Recovering herself, she began to chafe his hands and temples, and moistened his lips with the spirit. When his respiration returned with a faint color to his cheeks, she pressed his hand eagerly and leaned over him.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Of what?” he whispered faintly.
“That Low is really your son?”
“Who said so?” he asked, opening his round eyes upon her.
“You did yourself, a moment ago,” she said quickly. “Don’t you remember?”
“You did. Is it so?”
He smiled faintly. “I reckon.”
She held her breath in expectation. But only the ludicrousness of the discovery seemed paramount to his weakened faculties. “Isn’t it just about the ridiculousest thing all round?” he said, with a feeble chuckle. “First you nearly kill me before you know I am Low’s father; then I’m just spoilin’ to kill him before I know he’s my son; then that god-forsaken fool Jack Brace mistakes you for Nellie, and Nellie for you. Ain’t it just the biggest thing for the boys to get hold of? But we must keep it dark until after I marry Nellie, don’t you see? Then we’ll have a good time all round, and I’ll stand the drinks. Think of it, Teresha! You don’no me, I do’no you, nobody knowsh anybody elsh. I try kill Lo’. Lo’ wants kill Nellie. No thath no ri’”—but the potent liquor, overtaking his exhausted senses, thickened, impeded, and at last stopped his speech. His head slipped to her shoulder, and he became once more unconscious.
Teresa breathed again. In that brief moment she had abandoned herself to a wild inspiration of hope which she could scarcely define. Not that it was entirely a wild inspiration; she tried to reason calmly. What if she revealed the truth to him? What if she told the wretched man before her that she had deceived him; that she had overheard his conversation with Brace; that she had stolen Brace’s horse to bring Low warning; that, failing to find Low in his accustomed haunts, or at the camp-fire, she had left a note for him pinned to the herbarium, imploring him to fly with his companion from the danger that was coming; and that, remaining on watch, she had seen them both—Brace and Dunn—approaching, and had prepared to meet them at the cabin? Would this miserable and maddened man understand her self-abnegation? Would he forgive Low and Nellie?—she did not ask for herself. Or would the revelation turn his brain, if it did not kill him outright? She looked at the sunken orbits of his eyes and hectic on his cheek, and shuddered.
Why was this added to the agony she already suffered? She had been willing to stand between them with her life, her liberty and even—the hot blood dyed her cheek at the thought—with the added shame of being thought the cast-off mistress of that man’s son. Yet all this she had taken upon herself in expiation of something—she knew not clearly what; no, for nothing—only for him. And yet this very situation offered her that gleam of hope which had thrilled her; a hope so wild in its improbability, so degrading in its possibility, that at first she knew not whether despair was not preferable to its shame. And yet was it unreasonable? She was no longer passionate; she would be calm and think it out fairly.
She would go to Low at once. She would find him somewhere—and even if with that girl, what mattered?—and she would tell him all. When he knew that the life and death of his father lay in the scale, would he let his brief, foolish passion for Nellie stand in the way? Even if he were not influenced by filial affection or mere compassion, would his pride let him stoop to a rivalry with the man who had deserted his youth? Could he take Dunn’s promised bride, who must have coquetted with him to have brought him to this miserable plight? Was this like the calm, proud young god she knew? Yet she had an uneasy instinct that calm, proud young gods and goddesses did things like this, and felt the weakness of her reasoning flush her own conscious cheek.
She started. Dunn was awake, and was gazing at her curiously.
“I was reckoning it was the only square thing for Low to stop this promiscuous picnicking here and marry you out and out.”
“Marry me!” said Teresa in a voice that, with all her efforts, she could not make cynical.
“Yes,” he repeated, “after I’ve married Nellie; tote you down to San Angeles, and there take my name like a man, and give it to you. Nobody’ll ask after Teresa, sure—you bet your life. And if they do, and he can’t stop their jaw, just you call on the old man. It’s mighty queer, ain’t it, Teresa, to think of you being my daughter-in-law?”
