The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
As has been intimated elsewhere in this story, San Pasqual has the reputation of being a "tough" town. This is due in a large measure to the fact that it is a division terminal, and at all division terminals train crews must reckon with that element in our leisure class which declines to pay railroad fare and elects to travel on brake-beams rather than in Pullman sleepers. Having been unceremoniously plucked from his precarious perch, the dispossessed hobo, finding himself stranded in a desert town where the streets are not electrically lighted, follows the dumb dictates of his stomach and the trend of his abnormal ambition, and promptly "turns a trick." Occasionally there is an objection on the part of the "trickee" and somebody gets killed. Naturally enough, it follows that the sound of pistol shots is frequently heard in the land, and since it happens nine times out of ten that the argument is between transients, the permanent resident is not nearly so interested in the outcome as one might imagine-- particularly when the shooting takes place at night and beyond the town limits.
Harley P. Hennage had crossed from the eating-house, and had just reached the porch of the Silver Dollar saloon, when above the whistling of the "zephyr" he heard the muffled reports of three pistol shots. One "Borax" O'Rourke, a "mule-skinner" from up Keeler way, who had just arrived in San Pasqual to spend his pay-day after the fashion of the country, heard them also.
"Down the tracks," O'Rourke elucidated. "Tramps fightin' with a railroad policeman, I guess. Let's go down."
"What's the use?" objected Mr. Hennage. "A yegg never does any damage unless he's right on top of his man. They all carry little short bulldog guns, an' I never did see one o' them little bar pistols that would score a hit at twenty yards after sundown. They carry high."
At that instant the sound of another shot was heard, but faintly.
"That's the hobo" announced Mr. Hennage with conviction. "Them first three shots came from a life-size gun."
Half a minute passed; then came the report of six shots, following so quickly upon each other that they sounded almost like a volley.
"Nine shots" commented "Borax" O'Rourke. "That's an automatic."
"That's what it is!" Mr. Hennage walked to the end of the porch. He was just a little excited. "It's all off with the hobo" he continued. "I know the man that's using that automatic, and he can shoot your eye out at a hundred yards. I saw him ridin' in just as I left the eatin' house."
"He must have been movin' to get down there in such a hurry. What's a man on horseback doin' chasin' hobos across a web of railroad tracks, an' if he was headed south, seems to me he'd have laid over for supper--"
But Harley P. had a flash of inspiration now. "Come on, O'Rourke" he shouted, and made a flying leap off the saloon porch. Borax followed, and the two raced down the street at top speed--which, in the case of Mr. Hennage, owing to his weight and his bow-legs, was not remarkable. Borax easily outdistanced him.
Meanwhile, a rather spectacular panorama had been unfolding itself back of the string of box-cars. Guided by Donna's screams, Bob McGraw sent his horse away at a tearing gallop, lifting him in great leaps across the maze of railroad tracks, and in a shower of flying cinders brought him up, almost sitting, in the little foot-path between two lines of track. Almost under Friar Tuck's front feet, Donna was struggling in the grasp of three ruffians, one of whom was endeavoring to tie a handkerchief across her mouth. The velocipede had been derailed by means of a car-stake placed across the track.
Bob McGraw's long gun rose and fell three times, and at each deadly drop a streak of flame punctured the moon-light. The three assailants went down, shot through their respective legs--which remarkable coincidence was not a coincidence at all, but merely a touch of kindly consideration on the part of Bob McGraw, who didn't believe in killing his man when wounding him would serve the same purpose.
As the three brutes dropped away from her the man from Owens river valley lowered his weapon, and Donna, pale, terrorized and disheveled, reeled toward him. He swung his horse a little, leaned outward and downward, and with a sweep of his strong left arm he lifted her off the ground and set her in front of him on Friar Tuck's neck, just as one of the wounded thugs straightened up, cut loose with his bulldog gun and shot Bob McGraw through the right breast.
Donna heard a half-suppressed "Oh!" from her deliverer, and felt him sway forward a little. Then, seeming to summon every atom of grit and strength he possessed, he whirled his horse, scuttled away around the rear of the box-car, out of danger, and set Donna on the ground.
"Wait here" he commanded, through teeth clenched to keep back the blood that welled from within him. "I was too kind--to those hounds."
