In a Hollow of the Hills

by Bret Harte


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CHAPTER VII


CHAPTER VII.

The reappearance of Chivers in the mill with Collinson, and the brief announcement that the prisoner had consented to a satisfactory compromise, were received at first with a half contemptuous smile by the party; but for the commands of their leaders, and possibly a conviction that Collinson's fatuous cooperation with Chivers would be safer than his wrath, which might not expend itself only on Chivers, but imperil the safety of all, it is probable that they would have informed the unfortunate prisoner of his real relations to his captor. In these circumstances, Chivers's half satirical suggestion that Collinson should be added to the sentries outside, and guard his own property, was surlily assented to by Riggs, and complacently accepted by the others. Chivers offered to post him himself,--not without an interchange of meaning glances with Riggs,--Collinson's own gun was returned to him, and the strangely assorted pair left the mill amicably together.

But however humanly confident Chivers was in his companion's faithfulness, he was not without a rascal's precaution, and determined to select a position for Collinson where he could do the least damage in any aberration of trust. At the top of the grade, above the mill, was the only trail by which a party in force could approach it. This was to Chivers obviously too strategic a position to intrust to his prisoner, and the sentry who guarded its approach, five hundred yards away, was left unchanged. But there was another "blind" trail, or cut-off, to the left, through the thickest undergrowth of the woods, known only to his party. To place Collinson there was to insure him perfect immunity from the approach of an enemy, as well as from any confidential advances of his fellow sentry. This done, he drew a cigar from his pocket, and handing it to Collinson, lighted another for himself, and leaning back comfortably against a large boulder, glanced complacently at his companion.

"You may smoke until I go, Mr. Collinson, and even afterwards, if you keep the bowl of your pipe behind a rock, so as to be out of sight of your fellow sentry, whose advances, by the way, if I were you, I should not encourage. Your position here, you see, is a rather peculiar one. You were saying, I think, that a lingering affection for your wife impelled you to keep this place for her, although you were convinced of her death?"

Collinson's unaffected delight in Chivers's kindliness had made his eyes shine in the moonlight with a doglike wistfulness. "I reckon I did say that, Mr. Chivers," he said apologetically, "though it ain't goin' to interfere with you usin' the shanty jest now."

"I wasn't alluding to that, Collinson," returned Chivers, with a large rhetorical wave of the hand, and an equal enjoyment in his companion's evident admiration of him, "but it struck me that your remark, nevertheless, implied some doubt of your wife's death, and I don't know but that your doubts are right."

"Wot's that?" said Collinson, with a dull glow in his face.

Chivers blew the smoke of his cigar lazily in the still air. "Listen," he said. "Since your miraculous conversion a few moments ago, I have made some friendly inquiries about you, and I find that you lost all trace of your wife in Texas in '52, where a number of her fellow emigrants died of yellow fever. Is that so?"

"Yes," said Collinson quickly.

"Well, it so happens that a friend of mine," continued Chivers slowly, "was in a train which followed that one, and picked up and brought on some of the survivors."

"That was the train wot brought the news," said Collinson, relapsing into his old patience. "That's how I knowed she hadn't come."

"Did you ever hear the names of any of its passengers?" said Chivers, with a keen glance at his companion.

"Nary one! I only got to know it was a small train of only two wagons, and it sorter melted into Californy through a southern pass, and kinder petered out, and no one ever heard of it agin, and that was all."

"That was NOT all, Collinson," said Chivers lazily. "I saw the train arrive at South Pass. I was awaiting a friend and his wife. There was a lady with them, one of the survivors. I didn't hear her name, but I think my friend's wife called her 'Sadie.' I remember her as a rather pretty woman--tall, fair, with a straight nose and a full chin, and small slim feet. I saw her only a moment, for she was on her way to Los Angeles, and was, I believe, going to join her husband somewhere in the Sierras."

The rascal had been enjoying with intense satisfaction the return of the dull glow in Collinson's face, that even seemed to animate the whole length of his angular frame as it turned eagerly towards him. So he went on, experiencing a devilish zest in this description of his mistress to her husband, apart from the pleasure of noting the slow awakening of this apathetic giant, with a sensation akin to having warmed him into life. Yet his triumph was of short duration. The fire dropped suddenly out of Collinson's eyes, the glow from his face, and the dull look of unwearied patience returned.

"That's all very kind and purty of yer, Mr. Chivers," he said gravely; "you've got all my wife's pints thar to a dot, and it seems to fit her jest like a shoe I picked up t'other day. But it wasn't my Sadie, for ef she's living or had lived, she'd bin just yere!"

