Newest of the new houses that seemed to have accidentally formed its single, straggling street was the residence of the Rev. Winslow Wynn, not unfrequently known as “Father Wynn,” pastor of the first Baptist church. The “pastorage,” as it was cheerfully called, had the glaring distinction of being built of brick, and was, as had been wickedly pointed out by idle scoffers, the only “fireproof” structure in town. This sarcasm was not, however, supposed to be particularly distasteful to “Father Wynn,” who enjoyed the reputation of being “hail fellow, well met” with the rough mining element, who called them by their Christian names, had been known to drink at the bar of the Polka Saloon while engaged in the conversion of a prominent citizen, and was popularly said to have no “gospel starch” about him. Certain conscious outcasts and transgressors were touched at this apparent unbending of the spiritual authority. The rigid tenets of Father Wynn’s faith were lost in the supposed catholicity of his humanity. “A preacher that can jine a man when he’s histin’ liquor into him, without jawin’ about it, ought to be allowed to wrestle with sinners and splash about in as much cold water as he likes,” was the criticism of one of his converts. Nevertheless, it was true that Father Wynn was somewhat loud and intolerant in his tolerance. It was true that he was a little more rough, a little more frank, a little more hearty, a little more impulsive, than his disciples. It was true that often the proclamation of his extreme liberality and brotherly equality partook somewhat of an apology. It is true that a few who might have been most benefited by this kind of gospel regarded him with a singular disdain. It is true that his liberality was of an ornamental, insinuating quality, accompanied with but little sacrifice; his acceptance of a collection taken up in a gambling-saloon for the rebuilding of his church, destroyed by fire, gave him a popularity large enough, it must be confessed, to cover the sins of the gamblers themselves, but it was not proven that he had ever organized any form of relief. But it was true that local history somehow accepted him as an exponent of mining Christianity, without the least reference to the opinions of the Christian miners themselves.
The Rev. Mr. Wynn’s liberal habits and opinions were not, however, shared by his only daughter, a motherless young lady of eighteen. Nellie Wynn was in the eye of Excelsior an unapproachable divinity, as inaccessible and cold as her father was impulsive and familiar. An atmosphere of chaste and proud virginity made itself felt even in the starched integrity of her spotless skirts, in her neatly-gloved finger-tips, in her clear amber eyes, in her imperious red lips, in her sensitive nostrils. Need it be said that the youth and middle age of Excelsior were madly, because apparently hopelessly, in love with her? For the rest, she had been expensively educated, was profoundly ignorant in two languages, with a trained misunderstanding of music and painting, and a natural and faultless taste in dress.
The Rev. Mr. Wynn was engaged in a characteristic hearty parting with one of his latest converts upon his own doorstep, with admirable al fresco effect. He had just clapped him on the shoulder. “Good-by, good-by, Charley, my boy, and keep in the right path; not up, or down, or round the gulch, you know—ha, ha!—but straight across lots to the shining gate.” He had raised his voice under the stimulus of a few admiring spectators, and backed his convert playfully against the wall. “You see! we’re goin’ in to win, you bet. Good-by! I’d ask you to step in and have a chat, but I’ve got my work to do, and so have you. The gospel mustn’t keep us from that, must it, Charley? Ha, ha!”
The convert (who elsewhere was a profane expressman, and had become quite imbecile under Mr. Wynn’s active heartiness and brotherly horse-play before spectators) managed, however, to feebly stammer with a blush something about “Miss Nellie.”
“Ah, Nellie. She, too, is at her tasks—trimming her lamp—you know, the parable of the wise virgins,” continued Father Wynn hastily, fearing that the convert might take the illustration literally. “There, there—good-by. Keep in the right path.” And with a parting shove he dismissed Charley and entered his own house.
That “wise virgin,” Nellie, had evidently finished with the lamp, and was now going out to meet the bridegroom, as she was fully dressed and gloved, and had a pink parasol in her hand, as her father entered the sitting-room.
