Chapter XVII
 

It is one of the compensating laws of existence that the crisis of human despair and grief is reached on the instant that the reason for it becomes apparent; thereafter it occupies itself for a season in the gradual process of wearing itself out. Time is the great healer of human woe, and if in the darkness of despair one tiny ray of hope can filter through, an automatic rebound to the normal conditions of life quickly follows. The death of a loved one would not be endurable, were it not that Hope dares to reach beyond the grave.

For three days following her discovery of Bob McGraw's name written beneath the sweat-band of the outlaw's hat, Donna Corblay lay on her bed at the Hat Ranch, battling with herself in an effort to refrain from thinking the terrible thoughts that persisted in obtruding themselves upon her tortured brain. For three days, and the greater portion of two nights, she had cried aloud to the four dumb walls of the Hat Ranch:

"He didn't do it. He couldn't do it. My Bob couldn't do such a thing. It's some terrible mistake. Oh, my husband! My dear, thoughtless, impulsive husband! Oh, Bob! Bob! Come back and face them and tell them you didn't do it. Only tell me, and I'll believe you and stick by you through everything."

And then the horrible thought that he was guilty; that even now he was being hunted, hatless, hungry, weary and thirsty--a pariah with every honest man's hand raised against him--reminded her that the limit of her wretchedness lay, not in the fact that her faith in him had been shattered, but in the more appalling consciousness that he would not come back to her! Wild herald of woe and death, he had flitted into her life--as carelessly as he came he had departed, and she knew he would not come back.

Yes, Bob was too shrewd a man not to realize that in abandoning his hat he had left behind him the evidence that must send him to the penitentiary should he ever return to his old haunts in Inyo and Mono counties. He loved his liberty too well to sacrifice it, and he knew her code. It did not seem possible to Donna that he would have the audacity to face her again; so, man-like, he would not try.

And then she would think of him as she had seen him that first night, leaning on Friar Tuck's neck and gazing at her in the dim ghostly light of a green switch-lantern--telling her with his eyes that he loved her. She recalled his little mocking inscrutable smile, the manhood that had won her to him when first they met, and against all this she remembered that she had presented him with the hat which the express messenger had showed her--she had seen him write his name in indelible pencil under the leathern sweat-band!

She knew he had ridden north from San Pasqual the night before the hold-up--and thirty-five miles was as much as one small tough horse could do in the desert between the hour at which Bob had left her and his presumable arrival at Garlock, where he lay in wait for the stage. The automatic gun, the hat, the khaki clothing, the blue bandanna handkerchief which the bandit had used for a mask, the fact that he was mounted--all had pointed to her husband as the bandit. But the description of the horse was at variance with the facts, and moreover-- Donna thought of this on the third day--where had Bob gotten that rifle with which he killed the express messenger's horse?

He had no rifle when he entered San Pasqual that first night, and he had had none when he left. The hardware store always closed at eight o'clock, and it had been ten o'clock when Bob left the Hat Ranch--so he could not have purchased a rifle in San Pasqual. He could not have gotten it in the desert between San Pasqual and Garlock, for in the desert men do not sell their guns, and if Bob had taken the gun by force from some lone prospector, news of his act would have drifted into San Pasqual next day.

It was then that Donna ceased sobbing and commenced to think, for even if her head inclined her to weigh the evidence and render a verdict, her heart was too loyal to accept it. The memory of Bob McGraw was always with her--his humorous brown eyes, the swing to his big body as he walked beside her, big gentleness, his unfailing courtesy, his almost bombastic belief in himself--no, it was not possible that he could be a hypocrite. That perverse streak in him, the heritage of his Irish forebears, would not have permitted him to run from the messenger. The man with courage enough to turn outlaw and rob a stage had courage enough to kill his man, and Bob McGraw would have fought it out in the open, He would never have taken to the shelter of a sand- dune and fired from ambush. Bob McGraw, having brains, would have killed the messenger and gone back for his hat! He was too cunning a frontiersman to leave a trail like that behind him and it was no part of his nature to do a half-way job. Still, the man who had robbed that stage had had no hobbles on his courage. Why, if he--he must have had a reason for not caring to recover that hat--When the desert-bred think, they think quickly; their conclusions are logical. They always search for the reason. The man whose desperate courage had been equal to that robbery--who had accomplished his task with the calm ease and urbanity which proclaimed him a finished product of his profession, should have argued the question with the messenger at greater length! He should have disputed with him possession of the hat, for in the desert a hat is more than a hat. It is a matter of life and death, and when the outlaw had abandoned his hat it must have been because he knew where he could secure another before day should dawn and find him bareheaded in the open. Had Bob been the robber he would have remembered that his name was in the hat, and rescued it, even at the price of the express messenger's life, for self-preservation is ever the first law of nature. On the other hand, if the bandit had known that the name was in the hat--

The mistress of the Hat Ranch rose from her bed, while a wild hope beat in her breast and beamed in her tear-dimmed eyes. She went into the room where she kept her stock of hats and began a careful examination of each hat. Nearly all bore some insignia of ownership. Derby hats invariably carried the owner's initials in fancy gilt letters pasted inside the crown, while others had the initials neatly punched in the sweat-band by a perforating machine. Half a dozen hats, apparently unbranded, had initials or names in full written in indelible pencil inside their sweat-bands.

