Out of this cloud presently emerged the neat figure of the postmistress with the mailbag which had been dexterously flung at her feet from the top of the passing vehicle. A dozen loungers eagerly stretched out their hands to assist her, but the warning: “It’s agin the rules, boys, for any but her to touch it,” from a bystander, and a coquettish shake of the head from the postmistress herself—much more effective than any official interdict—withheld them. The bag was not heavy,—Laurel Run was too recent a settlement to have attracted much correspondence,—and the young woman, having pounced upon her prey with a certain feline instinct, dragged it, not without difficulty, behind the partitioned inclosure in the office, and locked the door. Her pretty face, momentarily visible through the window, was slightly flushed with the exertion, and the loose ends of her fair hair, wet with perspiration, curled themselves over her forehead into tantalizing little rings. But the window shutter was quickly closed, and this momentary but charming vision withdrawn from the waiting public.
“Guv’ment oughter have more sense than to make a woman pick mail-bags outer the road,” said Jo Simmons sympathetically. “’Tain’t in her day’s work anyhow; Guv’mont oughter hand ’em over to her like a lady; it’s rich enough and ugly enough.”
“’Tain’t Guv’ment; it’s that stage company’s airs and graces,” interrupted a newcomer. “They think it mighty fine to go beltin’ by, makin’ everybody take their dust, just because stoppin’ ain’t in their contract. Why, if that expressman who chucked down the bag had any feelin’s for a lady”—but he stopped here at the amused faces of his auditors.
“Guess you don’t know much o’ that expressman’s feelin’s, stranger,” said Simmons grimly. “Why, you oughter see him just nussin’ that bag like a baby as he comes tearin’ down the grade, and then rise up and sorter heave it to Mrs. Baker ez if it was a five-dollar bokay! His feelin’s for her! Why, he’s give himself so dead away to her that we’re looking for him to forget what he’s doin’ next, and just come sailin’ down hisself at her feet.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the partition, Mrs. Baker had brushed the red dust from the padlocked bag, and removed what seemed to be a supplementary package attached to it by a wire. Opening it she found a handsome scent-bottle, evidently a superadded gift from the devoted expressman. This she put aside with a slight smile and the murmured word, “Foolishness.” But when she had unlocked the bag, even its sacred interior was also profaned by a covert parcel from the adjacent postmaster at Burnt Ridge, containing a gold “specimen” brooch and some circus tickets. It was laid aside with the other. This also was vanity and—presumably—vexation of spirit.
There were seventeen letters in all, of which five were for herself—and yet the proportion was small that morning. Two of them were marked “Official Business” and were promptly put by with feminine discernment; but in another compartment than that holding the presents. Then the shutter was opened, and the task of delivery commenced.
It was accompanied with a social peculiarity that had in time become a habit of Laurel Run. As the young woman delivered the letters, in turn, to the men who were patiently drawn up in Indian file, she made that simple act a medium of privileged but limited conversation on special or general topics,—gay or serious as the case might be, or the temperament of the man suggested. That it was almost always of a complimentary character on their part may be readily imagined; but it was invariably characterized by an element of refined restraint, and, whether from some implied understanding or individual sense of honour, it never passed the bounds of conventionality or a certain delicacy of respect. The delivery was consequently more or less protracted, but when each man had exchanged his three or four minutes’ conversation with the fair postmistress,—a conversation at times impeded by bashfulness or timidity, on his part solely, or restricted often to vague smiling,—he resignedly made way for the next. It was a formal levee, mitigated by the informality of rustic tact, great good-humor, and infinite patience, and would have been amusing had it not always been terribly in earnest and at times touching. For it was peculiar to the place and the epoch, and indeed implied the whole history of Mrs. Baker.
She was the wife of John Baker, foreman of “The Last Chance,” now for a year lying dead under half a mile of crushed and beaten-in tunnel at Burnt Ridge. There had been a sudden outcry from the depths at high hot noontide one day, and John had rushed from his cabin—his young, foolish, flirting wife clinging to him—to answer that despairing cry of his imprisoned men. There was one exit that he alone knew which might be yet held open, among falling walls and tottering timbers, long enough to set them free. For one moment only the strong man hesitated between her entreating arms and his brothers’ despairing cry. But she rose suddenly with a pale face, and said, “Go, John; I will wait for you here.” He went, the men were freed—but she had waited for him ever since!