It seemed here as if he was about to lapse again into unconsciousness over the purely ludicrous aspect of the subject, but he haply recovered his seriousness. “He’ll have as much money from me as he wants to go into business with. What’s his line of business, Teresa?” asked this prospective father-in-law, in a large, liberal way.
“He is a botanist!” said Teresa, with a sudden childish animation that seemed to keep up the grim humor of the paternal suggestion; “and oh, he is too poor to buy books! I sent for one or two for him myself, the other day”—she hesitated—“it was all the money I had, but it wasn’t enough for him to go on with his studies.”
Dunn looked at her sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks, and became thoughtful. “Curson must have been a d——d fool,” he said finally.
Teresa remained silent. She was beginning to be impatient and uneasy, fearing some mischance that might delay her dreaded yet longed-for meeting with Low. Yet she could not leave this sick and exhausted man, his father, now bound to her by more than mere humanity.
“Couldn’t you manage,” she said gently, “to lean on me a few steps further, until I could bring you to a cooler spot and nearer assistance?”
He nodded. She lifted him almost like a child to his feet. A spasm of pain passed over his face. “How far is it?” he asked.
“Not more than ten minutes,” she replied.
“I can make a spurt for that time,” he said coolly, and began to walk slowly but steadily on. Only his face, which was white and set, and the convulsive grip of his hand on her arm, betrayed the effort. At the end of ten minutes she stopped. They stood before the splintered, lightning-scarred shaft in the opening of the woods, where Low had built her first camp-fire. She carefully picked up the herbarium, but her quick eye had already detected in the distance, before she had allowed Dunn to enter the opening with her, that her note was gone. Low had been there before them; he had been warned, as his absence from the cabin showed; he would not return there. They were free from interruption—but where had he gone?
The sick man drew a long breath of relief as she seated him in the clover-grown hollow where she had slept the second night of her stay. “It’s cooler than those cursed woods,” he said. “I suppose it’s because it’s a little like a grave. What are you going to do now?” he added, as she brought a cup of water and placed it at his side.
“I am going to leave you here for a little while,” she said cheerfully, but with a pale face and nervous hands. “I’m going to leave you while I seek Low.”
The sick man raised his head. “I’m good for a spurt, Teresa, like that I’ve just got through, but I don’t think I’m up to a family party. Couldn’t you issue cards later on?”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I’m going to get Low to send some one of your friends to you here. I don’t think he’ll begrudge leaving her a moment for that,” she added to herself bitterly.
“What’s that you’re saying?” he queried, with the nervous quickness of an invalid.
“Nothing—but that I’m going now.” She turned her face aside to hide her moistened eyes. “Wish me good luck, won’t you?” she asked, half sadly, half pettishly.
She came and bent over him. He suddenly raised his hands, and, drawing her face down to his own, kissed her forehead.
“Give that to him,” he whispered, “from me.”
She turned and fled, happily for her sentiment, not hearing the feeble laugh that followed, as Dunn, in sheer imbecility, again referred to the extravagant ludicrousness of the situation. “It is about the biggest thing in the way of a sell all round,” he repeated, lying on his back, confidentially to the speck of smoke-obscured sky above him. He pictured himself repeating it, not to Nellie—her severe propriety might at last overlook the fact, but would not tolerate the joke—but to her father! It would be just one of those characteristic Californian jokes Father Wynn would admire.
To his exhaustion fever presently succeeded, and he began to grow restless. The heat too seemed to invade his retreat, and from time to time the little patch of blue sky was totally obscured by clouds of smoke. He amused himself with watching a lizard who was investigating a folded piece of paper, whose elasticity gave the little creature lively apprehensions of its vitality. At last he could stand the stillness of his retreat and his supine position no longer, and rolled himself out of the bed of leaves that Teresa had so carefully prepared for him. He rose to his feet stiff and sore, and, supporting himself by the nearest tree, moved a few steps from the dead ashes of the camp-fire. The movement frightened the lizard, who abandoned the paper and fled. With a satirical recollection of Brace and his “ridiculous” discovery through the medium of this animal, he stooped and picked up the paper. “Like as not,” he said to himself, with grim irony, “these yer lizards are in the discovery business. P’r’aps this may lead to another mystery;” and he began to unfold the paper with a smile. But the smile ceased as his eye suddenly caught his own name.
