Chapter VI
 

Donna sat there until sunrise, rocking back and forth, striving to weave an orderly pattern of reason out of the tangle of unreason in which she found herself when, confronted by that look in Bob McGraw's brown eyes. She failed. She could not think calmly. She was conscious of but one supreme emotion as she gazed at this man who had ridden into her life, gun in hand. She was happy. Heretofore her life had been quiet, even, unemotional, always the same--and now she was happy, riotously, deliriously happy; and it did not occur to her that Bob McGraw might die. She willed that he should live, for life was love, and love--what was love? Something that surged, a wave of exquisite tenderness, through Donna's lonely heart, something that throbbed in the untouched recesses of her womanhood, arousing in her a fierce, almost primitive desire to possess this man, to fondle his auburn head, to caress him, to work for him, slave for him, to show her gratitude and adoration by living for him, and--if need be--by dying for him!

It occurred to her presently that there was nothing so very unmaidenly in her action, after all. She felt no distinct loss of womanly reserve --no crumbling of the foundations of dignity. She still had those attributes; to-morrow, when she returned to the cashier's counter at the eating-house, she would still have these defensive weapons against the invasions of the sensual, smirking, patronizing male brutes with which every passing train appeared to be filled; the well-dressed, hard-finished city men, who held her cheap because she presided behind an eating-house cash-register. How well she knew their quick, bold stares, their so clumsy subterfuges to enter into conversation with her; and how different was Bob McGraw to such as they!

Here at last was the reason, unseen and unrecognized at first, manifesting itself merely in the spontaneous and unconscious shattering of her maidenly reserve, but distinctly visible now. It was not that Bob McGraw had come to her out of the desert at a time when she needed him most; it was not that he came in all the bravery and generous sacrifice of youth, shedding his blood that she might not shed tears; it was not the service he had rendered her that made her love him, for San Pasqual was "long" on mere animal courage. It was the adoration that gleamed in his eyes--an adoring stare, revealing respect behind his love--that one quality without which love is a dead and withered thing.

She knew him now--the man he was. She saw the priceless pearl of character he possessed. Bob McGraw was a wild, reckless, unthinking, impulsive fellow, perhaps, but for all that he was the sort of man at whose feet women, both good and bad, have laid their hearts since the world began. He was kind. Harley P. Hennage was right. Bob McGraw was a Desert Rat. But a Desert Rat lives close to the great heart of Mother Nature, and his own heart is clean.

The dawn-light came filtering across the desert and lit up the room where she sat. She turned to the bed and saw that Bob McGraw was watching her again, and on his face was that little, cheerful, mocking, inscrutable smile.

Again Donna found herself powerless to resist the appeal in the man's eyes. She was crying a little as she slipped to her knees beside the bed and laid her cheek against his.

"I can't help it" she whispered. "I seem to have loved you always, and oh, Bob, dear, you'll be very, very good to me, won't you? You must be brave and try to get well, for both our sakes. We need each other so."

Bob McGraw did not answer readily. He was too busy thanking God for the great gift of perfect understanding. Moreover, he had a perforated lung and a heart whose duties had suddenly been increased a thousand-fold, if it was to hold inviolate this sacred joy of possession which thrilled him now. He was alert and conscious, despite the shock of his wound, and the reserve strength in his six feet of splendid manhood was coming to his aid. When he could trust himself to speak, he said:

"You're a very wonderful woman."

"But you were laughing at me--a little."

"Not at you, at Fate--the great, big, bugaboo Fate."

"Why?"

"Because I--can afford to. My luck's--turned."

"You dear, big, red-headed philosopher."

"And you--didn't you save my hat?"

"No, dear. Don't worry over such a trifle as a hat. I'll give you a--"

"But this was--a--good hat" he complained. "I paid twenty dollars--"

"Never mind your old hat. Don't talk. I'm selfish. I want to listen to you, but for all that, you must be quiet."

He sighed. Forget all about that big, wide sombrero--genuine beaver-- that cost him twenty dollars only a week ago? His horse, his saddle, his hat, his spurs, his gun--he was particular about these possessions, for in his way Mr. McGraw was something of a frontier dandy. His calm contempt of life and death amused Donna when she compared it with his boyish concern for his dashing equipment. Hats, indeed! Worrying over a lost hat while a guest at the Hat Ranch! If Bob McGraw could only have understood Donna Corblay's contempt for hats he would never have mentioned the matter twice.

She gauged the size of his red head with the practiced eye of one who has sold many hats.

"Seven and a quarter" she mused fondly. "Wouldn't he look splendid in that big new Stetson that blew in the day before yesterday! You great big man-baby. I'll save that one for you."

