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The Postmistress Of Laurel Run








From: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other Stories

CHAPTER I.


The mail stage had just passed Laurel Run,--so rapidly that the whirling
cloud of dust dragged with it down the steep grade from the summit hung
over the level long after the stage had vanished, and then, drifting
away, slowly sifted a red precipitate over the hot platform of the
Laurel Run post-office.

Out of this cloud presently emerged the neat figure of the postmistress
with the mailbag which had been dexterously flung at her feet from the
top of the passing vehicle. A dozen loungers eagerly stretched out their
hands to assist her, but the warning: "It's agin the rules, boys, for
any but her to touch it," from a bystander, and a coquettish shake of
the head from the postmistress herself--much more effective than any
official interdict--withheld them. The bag was not heavy,--Laurel Run
was too recent a settlement to have attracted much correspondence,--and
the young woman, having pounced upon her prey with a certain feline
instinct, dragged it, not without difficulty, behind the partitioned
inclosure in the office, and locked the door. Her pretty face,
momentarily visible through the window, was slightly flushed with the
exertion, and the loose ends of her fair hair, wet with perspiration,
curled themselves over her forehead into tantalizing little rings. But
the window shutter was quickly closed, and this momentary but charming
vision withdrawn from the waiting public.

"Guv'ment oughter have more sense than to make a woman pick mail-bags
outer the road," said Jo Simmons sympathetically. "'Tain't in her day's
work anyhow; Guv'mont oughter hand 'em over to her like a lady; it's
rich enough and ugly enough."

"'Tain't Guv'ment; it's that stage company's airs and graces,"
interrupted a newcomer. "They think it mighty fine to go beltin' by,
makin' everybody take their dust, just because STOPPIN' ain't in their
contract. Why, if that expressman who chucked down the bag had any
feelin's for a lady"--but he stopped here at the amused faces of his
auditors.

"Guess you don't know much o' that expressman's feelin's, stranger,"
said Simmons grimly. "Why, you oughter see him just nussin' that bag
like a baby as he comes tearin' down the grade, and then rise up and
sorter heave it to Mrs. Baker ez if it was a five-dollar bokay! His
feelin's for her! Why, he's give himself so dead away to her that we're
looking for him to forget what he's doin' next, and just come sailin'
down hisself at her feet."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the partition, Mrs. Baker had brushed
the red dust from the padlocked bag, and removed what seemed to be a
supplementary package attached to it by a wire. Opening it she found
a handsome scent-bottle, evidently a superadded gift from the devoted
expressman. This she put aside with a slight smile and the murmured
word, "Foolishness." But when she had unlocked the bag, even its
sacred interior was also profaned by a covert parcel from the adjacent
postmaster at Burnt Ridge, containing a gold "specimen" brooch and some
circus tickets. It was laid aside with the other. This also was vanity
and--presumably--vexation of spirit.

There were seventeen letters in all, of which five were for herself--and
yet the proportion was small that morning. Two of them were marked
"Official Business" and were promptly put by with feminine discernment;
but in another compartment than that holding the presents. Then the
shutter was opened, and the task of delivery commenced.

It was accompanied with a social peculiarity that had in time become a
habit of Laurel Run. As the young woman delivered the letters, in turn,
to the men who were patiently drawn up in Indian file, she made that
simple act a medium of privileged but limited conversation on special or
general topics,--gay or serious as the case might be, or the temperament
of the man suggested. That it was almost always of a complimentary
character on their part may be readily imagined; but it was invariably
characterized by an element of refined restraint, and, whether from some
implied understanding or individual sense of honour, it never passed the
bounds of conventionality or a certain delicacy of respect. The
delivery was consequently more or less protracted, but when each man
had exchanged his three or four minutes' conversation with the fair
postmistress,--a conversation at times impeded by bashfulness or
timidity, on his part solely, or restricted often to vague smiling,--he
resignedly made way for the next. It was a formal levee, mitigated by
the informality of rustic tact, great good-humor, and infinite patience,
and would have been amusing had it not always been terribly in earnest
and at times touching. For it was peculiar to the place and the epoch,
and indeed implied the whole history of Mrs. Baker.

