Frontier Stories

In the Carquinez Woods

Chapter X

Bret Harte

THE NEST of the tuneful Burnhams, although in the suburbs of Indian Spring, was not in ordinary weather and seasons hidden from the longing eyes of the youth of that settlement. That night, however, it was veiled in the smoke that encompassed the great highway leading to Excelsior. It is presumed that the Burnham brood had long since folded their wings, for there was no sign of life nor movement in the house as a rapidly driven horse and buggy pulled up before it. Fortunately, the paternal Burnham was an early bird, in the habit of picking up the first stirring mining worm, and a resounding knock brought him half dressed to the street door. He was startled at seeing Father Wynn before him, a trifle flushed and abstracted.

“Ah ha! up betimes, I see, and ready. No sluggards here—ha, ha!” he said heartily, slamming the door behind him, and by a series of pokes in the ribs genially backing his host into his own sitting-room. “I’m up, too, and am here to see Nellie. She’s here, eh—of course?” he added, darting a quick look at Burnham.

But Mr. Burnham was one of those large, liberal Western husbands who classified his household under the general title of “woman folk,” for the integers of which he was not responsible. He hesitated, and then propounded over the balusters to the upper story the direct query—“You don’t happen to have Nellie Wynn up there, do ye?”

There was an interval of inquiry proceeding from half a dozen reluctant throats, more or less cottony and muffled, in those various degrees of grievance and mental distress which indicate too early roused young womanhood. The eventual reply seemed to be affirmative, albeit accompanied with a suppressed giggle, as if the young lady had just been discovered as an answer to an amusing conundrum.

“All right,” said Wynn, with an apparent accession of boisterous geniality. “Tell her I must see her, and I’ve only got a few minutes to spare. Tell her to slip on anything and come down; there’s no one here but myself, and I’ve shut the front door on Brother Burnham. Ha, ha!” and suiting the action to the word, he actually bundled the admiring Brother Burnham out on his own doorstep. There was a light pattering on the staircase, and Nellie Wynn, pink with sleep, very tall, very slim, hastily draped in a white counterpane with a blue border and a general classic suggestion, slipped into the parlor. At the same moment the father shut the door behind her, placed one hand on the knob, and with the other seized her wrist.

“Where were you yesterday?” he asked.

Nellie looked at him, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Here.”

“You were in the Carquinez Woods with Low Dorman; you went there in disguise; you’ve met him there before. He is your clandestine lover; you have taken pledges of affection from him; you have”—

“Stop!” she said.

He stopped.

“Did he tell you this?” she asked, with an expression of disdain.

“No; I overheard it. Dunn and Brace were at the house waiting for you. When the coach did not bring you, I went to the office to inquire. As I left our door I thought I saw somebody listening at the parlor windows. It was only a drunken Mexican muleteer leaning against the house; but if he heard nothing, I did. Nellie, I heard Brace tell Dunn that he had tracked you in your disguise to the woods—do you hear? that when you pretended to be here with the girls you were with Low—alone; that you wear a ring that Low got of a trader here; that there was a cabin in the woods”—

“Stop!” she repeated.

Wynn again paused.

“And what did you do?” she asked.

“I heard they were starting down there to surprise you and him together, and I harnessed up and got ahead of them in my buggy.”

“And found me here,” she said, looking full into his eyes.

He understood her and returned the look. He recognized the full importance of the culminating fact conveyed in her words, and was obliged to content himself with its logical and worldly significance. It was too late now to take her to task for mere filial disobedience; they must become allies.

“Yes,” he said hurriedly; “but if you value your reputation, if you wish to silence both these men, answer me fully.”

“Go on,” she said.

“Did you go to the cabin in the woods yesterday?”


“Did you ever go there with Low?”

“No; I do not know even where it is.”

Wynn felt that she was telling the truth. Nellie knew it; but as she would have been equally satisfied with an equally efficacious falsehood, her face remained unchanged.

“And when did he leave you?”

“At nine o’clock, here. He went to the hotel.”

“He saved his life, then, for Dunn is on his way to the woods to kill him.”

The jeopardy of her lover did not seem to affect the young girl with alarm, although her eyes betrayed some interest.

“Then Dunn has gone to the woods?” she said thoughtfully.

“He has,” replied Wynn.

“Is that all?” she asked.

“I want to know what you are going to do?”