Yet in the shock of the calamity and in the after struggles of that poverty which had come to the ruined camp, she had scarcely changed. But the men had. Although she was to all appearances the same giddy, pretty Betsy Baker, who had been so disturbing to the younger members, they seemed to be no longer disturbed by her. A certain subdued awe and respect, as if the martyred spirit of John Baker still held his arm around her, appeared to have come upon them all. They held their breath as this pretty woman, whose brief mourning had not seemed to affect her cheerfulness or even playfulness of spirit, passed before them. But she stood by her cabin and the camp—the only woman in a settlement of forty men—during the darkest hours of their fortune. Helping them to wash and cook, and ministering to their domestic needs, the sanctity of her cabin was, however, always kept as inviolable as if it had been his tomb. No one exactly knew why, for it was only a tacit instinct; but even one or two who had not scrupled to pay court to Betsy Baker during John Baker’s life, shrank from even a suggestion of familiarity towards the woman who had said that she would “wait for him there.”
When brighter days came and the settlement had increased by one or two families, and laggard capital had been hurried up to relieve the still beleaguered and locked-up wealth of Burnt Ridge, the needs of the community and the claims of the widow of John Baker were so well told in political quarters that the post-office of Laurel Run was created expressly for her. Every man participated in the building of the pretty yet substantial edifice—the only public building of Laurel Run—that stood in the dust of the great highway, half a mile from the settlement. There she was installed for certain hours of the day, for she could not be prevailed upon to abandon John’s cabin, and here, with all the added respect due to a public functionary, she was secure in her privacy.
But the blind devotion of Laurel Run to John Baker’s relict did not stop here. In its zeal to assure the Government authorities of the necessity for a post-office, and to secure a permanent competency to the postmistress, there was much embarrassing extravagance. During the first week the sale of stamps at Laurel Run post-office was unprecedented in the annals of the Department. Fancy prices were given for the first issue; then they were bought wildly, recklessly, unprofitably, and on all occasions. Complimentary congratulation at the little window invariably ended with “and a dollar’s worth of stamps, Mrs. Baker.” It was felt to be supremely delicate to buy only the highest priced stamps, without reference to their adequacy; then mere quantity was sought; then outgoing letters were all over-paid and stamped in outrageous proportion to their weight and even size. The imbecility of this, and its probable effect on the reputation of Laurel Run at the General Post-office, being pointed out by Mrs. Baker, stamps were adopted as local currency, and even for decorative purposes on mirrors and the walls of cabins. Everybody wrote letters, with the result, however, that those sent were ludicrously and suspiciously in excess of those received. To obviate this, select parties made forced journeys to Hickory Hill, the next post-office, with letters and circulars addressed to themselves at Laurel Run. How long the extravagance would have continued is not known, but it was not until it was rumored that, in consequence of this excessive flow of business, the Department had concluded that a postmaster would be better fitted for the place that it abated, and a compromise was effected with the General Office by a permanent salary to the postmistress.
Such was the history of Mrs. Baker, who had just finished her afternoon levee, nodded a smiling “good-by” to her last customer, and closed her shutter again. Then she took up her own letters, but, before reading them, glanced, with a pretty impatience, at the two official envelopes addressed to herself, which she had shelved. They were generally a “lot of new rules,” or notifications, or “absurd” questions which had nothing to do with Laurel Run and only bothered her and “made her head ache,” and she had usually referred them to her admiring neighbor at Hickory Hill for explanation, who had generally returned them to her with the brief indorsement, “Purp stuff, don’t bother,” or, “Hog wash, let it slide.” She remembered now that he had not returned the last two. With knitted brows and a slight pout she put aside her private correspondence and tore open the first one. It referred with official curtness to an unanswered communication of the previous week, and was “compelled to remind her of rule 47.” Again those horrid rules! She opened the other; the frown deepened on her brow, and became fixed.
It was a summary of certain valuable money letters that had miscarried on the route, and of which they had given her previous information. For a moment her cheeks blazed. How dare they; what did they mean! Her waybills and register were always right; she knew the names of every man, woman, and child in her district; no such names as those borne by the missing letters had ever existed at Laurel Run; no such addresses had ever been sent from Laurel Run post-office. It was a mean insinuation! She would send in her resignation at once! She would get “the boys” to write an insulting letter to Senator Slocumb,—Mrs. Baker had the feminine idea of Government as a purely personal institution,—and she would find out who it was that had put them up to this prying, crawling impudence! It was probably that wall-eyed old wife of the postmaster at Heavy Tree Crossing, who was jealous of her. “Remind her of their previous unanswered communication,” indeed! Where was that communication, anyway? She remembered she had sent it to her admirer at Hickory Hill. Odd that he hadn’t answered it. Of course, he knew about this meanness—could he, too, have dared to suspect her! The thought turned her crimson again. He, Stanton Green, was an old “Laurel Runner,” a friend of John’s, a little “triflin’” and “presoomin’,” but still an old loyal pioneer of the camp! “Why hadn’t he spoke up?”
