A whiff of wind down the big-throated chimney stirred the log embers on the hearth, and the girl jumped to her feet, closing the book with an impatient snap. She knew her mother’s voice would follow. It was hard to leave her heroine at the crucial moment of receiving an explanation from a presumed faithless lover, just to climb a hill and take in a lot of soulless washing, but such are the infelicities of stolen romance reading. She threw the clothesbasket over her head like a hood, the handle resting across her bosom and shoulders, and with both her hands free started out of the cabin. But the darkness had come up from the valley in one stride after its mountain fashion, had outstripped her, and she was instantly plunged in it. Still the outline of the ridge above her was visible, with the white, steadfast stars that were not there a moment ago, and by that sign she knew she was late. She had to battle against the rushing wind now, which sung through the inverted basket over her head and held her back, but with bent shoulders she at last reached the top of the ridge and the level. Yet here, owing to the shifting of the lighter background above her, she now found herself again encompassed with the darkness. The outlines of the poles had disappeared, the white fluttering garments were distinct apparitions waving in the wind, like dancing ghosts. But there certainly was a queer misshapen bulk moving beyond, which she did not recognize, and as she at last reached one of the poles, a shock was communicated to it, through the clothesline and the bulk beyond. Then she heard a voice say impatiently,—
“What in h-ll am I running into now?”
It was a man’s voice, and, from its elevation, the voice of a man on horseback. She answered without fear and with slow deliberation,—
“Inter our clothes-line, I reckon.”
“Oh!” said the man in a half-apologetic tone. Then in brisker accents, “The very thing I want! I say, can you give me a bit of it? The ring of my saddle girth has fetched loose. I can fasten it with that.”
“I reckon,” replied Lanty, with the same unconcern, moving nearer the bulk, which now separated into two parts as the man dismounted. “How much do you want?”
“A foot or two will do.”
They were now in front of each other, although their faces were not distinguishable to either. Lanty, who had been following the lines with her hand, here came upon the end knotted around the last pole. This she began to untie.
“What a place to hang clothes,” he said curiously.
“Mighty dryin’, tho’,” returned Lanty laconically.
“And your house? Is it near by?” he continued.
“Just down the ridge—ye kin see from the edge. Got a knife?” She had untied the knot.
“No—yes—wait.” He had hesitated a moment and then produced something from his breast pocket, which he however kept in his hand. As he did not offer it to her she simply held out a section of the rope between her hands, which he divided with a single cut. She saw only that the instrument was long and keen. Then she lifted the flap of the saddle for him as he attempted to fasten the loose ring with the rope, but the darkness made it impossible. With an ejaculation, he fumbled in his pockets. “My last match!” he said, striking it, as he crouched over it to protect it from the wind. Lanty leaned over also, with her apron raised between it and the blast. The flame for an instant lit up the ring, the man’s dark face, mustache, and white teeth set together as he tugged at the girth, and Lanty’s brown, velvet eyes and soft, round cheek framed in the basket. Then it went out, but the ring was secured.
“Thank you,” said the man, with a short laugh, “but I thought you were a humpbacked witch in the dark there.”
“And I couldn’t make out whether you was a cow or a b’ar,” returned the young girl simply.
Here, however, he quickly mounted his horse, but in the action something slipped from his clothes, struck a stone, and bounded away into the darkness.
“My knife,” he said hurriedly. “Please hand it to me.” But although the girl dropped on her knees and searched the ground diligently, it could not be found. The man with a restrained ejaculation again dismounted, and joined in the search.
“Haven’t you got another match?” suggested Lanty.
“No—it was my last!” he said impatiently.
“Just you hol’ on here,” she said suddenly, “and I’ll run down to the kitchen and fetch you a light. I won’t be long.”
“No! no!” said the man quickly; “don’t! I couldn’t wait. I’ve been here too long now. Look here. You come in daylight and find it, and—just keep it for me, will you?” He laughed. “I’ll come for it. And now, if you’ll only help to set me on that road again, for it’s so infernal black I can’t see the mare’s ears ahead of me, I won’t bother you any more. Thank you.”