She was the wife of John Baker, foreman of "The Last Chance," now for
a year lying dead under half a mile of crushed and beaten-in tunnel at
Burnt Ridge. There had been a sudden outcry from the depths at high
hot noontide one day, and John had rushed from his cabin--his young,
foolish, flirting wife clinging to him--to answer that despairing cry of
his imprisoned men. There was one exit that he alone knew which might be
yet held open, among falling walls and tottering timbers, long enough to
set them free. For one moment only the strong man hesitated between her
entreating arms and his brothers' despairing cry. But she rose suddenly
with a pale face, and said, "Go, John; I will wait for you here." He
went, the men were freed--but she had waited for him ever since!

Yet in the shock of the calamity and in the after struggles of that
poverty which had come to the ruined camp, she had scarcely changed. But
the men had. Although she was to all appearances the same giddy, pretty
Betsy Baker, who had been so disturbing to the younger members, they
seemed to be no longer disturbed by her. A certain subdued awe and
respect, as if the martyred spirit of John Baker still held his arm
around her, appeared to have come upon them all. They held their breath
as this pretty woman, whose brief mourning had not seemed to affect her
cheerfulness or even playfulness of spirit, passed before them. But she
stood by her cabin and the camp--the only woman in a settlement of forty
men--during the darkest hours of their fortune. Helping them to wash and
cook, and ministering to their domestic needs, the sanctity of her cabin
was, however, always kept as inviolable as if it had been HIS tomb. No
one exactly knew why, for it was only a tacit instinct; but even one or
two who had not scrupled to pay court to Betsy Baker during John Baker's
life, shrank from even a suggestion of familiarity towards the woman who
had said that she would "wait for him there."

When brighter days came and the settlement had increased by one or two
families, and laggard capital had been hurried up to relieve the still
beleaguered and locked-up wealth of Burnt Ridge, the needs of the
community and the claims of the widow of John Baker were so well told
in political quarters that the post-office of Laurel Run was created
expressly for her. Every man participated in the building of the pretty
yet substantial edifice--the only public building of Laurel Run--that
stood in the dust of the great highway, half a mile from the settlement.
There she was installed for certain hours of the day, for she could not
be prevailed upon to abandon John's cabin, and here, with all the added
respect due to a public functionary, she was secure in her privacy.

But the blind devotion of Laurel Run to John Baker's relict did not stop
here. In its zeal to assure the Government authorities of the necessity
for a post-office, and to secure a permanent competency to the
postmistress, there was much embarrassing extravagance. During the first
week the sale of stamps at Laurel Run post-office was unprecedented
in the annals of the Department. Fancy prices were given for the first
issue; then they were bought wildly, recklessly, unprofitably, and
on all occasions. Complimentary congratulation at the little window
invariably ended with "and a dollar's worth of stamps, Mrs. Baker." It
was felt to be supremely delicate to buy only the highest priced stamps,
without reference to their adequacy; then mere QUANTITY was sought; then
outgoing letters were all over-paid and stamped in outrageous proportion
to their weight and even size. The imbecility of this, and its probable
effect on the reputation of Laurel Run at the General Post-office, being
pointed out by Mrs. Baker, stamps were adopted as local currency,
and even for decorative purposes on mirrors and the walls of cabins.
Everybody wrote letters, with the result, however, that those SENT were
ludicrously and suspiciously in excess of those received. To obviate
this, select parties made forced journeys to Hickory Hill, the next
post-office, with letters and circulars addressed to themselves at
Laurel Run. How long the extravagance would have continued is not
known, but it was not until it was rumored that, in consequence of
this excessive flow of business, the Department had concluded that a
postMASTER would be better fitted for the place that it abated, and a
compromise was effected with the General Office by a permanent salary to
the postmistress.