His bluff heartiness seemed to fade away as he removed his soft, broad-brimmed hat and glanced across the too fresh-looking apartment. There was a smell of mortar still in the air, and a faint suggestion that at any moment green grass might appear between the interstices of the red-brick hearth. The room, yielding a little in the point of coldness, seemed to share Miss Nellie’s fresh virginity, and, barring the pink parasol, set her off as in a vestal’s cell.
“I supposed you wouldn’t care to see Brace, the expressman, so I got rid of him at the door,” said her father, drawing one of the new chairs towards him slowly, and sitting down carefully, as if it were a hitherto untried experiment.
Miss Nellie’s face took a tint of interest. “Then he doesn’t go with the coach to Indian Spring to-day?”
“I thought of going over myself to get the Burnham girls to come to choir-meeting,” replied Miss Nellie carelessly, “and he might have been company.”
“He’d go now if he knew you were going,” said her father; “but it’s just as well he shouldn’t be needlessly encouraged. I rather think that Sheriff Dunn is a little jealous of him. By the way, the sheriff is much better. I called to cheer him up to-day” (Mr. Wynn had in fact tumultuously accelerated the sick man’s pulse), “and he talked of you, as usual. In fact, he said he had only two things to get well for. One was to catch and hang that woman Teresa, who shot him; the other—can’t you guess the other?” he added archly, with a faint suggestion of his other manner.
Miss Nellie coldly could not.
The Rev. Mr. Wynn’s archness vanished. “Don’t be a fool,” he said dryly. “He wants to marry you, and you know it.”
“Most of the men here do,” responded Miss Nellie, without the least trace of coquetry. “Is the wedding or the hanging to take place first, or together, so he can officiate at both?”
“His share in the Union Ditch is worth a hundred thousand dollars,” continued her father; “and if he isn’t nominated for district judge this fall, he’s bound to go to the legislature, any way. I don’t think a girl with your advantages and education can afford to throw away the chance of shining in Sacramento, San Francisco, or, in good time, perhaps even Washington.”
Miss Nellie’s eyes did not reflect entire disapproval of this suggestion, although she replied with something of her father’s practical quality.
“Mr. Dunn is not out of his bed yet, and they say Teresa’s got away to Arizona, so there isn’t any particular hurry.”
“Perhaps not; but see here, Nellie, I’ve some important news for you. You know your young friend of the Carquinez Woods—Dorman, the botanist, eh? Well, Brace knows all about him. And what do you think he is?”
Miss Nellie took upon herself a few extra degrees of cold, and didn’t know.
“An Injin! Yes, an out-and-out Cherokee. You see he calls himself Dorman—Low Dorman. That’s only French for ‘Sleeping Water,’ his Injin name—‘Low Dorman.’”
“You mean ‘L’Eau Dormante,’” said Nellie.
“That’s what I said. The chief called him ‘Sleeping Water’ when he was a boy, and one of them French Canadian trappers translated it into French when he brought him to California to school. But he’s an Injin, sure. No wonder he prefers to live in the woods.”
“Well?” said Nellie.
“Well,” echoed her father impatiently, “he’s an Injin, I tell you, and you can’t of course have anything to do with him. He mustn’t come here again.”
“But you forget,” said Nellie imperturbably, “that it was you who invited him here, and were so much exercised over him. You remember you introduced him to the Bishop and those Eastern clergymen as a magnificent specimen of a young Californian. You forget what an occasion you made of his coming to church on Sunday, and how you made him come in his buckskin shirt and walk down the street with you after service!”
“Yes, yes,” said the Rev. Mr. Wynn hurriedly.
“And,” continued Nellie carelessly, “how you made us sing out of the same book ‘Children of our Father’s Fold,’ and how you preached at him until he actually got a color!”
“Yes,” said her father; “but it wasn’t known then he was an Injin, and they are frightfully unpopular with those Southwestern men among whom we labor. Indeed, I am quite convinced that when Brace said ‘the only good Indian was a dead one’ his expression, though extravagant, perhaps, really voiced the sentiments of the majority. It would be only kindness to the unfortunate creature to warn him from exposing himself to their rude but conscientious antagonism.”