He rode back and finished his night's work. War-mad, he sat his horse, reeling in the saddle, and emptied his gun into the squirming wretches as they sought to crawl under the car for protection.
Donna was terribly frightened, but she was the last woman in the world to go into hysterics. She realized that she was saved, and accordingly commenced to cry, while waiting for the horseman to reappear. A minute passed and still he did not come, and suddenly, without quite realizing what she was doing or why she did it, the girl went back to the scene of the battle to look for him. She was not so badly frightened now, but rather awed by the silence, Donna was desert-bred, and in all her life she had never fainted. For a girl she was remarkably free from "nerves," and she had lived too long in San Pasqual to faint now at sight of the three still figures huddled between the ties, even had she seen them; which, she had not. All that Donna saw was a roan range pony, standing quietly with drooping head, while his master sprawled in the saddle with his arms around his horse's neck. Donna went quickly to him, and when the moon came out from behind a hurrying cloud she was enabled, with the aid of the ghastly green glare from a switch lantern which shone on his face, to observe that he was quite conscious and looking at her with untroubled boyish eyes.
His hat was lying on the ground, securely anchored by the pony's left fore foot. With rather unnatural calmness and following, subconsciously perhaps, her acquired instinct for salving hats for the men of her little world, Donna stooped, slapped the pony's leg to make him release the hat and picked it up. She stood for a few seconds, with the hat in her hand, looking at him pityingly. The man's brown eyes blazed with admiration.
"What a woman!" he wheezed. "You're brave--like a man. You came back. I'd like--to live--to serve you further--"
He gurgled, a red stain appeared at the corners of his mouth, and he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again his soul was shining through and he smiled a little. He did not again attempt to speak, yet, for all that, Donna heard the man-call to the woman that belonged to him, the mate for whom he had been destined when the world was first created. There are in this world personalities so finely attuned to each other that mere words are unnecessary to express the feelings of each for the other when first they meet. Between certain rare souls the gulf of convention may be bridged by a glance; the divine miracle of a pure and holy love, leaping to life in an instant, can suffer no defilement by a spontaneous and human impulse to grasp the precious gift ere life departs.
Some women love at first sight, but the vast majority, lacking the imagination to perceive, at a glance, the attributes that go toward the making of a Man, only think they love and delay a conventional period before yielding. But Donna Corblay had lived so long in sordid, unimaginative, unromantic San Pasqual that, from much inhibition and introspection, she was different from most women. She had grown to rely on herself, to trust her own judgment and to bank on first impressions. As she faced Bob McGraw now, her first impression was that he was telling her with his eyes that he loved her, that he had ridden in behind this string of box-cars to purchase her honor at the price of his life, because he loved her. And inasmuch as there appeared to be nothing unusual or unconventional in his telling her this--with his eyes, Donna was sensible of but one feeling and one desire; a feeling of gratitude to him for the priceless gift of his love and her honor, a desire to--
She dropped his hat, wiped the blood from his lips and kissed him.
Bob McGraw smiled wistfully.
"It's worth it," he whispered, "and few women are--worth--dying for."
"You must not die," the girl cried passionately. "You're my Dream Man and I've waited so long for you and dreamed of your coming! I'll pray for you, I'll ask God to give you to me--"
An almost fanatical joy beamed in her wonderful eyes, the color had returned to her cheeks; and to Bob McGraw, faltering there on the edge of eternity, her radiant regal presence brought a wondrous peace. For a moment he saw the moonlight reflecting the light in her eyes; a strand of her hair blew across his face--he smelled its perfume; the intoxication of her glorious personality caused him to marvel and doubt his own waning sense of the reality of things. He leaned toward her hungrily and lapsed into unconsciousness, while his big limp body commenced to slide slowly out of the slippery saddle. She caught him in her strong arms, eased him to the ground and knelt there with his red head in her lap, showering his face with her kisses and her tears. It was thus that "Borax" O'Rourke, badly blown after his three-hundred- yard dash, found them.
"Great snakes, young lady, what's happened?" gasped Mr. O'Rourke.
"Three brutes and a man have been killed" she replied.
"What the--who--who's that feller? Are you--"
"Don't ask questions, Borax. I am not hurt, but I have no time to answer questions. Please remove that car-stake and replace the velocipede on the tracks."
