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CHAPTER III


Mr. Patterson did not inform his wife of the lawyer's personal
threat to himself. But he managed, after Poindexter had left, to
make her conscious that Mrs. Tucker might be a power to be placated
and feared. "You've shot off your mouth at her," he said
argumentatively, "and whether you've hit the mark or not you've had
your say. Ef you think it's worth a possible five thousand dollars
and interest to keep on, heave ahead. Ef you rather have the
chance of getting the rest in cash, you'll let up on her." "You
don't suppose," returned Mrs. Patterson contemptuously, "that she's
got anything but what that man of hers--Poindexter--lets her have?"
"The sheriff says," retorted Patterson surlily, "that she's
notified him that she claims the rancho as a gift from her husband
three years ago, and she's in POSSESSION now, and was so when the
execution was out. It don't make no matter," he added, with gloomy
philosophy, "who's got a full hand as long as WE ain't got the
cards to chip in. I wouldn't 'a' minded it," he continued
meditatively, "ef Spence Tucker had dropped a hint to me afore he
put out." "And I suppose," said Mrs. Patterson angrily, "you'd
have put out too?" "I reckon," said Patterson simply.

Twice or thrice during the evening he referred, more or less
directly, to this lack of confidence shown by his late debtor and
employer, and seemed to feel it more keenly than the loss of
property. He confided his sentiments quite openly to the sheriff
in possession, over the whiskey and euchre with which these
gentlemen avoided the difficulties of their delicate relations. He
brooded over it as he handed the keys of the shop to the sheriff
when they parted for the night, and was still thinking of it when
the house was closed, everybody gone to bed, and he was fetching a
fresh jug of water from the well. The moon was at times obscured
by flying clouds, the avant-couriers of the regular evening shower.
He was stooping over the well, when he sprang suddenly to his feet
again. "Who's there?" he demanded sharply.

"Hush!" said a voice so low and faint it might have been a whisper
of the wind in the palisades of the corral. But, indistinct as it
was, it was the voice of the man he was thinking of as far away,
and it sent a thrill of alternate awe and pleasure through his
pulses.

He glanced quickly around. The moon was hidden by a passing cloud,
and only the faint outlines of the house he had just quitted were
visible. "Is that you, Spence?" he said tremulously.

"Yes," replied the voice, and a figure dimly emerged from the
corner of the corral.

"Lay low, lay low, for God's sake," said Patterson, hurriedly
throwing himself upon the apparition. "The sheriff and his posse
are in there."

"But I must speak to you a moment," said the figure.

"Wait," said Patterson, glancing towards the building. Its blank,
shutterless windows revealed no inner light; a profound silence
encompassed it. "Come quick," he whispered. Letting his grasp
slip down to the unresisting hand of the stranger, he half-dragged,
half-led him, brushing against the wall, into the open door of the
deserted bar-room he had just quitted, locked the inner door,
poured a glass of whiskey from a decanter, gave it to him, and then
watched him drain it at a single draught. The moon came out, and,
falling through the bare windows full upon the stranger's face,
revealed the artistic but slightly disheveled curls and moustache
of the fugitive, Spencer Tucker.

Whatever may have been the real influence of this unfortunate man
upon his fellows, it seemed to find expression in a singular
unanimity of criticism. Patterson looked at him with a half-
dismal, half-welcoming smile. "Well, you are a h-ll of a fellow,
ain't you?"

Spencer Tucker passed his hand through his hair and lifted it from
his forehead, with a gesture at once emotional and theatrical. "I
am a man with a price on me!" he said bitterly. "Give me up to the
sheriff, and you'll get five thousand dollars. Help me, and you'll
get nothing. That's my d----d luck, and yours too, I suppose."

"I reckon you're right there," said Patterson gloomily. "But I
thought you got clean away. Went off in a ship--"

"Went off in a boat to a ship," interrupted Tucker savagely; "went
off to a ship that had all my things on board--everything. The
cursed boat capsized in a squall just off the Heads. The ship,
d--n her, sailed away, the men thinking I was drowned, likely,
and that they'd make a good thing off my goods, I reckon."

"But the girl, Inez, who was with you, didn't she make a row?"

"Quien sabe?" returned Tucker, with a reckless laugh. "Well, I
hung on like grim death to that boat's keel until one of those
Chinese fishermen, in a 'dug-out,' hauled me in opposite Saucelito.
I chartered him and his dug-out to bring me down here."

"Why here?" asked Patterson, with a certain ostentatious caution
that ill-concealed his pensive satisfaction.

"You may well ask," returned Tucker, with an equal ostentation of
bitterness, as he slightly waved his companion away. "But I
reckoned I could trust a white man that I'd been kind to, and who
wouldn't go back on me. No, no, let me go! Hand me over to the
sheriff!"