“Perhaps you’d better tell him, then, in your own popular way, which they all seem to understand so well,” responded the daughter. Mr. Wynn cast a quick glance at her, but there was no trace of irony in her face—nothing but a half-bored indifference as she walked toward the window.
“I will go with you to the coach-office,” said her father, who generally gave these simple paternal duties the pronounced character of a public Christian example.
“It’s hardly worth while,” replied Miss Nellie. “I’ve to stop at the Watsons’, at the foot of the hill, and ask after the baby; so I shall go on to the Crossing and pick up the coach as it passes. Good-by.”
Nevertheless, as soon as Nellie had departed, the Rev. Mr. Wynn proceeded to the coach-office, and publicly grasping the hand of Yuba Bill, the driver, commended his daughter to his care in the name of the universal brotherhood of man and the Christian fraternity. Carried away by his heartiness, he forgot his previous caution, and confided to the expressman Miss Nellie’s regrets that she was not to have that gentleman’s company. The result was that Miss Nellie found the coach with its passengers awaiting her with uplifted hats and wreathed smiles at the Crossing, and the box-seat (from which an unfortunate stranger, who had expensively paid for it, had been summarily ejected) at her service beside Yuba Bill, who had thrown away his cigar and donned a new pair of buckskin gloves to do her honor. But a more serious result to the young beauty was the effect of the Rev. Mr. Wynn’s confidences upon the impulsive heart of Jack Brace, the expressman. It has been already intimated that it was his “day off.” Unable to summarily reassume his usual functions beside the driver without some practical reason, and ashamed to go so palpably as a mere passenger, he was forced to let the coach proceed without him. Discomfited for the moment, he was not, however, beaten. He had lost the blissful journey by her side, which would have been his professional right, but—she was going to Indian Spring! could he not anticipate her there? Might they not meet in the most accidental manner? And what might not come from that meeting away from the prying eyes of their own town? Mr. Brace did not hesitate, but saddling his fleet Buckskin, by the time the stagecoach had passed the Crossing in the high-road he had mounted the hill and was dashing along the “cut-off” in the same direction, a full mile in advance. Arriving at Indian Spring, he left his horse at a Mexican posada on the confines of the settlement, and from the piled débris of a tunnel excavation awaited the slow arrival of the coach. On mature reflection he could give no reason why he had not boldly awaited it at the express office, except a certain bashful consciousness of his own folly, and a belief that it might be glaringly apparent to the bystanders. When the coach arrived and he had overcome this consciousness, it was too late. Yuba Bill had discharged his passengers for Indian Spring and driven away. Miss Nellie was in the settlement, but where? As time passed he became more desperate and bolder. He walked recklessly up and down the main street, glancing in at the open doors of shops, and even in the windows of private dwellings. It might have seemed a poor compliment to Miss Nellie, but it was an evidence of his complete preoccupation, when the sight of a female face at a window, even though it was plain or perhaps painted, caused his heart to bound, or the glancing of a skirt in the distance quickened his feet and his pulses. Had Jack contented himself with remaining at Excelsior he might have vaguely regretted, but as soon become as vaguely accustomed to, Miss Nellie’s absence. But it was not until his hitherto quiet and passive love took this first step of action that it fully declared itself. When he had made the tour of the town a dozen times unsuccessfully, he had perfectly made up his mind that marriage with Nellie or the speedy death of several people, including possibly himself, was the only alternative. He regretted he had not accompanied her; he regretted he had not demanded where she was going; he contemplated a course of future action that two hours ago would have filled him with bashful terror. There was clearly but one thing to do—to declare his passion the instant he met her, and return with her to Excelsior an accepted suitor, or not to return at all.
Suddenly he was vexatiously conscious of hearing his name lazily called, and looking up found that he was on the outskirts of the town, and interrogated by two horsemen.
“Got down to walk, and the coach got away from you, Jack, eh?”
A little ashamed of his preoccupation, Brace stammered something about “collections.” He did not recognize the men, but his own face, name, and business were familiar to everybody for fifty miles along the stage-road.