There was the soft, muffled fall of a horse’s hoof in the thick dust of the highway, the jingle of dismounting spurs, and a firm tread on the platform. No doubt one of the boys returning for a few supplemental remarks under the feeble pretense of forgotten stamps. It had been done before, and she had resented it as “cayotin’ round;” but now she was eager to pour out her wrongs to the first comer. She had her hand impulsively on the door of the partition, when she stopped with a new sense of her impaired dignity. Could she confess this to her worshipers? But here the door opened in her very face, and a stranger entered.
He was a man of fifty, compactly and strongly built. A squarely-cut goatee, slightly streaked with gray, fell straight from his thin-lipped but handsome mouth; his eyes were dark, humorous, yet searching. But the distinctive quality that struck Mrs Baker was the blending of urban ease with frontier frankness. He was evidently a man who had seen cities and knew countries as well. And while he was dressed with the comfortable simplicity of a Californian mounted traveler, her inexperienced but feminine eye detected the keynote of his respectability in the carefully-tied bow of his cravat. The Sierrean throat was apt to be open, free, and unfettered.
“Good-morning, Mrs. Baker,” he said, pleasantly, with his hat already in his hand, “I’m Harry Home, of San Francisco.” As he spoke his eye swept approvingly over the neat inclosure, the primly-tied papers, and well-kept pigeon-holes; the pot of flowers on her desk; her china-silk mantle, and killing little chip hat and ribbons hanging against the wall; thence to her own pink, flushed face, bright blue eyes, tendriled clinging hair, and then—fell upon the leathern mailbag still lying across the table. Here it became fixed on the unfortunate wire of the amorous expressman that yet remained hanging from the brass wards of the lock, and he reached his hand toward it.
But little Mrs. Baker was before him, and had seized it in her arms. She had been too preoccupied and bewildered to resent his first intrusion behind the partition, but this last familiarity with her sacred official property—albeit empty—capped the climax of her wrongs.
“How dare you touch it!” she said indignantly. “How dare you come in here! Who are you, anyway? Go outside, at once!”
The stranger fell back with an amused, deprecatory gesture, and a long silent laugh. “I’m afraid you don’t know me, after all!” he said pleasantly. “I’m Harry Home, the Department Agent from the San Francisco office. My note of advice, No. 201, with my name on the envelope, seems to have miscarried too.”
Even in her fright and astonishment it flashed upon Mrs. Baker that she had sent that notice, too, to Hickory Hill. But with it all the feminine secretive instinct within her was now thoroughly aroused, and she kept silent.
“I ought to have explained,” he went on smilingly; “but you are quite right, Mrs. Baker,” he added, nodding towards the bag. “As far as you knew, I had no business to go near it. Glad to see you know how to defend Uncle Sam’s property so well. I was only a bit puzzled to know” (pointing to the wire) “if that thing was on the bag when it was delivered to you?”
Mrs. Baker saw no reason to conceal the truth. After all, this official was a man like the others, and it was just as well that he should understand her power. “It’s only the expressman’s foolishness,” she said, with a slightly coquettish toss of her head. “He thinks it smart to tie some nonsense on that bag with the wire when he flings it down.”
Mr. Home, with his eyes on her pretty face, seemed to think it a not inhuman or unpardonable folly. “As long as he doesn’t meddle with the inside of the bag, I suppose you must put up with it,” he said laughingly. A dreadful recollection, that the Hickory Hill postmaster had used the inside of the bag to convey his foolishness, came across her. It would never do to confess it now. Her face must have shown some agitation, for the official resumed with a half-paternal, half-reassuring air: “But enough of this. Now, Mrs. Baker, to come to my business here. Briefly, then, it doesn’t concern you in the least, except so far as it may relieve you and some others, whom the Department knows equally well, from a certain responsibility, and, perhaps, anxiety. We are pretty well posted down there in all that concerns Laurel Run, and I think” (with a slight bow) “we’ve known all about you and John Baker. My only business here is to take your place to-night in receiving the “Omnibus Way Bag,” that you know arrives here at 9.30, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mrs. Baker hurriedly; “but it never has anything for us, except”—(she caught herself up quickly, with a stammer, as she remembered the sighing Green’s occasional offerings) “except a notification from Hickory Hill post-office. It leaves there,” she went on with an affectation of precision, at half past eight exactly, and it’s about an hour’s run—seven miles by road.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Home. “Well, I will receive the bag, open it, and dispatch it again. You can, if you choose, take a holiday.”