Lanty had quietly moved to his horse’s head and taken the bridle in her hand, and at once seemed to be lost in the gloom. But in a few moments he felt the muffled thud of his horse’s hoof on the thick dust of the highway, and its still hot, impalpable powder rising to his nostrils.
“Thank you,” he said again, “I’m all right now,” and in the pause that followed it seemed to Lanty that he had extended a parting hand to her in the darkness. She put up her own to meet it, but missed his, which had blundered onto her shoulder. Before she could grasp it, she felt him stooping over her, the light brush of his soft mustache on her cheek, and then the starting forward of his horse. But the retaliating box on the ear she had promptly aimed at him spent itself in the black space which seemed suddenly to have swallowed up the man, and even his light laugh.
For an instant she stood still, and then, swinging the basket indignantly from her shoulder, took up her suspended task. It was no light one in the increasing wind, and the unfastened clothesline had precipitated a part of its burden to the ground through the loosening of the rope. But on picking up the trailing garments her hand struck an unfamiliar object. The stranger’s lost knife! She thrust it hastily into the bottom of the basket and completed her work. As she began to descend with her burden she saw that the light of the kitchen fire, seen through the windows, was augmented by a candle. Her mother was evidently awaiting her.
“Pretty time to be fetchin’ in the wash,” said Mrs. Foster querulously. “But what can you expect when folks stand gossipin’ and philanderin’ on the ridge instead o’ tendin’ to their work?”
Now Lanty knew that she had not been “gossipin’” nor “philanderin’,” yet as the parting salute might have been open to that imputation, and as she surmised that her mother might have overheard their voices, she briefly said, to prevent further questioning, that she had shown a stranger the road. But for her mother’s unjust accusation she would have been more communicative. As Mrs. Foster went back grumblingly into the sitting-room Lanty resolved to keep the knife at present a secret from her mother, and to that purpose removed it from the basket. But in the light of the candle she saw it for the first time plainly—and started.
For it was really a dagger! jeweled-handled and richly wrought—such as Lanty had never looked upon before. The hilt was studded with gems, and the blade, which had a cutting edge, was damascened in blue and gold. Her soft eyes reflected the brilliant setting, her lips parted breathlessly; then, as her mother’s voice arose in the other room, she thrust it back into its velvet sheath and clapped it into her pocket. Its rare beauty had confirmed her resolution of absolute secrecy. To have shown it now would have made “no end of talk.” And she was not sure but that her parents would have demanded its custody! And it was given to her by him to keep. This settled the question of moral ethics. She took the first opportunity to run up to her bedroom and hide it under the mattress.
Yet the thought of it filled the rest of her evening. When her household duties were done she took up her novel again, partly from force of habit and partly as an attitude in which she could think of it undisturbed. For what was fiction to her now? True, it possessed a certain reminiscent value. A “dagger” had appeared in several romances she had devoured, but she never had a clear idea of one before. “The Count sprang back, and, drawing from his belt a richly jeweled dagger, hissed between his teeth,” or, more to the purpose: “‘Take this,’ said Orlando, handing her the ruby-hilted poignard which had gleamed upon his thigh, ‘and should the caitiff attempt thy unguarded innocence—’”
“Did ye hear what your father was sayin’?” Lanty started. It was her mother’s voice in the doorway, and she had been vaguely conscious of another voice pitched in the same querulous key, which, indeed, was the dominant expression of the small ranchers of that fertile neighborhood. Possibly a too complaisant and unaggressive Nature had spoiled them.
“Yes!—no!” said Lanty abstractedly, “what did he say?”
“If you wasn’t taken up with that fool book,” said Mrs. Foster, glancing at her daughter’s slightly conscious color, “ye’d know! He allowed ye’d better not leave yer filly in the far pasture nights. That gang o’ Mexican horse-thieves is out again, and raided McKinnon’s stock last night.”
This touched Lanty closely. The filly was her own property, and she was breaking it for her own riding. But her distrust of her parents’ interference was greater than any fear of horse-stealers. “She’s mighty uneasy in the barn; and,” she added, with a proud consciousness of that beautiful yet carnal weapon upstairs, “I reckon I ken protect her and myself agin any Mexican horsethieves.”