And having decided this momentous question of hats, she kissed him and went out to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Doctor Taylor and Harley P. Hennage.

After having breakfasted at the Hat Ranch, Harley P. Hennage helped himself to Bob McGraw's automatic gun, reloaded it and walked back to San Pasqual. He had never carried a gun before, but something seemed to tell him that he might need one to-day. Borax O'Rourke generally carried one and if Borax had talked, Mr. Hennage meant to chastise him. In consequence of which decision, Mr. Hennage, like a good gambler, decided to fill his hand and not be caught bluffing.

Arrived outside the Silver Dollar, Harley P. immediately found himself greatly in demand. Borax O'Rourke, having told all he knew, which was little enough, and aching to supply further details, was the first man to accost him.

"Well, Hennage," he began, "what's the latest? Any more kissin' goin' on?"

Mr. Hennage's baleful eyes scouted the mule-skinner's person for evidence of hardware. Observing none, he said fiercely "You mutton- headed duffer!" and for the first time within the memory of the citizens of San Pasqual he had recourse to his hands. He clasped Mr. O'Rourke fondly around the neck and choked him until his eyes threatened to pop out, the while he shook O'Rourke as a terrier shakes a rat. Then, after two prodigious parting kicks, accurately gauged and delivered, the gambler crossed over to the hotel, leaving the garrulous one to pick himself out of the dust, gasping like a chicken with the pip. It is worthy of remark that the discomfiture of Borax O'Rourke was observed by Mrs. Daniel Pennycook, who having noted from afar the approach of Mr. Hennage, had endeavored to intercept him first. Judging from his hasty action that the gambler was not in that state of mind most propitious to the dissemination of the information which she sought, Mrs. Pennycook decided to bide her time and returned to her cottage and her neglected housework.

Mr. Hennage went at once to his room, where he lay down and went to sleep. Late in the afternoon he was awakened by a knocking at his door. He sprang out of bed and unlocked the door, and Dan Pennycook came into the room.

"Hello, Dan" the gambler greeted him. "You look worried."

"You would too, if you knew what I know" replied Pennycook. He sat down. "Harley, old man, you've laid violent hands on a mighty hard character."

"Well," retorted the gambler, "ain't that the kind to lay violent hands on? You wouldn't expect me to choke old Judge Kenny, or that little Jap laundryman, would you?"

"But O'Rourke is dangerous. He's got two guns reachin' down to his hocks an' he's tellin' everybody he'll get you on sight."

"Barkin' dogs never bite, Dan. However, I wish you'd carry a message for me. Will you?"

"Who to?"

"The dangerous Mr. O'Rourke. Tell him from me he'd better go back to the borax works at Keeler, where he got his nickname, an' take up his old job o' skinnin' mules. Tell him I'll loan him that roan pony in the corral, an' he can saddle up an' git. Tell him to send the little horse back with the stage-driver. I want him to ride out tonight, Dan. Tell him it's an order."

Pennycook nodded. "If I was you, though, Harley, I'd heel myself."

The gambler opened a bureau drawer and brought forth McGraw's automatic pistol. He smiled brightly.

"No use givin' orders unless a feller can back 'em up, Dan" he said. "Thanks for the hint, though. Of course you'll tell Borax privately. No use arousin' his pride lettin' the whole town know he had to go. He's a rat, but a rat'll fight when he's cornered--an' I don't want to kill him."

"I will" replied Mr. Pennycook. "I'd hate to see any more trouble in this town."

"Thank you, Dan."

"Donna all right?"

"Yes."

"Who's the feller that interfered?"

"Stranger ridin' through."

"Hard hit?"

"Right lung. He'll pull through."

"Hope so" responded the amiable yardmaster, and left. Mr. Hennage got back into bed and pulled the sheet over him again. But it was too hot to sleep, so he lay there, rubbing his chin and thinking. Late in the afternoon he heard the sound of a horse loping through the street beneath his window. He sprang up and looked out, just in time to see Borax O'Rourke riding out of town on Bob McGraw's roan bronco.

Mr. Hennage permitted himself a quiet little smile. "Now there goes the star witness for the prosecution" he mused. "But I'll stay an' tell 'em Borax was mistaken. I guess, even if I ain't a gentleman, I can lie like one."

He bathed and dressed and started over to the post-office--not because he expected any mail, for he did not. No one ever wrote to Mr. Hennage. But he had seen Mrs. Pennycook dodging into the post-office, and it was his intention to have a quiet little conversation with the lady.

When he arrived at the post-office, however, Mrs. Pennycook was not in sight. Mr. Hennage stepped lightly inside, and at that moment he heard Miss Molly Pickett, the postmistress, exclaim: "Well, for the land's sake!"