Such was the history of Mrs. Baker, who had just finished her afternoon
levee, nodded a smiling "good-by" to her last customer, and closed her
shutter again. Then she took up her own letters, but, before reading
them, glanced, with a pretty impatience, at the two official envelopes
addressed to herself, which she had shelved. They were generally a "lot
of new rules," or notifications, or "absurd" questions which had nothing
to do with Laurel Run and only bothered her and "made her head ache,"
and she had usually referred them to her admiring neighbor at Hickory
Hill for explanation, who had generally returned them to her with the
brief indorsement, "Purp stuff, don't bother," or, "Hog wash, let it
slide." She remembered now that he had not returned the last two. With
knitted brows and a slight pout she put aside her private correspondence
and tore open the first one. It referred with official curtness to an
unanswered communication of the previous week, and was "compelled to
remind her of rule 47." Again those horrid rules! She opened the other;
the frown deepened on her brow, and became fixed.

It was a summary of certain valuable money letters that had miscarried
on the route, and of which they had given her previous information.
For a moment her cheeks blazed. How dare they; what did they mean! Her
waybills and register were always right; she knew the names of every
man, woman, and child in her district; no such names as those borne by
the missing letters had ever existed at Laurel Run; no such addresses
had ever been sent from Laurel Run post-office. It was a mean
insinuation! She would send in her resignation at once! She would get
"the boys" to write an insulting letter to Senator Slocumb,--Mrs.
Baker had the feminine idea of Government as a purely personal
institution,--and she would find out who it was that had put them up to
this prying, crawling impudence! It was probably that wall-eyed old
wife of the postmaster at Heavy Tree Crossing, who was jealous of her.
"Remind her of their previous unanswered communication," indeed! Where
was that communication, anyway? She remembered she had sent it to her
admirer at Hickory Hill. Odd that he hadn't answered it. Of course, he
knew about this meanness--could he, too, have dared to suspect her! The
thought turned her crimson again. He, Stanton Green, was an old "Laurel
Runner," a friend of John's, a little "triflin'" and "presoomin'," but
still an old loyal pioneer of the camp! "Why hadn't he spoke up?"

There was the soft, muffled fall of a horse's hoof in the thick dust of
the highway, the jingle of dismounting spurs, and a firm tread on the
platform. No doubt one of the boys returning for a few supplemental
remarks under the feeble pretense of forgotten stamps. It had been done
before, and she had resented it as "cayotin' round;" but now she was
eager to pour out her wrongs to the first comer. She had her hand
impulsively on the door of the partition, when she stopped with a new
sense of her impaired dignity. Could she confess this to her worshipers?
But here the door opened in her very face, and a stranger entered.

He was a man of fifty, compactly and strongly built. A squarely-cut
goatee, slightly streaked with gray, fell straight from his thin-lipped
but handsome mouth; his eyes were dark, humorous, yet searching. But the
distinctive quality that struck Mrs Baker was the blending of urban ease
with frontier frankness. He was evidently a man who had seen cities and
knew countries as well. And while he was dressed with the comfortable
simplicity of a Californian mounted traveler, her inexperienced
but feminine eye detected the keynote of his respectability in the
carefully-tied bow of his cravat. The Sierrean throat was apt to be
open, free, and unfettered.

"Good-morning, Mrs. Baker," he said, pleasantly, with his hat already in
his hand, "I'm Harry Home, of San Francisco." As he spoke his eye
swept approvingly over the neat inclosure, the primly-tied papers, and
well-kept pigeon-holes; the pot of flowers on her desk; her china-silk
mantle, and killing little chip hat and ribbons hanging against the
wall; thence to her own pink, flushed face, bright blue eyes, tendriled
clinging hair, and then--fell upon the leathern mailbag still lying
across the table. Here it became fixed on the unfortunate wire of the
amorous expressman that yet remained hanging from the brass wards of the
lock, and he reached his hand toward it.

But little Mrs. Baker was before him, and had seized it in her arms. She
had been too preoccupied and bewildered to resent his first intrusion
behind the partition, but this last familiarity with her sacred official
property--albeit empty--capped the climax of her wrongs.

"How dare you touch it!" she said indignantly. "How dare you come in
here! Who are you, anyway? Go outside, at once!"