Donna, considered an authority on male headgear, was for the first time learning something of the habits of men--the too frequent necessity for quickly identifying one's hat from a row of similar hats from the hat-hooks in crowded restaurants. Outwardly the hats of all mankind resemble each other, and for the first time Donna realized that it was the habit of men to mark them. She pondered.

"Now, here is a hat bearing the name of James Purdy. Suppose I should sell this hat to Dan Pennycook (unconsciously she mentioned Mr. Pennycook, who dared not buy a hat from her) and he should hold up the stage and have the hat shot off his head. The express messenger who picked it up would go looking for a man named James Purdy. Perhaps--"

Donna sat down and commenced to laugh hysterically. She had just remembered that Bob McGraw had lost a hat the night he came to San Pasqual!

Donna ceased laughing presently and commenced to cry again--with bitterness and shame at the thought of her disloyalty to her husband. Why, she hadn't sold a hat like Bob's for a year. He had lost his hat the night he saved her from the attack of the hoboes, and somebody had picked it up. She remembered Bob's complaint at the loss of his hat, because it was new and had cost him twenty dollars! Some one in San Pasqual had found it, realized its value and decided to keep it. It followed, then, that the man who had found that hat the night Bob lost it had held up the stage at Garlock. And knowing of the name under the sweat-band (for evidently it was Bob's habit to brand all of his hats thus) and realizing that the finding of the hat would divert suspicion from him, the outlaw had abandoned the hat without a fight!

As Harley P. Hennage would have put it, the entire situation was now as clear as mud!

"And to think that I even suspected him for a moment!" Donna wailed. "Oh, Bob, what will you think of me! I'm a bad, worthless, disloyal wife. Oh, Bob, I'm so sorry and ashamed!"

She was, indeed. But sorrow and shame under such circumstances may exist, at the outset, for about ten minutes. The resurgent wave of joy which her discovery induced quickly routed the last vestige of her distress, and womanlike her first impulse, as a wife, was to wreak summary vengeance on the man who had asserted that her husband had robbed the stage! The idea! She would ascertain the name of this passenger who declared that he had recognized the bandit as Bob McGraw, and force him to make a public apology--

No, she would not do that. To do so would be to presume that her Bob was not, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion, and besides, it would spoil Harley P.'s little joke on San Pasqual. And there was really no danger of Bob's arrest. The sheriff's posse was trailing the other man out across the San Bernardino desert, while Bob, serenely unconscious of the furor created by the finding of his lost hat, was trudging through the range, miles to the north, headed east from Coso Springs with his two burros, circling across country to the Colorado desert and prospecting as he went. Her defense of him when he needed none would merely serve to invite the query: "Why are you so interested in him!" and until the day of Bob's return, she did not wish to answer "Because he is my husband."

No, it would be far better to sit calmly by and enjoy the industry of the man-hunters; then, when Bob returned, he would defend himself in his own vigorous fashion, much to the chagrin of his accusers and the consequent delight of Harley P. Hennage.

Thinking of Mr. Hennage reminded her that he had sent a note by Sam Singer. In her distress she had forgotten about it until now; so, after bathing her eyes, she opened the envelope and acquainted herself with its remarkable contents.

Poor old Harley P.! She read the distress between the lines of that kindly lie that he was in trouble and had to get out of San Pasqual-- and as she fingered the little roll of bills she discovered no paradox in Harley P.'s hard face and still harder reputation and the oft- repeated biblical quotation that God makes man to His own image and likeness.

A thousand dollars! How well she knew why he had sent it! He feared that she, like him, would have to leave San Pasqual to avoid answering questions, and fearing that she was but indifferently equipped to face the world, he had refrained from asking questions. Instead he had equipped her, and in his unassuming way had departed without waiting for her thanks or leaving an address--infallible evidence that he desired neither her gratitude nor the return of the money.

"Poor fellow!" she murmured. "How terrible he'll feel when he discovers it's all a mistake. He'll be ashamed to speak to me. Still, why should he feel chagrined at all? He hasn't said a word."

Foxy Mr. Hennage! It was quite true. He hadn't said a word! Ah, money talks; despite his precautions, Harley P.'s thousand dollars were very eloquent.