The same fear and recognition of some unknown reserve in this trustful man came over Chivers as before. In his angry resentment of it he would have liked to blurt out the infidelity of the wife before her husband, but he knew Collinson would not believe him, and he had another purpose now. His full lips twisted into a suave smile.

"While I would not give you false hopes, Mr. Collinson," he said, with a bland smile, "my interest in you compels me to say that you may be over confident and wrong. There are a thousand things that may have prevented your wife from coming to you,--illness, possibly the result of her exposure, poverty, misapprehension of your place of meeting, and, above all, perhaps some false report of your own death. Has it ever occurred to you that it is as possible for her to have been deceived in that way as for you?"

"Wot yer say?" said Collinson, with a vague suspicion.

"What I mean. You think yourself justified in believing your wife dead, because she did not seek you here; may she not feel herself equally justified in believing the same of you, because you had not sought her elsewhere?"

"But it was writ that she was comin' yere, and--I boarded every train that come in that fall," said Collinson, with a new irritation, unlike his usual calm.

"Except one, my dear Collinson,--except one," returned Chivers, holding up a fat forefinger smilingly. "And that may be the clue. Now, listen! There is still a chance of following it, if you will. The name of my friends were Mr. and Mrs. Barker. I regret," he added, with a perfunctory cough, "that poor Barker is dead. He was not such an exemplary husband as you are, my dear Collinson, and I fear was not all that Mrs. Barker could have wished; enough that he succumbed from various excesses, and did not leave me Mrs. Barker's present address. But she has a young friend, a ward, living at the convent of Santa Luisa, whose name is Miss Rivers, who can put you in communication with her. Now, one thing more: I can understand your feelings, and that you would wish at once to satisfy your mind. It is not, perhaps, to my interest nor the interest of my party to advise you, but," he continued, glancing around him, "you have an admirably secluded position here, on the edge of the trail, and if you are missing from your post to-morrow morning, I shall respect your feelings, trust to your honor to keep this secret, and--consider it useless to pursue you!"

There was neither shame nor pity in his heart, as the deceived man turned towards him with tremulous eagerness, and grasped his hand in silent gratitude. But the old rage and fear returned, as Collinson said gravely:--

"You kinder put a new life inter me, Mr. Chivers, and I wish I had yer gift o' speech to tell ye so. But I've passed my word to the Capting thar and to the rest o' you folks that I'd stand guard out yere, and I don't go back o' my word. I mout, and I moutn't find my Sadie; but she wouldn't think the less o' me, arter these years o' waitin', ef I stayed here another night, to guard the house I keep in trust for her, and the strangers I've took in on her account."

"As you like, then," said Chivers, contracting his lips, "but keep your own counsel to-night. There may be those who would like to deter you from your search. And now I will leave you alone in this delightful moonlight. I quite envy you your unrestricted communion with Nature. Adios, amigo, adios!"

He leaped lightly on a large rock that overhung the edge of the grade, and waved his hand.

"I wouldn't do that, Mr. Chivers," said Collinson, with a concerned face; "them rocks are mighty ticklish, and that one in partiklar. A tech sometimes sends 'em scooting."

Mr. Chivers leaped quickly to the ground, turned, waved his hand again, and disappeared down the grade.

But Collinson was no longer alone. Hitherto his characteristic reveries had been of the past,--reminiscences in which there was only recollection, no imagination, and very little hope. Under the spell of Chivers's words his fancy seemed to expand; he began to think of his wife as she might be now,--perhaps ill, despairing, wandering hopelessly, even ragged and footsore, or--believing HIM dead--relapsing into the resigned patience that had been his own; but always a new Sadie, whom he had never seen or known before. A faint dread, the lightest of misgivings (perhaps coming from his very ignorance), for the first time touched his steadfast heart, and sent a chill through it. He shouldered his weapon, and walked briskly towards the edge of the thick-set woods. There were the fragrant essences of the laurel and spruce--baked in the long-day sunshine that had encompassed their recesses--still coming warm to his face; there were the strange shiftings of temperature throughout the openings, that alternately warmed and chilled him as he walked. It seemed so odd that he should now have to seek her instead of her coming to him; it would never be the same meeting to him, away from the house that he had built for her! He strolled back, and looked down upon it, nestling on the ledge. The white moonlight that lay upon it dulled the glitter of lights in its windows, but the sounds of laughter and singing came to even his unfastidious ears with a sense of vague discord. He walked back again, and began to pace before the thick-set wood. Suddenly he stopped and listened.