The stranger fell back with an amused, deprecatory gesture, and a
long silent laugh. "I'm afraid you don't know me, after all!" he said
pleasantly. "I'm Harry Home, the Department Agent from the San Francisco
office. My note of advice, No. 201, with my name on the envelope, seems
to have miscarried too."

Even in her fright and astonishment it flashed upon Mrs. Baker that she
had sent that notice, too, to Hickory Hill. But with it all the feminine
secretive instinct within her was now thoroughly aroused, and she kept
silent.

"I ought to have explained," he went on smilingly; "but you are quite
right, Mrs. Baker," he added, nodding towards the bag. "As far as you
knew, I had no business to go near it. Glad to see you know how to
defend Uncle Sam's property so well. I was only a bit puzzled to
know" (pointing to the wire) "if that thing was on the bag when it was
delivered to you?"

Mrs. Baker saw no reason to conceal the truth. After all, this official
was a man like the others, and it was just as well that he should
understand her power. "It's only the expressman's foolishness," she
said, with a slightly coquettish toss of her head. "He thinks it smart
to tie some nonsense on that bag with the wire when he flings it down."

Mr. Home, with his eyes on her pretty face, seemed to think it a not
inhuman or unpardonable folly. "As long as he doesn't meddle with
the inside of the bag, I suppose you must put up with it," he said
laughingly. A dreadful recollection, that the Hickory Hill postmaster
had used the inside of the bag to convey HIS foolishness, came across
her. It would never do to confess it now. Her face must have shown
some agitation, for the official resumed with a half-paternal,
half-reassuring air: "But enough of this. Now, Mrs. Baker, to come to
my business here. Briefly, then, it doesn't concern you in the least,
except so far as it may relieve you and some others, whom the Department
knows equally well, from a certain responsibility, and, perhaps,
anxiety. We are pretty well posted down there in all that concerns
Laurel Run, and I think" (with a slight bow) "we've known all about you
and John Baker. My only business here is to take your place to-night
in receiving the 'Omnibus Way Bag,' that you know arrives here at 9.30,
doesn't it?"

"Yes, sir," said Mrs. Baker hurriedly; "but it never has anything for
us, except"--(she caught herself up quickly, with a stammer, as
she remembered the sighing Green's occasional offerings) "except a
notification from Hickory Hill post-office. It leaves there," she went
on with an affectation of precision, "at half past eight exactly, and
it's about an hour's run--seven miles by road."

"Exactly," said Mr. Home. "Well, I will receive the bag, open it, and
dispatch it again. You can, if you choose, take a holiday."

"But," said Mrs. Baker, as she remembered that Laurel Run always made a
point of attending her evening levee on account of the superior leisure
it offered, "there are the people who come for letters, you know."

"I thought you said there were no letters at that time," said Mr. Home
quickly.

"No--but--but"--(with a slight hysterical stammer) "the boys come all
the same."

"Oh!" said Mr. Home dryly.

"And--O Lord!"--But here the spectacle of the possible discomfiture of
Laurel Run at meeting the bearded face of Mr. Home, instead of her own
smooth cheeks, at the window, combined with her nervous excitement,
overcame her so that, throwing her little frilled apron over her head,
she gave way to a paroxym of hysterical laughter. Mr. Home waited with
amused toleration for it to stop, and, when she had recovered, resumed.
"Now, I should like to refer an instant to my first communication to
you. Have you got it handy?"

Mrs. Baker's face fell. "No; I sent it over to Mr. Green, of Hickory
Hill, for information."

"What!"

Terrified at the sudden seriousness of the man's voice, she managed to
gasp out, however, that, after her usual habit, she had not opened the
official letters, but had sent them to her more experienced colleague
for advice and information; that she never could understand them
herself,--they made her head ache, and interfered with her other
duties,--but HE understood them, and sent her word what to do.
Remembering also his usual style of indorsement, she grew red again.

"And what did he say?"

"Nothing; he didn't return them."