The next day Donna took up her life where it had left off. She had scarcely cached Harley P.'s thousand dollars in her private compartment in the eating-house safe when the irrepressible Miss Molly Pickett dropped in to express her sympathy at Donna's three-day illness, casually mentioned the stage robbery, the name in the hat and the sudden exit from San Pasqual of Harley P. Hennage. Incidentally she mentioned the fact that Mr. Hennage had once presented her with an order for a registered letter for a man by the name of Robert McGraw, and taking into consideration this fact and the further fact that birds of a feather always flock together, Miss Pickett opined that the hold- up man was doubtless a bosom friend of Mr. Hennage.

A hearty dinner the evening before, and twelve hours of uninterrupted slumber, had driven from Donna's face every trace of her three days of purgatory. She was alert, smiling and happy; and able to cross swords with Miss Pickett with something more than a gossamer hope of foiling her. She discussed the affair so calmly and with such apparent interest that Miss Pickett was completely mystified, and in a last desperate effort to satiate her curiosity she cast aside all pretense and came boldly into the open.

"Folks do say, Donna, that the man who was shot saving you from those tramps and was nursed at the Hat Ranch is the same man that held up the stage."

"Indeed! Miss Pickett, folks don't know what they are talking about. Have you asked Doctor Taylor?"

Miss Pickett commenced to spar. As a matter of fact she had asked Doc Taylor, and been informed that his late patient responded to the name of Roland McGuire. But there was a hang-dog look in the doctor's eyes which had not escaped Miss Pickett, and intuitively she knew that the worthy medico had lied. Donna's question convinced her that she was not mistaken. Her bright little eyes gleamed archly.

"Why, we never did learn who it was that saved you, Donna. Is it a secret?"

"Why, no."

Miss Pickett waited in agony for ten seconds, but Donna, having replied fully to her query, volunteered no further information. In desperation the post-mistress demanded:

"Well, then, why do you keep it to yourself?"

"Is that any of your business, Miss Pickett?"

"No, of course not. But then--"

"Well?"

Miss Pickett was non-plussed, but only for an instant. Like all old maids when bested in a battle of wits by an opponent of their own sex, younger, more attractive and known to be popular with the males of their acquaintance, Miss Pickett was quick to take the high ground of a tactful consideration of circumstances which Donna apparently had overlooked; circumstances which, while savoring slightly of girlish indiscretion, might, nevertheless, be construed as a distinct slip from virtue. An attack, whether by innuendo or direct assertion, on a sister's virtue is ever the first weapon of a mean and disappointed woman, and having no other charms to speak of, Miss Pickett chose to assume that of superior virtue; so, with the subtle sting of her species, she sunk her poison home.

"Well, Donna, if you won't protect your own good name, I'm sure you shouldn't be surprised if your friends endeavor to protect it for you. Everybody in town knows you kept that man at your home for a month--"

"I haven't denied it, or attempted to conceal the fact. In what manner does that reflect on my good name, Miss Pickett?"

"Well, folks will talk--you know that."

"Of course I know they will. That's their privilege, Miss Pickett, and I'm not at all interested, I assure you." She smiled patronizingly at the postmistress. "When I want somebody to protect my good name, Miss Pickett, I'll send for a man. Until then you may consider yourself relieved of the task."

"Well, when people know you've kept a desperate character--"

"Who knows it, Miss Pickett? Do you?"

Miss Pickett was forced to acknowledge that she did not, and under a hot volley of questions from Donna admitted further that not a soul in San Pasqual had even hinted to her of such a contingency. Too late the spinster realized that she had, figuratively speaking, placed all of her eggs in one bucket and scrambled them.

Donna realized it too. For the first time in her life she was angry, although not for worlds would she permit Miss Pickett to realize it. She had the postmistress on the defensive now, and she was determined to keep her there; so, in calm gentle commiserating tones Donna read the riot act to the embarrassed gossip. Mentally, morally, physically and socially, she was Miss Pickett's superior and Miss Pickett knew this; her instinctive knowledge of it placed her at a disadvantage and forced her to listen to a few elegantly worded remarks on charity, the folly of playing the part of guardian of a sister's morals and the innate nastiness of throwing mud. It was a rare grueling that Donna gave Miss Pickett; the pity of it was that Mr. Hennage could not have been there to listen to it.

The postmistress was confounded. She could think of nothing to say in reply until the right moment for saying it had fled; and her pride forbade her acknowledging defeat by tossing her head and walking out with a grand air of injured innocence. In the end she lost her composure entirely, for while Donna's remarks had seemed designed for the "folks" whom Miss Pickett seemed to fear might "talk," the latter knew that in reality they were directed at her.