“I was going back to bed.”

“This is no time for trifling, girl.”

“I should think not,” she said, with a yawn; “it’s too early, or too late.”

Wynn grasped her wrist more tightly. “Hear me! Put whatever face you like on this affair, you are compromised—and compromised with a man you can’t marry.”

“I don’t know that I ever wanted to marry Low, if you mean him,” she said quietly.

“And Dunn wouldn’t marry you now.”

“I’m not so sure of that either.”

“Nellie,” said Wynn excitedly, “do you want to drive me mad? Have you nothing to say—nothing to suggest?”

“Oh, you want me to help you, do you? Why didn’t you say that first? Well, go and bring Dunn here.”

“Are you mad? The man has gone already in pursuit of your lover, believing you with him.”

“Then he will the more readily come and talk with me without him. Will you take the invitation—yes or no?”

“Yes, but”—

“Enough. On your way there you will stop at the hotel and give Low a letter from me.”


“You shall read it, of course,” she said scornfully, “for it will be your text for the conversation you will have with him. Will you please take your hand from the lock and open the door?”

Wynn mechanically opened the door. The young girl flew up-stairs. In a very few moments she returned with two notes: one contained a few lines of formal invitation to Dunn; the other read as follows:—

“DEAR MR. DORMAN: My father will tell you how deeply I regret that our recent botanical excursions in the Carquinez Woods have been a source of serious misapprehension to those who had a claim to my consideration, and that I shall be obliged to discontinue them for the future. At the same time he wishes me to express my gratitude for your valuable instruction and assistance in that pleasing study, even though approaching events may compel me to relinquish it for other duties. May I beg you to accept the enclosed ring as a slight recognition of my obligations to you?

        “Your grateful pupil,

            “NELLIE WYNN.”

When he had finished reading the letter, she handed him a ring, which he took mechanically. He raised his eyes to hers with perfectly genuine admiration. “You’re a good girl, Nellie,” he said, and, in a moment of parental forgetfulness, unconsciously advanced his lips towards her cheek. But she drew back in time to recall him to a sense of that human weakness.

“I suppose I’ll have time for a nap yet,” she said, as a gentle hint to her embarrassed parent. He nodded and turned towards the door.

“If I were you,” she continued, repressing a yawn, “I’d manage to be seen on good terms with Low at the hotel; so perhaps you need not give the letter to him until the last thing. Good-by.”

The sitting-room door opened and closed behind her as she slipped up-stairs, and her father, without the formality of leave-taking, quietly let himself out by the front door.

When he drove into the highroad again, however, an overlooked possibility threatened for a moment to indefinitely postpone his amiable intentions regarding Low. The hotel was at the farther end of the settlement toward the Carquinez Woods, and as Wynn had nearly reached it he was recalled to himself by the sounds of hoofs and wheels rapidly approaching from the direction of the Excelsior turnpike. Wynn made no doubt it was the sheriff and Brace. To avoid recognition at that moment, he whipped up his horse, intending to keep the lead until he could turn into the first cross-road. But the coming travelers had the fleetest horse; and finding it impossible to distance them, he drove close to the ditch, pulling up suddenly as the strange vehicle was abreast of him, and forcing them to pass him at full speed, with the result already chronicled. When they had vanished in the darkness, Mr. Wynn, with a heart overflowing with Christian thankfulness and universal benevolence, wheeled round, and drove back to the hotel he had already passed. To pull up at the veranda with a stentorian shout, to thump loudly at the deserted bar, to hilariously beat the panels of the landlord’s door, and commit a jocose assault and battery upon that half-dressed and half-awakened man, was eminently characteristic of Wynn, and part of his amiable plans that morning.

“Something to wash this wood smoke from my throat, Brother Carter, and about as much again to prop open your eyes,” he said, dragging Carter before the bar, “and glasses round for as many of the boys as are up and stirring after a hard-working Christian’s rest. How goes the honest publican’s trade, and who have we here?”

“Thar’s Judge Robinson and two lawyers from Sacramento, Dick Curson over from Yolo,” said Carter, “and that ar young Injin yarb doctor from the Carquinez Woods. I reckon he’s jist up—I noticed a light under his door as I passed.”