"Naturally," said Mr. Home, with a peculiar expression. After a few
moments' silent stroking of his beard, he suddenly faced the frightened
woman.

"You oblige me, Mrs. Baker, to speak more frankly to you than I had
intended. You have--unwittingly, I believe--given information to a man
whom the Government suspects of peculation. You have, without knowing
it, warned the postmaster at Hickory Hill that he is suspected; and,
as you might have frustrated our plans for tracing a series of
embezzlements to their proper source, you will see that you might have
also done great wrong to yourself as his only neighbor and the next
responsible person. In plain words, we have traced the disappearance of
money letters to a point when it lies between these two offices. Now,
I have not the least hesitation in telling you that we do not suspect
Laurel Run, and never have suspected it. Even the result of your
thoughtless act, although it warned him, confirms our suspicion of his
guilt. As to the warning, it has failed, or he has grown reckless, for
another letter has been missed since. To-night, however, will settle all
doubt in the matter. When I open that bag in this office to-night, and
do not find a certain decoy letter in it, which was last checked at
Heavy Tree Crossing, I shall know that it remains in Green's possession
at Hickory Hill."

She was sitting back in her chair, white and breathless. He glanced at
her kindly, and then took up his hat. "Come, Mrs. Baker, don't let this
worry you. As I told you at first, YOU have nothing to fear. Even your
thoughtlessness and ignorance of rules have contributed to show your own
innocence. Nobody will ever be the wiser for this; we do not advertise
our affairs in the Department. Not a soul but yourself knows the real
cause of my visit here. I will leave you here alone for a while, so as
to divert any suspicion. You will come, as usual, this evening, and be
seen by your friends; I will only be here when the bag arrives, to open
it. Good-by, Mrs. Baker; it's a nasty bit of business, but it's all in
the day's work. I've seen worse, and, thank God, you're out of it."

She heard his footsteps retreat into the outer office and die out of the
platform; the jingle of his spurs, and the hollow beat of his horse's
hoofs that seemed to find a dull echo in her own heart, and she was
alone.

The room was very hot and very quiet; she could hear the warping
and creaking of the shingles under the relaxing of the nearly level
sunbeams. The office clock struck seven. In the breathless silence that
followed, a woodpecker took up his interrupted work on the roof,
and seemed to beat out monotonously on her ear the last words of the
stranger: Stanton Green--a thief! Stanton Green, one of the "boys" John
had helped out of the falling tunnel! Stanton Green, whose old mother in
the States still wrote letters to him at Laurel Run, in a few hours
to be a disgraced and ruined man forever! She remembered now, as a
thoughtless woman remembers, tales of his extravagance and fast living,
of which she had taken no heed, and, with a sense of shame, of presents
sent her, that she now clearly saw must have been far beyond his means.
What would the boys say? What would John have said? Ah! what would John
have DONE!

She started suddenly to her feet, white and cold as on that day that
she had parted from John Baker before the tunnel. She put on her hat
and mantle, and going to that little iron safe that stood in the corner,
unlocked it and took out its entire contents of gold and silver. She had
reached the door when another idea seized her, and opening her desk she
collected her stamps to the last sheet, and hurriedly rolled them up
under her cape. Then with a glance at the clock, and a rapid survey
of the road from the platform, she slipped from it, and seemed to be
swallowed up in the waiting woods beyond.


CHAPTER II.


Once within the friendly shadows of the long belt of pines, Mrs. Baker
kept them until she had left the limited settlement of Laurel Run far to
the right, and came upon an open slope of Burnt Ridge, where she knew
Jo Simmons' mustang, Blue Lightning, would be quietly feeding. She had
often ridden him before, and when she had detached the fifty-foot reata
from his head-stall, he permitted her the further recognized familiarity
of twining her fingers in his bluish mane and climbing on his back. The
tool-shed of Burnt Ridge Tunnel, where Jo's saddle and bridle always
hung, was but a canter farther on. She reached it unperceived,
and--another trick of the old days--quickly extemporized a side-saddle
from Simmons' Mexican tree, with its high cantle and horn bow, and the
aid of a blanket. Then leaping to her seat, she rapidly threw off her
mantle, tied it by its sleeves around her waist, tucked it under
one knee, and let it fall over her horse's flanks. By this time Blue
Lightning was also struck with a flash of equine recollection and
pricked up his ears. Mrs. Baker uttered a little chirping cry which he
remembered, and the next moment they were both careering over the Ridge.