“Well, you can settle a bet for us, I reckon. Bill Dacre thar bet me five dollars and the drinks that a young gal we met at the edge of the Carquinez Woods, dressed in a long brown duster and half muffled up in a hood, was the daughter of Father Wynn of Excelsior. I did not get a fair look at her, but it stands to reason that a high-toned young lady like Nellie Wynn don’t go trap’sing along the wood like a Pike County tramp. I took the bet. May be you know if she’s here or in Excelsior?”
Mr. Brace felt himself turning pale with eagerness and excitement. But the near prospect of seeing her presently gave him back his caution, and he answered truthfully that he had left her in Excelsior, and that in his two hours’ sojourn in Indian Spring he had not once met her. “But,” he added, with a Californian’s reverence for the sanctity of a bet, “I reckon you’d better make it a standoff for twenty-four hours, and I’ll find out and let you know.” Which, it is only fair to say, he honestly intended to do.
With a hurried nod of parting, he continued in the direction of the Woods. When he had satisfied himself that the strangers had entered the settlement and would not follow him for further explanation, he quickened his pace. In half an hour he passed between two of the gigantic sentinels that guarded the entrance to a trail. Here he paused to collect his thoughts. The Woods were vast in extent, the trail dim and uncertain—at times apparently breaking off, or intersecting another trail as faint as itself. Believing that Miss Nellie had diverged from the highway only as a momentary excursion into the shade, and that she would not dare to penetrate its more sombre and unknown recesses, he kept within sight of the skirting plain. By degrees the sedate influence of the silent vaults seemed to depress him. The ardor of the chase began to flag. Under the calm of their dim roof the fever of his veins began to subside; his pace slackened; he reasoned more deliberately. It was by no means probable that the young woman in a brown duster was Nellie; it was not her habitual traveling dress; it was not like her to walk unattended in the road; there was nothing in her tastes and habits to take her into this gloomy forest, allowing that she had even entered it; and on this absolute question of her identity the two witnesses were divided. He stopped irresolutely, and cast a last, long, half-despairing look around him. Hitherto he had given that part of the wood nearest the plain his greatest attention. His glance now sought its darker recesses. Suddenly he became breathless. Was it a beam of sunlight that had pierced the groined roof above, and now rested against the trunk of one of the dimmer, more secluded giants? No, it was moving; even as he gazed it slipped away, glanced against another tree, passed across one of the vaulted aisles, and then was lost again. Brief as was the glimpse, he was not mistaken—it was the figure of a woman.
In another moment he was on her track, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing her reappear at a lesser distance. But the continual intervention of the massive trunks made the chase by no means an easy one, and as he could not keep her always in sight he was unable to follow or understand the one intelligent direction which she seemed to invariably keep. Nevertheless, he gained upon her breathlessly, and, thanks to the bark-strewn floor, noiselessly. He was near enough to distinguish and recognize the dress she wore, a pale yellow, that he had admired when he first saw her. It was Nellie, unmistakably; if it were she of the brown duster, she had discarded it, perhaps for greater freedom. He was near enough to call out now, but a sudden nervous timidity overcame him; his lips grew dry. What should he say to her? How account for his presence? “Miss Nellie, one moment!” he gasped. She darted forward and—vanished.
At this moment he was not more than a dozen yards from her. He rushed to where she had been standing, but her disappearance was perfect and complete. He made a circuit of the group of trees within whose radius she had last appeared, but there was neither trace of her, nor suggestion of her mode of escape. He called aloud to her; the vacant Woods let his helpless voice die in their unresponsive depths. He gazed into the air and down at the bark-strewn carpet at his feet. Like most of his vocation, he was sparing of speech, and epigrammatic after his fashion. Comprehending in one swift but despairing flash of intelligence the existence of some fateful power beyond his own weak endeavor, he accepted its logical result with characteristic grimness, threw his hat upon the ground, put his hands in his pockets, and said—
“Well, I’m d——d!”