To be forced to listen to an almost motherly castigation from Donna Corblay was too great a tax upon Miss Pickett's limited powers of endurance. She flew into a rage, all the more pitiful because it was impotent, murmured something about the ingratitude of some people--"not mentionin' any names, but not exceptin' present company," and swept out of the eating-house; not, however, until she had commenced to cry, thus acknowledging her defeat and humiliation and presenting to San Pasqual that meanest of all mean sights, a mean old maid, in a rage, weeping until her eyes and nose are red.

In the afternoon Donna had a visit from a Wells Fargo & Company detective. He was a large fatherly person, who might have had girls of his own as old as Donna, and he stated his mission without embarrassment of preliminary verbal skirmishing. "From various sources around town, Miss Corblay, I gather that it is quite possible you are acquainted with the man McGraw who is suspected of the recent stage robbery at Garlock."

Donna admitted, smiling, that it was quite possible.

"Have you any objection to telling me all you know about him?"

"Not the slightest. It is your business to investigate this matter, and I have refrained from telling others whose business it is not. If I have your word of honor that what I tell you is for the company you represent and not for the gossips of San Pasqual, I can save you time and trouble and expense."

"Thank you. It is a rare pleasure, I assure you, Miss Corblay, for a man in my line of work to receive such a prompt, courteous and businesslike answer from a woman. You have my word that anything you tell me is in confidence."

"Did Miss Pickett send you here?"

"Indirectly. She gave some information to our express messenger who in turn gave it to me. I might add that the interest of our messenger ceased when I took up this case."

"Very well" replied Donna, and proceeded to tell him with infinite detail, everything she knew concerning Bob McGraw, excepting the fact that he was her husband. In five minutes she had tightened the web of circumstantial evidence around him, and then unloosened it, and at the finish of her recital the detective had no questions to ask. He held out his hand and shook hers warmly.

"I think you have solved this case for me, Miss Corblay. However, there is one matter that will be hard to overcome, and that is the identification of McGraw by the passenger, Carey."

"Who?"

"A passenger. His name is T. Morgan Carey, of Los Angeles. He is rather prominent in business circles--a pretty sane, careful man, and his testimony would have considerable evidence with a jury."

"Find out from the messenger if Carey identified Bob--I mean Mr. McGraw (the detective smiled slightly) before the messenger gave chase to the hold-up man, or after he returned with the hat. If the latter, I can explode his testimony. I happen to know that Mr. Carey is a business rival of Mr. McGraw's and very unfriendly to him. It would be to Carey's great financial advantage to see Bob (again the detective smiled) in jail. Then ask your agent at Keeler to make inquiry and learn if a tall young man with auburn hair didn't ride into town the day following the hold-up, mounted on a roan horse. If he sold the horse, saddle and spurs, purchased two burros and outfitted in Keeler for a prospecting trip, that man was Mr. Robert McGraw and he didn't arrive bareheaded. I think you'll discover that you're following a false lead."

The detective could guess a thing or two; otherwise he would not have been a detective. He guessed something of Donna's more than friendly interest in the man he was after; an interest which he felt to be greater than a mere feeling of gratitude for what McGraw had saved her from, and his sympathies wore with her. She had been "open and above board with him" and he appreciated the embarrassment that might attend should the matter be given publicity.

"Whatever I discover will not be made public, Miss Corblay. Thank you."

He lifted his hat and walked out, while Donna, selecting one of the late magazines from the news-stand, sat down and read for the rest of the afternoon.

Eight days passed before the detective appeared again at the counter.

"Miss Corblay," he reported smiling, "you're a better detective than I. McGraw didn't do the job--that is, your--Bob. But some other McGraw did. The fact is, he's sent back the money he lifted from the company and the passengers. At least, a number of them have reported the return of their cash. Here's a note the agent here received a little while ago."

He passed a type-written sheet across the counter to her. Donna read it carefully.

"The plot thickens. However, this is only added proof that my line of reasoning is correct. This line, 'I didn't have no business to do it in the first place,' clinches the testimony. The Robert McGraw of my acquaintance never uses double negatives."

"And he couldn't have arrived in Goldfield with a burro train in less than six weeks. You say this man uses double negatives. There's a clew. Who, among your acquaintances, Miss Corblay, uses double negatives?"

"Every soul with the exception of Mr. McGraw" replied Donna. "Following a clew like that in San Pasqual would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But I think I could name the man who wrote that note."

"Who is he?"

Donna favored the detective with a mocking little smile.

"He's a friend of mine" she said, "and I never go back on a friend."

"Well," he replied jokingly, "I can't imagine a friend going back on you. However, I'll not be curious about this chap. He appears contrite, and the incident is closed. But all the same, this is one of the queerest cases I've had in all my experience," and he went out, still puzzled.