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A Night At Hays

From: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other Stories


It was difficult to say if Hays' farmhouse, or "Hays," as it was
familiarly called, looked any more bleak and cheerless that winter
afternoon than it usually did in the strong summer sunshine. Painted
a cold merciless white, with scant projections for shadows, a roof of
white-pine shingles, bleached lighter through sun and wind, and covered
with low, white-capped chimneys, it looked even more stark and chilly
than the drifts which had climbed its low roadside fence, and yet seemed
hopeless of gaining a foothold on the glancing walls, or slippery,
wind-swept roof. The storm, which had already heaped the hollows of
the road with snow, hurled its finely-granulated flakes against the
building, but they were whirled along the gutters and ridges, and
disappeared in smokelike puffs across the icy roof. The granite outcrop
in the hilly field beyond had long ago whitened and vanished; the dwarf
firs and larches which had at first taken uncouth shapes in the drift
blended vaguely together, and then merged into an unbroken formless
wave. But the gaunt angles and rigid outlines of the building remained
sharp and unchanged. It would seem as if the rigors of winter had only
accented their hardness, as the fierceness of summer had previously made
them intolerable.

It was believed that some of this unyielding grimness attached to Hays
himself. Certain it is that neither hardship nor prosperity had touched
his character. Years ago his emigrant team had broken down in this wild
but wooded defile of the Sierras, and he had been forced to a winter
encampment, with only a rude log-cabin for shelter, on the very verge of
the promised land. Unable to enter it himself, he was nevertheless able
to assist the better-equipped teams that followed him with wood and
water and a coarse forage gathered from a sheltered slope of wild oats.
This was the beginning of a rude "supply station" which afterwards
became so profitable that when spring came and Hays' team were
sufficiently recruited to follow the flood of immigrating gold-seekers
to the placers and valleys, there seemed no occasion for it. His fortune
had been already found in the belt of arable slope behind the wooded
defile, and in the miraculously located coign of vantage on what was now
the great highway of travel and the only oasis and first relief of the
weary journey; the breaking down of his own team at that spot had
not only been the salvation of those who found at "Hays" the means of
prosecuting the last part of their pilgrimage, but later provided the
equipment of returning teams.

The first two years of this experience had not been without hardship and
danger. He had been raided by Indians and besieged for three days in his
stockaded cabin; he had been invested by wintry drifts of twenty feet of
snow, cut off equally from incoming teams from the pass and the
valley below. During the second year his wife had joined him with four
children, but whether the enforced separation had dulled her conjugal
affection, or whether she was tempted by a natural feminine longing for
the land of promise beyond, she sought it one morning with a fascinating
teamster, leaving her two sons and two daughters behind her; two years
later the elder of the daughters followed the mother's example, with
such maidenly discretion, however, as to forbear compromising herself by
any previous matrimonial formality whatever. From that day Hays had no
further personal intercourse with the valley below. He put up a hotel
a mile away from the farmhouse that he might not have to dispense
hospitality to his customers, nor accept their near companionship.
Always a severe Presbyterian, and an uncompromising deacon of a
far-scattered and scanty community who occasionally held their service
in one of his barns, he grew more rigid, sectarian, and narrow day
by day. He was feared, and although neither respected nor loved, his
domination and endurance were accepted. A grim landlord, hard creditor,
close-fisted patron, and a smileless neighbor who neither gambled nor
drank, "Old Hays," as he was called, while yet scarce fifty, had few
acquaintances and fewer friends. There were those who believed that his
domestic infelicities were the result of his unsympathetic nature; it
never occurred to any one (but himself probably) that they might have
been the cause. In those Sierran altitudes, as elsewhere, the belief
in original sin--popularly known as "pure cussedness"--dominated and
overbore any consideration of passive, impelling circumstances or
temptation, unless they had been actively demonstrated with a revolver.
The passive expression of harshness, suspicion, distrust, and moroseness
was looked upon as inherent wickedness.