A dozen lines were written in pencil on what seemed to be a blank leaf originally torn from some book. He trembled so that he was obliged to sit down to read these words:—
“When you get this keep away from the woods. Dunn and another man are in deadly pursuit of you and your companion. I overheard their plan to surprise you in our cabin. Don’t go there, and I will delay them and put them off the scent. Don’t mind me. God bless you, and if you never see me again think sometimes of
His trembling ceased; he did not start, but rose in an abstracted way, and made a few deliberate steps in the direction Teresa had gone. Even then he was so confused that he was obliged to refer to the paper again, but with so little effect that he could only repeat the last words, “think sometimes of Teresa.” He was conscious that this was not all; he had a full conviction of being deceived, and knew that he held the proof in his hand, but he could not formulate it beyond that sentence. “Teresa”—yes, he would think of her. She would think of him. She would explain it. And here she was returning.
In that brief interval her face and manner had again changed. She was pale and quite breathless. She cast a swift glance at Dunn and the paper he mechanically held out, walked up to him, and tore it from his hand.
“Well,” she said hoarsely, “what are you going to do about it?”
He attempted to speak, but his voice failed him. Even then he was conscious that if he had spoken he would have only repeated, “think sometimes of Teresa.” He looked longingly but helplessly at the spot where she had thrown the paper, as if it had contained his unuttered words.
“Yes,” she went on to herself, as if he was a mute, indifferent spectator—“yes, they’re gone. That ends it all. The game’s played out. Well!” suddenly turning upon him, “now you know it all. Your Nellie was here with him, and is with him now. Do you hear? Make the most of it; you’ve lost them—but here I am.”
“Yes,” he said eagerly—“yes, Teresa.”
She stopped, stared at him; then taking him by the hand led him like a child back to his couch. “Well,” she said, in half-savage explanation, “I told you the truth when I said the girl wasn’t at the cabin last night, and that I didn’t know her. What are you glowerin’ at? No! I haven’t lied to you, I swear to God, except in one thing. Do you know what that was? To save him I took upon me a shame I don’t deserve. I let you think I was his mistress. You think so now, don’t you? Well, before God to-day—and He may take me when He likes—I’m no more to him than a sister! I reckon your Nellie can’t say as much.”
She turned away, and with the quick, impatient stride of some caged animal made the narrow circuit of the opening, stopping a moment mechanically before the sick man, and again, without looking at him, continuing her monotonous round. The heat had become excessive, but she held her shawl with both hands drawn tightly over her shoulders. Suddenly a wood-duck darted out of the covert blindly into the opening, struck against the blasted trunk, fell half stunned near her feet, and then, recovering, fluttered away. She had scarcely completed another circuit before the irruption was followed by a whirring bevy of quail, a flight of jays, and a sudden tumult of wings swept through the wood like a tornado. She turned inquiringly to Dunn, who had risen to his feet, but the next moment she caught convulsively at his wrist: a wolf had just dashed through the underbrush not a dozen yards away, and on either side of them they could hear the scamper and rustle of hurrying feet like the outburst of a summer shower. A cold wind arose from the opposite direction, as if to contest this wild exodus, but it was followed by a blast of sickening heat. Teresa sank at Dunn’s feet in an agony of terror.
“Don’t let them touch me!” she gasped; “keep them off! Tell me, for God’s sake, what has happened!”
He laid his hand firmly on her arm, and lifted her in his turn to her feet like a child. In that supreme moment of physical danger, his strength, reason, and manhood returned in their plenitude of power. He pointed coolly to the trail she had quitted, and said:
“The Carquinez Woods are on fire!”