Chapter 15. Laska Opens a Door
 

The first ballots for a United States senator taken by the legislature in joint session failed to disclose the alignment of some of the doubtful members. The Democratic minority of twenty-eight votes were cast for Springer, the senator whose place would be taken by whoever should win in the contest now on. Warner received forty-four, Ridgway twenty-six, eight went to Pascom, a former governor whom the cattlemen were supporting, and the remaining three were scattered. Each day one ballot was taken, and for a week there was a slight sifting down of the complimentary votes until at the end of it the count stood:

Warner    45
Ridgway   28
Springer  28
Pascom     8

Warner still lacked ten votes of an election, but It was pretty thoroughly understood that several of the Democratic minority were waiting only long enough for a colorable excuse to switch to him. All kinds of rumors were in the air as to how many of these there were. The Consolidated leaders boldly claimed that they had only to give the word to force the election of their candidate on any ballot. Yesler did not believe this claim could be justified, since Pelton and Harley were already negotiating with him for the delivery of the votes belonging to the cattlemen's contingent.

He had held off for some time with hints that it would take a lot of money to swing the votes of such men as Roper and Landor, but he had finally come to an agreement that the eight votes should be given to Warner for a consideration of $300,000. This was to be paid to Yesler in the presence of the other seven members on the night before the election, and was to be held in escrow by him and Roper until the pact was fulfilled, the money to be kept in a safety deposit vault with a key in possession of each of the two.

On the third day of the session, before the voting had begun, Stephen Eaton, who was a State senator from Mesa, moved that a committee be appointed to investigate the rumors of bribery that were so common. The motion caught the Consolidated leaders napping, for this was the last man they had expected to propose such a course, and it went through with little opposition, as a similar motion did in the House at the same time. The lieutenant-governor and the speaker of the House were both opposed to Warner, and the joint committee had on it the names of no Consolidated men. The idea of such a committee had originated with Ridgway, and had been merely a bluff to show that he at least was willing that the world should know the whole story of the election. Nor had this committee held even formal meetings before word reached Eaton through Yesler that if it would appoint a conference in some very private place, evidence would be submitted implicating agents of the Warner forces in attempts at bribery.

It was close to eleven o'clock when Sam Yesler stepped quietly from a side door of his hotel and slipped into the street. He understood perfectly that in following the course he did, he was taking his life in his hands. The exposure of the bribery traffic would blast forever the reputations of many men who had hitherto held a high place in the community, and he knew the temper of some of them well enough to be aware that an explosion was probable. Spies had been dogging him ever since the legislature convened. Within an hour one of them would be flying to Pelton with the news that he was at a meeting of the committee, and all the thugs of the other side would be turned loose on his heels. As he walked briskly through the streets toward the place appointed, his hand lay on the hilt of a revolver in the outside pocket of his overcoat. He was a man who would neither seek trouble nor let it overwhelm him. If his life were attempted, he meant to defend it to the last.

He followed side streets purposely, and his footsteps echoed along the deserted road. He knew he was being dogged, for once, when he glanced back, he caught sight of a skulking figure edging along close to a wall. The sight of the spy stirred his blood. Grimly he laughed to himself. They might murder him for what he was doing, but not in time to save the exposure which would be brought to light on the morrow.

The committee met at a road-house near the outskirts of the city, but only long enough to hear Yesler's facts and to appoint another meeting for three hours later at the offices of Eaton. For the committee had come here for secrecy, and they knew that it would be only a short time before Pelton's heelers would be down upon them in force. It was agreed they should divide and slip quietly back to town, wait until everything was quiet and convene again. Meanwhile Eaton would make arrangements to see that his offices would be sufficiently guarded for protection against any attack.

Yesler walked back to town and was within a couple of blocks of his hotel when he glimpsed two figures crouching against the fence of the alley. He stopped in his tracks, watched them intently an instant, and was startled by a whistle from the rear. He knew at once his retreat, too, was cut off, and without hesitation vaulted the fence in front of a big gray stone house he was passing. A revolver flashed from the alley, and he laughed with a strange kind of delight. His thought was to escape round the house, but trellis work barred the way, and he could not open the gate.

"Trapped, by Jove," he told himself coolly as a bullet struck the trellis close to his head.

He turned back, ran up the steps of the porch and found momentary safety in the darkness of its heavy vines. But this he knew could not last. Running figures were converging toward him at a focal point. He could hear oaths and cries. Some one was throwing aimless shots from a revolver at the porch.