The storm raged violently as Hays emerged from the last of a long range
of outbuildings and sheds, and crossed the open space between him and
the farmhouse. Before he had reached the porch, with its scant shelter,
he had floundered through a snowdrift, and faced the full fury of the
storm. But the snow seemed to have glanced from his hard angular figure
as it had from his roof-ridge, for when he entered the narrow hall-way
his pilot jacket was unmarked, except where a narrow line of powdered
flakes outlined the seams as if worn. To the right was an apartment,
half office, half sitting-room, furnished with a dark and chilly iron
safe, a sofa and chairs covered with black and coldly shining horsehair.
Here Hays not only removed his upper coat but his under one also, and
drawing a chair before the fire sat down in his shirt-sleeves. It was
his usual rustic pioneer habit, and might have been some lingering
reminiscence of certain remote ancestors to whom clothes were an
impediment. He was warming his hands and placidly ignoring his gaunt
arms in their thinly-clad "hickory" sleeves, when a young girl of
eighteen sauntered, half perfunctorily, half inquisitively into
the room. It was his only remaining daughter. Already elected by
circumstances to a dry household virginity, her somewhat large features,
sallow complexion, and tasteless, unattractive dress, did not obviously
suggest a sacrifice. Since her sister's departure she had taken sole
charge of her father's domestic affairs and the few rude servants
he employed, with a certain inherited following of his own moods and
methods. To the neighbors she was known as "Miss Hays,"--a dubious
respect that, in a community of familiar "Sallies," "Mamies," "Pussies,"
was grimly prophetic. Yet she rejoiced in the Oriental appellation
of "Zuleika." To this it is needless to add that it was impossible to
conceive any one who looked more decidedly Western.

"Ye kin put some things in my carpet bag agin the time the sled comes
round," said her father meditatively, without looking up.

"Then you're not coming back tonight?" asked the girl curiously. "What's
goin' on at the summit, father?"

"I am," he said grimly. "You don't reckon I kalkilate to stop thar!
I'm going on as far as Horseley's to close up that contract afore the
weather changes."

"I kinder allowed it was funny you'd go to the hotel to-night. There's
a dance there; those two Wetherbee girls and Mamie Harris passed up the
road an hour ago on a wood-sled, nigh blown to pieces and sittin' up in
the snow like skeert white rabbits."

Hays' brow darkened heavily.

"Let 'em go," he said, in a hard voice that the fire did not seem to
have softened. "Let 'em go for all the good their fool-parents will ever
get outer them, or the herd of wayside cattle they've let them loose

"I reckon they haven't much to do at home, or are hard put for company,
to travel six miles in the snow to show off their prinkin' to a lot of
idle louts shiny with bear's grease and scented up with doctor's stuff,"
added the girl, shrugging her shoulders, with a touch of her father's
mood and manner.

Perhaps it struck Hays at that moment that her attitude was somewhat
monstrous and unnatural for one still young and presumably like other
girls, for, after glancing at her under his heavy brows, he said, in a
gentler tone:--

"Never YOU mind, Zuly. When your brother Jack comes home he'll know
what's what, and have all the proper New York ways and style. It's nigh
on three years now that he's had the best training Dr. Dawson's Academy
could give,--sayin' nothing of the pow'ful Christian example of one
of the best preachers in the States. They mayn't have worldly, ungodly
fandangoes where he is, and riotous livin', and scarlet abominations,
but I've been told that they've 'tea circles,' and 'assemblies,' and
'harmony concerts' of young folks--and dancin'--yes, fine square dancin'
under control. No, I ain't stinted him in anythin'. You kin remember
that, Zuleika, when you hear any more gossip and backbitin' about your
father's meanness. I ain't spared no money for him."

"I reckon not," said the girl, a little sharply. "Why, there's that
draft fur two hundred and fifty dollars that kem only last week from the
Doctor's fur extras."

"Yes," replied Hays, with a slight knitting of the brows, "the Doctor
mout hev writ more particklers, but parsons ain't allus business men.
I reckon these here extrys were to push Jack along in the term, as the
Doctor knew I wanted him back here in the spring, now that his brother
has got to be too stiff-necked and self-opinionated to do his father's
work." It seemed from this that there had been a quarrel between Hays
and his eldest son, who conducted his branch business at Sacramento, and
who had in a passion threatened to set up a rival establishment to his
father's. And it was also evident from the manner of the girl that she
was by no means a strong partisan of her father in the quarrel.

"You'd better find out first how all the schoolin' and trainin' of
Jack's is goin' to jibe with the Ranch, and if he ain't been eddicated
out of all knowledge of station business or keer for it. New York ain't
Hays' Ranch, and these yer 'assemblies' and 'harmony' doin's and their
airs and graces may put him out of conceit with our plain ways. I reckon
ye didn't take that to mind when you've been hustlin' round payin' two
hundred and fifty dollar drafts for Jack and quo'llin' with Bijah! I
ain't sayin' nothin', father, only mebbe if Bijah had had drafts and
extrys flourished around him a little more, mebbe he'd have been more
polite and not so rough spoken. Mebbe," she continued with a little
laugh, "even I'D be a little more in the style to suit Master Jack when
he comes ef I had three hundred dollars' worth of convent schoolin' like
Mamie Harris."

"Yes, and you'd have only made yourself fair game for ev'ry schemin',
lazy sport or counter-jumper along the road from this to Sacramento!"
responded Hays savagely.

