The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
Early in the forenoon of the day following Bob McGraw's spectacular advent into San Pasqual, the nurse for whom Doc Taylor had telephoned to Bakersfield arrived at the Hat Ranch. She proved to be a kind middle-aged woman, devoted to her profession and thoroughly competent to do everything for Bob McGraw that could be done. Her arrival released Donna from the care of watching the wounded man, and she rested at last.
It was late in the afternoon before she appeared again in the sick room, when she was overjoyed to learn of the change in Bob's condition. There was no further hemorrhage from the wound, although his pulse was racing at several degrees above normal. He was awake when Donna entered the room and greeted her with a weak smile of welcome. It may be that at the moment Mr. McGraw fondly hoped that he might be further rewarded with another kiss; but if so he was disappointed. Donna favored him with nothing more tangible than a rather sad, wistful, interested scrutiny, and then, satisfied that he was making his fight, she turned to leave the room, whereupon Mr. McGraw, disregarding his nurse's explicit instructions, presumed to enter into conversation.
"Hello, Donna," he whispered, "aren't you going to speak to a fellow?"
Donna shook her head.
"But I might die" he pleaded piteously. The nurse intervened.
"Nobody's worried over that remote contingency," she retorted, "so do not endeavor to seek sympathy."
He looked at her so tragically that she could not forbear a little laugh, as she ordered Donna to leave the room.
"The right of free speech--and free assemblage," Mr. McGraw protested hoarsely, "is guaranteed to--every American citizen--under the con--"
"Silence!" commanded the nurse.
Mr. McGraw muttered something about gag rule and the horror of being mollycoddled, sighed dismally and predicted his death within the hour. Donna left the room and he was forced to amuse himself, until he fell asleep, watching the antics of an inquisitive lizard which in turn was watching him from a crack in the sun-baked adobe wall. As for Donna, the very fact that Bob was still a fighter and a rebel proved conclusively that within a week he would be absolutely unmanageable. This thought was productive of such joy in Donna's heart that she became a rebel herself. In the bright evening she took her guitar and went out into the patio, where she stood under Bob's window and sang for him a plaintive little Spanish love song. Donna's voice, while untrained, was, nevertheless, well pitched, sweet and true, and to Bob McGraw, who for three years had not heard a woman's voice raised in song, the simple melody was a treat indeed.
The nurse came out, looked at her and laughed, as who would not; for all the world loves a lover, and the nurse was very human.
"That's quite irregular, Miss Corblay," she commented, "but in this particular case I believe it has a soothing effect. Mr. McGraw has promised me that he will be very good if I can induce you to sing for him every evening. He said 'Bravo' three times."
"Then he has decided not to die after all."
"I think he has changed his mind."
"I'll sing him to sleep" Donna answered--and forthwith did so. And that night, when she retired, she could not sleep herself for the happiness that was hers; that excessive happiness which, more poignant than pain, is often productive of tears.
The wounded man slept well that night. If he suffered nobody knew it. In the morning his condition was slightly improved, and after hearing a most cheerful and favorable report from both doctor and nurse, Donna decided not to prejudice her position at the eating-house by staying away another day, and accordingly she set off up the track to the town. She was half-way there when she observed Harley P. Hennage walking toward her from the direction of the cemetery.
"Well, Miss Donna," he began as he approached, "how are you after the battle?"
"Still a little shaky, Mr. Hennage, but not enough to prevent my going to work. I can count change, to-day, I think."
"Good news, good news. If I was governor of this state I'd declare to- day a legal holiday. How's the wounded hero? Able to sit up and take some food?"
"No, no food as yet. Nothing but nutriment. Who ever heard of a sick man getting anything but that?"
Mr. Hennage showed his three gold teeth. "Ain't Mrs. Pennycook been down with a plate o' calf's-foot jelly or somethin' o' that nature?" he asked.
It was Donna's turn to laugh. "I hardly think she'll come. She hasn't given me a friendly look in three years."