Her cool demeanor, despite her tears, her terse commands, indicating a plan for prompt action of some kind, flabbergasted Borax to such an extent that he commenced to swear very fluently, without for a moment realizing that there was a lady present. And just at this juncture Harley P. Hennage arrived.
As might be expected, Harley P. wasted no time catering to the call of curiosity.
"Let me have him, Miss Donna," he ordered. "We'll put him on the velocipede and rush him up to the hotel. I'll--"
"No, Mr. Hennage. He belongs to me. Place him on the velocipede and help me take him home."
"To the Hat Ranch?"
"Yes, of course, I can care for him there, if he lives."
"Why, Miss Donna--"
"Do it, please" she commanded. "I know best. Set him on the little platform and tie his legs to the reach. Then stand behind him to work the lever, and let him rest against your knees. I'll follow with the horse."
"Remarkable! Very remarkable!" soliloquized the big gambler. Without further ado he proceeded to carry out Donna's orders.
"Borax," Donna continued, "you run up to the drug store and tell Doc Taylor what's happened. I'll send Sam Singer back with the velocipede for him."
She gathered the reins in her left hand and swung aboard Friar Tuck. Harley P., having disposed of his gory burden on the limited accommodations of the track velocipede, seized the levers and trundled away, followed by Donna on Friar Tuck, cautiously picking his way between the ties.
Borax O'Rourke stood for a moment, gazing after them.
"She acts like a mother cat with a kitten" he muttered. "Damned if she wasn't kissin' the feller--an' him a stranger in town!"
He walked rapidly back to San Pasqual, and such was his perturbation that he sought to have "Doc" Taylor unravel the puzzle for him.
"Hysterics" was the doctor's explanation.
"Rats" retorted O'Rourke.
"All right, then. It's rats." The doctor grabbed his emergency grip and departed on the run for the Hat Ranch. Sam Singer met him half-way with the velocipede.
O'Rourke returned to the Silver Dollar saloon where, since he was a vulgarian and a numbskull, he retailed his story to the loungers there assembled.
"I'll never git over the sight o' that girl a-kissing that young feller" he concluded. "Why, I'd down a hobo every mornin' before breakfast if I knowed for certain she'd treat me that-a-way for doin' it."
The situation was canvassed at considerable length, and only the entrance of the constable with a request, for volunteers to help him remove the "remainders" that were littering up the right of way below town, served to turn the conversation into other channels.
Upon their arrival at the Hat Ranch a shout from Harley P. Hennage brought Sam Singer and Soft Wind to the front gate. Donna dismounted, tying Friar Tuck to the "zephyr" by the simple process of dropping the reins over his head, and hurried into the house to prepare her mother's old room for the reception of the wounded man. Bob McGraw was very limp and white as Harley P. and the Indian carried him in. The gambler undressed him while Sam Singer sprang aboard the velocipede and sped back toward town to meet the doctor.
When the doctor arrived, he and Harley P. Hennage went into the bedroom, closing the door after them. Donna remained in the kitchen. She had already ordered Soft Wind to light a fire in the range and heat some water, and when presently the gambler came out to the kitchen he nodded his appreciation of her forethought ere he disappeared again with the hot water and a basin.
In about an hour Doctor Taylor emerged, grip in hand.
"I've done all I can for him, Miss Corblay" he told her. "I'm going up town to close the drug store and get a few things I may need, but I'll be back within an hour and spend the balance of the night with him."
"Will he live?"
Donna's voice was calm, her tones hinting of nothing more than a friendly interest and sympathy; yet Harley P., watching her over the doctor's shoulder, guessed the stress of emotion under which she strove, for he, too, had seen her kiss Bob McGraw as he lay unconscious in her arms.
"I fear he will not. The bullet ranged upward, perforating the top of his right lung, and went on clean through. I've seen men recover from wounds in more vital parts, but a .45-caliber bullet did the trick to our young friend, and a .45 tears quite a hole. He's big and strong and has a fighting chance, but I'm afraid--very much afraid--of internal hemorrhage, and traumatic pneumonia is bound to set in."
"He will not die!" said Donna.
The doctor looked at her curiously. "I hope not" he said. "But he'll need a trained nurse and the best of care to pull through. It's long odds."
"That young feller's middle name is Long Odds." Mr. Hennage had arrived at the conclusion that Donna needed a great deal of comforting at that moment. "He's lived on long odds ever since he came into this country."
