Story type: Literature
At that time the camp was new. Most of what was called the valuable property was owned by an English syndicate, but there were many who had small claims scattered here and there on the mountainside, and Three-fingered Hoover and I were rightly reckoned among these others. The camp was new and rough to the degree of uncouthness, yet, upon the whole, the little population was well disposed and orderly. But along in the spring of ’81, finding that we numbered eight hundred, with electric lights, telephones, a bank, a meeting-house, a race-track, and such-like modern improvements, we of Red Hoss Mountain became possessed of the notion to have a city government; so nothing else would do but to proceed at once and solemnly to the choice of a mayor, marshal, clerk, and other municipal officers. The spirit of party politics (as it is known and as it controls things elsewhere) did not enter into the short and active canvass; there were numerous candidates for each office, all were friends, and the most popular of the lot were to win. The campaign was fervent but good-natured.
I shall venture to say that Jim Woppit would never have been elected city marshal but for the potent circumstance that several of the most influential gentlemen in the camp were in love with Jim’s sister; that was Jim’s hold on these influences, and that was why he was elected.
Yet Jim was what you ‘d call a good fellow–not that he was fair to look upon, for he was not; he was swarthy and heavy-featured and hulking; but he was a fair-speaking man, and he was always ready to help out the boys when they went broke or were elsewise in trouble. Yes, take him all in all, Jim Woppit was properly fairly popular, although, as I shall always maintain, he would never have been elected city marshal over Buckskin and Red Drake and Salty Boardman if it had n’t been (as I have intimated) for the backing he got from Hoover, Jake Dodsley, and Barber Sam. These three men last named were influences in the camp, enterprising and respected citizens, with plenty of sand in their craws and plenty of stuff in their pockets; they loved Miss Woppit, and they were in honor bound to stand by the interests of the brother of that fascinating young woman.
I was not surprised that they were smitten; she might have caught me, too, had it not been for the little woman and the three kids back in the states. As handsome and as gentle a lady was Miss Woppit as ever walked a white pine floor–so very different from White River Ann, and Red Drake’s wife, and old man Edgar’s daughter, for they were magpies who chattered continually and maliciously, hating Miss Woppit because she wisely chose to have nothing to do with them. She lived with her brother Jim on the side-hill, just off the main road, in the cabin that Smooth Ephe Hicks built before he was thrown off his broncho into the gulch. It was a pretty but lonesome place, about three-quarters of a mile from the camp, adjoining the claim which Jim Woppit worked in a lazy sort of way–Jim being fairly well fixed, having sold off a coal farm in Illinois just before he came west.
In this little cabin abode Miss Woppit during the period of her wooing, a period covering, as I now recall, six or, may be, eight months. She was so pretty, so modest, so diligent, so homekeeping, and so shy, what wonder that those lonely, heart-hungry men should fall in love with her? In all the population of the camp the number of women was fewer than two score, and of this number half were married, others were hopeless spinsters, and others were irretrievably bad, only excepting Miss Woppit, the prettiest, the tidiest, the gentlest of all. She was good, pure, and lovely in her womanliness; I shall not say that I envied–no, I respected Hoover and Dodsley and Barber Sam for being stuck on the girl; you ‘d have respected ’em, too, if you ‘d seen her and–and them. But I did take it to heart because Miss Woppit seemed disinclined to favor any suit for her fair hand–particularly because she was by no means partial to Three-fingered Hoover, as square a man as ever struck pay dirt–dear old pardner, your honest eyes will never read these lines, between which speaks my lasting love for you!
In the first place, Miss Woppit would never let the boys call on her of an evening unless her brother Jim was home; she had strict notions about that sort of thing which she would n’t waive. I reckon she was right according to the way society looks at these things, but it was powerful hard on Three-fingered Hoover and Jake Dodsley and Barber Sam to be handicapped by etiquette when they had their bosoms chock full of love and were dying to tell the girl all about it.
Jake Dodsley came a heap nearer than the others to letting Miss Woppit know what his exact feelings were. He was a poet of no mean order. What he wrote was printed regularly in Cad Davis’ Leadville paper under the head of “Pearls of Pegasus,” and all us Red Hoss Mountain folks allowed that next to Willie Pabor of Denver our own Jake Dodsley had more of the afflatus in him than any other living human poet. Hoover appreciated Jake’s genius, even though Jake was his rival. It was Jake’s custom to write poems at Miss Woppit–poems breathing the most fervid sentiment, all about love and bleeding hearts and unrequited affection. The papers containing these effusions he would gather together with rare diligence, and would send them, marked duly with a blue or a red pencil, to Miss Woppit.
The poem which Hoover liked best was one entitled “True Love,” and Hoover committed it to memory–yes, he went even further; he hired Professor De Blanc (Casey’s piano player) to set it to music, and this office the professor discharged nobly, producing a simple but solemn-like melody which Hoover was wont to sing in feeling wise, poor, dear, misguided fellow that he was! Seems to me I can hear his big, honest, husky, voice lifted up even now in rendition of that expression of his passion:
Turrue love never dies–
Like a river flowin’
In its course it gathers force,
Broader, deeper growin’;
Strength’nin’ in the storms ‘at come,
Triumphin’ in sorrer,
Till To-day fades away
In the las’ To-morrer.
Wot though Time flies?
Turrue love never dies!
Moreover, Three-fingered Hoover discoursed deftly upon the fiddle; at obligates and things he was not much, but at real music he could not be beat. Called his fiddle “Mother,” because his own mother was dead, and being he loved her and had no other way of showing it, why, he named his fiddle after her. Three-fingered Hoover was full of just such queer conceits.
Barber Sam was another music genius; his skill as a performer upon the guitar was one of the marvels of the camp. Nor had he an indifferent voice–Prof. De Blanc allowed that if Barber Sam’s voice had been cultured at the proper time–by which I suppose he meant in youth–Barber Sam would undoubtedly have become “one of the brightest constellations in the operatic firmament.” Moreover, Barber Sam had a winsome presence; a dapper body was he, with a clear olive skin, soulful eyes, a noble mustache, and a splendid suit of black curly hair. His powers of conversation were remarkable–that fact, coupled with his playing the guitar and wearing plaid clothes, gave him the name of Barber Sam, for he was not really a barber; was only just like one.
In the face of all their wooing, Miss Woppit hardened her heart against these three gentlemen, any one of whom the highest lady in the land might have been proud to catch. The girl was not inclined to affairs of the heart; she cared for no man but her brother Jim. What seemed to suit her best was to tend to things about the cabin–it was called The Bower, the poet Jake Dodsley having given it that name–to till the little garden where the hollyhocks grew, and to stroll away by herself on the hillside or down through Magpie Glen, beside the gulch. A queer, moodful creature she was; unlike other girls, so far as we were able to judge. She just doted on Jim, and Jim only–how she loved that brother you shall know presently.