He heard a window go up in the second story and a woman's frightened voice ask. "What is it? Who is there?"

"Let me in. I'm ambushed by thugs," he called back.

"There he is--in the doorway," a voice cried out of the night, and it was followed by a spatter of bullets about him.

He fired at a man leaping the fence. The fellow tumbled back with a kind of scream.

"God! I'm hit."

He could hear steps coming down the stairway and fingers fumbling at the key of the door. His attackers were gathering for a rush, and he wondered whether the rescue was to be too late. They came together, the opening door and the forward pour of huddled figures. He stepped back into the hall.

There was a raucous curse, a shot, and Yesler had slammed the door shut. He was alone in the darkness with his rescuer.

"We must get out of here. They're firing through the door," he said, and "Yes" came faintly back to him from across the hall.

"Do you know where the switch is?" he asked, wondering whether she was going to be such an idiot as to faint at this inopportune moment.

His answer came in a flood of light, and showed him a young woman crouched on the hall-rack a dozen feet from the switch. She was very white, and there was a little stain of crimson on the white lace of her sleeve.

A voice from the landing above demanded quickly, "Who are you, sir?" and after he had looked up', cried in surprise, "Mr. Yesler."

"Miss Balfour," he replied. "I'll explain later. I'm afraid the lady has been hit by a bullet."

He was already beside his rescuer. She looked at him with a trace of a tired smile and said:

"In my arm."

After which she fainted. He picked up the young woman, carried her to the stairs, and mounted them.

"This way," said Virginia, leading him into a bedroom, the door of which was open.

He observed with surprise that she, too, was dressed in evening clothes, and rightly surmised that they had just come back from some social function.

"Is it serious?" asked Virginia, when he had laid his burden on the bed.

She was already clipping with a pair of scissors the sleeve from round the wound.

"It ought not to be," he said after he had examined it. "The bullet has scorched along the fleshy part of the forearm. We must telephone for a doctor at once."

She did so, then found water and cotton for bandages, and helped him make a temporary dressing. The patient recovered consciousness under the touch of the cold water, and asked: what was the matter.

"You have been hurt a little, but not badly I think. Don't you remember? You came down and opened the door to let me in."

"They were shooting at you. What for?" she wanted to know.

He smiled. "Don't worry about that. It's all over with. I'm sorry you were hurt in saving me," said Yesler gently.

"Did I save you?" The gray eyes showed a gleam of pleasure.

"You certainly did."

"This is Mr. Yesler, Laska. Mr. Yesler--Miss Lowe. I think you have never met."

"Never before to-night," he said, pinning the bandage in place round the plump arm. "There. That's all just now, ma'am. Did I hurt you very much?"

The young woman felt oddly exhilarated. "Not much. I'll forgive you if you'll tell me all about the affair. Why did they want to hurt you?"

His big heart felt very tender toward this girl who had been wounded for him, but he showed it only by a smiling deference.

"You're right persistent, ma'am. You hadn't ought to be bothering your head about any such thing, but if you feel that way I'll be glad to tell you."

He did. While they sat there and waited for the coming of the doctor, he told her the whole story of his attempt to stop the corruption that was eating like a canker at the life of the State. He was a plain man, not in the least eloquent, and he told his story without any sense that he had played any unusual part. In fact, he was ashamed that he had been forced to assume a role which necessitated a kind of treachery to those who thought they had bought him.

Laska Lowe's eyes shone with the delight his tale inspired in her. She lived largely in the land of ideals, and this fight against wrong moved her mightily. She could feel for him none of the shame which he felt for himself at being mixed up in so bad a business. He was playing a man's part, had chosen it at risk of his life. That was enough. In every fiber of her, she was glad that good fortune had given her the chance to bear a part of the battle. In her inmost heart she was even glad that to the day of her death she must bear the scar that would remind her she had suffered in so good a cause.

Virginia, for once obliterating herself, perceived how greatly taken they were with each other. At bottom, nearly every woman is a match-maker. This one was no exception. She liked both this man and this woman, and her fancy had already begun to follow her hopes. Never before had Laska appeared to show much interest in any of the opposite sex with whom her friend had seen her. Now she was all enthusiasm, had forgotten completely the pain of her wound in the spirit's glow.

"She loved me for the danger I had pass'd,
 And I loved her that she did pity them.
 This only is the witchcraft I have us'd.'"

Virginia quoted softly to herself, her eyes on the young woman so finely unconscious of the emotion that thrilled her.