The trail that she had taken, though precipitate, difficult, and
dangerous in places, was a clear gain of two miles on the stage road.
There was less chance of her being followed or meeting any one. The
greater canyons were already in shadow; the pines on the farther ridges
were separating their masses, and showing individual silhouettes against
the sky, but the air was still warm, and the cool breath of night, as
she well knew it, had not yet begun to flow down the mountain. The lower
range of Burnt Ridge was still uneclipsed by the creeping shadow of
the mountain ahead of her. Without a watch, but with this familiar
and slowly changing dial spread out before her, she knew the time to a
minute. Heavy Tree Hill, a lesser height in the distance, was already
wiped out by that shadowy index finger--half past seven! The stage would
be at Hickory Hill just before half past eight; she ought to anticipate
it, if possible,--it would stay ten minutes to change horses,--she MUST
arrive before it left!

There was a good two-mile level before the rise of the next range. Now,
Blue Lightning! all you know! And that was much,--for with the little
chip hat and fluttering ribbons well bent down over the bluish mane, and
the streaming gauze of her mantle almost level with the horse's back,
she swept down across the long tableland like a skimming blue-jay. A few
more bird-like dips up and down the undulations, and then came the long,
cruel ascent of the Divide.

Acrid with perspiration, caking with dust, slithering in the slippery,
impalpable powder of the road, groggily staggering in a red dusty dream,
coughing, snorting, head-tossing; becoming suddenly dejected, with
slouching haunch and limp legs on easy slopes, or wildly spasmodic
and agile on sharp acclivities, Blue Lightning began to have ideas and
recollections! Ah! she was a devil for a lark--this lightly-clinging,
caressing, blarneying, cooing creature--up there! He remembered her now.
Ha! very well then. Hoop-la! And suddenly leaping out like a rabbit,
bucking, trotting hard, ambling lightly, "loping" on three legs and
recreating himself,--as only a California mustang could,--the invincible
Blue Lightning at last stood triumphantly upon the summit. The evening
star had just pricked itself through the golden mist of the horizon
line,--eight o'clock! She could do it now! But here, suddenly, her first
hesitation seized her. She knew her horse, she knew the trail, she knew
herself,--but did she know THE MAN to whom she was riding? A cold chill
crept over her, and then she shivered in a sudden blast; it was Night at
last swooping down from the now invisible Sierras, and possessing all it
touched. But it was only one long descent to Hickory Hill now, and she
swept down securely on its wings. Half-past eight! The lights of the
settlement were just ahead of her--but so, too, were the two lamps of
the waiting stage before the post-office and hotel.

Happily the lounging crowd were gathered around the hotel, and she
slipped into the post-office from the rear, unperceived. As she stepped
behind the partition, its only occupant--a good-looking young fellow
with a reddish mustache--turned towards her with a flush of delighted
surprise. But it changed at the sight of the white, determined face
and the brilliant eyes that had never looked once towards him, but were
fixed upon a large bag, whose yawning mouth was still open and propped
up beside his desk.

"Where is the through money letter that came in that bag?" she said
quickly.

"What--do--you--mean?" he stammered, with a face that had suddenly grown
whiter than her own.

"I mean that it's a DECOY, checked at Heavy Tree Crossing, and that Mr.
Home, of San Francisco, is now waiting at my office to know if you have
taken it!"

The laugh and lie that he had at first tried to summon to mouth and lips
never reached them. For, under the spell of her rigid, truthful face, he
turned almost mechanically to his desk, and took out a package.

"Good God! you've opened it already!" she cried, pointing to the broken
seal.