“He’s my man for a friendly chat before breakfast,” said Wynn. “You needn’t come up. I’ll find the way. I don’t want a light; I reckon my eyes ain’t as bright nor as young as his, but they’ll see almost as far in the dark—he-he!” And, nodding to Brother Carter, he strode along the passage, and with no other introduction than a playful and preliminary “Boo!” burst into one of the rooms. Low, who by the light of a single candle was bending over the plates of a large quarto, merely raised his eyes and looked at the intruder. The young man’s natural imperturbability, always exasperating to Wynn, seemed accented that morning by contrast with his own over-acted animation.

“Ah ha!—wasting the midnight oil instead of imbibing the morning dews,” said Father Wynn archly, illustrating his metaphor with a movement of his hand to his lips. “What have we here?”

“An anonymous gift,” replied Low simply, recognizing the father of Nellie by rising from his chair. “It’s a volume I’ve longed to possess, but never could afford to buy. I cannot imagine who sent it to me.”

Wynn was for a moment startled by the thought that this recipient of valuable gifts might have influential friends. But a glance at the bare room, which looked like a camp, and the strange, unconventional garb of its occupant, restored his former convictions. There might be a promise of intelligence, but scarcely of prosperity, in the figure before him.

“Ah! We must not forget that we are watched over in the night season,” he said, laying his hand on Low’s shoulder, with an illustration of celestial guardianship that would have been impious but for its palpable grotesqueness. “No, sir, we know not what a day may bring forth.”

Unfortunately, Low’s practical mind did not go beyond a mere human interpretation. It was enough, however, to put a new light in his eye and a faint color in his cheek.

“Could it have been Miss Nellie?” he asked, with half-boyish hesitation.

Mr. Wynn was too much of a Christian not to bow before what appeared to him the purely providential interposition of this suggestion. Seizing it and Low at the same moment, he playfully forced him down again in his chair.

“Ah, you rascal!” he said, with infinite archness; “that’s your game, is it? You want to trap poor Father Wynn. You want to make him say ‘No.’ You want to tempt him to commit himself. No, sir!—never, sir!—no, no!”

Firmly convinced that the present was Nellie’s and that her father only good-humoredly guessed it, the young man’s simple, truthful nature was embarrassed. He longed to express his gratitude, but feared to betray the young girl’s trust. The Reverend Mr. Wynn speedily relieved his mind.

“No,” he continued, bestriding a chair, and familiarly confronting Low over its back. “No, sir—no! And you want me to say ‘No,’ don’t you, regarding the little walks of Nellie and a certain young man in the Carquinez Woods?—ha, ha! You’d like me to say that I knew nothing of the botanizings, and the herb collectings, and the picnickings there—he-he!—you sly dog! Perhaps you’d like to tempt Father Wynn further and make him swear he knows nothing of his daughter disguising herself in a duster and meeting another young man—isn’t it another young man?—all alone, eh? Perhaps you want poor old Father Wynn to say ‘No.’ No, sir, nothing of the kind ever occurred. Ah, you young rascal!”

Slightly troubled, in spite of Wynn’s hearty manner, Low, with his usual directness however, said, “I do not want any one to deny that I have seen Miss Nellie.”

“Certainly, certainly,” said Wynn, abandoning his method, considerably disconcerted by Low’s simplicity, and a certain natural reserve that shook off his familiarity. “Certainly it’s a noble thing to be able to put your hand on your heart and say to the world, ‘Come on, all of you! Observe me; I have nothing to conceal. I walk with Miss Wynn in the woods as her instructor—her teacher, in fact. We cull a flower here and there; we pluck an herb fresh from the hand of the Creator. We look, so to speak, from Nature to Nature’s God.’ Yes, my young friend, we should be the first to repel the foul calumny that could misinterpret our most innocent actions.”

“Calumny?” repeated Low, starting to his feet. “What calumny?”

“My friend, my noble young friend, I recognize your indignation. I know your worth. When I said to Nellie, my only child, my perhaps too simple offspring—a mere wildflower like yourself—when I said to her, ‘Go, my child, walk in the woods with this young man, hand in hand. Let him instruct you from the humblest roots, for he has trodden in the ways of the Almighty. Gather wisdom from his lips, and knowledge from his simple woodman’s craft. Make, in fact, a collection not only of herbs, but of moral axioms and experience,’—I knew I could trust you, and, trusting you, my young friend, I felt I could trust the world. Perhaps I was weak, foolish. But I thought only of her welfare. I even recall how that, to preserve the purity of her garments, I bade her don a simple duster; that, to secure her from the trifling companionship of others, I bade her keep her own counsel, and seek you at seasons known but to yourselves.”

