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- OF IN THE CARQUINEZ WOODS - 20/24 -
upon me a shame I don't deserve. I let you think I was his mistress. You think so now, don't you? Well, before God to-day-- and He may take me when He likes--I'm no more to him than a sister! I reckon your Nellie can't say as much."
She turned away, and with the quick, impatient stride of some caged animal made the narrow circuit of the opening, stopping a moment mechanically before the sick man, and again, without looking at him, continuing her monotonous round. The heat had become excessive, but she held her shawl with both hands drawn tightly over her shoulders. Suddenly a wood-duck darted out of the covert blindly into the opening, struck against the blasted trunk, fell half stunned near her feet, and then, recovering, fluttered away. She had scarcely completed another circuit before the irruption was followed by a whirring bevy of quail, a flight of jays, and a sudden tumult of wings swept through the wood like a tornado. She turned inquiringly to Dunn, who had risen to his feet, but the next moment she caught convulsively at his wrist; a wolf had just dashed through the underbrush not a dozen yards away, and on either side of them they could hear the scamper and rustle of hurrying feet like the outburst of a summer shower. A cold wind arose from the opposite direction, as if to contest this wild exodus, but it was followed by a blast of sickening heat. Teresa sank at Dunn's feet in an agony of terror.
"Don't let them touch me!" she gasped; "keep them off! Tell me, for God's sake, what has happened!"
He laid his hand firmly on her arm, and lifted her in his turn to her feet like a child. In that supreme moment of physical danger, his strength, reason, and manhood returned in their plenitude of power. He pointed coolly to the trail she had quitted, and said,
"The Carquinez Woods are on fire!"
The nest of the tuneful Burnhams, although in the suburbs of Indian Spring, was not in ordinary weather and seasons hidden from the longing eyes of the youth of that settlement. That night, however, it was veiled in the smoke that encompassed the great highway leading to Excelsior. It is presumed that the Burnham brood had long since folded their wings, for there was no sign of life nor movement in the house as a rapidly-driven horse and buggy pulled up before it. Fortunately, the paternal Burnham was an early bird, in the habit of picking up the first stirring mining worm, and a resounding knock brought him half dressed to the street door. He was startled at seeing Father Wynn before him, a trifle flushed and abstracted.
"Ah ha! up betimes, I see, and ready. No sluggards here--ha, ha!" he said heartily, slamming the door behind him, and by a series of pokes in the ribs genially backing his host into his own sitting-room. "I'm up, too, and am here to see Nellie. She's here, eh--of course?" he added, darting a quick look at Burnham.
But Mr. Burnham was one of those large, liberal Western husbands who classified his household under the general title of "woman folk," for the integers of which he was not responsible. He hesitated, and then propounded over the balusters to the upper story the direct query--
"You don't happen to have Nellie Wynn up there, do ye?"
There was an interval of inquiry proceeding from half a dozen reluctant throats, more or less cottony and muffled, in those various degrees of grievance and mental distress which indicate too early roused young womanhood. The eventual reply seemed to be affirmative, albeit accompanied with a suppressed giggle, as if the young lady had just been discovered as an answer to an amusing conundrum.
"All right," said Wynn, with an apparent accession of boisterous geniality. "Tell her I must see her, and I've only got a few minutes to spare. Tell her to slip on anything and come down; there's no one here but myself, and I've shut the front door on Brother Burnham. Ha, ha!" and suiting the action to the word, he actually bundled the admiring Brother Burnham out on his own doorstep. There was a light pattering on the staircase, and Nellie Wynn, pink with sleep, very tall, very slim, hastily draped in a white counterpane with a blue border and a general classic suggestion, slipped into the parlor. At the same moment her father shut the door behind her, placed one hand on the knob, and with the other seized her wrist.
"Where were you yesterday?" he asked.
Nellie looked at him, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Here."
"You were in the Carquinez Woods with Low Dorman; you went there in disguise; you've met him there before. He is your clandestine lover; you have taken pledges of affection from him; you have--"
"Stop!" she said.
"Did he tell you this?" she asked, with an expression of disdain.
"No; I overheard it. Dunn and Brace were at the house waiting for you. When the coach did not bring you, I went to the office to inquire. As I left our door I thought I saw somebody listening at the parlor windows. It was only a drunken Mexican muleteer leaning against the house; but if HE heard nothing, I did. Nellie, I heard Brace tell Dunn that he had tracked you in your disguise to the woods--do you hear? that when you pretended to be here with the girls you were with Low--alone; that you wear a ring that Low got of a trader here; that there was a cabin in the woods--"
"Stop!" she repeated.
Wynn again paused.
"And what did YOU do?" she asked.
"I heard they were starting down there to surprise you and him together, and I harnessed up and got ahead of them in my buggy."
"And found me here," she said, looking full into his eyes.
He understood her and returned the look. He recognized the full importance of the culminating fact conveyed in her words, and was obliged to content himself with its logical and worldly significance. It was too late now to take her to task for mere filial disobedience; they must become allies.
"Yes," he said hurriedly; "but if you value your reputation, if you wish to silence both these men, answer me fully."
"Go on," she said.
"Did you go to the cabin in the woods yesterday?"
"Did you ever go there with Low?"
"No; I do not know even where it is."
Wynn felt that she was telling the truth. Nellie knew it; but as she would have been equally satisfied with an equally efficacious falsehood, her face remained unchanged.
"And when did he leave you?"
"At nine o'clock, here. He went to the hotel."
"He saved his life, then, for Dunn is on his way to the woods to kill him."
The jeopardy of her lover did not seem to affect the young girl with alarm, although her eyes betrayed some interest.
"Then Dunn has gone to the woods?" she said thoughtfully.
"He has," replied Wynn.
"Is that all?" she asked.
"I want to know what you are going to do?"
"I WAS going back to bed."
"This is no time for trifling, girl."
"I should think not," she said, with a yawn; "it's too early, or too late."
Wynn grasped her wrist more tightly. "Hear me! Put whatever face you like on this affair, you are compromised--and compromised with a man you can't marry."
"I don't know that I ever wanted to marry Low, if you mean him," she said quietly.
"And Dunn wouldn't marry you now."
"I'm not so sure of that, either."
"Nellie," said Wynn excitedly, "do you want to drive me mad? Have you nothing to say--nothing to suggest?"
"Oh, you want me to help you, do you! Why didn't you say that first? Well, go and bring Dunn here."
"Are you mad? The man has gone already in pursuit of your lover, believing you with him."
"Then he will the more readily come and talk with me without him. Will you take the invitation--yes or no?"
"Enough. On your way there you will stop at the hotel and give Low a letter from me."
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