eBooks Cube
 
...

"And Dick hasn't got one in the shop, and never had," returned
Houston emphatically. "Golly! that stumps us! Unless," he added,
with diabolical thoughtfulness, "we take Bob's? The kids don't
remember Dick's face, and Bob's about the same age. And it's a
regular star picture--you bet! Bob had it taken in Sacramento--in
all his war paint. See!" He indicated a photograph pinned against
the wall--a really striking likeness which did full justice to
Bob's long silken mustache and large, brown determined eyes. "I'll
snake it off while they ain't lookin', and you jam it in the
letter. Bob won't miss it, and we can fix it up with Dick after
he's well, and send another."

Daddy silently grasped the "infant's" hand, who presently secured
the photograph without attracting attention from the card-players.
It was promptly inclosed in the letter, addressed to Master James
Lasham. The "infant" started with it to the post-office, and Daddy
Folsom returned to Lasham's cabin to relieve the watcher that had
been detached from Falloner's to take his place beside the sick
man.

Meanwhile the rain fell steadily and the shadows crept higher and
higher up the mountain. Towards midnight the star points faded out
one by one over Sawyer's Ledge even as they had come, with the
difference that the illumination of Falloner's cabin was
extinguished first, while the dim light of Lasham's increased in
number. Later, two stars seemed to shoot from the centre of the
ledge, trailing along the descent, until they were lost in the
obscurity of the slope--the lights of the stage-coach to Sacramento
carrying the mail and Robert Falloner. They met and passed two
fainter lights toiling up the road--the buggy lights of the doctor,
hastily summoned from Carterville to the bedside of the dying Dick
Lasham.


The slowing up of his train caused Bob Falloner to start from a
half doze in a Western Pullman car. As he glanced from his window
he could see that the blinding snowstorm which had followed him for
the past six hours had at last hopelessly blocked the line. There
was no prospect beyond the interminable snowy level, the whirling
flakes, and the monotonous palisades of leafless trees seen through
it to the distant banks of the Missouri. It was a prospect that
the mountain-bred Falloner was beginning to loathe, and although it
was scarcely six weeks since he left California, he was already
looking back regretfully to the deep slopes and the free song of
the serried ranks of pines.

The intense cold had chilled his temperate blood, even as the rigors
and conventions of Eastern life had checked his sincerity and
spontaneous flow of animal spirits begotten in the frank intercourse
and brotherhood of camps. He had just fled from the artificialities
of the great Atlantic cities to seek out some Western farming lands
in which he might put his capital and energies. The unlooked-for
interruption of his progress by a long- forgotten climate only
deepened his discontent. And now--that train was actually backing!
It appeared they must return to the last station to wait for a
snow-plough to clear the line. It was, explained the conductor,
barely a mile from Shepherdstown, where there was a good hotel and a
chance of breaking the journey for the night.

Shepherdstown! The name touched some dim chord in Bob Falloner's
memory and conscience--yet one that was vague. Then he suddenly
remembered that before leaving New York he had received a letter
from Houston informing him of Lasham's death, reminding him of his
previous bounty, and begging him--if he went West--to break the
news to the Lasham family. There was also some allusion to a joke
about his (Bob's) photograph, which he had dismissed as unimportant,
and even now could not remember clearly. For a few moments his
conscience pricked him that he should have forgotten it all, but now
he could make amends by this providential delay. It was not a task
to his liking; in any other circumstances he would have written, but
he would not shirk it now.

Shepherdstown was on the main line of the Kansas Pacific Road, and
as he alighted at its station, the big through trains from San
Francisco swept out of the stormy distance and stopped also. He
remembered, as he mingled with the passengers, hearing a childish
voice ask if this was the Californian train. He remembered hearing
the amused and patient reply of the station-master: "Yes, sonny--
here she is again, and here's her passengers," as he got into the
omnibus and drove to the hotel. Here he resolved to perform his
disagreeable duty as quickly as possible, and on his way to his
room stopped for a moment at the office to ask for Ricketts'
address. The clerk, after a quick glance of curiosity at his new
guest, gave it to him readily, with a somewhat familiar smile. It
struck Falloner also as being odd that he had not been asked to
write his name on the hotel register, but this was a saving of time
he was not disposed to question, as he had already determined to
make his visit to Ricketts at once, before dinner. It was still
early evening.