"Well, of course, you haven't needed her," the gambler reminded her, "but she'll be droppin' in before long, now--Bob McGraw's a stranger in town, an' entitled to the kindly services o' the community as a whole, so Mrs. P. can show up at the Hat Ranch under those conditions without unbendin' her dignity."
"I suppose she is kind enough in her way," Donna began, "but--"
"You don't like her way, eh?"
"I'm afraid I'm inclined to be uncharitable at times."
"Nonsense!" he corrected. "Ain't you been a' nursin' the sick?"
"Yes. Which reminds me that you, also, have been performing one of the works of mercy. You came from the cemetery, did you no?!"
"Yes, I've been buryin' the dead. They had me as witness on the coroner's jury last night, an' after the jury decided that it was justifiable homicide, there was nothin' to do but plant the three o' 'em--before the sun got too high. But let's take up some live topic--"
Again Donna laughed, for while Harley P.'s humor was rather grim, Donna had lived long enough in San Pasqual to appreciate it. The big gambler loved to see her laugh, and the thought that she was courageous enough to enjoy his jest, considering the terrible experience which she had lately undergone, filled him with manly admiration.
"It's another joke," he began presently, "only this time it's on San Pasqual. I want to put up a job on the town, an' you've got to help me, Miss Donna."
Donna gave him a graceful travesty of a military salute.
"'Onward, Heart of Bruce, and I will follow thee,'" she quoted. "But before you explain your plans, tell me what has poor little San Pasqual been doing of late to earn your enmity?"
"Nothin' much. The town ain't no worse than any other one-horse camp for wantin' to know everybody's business but its own. They never found out any o' mine, though, you can bank on that; and it always hurt 'em because they never found out any of your poor mother's when she was livin'. An' since your trouble the other night, they're all itchin' to learn the name o' the brave that saved you. Some o' the coroner's jury was for callin' you to testify at the inquest, but considerin' the hard looks o' the deceased an' what you told me--an' what Borax O'Rourke told everybody else before he left town yesterday, I prevailed on Doc Taylor to testify that you weren't in no fit frame o' mind to face the music, so they concluded to bring in a verdict muy pronto, an' let it go at that. They tell me there's been a plague o' hard characters droppin' off here lately, an' anyway, to make a long story short, the boys rendered a verdict on general principles an' there ain't no news for the rest o' the town--particularly the women. The way some o' them women's been dodgin' back and forth between their own homes and the post-office, you'd think it was the finish of a jack-rabbit drive. They're just plumb loco, Miss Donna, to find out the name o' this gallant stranger that saved you. They want to know what he looks like, the color o' his hair an' how he parts it, how he ties his necktie, an' if he votes the Republican ticket straight and believes in damnation for infants."
"I see," said Donna, "and you want to let them suffer, do you?"
"I wouldn't wag my tongue to save 'em" he retorted bitterly. "Now here's the programme. You've got young McGraw bottled up there at the Hat Ranch, and I want you to keep him there until he's able to walk away without any assistance, an' all that time don't you let nobody see him. I've got Doc Taylor fixed already, which was easy, Doc bein' a bachelor--an' now if you stand in we'll have 'em goin' south. On account o' bein' postmistress an' in a position to get all the news, the town's lookin' to Miss Pickett to produce, an' if she can't produce, I'm hopin' she'll go into convulsions."
"Mr. Hennage," said Donna, "this is most unworthy of you. I didn't think you would harbor a grudge."
"Why, you know my reputation, Miss Donna."
"Yes, you're the worst man in San Pasqual. But I'm afraid I can't agree to enter into this conspiracy."
"Miss Donna, I'm serious--"
"It's cruel and unusual punishment--"
"I'd light a fire under 'em" said Harley P. ferociously. "Better stand in, Miss Donna--to oblige me."
"All right, it's a go, if you put it that way."
"Shake! You'll enjoy it, Miss Donna. You'll find yourself real popular when you get up to the hotel. Some o' the natives was thinkin' o' bringin' their blankets an' three days' rations, an' campin' in front o' the hotel until you arrived. Well, good-by, till supper-time. I'm goin' to breeze along down to the Hat Ranch an' warn the nurse agin spies an' secret emissaries masqueradin' as angels o' mercy."