It was lucky that we organized a city government when we did. All communities have streaks of bad luck, and it was just after we had elected a mayor, a marshal, and a full quota of officers that Red Hoss Mountain had a spell of experiences that seemed likely at one time to break up the camp. There ‘s no telling where it all would have ended if we had n’t happened to have a corps of vigilant and brave men in office, determined to maintain law and order at all personal hazards. With a camp, same as ’tis with dogs, it is mighty unhealthy to get a bad name.
The tidal wave of crime–if I may so term it–struck us three days after the election. I remember distinctly that all our crowd was in at Casey’s, soon after nightfall, indulging in harmless pleasantries, such as eating, drinking, and stud poker. Casey was telling how he had turned several cute tricks on election day, and his recital recalled to others certain exciting experiences they had had in the states; so, in an atmosphere of tobacco, beer, onions, wine, and braggadocio, and with the further delectable stimulus of seven-year-old McBrayer, the evening opened up congenially and gave great promise. The boys were convivial, if not boisterous. But Jim Woppit, wearing the big silver star of his exalted office on his coat-front, was present in the interests of peace and order, and the severest respect was shown to the newly elected representative of municipal dignity and authority.
All of a sudden, sharp, exacting, and staccato-like, the telephone sounded; seemed like it said, “Quick–trouble–help!” By the merest chance–a lucky chance–Jim Woppit happened to be close by, and he reached for the telephone and answered the summons.
“Yes.” “Where?” “You bet–right away!”
That was what Jim said; of course, we heard only one side of the talk. But we knew that something–something remarkable had happened. Jim was visibly excited; he let go the telephone, and, turning around, full over against us, he said, “By —-, boys! the stage hez been robbed!”
A robbery! The first in the Red Hoss Mountain country! Every man leapt to his feet and broke for the door, his right hand thrust instinctively back toward his hip pocket. There was blood in every eye.
Hank Eaves’ broncho was tied in front of Casey’s.
“Tell me where to go,” says Hank, “and I ‘ll git thar in a minnit. I ‘m fixed.”
“No, Hank,” says Jim Woppit, commanding like, “I ‘ll go. I ‘m city marshal, an’ it’s my place to go–I ‘m the repersentive of law an’ order an’ I ‘ll enforce ’em–damn me ef I don’t!”
“That’s bizness–Jim’s head ‘s level!” cried Barber Sam.
“Let Jim have the broncho,” the rest of us counselled, and Hank had to give in, though he hated to, for he was spoiling for trouble–cussedest fellow for fighting you ever saw! Jim threw himself astride the spunky little broncho and was off like a flash.
“Come on, boys,” he called back to us; “come on, ez fast ez you kin to the glen!”
Of course we could n’t anywhere near keep up with him; he was soon out of sight. But Magpie Glen was only a bit away–just a trifle up along the main road beyond the Woppit cabin. Encouraged by the excitement of the moment and by the whooping of Jake Dodsley, who opined (for being a poet he always opined) that some evil might have befallen his cherished Miss Woppit–incited by these influences we made all haste. But Miss Woppit was presumably safe, for as we hustled by The Bower we saw the front room lighted up and the shadow of Miss Woppit’s slender figure flitting to and fro behind the white curtain. She was frightened almost to death, poor girl!
It appeared from the story of Steve Barclay, the stage-driver, that along about eight o’clock the stage reached the glen–a darkish, dismal spot, and the horses, tired and sweaty, toiled almost painfully up the short stretch of rising ground. There were seven people in the stage: Mr. Mills, superintendent of the Royal Victoria mine; a travelling man (or drummer) from Chicago, one Pryor, an invalid tenderfoot, and four miners returning from a round-up at Denver. Steve Barclay was the only person outside. As the stage reached the summit of the little hill the figure of a man stole suddenly from the thicket by the roadside, stood directly in front of the leading horses, and commanded a halt. The movement was so sudden as to terrify the horses, and the consequence was that, in shying, the brutes came near tipping the coach completely over. Barclay was powerless to act, for the assailant covered him with two murderous revolvers and bade him throw up his hands.
Then the men in the coach were ordered out and compelled to disgorge their valuables, the robber seeming to identify and to pay particular attention to Mr. Mills, the superintendent, who had brought with him from Denver a large sum of money. When the miners made a slight show of resistance the assailant called to his comrades in the bush to fire upon the first man who showed fight; this threat induced a wise resignation to the inevitable. Having possessed himself in an incredibly short time of his booty, the highwayman backed into the thicket and quickly made off. The procedure from first to last occupied hardly more than five minutes.
The victims of this outrage agreed that the narrative as I have given it was in the main correct. Barclay testified that he saw the barrels of rifles gleaming from the thicket when the outlaw called to his confederates. On the other hand, Mr. Mills, who was the principal loser by the affair, insisted that the outlaw did his work alone, and that his command to his alleged accomplices was merely a bluff. There was, too, a difference in the description given of the highwayman, some of the party describing him as a short, thick-set man, others asserting that he was tall and slender. Of his face no sight had been obtained, for he wore a half-mask and a large slouch hat pulled well down over his ears. But whatever dispute there may have been as to details, one thing was sure–robbery had been done, and the robber had fled with four gold watches and cash to the amount of, say, two thousand five hundred dollars.
Recovering betimes from their alarm and bethinking themselves of pursuit of the outlaws, the helpless victims proceeded to push into camp to arouse the miners. It was then that Barclay discovered that the tire of one of the front wheels had come off in the jolt and wrench caused by the frightened horses. As no time was to be lost, Barclay suggested that somebody run down the road to Woppit’s cabin and telephone to camp. Mr. Mills and the Chicago drummer undertook this errand. After considerable parley–for Miss Woppit wisely insisted upon being convinced of her visitors’ honorable intentions–these two men were admitted, and so the alarm was transmitted to Casey’s, Miss Woppit meanwhile exhibiting violent alarm lest her brother Jim should come to harm in pursuing the fugitives.
As for Jim Woppit, he never once lost his head. When the rest of us came up to the scene of the robbery he had formed a plan of pursuit. It was safe, he said, to take for granted that there was a gang of the outlaws. They would undoubtedly strike for Eagle Pass, since there was no possible way of escape in the opposite direction, the gulch, deep and wide, following the main road close into camp. Ten of us should go with him–ten of the huskiest miners mounted upon the stanchest bronchoes the camp could supply. “We shall come up with the hellions before mornin’,” said he, and then he gritted his teeth significantly. A brave man and a cool man, you ‘ll allow; good-hearted, too, for in the midst of all the excitement he thought of his sister, and he said, almost tenderly, to Three-fingered Hoover: “I can trust you, pardner, I know. Go up to the cabin and tell her it’s all right–that I ‘ll be back to-morrow and that she must n’t be skeered. And if she is skeered, why, you kind o’ hang round there to-night and act like you knew everything was all O. K.”