“But,” said Mrs. Baker, as she remembered that Laurel Run always made a point of attending her evening levee on account of the superior leisure it offered, “there are the people who come for letters, you know.”
“I thought you said there were no letters at that time,” said Mr. Home quickly.
“No—but—but”—(with a slight hysterical stammer) “the boys come all the same.”
“Oh!” said Mr. Home dryly.
“And—O Lord!”— But here the spectacle of the possible discomfiture of Laurel Run at meeting the bearded face of Mr. Home, instead of her own smooth cheeks, at the window, combined with her nervous excitement, overcame her so that, throwing her little frilled apron over her head, she gave way to a paroxym of hysterical laughter. Mr. Home waited with amused toleration for it to stop, and, when she had recovered, resumed. “Now, I should like to refer an instant to my first communication to you. Have you got it handy?”
Mrs. Baker’s face fell. “No; I sent it over to Mr. Green, of Hickory Hill, for information.”
Terrified at the sudden seriousness of the man’s voice, she managed to gasp out, however, that, after her usual habit, she had not opened the official letters, but had sent them to her more experienced colleague for advice and information; that she never could understand them herself,—they made her head ache, and interfered with her other duties,—but he understood them, and sent her word what to do. Remembering also his usual style of indorsement, she grew red again.
“And what did he say?”
“Nothing; he didn’t return them.”
“Naturally,” said Mr. Home, with a peculiar expression. After a few moments’ silent stroking of his beard, he suddenly faced the frightened woman.
“You oblige me, Mrs. Baker, to speak more frankly to you than I had intended. You have—unwittingly, I believe—given information to a man whom the Government suspects of peculation. You have, without knowing it, warned the postmaster at Hickory Hill that he is suspected; and, as you might have frustrated our plans for tracing a series of embezzlements to their proper source, you will see that you might have also done great wrong to yourself as his only neighbor and the next responsible person. In plain words, we have traced the disappearance of money letters to a point when it lies between these two offices. Now, I have not the least hesitation in telling you that we do not suspect Laurel Run, and never have suspected it. Even the result of your thoughtless act, although it warned him, confirms our suspicion of his guilt. As to the warning, it has failed, or he has grown reckless, for another letter has been missed since. To-night, however, will settle all doubt in the matter. When I open that bag in this office to-night, and do not find a certain decoy letter in it, which was last checked at Heavy Tree Crossing, I shall know that it remains in Green’s possession at Hickory Hill.”
She was sitting back in her chair, white and breathless. He glanced at her kindly, and then took up his hat. “Come, Mrs. Baker, don’t let this worry you. As I told you at first, you have nothing to fear. Even your thoughtlessness and ignorance of rules have contributed to show your own innocence. Nobody will ever be the wiser for this; we do not advertise our affairs in the Department. Not a soul but yourself knows the real cause of my visit here. I will leave you here alone for a while, so as to divert any suspicion. You will come, as usual, this evening, and be seen by your friends; I will only be here when the bag arrives, to open it. Good-by, Mrs. Baker; it’s a nasty bit of business, but it’s all in the day’s work. I’ve seen worse, and, thank God, you’re out of it.”
She heard his footsteps retreat into the outer office and die out of the platform; the jingle of his spurs, and the hollow beat of his horse’s hoofs that seemed to find a dull echo in her own heart, and she was alone.
The room was very hot and very quiet; she could hear the warping and creaking of the shingles under the relaxing of the nearly level sunbeams. The office clock struck seven. In the breathless silence that followed, a woodpecker took up his interrupted work on the roof, and seemed to beat out monotonously on her ear the last words of the stranger: Stanton Green—a thief! Stanton Green, one of the “boys” John had helped out of the falling tunnel! Stanton Green, whose old mother in the States still wrote letters to him at Laurel Run, in a few hours to be a disgraced and ruined man forever! She remembered now, as a thoughtless woman remembers, tales of his extravagance and fast living, of which she had taken no heed, and, with a sense of shame, of presents sent her, that she now clearly saw must have been far beyond his means. What would the boys say? What would John have said? Ah! what would John have done!
She started suddenly to her feet, white and cold as on that day that she had parted from John Baker before the tunnel. She put on her hat and mantle, and going to that little iron safe that stood in the corner, unlocked it and took out its entire contents of gold and silver. She had reached the door when another idea seized her, and opening her desk she collected her stamps to the last sheet, and hurriedly rolled them up under her cape. Then with a glance at the clock, and a rapid survey of the road from the platform, she slipped from it, and seemed to be swallowed up in the waiting woods beyond.