“But . . . did Nellie . . . understand you?” interrupted Low hastily.

“I see you read her simple nature. Understand me? No, not at first! Her maidenly instinct—perhaps her duty to another—took the alarm. I remember her words. ‘But what will Dunn say?’ she asked. ‘Will he not be jealous?’”

“Dunn! jealous! I don’t understand,” said Low, fixing his eyes on Wynn.

“That’s just what I said to Nellie. ‘Jealous!’ I said. ‘What, Dunn, your affianced husband, jealous of a mere friend—a teacher, a guide, a philosopher. It is impossible.’ Well, sir, she was right. He is jealous. And, more than that, he has imparted his jealousy to others! In other words, he has made a scandal!”

Low’s eyes flashed. “Where is your daughter now?” he said sternly.

“At present in bed, suffering from a nervous attack brought on by these unjust suspicions. She appreciates your anxiety, and, knowing that you could not see her, told me to give you this.” He handed Low the ring and the letter.

The climax had been forced, and, it must be confessed, was by no means the one Mr. Wynn had fully arranged in his own inner consciousness. He had intended to take an ostentatious leave of Low in the bar-room, deliver the letter with archness, and escape before a possible explosion. He consequently backed towards the door for an emergency. But he was again at fault. That unaffected stoical fortitude in acute suffering, which was the one remaining pride and glory of Low’s race, was yet to be revealed to Wynn’s civilized eyes.

The young man took the letter, and read it without changing a muscle, folded the ring in it, and dropped it into his haversack. Then he picked up his blanket, threw it over his shoulder, took his trusty rifle in his hand, and turned toward Wynn as if coldly surprised that he was still standing there.

“Are you—are you—going?” stammered Wynn.

“Are you not?” replied Low dryly, leaning on his rifle for a moment as if waiting for Wynn to precede him. The preacher looked at him a moment, mumbled something, and then shambled feebly and ineffectively down the staircase before Low, with a painful suggestion to the ordinary observer of being occasionally urged thereto by the moccasin of the young man behind him.

On reaching the lower hall, however, he endeavored to create a diversion in his favor by dashing into the barroom and clapping the occupants on the back with indiscriminate playfulness. But here again he seemed to be disappointed. To his great discomfiture, a large man not only returned his salutation with powerful levity, but with equal playfulness seized him in his arms, and after an ingenious simulation of depositing him in the horse-trough set him down in affected amazement. “Bleth’t if I didn’t think from the weight of your hand it wath my old friend, Thacramento Bill,” said Curson apologetically, with a wink at the bystanders. “That’th the way Bill alwayth uthed to tackle hith friendth, till he wath one day bounthed by a prithe-fighter in Frithco, whom he had mithtaken for a mithionary.” As Mr. Curson’s reputation was of a quality that made any form of apology from him instantly acceptable, the amused spectators made way for him as, recognizing Low, who was just leaving the hotel, he turned coolly from them and walked towards him.

“Halloo!” he said, extending his hand. “You’re the man I’m waiting for. Did you get a book from the exthpreth offithe latht night?”

“I did. Why?”

“It’th all right. Ath I’m rethponthible for it, I only wanted to know.”

“Did you send it?” asked Low, quickly fixing his eyes on his face.

“Well, not exactly me. But it’th not worth making a mythtery of it. Teretha gave me a commithion to buy it and thend it to you anonymouthly. That’th a woman’th nonthenth, for how could thee get a retheipt for it?”

“Then it was her present,” said Low gloomily.

“Of courthe. It wathn’t mine, my boy. I’d have thent you a Tharp’th rifle in plathe of that muthle loader you carry, or thomething thenthible. But, I thay! what’th up? You look ath if you had been running all night.”

Low grasped his hand. “Thank you,” he said hurriedly; “but it’s nothing. Only I must be back to the woods early. Good-by.”

But Curson retained Low’s hand in his own powerful grip.