“My! but we’re gettin’ high and mighty,” responded Mrs. Foster, with deep irony. “Did you git all that outer your fool book?”
“Mebbe,” said Lanty curtly.
Nevertheless, her thoughts that night were not entirely based on written romance. She wondered if the stranger knew that she had really tried to box his ears in the darkness, also if he had been able to see her face. His she remembered, at least the flash of his white teeth against his dark face and darker mustache, which was quite as soft as her own hair. But if he thought “for a minnit” that she was “goin’ to allow an entire stranger to kiss her—he was mighty mistaken.” She should let him know it “pretty quick”! She should hand him back the dagger “quite careless like,” and never let on that she’d thought anything of it. Perhaps that was the reason why, before she went to bed, she took a good look at it, and after taking off her straight, beltless, calico gown she even tried the effect of it, thrust in the stiff waistband of her petticoat, with the jeweled hilt displayed, and thought it looked charming—as indeed it did. And then, having said her prayers like a good girl, and supplicated that she should be less “tetchy” with her parents, she went to sleep and dreamed that she had gone out to take in the wash again, but that the clothes had all changed to the queerest lot of folks, who were all fighting and struggling with each other until she, Lanty, drawing her dagger, rushed up singlehanded among them, crying, “Disperse, ye craven curs,—disperse, I say.” And they dispersed.
Yet even Lanty was obliged to admit the next morning that all this was somewhat incongruous with the baking of “corn dodgers,” the frying of fish, the making of beds, and her other household duties, and dismissed the stranger from her mind until he should “happen along.” In her freer and more acceptable outdoor duties she even tolerated the advances of neighboring swains who made a point of passing by “Foster’s Ranch,” and who were quite aware that Atalanta Foster, alias “Lanty,” was one of the prettiest girls in the country. But Lanty’s toleration consisted in that singular performance known to herself as “giving them as good as they sent,” being a lazy traversing, qualified with scorn, of all that they advanced. How long they would have put up with this from a plain girl I do not know, but Lanty’s short upper lip seemed framed for indolent and fascinating scorn, and her dreamy eyes usually looked beyond the questioner, or blunted his bolder glances in their velvety surfaces. The libretto of these scenes was not exhaustive, e.g.:—
The Swain (with bold, bad gayety). “Saw that shy schoolmaster hangin’ round your ridge yesterday! Orter know by this time that shyness with a gal don’t pay.”
Lanty (decisively). “Mebbe he allows it don’t get left as often as impudence.”
The Swain (ignoring the reply and his previous attitude and becoming more direct). “I was calkilatin’ to say that with these yer hoss-thieves about, yer filly ain’t safe in the pasture. I took a turn round there two or three times last evening to see if she was all right.”
Lanty (with a flattering show of interest). “No! Did ye, now? I was jest wonderin’”—
The Swain (eagerly). “I did—quite late, too! Why, that’s nothin’, Miss Atalanty, to what I’d do for you.”
Lanty (musing, with far off-eyes). “Then that’s why she was so awful skeerd and frightened! Just jumpin’ outer her skin with horror. I reckoned it was a b’ar or panther or a spook! You ought to have waited till she got accustomed to your looks.”
Nevertheless, despite this elegant raillery, Lanty was enough concerned in the safety of her horse to visit it the next day with a view of bringing it nearer home. She had just stepped into the alder fringe of a dry “run” when she came suddenly upon the figure of a horseman in the “run,” who had been hidden by the alders from the plain beyond and who seemed to be engaged in examining the hoof marks in the dust of the old ford. Something about his figure struck her recollection, and as he looked up quickly she saw it was the owner of the dagger. But he appeared to be lighter of hair and complexion, and was dressed differently, and more like a vaquero. Yet there was the same flash of his teeth as he recognized her, and she knew it was the same man.
