Chapter XXXII. Preparation.
 

That same night, Mr. Lane told his daughter that he would leave home early the next morning to be gone two days. Jim was cleaning his big forty-five when he made the announcement.

Sammy paused with one hand on the cupboard door to ask, "With Wash Gibbs, Daddy?"

"No, I ain't goin' with Wash; but I'll likely meet up with him before I get back." There was a hint of that metallic ring in the man's voice.

The girl placed her armful of dishes carefully on the cupboard shelf; "You're--you're not going to forget your promise, are you, Daddy Jim?"

The mountaineer was carefully dropping a bit of oil into the lock of his big revolver. "No, girl, I ain't forgettin' nothin'. This here's the last ride I aim to take with Wash. I'm goin' to see him to,"--he paused and listened carefully to the click, click, click, as he tested the action of his weapon--"to keep my promise."

"Oh, Daddy, Daddy, I'm so glad! I wanted this more than I ever wanted anything in all my life before. You're such a good Daddy to me, I never could bear to see you with that bad, bad man." She was behind his chair now, and, stooping, laid her fresh young cheek against the swarthy, furrowed face.

The man sat like a grim, stone image, his eyes fixed on the gun resting on his knees. Not until she lifted her head to stand erect behind his chair, with a hand on each shoulder, did he find words. "Girl, there's just one thing I've got to know for sure before I go to-morrow. I reckon I'm right, but somehow a man can't never tell about a woman in such things. Will you tell your Daddy, Sammy?"

"Tell what, Daddy Jim?" the girl asked, her hands stealing up to caress her father's face.

"What answer will you give to Young Matt when he asks you what Ollie did?"

"But why must you know that before you go to-morrow?"

"'Cause I want to be plumb sure I ain't makin' no mistake in sidin' with the boy in this here trouble."

"You couldn't make a mistake in doing that, Daddy, no matter whether I--no matter what--but perhaps Matt will not ask me what Ollie did."

Just a ray of humor touched the dark face. "I ain't makin' no mistake there. I know what the man will do." He laid the gun upon the table, and reaching up caught the girl's hand. "But I want to know what you'll say when he asks you. Tell me, honey, so I'll be plumb certain I'm doin' right."

Sammy lowered her head and whispered in his ear.

"Are you sure this time, girl, dead sure?"

"Oh, I'm so sure that it seems as if I--I couldn't wait for him to come to me. I never felt this way before, never."

The mountaineer drew his daughter into his arms, and held her close, as he said, "I ain't afraid to do it, now, girl."

The young woman was so occupied with her own thoughts and the emotions aroused by her father's question, that she failed to note the ominous suggestion that lay under his words. So she entered gaily into his plans for her during his two days' absence.

Jim would leave early in the morning, and Sammy was to stay with her friend, Mandy Ford, over on Jake Creek. Mr. Lane had arranged with Jed Holland to do the milking, so there would be no reason for the girl's return until the following evening, and she must promise that she would not come home before that time. Sammy promised laughingly. He need not worry; she and Mandy had not had a good visit alone for weeks.

When his daughter had said good-night, Jim extinguished the light, and slipping the big gun inside his shirt went to sit outside the cabin door with his pipe. An hour passed. Sammy was fast asleep. And still the man sat smoking. A half hour more went by. Suddenly the pipe was laid aside, and Jim's hand crept inside his shirt to find the butt of the revolver. His quick ear had caught the sound of a swiftly moving horse coming down the mountain.

The horse stopped at the gate and a low whistle came out of the darkness. Leaving his seat, Sammy's father crossed the yard, and, a moment later, the horse with its rider was going on again down the trail toward the valley below and the distant river.

Jim waited at the gate until the sound of the horse's feet had died away in the night. Then he returned to the cabin. But even as he walked toward the house, a dark figure arose from a clump of bushes within a few feet of the spot where Jim and the horseman had met. The figure slipped noiselessly away into the forest.

The next morning Jim carefully groomed and saddled the brown pony for Sammy, then, leading his own horse ready for the road, he came to the cabin door. "Going now, Daddy?" said the girl, coming for the good-by kiss.

"My girl, my girl," whispered the man, as he took her in his arms.

Sammy was frightened at the sight of his face, so strange and white. "Why Daddy, Daddy Jim, what is the matter?"

"Nothin', girl, nothin'. Only--only you're so like your mother, girl. She--she used to come just this way when I'd be leavin'. You're sure like her, and--and I'm glad. I'm glad you're like the old folks, too. Remember now, stay at Mandy's until to-morrow evenin'. Kiss me again, honey. Good-by."

He mounted hurriedly and rode away at a brisk gallop. Pulling up a moment at the edge of the timber, he turned in the saddle to wave his hand to the girl in the cabin door.