Zuleika laughed again constrainedly, but in a way that might have
suggested that this dreadful contingency was still one that it was
possible to contemplate without entire consternation. As she moved
slowly towards the door she stopped, with her hand on the lock, and said
tentatively: "I reckon you won't be wantin' any supper before you go?
You're almost sure to be offered suthin' up at Horseley's, while if I
have to cook you up suthin' now and still have the men's regular supper
to get at seven, it makes all the expense of an extra meal."

Hays hesitated. He would have preferred his supper now, and had his
daughter pressed him would have accepted it. But economy, which was
one of Zuleika's inherited instincts, vaguely appearing to him to be a
virtue, interchangeable with chastity and abstemiousness, was certainly
to be encouraged in a young girl. It hardly seems possible that with an
eye single to the integrity of the larder she could ever look kindly on
the blandishments of his sex, or, indeed, be exposed to them. He said
simply: "Don't cook for me," and resumed his attitude before the fire as
the girl left the room.

As he sat there, grim and immovable as one of the battered fire-dogs
before him, the wind in the chimney seemed to carry on a deep-throated,
dejected, and confidential conversation with him, but really had very
little to reveal. There were no haunting reminiscences of his married
life in this room, which he had always occupied in preference to the
company or sitting-room beyond. There were no familiar shadows of the
past lurking in its corners to pervade his reverie. When he did reflect,
which was seldom, there was always in his mind a vague idea of a central
injustice to which he had been subjected, that was to be avoided by
circuitous movement, to be hidden by work, but never to be surmounted.
And to-night he was going out in the storm, which he could understand
and fight, as he had often done before, and he was going to drive a
bargain with a man like himself and get the better of him if he could,
as he had done before, and another day would be gone, and that central
injustice which he could not understand would be circumvented, and he
would still be holding his own in the world. And the God of Israel
whom he believed in, and who was a hard but conscientious Providence,
something like himself, would assist him perhaps some day to the
understanding of this same vague injustice which He was, for some
strange reason, permitting. But never more unrelenting and unsparing of
others than when under conviction of Sin himself, and never more harsh
and unforgiving than when fresh from the contemplation of the Divine
Mercy, he still sat there grimly holding his hand to a warmth that never
seemed to get nearer his heart than that, when his daughter re-entered
the room with his carpet-bag.

To rise, put on his coat and overcoat, secure a fur cap on his head by a
woolen comforter, covering his ears and twined round his throat, and to
rigidly offer a square and weather-beaten cheek to his daughter's dusty
kiss, did not, apparently, suggest any lingering or hesitation. The sled
was at the door, which, for a tumultuous moment, opened on the storm and
the white vision of a horse knee-deep in a drift, and then closed behind
him. Zuleika shot the bolt, brushed some flakes of the invading snow
from the mat, and, after frugally raking down the fire on the hearth her
father had just quitted, retired through the long passage to the kitchen
and her domestic supervision.

It was a few hours later, supper had long past; the "hands" had one by
one returned to their quarters under the roof or in the adjacent lofts,
and Zuleika and the two maids had at last abandoned the kitchen for
their bedrooms beyond. Zuleika herself, by the light of a solitary
candle, had entered the office and had dropped meditatively into a
chair, as she slowly raked the warm ashes over the still smouldering
fire. The barking of dogs had momentarily attracted her attention, but
it had suddenly ceased. It was followed, however, by a more startling
incident,--a slight movement outside, and an attempt to raise the

She was not frightened; perhaps there was little for her to fear; it was
known that Hays kept no money in the house, the safe was only used for
securities and contracts, and there were half a dozen men within call.
It was, therefore, only her usual active, burning curiosity for novel
incident that made her run to the window and peer out; but it was with a
spontaneous cry of astonishment she turned and darted to the front door,
and opened it to the muffled figure of a young man.

"Jack! Saints alive! Why, of all things!" she gasped, incoherently.

He stopped her with an impatient gesture and a hand that prevented her
from closing the door again.

"Dad ain't here?" he asked quickly.


"When'll he be back?"

"Not to-night."

"Good," he said, turning to the door again. She could see a motionless
horse and sleigh in the road, with a woman holding the reins.

He beckoned to the woman, who drove to the door and jumped out. Tall,
handsome, and audacious, she looked at Zuleika with a quick laugh of
confidence, as at some recognized absurdity.

"Go in there," said the young man, opening the door of the office; "I'll
come back in a minute."

As she entered, still smiling, as if taking part in some humorous but
risky situation, he turned quickly to Zuleika and said in a low voice:
"Where can we talk?"