He was washing his hands in his bedroom when there came a light tap
at his sitting-room door. Falloner quickly resumed his coat and
entered the sitting-room as the porter ushered in a young lady
holding a small boy by the hand. But, to Falloner's utter
consternation, no sooner had the door closed on the servant than
the boy, with a half-apologetic glance at the young lady, uttered a
childish cry, broke from her, and calling, "Dick! Dick!" ran
forward and leaped into Falloner's arms.

The mere shock of the onset and his own amazement left Bob without
breath for words. The boy, with arms convulsively clasping his
body, was imprinting kisses on Bob's waistcoat in default of
reaching his face. At last Falloner managed gently but firmly to
free himself, and turned a half-appealing, half-embarrassed look
upon the young lady, whose own face, however, suddenly flushed
pink. To add to the confusion, the boy, in some reaction of
instinct, suddenly ran back to her, frantically clutched at her
skirts, and tried to bury his head in their folds.

"He don't love me," he sobbed. "He don't care for me any more."

The face of the young girl changed. It was a pretty face in its
flushing; in the paleness and thoughtfulness that overcast it it
was a striking face, and Bob's attention was for a moment distracted
from the grotesqueness of the situation. Leaning over the boy she
said in a caressing yet authoritative voice, "Run away for a moment,
dear, until I call you," opening the door for him in a maternal way
so inconsistent with the youthfulness of her figure that it struck
him even in his confusion. There was something also in her dress
and carriage that equally affected him: her garments were somewhat
old-fashioned in style, yet of good material, with an odd incongruity
to the climate and season.

Under her rough outer cloak she wore a polka jacket and the
thinnest of summer blouses; and her hat, though dark, was of rough
straw, plainly trimmed. Nevertheless, these peculiarities were
carried off with an air of breeding and self-possession that was
unmistakable. It was possible that her cool self-possession might
have been due to some instinctive antagonism, for as she came a
step forward with coldly and clearly-opened gray eyes, he was
vaguely conscious that she didn't like him. Nevertheless, her
manner was formally polite, even, as he fancied, to the point of
irony, as she began, in a voice that occasionally dropped into the
lazy Southern intonation, and a speech that easily slipped at times
into Southern dialect:--

"I sent the child out of the room, as I could see that his advances
were annoying to you, and a good deal, I reckon, because I knew
your reception of them was still more painful to him. It is quite
natural, I dare say, you should feel as you do, and I reckon
consistent with your attitude towards him. But you must make some
allowance for the depth of his feelings, and how he has looked
forward to this meeting. When I tell you that ever since he
received your last letter, he and his sister--until her illness
kept her home--have gone every day when the Pacific train was due
to the station to meet you; that they have taken literally as
Gospel truth every word of your letter"--

"My letter?" interrupted Falloner.

The young girl's scarlet lip curled slightly. "I beg your pardon--
I should have said the letter you dictated. Of course it wasn't in
your handwriting--you had hurt your hand, you know," she added
ironically. "At all events, they believed it all--that you were
coming at any moment; they lived in that belief, and the poor
things went to the station with your photograph in their hands so
that they might be the first to recognize and greet you."

"With my photograph?" interrupted Falloner again.

The young girl's clear eyes darkened ominously. "I reckon," she
said deliberately, as she slowly drew from her pocket the
photograph Daddy Folsom had sent, "that that is your photograph.
It certainly seems an excellent likeness," she added, regarding him
with a slight suggestion of contemptuous triumph.