Patterson had suddenly grasped both the hands of the picturesque
scamp before him, with an affection that for an instant almost
shamed the man who had ruined him. But Tucker's egotism whispered
that this affection was only a recognition of his own superiority,
and felt flattered. He was beginning to believe that he was really
the injured party.

"What I HAVE and what I have HAD is yours, Spence," returned
Patterson, with a sad and simple directness that made any further
discussion a gratuitous insult. "I only wanted to know what you
reckoned to do here."

"I want to get over across the Coast Range to Monterey," said
Tucker. "Once there, one of those coasting schooners will bring me
down to Acapulco, where the ship will put in."

Patterson remained silent for a moment. "There's a mustang in the
corral you can take--leastways, I shan't know that it's gone--until
to-morrow afternoon. In an hour from now," he added, looking from
the window, "these clouds will settle down to business. It will
rain; there will be light enough for you to find your way by the
regular trail over the mountain, but not enough for any one to know
you. If you can't push through to-night, you can lie over at the
posada on the summit. Them greasers that keep it won't know you,
and if they did they won't go back on you. And if they did go back
on you, nobody would believe them. It's mighty curious," he added,
with gloomy philosophy, "but I reckon it's the reason why
Providence allows this kind of cattle to live among white men and
others made in his image. Take a piece of pie, won't you?" He
continued, abandoning this abstract reflection and producing half a
flat pumpkin pie from the bar. Spencer Tucker grasped the pie with
one hand and his friend's fingers with the other, and for a few
moments was silent from the hurried deglutition of viand and
sentiment. "YOU'RE a white man, Patterson, anyway," he resumed.
"I'll take your horse, and put it down in our account, at your own
figure. As soon as this cursed thing is blown over, I'll be back
here and see you through, you bet. I don't desert my friends,
however rough things go with me."

"I see you don't," returned Patterson, with an unconscious and
serious simplicity that had the effect of the most exquisite irony.
"I was only just saying to the sheriff that if there was anything I
could have done for you, you wouldn't have cut away without letting
me know." Tucker glanced uneasily at Patterson, who continued, "Ye
ain't wanting anything else?" Then observing that his former
friend and patron was roughly but newly clothed, and betrayed no
trace of his last escapade, he added, "I see you've got a fresh
harness."

"That d----d Chinaman bought me these at the landing; they're not
much in style or fit," he continued, trying to get a moonlight view
of himself in the mirror behind the bar, "but that don't matter
here." He filled another glass of spirits, jauntily settled
himself back in his chair, and added, "I don't suppose there are
any girls around, anyway."

"'Cept your wife; she was down here this afternoon," said Patterson
meditatively.

Mr. Tucker paused with the pie in his hand. "Ah, yes!" He essayed
a reckless laugh, but that evident simulation failed before
Patterson's melancholy. With an assumption of falling in with his
friend's manner, rather than from any personal anxiety, he
continued, "Well?"

"That man Poindexter was down here with her. Put her in the
hacienda to hold possession afore the news came out."

"Impossible!" said Tucker, rising hastily. "It don't belong--that
is--" he hesitated.

"Yer thinking the creditors 'll get it, mebbe," returned Patterson,
gazing at the floor. "Not as long as she's in it; no sir! Whether
it's really hers, or she's only keeping house for Poindexter, she's
a fixture, you bet. They're a team when they pull together, they
are!"

The smile slowly faded from Tucker's face, that now looked quite
rigid in the moonlight. He put down his glass and walked to the
window as Patterson gloomily continued, "But that's nothing to you.
You've got ahead of 'em both, and had your revenge by going off
with the gal. That's what I said all along. When folks--
especially women folks--wondered how you could leave a woman like
your wife, and go off with a scallawag like that gal, I allers said
they'd find out there was a reason. And when your wife came
flaunting down here with Poindexter before she'd quite got quit of
you, I reckon they began to see the whole little game. No sir! I
knew it wasn't on account of the gal! Why, when you came here to-
night and told me quite nat'ral-like and easy how she went off in
the ship, and then calmly ate your pie and drank your whiskey after
it, I knew you didn't care for her. There's my hand, Spence;
you're a trump, even if you are a little looney, eh? Why, what's
up?"