“But may be Hoover ‘ll be lonesome,” suggested Barber Sam. He was a sly dog.
“Then you go ‘long too,” said Jim Woppit. “Tell her I said so.”
Three-fingered Hoover would rather–a good deal rather–have gone alone. Yet, with all that pardonable selfishness, he recognized a certain impropriety in calling alone at night upon an unprotected female. So Hoover accepted, though not gayly, of Barber Sam’s escort, and in a happy moment it occurred to the twain that it might be a pious idea to take their music instruments with them. Hardly, therefore, had Jim Woppit and his posse flourished out of camp when Three-fingered Hoover and Barber Sam, carrying Mother and the famous guitar, returned along the main road toward The Bower.
When the cabin came in view–the cabin on the side hill with hollyhocks standing guard round it–one of those subtle fancies in which Barber Sam’s active brain abounded possessed Barber Sam. It was to convey to Miss Woppit’s ear good tidings upon the wings of music. “Suppose we play ‘All’s Well’?” suggested Barber Sam. “That’ll let her know that everything’s O. K.”
“Just the thing!” answered Three-fingered Hoover, and then he added, and he meant it: “Durned if you ain’t jest about as slick as they make ’em, pardner!”
The combined efforts of the guitar and Mother failed, however, to produce any manifestation whatever, so far as Miss Woppit was concerned. The light in the front room of the cabin glowed steadily, but no shadow of the girl’s slender form was to be seen upon the white muslin curtain. So the two men went up the gravelly walk and knocked firmly but respectfully at the door.
They had surmised that Miss Woppit might be asleep, but, oh, no, not she. She was not the kind of sister to be sleeping when her brother was in possible danger. The answer to the firm but respectful knocking was immediate.
“Who’s there and what do you want?” asked Miss Woppit in tremulous tones, with her face close to the latch. There was no mistaking the poor thing’s alarm.
“It’s only us gents,” answered Three-fingered Hoover, “me an’ Barber Sam; did n’t you hear us serenadin’ you a minnit ago? We ‘ve come to tell you that everything ‘s all right–Jim told us to come–he told us to tell you not to be skeered, and if you wuz skeered how we gents should kind of hang round here to-night; be you skeered, Miss Woppit? Your voice sounds sort o’ like you wuz.”
Having now unbolted and unlatched and opened the door, Miss Woppit confessed that she was indeed alarmed; the pallor of her face confirmed that confession. Where was Jim? Had they caught the robbers? Was there actually no possibility of Jim’s getting shot or stabbed or hurt? These and similar questions did the girl put to the two men, who, true to their trust, assured the timorous creature in well-assumed tones of confidence that her brother could n’t get hurt, no matter how hard he might try.
To make short of a long tale, I will say that the result of the long parley, in which Miss Woppit exhibited a most charming maidenly embarrassment, was that Three-fingered Hoover and Barber Sam were admitted to the cabin for the night. It was understood–nay, it was explicitly set forth, that they should have possession of the front room wherein they now stood, while Miss Woppit was to retire to her apartment beyond, which, according to popular fame and in very truth, served both as a kitchen and Miss Woppit’s bedroom, there being only two rooms in the cabin.
This front room had in it a round table, a half-dozen chairs, a small sheet-iron stove, and a rude kind of settee that served Jim Woppit for a bed by night. There were some pictures hung about on the walls–neither better nor poorer than the pictures invariably found in the homes of miners. There was the inevitable portrait of John C. Fremont and the inevitable print of the pathfinder planting his flag on the summit of Pike’s Peak; a map of Colorado had been ingeniously invested with an old looking-glass frame, and there were several cheap chromos of flowers and fruit, presumably Miss Woppit’s contributions to the art stores of the household. Upon the centre table, which was covered with a square green cloth, stood a large oil lamp, whose redolence and constant spluttering testified pathetically to its neglect. There were two books on the table–viz., an old “Life of Kit Carson” and a bound file of the “Police News,” abounding, as you will surmise, in atrocious delineations of criminal life. We can understand that a volume of police literature would not be out of place in the home of an executive of the law.
Miss Woppit, though hardly reassured by the hearty protestations of Hoover and Barber Sam as to her brother’s security, hoped that all would be well. With evident diffidence she bade her guests make themselves at home; there was plenty of wood in the box behind the stove and plenty of oil in the tell-tale lamp; she fetched a big platter of crackers, a mammoth cut of cheese, a can of cove oysters, and a noble supply of condiments. Did the gents reckon they would be comfortable? The gents smiled and bowed obsequiously, neither, however, indulging in conversation to any marked degree, for, as was quite natural, each felt in the presence of his rival a certain embarrassment which we can fancy Miss Woppit respected if she did not enjoy it.
Finally Miss Woppit retired to her own delectable bower in the kitchen with the parting remark that she would sleep in a sense of perfect security; this declaration flattered her protectors, albeit she had no sooner closed the door than she piled the kitchen woodbox and her own small trunk against it–a proceeding that touched Three-fingered Hoover deeply and evoked from him a tender expression as to the natural timidity of womankind, which sentiment the crafty Barber Sam instantly indorsed in a tone loud enough for the lady to hear.
It is presumed that Miss Woppit slept that night. Following the moving of that woodbox and that small trunk there was no sound of betrayal if Miss Woppit did not sleep. Once the men in the front room were startled by the woman’s voice crying out, “Jim–oh, Jim!” in tones of such terror as to leave no doubt that Miss Woppit slept and dreamed frightful dreams.
The men themselves were wakeful enough; they were there to protect a lady, and they were in no particular derelict to that trust. Sometimes they talked together in the hushed voices that beseem a sick-chamber; anon they took up their music apparata and thrummed and sawed therefrom such harmonies as would seem likely to lull to sweeter repose the object of their affection in the adjoining chamber beyond the woodbox and the small trunk; the circumstance of the robbery they discussed in discreet tones, both agreeing that the highwaymen were as good as dead by this time. We can fancy that the twain were distinctly annoyed upon discovering in one corner of the room, during their vigils, a number of Leadville and Denver newspapers containing sonnets, poems, odes, triolets, and such like, conspicuously marked with blue or red pencil tracings and all aimed, in a poetic sense, at Miss Woppit’s virgin heart. This was the subtle work of the gifted Jake Dodsley! This was his ingenious way of storming the citadel of the coy maiden’s affections.