He waved his big hand at her and waddled down the track toward the Hat Ranch. Arrived there, he introduced himself to the nurse and made a few perfunctory inquiries regarding the condition of her patient, after which, with many premonitory coughs, he ventured to outline his campaign as San Pasqual's official news censor. The nurse was not lacking in a sense of humor, and readily agreed to enlist under the banner of Harley P.
"An' remember," he warned her, as he prepared to leave, "to look sharp if you see a forty-five-year-old damsel, with a little bright red face, all ears an' no chin, like the ace o' hearts. That'll be Miss Pickett. She'll have with her, like as not, a stout married lady, all gab an' gizzard, like a crow, an' a mouth like a new buttonhole. That'll be Mrs. Pennycook. Look out for 'em both. They talk!"
And having played this unworthy trick on the gossips of San Pasqual, Mr. Hennage returned to town in a singularly cheerful state of mind, and devoted the balance of the day to the duties of his profession.
That night, when he went to his dinner at the eating-house, he stopped at the counter to have a little chat with Donna.
"What luck?" he asked.
"I declare I'm almost exhausted. I've been dodging questions and tripping over hints all day long."
"Miss Pickett come over to offer sympathy."
"Hu-u-um! An' after she went away, I suppose Mrs. Pennycook come in as thick as three in a bed?"
"She was very nice."
"She'd better be" he remarked, and Donna thought that beneath the jocularity of his manner she detected a menace.
"What have you heard?" she queried.
"I've heard," he replied deliberately, "that Donna Corblay is harboring a desperate character in her home."
"I heard something else to-day. While we're gossiping, Mr. Hennage, I'll tell you the latest--the very latest. It's reported that Dan Pennycook is drinking."
"No!" Mr. Hennage was concerned. He was fond of Dan Pennycook. "Who told you!" he inquired.
"He was seen buying a bottle of port wine in the Silver Dollar saloon this afternoon, and you know his wife is strictly temperance."
"Oh, shucks! There's nothin' to that report. I can account for that just as easy as lookin' through a hoop. It's goin' to be wine jelly, after all. I thought maybe it might be calf's-foot, but--" he broke off. "I wish," he said earnestly, "I could get hold of a low-spirited billy goat, Miss Donna, an' tie him to your front gate when Mrs. P. arrives. You want to warn the nurse, Miss Donna. Remember what the old sharp in the big book says: 'Beware o' the Greeks when they come into camp with gifts.' Hey, Josephine!"
He hailed his waitress.
"About twenty-five dollars' worth o' ham an' eggs," he ordered, "with some pig's ear and cauliflower on the side. I ain't had such a big appetite for my grub since I was a boy."
That evening, when Donna left the eating-house for her home, it seemed to her that the Hat Ranch must be situated at least ten miles further from San Pasqual than it had been two days previous. It almost seemed as if she would never reach the gate that pierced the big seven-foot adobe wall which shut Bob McGraw in from the prying eyes of the townspeople; she felt that her heart, over-burdened with its weight of agonized happiness, must break before she found herself once more standing by Bob's bed, gazing down at him with a look of proprietorship and love.
As she stood there, smiling, her face flushed from the exertion of her rapid walk, her jaunty straw hat casting little vagrant shadows across her great, dark, sparkling eyes, he awakened and looked up. She was drawing off her gloves, and one who has ridden in the waste places as much as had Bob McGraw soon learns that simple signs are sometimes pregnant of big things. The big thing, as Bob read it then, was the fact that she had just come home; that she had hurried, for she was breathing hard. Why had she hurried? Why, to see him, Bob McGraw--and in such a hurry was she that she had not waited to remove her hat and gloves. This was all very gratifying; so gratifying that Mr. McGraw would almost, at that moment, have welcomed a .45 through his other lung, if thereby he could only make her understand how deeply gratified he really was--how dearly he loved her and would continue to love her. He was so filled with such thoughts as these that he continued to gaze at her in silence for fully a minute before he spoke.