"How do you know, Hennage?" the doctor demanded. "I tell--"
"Long odds an' long guns, like birds o' feather always flock together" the gambler answered him drily, "This young feller wouldn't feel that he was gettin' any joy out o' life if he didn't tackle the nub end o' the deal. I'm layin' even money he comes up to the young lady's expectations."
Donna thanked him with her eyes, and Harley P. crossed to the door and looked down the long patio to where a small white wooden cross gleamed through the festoons of climbing roses.
"He ought to have a nurse" the doctor advised Donna.
"Very well, doctor. You will telephone to Bakersfield, or Los Angeles, will you not, and engage one?"
"I don't think our patient can afford the expense. Hennage frisked him and all the money--"
"Thank you, I will attend to the financial side of this case, Doctor Taylor."
Mr. Hennage turned from his survey of the patio.
"Doc," he complained, "it's time for you to move out o' San Pasqual. You've stayed too long already. You're gettin' the San Pasqual sperrit, Doc. You ain't got no sympathy for a stranger."
"Well, you don't expect me to put up twenty-five a week and railroad fare--"
"Never mind worryin' about what you've got to put up with, Doc. If you know all the things I put up with--thanks, Doc. Hurry back, and don't forget to 'phone for that nurse."
"Ain't it marvelous how a small camp always narrers the point o' view?" the gambler observed when the doctor had gone. "Always thinkin' o' themselves an' money, A man in my business, Miss Donna, soon learns that mighty few men--an' women, too--will stand the acid. That young feller inside (he jerked a fat thumb over his shoulder) will stand it. I know. I've applied the acid. An' you'll stand the acid, too," he added--"when Mrs. Pennycook hears you kissed Bob McGraw. Ouch! That woman's tongue drips corrosive sublimate."
Donna blushed furiously.
"You--you--won't tell, will you, Mr. Hennage?"
"Of course not. But that chuckleheaded roughneck O'Rourke will. Why did you kiss him? I ain't one o' the presumin' kind, but I'd like to know, Miss Donna."
"I kissed him"--Donna commenced to cry and hid her burning face in her hands. "I kissed him because--because--I thought he was dying--and he was the first man--that looked at--me so different. And he was so brave, Mr. Hennage--"
"That you thought he was a man an' worth the kiss, eh, Miss Donna?"
"I guess that's the explanation" she confessed, the while she marveled inwardly that she should feel such relief at unburdening her secret to the worst man in San Pasqual.
"If some good woman had only done that for me" the gambler murmured a little wistfully. "If she only had! But of course this young Bob, he's different from--what I was at his age--"
"I couldn't help it" Donna sobbed; "he's one of the presuming kind."
Harley P. sat down and laughed until his three gold teeth almost threatened to fall out.
"God bless your sweet soul, Miss Donna," he gasped, "go in and kiss him again! He needs you worse than he does a nurse. Go in an' kiss the presumin' cuss."
"You're making fun of me" Donna charged.
"I'm not. Can't a low-down, no-account man like me even laugh where there's happiness? Why, if that young feller goes to work an' spoils it all by kickin' the bucket, I'd die o' grief."
"You know him, do you not?"
"I should say so."
"Yes, he's the nicest kind of a boy."
"How old is he!"
Donna was thoughtful.
"Nice disparity in ages, don't you think, Miss Donna?"
Donna blushed again. "What is his business!" she asked.
"Well, that's a right hard question to answer, Miss Donna. He was a lawyer once for about a month, after he got out o' college, an' then he worked on a newspaper. After that, just to prove he was a human bein', he got the notion that there was money in the chicken business. Well, he got out o' the chicken business with a couple o' hundred dollars, an' then he come breezin' into a minin' camp one day an' tried bustin' a faro bank. Failed agin. I'm responsible for that failure, though. The next I see of him is a year later, in McKittrick, where he's runnin' a real estate office an' dealin' in oil lands. But somehow there never was no oil on none o' the land that Bob tied up, so he got plumb disgusted an' quit. He was thinkin' o' tourin' the country districts sellin' little pieces o' bluestone to put in the bowls of kerosene lamps to keep 'em from explodin', when I see him next. He borrowed fifty dollars from me--which he ain't paid back yet, come to think on't --an' went to Nevada minin' an' just at present he's about settled into his regular legitimate business. He was headed that way from birth. I could read the signs."