The discovery led Barber Sam to ventilate his opinion of the crafty Dodsley, an opinion designedly pitched in a high and stentorian key and expressive of everything but compliment. On the contrary, Three-fingered Hoover–a guileless man, if ever there was one–stood bravely up for Jake, imputing this artifice of his to a passion which knows no ethics so far as competition is concerned. It was true, as Hoover admitted, that poets seldom make good husbands, but, being an exceptionally good poet, Jake might prove also an exception in matrimony, providing he found a wife at his time of life. But as to the genius of the man there could be no question; not even the poet Pabor had in all his glory done a poem so fine as that favorite poem of Hoover’s, which, direct from the burning types of the “Leadville Herald,” Hoover had committed to the tablets of his memory and was wont to repeat or sing on all occasions to the aggrandizement of Jake Dodsley’s fame. Gradually the trend of the discussion led to the suggestion that Hoover sing this favorite poem, and this he did in a soothing, soulful voice. Barber Sam accompanying him upon that wondrous guitar. What a picture that must have been! Even upon the mountain-sides of that far-off West human hearts respond tenderly to the touch of love.
–Wot though time flies?
Turrue love never dies!
That honest voice–oh, could I hear it now! That honest face–oh, could I see it again! And, oh, that once more I could feel the clasp of that brave hand and the cordial grace of that dear, noble presence!
It was in the fall of the year; the nights were long, yet this night sped quickly. Long before daybreak significant sounds in the back room betokened that Miss Woppit was up and moving around. Through the closed door and from behind the improvised rampart of wood-box and small trunk the young lady informed her chivalric protectors that they might go home, prefacing this permission, however, with a solicitous inquiry as to whether anything had been heard from Brother Jim and his posse.
Jim Woppit and his men must have had a hard ride of it. They did not show up in camp until eleven o’clock that day, and a tougher-looking outfit you never saw. They had scoured the surrounding country with the utmost diligence, yet no trace whatever had they discovered of the outlaws; the wretches had disappeared so quickly, so mysteriously, that it seemed hard to believe that they had indeed existed. The crime, so boldly and so successfully done, was of course the one theme of talk, of theory, and of speculation in all that region for the conventional period of nine days. And then it appeared to be forgotten, or, at least, men seldom spoke of it, and presently it came to be accepted as the popular belief that the robbery had been committed by a gang of desperate tramps, this theory being confirmed by a certain exploit subsequently in the San Juan country, an exploit wherein three desperate tramps assaulted the triweekly road-hack, and, making off with their booty, were ultimately taken and strung up to a convenient tree.
Still, the reward of one thousand dollars offered by the city government of Red Hoss Mountain for information leading to the arrest of the glen robbers was not withdrawn, and there were those in the camp who quietly persevered in the belief that the outrage had been done by parties as yet undiscovered, if not unsuspected. Mr. Mills, the superintendent of the Royal Victoria, had many a secret conference with Jim Woppit, and it finally leaked out that the cold, discriminating, and vigilant eye of eternal justice was riveted upon Steve Barclay, the stage-driver. Few of us suspected Steve; he was a good-natured, inoffensive fellow; it seemed the idlest folly to surmise that he could have been in collusion with the highwaymen. But Mr. Mills had his own ideas on the subject; he was a man of positive convictions, and, having pretty nearly always demonstrated that he was in the right, it boded ill for Steve Barclay when Mr. Mills made up his mind that Steve must have been concerned in one way or another in that Magpie Glen crime.
The wooing of Miss Woppit pursued the even tenor of its curious triple way. Wars and rumors of wars served merely to imbue it with certain heroic fervor. Jake Dodsley’s contributions to the “Leadville Herald” and to Henry Feldwisch’s Denver “Inter-Ocean,” though still aimed at the virgin mistress of The Bower, were pitched in a more exalted key and breathed a spirit that defied all human dangers. What though death confronted the poet and the brutal malice of nocturnal marauders threatened the object of his adoration, what, short of superhuman intervention, should prevent the poet from baffling all hostile environments and placing the queen of his heart securely upon his throne beside him, etc., etc.? We all know how the poets go it when they once get started. The Magpie Glen affair gave Jake Dodsley a new impulse, and marked copies of his wonderful effusions found their way to the Woppit cabin in amazing plenty and with exceeding frequency. In a moment of vindictive bitterness was Barber Sam heard to intimate that the robbery was particularly to be regretted for having served to open the sluices of Jake Dodsley’s poetic soul.
‘T was the purest comedy, this wooing was; through it all the finger of fate traced a deep line of pathos. The poetic Dodsley, with his inexhaustible fund of rhyme, of optimism and of subtlety; Barber Sam, with his envy, his jealousy, and his garrulity; Three-fingered Hoover with his manly yearning, timorousness, tenderness, and awkwardness–these three in a seemingly vain quest of love reciprocated; the girl, fair, lonely, dutiful–filled with devotion to her brother and striving, amid it all, to preserve a proper womanly neutrality toward these other men; there was in this little comedy among those distant hills so much of real pathos.
As for Jim Woppit, he showed not the slightest partiality toward any one of the three suitors; with all he was upon terms of equal friendship. It seemed as if Jim had made up his mind in the beginning to let the best one win; it was a free, fair, square race, so far as Jim was concerned, and that was why Jim always had stanch backers in Jake Dodsley, Barber Sam, and Three-fingered Hoover.
My sympathies were all with Hoover; he and I were pardners. He loved the girl in his own beautiful, awkward way. He seldom spoke of her to me, for he was not the man to unfold what his heart treasured. He was not an envious man, yet sometimes he would tell how he regretted that early education had not fallen to his lot, for in that case he, too, might have been a poet. Mother–the old red fiddle–was his solace. Coming home to our cabin late of nights I’d hear him within scraping away at that tune De Blanc had written for him, and he believed what Mother sung to him in her squeaky voice of the deathlessness of true love. And many a time–I can tell it now–many a time in the dead of night I have known him to steal out of the cabin with Mother and go up the main road to the gateway of The Bower, where, in moonlight or in darkness (it mattered not to him), he would repeat over and over again that melancholy tune, hoping thereby to touch the sensibilities of the lady of his heart.
In the early part of February there was a second robbery. This time the stage was overhauled at Lone Pine, a ranch five miles beyond the camp. The details of this affair were similar to those of the previous business in the glen. A masked man sprang from the roadside, presented two revolvers at Steve Barclay’s head, and called upon all within the stage to come out, holding up their hands. The outrage was successfully carried out, but the booty was inconsiderable, somewhat less than eight hundred dollars falling into the highwayman’s hands. The robber and his pals fled as before; the time that elapsed before word could be got to camp facilitated the escape of the outlaws.
A two days’ scouring of the surrounding country revealed absolutely no sign or trace of the fugitives. But it was pretty evident now that the two crimes had been committed by a gang intimately acquainted with, if not actually living in, the locality. Confirmation of this was had when five weeks later the stage was again stopped and robbed at Lone Pine under conditions exactly corresponding with the second robbery. The mystery baffled the wits of all. Intense excitement prevailed; a reward of five thousand dollars was advertised for the apprehension of the outlaws; the camp fairly seethed with rage, and the mining country for miles around was stirred by a determination to hunt out and kill the miscreants. Detectives came from Denver and snooped around. Everybody bought extra guns and laid in a further supply of ammunition. Yet the stage robbers–bless you! nobody could find hide or hair of ’em.