Alas for her preparation! Without the knife she could not make that haughty return of it which she had contemplated. And more than that, she was conscious she was blushing! Nevertheless she managed to level her pretty brown eyebrows at him, and said sharply that if he followed her to her home she would return his property at once.
“But I’m in no hurry for it,” he said with a laugh,—the same light laugh and pleasant voice she remembered,—“and I’d rather not come to the house just now. The knife is in good hands, I know, and I’ll call for it when I want it! And until then—if it’s all the same to you—keep it to yourself,—keep it dark, as dark as the night I lost it!”
“I don’t go about blabbing my affairs,” said Lanty indignantly, “and if it hadn’t been dark that night you’d have had your ears boxed—you know why!”
The stranger laughed again, waved his hand to Lanty, and galloped away.
Lanty was a little disappointed. The daylight had taken away some of her illusions. He was certainly very good-looking, but not quite as picturesque, mysterious, and thrilling as in the dark! And it was very queer—he certainly did look darker that night! Who was he? And why was he lingering near her? He was different from her neighbors—her admirers. He might be one of those locaters, from the big towns, who prospect the lands, with a view of settling government warrants on them,—they were always so secret until they had found what they wanted. She did not dare to seek information of her friends, for the same reason that she had concealed his existence from her mother,—it would provoke awkward questions; and it was evident that he was trusting to her secrecy, too. The thought thrilled her with a new pride, and was some compensation for the loss of her more intangible romance. It would be mighty fine, when he did call openly for his beautiful knife and declared himself, to have them all know that she knew about it all along.
When she reached home, to guard against another such surprise she determined to keep the weapon with her, and, distrusting her pocket, confided it to the cheap little country-made corset which only for the last year had confined her budding figure, and which now, perhaps, heaved with an additional pride. She was quite abstracted during the rest of the day, and paid but little attention to the gossip of the farm lads, who were full of a daring raid, two nights before, by the Mexican gang on the large stock farm of a neighbor. The Vigilant Committee had been baffled; it was even alleged that some of the smaller ranchmen and herders were in league with the gang. It was also believed to be a widespread conspiracy; to have a political complexion in its combination of an alien race with Southwestern filibusters. The legal authorities had been reinforced by special detectives from San Francisco. Lanty seldom troubled herself with these matters; she knew the exaggeration, she suspected the ignorance of her rural neighbors. She roughly referred it, in her own vocabulary, to “jaw,” a peculiarly masculine quality. But later in the evening, when the domestic circle in the sitting-room had been augmented by a neighbor, and Lanty had taken refuge behind her novel as an excuse for silence, Zob Hopper, the enamored swain of the previous evening, burst in with more astounding news. A posse of the sheriff had just passed along the ridge; they had “corraled” part of the gang, and rescued some of the stock. The leader of the gang had escaped, but his capture was inevitable, as the roads were stopped. “All the same, I’m glad to see ye took my advice, Miss Atalanty, and brought in your filly,” he concluded, with an insinuating glance at the young girl.
But “Miss Atalanty,” curling a quarter of an inch of scarlet lip above the edge of her novel, here “allowed” that if his advice or the filly had to be “took,” she didn’t know which was worse.
“I wonder ye kin talk to sech peartness, Mr. Hopper,” said Mrs. Foster severely; “she ain’t got eyes nor senses for anythin’ but that book.”
“Talkin’ o’ what’s to be ‘took,’” put in the diplomatic neighbor, “you bet it ain’t that Mexican leader! No, sir! he’s been ‘stopped’ before this—and then got clean away all the same! One o’ them detectives got him once and disarmed him—but he managed to give them the slip, after all. Why, he’s that full o’ shifts and disguises thar ain’t no spottin’ him. He walked right under the constable’s nose oncet, and took a drink with the sheriff that was arter him—and the blamed fool never knew it. He kin change even the color of his hair quick as winkin’.”
“Is he a real Mexican,—a regular Greaser?” asked the paternal Foster. “Cos I never heard that they wuz smart.”