The expression on her face, more than anything she had said, convinced
him that she knew all. He stammered under the new alarm that her
despairing tone suggested. "Yes!--I was owing some bills--the collector
was waiting here for the money, and I took something from the packet.
But I was going to make it up by next mail--I swear it."

"How much have you taken?"

"Only a trifle. I"--

"How much?"

"A hundred dollars!"

She dragged the money she had brought from Laurel Run from her pocket,
and counting out the sum, replaced it in the open package. He ran
quickly to get the sealing wax, but she motioned him away as she dropped
the package back into the mail-bag. "No; as long as the money is found
in the bag the package may have been broken ACCIDENTALLY. Now burst open
one or two of those other packages a little--so;" she took out a packet
of letters and bruised their official wrappings under her little foot
until the tape fastening was loosened. "Now give me something heavy."
She caught up a brass two-pound weight, and in the same feverish
but collected haste wrapped it in paper, sealed it, stamped it, and,
addressing it in a large printed hand to herself at Laurel Hill, dropped
it in the bag. Then she closed it and locked it; he would have assisted
her, but she again waved him away. "Send for the expressman, and keep
yourself out of the way for a moment," she said curtly.

An attitude of weak admiration and foolish passion had taken the place
of his former tremulous fear. He obeyed excitedly, but without a word.
Mrs. Baker wiped her moist forehead and parched lips, and shook out
her skirt. Well might the young expressman start at the unexpected
revelation of those sparkling eyes and that demurely smiling mouth at
the little window.

"Mrs. Baker!"

She put her finger quickly to her lips, and threw a world of unutterable
and enigmatical meaning into her mischievous face.

"There's a big San Francisco swell takin' my place at Laurel to-night,
Charley."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And it's a pity that the Omnibus Way Bag happened to get such a shaking
up and banging round already, coming here."

"Eh?"

"I say," continued Mrs. Baker, with great gravity and dancing eyes,
"that it would be just AWFUL if that keerful city clerk found things
kinder mixed up inside when he comes to open it. I wouldn't give him
trouble for the world, Charley."

"No, ma'am, it ain't like you."

"So you'll be particularly careful on MY account."

"Mrs. Baker," said Charley, with infinite gravity, "if that bag SHOULD
TUMBLE OFF A DOZEN TIMES between this and Laurel Hill, I'll hop down and
pick it up myself."

"Thank you! shake!"

They shook hands gravely across the window-ledge.

"And you ain't going down with us, Mrs. Baker?"

"Of course not; it wouldn't do,--for I AIN'T HERE,--don't you see?"

"Of course!"

She handed him the bag through the door. He took it carefully, but in
spite of his great precaution fell over it twice on his way to the
road, where from certain exclamations and shouts it seemed that a like
miserable mischance attended its elevation to the boot. Then Mrs. Baker
came back into the office, and, as the wheels rolled away, threw herself
into a chair, and inconsistently gave way for the first time to an
outburst of tears. Then her hand was grasped suddenly and she found
Green on his knees before her. She started to her feet.

"Don't move," he said, with weak hysteric passion, "but listen to me,
for God's sake! I am ruined, I know, even though you have just saved me
from detection and disgrace. I have been mad!--a fool, to do what I have
done, I know, but you do not know all--you do not know why I did it--you
cannot think of the temptation that has driven me to it. Listen, Mrs.
Baker. I have been striving to get money, honestly, dishonestly--any
way, to look well in YOUR eyes--to make myself worthy of you--to make
myself rich, and to be able to offer you a home and take you away from
Laurel Run. It was all for YOU, it was all for love of YOU, Betsy, my
darling. Listen to me!"

In the fury, outraged sensibility, indignation, and infinite disgust
that filled her little body at that moment, she should have been large,
imperious, goddess-like, and commanding. But God is at times ironical
with suffering womanhood. She could only writhe her hand from his grasp
with childish contortions; she could only glare at him with eyes that
were prettily and piquantly brilliant; she could only slap at his
detaining hand with a plump and velvety palm, and when she found her
voice it was high falsetto. And all she could say was, "Leave me be,
looney, or I'll scream!"