The girl held out her hand and glided hurriedly through the passage
until she reached a door, which she opened. By the light of a dying fire
he could see it was her bedroom. Lighting a candle on the mantel, she
looked eagerly in his face as he threw aside his muffler and opened his
coat. It disclosed a spare, youthful figure, and a thin, weak face
that a budding mustache only seemed to make still more immature. For
an instant brother and sister gazed at each other. Astonishment on her
part, nervous impatience on his, apparently repressed any demonstration
of family affection. Yet when she was about to speak he stopped her

"There now; don't talk. I know what you're goin' to say--could say it
myself if I wanted to--and it's no use. Well then, here I am. You saw
HER. Well, she's MY WIFE--we've been married three months. Yes, my WIFE;
married three months ago. I'm here because I ran away from school--that
is, I HAVEN'T BEEN THERE for the last three months. I came out with
her last steamer; we went up to the Summit Hotel last night--where they
didn't know me--until we could see how the land lay, before popping down
on dad. I happened to learn that he was out to-night, and I brought
her down here to have a talk. We can go back again before he comes, you
know, unless"--

"But," interrupted the girl, with sudden practicality, "you say you
ain't been at Doctor Dawson's for three months! Why, only last week he
drew on dad for two hundred and fifty dollars for your extras!"

He glanced around him and then arranged his necktie in the glass above
the mantel with a nervous laugh.

"OH, THAT! I fixed that up, and got the money for it in New York to pay
our passage with. It's all right, you know."


The girl stood looking at the ingenious forger with an odd, breathless
smile. It was difficult to determine, however, if gratified curiosity
were not its most dominant expression.

"And you've got a wife--and THAT'S her?" she resumed.


"Where did you first meet her? Who is she?"

"She's an actress--mighty popular in 'Frisco--I mean New York. Lot o'
chaps tried to get her--I cut 'em out. For all dad's trying to keep me
at Dawson's--I ain't such a fool, eh?"

Nevertheless, as he stood there stroking his fair mustache, his
astuteness did not seem to impress his sister to enthusiastic assent.
Yet she did not relax her breathless, inquisitive smile as she went

"And what are you going to do about dad?"

He turned upon her querulously.

"Well, that's what I want to talk about."

"You'll catch it!" she said impressively. But here her brother's
nervousness broke out into a weak, impotent fury. It was evident, too,
that in spite of its apparent spontaneous irritation its intent was
studied. Catch it! Would he? Oh, yes! Well, she'd see WHO'D catch it!
Not him. No, he'd had enough of this meanness, and wanted it ended! He
wasn't a woman to be treated like his sister,--like their mother--like
their brother, if it came to that, for he knew how he was to be brought
back to take Bijah's place in the spring; he'd heard the whole story.
No, he was going to stand up for his rights,--he was going to be treated
as the son of a man who was worth half a million ought to be treated! He
wasn't going to be skimped, while his father was wallowing in money that
he didn't know what to do with,--money that by rights ought to have
been given to their mother and their sister. Why, even the law wouldn't
permit such meanness--if he was dead. No, he'd come back with Lottie,
his wife, to show his father that there was one of the family that
couldn't be fooled and bullied, and wouldn't put up with it any longer.
There was going to be a fair division of the property, and his sister
Annie's property, and hers--Zuleika's--too, if she'd have the pluck to
speak up for herself. All this and much more he said. Yet even while
his small fury was genuine and characteristic, there was such an evident
incongruity between himself and his speech that it seemed to fit
him loosely, and in a measure flapped in his gestures like another's
garment. Zuleika, who had exhibited neither disgust nor sympathy with
his rebellion, but had rather appeared to enjoy it as a novel domestic
performance, the morality of which devolved solely upon the performer,
retained her curious smile. And then a knock at the door startled them.

It was the stranger,--slightly apologetic and still humorous, but firm
and self-confident withal. She was sorry to interrupt their family
council, but the fire was going out where she sat, and she would like
a cup of tea or some refreshment. She did not look at Jack, but,
completely ignoring him, addressed herself to Zuleika with what seemed
to be a direct challenge; in that feminine eye-grapple there was a
quick, instinctive, and final struggle between the two women. The
stranger triumphed. Zuleika's vacant smile changed to one of submission,
and then, equally ignoring her brother in this double defeat, she
hastened to the kitchen to do the visitor's bidding. The woman closed
the door behind her, and took Zuleika's place before the fire.

"Well?" she said, in a half-contemptuous toleration.

"Well?" said Jack, in an equally ill-disguised discontent, but an
evident desire to placate the woman before him. "It's all right, you
know. I've had my say. It'll come right, Lottie, you'll see."

The woman smiled again, and glanced around the bare walls of the room.

"And I suppose," she said, drily, "when it comes right I'm to take the
place of your sister in the charge of this workhouse and succeed to the
keys of that safe in the other room?"

"It'll come all right, I tell you; you can fix things up here any way
you'll like when we get the old man straight," said Jack, with the
iteration of feebleness. "And as to that safe, I've seen it chock full
of securities."