"It's a fact, Miss Pickett. She kissed him!"

The voices came from the inner office, behind the tier of lock boxes. Realizing that he was in a public place, Mr. Hennage did not feel it incumbent upon him to announce his presence by coughing or shuffling his feet. He remained discreetly silent, therefore, and Mrs. Pennycook's voice resumed:

"She had him taken right down to the Hat Ranch, of all places. Of course it wouldn't do to bring him up town, where he could be looked after. Of course not! He might be sent to a hospital and she wouldn't have a chance to look after him herself. I never heard of such carryings-on, Miss Pickett. It's so scandalous like."

Miss Pickett sighed. "Who is he?" she demanded.

"That's what nobody can find out. I told Dan to ask Harley Hennage, but you know how stupid a man is. I don't suppose he even asked."

"Well, all I've got to say, Mrs. Pennycook, is that Donna Corblay's taking a mighty big interest in a man she's never even been introduced to. Still, I'm not surprised at anything she'd do, the stuck-up thing. She just thinks she's it, with her new hats and a different wash-dress every week, and her high an' mighty way of looking at people. She could have been married long ago if she wasn't so stuck-up."

"Oh, nobody's good enough for her" sneered Mrs. Pennycook. "If a dook was to ask her she wouldn't have him. She'd sooner make fools of half the married men in town."

"She thinks she's too good for San Pasqual" Miss Pickett supplemented.

"I suppose she imagines her grand airs make her a lady," Mrs. Pennycook deprecated, "but for my part, I think it shows that she's kinder vulgar like."

"Well, what do you think o' last night's performance?" Miss Pickett demanded.

"I can't think, dearie" murmured Mrs. Pennycook weakly. "I'm so shocked like. It's hard to believe. I know the girl for a sly, scheming, hoity- toity flirt, but to think that she'd act so low like! Who told you she kissed him?"

"Borax O'Rourke."

"He told everybody."

"Well, then, if it's got around, public like, we can't shield her, Miss Pickett, an' I guess it's no use trying. Water will seek its own level, Miss Pickett. You remember her mother. Nobody ever knew a thing about her, an' you remember the talk that used to be goin' around about her."

"The tree grows as the twig is bent" Miss Pickett murmured.

"I'll say this much, though, Miss Pickett" continued Mrs. Pennycook. "You're a woman an' so'm I, an' you know, just as well as I do, that no man or set o' men ever looks twice at any respectable woman that goes right along tendin' to her business. You know that, Miss Pickett. A man's got to have some encouragement."

"Well" Miss Pickett was forced to remark. "I've been postmistress an' assistant postmistress here for fifteen years, an' nobody's ever insulted me, or tried to flirt with me. I can take my oath on that."

"I believe you, Miss Pickett" interrupted Harley P. Hennage serenely. "Even in a tough town like San Pasqual human courage has its limitations."

Miss Pickett flew to the delivery window and looked out. Harley P. was looking in.

"Is that so!" sneered Miss Pickett.

"Looks like it" retorted the gambler. "You're Exhibit A to prove it, ain't you, Miss Pickett? I hope I see you well, Mrs. Pennycook" he added.

"So you're back, are you?" Mrs. Pennycook's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"Yes, I've been away three years, but I see time ain't softened the tongues nor sharpened the consciences o' some of my old lady friends. You're out late this afternoon, Mrs. P., with your scandal an' your gossip."

"There ain't no mail for you, Mr. Card Sharp" Miss Pickett informed him acidly.

"I didn't call for any" the gambler replied, and eyed her sternly. She quivered under his glance, and he turned to Mrs. Pennycook. "Would you oblige me, Mrs. Pennycook, with a few minutes of your valuable time-- where Miss Pickett can't hear us talk? Miss Pickett, you can go right on readin' the postal cards."

"I'm a respectable woman--" Mrs. Pennycook began.

"Well, it ain't ketchin', I guess" he retorted. "I ain't afraid."

"What do you want? If you've got anything to say to me, speak right out in meeting."

"Not here" the gambler answered. "It'll keep."

He walked out of the post-office and waited until Mrs. Pennycook came by.

"Mrs. Pennycook, ma'am."

She tilted her nose and glanced at him scornfully, but did not stop.

"It's about Joe" the gambler called after her.

If he had struck her she could not have stopped more quickly. She turned, facing him, her chin trembling.

"I thought you'd stop" he assured her. "Nothin' like shakin' the bones of a family skeleton to bring down the mighty from their perch. Bless you, Mrs. Pennycook, this thing o' bein' respectable must be hard on the constitution. Havin' been low an' worthless all my life, I suppose I can't really appreciate what it means to a respectable lady with a angelic relative like your brother."