Miss Woppit stood her share of the excitement and alarm as long as she could, and then she spoke her mind to Jim. He told us about it. Miss Woppit owed a certain duty to Jim, she said; was it not enough for her to be worried almost to death with fears for his safety as marshal of the camp? Was it fair that in addition to this haunting terror she should be constantly harassed by a consciousness of her own personal danger? She was a woman and alone in a cabin some distance from any other habitation; one crime had been committed within a step of that isolated cabin; what further crime might not be attempted by the miscreants?
“The girl is skeered,” said Jim Woppit, “and I don’t know that I wonder at it. Women folks is nervous-like, anyhow, and these doings of late hev been enough to worrit the strongest of us men.”
“Why, there ain’t an hour in the day,” testified Casey, “that Miss Woppit don’t telephone down here to ask whether everything is all right, and whether Jim is O. K.”
“I know it,” said Jim. “The girl is skeered, and I ‘d oughter thought of it before. I must bring her down into the camp to live. Jest ez soon ez I can git the lumber I ‘ll put up a cabin on the Bush lot next to the bank.”
Jim owned the Bush lot, as it was called. He had talked about building a store there in the spring, but we all applauded this sudden determination to put up a cabin instead, a home for his sister. That was a determination that bespoke a thoughtfulness and a tenderness that ennobled Jim Woppit in our opinions. It was the square thing.
Barber Sam, ever fertile in suggestion, allowed that it might be a pious idea for Miss Woppit to move down to the Mears House and board there until the new cabin was built. Possibly the circumstance that Barber Sam himself boarded at the Mears House did not inspire this suggestion. At any rate, the suggestion seemed a good one, but Jim duly reported that his sister thought it better to stay in the old place till the new place was ready; she had stuck it out so far, and she would try to stick it out the little while longer yet required.
This ultimatum must have interrupted the serenity of Barber Sam’s temper; he broke his E string that evening, and half an hour later somebody sat down on the guitar and cracked it irremediably.
And now again it was spring. Nothing can keep away the change in the season. In the mountain country the change comes swiftly, unheralded. One day it was bleak and cheerless; the next day brought with it the grace of sunshine and warmth; as if by magic, verdure began to deck the hillsides, and we heard again the cheerful murmur of waters in the gulch. The hollyhocks about The Bower shot up once more and put forth their honest, rugged leaves. In this divine springtime, who could think evil, who do it?
Sir Charles Lackington, president of the Royal Victoria mine, was now due at the camp. He represented the English syndicate that owned the large property. Ill health compelled him to live at Colorado Springs. Once a year he visited Red Hoss Mountain, and always in May. It was announced that he would come to the camp by Tuesday’s stage. That stage was robbed by that mysterious outlaw and his gang. But Sir Charles happened not to be among the passengers.
This robbery (the fourth altogether) took place at a point midway between Lone Pine and the glen. The highwayman darted upon the leading horses as they were descending the hill and so misdirected their course that the coach was overturned in the brush at the roadside. In the fall Steve Barclay’s right arm was broken. With consummate coolness the highwayman (now positively described as a thick-set man, with a beard) proceeded to relieve his victims of their valuables, but not until he had called, as was his wont, to his confederates in ambush to keep the passengers covered with their rifles. The outlaw inquired which of his victims was Sir Charles Lackington, and evinced rage when he learned that that gentleman was not among the passengers by coach.
It happened that Jake Dodsley was one of the victims of the highwayman’s greed. He had been to Denver and was bringing home a pair of elaborate gold earrings which he intended for–for Miss Woppit, of course. Poets have deeper and stronger feelings than common folk. Jake Dodsley’s poetic nature rebelled when he found himself deprived of those lovely baubles intended for the idol of his heart. So, no sooner had the outlaw retreated to the brush than Jake Dodsley whipped out his gun and took to the same brush, bent upon an encounter with his despoiler. Poor Jake never came from the brush alive. The rest heard the report of a rifle shot, and when, some time later, they found Jake, he was dead, with a rifle ball in his head.
The first murder done and the fourth robbery! Yet the mystery was as insoluble as ever. Of what avail was the rage of eight hundred miners, the sagacity of the indefatigable officers of the law, and the united efforts of the vengeance-breathing population throughout the country round about to hunt the murderers down? Why, it seemed as if the devil himself were holding justice up to ridicule and scorn.
We had the funeral next day. Sir Charles Lackington came by private wagon in the morning; his daughter was with him. Their escape from participation in the affair of the previous day naturally filled them with thanksgiving, yet did not abate their sympathy for the rest of us in our mourning over the dead poet. Sir Charles was the first to suggest a fund for a monument to poor Jake, and he headed the subscription list with one hundred dollars, cash down. A noble funeral it was; everybody cried; at the grave Three-fingered Hoover recited the poem about true love and Jim Woppit threw in a wreath of hollyhock leaves which his sister had sent–the poor thing was too sick to come herself. She must have cared more for Jake than she had ever let on, for she took to her bed when she heard that he was dead.
Amid the deepest excitement further schemes for the apprehension of the criminals who had so long baffled detection were set on foot and–but this is not a story of crime; it is the story of a wooing, and I must not suffer myself to be drawn away from the narrative of that wooing. With the death of the poet Dodsley one actor fell out of the little comedy. And yet another stepped in at once. You would hardly guess who it was–Mary Lackington. This seventeen-year-old girl favored her father in personal appearance and character; she was of the English type of blonde beauty–a light-hearted, good-hearted, sympathetic creature who recognized it as her paramount duty to minister to her invalid father. He had been her instructor in books, he had conducted her education, he had directed her amusements, he had been her associate–in short, father and daughter were companions, and from that sweet companionship both derived a solace and wisdom precious above all things else. Mary Lackington was, perhaps, in some particulars mature beyond her years; the sweetness, the simplicity, and the guilelessness of her character was the sweetness, the simplicity, and the guilelessness of childhood. Fair and innocent, this womanly maiden came into the comedy of that mountain wooing.
Three-fingered Hoover had never been regarded an artful man, but now, all at once, for the first time in his life, he practised a subtlety. He became acquainted with Mary Lackington; I am not sure that he did not meet Sir Charles at the firemen’s muster in Pueblo some years before. Getting acquainted with Miss Mary was no hard thing; the girl flitted whithersoever she pleased, and she enjoyed chatting with the miners, whom she found charmingly fresh, original, and manly, and as for the miners, they simply adored Miss Mary. Sir Charles owed his popularity largely to his winsome daughter.