"It'll hold one less to-night," she said, looking at the fire.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, in querulous suspicion.

She drew a paper from her pocket.

"It's that draft of yours that you were crazy enough to sign Dawson's
name to. It was lying out there on the desk. I reckon it isn't a thing
you care to have kept as evidence, even by your father."

She held it in the flames until it was consumed.

"By Jove, your head is level, Lottie!" he said, with an admiration that
was not, however, without a weak reserve of suspicion.

"No, it isn't, or I wouldn't be here," she said, curtly. Then she added,
as if dismissing the subject, "Well, what did you tell her?"

"Oh, I said I met you in New York. You see I thought she might think it
queer if she knew I only met you in San Francisco three weeks ago. Of
course I said we were married."

She looked at him with weary astonishment.

"And of course, whether things go right or not, she'll find out that
I've got a husband living, that I never met you in New York, but on the
steamer, and that you've lied. I don't see the USE of it. You said
you were going to tell the whole thing squarely and say the truth, and
that's why I came to help you."

"Yes; but don't you see, hang it all!" he stammered, in the irritation
of weak confusion, "I had to tell her SOMETHING. Father won't dare to
tell her the truth, no more than he will the neighbors. He'll hush it
up, you bet; and when we get this thing fixed you'll go and get your
divorce, you know, and we'll be married privately on the square."

He looked so vague, so immature, yet so fatuously self-confident, that
the woman extended her hand with a laugh and tapped him on the back as
she might have patted a dog. Then she disappeared to follow Zuleika in
the kitchen.

When the two women returned together they were evidently on the best
of terms. So much so that the man, with the easy reaction of a shallow
nature, became sanguine and exalted, even to an ostentatious exhibition
of those New York graces on which the paternal Hays had set such store.
He complacently explained the methods by which he had deceived Dr.
Dawson; how he had himself written a letter from his father commanding
him to return to take his brother's place, and how he had shown it to
the Doctor and been three months in San Francisco looking for work and
assisting Lottie at the theatre, until a conviction of the righteousness
of his cause, perhaps combined with the fact that they were also short
of money and she had no engagement, impelled him to his present heroic
step. All of which Zuleika listened to with childish interest, but
superior appreciation of his companion. The fact that this woman was an
actress, an abomination vaguely alluded to by her father as being even
more mysteriously wicked than her sister and mother, and correspondingly
exciting, as offering a possible permanent relief to the monotony of her
home life, seemed to excuse her brother's weakness. She was almost ready
to become his partisan--AFTER she had seen her father.

They had talked largely of their plans; they had settled small details
of the future and the arrangement of the property; they had agreed that
Zuleika should be relieved of her household drudgery, and sent to
a fashionable school in San Francisco with a music teacher and a
dressmaker. They had discussed everything but the precise manner in
which the revelation should be conveyed to Hays. There was still plenty
of time for that, for he would not return until to-morrow at noon,
and it was already tacitly understood that the vehicle of transmission
should be a letter from the Summit Hotel. The possible contingency of
a sudden outburst of human passion not entirely controlled by religious
feeling was to be guarded against.

They were sitting comfortably before the replenished fire; the wind was
still moaning in the chimney, when, suddenly, in a lull of the storm
the sound of sleigh-bells seemed to fill the room. It was followed by a
voice from without, and, with a hysterical cry, Zuleika started to her
feet. The same breathless smile with which she had greeted her brother
an hour ago was upon her lips as she gasped:--

"Lord, save us!--but it's dad come back!"

I grieve to say that here the doughty redresser of domestic wrongs and
retriever of the family honor lapsed white-faced in his chair idealess
and tremulous. It was his frailer companion who rose to the occasion
and even partly dragged him with her. "Go back to the hotel," she said
quickly, "and take the sled with you,--you are not fit to face him now!
But he does not know ME, and I will stay!" To the staring Zuleika: "I am
a stranger stopped by a broken sleigh on my way to the hotel. Leave the
rest to me. Now clear out, both of you. I'll let him in."

She looked so confident, self-contained, and superior, that the thought
of opposition never entered their minds, and as an impatient rapping
rose from the door they let her, with a half-impatient, half-laughing
gesture, drive them before her from the room. When they had disappeared
in the distance, she turned to the front door, unbolted and opened it.
Hays blundered in out of the snow with a muttered exclamation, and then,
as the light from the open office door revealed a stranger, started and
fell back.

"Miss Hays is busy," said the woman quietly, "I am afraid, on my
account. But my sleigh broke down on the way to the hotel and I was
forced to get out here. I suppose this is Mr. Hays?"