"What is his present profession?"
"He's an Inspector o' Landscapes."
"You're wrong. He's not a Desert Rat."
"He is. I can prove it."
"He's too young. They don't begin to 'rat' until they're close to forty. I could name you a dozen, and the youngest is thirty-eight."
"Oh, you're thinkin' o' the ordinary, garden variety. But I tell you this McGraw man's a Desert Rat. The desert's got him. Generally it don't get 'em so young, but once in a while it does, An' of all the Desert Rats that ever sucked a niggerhead cactus, the feller that goes huntin' lost mines is the worst. They never get over it."
Donna permitted herself a very small smile.
"Sometimes they do" she reminded him.
"I wouldn't be surprised. But not until they've found what they're lookin' for. However, we'll wait an' see if Bob McGraw--like that name, Miss Donna?"
"I love it."
"We'll wait an' see if he pulls through this, an' then we'll find out if he can be cured o' desert-rattin'. In the meantime I'll wait here until Doc gets back. I ain't one of the presumin' kind, but I think I'd better stay. An' you--I think you'd better go in an' have another good look at this Desert Rat o' yours. He's breathin' like the north wind sighin' through a knot-hole."
He watched her disappear.
"For the sight o' a good woman, O Lord, we thank Thee," he murmured, "an' for the sight o' a good woman with grit, we thank Thee some more. Great grief, why wasn't I born good an' good-lookin' 'stead o' fat an' no account?"
At ten o'clock Doc Taylor returned to the Hat Ranch and found the condition of his patient unchanged. He was still unconscious and his loud, stertorous breathing, coupled with the ghastly exhaust of air through the hole on his breast, testified to the seriousness of his condition. Throughout the night Donna sat by the bedside watching him, while the doctor remained in the kitchen with Mr. Hennage.
Toward morning Bob McGraw opened his eyes and looked at Donna very wonderingly. Then his glance wandered around the room and back to the girl. He was plainly puzzled.
"Where's my horse," he whispered, "and my spurs and my gun and hat?"
Donna bent over him and placed two cool fingers on his lips.
"The hemorrhage has stopped," she warned him, "and you mustn't speak or move, or you may bring it on again."
"I remember--now. I fired--low--and he--got me. Where's Friar Tuck?"
"Your horse? He's in the corral at San Pasqual, and your gun is in the kitchen with your spurs, and your hat--why, I guess I forgot to bring your hat with me. But don't worry about it. I'm Donna Corblay of the Hat Ranch, and I'll give you your choice of a hundred hats if you'll only get well."
"Are you--the--girl--that kissed me?"
Donna's voice was very low, her face was very close to his as she answered him. His lean brown hand stole confidingly into hers--for a long time he was silent, content to lie there and know that she was near him.
Presently he looked up at her again, with the same dominating, wistful entreaty in his brown eyes. She lowered her head until her cheek rested against his, and his arm went upward and around her neck.
"God--made you--for me" he whispered. "I love you, and my name is Bob McGraw. I guess--I'll--get well."
"Beloved," she breathed, "of course you'll get well. I want you to." She smoothed the wavy auburn hair back from his forehead. "Go to sleep" she commanded. "You can't talk to me any more. I'm going to go to sleep, too."
She drew a bright Mexican serape over her shoulders, sat down in a rocking-chair by the side of the bed and closed her eyes. For what seemed to her a lapse of hours, although in reality it was less than five minutes, she tried to induce a clever counterfeit of sleep, but unable longer to deprive herself of another look at her prize she opened her eyes and gazed at Bob McGraw. To her almost childish delight he was watching her; and then she noticed his little, cheerful, half- mocking smile.
She flushed hotly. For the first time she permitted the searchlight of reason to play on the events of the night, and it occurred to her now that she had been guilty of a monstrous breach of convention, an unprecedented, unmaidenly action. She felt like crying now, with the thought that she had held herself so cheap. Bob McGraw saw the flush and the pallor that followed it. He read the unspoken thought behind the changing rush of color.
"Don't feel--that way--about it" he whispered haltingly. "It's unusual --but then--you and I are unusual, too. There seems to be--perfect-- understanding, and between a--man and a woman that means--perfect peace. It had to--be. It was preordained--our meeting. What is--your name?"
Donna again told him.
"Nice--name. Like it."
He closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep like a tired boy.