“No! They say he comes o’ old Spanish stock, a bad egg they threw outer the nest, I reckon,” put in Hopper eagerly, seeing a strange animated interest dilating Lanty’s eyes, and hoping to share in it; “but he’s reg’lar high-toned, you bet! Why, I knew a man who seed him in his own camp—prinked out in a velvet jacket and silk sash, with gold chains and buttons down his wide pants and a dagger stuck in his sash, with a handle just blazin’ with jew’ls. Yes! Miss Atalanty, they say that one stone at the top—a green stone, what they call an ’em’ral’—was worth the price o’ a ’Frisco house-lot. True ez you live! Eh—what’s up now?”
Lanty’s book had fallen on the floor as she was rising to her feet with a white face, still more strange and distorted in an affected yawn behind her little hand. “Yer makin’ me that sick and nervous with yer fool yarns,” she said hysterically, “that I’m goin’ to get a little fresh air. It’s just stifling here with lies and terbacker!” With another high laugh, she brushed past him into the kitchen, opened the door, and then paused, and, turning, ran rapidly up to her bedroom. Here she locked herself in, tore open the bosom of her dress, plucked out the dagger, threw it on the bed, where the green stone gleamed for an instant in the candlelight, and then dropped on her knees beside the bed with her whirling head buried in her cold red hands.
It had all come to her in a flash, like a blaze of lightning,—the black, haunting figure on the ridge, the broken saddle girth, the abandonment of the dagger in the exigencies of flight and concealment; the second meeting, the skulking in the dry, alderhidden “run,” the changed dress, the lighter-colored hair, but always the same voice and laugh—the leader, the fugitive, the Mexican horse-thief! And she, the Godforsaken fool, the chuckleheaded nigger baby, with not half the sense of her own filly or that sop-headed Hopper—had never seen it! She—she who would be the laughing-stock of them all—she had thought him a “locater,” a “towny” from ’Frisco! And she had consented to keep his knife until he would call for it,—yes, call for it, with fire and flame perhaps, the trampling of hoofs, pistol shots—and—yet—
Yet!—he had trusted her. Yes! trusted her when he knew a word from her lips would have brought the whole district down on him! when the mere exposure of that dagger would have identified and damned him! Trusted her a second time, when she was within cry of her house! When he might have taken her filly without her knowing it? And now she remembered vaguely that the neighbors had said how strange it was that her father’s stock had not suffered as theirs had. He had protected them—he who was now a fugitive—and their men pursuing him! She rose suddenly with a single stamp of her narrow foot, and as suddenly became cool and sane. And then, quite her old self again, she lazily picked up the dagger and restored it to its place in her bosom. That done, with her color back and her eyes a little brighter, she deliberately went downstairs again, stuck her little brown head into the sitting-room, said cheerfully, “Still yawpin’, you folks,” and quietly passed out into the darkness.
She ran swiftly up to the ridge, impelled by the blind memory of having met him there at night and the one vague thought to give him warning. But it was dark and empty, with no sound but the rushing wind. And then an idea seized her. If he were haunting the vicinity still, he might see the fluttering of the clothes upon the line and believe she was there. She stooped quickly, and in the merciful and exonerating darkness stripped off her only white petticoat and pinned it on the line. It flapped, fluttered, and streamed in the mountain wind. She lingered and listened. But there came a sound she had not counted on,—the clattering hoofs of not one, but many, horses on the lower road! She ran back to the house to find its inmates already hastening towards the road for news. She took that chance to slip in quietly, go to her room, whose window commanded a view of the ridge, and crouching low behind it she listened. She could hear the sound of voices, and the dull trampling of heavy boots on the dusty path towards the barnyard on the other side of the house—a pause, and then the return of the trampling boots, and the final clattering of hoofs on the road again. Then there was a tap on her door and her mother’s querulous voice.
“Oh! yer there, are ye? Well—it’s the best place fer a girl—with all these man’s doin’s goin’ on! They’ve got that Mexican horsethief and have tied him up in your filly’s stall in the barn—till the ’Frisco deputy gets back from rounding up the others. So ye jest stay where ye are till they’ve come and gone, and we’re shut o’ all that cattle. Are ye mindin’?”