Mary was not long in discovering that Three-fingered Hoover had a little romance all of his own. Maybe some of the other boys told her about it. At any rate, Mary was charmed, and without hesitation she commanded Hoover to confess all. How the big, awkward fellow ever got through with it I for my part can’t imagine, but tell her he did–yes, he fairly unbosomed his secret, and Mary was still more delighted and laughed and declared that it was the loveliest love story she had ever heard. Right here was where Hoover’s first and only subtlety came in.
“And now, Miss Mary,” says he, “you can do me a good turn, and I hope you will do it. Get acquainted with the lady and work it up with her for me. Tell her that you know–not that I told you, but that you happen to have found it out, that I like her–like her better ‘n anybody else; that I ‘m the pure stuff; that if anybody ties to me they can find me thar every time and can bet their last case on me! Don’t lay it on too thick, but sort of let on I ‘m O. K. You women understand such things–if you ‘ll help me locate this claim I ‘m sure everything ‘ll pan out all right; will ye?”
The bare thought of promoting a love affair set Mary nearly wild with enthusiasm. She had read of experiences of this kind, but of course she had never participated in any. She accepted the commission gayly yet earnestly. She would seek Miss Woppit at once, and she would be so discreet in her tactics–yes, she would be as artful as the most skilled diplomat at the court of love.
Had she met Miss Woppit? Yes, and then again no. She had been rambling in the glen yesterday and, coming down the road, had stopped near the pathway leading to The Bower to pick a wild flower of exceeding brilliancy. About to resume her course to camp she became aware that another stood near her. A woman, having passed noiselessly from the cabin, stood in the gravelly pathway looking upon the girl with an expression wholly indefinable. The woman was young, perhaps twenty; she was tall and of symmetrical form, though rather stout; her face was comely, perchance a bit masculine in its strength of features, and the eyes were shy, but of swift and certain glance, as if instantaneously they read through and through the object upon which they rested.
“You frightened me,” said Mary Lackington, and she had been startled, truly; “I did not hear you coming, and so I was frightened when I saw you standing there.”
To this explanation the apparition made no answer, but continued to regard Mary steadfastly with the indefinable look–an expression partly of admiration, partly of distrust, partly of appeal, perhaps. Mary Lackington grew nervous; she did therefore the most sensible thing she could have done under the circumstances–she proceeded on her way homeward.
This, then, was Mary’s first meeting with Miss Woppit. Not particularly encouraging to a renewal of the acquaintance; yet now that Mary had so delicate and so important a mission to execute she burned to know more of the lonely creature on that hill side, and she accepted with enthusiasm, as I have said, the charge committed to her by the enamored Hoover.
Sir Charles and his daughter remained at the camp about three weeks. In that time Mary became friendly with Miss Woppit, as intimate, in fact, as it was possible for anybody to become with her. Mary found herself drawn strangely and inexplicably toward the woman. The fascination which Miss Woppit exercised over her was altogether new to Mary; here was a woman of lowly birth and in lowly circumstances, illiterate, neglected, lonely, yet possessing a charm–an indefinable charm which was distinct and potent, yet not to be analyzed–yes, hardly recognizable by any process of cool mental dissection, but magically persuasive in the subtlety of its presence and influence. Mary had sought to locate, to diagnose that charm; did it lie in her sympathy with the woman’s lonely lot, or was it the romance of the wooing, or was it the fascination of those restless, searching eyes that Mary so often looked up to find fixed upon her with an expression she could not forget and could not define?
I incline to the belief that all these things combined to constitute the charm whereof I speak. Miss Woppit had not the beauty that would be likely to attract one other own sex; she had none of the sprightliness and wit of womankind, and she seemed to be wholly unacquainted with the little arts, accomplishments and vanities in which women invariably find amusement. She was simply a strange, lonely creature who had accepted valorously her duty to minister to the comfort of her brother; the circumstances of her wooing invested her name and her lot with a certain pleasing romance; she was a woman, she was loyal to her sense of duty, and she was, to a greater degree than most women, a martyr–herein, perhaps, lay the secret to the fascination Miss Woppit had for Mary Lackington.
At any rate, Mary and Miss Woppit became, to all appearances, fast friends; the wooing of Miss Woppit progressed apace, and the mystery of those Red Hoss Mountain crimes became more and–but I have already declared myself upon that point and I shall say no more thereof except so far as bears directly upon my story, which is, I repeat, of a wooing, and not of crime.
Three-fingered Hoover had every confidence in the ultimate success of the scheme to which Miss Mary had become an enthusiastic party. In occasional pessimistic moods he found himself compelled to confess to himself that the reports made by Miss Mary were not altogether such as would inspire enthusiasm in the bosom of a man less optimistic than he–Hoover–was.
To tell the truth, Mary found the task of doing Hoover’s courting for him much more difficult than she had ever fancied a task of that kind could be. In spite of her unacquaintance with the artifices of the world Miss Woppit exhibited the daintiest skill at turning the drift of the conversation whenever, by the most studied tact, Mary Lackington succeeded in bringing the conversation around to a point where the virtues of Three-fingered Hoover, as a candidate for Miss Woppit’s esteem, could be expatiated upon. From what Miss Woppit implied rather than said, Mary took it that Miss Woppit esteemed Mr. Hoover highly as a gentleman and as a friend–that she perhaps valued his friendship more than she did that of any other man in the world, always excepting her brother Jim, of course.
Miss Mary reported all this to Hoover much more gracefully than I have put it, for, being a woman, her sympathies would naturally exhibit themselves with peculiar tenderness when conveying to a lover certain information touching his inamorata.
There were two subjects upon which Miss Woppit seemed to love to hear Mary talk. One was Mary herself and the other was Jim Woppit. Mary regarded this as being very natural. Why should n’t this women in exile pine to hear of the gay, beautiful world outside her pent horizon? So Mary told her all about the sights she had seen, the places she had been to, the people she had met, the books she had read, the dresses she–but, no, Miss Woppit cared nothing for that kind of gossip–now you ‘ll agree that she was a remarkable woman, not to want to hear all about the lovely dresses Mary had seen and could describe so eloquently.
Then again, as to Jim, was n’t it natural that Miss Woppit, fairly wrapped up in that brother, should be anxious to hear the good opinion that other folk had of him? Did the miners like Jim, she asked–what did they say, and what did Sir Charles say? Miss Woppit was fertile in questionings of this kind, and Mary made satisfactory answers, for she was sure that everybody liked Jim, and as for her father, why, he had taken Jim right into his confidence the day he came to the camp.
Sir Charles had indeed made a confidant of Jim. One day he called him into his room at the Mears House. “Mr. City Marshal,” said Sir Charles, in atone that implied secrecy, “I have given it out that I shall leave the camp for home day after to-morrow.”
