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"Friend?" ejaculated the man, horrified at the mere suggestion.
"Not much! Why, Irish Jack was the only man that could hev hung
Jim! Now he's dead, in course the Vigilants ain't got no proof
agin Jim. Jim wants to face it out now an' stay here, but his wife
and me don't see it noways! So we are taking advantage o' the lull
agin him to get him off down the coast this very night. That's why
he's been off his head drinkin'. Ye see, when a man has been for
weeks hidin'--part o' the time in that room and part o' the time on
the wharf, where them Vigilants has been watchin' every ship that
left in order to ketch him, he's inclined to celebrate his chance
o' getting away"--

"Part of the time in that room?" interrupted Breeze quickly.

"Sartin! Don't ye see? He allus kem in as you went out--sabe!--
and got away before you kem back, his wife all the time just a-
hoverin' between the two places, and keeping watch for him. It was
killin' to her, you see, for she wasn't brought up to it, whiles
Jim didn't keer--had two revolvers and kalkilated to kill a dozen
Vigilants afore he dropped. But that's over now, and when I've got
him safe on that 'plunger' down at the wharf to-night, and put him
aboard the schooner that's lying off the Heads, he's all right
agin."

"And Roberts knew all this and was one of his friends?" asked
Breeze.

"Roberts knew it, and Roberts's wife used to be a kind of servant
to Jim's wife in the South, when she was a girl, but I don't know
ez Roberts is his FRIEND!"

"He certainly has shown himself one," said Breeze.

"Ye-e-s," said the stranger meditatively, "ye-e-s." He stopped,
opened the door softly, and peeped out, and then closed it again
softly. "It's sing'lar, Mr. Breeze," he went on in a sudden yet
embarrassed burst of confidence, "that Jim thar--a man thet can
shoot straight, and hez frequent; a man thet knows every skin game
goin'--that THET man Jim," very slowly, "hezn't really--got--any
friends--'cept me--and his wife."

"Indeed?" said Mr. Breeze dryly.

"Sure! Why, you yourself didn't cotton to him--I could see THET."

Mr. Breeze felt himself redden slightly, and looked curiously at
the man. This vulgar parasite, whom he had set down as a worshiper
of sham heroes, undoubtedly did not look like an associate of
Bodine's, and had a certain seriousness that demanded respect. As
he looked closer into his wide, round face, seamed with small-pox,
he fancied he saw even in its fatuous imbecility something of that
haunting devotion he had seen on the refined features of the wife.
He said more gently,--

"But one friend like you would seem to be enough."

"I ain't what I uster be, Mr. Breeze," said the man meditatively,
"and mebbe ye don't know who I am. I'm Abe Shuckster, of
Shuckster's Ranch--one of the biggest in Petalumy. I was a rich
man until a year ago, when Jim got inter trouble. What with
mortgages and interest, payin' up Jim's friends and buying off some
ez was set agin him, thar ain't much left, and when I've settled
that bill for the schooner lying off the Heads there I reckon I'm
about played out. But I've allus a shanty at Petalumy, and mebbe
when things is froze over and Jim gets back--you'll come and see
him--for you ain't seen him at his best."

"I suppose his wife and children go with him?" said Breeze.

"No! He's agin it, and wants them to come later. But that's all
right, for you see she kin go back to their own house at the
Mission, now that the Vigilants are givin' up shadderin' it. So
long, Mr. Breeze! We're startin' afore daylight. Sorry you didn't
see Jim in condition."

He grasped Breeze's hand warmly and slipped out of the door softly.
For an instant Mr. Breeze felt inclined to follow him into the room
and make a kinder adieu to the pair, but the reflection that he
might embarrass the wife, who, it would seem, had purposely avoided
accompanying her husband when he entered, withheld him. And for
the last few minutes he had been doubtful if he had any right to
pose as her friend. Beside the devotion of the man who had just
left him, his own scant kindness to her children seemed ridiculous.

He went to bed, but tossed uneasily until he fancied he heard
stealthy footsteps outside his door and in the passage. Even then
he thought of getting up, dressing, and going out to bid farewell
to the fugitives. But even while he was thinking of it he fell
asleep and did not wake until the sun was shining in at his
windows.

He sprang to his feet, threw on his dressing-gown, and peered into
the passage. Everything was silent. He stepped outside--the light
streamed into the hall from the open doors and windows of both
rooms--the floor was empty; not a trace of the former occupants
remained. He was turning back when his eye fell upon the battered
wooden doll set upright against his doorjamb, holding stiffly in
its jointed arms a bit of paper folded like a note. Opening it, he
found a few lines written in pencil.


God bless you for your kindness to us, and try to forgive me for
touching your papers. But I thought that you would detect it, know
WHY I did it, and then help us, as you did! Good-by!

MAMIE BODINE.


Mr. Breeze laid down the paper with a slight accession of color, as
if its purport had been ironical. How little had he done compared
to the devotion of this delicate woman or the sacrifices of that
rough friend! How deserted looked this nest under the eaves, which
had so long borne its burden of guilt, innocence, shame, and
suffering! For many days afterwards he avoided it except at night,
and even then he often found himself lying awake to listen to the
lost voices of the children.

But one evening, a fortnight later, he came upon Roberts in the
hall. "Well," said Breeze, with abrupt directness, "did he get
away?"

Roberts started, uttered an oath which it is possible the Recording
Angel passed to his credit, and said, "Yes, HE got away all right!"

"Why, hasn't his wife joined him?"

"No. Never, in this world, I reckon; and if anywhere in the next,
I don't want to go there!" said Roberts furiously.

"Is he dead?"

"Dead? That kind don't die!"

"What do you mean?"

Roberts's lips writhed, and then, with a strong effort, he said
with deliberate distinctness, "I mean--that the hound went off with
another woman--that--was--in--that schooner, and left that fool
Shuckster adrift in the plunger."

"And the wife and children?"

"Shuckster sold his shanty at Petaluma to pay their passage to the
States. Good-night!"





Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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