Not until the clock in the hall below struck two did Yesler remember his appointment in the Ridgway Building. The doctor had come and was about to go. He suggested that if Yesler felt it would be safe for him to go, they might walk across to the hotel together.

"And leave us alone." Laska could have bitten her tongue after the words were out.

Virginia explained. "The Leighs are out of the city to-night, and it happens that even the servants are gone. I asked Miss Lowe to stay with me all night, but, of course, she feels feverish and nervous after this excitement. Couldn't you send a man to watch the rest of the night out in the house?"

"Why don't You stay, Mr. Yesler?" the doctor suggested. "You could sleep here, no doubt."

"You might have your meeting here. It is neutral ground. I can phone to Mr. Ridgway," proposed Virginia in a low voice to Yesler.

"Doesn't that seem to imply that I'm afraid to leave?" laughed Yesler.

"It implies that we are afraid to have you. Laska would worry both on your account and our own. I think you owe it to her to stay."

"Oh, if that's the way it strikes you," he agreed. "Fact is, I don't quite like to leave you anyhow. We'll take Leigh's study. I don't think we shall disturb you at all."

"I'm sure you won't--and before you go, you'll let us know what you have decided to do."

"We shall not be through before morning. You'll be asleep by then," he made answer.

"No, I couldn't sleep till I know all about it."

"Nor I," agreed Laska. "I want to know all about everything."

"My dear young lady, you are to take the sleeping-powders and get a good rest," the doctor demurred. "All about everything is too large an order for your good just now."

Virginia nodded in a businesslike way. "Yes, you're to go to sleep, Laska, and when you waken I'll tell you all about it."

"That would be better," smiled Yesler, and Virginia thought it significant that her friend made no further protest.

Gray streaks began to show in the sky before Yesler tapped on the door of Virginia's room. She had discarded the rather elaborate evening gown he had last seen her in, and was wearing some soft fabric which hung from the shoulders in straight lines, and defined the figure while lending the effect of a loose and flowing drapery.

"How is your patient?" he asked.

"She has dropped into a good sleep," the girl whispered. "I am sure we don't need to worry about her at all."

"Nevertheless, it's a luxury I'm going to permit myself for a day or two," he smiled. "I don't have my life saved by a young lady very often."

"I'm sure you will enjoy worrying about her," she laughed.

He got back at her promptly. "There's somebody down-stairs worrying about you. He wants to know if there is anything he can do for you, and suggests inviting himself for breakfast in order to make sure."

"Mr. Ridgway?"

"How did you guess it first crack? Mr. Ridgway it is."

She considered a moment. "Yes, tell him to stay. Molly will be back in time to make breakfast, and I want to talk to him. Now tell me what you did."

"We did Mr. Warner. At least I hope so," he chuckled.

"I'm so glad. And who is to be senator? Is it Waring?"

"No. It wouldn't have been possible to elect him even if we had wanted to."

"And you didn't want to," she flashed.

"No, we didn't," he admitted frankly. "We couldn't afford to have it generally understood that this was merely a partisan fight on the Consolidated, and that we were pulling Waring's chestnuts out of the fire for him."

He did not add, though he might have, that Ridgway was tarred with the same brush as the enemy in this matter.

"Then who is it to be?"

"That's a secret. I can't tell even you that. But we have agreed on a man. Waring is to withdraw and throw his influence for him. The Democratic minority will swing in line for him, and we'll do the rest. That's the plan. It may not go through, however."

"I don't see who it can be that you all unite on. Of course, it isn't Mr. Pelton?"

"I should hope not."

"Or Mr. Samuel Yesler?"

"You've used up all the guesses allowed you. If you want to know, why don't you attend the joint session to-day? It ought to be highly interesting."

"I shall," she announced promptly. "And I'll bring Laska with me."

"She won't be able to come."

"I think she will. It's only a scratch."

"I don't like to think how much worse it might have been."

"Then don't think of it. Tell Waring I'll be down presently."

He went down-stairs again, and Miss Balfour returned to the room.

"Was that Mr. Yesler?" quietly asked a voice from the bed.

"Yes, dear. He has gone back to the hotel. He asked about you, of course."

"He is very kind."

"It was thoughtful, since you only saved his life," admitted the ironical Miss Balfour.

"Wasn't it fortunate that we were up?"

"Very fortunate for him that you were."

Virginia crossed the room to the bed and kissed her friend with some subtle significance too elusive for words. Laska appeared, however to appreciate it. At least, she blushed.