“Yes, I had heerd talk,” answered Jim Woppit. “You are going by the stage.”
“Certainly, by the stage,” said Sir Charles, “but not day after to-morrow; I go to-morrow.”
“To-morrow,” repeated Sir Charles. “The coach leaves here, as I am told, at eleven o’ clock. At four we shall arrive at Wolcott Siding, there to catch the down express, barring delay. I say ‘barring delay,’ and it is with a view to evading the probability of delay that I have given out that I am to leave on a certain day, whereas, in fact, I shall leave a day earlier. You understand?”
“You bet I do,” said Jim. “You are afraid of–of the robbers?”
“I shall have some money with me,” answered Sir Charles, “but that alone does not make me desirous of eluding the highwaymen. My daughter–a fright of that kind might lead to the most disastrous results.”
“Correct,” said Jim.
“So I have planned this secret departure,” continued Sir Charles. “No one in the camp now knows of it but you and me, and I have a favor–a distinct favor–to ask of you in pursuance of this plan. It is that you and a posse of the bravest men you can pick shall accompany the coach, or, what is perhaps better, precede the coach by a few minutes, so as to frighten away the outlaws in case they may happen to be lurking in ambush.”
Jim signified his hearty approval of the proposition. He even expressed a fervent hope that a rencontre with the outlaws might transpire, and then he muttered a cordial “d—- ’em!”
“In order, however,” suggested Sir Charles, “to avert suspicion here in camp it would be wise for your men to meet quietly at some obscure point and ride together, not along the main road, but around the mountain by the Tin Cup path, coming in on the main road this side of Lone Pine ranch. You should await our arrival, and then, everything being tranquil, your posse can precede us as an advance guard in accordance with my previous suggestion.”
“It might be a pious idea,” said Jim, “for me to give the boys a pointer. They ‘ll be on to it, anyhow, and I know ’em well enough to trust ’em.”
“You know your men; do as you please about apprising them of their errand,” said Sir Charles. “I have only to request that you assure each that he will be well rewarded for his services.”
This makes a rude break in our wooing; but I am narrating actual happenings. Poor old Hoover’s subtlety all for naught, Mary’s friendly offices incompleted, the pleasant visits to the cabin among the hollyhocks suspended perhaps forever, Miss Woppit’s lonely lot rendered still more lonely by the departure of her sweet girl friend–all this was threatened by the proposed flight–for flight it was–of Sir Charles and Mary Lackington.
That May morning was a glorious one. Summer seemed to have burst upon the camp and the noble mountain-sentinels about it.
“We are going to-day,” said Sir Charles to his daughter. “Hush! not a word about it to anybody. I have reasons for wishing our departure to be secret.”
“You have heard bad news?” asked Mary, quickly.
“Not at all,” answered Sir Charles, smilingly. “There is absolutely no cause for alarm. We must go quietly; when we reach home I will tell you my reasons and then we will have a hearty laugh together.”
Mary Lackington set about packing her effects, and all the time her thoughts were of her lonely friend in the hill-side cabin. In this hour of her departure she felt herself drawn even more strangely and tenderly toward that weird, incomprehensible creature; such a tugging at her heart the girl had never experienced till now. What would Miss Woppit say–what would she think? The thought of going away with never so much as a good-by struck Mary Lackington as being a wanton piece of heartlessness. But she would write to Miss Woppit as soon as ever she reached home–she would write a letter that would banish every suspicion of unfeelingness.
Then, too, Mary thought of Hoover; what would the big, honest fellow think, to find himself deserted in this emergency without a word of warning? Altogether it was very dreadful. But Mary Lackington was a daughter who did her father’s bidding trustingly.
Three-fingered Hoover went with Jim Woppit that day. There were thirteen in the posse–fatal number–mounted on sturdy bronchos and armed to the teeth. They knew their business and they went gayly on their way. Around the mountain and over the Tin Cup path they galloped, a good seven miles, I ‘ll dare swear; and now at last they met up with the main road, and at Jim Woppit’s command they drew in under the trees to await the approach of the party in the stage.
Meanwhile in camp the comedy was drawing to a close. Bill Merridew drove stage that day; he was Steve Barclay’s pardner–pretty near the only man in camp that stood out for Steve when he was suspicioned of being in some sort of cahoots with the robbers. Steve Barclay’s arm was still useless and Bill was reckoned the next best horseman in the world.
The stage drew up in front of the Mears House. Perhaps half a dozen passengers were in waiting and the usual bevy of idlers was there to watch the departure. Great was the astonishment when Sir Charles and Mary Lackington appeared and stepped into the coach. Everybody knew Sir Charles and his daughter, and, as I have told you, it had been given out that they were not to leave the camp until the morrow. Forthwith there passed around mysterious whisperings as to the cause of Sir Charles’ sudden departure.
It must have been a whim on Barber Sam’s part. At any rate, he issued just then from Casey’s restaurant across the way, jaunty and chipper as ever. He saw Sir Charles in the stage and Bill Merridew on the box. He gave a low, significant whistle. Then he crossed the road.
“Bill,” says he, quietly, “It ‘s a summerish day, and not feelin’ just as pert as I oughter I reckon I ‘ll ride a right smart piece with you for my health!”
With these words Barber Sam climbed up and sat upon the box with Bill Merridew. A moment later the stage was on its course along the main road.
“Look a’ here, Bill Merridew,” says Barber Sam, fiercely, “there ‘s a lord inside and you outside, to-day–a mighty suspicious coincidence! No, you need n’t let on you don’t tumble to my meenin’! I ‘ve had my eye on Steve Barclay an’ you, and I ‘m ready for a showdown. I ‘m travelin’ for my health to-day, and so are you, Bill Merridew! I ‘m fixed from the ground up an’ you know there ain’t a man in the Red Hoss Mountain country that is handier with a gun than me. Now I mean bizness; if there is any onpleasantness to-day and if you try to come any funny bizness, why, d—- me, Bill Merridew, if I don’t blow your head off!”
Pleasant words these for Bill to listen to. But Bill knew Barber Sam and he had presence of mind enough to couch his expostulatory reply in the most obsequious terms. He protested against Barber Sam’s harsh imputations.
“I ‘ve had my say,” was Barber Sam’s answer. “I ain’t goin’ to rub it in. You understand that I mean bizness this trip; so don’t forget it. Now let’s talk about the weather.”
Mary Lackington had hoped that, as they passed The Bower, she would catch a glimpse of Miss Woppit–perhaps have sufficient opportunity to call out a hasty farewell to her. But Miss Woppit was nowhere to be seen. The little door of the cabin was open, so presumably the mistress was not far away. Mary was disappointed, vexed; she threw herself back and resigned herself to indignant reflections.