In an instant the revelation of the whole mystery flashed upon him!
The forgotten passage in Houston's letter about the stolen
photograph stood clearly before him; the coincidence of his
appearance in Shepherdstown, and the natural mistake of the
children and their fair protector, were made perfectly plain. But
with this relief and the certainty that he could confound her with
an explanation came a certain mischievous desire to prolong the
situation and increase his triumph. She certainly had not shown
him any favor.

"Have you got the letter also?" he asked quietly.

She whisked it impatiently from her pocket and handed it to him.
As he read Daddy's characteristic extravagance and recognized the
familiar idiosyncrasies of his old companions, he was unable to
restrain a smile. He raised his eyes, to meet with surprise the
fair stranger's leveled eyebrows and brightly indignant eyes, in
which, however, the rain was fast gathering with the lightning.

"It may be amusing to you, and I reckon likely it was all a
California joke," she said with slightly trembling lips; "I don't
know No'thern gentlemen and their ways, and you seem to have
forgotten our ways as you have your kindred. Perhaps all this may
seem so funny to them: it may not seem funny to that boy who is now
crying his heart out in the hall; it may not be very amusing to
that poor Cissy in her sick-bed longing to see her brother. It may
be so far from amusing to her, that I should hesitate to bring you
there in her excited condition and subject her to the pain that you
have caused him. But I have promised her; she is already expecting
us, and the disappointment may be dangerous, and I can only implore
you--for a few moments at least--to show a little more affection
than you feel." As he made an impulsive, deprecating gesture, yet
without changing his look of restrained amusement, she stopped him
hopelessly. "Oh, of course, yes, yes, I know it is years since you
have seen them; they have no right to expect more; only--only--
feeling as you do," she burst impulsively, "why--oh, why did you
come?"

Here was Bob's chance. He turned to her politely; began gravely,
"I simply came to"--when suddenly his face changed; he stopped as
if struck by a blow. His cheek flushed, and then paled! Good God!
What had he come for? To tell them that this brother they were
longing for--living for--perhaps even dying for--was dead! In his
crass stupidity, his wounded vanity over the scorn of the young
girl, his anticipation of triumph, he had forgotten--totally
forgotten--what that triumph meant! Perhaps if he had felt more
keenly the death of Lasham the thought of it would have been
uppermost in his mind; but Lasham was not his partner or associate,
only a brother miner, and his single act of generosity was in the
ordinary routine of camp life. If she could think him cold and
heartless before, what would she think of him now? The absurdity
of her mistake had vanished in the grim tragedy he had seemed to
have cruelly prepared for her. The thought struck him so keenly
that he stammered, faltered, and sank helplessly into a chair.

The shock that he had received was so plain to her that her own
indignation went out in the breath of it. Her lip quivered.
"Don't you mind," she said hurriedly, dropping into her Southern
speech; "I didn't go to hurt you, but I was just that mad with the
thought of those pickaninnies, and the easy way you took it, that I
clean forgot I'd no call to catechise you! And you don't know me
from the Queen of Sheba. Well," she went on, still more rapidly,
and in odd distinction to her previous formal slow Southern
delivery, "I'm the daughter of Colonel Boutelle, of Bayou Sara,
Louisiana; and his paw, and his paw before him, had a plantation
there since the time of Adam, but he lost it and six hundred
niggers during the Wah! We were pooh as pohverty--paw and maw and
we four girls--and no more idea of work than a baby. But I had an
education at the convent at New Orleans, and could play, and speak
French, and I got a place as school-teacher here; I reckon the
first Southern woman that has taught school in the No'th!
Ricketts, who used to be our steward at Bayou Sara, told me about
the pickaninnies, and how helpless they were, with only a brother
who occasionally sent them money from California. I suppose I
cottoned to the pooh little things at first because I knew what it
was to be alone amongst strangers, Mr. Lasham; I used to teach them
at odd times, and look after them, and go with them to the train to
look for you. Perhaps Ricketts made me think you didn't care for
them; perhaps I was wrong in thinking it was true, from the way you
met Jimmy just now. But I've spoken my mind and you know why."
She ceased and walked to the window.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site