
It was the sentence "Something wrong" which gave Symes that weak feeling in his knees. To what did Mudge refer, to the stock and bondholders or to the project and himself? Must he go about for the four days which must intervene before a letter could reach him with that sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, that curious limpness of his spine?
He lived through it somehow without betraying himself and when Mudge's letter came it read in part:
"Your theory regarding the extraction of funds from stockholders is all right only it don't work. When I called a meeting and suggested that they raise more money among themselves to relieve the present situation and protect their interests, they cut me off at the pockets.
"That Fly-trap King of yours said, 'If that's all you got us together for, Mudge, we might as well get to hell out of here because I, for one, don't propose to put another cent into the proposition—"My Wife Won't Let Me."'
"The air was so chilly I could see my own breath and my last winter's chilblains began to hurt.
"'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I don't understand your attitude in this matter. We've got to raise this money to save ourselves. The proposition is as good as it ever was.'
"'We don't doubt that,' says Prescott in that infernally quiet way of his that makes your ears tingle, and a grin like a slice of watermelon went round.
"I tell you, Symes, something or somebody has queered us here and if you can find out who or what it is you can do more than I've been able to do. Haven't you got some powerful enemy? Is there any weak spot in the proposition? Rack your brains and let me know the result.
"These fellows don't seem worried and that's the strange part of it, for I know that some of them have got in a whole lot more than they can afford to lose.
"Whatever's at the bottom of it, it's mighty effective, for I'm up against a blank wall. I've exhausted every resource and I can't raise a dollar. If only we dared advertise the land and get some purchasers to make part payments down it would keep things moving for a while, but I suppose this is out of the question."
Was it? Symes laid the letter down. It was against the law to sell land before the water was actually upon it, but was it out of the question?
In his desperation Symes decided that it was not.
Casually imparting the information to the Crowheart Courier that he was going out to meet a party of millionaires who were anxious to invest, Symes packed his suitcase and arrived in the State Capital as soon as an express train could get him there.
When he appeared before the State Land Board the arguments he used to that body never were made public, but they were sufficiently convincing to enable him to send a guarded telegram to Mudge that night telling him to prepare additional literature and commence a campaign of advertisement. Also to arrange with the railroad for a Homeseekers' Excursion at as early a date as possible.
The telegram restored Mudge's faith in Symes, revived his waning enthusiasm and courage. He composed a pamphlet for distribution among Eastern and Middle West farmers, from which he quoted extracts to his wife in the middle of the night, awakening her for that purpose.
"Extend a hand to Nature and she meets you with outstretched arms! Tickle the soil and it laughs gold!"
"Wouldn't that start a man-milliner to raising alfalfa?" demanded Mudge upon such occasions.
"Where the clouds never lower and the sun shines always. Where the perfumed zephyrs fan the cheeks of men and brothers. The Perfect Climate found at last! Crowheart the Gem of the Rockies! within easy reach. Buy a ticket for $29.50 and breathe the Elixir of Life while you look over our unequalled proposition."
"That ought to catch all the lungers in the world," averred Mudge.
That the promoter's confidence in the merits of his pamphlet was justified was soon evidenced by the flood of inquiries and requests for additional information which came by mail while his office became a mecca for the restless and the "land hungry" who read his vivid description of the great Symes irrigation project which was making the desert bloom like the rose.