The stage had proceeded perhaps four miles on its way when its progress was arrested by the sudden appearance of a man, whose habit and gestures threatened evil. This stranger was of short and chunky build and he was clad in stout, dark garments that fitted him snugly. A slouch hat was pulled down over his head and a half-mask of brown muslin concealed the features of his face. He held out two murderous pistols and in a sharp voice cried “Halt!” Instantaneously Barber Sam recognized in this bold figure the mysterious outlaw who for so many months had been the terror of the district, and instinctively he reached for his pistol-pocket.
“Throw up your hands!” commanded the outlaw. He had the drop on them. Recalling poor Jake Dodsley’s fate Barber Sam discreetly did as he was bidden. As for Bill Merridew, he was shaking like a wine-jelly. The horses had come to a stand, and the passengers in the coach were wondering why a stop had been made so soon. Wholly unaware of what had happened, Mary Lackington thrust her head from the door window of the coach and looked forward up the road, in the direction of the threatening outlaw. She comprehended the situation at once and with a scream fell back into her father’s arms.
Presumably, the unexpected discovery of a woman among the number of his intended victims disconcerted the ruffian. At any rate, he stepped back a pace or two and for a moment lowered his weapons. That moment was fatal to him. Quick as lightning Barber Sam whipped out his unerring revolver and fired. The outlaw fell like a lump of dough in the road. At that instant Bill Merridew recovered his wits; gathering up the lines and laying on the whip mercilessly he urged his horses into a gallop. Over the body of the outlaw crunched the hoofs of the frightened brutes and rumbled the wheels of the heavy stage.
“We ‘ve got him this time!” yelled Barber Sam, wildly. “Stop your horses, Bill–you ‘re all right, Bill, and I ‘m sorry I ever did you dirt–stop your horses, and let ‘s finish the sneakin’ critter!”
There was the greatest excitement. The passengers fairly fell out of the coach, and it seemed as if they had an arsenal with them. Mary Lackington was as self-possessed as any of the rest.
“Are you sure he is dead?” she asked. “Don’t let us go nearer till we know that he is dead; he will surely kill us!”
The gamest man in the world would n’t have stood the ghost of a show in the face of those murderous weapons now brought to bear on the fallen and crushed wretch.
“If he ain’t dead already he ‘s so near it that there ain’t no fun in it,” said Bill Merridew.
In spite of this assurance, however, the party advanced cautiously toward the man. Convinced finally that there was no longer cause for alarm, Barber Sam strode boldly up to the body, bent over it, tore off the hat and pulled aside the muslin half-mask. One swift glance at the outlaw’s face, and Barber Sam recoiled.
“Great God!” he cried, “Miss Woppit!”
It was, indeed, Miss Woppit–the fair-haired, shy-eyed boy who for months had masqueraded in the camp as a woman. Now, that masquerade disclosed and the dreadful mystery of the past revealed, the nameless boy, fair in spite of his crimes and his hideous wounds, lay dying in the dust and gravel of the road.
Jim Woppit and his posse, a mile away, had heard the pistol-shot. It seemed but a moment ere they swept down the road to the scene of the tragedy; they came with the swiftness of the wind. Jim Woppit galloped ahead, his swarthy face the picture of terror.
“Who is it–who ‘s killed–who ‘s hurt?” he asked.
Nobody made answer, and that meant everything to Jim. He leapt from his horse, crept to the dying boy’s side and took the bruised head into his lap. The yellowish hair had fallen down about the shoulders; Jim stroked it and spoke to the white face, repeating “Willie, Willie, Willie,” over and over again.
The presence and the voice of that evil brother, whom he had so bravely served, seemed to arrest the offices of Death. The boy came slowly to, opened his eyes and saw Jim Woppit there. There was pathos, not reproach, in the dying eyes.
“It ‘s all up, Jim,” said the boy, faintly, “I did the best I could.”
All that Jim Woppit could answer was “Willie, Willie, Willie,” over and over again.
“This was to have been the last and we were going away to be decent folks,” this was what the boy went on to say; “I wish it could have been so, for I have wanted to live ever since–ever since I knew her.”
Mary Lackington gave a great moan. She stood a way off, but she heard these words and they revealed much–so very much to her–more, perhaps, than you and I can guess.
He did not speak her name. The boy seemed not to know that she was there. He said no other word, but with Jim Woppit bending over him and wailing that piteous “Willie, Willie, Willie,” over and over again, the boy closed his eyes and was dead.
Then they all looked upon Jim Woppit, but no one spoke. If words were to be said, it was Jim Woppit’s place to say them, and that dreadful silence seemed to cry: “Speak out, Jim Woppit, for your last hour has come!”
Jim Woppit was no coward. He stood erect before them all and plucked from his breast the star of his office and cast away from him the weapon he had worn. He was magnificent in that last, evil hour!
“Men,” said he. “I speak for him an’ not for myself. Ez God is my judge, that boy wuz not to blame. I made him do it all–the lyin’, the robbery, the murder; he done it because I told him to, an’ because havin’ begun he tried to save me. Why, he wuz a kid ez innocent ez a leetle toddlin’ child. He wanted to go away from here an’ be different from wot he wuz, but I kep’ at him an’ made him do an’ do agin wot has brought the end to-day. Las’ night he cried when I told him he must do the stage this mornin; seemed like he wuz soft on the girl yonder. It wuz to have been the las’ time–I promised him that, an’ so–an’ so it is. Men, you ‘ll find the money an’ everything else in the cabin–under the floor of the cabin. Make it ez square all round ez you kin.”
Then Jim Woppit backed a space away, and, before the rest could realize what he was about, he turned, darted through the narrow thicket, and hurled himself into the gulch, seven hundred feet down.
But the May sunlight was sweet and gracious, and there lay the dead boy, caressed of that charity of nature and smiling in its glory.
Bill was the first to speak–Bill Merridew, I mean. He was Steve Barclay’s partner and both had been wronged most grievously.
“Now throw the other one over, too,” cried Bill, savagely. “Let ’em both rot in the gulch!”
But a braver, kindlier man said “No!” It was Three-fingered Hoover, who came forward now and knelt beside the dead boy and held the white face between his hard, brown hands and smoothed the yellowish hair and looked with unspeakable tenderness upon the closed eyes.
“Leave her to me,” said he, reverently. “It wuz ez near ez I ever come to lovin’ a woman, and I reckon it’s ez near ez I ever shell come. So let me do with her ez pleases me.”
It was their will to let Three-fingered Hoover have his way. With exceeding tenderness he bore the body back to camp and he gave it into the hands of womenfolk to prepare it for burial, that no man’s touch should profane that vestige of his love. You see he chose to think of her to the last as she had seemed to him in life.
And it was another conceit of his to put over the grave, among the hollyhocks on that mountain-side, a shaft of pure white marble bearing simply the words “Miss Woppit.”