“All right, maw; ’taint no call o’ mine, anyhow,” returned Lanty, through the half-open door.
At another time her mother might have been startled at her passive obedience. Still more would she have been startled had she seen her daughter’s face now, behind the closed door—with her little mouth set over her clenched teeth. And yet it was her own child, and Lanty was her mother’s real daughter; the same pioneer blood filled their veins, the blood that had never nourished cravens or degenerates, but had given itself to sprinkle and fertilize desert solitudes where man might follow. Small wonder, then, that this frontier-born Lanty, whose first infant cry had been answered by the yelp of wolf and scream of panther; whose father’s rifle had been leveled across her cradle to cover the stealthy Indian who prowled outside, small wonder that she should feel herself equal to these “man’s doin’s,” and prompt to take a part. For even in the first shock of the news of the capture she recalled the fact that the barn was old and rotten, that only that day the filly had kicked a board loose from behind her stall, which she, Lanty, had lightly returned to avoid “making a fuss.” If his captors had not noticed it, or trusted only to their guards, she might make the opening wide enough to free him!
Two hours later the guard nearest the now sleeping house, a farm hand of the Fosters’, saw his employer’s daughter slip out and cautiously approach him. A devoted slave of Lanty’s, and familiar with her impulses, he guessed her curiosity, and was not averse to satisfy it and the sense of his own importance. To her whispers of affected, half-terrified interest, he responded in whispers that the captive was really in the filly’s stall, securely bound by his wrists behind his back, and his feet “hobbled” to a post. That Lanty couldn’t see him, for it was dark inside, and he was sitting with his back to the wall, as he couldn’t sleep comf’ble lyin’ down. Lanty’s eyes glowed, but her face was turned aside.
“And ye ain’t reckonin’ his friends will come and rescue him?” said Lanty, gazing with affected fearfulness in the darkness.
“Not much! There’s two other guards down in the corral, and I’d fire my gun and bring ’em up.”
But Lanty was gazing open-mouthed towards the ridge. “What’s that wavin’ on the ridge?” she said in awe-stricken tones.
She was pointing to the petticoat,—a vague, distant, moving object against the horizon.
“Why, that’s some o’ the wash on the line, ain’t it?”
“Wash—two days in the week!” said Lanty sharply. “Wot’s gone of you?”
“Thet’s so,” muttered the man, “and it wan’t there at sundown, I’ll swear! P’r’aps I’d better call the guard,” and he raised his rifle.
“Don’t,” said Lanty, catching his arm. “Suppose it’s nothin’, they’ll laugh at ye. Creep up softly and see; ye ain’t afraid, are ye? If ye are, give me yer gun, and I’ll go.”
This settled the question, as Lanty expected. The man cocked his piece, and bending low began cautiously to mount the acclivity. Lanty waited until his figure began to fade, and then ran like fire to the barn.
She had arranged every detail of her plan beforehand. Crouching beside the wall of the stall she hissed through a crack in thrilling whispers, “Don’t move. Don’t speak for your life’s sake. Wait till I hand you back your knife, then do the best you can.” Then slipping aside the loosened board she saw dimly the black outline of curling hair, back, shoulders, and tied wrists of the captive. Drawing the knife from her pocket, with two strokes of its keen cutting edge she severed the cords, threw the knife into the opening, and darted away. Yet in that moment she knew that the man was instinctively turning towards her. But it was one thing to free a horse-thief, and another to stop and “philander” with him.
She ran halfway up the ridge, and met the farm hand returning. It was only a bit of washing after all, and he was glad he hadn’t fired his gun. On the other hand, Lanty confessed she had got “so skeert” being alone, that she came to seek him. She had the shivers; wasn’t her hand cold? It was, but thrilling even in its coldness to the bashfully admiring man. And she was that weak and dizzy, he must let her lean on his arm going down; and they must go slow. She was sure he was cold, too, and if he would wait at the back door she would give him a drink of whiskey. Thus Lanty, with her brain afire, her eyes and ears straining into the darkness, and the vague outline of the barn beyond. Another moment was protracted over the drink of whiskey, and then Lanty, with a faint archness, made him promise not to tell her mother of her escapade, and she promised on her part not to say anything about his “stalking a petticoat on the clothesline,” and then shyly closed the door and regained her room. He must have got away by this time, or have been discovered; she believed they would not open the barn door until the return of the posse.
