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- OF FROM SAND HILL TO PINE - 20/36 -
to the lounger's story. Masterton cast a quick glance around the stable; it was deserted by all save the feeding animals.
He was new to adventures of this kind, or he would probably have weighed the possibilities and consequences. He was ordinarily a thoughtful, reflective man, but like most men of intellect, he was also imaginative and superstitious, and this crowning accident of the providential situation in which he found himself was superior to his logic. There would also be a grim irony in his taking this horse for such a purpose. He again looked and listened. There was no one within sight or hearing. He untied the rope from the bit- ring, leaped into the saddle, and emerged cautiously from the shed. The wet snow muffled the sound of the horse's hoofs. Moving round to the rear of the stable so as to bring it between himself and the station, he clapped his heels into the mustang's flanks and dashed into the open.
At first he was confused and bewildered by the half hidden boulders and snow-shrouded bushes that beset the broken ground, and dazzled by the still driving storm. But he knew that they would also divert attention from his flight, and beyond, he could now see a white slope slowly rising before him, near whose crest a few dark spots were crawling in file, like Alpine climbers. They were the Chinamen he was seeking. He had reasoned that when they discovered they were followed they would, in the absence of any chance of signaling through the storm, detach one of their number to give the alarm. HIM he would follow. He felt his revolver safe on his hip; he would use it only if necessary to intimidate the spies.
For some moments his ascent through the wet snow was slow and difficult, but as he advanced, he felt a change of temperature corresponding to that he had experienced that afternoon on the wagon coming down. The air grew keener, the snow drier and finer. He kept a sharp lookout for the moving figures, and scanned the horizon for some indication of the prospector's deserted hut. Suddenly the line of figures he was watching seemed to be broken, and then gathered together as a group. Had they detected him? Evidently they had, for, as he had expected, one of them had been detached, and was now moving at right angles from the party towards the right. With a thrill of excitement he urged his horse forward; the group was far to the left, and he was nearing the solitary figure. But to his astonishment, as he approached the top of the slope he now observed another figure, as far to the left of the group as he was to the right, and that figure he could see, even at that distance, was NOT a Chinaman. He halted for a better observation; for an instant he thought it might be the fugitive himself, but as quickly he recognized it was another man--the deputy. It was HE whom the Chinaman had discovered; it was HE who had caused the diversion and the dispatch of the vedette to warn the fugitive. His own figure had evidently not yet been detected. His heart beat high with hope; he again dashed forward after the flying messenger, who was undoubtedly seeking the prospector's ruined hut and--Trixit.
But it was no easy matter. At this elevation the snow had formed a crust, over which the single Chinaman--a lithe young figure-- skimmed like a skater, while Masterton's horse crashed though it into unexpected depths. Again, the runner could deviate by a shorter cut, while the horseman was condemned to the one half obliterated trail. The only thing in Masterton's favor, however, was that he was steadily increasing his distance from the group and the deputy sheriff, and so cutting off their connection with the messenger. But the trail grew more and more indistinct as it neared the summit, until at last it utterly vanished. Still he kept up his speed toward the active little figure--which now seemed to be that of a mere boy--skimming over the frozen snow. Twice a stumble and flounder of the mustang through the broken crust ought to have warned him of his recklessness, but now a distinct glimpse of a low, blackened shanty, the prospector's ruined hut, toward which the messenger was making, made him forget all else. The distance was lessening between them; he could see the long pigtail of the fugitive standing out from his bent head, when suddenly his horse plunged forward and downward. In an awful instant of suspense and twilight, such as he might have seen in a dream, he felt himself pitched headlong into suffocating depths, followed by a shock, the crushing weight and steaming flank of his horse across his shoulder, utter darkness, and--merciful unconsciousness.
How long he lay there thus he never knew. With his returning consciousness came this strange twilight again,--the twilight of a dream. He was sitting in the new church at Canada City, as he had sat the first Sunday of his arrival there, gazing at the pretty face of Cissy Trixit in the pew opposite him, and wondering who she was. Again he saw the startled, awakened light that came into her adorable eyes, the faint blush that suffused her cheek as she met his inquiring gaze, and the conscious, half conceited, half girlish toss of her little head as she turned her eyes away, and then a file of brown Chinamen, muttering some harsh, uncouth gibberish, interposed between them. This was followed by what seemed to be the crashing in of the church roof, a stifling heat succeeded by a long, deadly chill. But he knew that THIS last was all a dream, and he tried to struggle to his feet to see Cissy's face again,--a reality that he felt would take him out of this horrible trance,-- and he called to her across the pew and heard her sweet voice again in answer, and then a wave of unconsciousness once more submerged him.