He rose, with a weak, confused laugh, half of miserable affectation and
half of real anger and shame.

"What did you come riding over here for, then? What did you take all
this risk for? Why did you rush over here to share my disgrace--for YOU
are as much mixed up with this now as I am--if you didn't calculate to
share EVERYTHING ELSE with me? What did you come here for, then, if not
for ME?"

"What did I come here for?" said Mrs. Baker, with every drop of red
blood gone from her cheek and trembling lip. "What--did--I--come here
for? Well!--I came here for JOHN BAKER'S sake! John Baker, who stood
between you and death at Burnt Ridge, as I stand between you and
damnation at Laurel Run, Mr. Green! Yes, John Baker, lying under half of
Burnt Ridge, but more to me this day than any living man crawling over
it--in--in"--oh, fatal climax!--"in a month o' Sundays! What did I come
here for? I came here as John Baker's livin' wife to carry on dead John
Baker's work. Yes, dirty work this time, may be, Mr. Green! but his work
and for HIM only--precious! That's what I came here for; that's what
I LIVE for; that's what I'm waiting for--to be up to HIM and his work
always! That's me--Betsy Baker!"

She walked up and down rapidly, tying her chip hat under her chin again.
Then she stopped, and taking her chamois purse from her pocket, laid it
sharply on the desk.

"Stanton Green, don't be a fool! Rise up out of this, and be a man
again. Take enough out o' that bag to pay what you owe Gov'ment, send
in your resignation, and keep the rest to start you in an honest life
elsewhere. But light out o' Hickory Hill afore this time to-morrow."

She pulled her mantle from the wall and opened the door.

"You are going?" he said bitterly.

"Yes." Either she could not hold seriousness long in her capricious
little fancy, or, with feminine tact, she sought to make the parting
less difficult for him, for she broke into a dazzling smile. "Yes, I'm
goin' to run Blue Lightning agin Charley and that way bag back to Laurel
Run, and break the record."

*****

It is said that she did! Perhaps owing to the fact that the grade of the
return journey to Laurel Run was in her favor, and that she could avoid
the long, circuitous ascent to the summit taken by the stage, or that,
owing to the extraordinary difficulties in the carriage of the way
bag,--which had to be twice rescued from under the wheels of the
stage,--she entered the Laurel Run post-office as the coach leaders came
trotting up the hill. Mr. Home was already on the platform.

"You'll have to ballast your next way bag, boss," said Charley, gravely,
as it escaped his clutches once more in the dust of the road, "or you'll
have to make a new contract with the company. We've lost ten minutes in
five miles over that bucking thing."

Home did not reply, but quickly dragged his prize into the office,
scarcely noticing Mrs. Baker, who stood beside him pale and breathless.
As the bolt of the bag was drawn, revealing its chaotic interior, Mrs.
Baker gave a little sigh. Home glanced quickly at her, emptied the bag
upon the floor, and picked up the broken and half-filled money parcel.
Then he collected the scattered coins and counted them. "It's all right,
Mrs. Baker," he said gravely. "HE'S safe this time."

"I'm so glad!" said little Mrs. Baker, with a hypocritical gasp.

"So am I," returned Home, with increasing gravity, as he took the coin,
"for, from all I have gathered this afternoon, it seems he was an old
pioneer of Laurel Run, a friend of your husband's, and, I think, more
fool than knave!" He was silent for a moment, clicking the coins against
each other; then he said carelessly: "Did he get quite away, Mrs.
Baker?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," said Mrs. Baker, with
a lofty air of dignity, but a somewhat debasing color. "I don't see why
I should know anything about it, or why he should go away at all."

"Well," said Mr. Home, laying his hand gently on the widow's shoulder,
"well, you see, it might have occurred to his friends that the COINS
WERE MARKED! That is, no doubt, the reason why he would take their good
advice and go. But, as I said before, Mrs. Baker, YOU'RE all right,
whatever happens,--the Government stands by YOU!"





Next: A Night At Hays

Previous: Colonel Starbottle's Client



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