"It's been a long, hot day" he whispered. "I worried. Thought you might be kept--late--again."
The adorable old muggins! The very thought of having somebody to worry over her was so very new to Donna, and so very sweet withal, that she called Mr. McGraw an adorable old muggins, and pinched the lobe of his left ear, and tweaked the sunburned apex of his Irish nose. Then she kissed the places thus pinched and tweaked, and declared that she was happy enough to--to--to swear! "I understand--perfectly" said Bob McGraw, and there is no doubt that he did. The idea of a glorious young Woman like Donna swearing was, indeed, perfectly ridiculous. Of course, nerve-racked tired waitresses and be-deviled chefs "cussed each other out" as a regular thing up at the eating-house during a rush, and Donna, having listened to these conversational sparks, off and on, for three years, felt now, for the first time, as she imagined they must feel--that the unusual commotion in one's soul occasionally demands some extraordinary outlet.
"I could beat Soft Wind with the broom, or tip over the stove, or do something equally desperate" she told him. "I feel so deeply--it hurts me--here," and she pressed her hand to her heart.
"Think of me," he whispered, "hurt on--both sides. Bullet--hole in-- right lung--key-hole in--my heart."
The blarney of the wretch! Really, this McGraw man was the most forward person! As if he could ever, by any possibility, love her as she loved him!
"You great red angel" she said. Then she ruffled his hair and fled out to the kitchen to investigate the exact nature of the savory concoction which the nurse was preparing for her invalid. No royal chef, safe- guarding the stomach of his monarch against the surreptitious introduction of a deadly poison in the soup, could have evinced a greater interest in the royal appetite than did Donna in Bob McGraw's that night. As the nurse was about to take the bowl of broth which she had prepared, in to her patient, Donna dipped up a small quantity on a teaspoon and tasted it.
"A little more salt, I think" she announced, with all the gravity of her twenty years.
The nurse glanced at her for a moment, before she took her glowing face between her cool palms and kissed the girl on each cheek. Then she reached for the salt cellar, dropped a small pinch into the soup, seized the tray and marched out, smiling. She was one of the women on this earth who can understand without asking--at least Donna thought so, and was grateful to her for it.
The three weeks that followed, while Bob McGraw, having battled his way through the attack of traumatic pneumonia incident to the wound in his lungs, slowly got back his strength, seemed, indeed, the most marvelous period of Donna Corblay's entire existence. On the morning after her conversation with Harley P., Mrs. Pennycook, true to the gambler's prediction, did favor the Hat Ranch with her bustling presence, and wrapped in a snow-white napkin the said Mrs. Pennycook did carry the hereinbefore mentioned glass of wine jelly for the debilitated stranger in their midst. Donna was at the eating-house when Mrs. Pennycook called, but the nurse received her--not, however, without an inward chuckle as she recalled Mr. Hennage's warning and discovered that Mrs. Pennycook's mouth did really resemble a new buttonhole--as the mouth of every respectable, self-righteous, provincial female bigot has had a habit of resembling even as far back as the days of the Salem witchcraft.
For her wine jelly, Mrs. Pennycook received due and courteous thanks from the nurse personally, and also on behalf of Miss Corblay and the patient. To her apparently irrelevant and impersonal queries, regarding the identity of the wounded man, his personal and family history, Mrs. Pennycook received equally irrelevant and impersonal replies, and when she suggested at length that she "would dearly love to see him for a moment--only a moment, mind you--to thank him for what he had done for that dear sweet girl, Donna Corblay," the nurse found instant defense from the invasions by reminding Mrs. Pennycook of the doctor's orders that his patient be permitted to remain undisturbed.
Two days later Mrs. Pennycook, accompanied by Miss Pickett, called again. Miss Pickett carried the limp carcass of a juvenile chicken, and armed with this passport to Bob McGraw's heart and confidence, she too, endeavored to run the guard. Alas! The young man was still in a very precarious condition, and baffled and discouraged, the charitable pair departed in profound disgust.