A strange woman--by her dress and appearance a very worldling--and even
braver in looks and apparel than many he had seen in the cities--seemed,
in spite of all his precautions, to have fallen short of the hotel
and been precipitated upon him! Yet under the influence of some odd
abstraction he was affected by it less than he could have believed. He
even achieved a rude bow as he bolted the door and ushered her into
the office. More than that, he found himself explaining to the fair
trespasser the reasons of his return to his own home. For, like a direct
man, he had a consciousness of some inconsistency in his return--or
in the circumstances that induced a change of plans which might
conscientiously require an explanation.

"You see, ma'am, a rather singular thing happened to me after I passed
the summit. Three times I lost the track, got off it somehow, and found
myself traveling in a circle. The third time, when I struck my own
tracks again, I concluded I'd just follow them back here. I suppose
I might have got the road again by tryin' and fightin' the snow--but
ther's some things not worth the fightin'. This was a matter of
business, and, after all, ma'am, business ain't everythin', is it?"

He was evidently in some unusual mood, the mood that with certain
reticent natures often compels them to make their brief confidences to
utter strangers rather than impart them to those intimate friends who
might remind them of their weakness. She agreed with him pleasantly, but
not so obviously as to excite suspicion. "And you preferred to let your
business go, and come back to the comfort of your own home and family."

"The comfort of my home and family?" he repeated in a dry, deliberate
voice. "Well, I reckon I ain't been tempted much by THAT. That isn't
what I meant." But he went back to the phrase, repeating it grimly, as
if it were some mandatory text. "The comfort of my OWN HOME AND FAMILY!
Well, Satan hasn't set THAT trap for my feet yet, ma'am. No; ye saw my
daughter? well, that's all my family; ye see this room? that's all my
home. My wife ran away from me; my daughter cleared out too, my eldest
son as was with me here has quo'lled with me and reckons to set up
a rival business agin me. No," he said, still more meditatively and
deliberately; "it wasn't to come back to the comforts of my own home and
family that I faced round on Heavy Tree Hill, I reckon."

As the woman, for certain reasons, had no desire to check this
auspicious and unlooked for confidence, she waited patiently. Hays
remained silent for an instant, warming his hands before the fire, and
then looked up interrogatively.

"A professor of religion, ma'am, or under conviction?"

"Not exactly," said the lady smiling.

"Excuse me, but in spite of your fine clothes I reckoned you had a
serious look just now. A reader of Scripture, may be?"

"I know the Bible."

"You remember when the angel with the flamin' sword appeared unto Saul
on the road to Damascus?"


"It mout hev been suthin' in that style that stopped me," he said slowly
and tentatively. "Though nat'rally I didn't SEE anything, and only had
the queer feelin'. It might hev been THAT shied my mare off the track."

"But Saul was up to some wickedness, wasn't he?" said the lady
smilingly, "while YOU were simply going somewhere on business?"

"Yes," said Hays thoughtfully, "but my BUSINESS might hev seemed like
persecution. I don't mind tellin' you what it was if you'd care to
listen. But mebbe you're tired. Mebbe you want to retire. You know," he
went on with a sudden hospitable outburst, "you needn't be in any
hurry to go; we kin take care of you here to-night, and it'll cost you
nothin'. And I'll send you on with my sleigh in the mornin'. Per'aps
you'd like suthin' to eat--a cup of tea--or--I'll call Zuleika;" and he
rose with an expression of awkward courtesy.

But the lady, albeit with a self-satisfied sparkle in her dark
eyes, here carelessly assured him that Zuleika had already given her
refreshment, and, indeed, was at that moment preparing her own room for
her. She begged he would not interrupt his interesting story.

Hays looked relieved.

"Well, I reckon I won't call her, for what I was goin' to say ain't
exackly the sort o' thin' for an innocent, simple sort o' thing like her
to hear--I mean," he interrupted himself hastily--"that folks of more
experience of the world like you and me don't mind speakin' of--I'm
sorter takin' it for granted that you're a married woman, ma'am."

The lady, who had regarded him with a sudden rigidity, here relaxed her
expression and nodded.

"Well," continued Hays, resuming his place by the fire, "you see this
yer man I was goin' to see lives about four miles beyond the summit on
a ranch that furnishes most of the hay for the stock that side of the
Divide. He's bin holdin' off his next year's contracts with me, hopin'
to make better terms from the prospects of a late spring and higher
prices. He held his head mighty high and talked big of waitin' his own
time. I happened to know he couldn't do it."