He came back to life with a sharp tingling of his whole frame as if pierced with a thousand needles. He knew he was being rubbed, and in his attempts to throw his torturers aside, he saw faintly by the light of a flickering fire that they were Chinamen, and he was lying on the floor of a rude hut. With his first movements they ceased, and, wrapping him like a mummy in warm blankets, dragged him out of the heap of loose snow with which they had been rubbing him, toward the fire that glowed upon the large adobe hearth. The stinging pain was succeeded by a warm glow; a pleasant languor, which made even thought a burden, came over him, and yet his perceptions were keenly alive to his surroundings. He heard the Chinamen mutter something and then depart, leaving him alone. But presently he was aware of another figure that had entered, and was now sitting with its back to him at a rude table, roughly extemporized from a packing-box, apparently engaged in writing. It was a small Chinaman, evidently the one he had chased! The events of the past few hours--his mission, his intentions, and every incident of the pursuit--flashed back upon him. Where was he? What was he doing here? Had Trixit escaped him?
In his exhausted state he was unable to formulate a question which even then he doubted if the Chinaman could understand. So he simply watched him lazily, and with a certain kind of fascination, until he should finish his writing and turn round. His long pigtail, which seemed ridiculously disproportionate to his size,-- the pigtail which he remembered had streamed into the air in his flight,--had partly escaped from the discovered hat under which it had been coiled. But what was singular, it was not the wiry black pigtail of his Mongolian fellows, but soft and silky, and as the firelight played upon it, it seemed of a shining chestnut brown! It was like--like--he stopped--was he dreaming again? A long sigh escaped him.
The figure instantly turned. He started. It was Cissy Trixit! There was no mistaking that charming, sensitive face, glowing with health and excitement, albeit showing here and there the mark of the pigment with which it had been stained, now hurriedly washed off. A little of it had run into the corners of her eyelids, and enhanced the brilliancy of her eyes.
He found his tongue with an effort. "What are you doing here?" he asked with a faint voice, and a fainter attempt to smile.
"That's what I might ask about you," she said pertly, but with a slight touch of scorn; "but I guess I know as well as I do about the others. I came here to see my father," she added defiantly.
"And you are the--the--one--I chased?"
"Yes; and I'd have outrun you easily, even with your horse to help you," she said proudly, "only I turned back when you went down into that prospector's hole with your horse and his broken neck atop of you."
He groaned slightly, but more from shame than pain. The young girl took up a glass of whiskey ready on the table and brought it to him. "Take that; it will fetch you all right in a moment. Popper says no bones are broken."
Masterton waived the proffered glass. "Your father--is he here?" he asked hurriedly, recalling his mission.
"Not now; he's gone to the station--to--fetch--my clothes," she said, with a little laugh.
"To the station?" repeated Masterton, bewildered.
"Yes," she replied, "to the station. Of course you don't know the news," she added, with an air of girlish importance. "They've stopped all proceedings against him, and he's as free as you are."
Masterton tried to rise, but another groan escaped him. He was really in pain. Cissy's bright eyes softened. She knelt beside him, her soft breath fanning his hair, and lifted him gently to a sitting position.
"Oh, I've done it before," she laughed, as she read his wonder, with his gratitude, in his eyes. "The horse was already stiff, and you were nearly so, by the time I came up to you and got"--she laughed again--"the OTHER Chinaman to help me pull you out of that hole."
"I know I owe you my life," he said, his face flushing.
"It was lucky I was there," she returned naively; "perhaps lucky you were chasing me."
"I'm afraid that of the many who would run after you I should be the least lucky," he said, with an attempt to laugh that did not, however, conceal his mortification; "but I assure you that I only wished to have an interview with your father,--a BUSINESS interview, perhaps as much in his interest as my own."
The old look of audacity came back to her face. "I guess that's what they all came here for, except one, but it didn't keep them from believing and saying he was a thief behind his back. Yet they all wanted his--confidence," she added bitterly.
Masterton felt that his burning cheeks were confessing the truth of this. "You excepted one," he said hesitatingly.
"Yes--the deputy sheriff. He came to help ME."
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