“I’ll go with you a bit further,” he said. “In fact, I’ve got thomething to thay to you; only don’t be in thuch a hurry; the woodth can wait till you get there.” Quietly compelling Low to alter his own characteristic Indian stride to keep pace with his, he went on: “I don’t mind thaying I rather cottoned to you from the time you acted like a white man—no offenthe—to Teretha. She thayth you were left when a child lying round, jutht ath promithcuouthly ath she wath; and if I can do anything towardth putting you on the trail of your people, I’ll do it. I know thome of the voyageurth who traded with the Cherokeeth, and your father wath one—wasn’t he?” He glanced at Low’s utterly abstracted and immobile face. “I thay, you don’t theem to take a hand in thith game, pardner. What’th the row? Ith anything wrong over there?” and he pointed to the Carquinez Woods, which were just looming out of the morning horizon in the distance.

Low stopped. The last words of his companion seemed to recall him to himself. He raised his eyes automatically to the woods, and started.

“There is something wrong over there,” he said breathlessly. “Look!”

“I thee nothing,” said Curson, beginning to doubt Low’s sanity; “nothing more than I thaw an hour ago.”

“Look again. Don’t you see that smoke rising straight up? It isn’t blown over from the Divide; it’s new smoke! The fire is in the woods!”

“I reckon that’th so,” muttered Curson, shading his eyes with his hand. “But, hullo! wait a minute! We’ll get hortheth. I say!” he shouted, forgetting his lisp in his excitement—“stop!” But Low had already lowered his head and darted forward like an arrow.

In a few moments he had left not only his companion but the last straggling houses of the outskirts far behind him, and had struck out in a long, swinging trot for the disused “cut-off.” Already he fancied he heard the note of clamor in Indian Spring, and thought he distinguished the sound of hurrying hoofs on the great highway. But the sunken trail hid it from his view. From the column of smoke now plainly visible in the growing morning light he tried to locate the scene of the conflagration. It was evidently not a fire advancing regularly from the outer skirt of the wood, communicated to it from the Divide; it was a local outburst near its centre. It was not in the direction of his cabin in the tree. There was no immediate danger to Teresa, unless fear drove her beyond the confines of the wood into the hands of those who might recognize her. The screaming of jays and ravens above his head quickened his speed, as it heralded the rapid advance of the flames; and the unexpected apparition of a bounding body, flattened and flying over the yellow plain, told him that even the secure retreat of the mountain wild-cat had been invaded. A sudden recollection of Teresa’s uncontrollable terror that first night smote him with remorse and redoubled his efforts. Alone in the track of these frantic and bewildered beasts, to what madness might she not be driven!

The sharp crack of a rifle from the highroad turned his course momentarily in that direction. The smoke was curling lazily over the heads of a party of men in the road, while the huge bulk of a grizzly was disappearing in the distance. A battue of the escaping animals had commenced! In the bitterness of his heart he caught at the horrible suggestion, and resolved to save her from them or die with her there.

How fast he ran, or the time it took him to reach the woods, has never been known. Their outlines were already hidden when he entered them. To a sense less keen, a courage less desperate, and a purpose less unaltered than Low’s, the wood would have been impenetrable. The central fire was still confined to the lofty tree-tops, but the downward rush of wind from time to time drove the smoke into the aisles in blinding and suffocating volumes. To simulate the creeping animals, and fall to the ground on hands and knees, feel his way through the underbrush when the smoke was densest, or take advantage of its momentary lifting, and without uncertainty, mistake, or hesitation glide from tree to tree in one undeviating course, was possible only to an experienced woodsman. To keep his reason and insight so clear as to be able in the midst of this bewildering confusion to shape that course so as to intersect the wild and unknown tract of an inexperienced, frightened wanderer belonged to Low, and to Low alone. He was making his way against the wind towards the fire. He had reasoned that she was either in comparative safety to windward of it, or he should meet her being driven towards him by it, or find her succumbed and fainting at its feet. To do this he must penetrate the burning belt, and then pass under the blazing dome. He was already upon it; he could see the falling fire dropping like rain or blown like gorgeous blossoms of the conflagration across his path. The space was lit up brilliantly. The vast shafts of dull copper cast no shadow below, but there was no sign nor token of any human being. For a moment the young man was at fault. It was true this hidden heart of the forest bore no undergrowth; the cool matted carpet of the aisles seemed to quench the glowing fragments as they fell. Escape might be difficult, but not impossible; yet every moment was precious. He leaned against a tree, and sent his voice like a clarion before him: “Teresa!” There was no reply. He called again. A faint cry at his back from the trail he had just traversed made him turn. Only a few paces behind him, blinded and staggering, but following like a beaten and wounded animal, Teresa halted, knelt, clasped her hands, and dumbly held them out before her. “Teresa!” he cried again, and sprang to her side.