She was right. It was near daybreak when they returned, and, again crouching low beside her window, she heard, with a fierce joy, the sudden outcry, the oaths, the wrangling voices, the summoning of her father to the front door, and then the tumultuous sweeping away again of the whole posse, and a blessed silence falling over the rancho. And then Lanty went quietly to bed, and slept like a three-year child!
Perhaps that was the reason why she was able at breakfast to listen with lazy and even rosy indifference to the startling events of the night; to the sneers of the farm hands at the posse who had overlooked the knife when they searched their prisoner, as well as the stupidity of the corral guard who had never heard him make a hole “the size of a house” in the barn side! Once she glanced demurely at Silas Briggs—the farm hand and the poor fellow felt consoled in his shame at the remembrance of their confidences.
But Lanty’s tranquillity was not destined to last long. There was again the irruption of exciting news from the highroad; the Mexican leader had been recaptured, and was now safely lodged in Brownsville jail! Those who were previously loud in their praises of the successful horse-thief who had baffled the vigilance of his pursuers were now equally keen in their admiration of the new San Francisco deputy who, in turn, had outwitted the whole gang. It was he who was fertile in expedients; he who had studied the whole country, and even risked his life among the gang, and he who had again closed the meshes of the net around the escaped outlaw. He was already returning by way of the rancho, and might stop there a moment,—so that they could all see the hero. Such was the power of success on the country-side! Outwardly indifferent, inwardly bitter, Lanty turned away. She should not grace his triumph, if she kept in her room all day! And when there was a clatter of hoofs on the road again, Lanty slipped upstairs.
But in a few moments she was summoned. Captain Lance Wetherby, Assistant Chief of Police of San Francisco, Deputy Sheriff and exU. S. scout, had requested to see Miss Foster a few moments alone. Lanty knew what it meant,—her secret had been discovered; but she was not the girl to shirk the responsibility! She lifted her little brown head proudly, and with the same resolute step with which she had left the house the night before, descended the stairs and entered the sitting-room. At first she saw nothing. Then a remembered voice struck her ear; she started, looked up, and gasping, fell back against the door. It was the stranger who had given her the dagger, the stranger she had met in the run!—the horse-thief himself! No! no! she saw it all now—she had cut loose the wrong man!
He looked at her with a smile of sadness—as he drew from his breast-pocket that dreadful dagger, the very sight of which Lanty now loathed! “This is the second time, Miss Foster,” he said gently, “that I have taken this knife from Murietta, the Mexican bandit: once when I disarmed him three weeks ago, and he escaped, and last night, when he had again escaped and I recaptured him. After I lost it that night I understood from you that you had found it and were keeping it for me.” He paused a moment and went on: “I don’t ask you what happened last night. I don’t condemn you for it; I can believe what a girl of your courage and sympathy might rightly do if her pity were excited; I only ask—why did you give him back that knife I trusted you with?”
“Why? Why did I?” burst out Lanty in a daring gush of truth, scorn, and temper. “because I thought you were that horse-thief. There!”
He drew back astonished, and then suddenly came that laugh that Lanty remembered and now hailed with joy. “I believe you, by Jove!” he gasped. “That first night I wore the disguise in which I have tracked him and mingled with his gang. Yes! I see it all now—and more. I see that to you I owe his recapture!”
“To me!” echoed the bewildered girl; “how?”
“Why, instead of making for his cave he lingered here in the confines of the ranch! He thought you were in love with him, because you freed him and gave him his knife, and stayed to see you!”
But Lanty had her apron to her eyes, whose first tears were filling their velvet depths. And her voice was broken as she said,—
“Then he—cared—a—good deal more for me—than some people!”
But there is every reason to believe that Lanty was wrong! At least later events that are part of the history of Foster’s Rancho and the Foster family pointed distinctly to the contrary.