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"How do you know this?" said Mrs. Wade, with quivering lips.

"I was one o' the men he went through before he was killed. And
I'd hev got my money back, but the rest o' the gang came up, and I
got away jest in time to save my life and nothin' else. Ye might
remember thar was one man got away and giv' the alarm, but he was
goin' on to the States by the overland coach that night and
couldn't stay to be a witness. I was that man. I had paid my
passage through, and I couldn't lose THAT too with my other money,
so I went."

Mrs. Wade sat stunned. She remembered the missing witness, and how
she had longed to see the man who was last with her husband; she
remembered Spanish Jim's saloon--his well-known haunt; his frequent
and unaccountable absences, the sudden influx of money which he
always said he had won at cards; the diamond ring he had given her
as the result of "a bet;" the forgotten recurrence of other
robberies by a secret masked gang; a hundred other things that had
worried her, instinctively, vaguely. She knew now, too, the
meaning of the unrest that had driven her from Heavy Tree Hill--the
strange unformulated fears that had haunted her even here. Yet
with all this she felt, too, her present weakness--knew that this
man had taken her at a disadvantage, that she ought to indignantly
assert herself, deny everything, demand proof, and brand him a
slanderer!

"How did--you--know it was my husband?" she stammered.

"His mask fell off in the fight; you know another mask was found--
it was HIS. I saw him as plainly as I see him there!" he pointed
to a daguerreotype of her husband which stood upon her desk.

Mrs. Wade could only stare vacantly, hopelessly. After a pause the
man continued in a less aggressive manner and more confidential
tone, which, however, only increased her terror. "I ain't sayin'
that YOU knowed anything about this, ma'am, and whatever other
folks might say when THEY know of it, I'll allers say that you
didn't."

"What, then, did you come here for?" said the widow desperately.

"What do I come here for?" repeated the man grimly, looking around
the room; "what did I come to this yer comfortable home--this yer
big ranch and to a rich woman like yourself for? Well, Mrs. Wade,
I come to get the six hundred dollars your husband robbed me of,
that's all! I ain't askin' more! I ain't askin' interest! I
ain't askin' compensation for havin' to run for my life--and,"
again looking grimly round the walls, "I ain't askin' more than you
will give--or is my rights."

"But this house never was his; it was my father's," gasped Mrs.
Wade; "you have no right"--

"Mebbe 'yes' and mebbe 'no,' Mrs. Wade," interrupted the man, with
a wave of his hat; "but how about them two checks to bearer for two
hundred dollars each found among your husband's effects, and
collected by your lawyer for you--MY CHECKS, Mrs. Wade?"

A wave of dreadful recollection overwhelmed her. She remembered
the checks found upon her husband's body, known only to her and her
lawyer, believed to be gambling gains, and collected at once under
his legal advice. Yet she made one more desperate effort in spite
of the instinct that told her he was speaking the truth.

"But you shall have to prove it--before witnesses."

"Do you WANT me to prove it before witnesses?" said the man, coming
nearer her. "Do you want to take my word and keep it between
ourselves, or do you want to call in your superintendent and his
men, and all Santy Any, to hear me prove your husband was a
highwayman, thief, and murderer? Do you want to knock over that
monument on Heavy Tree Hill, and upset your standing here among the
deacons and elders? Do you want to do all this and be forced, even
by your neighbors, to pay me in the end, as you will? Ef you do,
call in your witnesses now and let's have it over. Mebbe it would
look better ef I got the money out of YOUR FRIENDS than ye--
a woman! P'raps you're right!"

He made a step towards the door, but she stopped him.

"No! no! wait! It's a large sum--I haven't it with me," she
stammered, thoroughly beaten.

"Ye kin get it."

"Give me time!" she implored. "Look! I'll give you a hundred down
now,--all I have here,--the rest another time!" She nervously
opened a drawer of her desk and taking out a buckskin bag of gold
thrust it in his hand. "There! go away now!" She lifted her thin
hands despairingly to her head. "Go! do!"

The man seemed struck by her manner. "I don't want to be hard on a
woman," he said slowly. "I'll go now and come back again at nine
to-night. You can git the money, or what's as good, a check to
bearer, by then. And ef ye'll take my advice, you won't ask no
advice from others, ef you want to keep your secret. Just now it's
safe with me; I'm a square man, ef I seem to be a hard one." He
made a gesture as if to take her hand, but as she drew shrinkingly
away, he changed it to an awkward bow, and the next moment was
gone.

She started to her feet, but the unwonted strain upon her nerves
and frail body had been greater than she knew. She made a step
forward, felt the room whirl round her and then seem to collapse
beneath her feet, and, clutching at her chair, sank back into it,
fainting.

How long she lay there she never knew. She was at last conscious
of some one bending over her, and a voice--the voice of Mr. Brooks--
in her ear, saying, "I beg your pardon; you seem ill. Shall I
call some one?"

"No!" she gasped, quickly recovering herself with an effort, and
staring round her. "Where is--when did you come in?"

"Only this moment. I was leaving tonight, sooner than I expected,
and thought I'd say good-by. They told me that you had been
engaged with a stranger, but he had just gone. I beg your pardon--
I see you are ill. I won't detain you any longer."

"No! no! don't go! I am better--better," she said feverishly. As
she glanced at his strong and sympathetic face a wild idea seized
her. He was a stranger here, an alien to these people, like
herself. The advice that she dare not seek from others, from her
half-estranged religious friends, from even her superintendent and
his wife, dare she ask from him? Perhaps he saw this frightened
doubt, this imploring appeal, in her eyes, for he said gently, "Is
it anything I can do for you?"




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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