Shallow and selfish as Tucker was, Patterson's words seemed like a
revelation that shocked him as profoundly as it might have shocked
a nobler nature. The simple vanity and selfishness that made him
unable to conceive any higher reason for his wife's loyalty than
his own personal popularity and success, now that he no longer
possessed that eclat, made him equally capable of the lowest
suspicions. He was a dishonored fugitive, broken in fortune and
reputation--why should she not desert him! He had been unfaithful
to her from wildness, from caprice, from the effect of those
fascinating qualities; it seemed to him natural that she should be
disloyal from more deliberate motives, and he hugged himself with
that belief. Yet there was enough doubt, enough of haunting
suspicion that he had lost or alienated a powerful affection, to
make him thoroughly miserable. He returned his friend's grasp
convulsively and buried his face upon his shoulder. But he was not
above feeling a certain exultation in the effect of his misery upon
the dog-like, unreasoning affection of Patterson, nor could he
entirely refrain from slightly posing his affliction before that
sympathetic but melancholy man. Suddenly he raised his head, drew
back, and thrust his hand into his bosom with a theatrical gesture.

"What's to keep me from killing Poindexter in his tracks?" he said
wildly.

"Nothin' but HIS shooting first," returned Patterson, with dismal
practicality. "He's mighty quick, like all them army men. It's
about even, I reckon, that he don't get ME first," he added in an
ominous voice.

"No!" returned Tucker, grasping his hand again. "This is not your
affair, Patterson; leave him to me when I come back."

"If he ever gets the drop on me, I reckon he won't wait," continued
Patterson lugubriously. "He seems to object to my passin'
criticism on your wife, as if she was a queen or an angel."

The blood came to Spencer's cheek, and he turned uneasily to the
window. "It's dark enough now for a start," he said hurriedly,
"and if I could get across the mountain without lying over at the
summit, it would be a day gained."

Patterson arose without a word, filled a flask of spirit, handed it
to his friend, and silently led the way through the slowly falling
rain and the now settled darkness. The mustang was quickly secured
and saddled, a heavy poncho afforded Tucker a disguise as well as a
protection from the rain. With a few hurried, disconnected words,
and an abstracted air, he once more shook his friend's hand and
issued cautiously from the corral. When out of earshot from the
house he put spurs to the mustang, and dashed into a gallop.

To intersect the mountain road he was obliged to traverse part of
the highway his wife had walked that afternoon, and to pass within
a mile of the casa where she was. Long before he reached that
point his eyes were straining the darkness in that direction for
some indication of the house which was to him familiar. Becoming
now accustomed to the even obscurity, less trying to the vision
than the alternate light and shadow of cloud or the full glare of
the moonlight, he fancied he could distinguish its low walls over
the monotonous level. One of those impulses which had so often
taken the place of resolution in his character suddenly possessed
him to diverge from his course and approach the house. Why, he
could not have explained. It was not from any feeling of jealous
suspicion or contemplated revenge--that had passed with the
presence of Patterson; it was not from any vague lingering
sentiment for the woman he had wronged--he would have shrunk from
meeting her at that moment. But it was full of these and more
possibilities by which he might or might not be guided, and was at
least a movement towards some vague end, and a distraction from
certain thoughts he dared not entertain and could not entirely
dismiss. Inconceivable and inexplicable to human reason, it might
have been acceptable to the Divine omniscience for its predestined
result.

He left the road at a point where the marsh encroached upon the
meadow, familiar to him already as near the spot where he had
embarked from the Chinaman's boat the day before. He remembered
that the walls of the hacienda were distinctly visible from the
tules where he had hidden all day, and he now knew that the figures
he had observed near the building, which had deterred his first
attempts at landing, must have been his wife and his friend. He
knew that a long tongue of the slough filled by the rising tide
followed the marsh, and lay between him and the hacienda. The
sinking of his horse's hoofs in the spongy soil determined its
proximity, and he made a detour to the right to avoid it. In doing
so, a light suddenly rose above the distant horizon ahead of him,
trembled faintly, and then burned with a steady lustre. It was a
light at the hacienda. Guiding his horse half abstractedly in this
direction, his progress was presently checked by the splashing of
the animal's hoofs in the water. But the turf below was firm, and
a salt drop that had spattered to his lips told him that it was
only the encroaching of the tide in the meadow. With his eyes on
the light, he again urged his horse forward. The rain lulled, the
clouds began to break, the landscape alternately lightened and grew
dark; the outlines of the crumbling hacienda walls that enshrined
the light grew more visible. A strange and dreamy resemblance to
the long blue-grass plain before his wife's paternal house, as seen
by him during his evening rides to courtship, pressed itself upon
him. He remembered, too, that she used to put a light in the
window to indicate her presence. Following this retrospect, the
moon came boldly out, sparkled upon the overflow of silver at his
feet, seemed to show the dark, opaque meadow beyond for a moment,
and then disappeared. It was dark now, but the lesser earthly star
still shone before him as a guide, and pushing towards it, he
passed in the all-embracing shadow.




On the Frontier by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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