He put his hands on his knees and stared at the fire, and then went

"Ye see this man had had crosses and family trials. He had a wife that
left him to jine a lot of bally dancers and painted women in the 'Frisco
playhouses when he was livin' in the southern country. You'll say that
was like MY own case,--and mebbe that was why it came to him to tell
me about it,--but the difference betwixt HIM and ME was that instead
of restin' unto the Lord and findin' Him, and pluckin' out the eye
that offended him 'cordin' to Scripter, as I did, HE followed after HER
tryin' to get her back, until, findin' that wasn't no use, he took a
big disgust and came up here to hide hisself, where there wasn't no
playhouse nor play-actors, and no wimmen but Injin squaws. He pre-empted
the land, and nat'rally, there bein' no one ez cared to live there but
himself, he had it all his own way, made it pay, and, as I was sayin'
before, held his head high for prices. Well--you ain't gettin' tired,

"No," said the lady, resting her cheek on her hand and gazing on the
fire, "it's all very interesting; and so odd that you two men, with
nearly the same experiences, should be neighbors."

"Say buyer and seller, ma'am, not neighbors--at least Scriptoorily--nor
friends. Well,--now this is where the Speshal Providence comes in,--only
this afternoon Jim Briggs, hearin' me speak of Horseley's offishness"--

"WHOSE offishness?" asked the lady.

"Horseley's offishness,--Horseley's the name of the man I'm talkin'
about. Well, hearin' that, he says: 'You hold on, Hays, and he'll
climb down. That wife of his has left the stage--got sick of it--and is
driftin' round in 'Frisco with some fellow. When Horseley gets to hear
that, you can't keep him here,--he'll settle up, sell out, and realize
on everything he's got to go after her agin,--you bet.' That's what
Briggs said. Well, that's what sent me up to Horseley's to-night--to get
there, drop the news, and then pin him down to that contract."

"It looked like a good stroke of business and a fair one," said the lady
in an odd voice. It was so odd that Hays looked up. But she had somewhat
altered her position, and was gazing at the ceiling, and with her hand
to her face seemed to have just recovered from a slight yawn, at which
he hesitated with a new and timid sense of politeness.

"You're gettin' tired, ma'am?"

"Oh dear, no!" she said in the same voice, but clearing her throat with
a little cough. "And why didn't you see this Mr. Horseley after all? Oh,
I forgot!--you said you changed your mind from something you'd heard."

He had turned his eyes to the fire again, but without noticing as he
did so that she slowly moved her face, still half hidden by her hand,
towards him and was watching him intently.

"No," he said, slowly, "nothin' I heard, somethin' I felt. It mout hev
been that that set me off the track. It kem to me all of a sudden that
he might be sittin' thar calm and peaceful like ez I might be here,
hevin' forgot all about her and his trouble, and here was me goin' to
drop down upon him and start it all fresh agin. It looked a little like
persecution--yes, like persecution. I got rid of it, sayin' to myself
it was business. But I'd got off the road meantime, and had to find
it again, and whenever I got back to the track and was pointed for his
house, it all seemed to come back on me and set me off agin. When that
had happened three times, I turned round and started for home."

"And do you mean to say," said the lady, with a discordant laugh, "that
you believe, because YOU didn't go there and break the news, that nobody
else will? That he won't hear of it from the first man he meets?"

"He don't meet any one up where he lives, and only Briggs and myself
know it, and I'll see that Briggs don't tell. But it was mighty queer
this whole thing comin' upon me suddenly,--wasn't it?"

"Very queer," replied the lady; "for"--with the same metallic
laugh--"you don't seem to be given to this kind of weakness with your
own family."

If there was any doubt as to the sarcastic suggestion of her voice,
there certainly could be none in the wicked glitter of her eyes fixed
upon his face under her shading hand. But haply he seemed unconscious of
both, and even accepted her statement without an ulterior significance.

"Yes," he said, communingly, to the glaring embers of the hearth, "it
must have been a special revelation."

There was something so fatuous and one-idea'd in his attitude and
expression, so monstrously inconsistent and inadequate to what was going
on around him, and so hopelessly stupid--if a mere simulation--that the
angry suspicion that he was acting a part slowly faded from her eyes,
and a hysterical smile began to twitch her set lips. She still gazed
at him. The wind howled drearily in the chimney; all that was economic,
grim, and cheerless in the room seemed to gather as flitting shadows
around that central figure. Suddenly she arose with such a quick
rustling of her skirts that he lifted his eyes with a start; for she
was standing immediately before him, her hands behind her, her handsome,
audacious face bent smilingly forward, and her bold, brilliant eyes
within a foot of his own.

"Now, Mr. Hays, do you want to know what this warning or special
revelation of yours REALLY meant? Well, it had nothing whatever to do
with that man on the summit. No. The whole interest, gist, and meaning
of it was simply this, that you should turn round and come straight
back here and"--she drew back and made him an exaggerated theatrical
curtsey--"have the supreme pleasure of making MY acquaintance! That was
all. And now, as you've HAD IT, in five minutes I must be off. You've
offered me already your horse and sleigh to go to the summit. I accept
it and go! Good-by!"