The next day Dan Pennycook called, at Mrs. Pennycook's orders. The yardmaster, as he bowed to the nurse and ventured a mild inquiry as to the patient's health, presented a remarkable imitation of a heretofore conscientious dog that has just been discovered in the act of killing a sheep. Poor Daniel was easy prey for the efficient nurse. He retired, chop-fallen and ashamed, and the day following, two conductor's wives and the sister of a brakeman, armed respectively with a brace of quail, a bouquet of assorted sweet peas and half a dozen oranges, came, deposited their offerings, were duly thanked and dismissed.
To all these interested ladies, Donna, at the suggestion of Harley P. (who, by the way, fell heir to the brace of quail, which he had prepared by the eating-house chef, and later consumed with great gusto), wrote a polite note of thanks. This, of course merely served to irritate an already irritated community, without affording them an opportunity for what Mr. Hennage termed "a social comeback." He contracted the habit, during that first week, of coming in to his dinner earlier, in order that he might hear from Donna a detailed report of the frantic efforts of her neighbors to get at the bottom of the mystery. Mr. Hennage was enjoying himself immensely.
After the first week had passed without developments, interest in Donna and her affairs began to dwindle, for not infrequently matters move in kaleidoscopic fashion in San Pasqual, and the population, generally speaking, soon finds itself absorbed in other and more important matters. Mrs. Pennycook was quick to note that Donna (to quote Mr. Hennage) was "next to her game," and with the gambler's threat hanging over her she was careful to refrain from expressing any decided opinions in the little circle in which she moved.
At the end of the second week the news that development work was projected somewhere near the town, doubtless by some syndicate whose operations were so extensive that the work would likely mean a construction camp conveniently near, swept the Bob McGraw-Donna Corblay episode completely aside. Rumor, fanned by the eager desires of the business element of the hamlet, gained headway, despite the fact that false rumor was all too frequent a visitor to San Pasqual, until not more than half a dozen people in the town remembered that Donna Corblay had had an adventure, the details of which they had failed to unearth.
During those three weeks of convalescence, Bob McGraw's splendid condition, due to his clean and hardy life on the range and desert, caused him to rally with surprising rapidity from his dangerous wound. At the end of ten days he was permitted to sit up in bed and talk freely, and a few days later with the assistance of the nurse and Sam Singer he was lifted into a chair and spent a glorious day sitting in the sun in the wind-protected patio. The slight cough which had troubled him at first commenced to disappear, proving that the wound was healing from within, and the doctor announced that at the end of a month Bob would be able to leave the house.
As the reader may have had cause to suspect earlier in this recital, Bob McGraw was not the young man to permit the grass to sprout under his feet in the matter of a courtship. The brief period each evening which he and Donna spent together served to convince each that life without the other would not be worth the living. Their wooing was dignified and purposeful; their love was too pure and deep to be taken lightly or tinged with the frivolity that too often accompanies an ardent love affair between two young people who have not learned, as had Bob and Donna, to view life seriously. Both were graduates of the hard school of practicalities, and early in life each had learned the value of self-reliance and the wisdom of thinking clearly and without self-illusion.
The last week of Bob's stay at the Hat Ranch, under the chaperonage of the nurse, was not spent in planning for the future, for the lovers did not look beyond the reality of their new-found happiness. True, Bob had tried it once or twice, during the long hot days in the patio while waiting for Donna to return from her work, but the knowledge of his inability to support a wife, the present desperate condition of his finances and the unsettled state of his future plans, promptly saturated his soul in a melancholy which only the arrival of Donna could dissipate. As for Donna, like most women, she was content to linger in that delightful state of bliss which precedes marriage. Never having known real happiness before, she was, for the present at least, incapable of imagining a more profound joy than walking arm in arm in the moonlit patio with the man she loved. Without the adobe walls, the zephyr lashed the sage and whirled the sand with fiendish disregard of human happiness, but within the Hat Ranch enclosure Donna Corblay knew that she had found a paradise, and she was content.