She caught him by the knees, and lifted her face imploringly to his.

“Say that again!” she cried, passionately. “Tell me it was Teresa you called, and no other! You have come back for me! You would not let me die here alone!”

He lifted her tenderly in his arms, and cast a rapid glance around him. It might have been his fancy, but there seemed a dull glow in the direction he had come.

“You do not speak!” she said. “Tell me! You did not come here to seek her?”

“Whom?” he said quickly.


With a sharp cry he let her slip to the ground. All the pent-up agony, rage, and mortification of the last hour broke from him in that inarticulate outburst. Then, catching her hands again, he dragged her to his level.

“Hear me!” he cried, disregarding the whirling smoke and the fiery baptism that sprinkled them—“hear me! If you value your life, if you value your soul, and if you do not want me to cast you to the beasts like Jezebel of old, never—never take that accursed name again upon your lips. Seek her—her? Yes! Seek her to tie her like a witch’s daughter of hell to that blazing tree!” He stopped. “Forgive me,” he said in a changed voice. “I’m mad, and forgetting myself and you. Come.”

Without noticing the expression of half savage delight that had passed across her face, he lifted her in his arms.

“Which way are you going?” she asked, passing her hands vaguely across his breast, as if to reassure herself of his identity.

“To our camp by the scarred tree,” he replied.

“Not there, not there,” she said, hurriedly. “I was driven from there just now. I thought the fire began there until I came here.”

Then it was as he feared. Obeying the same mysterious law that had launched this fatal fire like a thunderbolt from the burning mountain crest five miles away into the heart of the Carquinez Woods, it had again leaped a mile beyond, and was hemming them between two narrowing lines of fire. But Low was not daunted. Retracing his steps through the blinding smoke, he strode off at right angles to the trail near the point where he had entered the wood. It was the spot where he had first lifted Nellie in his arms to carry her to the hidden spring. If any recollection of it crossed his mind at that moment, it was only shown in his redoubled energy. He did not glide through the thick underbrush, as on that day, but seemed to take a savage pleasure in breaking through it with sheer brute force. Once Teresa insisted upon relieving him of the burden of her weight, but after a few steps she staggered blindly against him, and would fain have recourse once more to his strong arms. And so, alternately staggering, bending, crouching, or bounding and crashing on, but always in one direction, they burst through the jealous rampart, and came upon the sylvan haunt of the hidden spring. The great angle of the half fallen tree acted as a barrier to the wind and drifting smoke, and the cool spring sparkled and bubbled in the almost translucent air. He laid her down beside the water, and bathed her face and hands. As he did so his quick eye caught sight of a woman’s handkerchief lying at the foot of the disrupted root. Dropping Teresa’s hand, he walked towards it, and with the toe of his moccasin gave it one vigorous kick into the ooze at the overflow of the spring. He turned to Teresa, but she evidently had not noticed the act.

“Where are you?” she asked, with a smile.

Something in her movement struck him. He came towards her, and bending down looked into her face.

“Teresa! Good God!—look at me! What has happened?”

She raised her eyes to his. There was a slight film across them; the lids were blackened; the beautiful lashes gone forever!

“I see you a little now, I think,” she said, with a smile, passing her hands vaguely over his face. “It must have happened when he fainted, and I had to drag him through the blazing brush; both my hands were full, and I could not cover my eyes.”

“Drag whom?” said Low, quickly.

“Why, Dunn.”

“Dunn! He here?” said Low, hoarsely.

“Yes; didn’t you read the note I left on the herbarium? Didn’t you come to the camp-fire?” she asked hurriedly, clasping his hands. “Tell me quickly!”


“Then you were not there—then you didn’t leave me to die?”

“No! I swear it, Teresa!” the stoicism that had upheld his own agony breaking down before her strong emotion.

“Thank God!” She threw her arms around him, and hid her aching eyes in his troubled breast.

“Tell me all, Teresa,” he whispered in her listening ear. “Don’t move; stay there, and tell me all.”