He knew nothing of a woman's coquettish humor; he knew still less of
that mimic stage from which her present voice, gesture, and expression
were borrowed; he had no knowledge of the burlesque emotions which that
voice, gesture, and expression were supposed to portray, and finally and
fatally he was unable to detect the feminine hysteric jar and discord
that underlay it all. He thought it was strong, characteristic, and
real, and accepted it literally. He rose.

"Ef you allow you can't stay, why I'll go and get the horse. I reckon he
ain't bin put up yet."

"Do, please."

He grimly resumed his coat and hat and disappeared through the passage
into the kitchen, whence, a moment later, Zuleika came flying.

"Well, what has happened?" she said eagerly.

"It's all right," said the woman quickly, "though he knows nothing yet.
But I've got things fixed generally, so that he'll be quite ready to
have it broken to him by this time to-morrow. But don't you say anything
till I've seen Jack and you hear from HIM. Remember."

She spoke rapidly; her cheeks were quite glowing from some sudden
energy; so were Zuleika's with the excitement of curiosity. Presently
the sound of sleigh-bells again filled the room. It was Hays leading the
horse and sleigh to the door, beneath a sky now starlit and crisp
under a northeast wind. The fair stranger cast a significant glance at
Zuleika, and whispered hurriedly, "You know he must not come with me.
You must keep him here."

She ran to the door muffled and hooded, leaped into the sleigh, and
gathered up the reins.

"But you cannot go alone," said Hays, with awkward courtesy. "I was

"You're too tired to go out again, dad," broke in Zuleika's voice
quickly. "You ain't fit; you're all gray and krinkly now, like as when
you had one of your last spells. She'll send the sleigh back to-morrow."

"I can find my way," said the lady briskly; "there's only one turn off,
I believe, and that"--

"Leads to the stage station three miles west. You needn't be afraid of
gettin' off on that, for you'll likely see the down stage crossin' your
road ez soon ez you get clear of the ranch."

"Good-night," said the lady. An arc of white spray sprang before the
forward runner, and the sleigh vanished in the road.

Father and daughter returned to the office.

"You didn't get to know her, dad, did ye?" queried Zuleika.

"No," responded Hays gravely, "except to see she wasn't no backwoods or
mountaineering sort. Now, there's the kind of woman, Zuly, as knows her
own mind and yours too; that a man like your brother Jack oughter pick
out when he marries."

Zuleika's face beamed behind her father. "You ain't goin' to sit up any
longer, dad?" she said, as she noticed him resume his seat by the fire.
"It's gettin' late, and you look mighty tuckered out with your night's

"Do you know what she said, Zuly?" returned her father, after a pause,
which turned out to have been a long, silent laugh.


"She said," he repeated slowly, "that she reckoned I came back here
to-night to have the pleasure of her acquaintance!" He brought his
two hands heavily down upon his knees, rubbing them down deliberately
towards his ankles, and leaning forward with his face to the fire and a
long-sustained smile of complete though tardy appreciation.

He was still in this attitude when Zuleika left him. The wind crooned
over him confidentially, but he still sat there, given up apparently to
some posthumous enjoyment of his visitor's departing witticism.

It was scarcely daylight when Zuleika, while dressing, heard a quick
tapping upon her shutter. She opened it to the scared and bewildered
face of her brother.

"What happened with her and father last night?" he said hoarsely.


"Read that. It was brought to me half an hour ago by a man in dad's
sleigh, from the stage station."

He handed her a crumpled note with trembling fingers. She took it and

"The game's up and I'm out of it! Take my advice and clear out of it
too, until you can come back in better shape. Don't be such a fool as
to try and follow me. Your father isn't one, and that's where you've
slipped up."

"He shall pay for it, whatever he's done," said her brother with an
access of wild passion. "Where is he?"

"Why, Jack, you wouldn't dare to see him now?"

"Wouldn't I?" He turned and ran, convulsed with passion, before the
windows towards the front of the house. Zuleika slipped out of her
bedroom and ran to her father's room. He was not there. Already she
could hear her brother hammering frantically against the locked front

The door of the office was partly open. Her father was still there.
Asleep? Yes, for he had apparently sunk forward before the cold hearth.
But the hands that he had always been trying to warm were colder than
the hearth or ashes, and he himself never again spoke nor stirred.


It was deemed providential by the neighbors that his youngest and
favorite son, alarmed by news of his father's failing health, had
arrived from the Atlantic States just at the last moment. But it was
thought singular that after the division of the property he entirely
abandoned the Ranch, and that even pending the division his beautiful
but fastidious Eastern bride declined to visit it with her husband.

Next: Johnson's Old Woman

Previous: The Postmistress Of Laurel Run

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