The drawling words fell on the gossip like a rain of blows. Her eyelids grew suddenly red and watery.

"It ain't a man's trick to hammer you like this, Mrs. Pennycook," the gambler continued, almost sadly, "but for a lady that's livin' in a glass house, you're too fond o' chuckin' stones, an' it's got to stop. Hereafter, if you've got somethin' to say about Donna Corblay you see that it's somethin' nice. You gabbed about her mother when she was alive, and the minute I saw you streakin' it over to Miss Pickett I knew you were at it again. Now you do any more mud-slingin', Mrs. Pennycook, and I'll tell San Pasqual about that thug of a brother o' yours. He's out o' San Quentin."

"But his time wasn't up, Mr. Hennage," wailed Mrs. Pennycook. "He got fifteen years."

"He served half of it and was paroled."

Mrs. Pennycook bowed her head and quivered. "Then he'll be around here again, blackmailing poor Dan an' me out of our savings." She commenced to cry.

"No, he won't. I'll protect you from him, Mrs. Pennycook. I want to make a bargain with you. Every time you hear any of the long-tongued people in this town takin' a crack at Donna Corblay because they don't understand her and she won't tell 'em all her business, you speak a good word for her. Understand? And the first thing tomorrow mornin' I want you to get out an' nail that lie that Donna Corblay kissed the feller that saved her from them tramps last night. It's a lie, Mrs. Pennycook. I was there, an' I know. I ordered O'Rourke out o' town for circulatin' that yarn. Suppose this town knew your twin brother was a murderer an' a highwayman? Would they keep still about it?"

"No" faltered Mrs. Pennycook.

"I can keep Joe away from you, I have somethin' on him. You'll never see him again. I'll save you from gossip an' blackmail, but you've got to take programme."

"I will" Mrs. Pennycook promised him fervently.

"Then it's a go" said Harley P. and walked away. He returned to the Silver Dollar saloon, smiling a little at the joke in which he had indulged at the expense of Mrs. Pennycook. He had informed her that he had "something on" her brother Joe, but he had neglected to inform her what the "something" was which he had "on" brother Joe. Mr. Hennage could see no profit in telling her that it was a blood-stained tarpaulin, under which Mrs. Pennycook's brother reposed, quite dead, in the back room of the stage stable, to which impromptu morgue Joseph, with his two companions, had been borne by the committee of citizens headed by the constable, shortly after the elimination of the trio by Mr. Bob McGraw.

No, Mr. Hennage, while a man of firmness and resource, was not brutal. He contrived, however, to avoid identification of the body by keeping Dan Pennycook from attending the coroner's inquest, for he was a good gambler and never wasted a trump.

"I never knew there was such fun at funerals" he soliloquized while returning from the cemetery. He bit a large piece out of his "chewing" and gazed around him. "Doggone it" he muttered, "if this ain't the worst town in California for killin's. I never did see such a one-horse camp with such a big potter's field. If I wasn't a inquisitive old hunks I'd get out of such a pesky hole P. D. Q. I wouldn't a' come back in the first place if it hadn't a' been for that Joe person. Dog-gone him!"

This was quite true. For some months Mr. Hennage had been running a game in Bakersfield, which, at that time, was a wide open town, just beginning to boom under the impetus of rich oil strikes. It had been one of his diversions, outside of business hours, to walk down to the freight yards once a week and fraternize with the railroad boys. In this way he managed to keep track of affairs in San Pasqual. Upon the occasion of his last trip to the freight yards he had spied Mrs. Pennycook's brother dodging into an empty box-car. Mr. Hennage had seen this worthy upon the occasion of his (Joe's) last visit to San Pasqual, the object of the said visit having been imparted to him by Dan Pennycook himself. Having no money available for the blackmailer, poor Pennycook had come to Hennage to borrow it. Upon the occasion of the payment of the loan, Pennycook informed Mr. Hennage joyfully that Joe was out of the way for fifteen years and Mr. Hennage had rejoiced with the yardmaster. Hence, when Mr. Hennage observed Joe sneak into the box-car, he at once surmised that Joe was broke and headed for San Pasqual to renew his fortunes. Having a warm spot in his heart for Dan Pennycook, Mr. Hennage instantly decided to follow Joe in another box- car, which, in brief, is the reason why he had returned to San Pasqual.

Presently Mr. Hennage paused and glanced across the blistering half- mile of desert, to where the sun glinted on the dun walls of the Hat Ranch. In the middle distance a dashing girlish figure in a blue dress was walking up the tracks.

Mr. Hennage's three gold teeth flashed like heliographs.

   "This world is so full o' a number o' things,
    I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings"

he quoted, and walked across to meet her.