With her face buried in his bosom, as if speaking to his heart alone, she told him part, but not all. With her eyes filled with tears, but a smile on her lips, radiant with new-found happiness, she told him how she had overheard the plans of Dunn and Brace, how she had stolen their conveyance to warn him in time. But here she stopped, dreading to say a word that would shatter the hope she was building upon his sudden revulsion of feeling for Nellie. She could not bring herself to repeat their interview—that would come later, when they were safe and out of danger; now not even the secret of his birth must come between them with its distraction, to mar their perfect communion. She faltered that Dunn had fainted from weakness, and that she had dragged him out of danger. “He will never interfere with us—I mean,” she said softly, “with me again. I can promise you that as well as if he had sworn it.”

“Let him pass now,” said Low; “that will come later on,” he added, unconsciously repeating her thought in a tone that made her heart sick. “But tell me, Teresa, why did you go to Excelsior?”

She buried her head still deeper, as if to hide it. He felt her broken heart beat against his own; he was conscious of a depth of feeling her rival had never awakened in him. The possibility of Teresa loving him had never occurred to his simple nature. He bent his head and kissed her. She was frightened, and unloosed her clinging arms; but he retained her hand, and said, “We will leave this accursed place, and you shall go with me as you said you would; nor need you ever leave me, unless you wish it.”

She could hear the beating of her own heart through his words; she longed to look at the eyes and lips that told her this, and read the meaning his voice alone could not entirely convey. For the first time she felt the loss of her sight. She did not know that it was, in this moment of happiness, the last blessing vouchsafed to her miserable life.

A few moments of silence followed, broken only by the distant rumor of the conflagration and the crash of falling boughs. “It may be an hour yet,” he whispered, “before the fire has swept a path for us to the road below. We are safe here, unless some sudden current should draw the fire down upon us. You are not frightened?” She pressed his hand; she was thinking of the pale face of Dunn, lying in the secure retreat she had purchased for him at such a sacrifice. Yet the possibility of danger to him now for a moment marred her present happiness and security. “You think the fire will not go north of where you found me?” she asked softly.

“I think not,” he said; “but I will reconnoitre. Stay where you are.”

They pressed hands and parted. He leaped upon the slanting trunk and ascended it rapidly. She waited in mute expectation.

There was a sudden movement of the root on which she sat, a deafening crash, and she was thrown forward on her face.

The vast bulk of the leaning tree, dislodged from its aerial support by the gradual sapping of the spring at its roots, or by the crumbling of the bark from the heat, had slipped, made a half revolution, and, falling, overbore the lesser trees in its path, and tore, in its resistless momentum, a broad opening to the underbrush.

With a cry to Low, Teresa staggered to her feet. There was an interval of hideous silence, but no reply. She called again. There was a sudden deepening roar, the blast of a fiery furnace swept through the opening, a thousand luminous points around her burst into fire, and in an instant she was lost in a whirlwind of smoke and flame! From the onset of its fury to its culmination twenty minutes did not elapse; but in that interval a radius of two hundred yards around the hidden spring was swept of life and light and motion.

For the rest of that day and part of the night a pall of smoke hung above the scene of desolation. It lifted only towards the morning, when the moon, riding high, picked out in black and silver the shrunken and silent columns of those roofless vaults, shorn of base and capital. It flickered on the still, overflowing pool of the hidden spring, and shone upon the white face of Low, who, with a rootlet of the fallen tree holding him down like an arm across his breast, seemed to be sleeping peacefully in the sleeping water.

.     .     .     .     .

Contemporaneous history touched him as briefly, but not as gently. “It is now definitely ascertained,” said “The Slumgullion Mirror,” “that Sheriff Dunn met his fate in the Carquinez Woods in the performance of his duty; that fearless man having received information of the concealment of a band of horse thieves in their recesses. The desperadoes are presumed to have escaped, as the only remains found are those of two wretched tramps, one of whom is said to have been a digger, who supported himself upon roots and herbs, and the other a degraded half-white woman. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the fire originated through their carelessness, although Father Wynn of the First Baptist Church, in his powerful discourse of last Sunday, pointed at the warning and lesson of such catastrophes. It may not be out of place here to say that the rumors regarding an engagement between the pastor’s accomplished daughter and the late lamented sheriff are utterly without foundation, as it has been an on dit for some time in all well-informed circles that the indefatigable Mr. Brace, of Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express, will shortly lead the lady to the hymeneal altar.”

Frontier Stories - Contents

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