To any other ears but those accustomed to mountain solitude it would have seemed nothing. But, familiar as he was with all the infinite disturbances of the woodland, and even the simulation of intrusion caused by a falling branch or lapsing pine-cone, he was arrested now by a recurring sound, unlike any other. It was an occasional muffled beat--interrupted at uncertain intervals, but always returning in regular rhythm, whenever it was audible. He knew it was made by a cantering horse; that the intervals were due to the patches of dead leaves in its course, and that the varying movement was the effect of its progress through obstacles and underbrush. It was therefore coming through some "blind" cutoff in the thick-set wood. The shifting of the sound also showed that the rider was unfamiliar with the locality, and sometimes wandered from the direct course; but the unfailing and accelerating persistency of the sound, in spite of these difficulties, indicated haste and determination.

He swung his gun from his shoulder, and examined its caps. As the sound came nearer, he drew up beside a young spruce at the entrance of the thicket. There was no necessity to alarm the house, or call the other sentry. It was a single horse and rider, and he was equal to that. He waited quietly, and with his usual fateful patience. Even then his thoughts still reverted to his wife; and it was with a singular feeling that he, at last, saw the thick underbrush give way before a woman, mounted on a sweating but still spirited horse, who swept out into the open. Nevertheless, he stopped in front of her, and called:--

"Hold up thar!"

The horse recoiled, nearly unseating her. Collinson caught the reins. She lifted her whip mechanically, yet remained holding it in the air, trembling, until she slipped, half struggling, half helplessly, from the saddle to the ground. Here she would have again fallen, but Collinson caught her sharply by the waist. At his touch she started and uttered a frightened "No!" At her voice Collinson started.

"Sadie!" he gasped.

"Seth!" she half whispered.

They stood looking at each other. But Collinson was already himself again. The man of simple directness and no imagination saw only his wife before him--a little breathless, a little flurried, a little disheveled from rapid riding, as he had sometimes seen her before, but otherwise unchanged. Nor had HE changed; he took her up where he had left her years ago. His grave face only broadened into a smile, as he held both her hands in his.

"Yes, it's me--Lordy! Why, I was comin' only to-morrow to find ye, Sade!"

She glanced hurriedly around her, "To--to find me," she said incredulously.

"Sartain! That ez, I was goin' to ask about ye,--goin' to ask about ye at the convent."

"At the convent?" she echoed with a frightened amazement.

"Yes, why, Lordy Sade--don't you see? You thought I was dead, and I thought you was dead,--that's what's the matter. But I never reckoned that you'd think me dead until Chivers allowed that it must be so."

Her face whitened in the moonlight "Chivers?" she said blankly.

"In course; but nat'rally you don't know him, honey. He only saw you onc't. But it was along o' that, Sade, that he told me he reckoned you wasn't dead, and told me how to find you. He was mighty kind and consarned about it, and he even allowed I'd better slip off to you this very night."

"Chivers," she repeated, gazing at her husband with bloodless lips.

"Yes, an awful purty-spoken man. Ye'll have to get to know him Sade. He's here with some of his folks az hez got inter trouble-- I'm forgettin' to tell ye. You see"--

"Yes, yes, yes!" she interrupted hysterically; "and this is the Mill?"

"Yes, lovey, the Mill--my mill--YOUR mill--the house I built for you, dear. I'd show it to you now, but you see, Sade, I'm out here standin' guard."

"Are YOU one of them?" she said, clutching his hand desperately.

"No, dear," he said soothingly,--"no; only, you see, I giv' my word to 'em as I giv' my house to-night, and I'm bound to protect them and see 'em through. Why, Lordy! Sade, you'd have done the same-- for Chivers."

"Yes, yes," she said, beating her hands together strangely, "of course. He was so kind to bring me back to you. And you might have never found me but for him."

She burst into an hysterical laugh, which the simple-minded man might have overlooked but for the tears that coursed down her bloodless face.

"What's gone o' ye, Sadie," he said in a sudden fear, grasping her hands; "that laugh ain't your'n--that voice ain't your'n. You're the old Sadie, ain't ye?" He stopped. For a moment his face blanched as he glanced towards the mill, from which the faint sound of bacchanalian voices came to his quick ear. "Sadie, dear, ye ain't thinkin' anything agin' me? Ye ain't allowin' I'm keeping anythin' back from ye?"

Her face stiffened into rigidity; she dashed the tears from her eyes. "No," she said quickly. Then after a moment she added, with a faint laugh, "You see we haven't seen each other for so long-- it's all so sudden--so unexpected."

"But you kem here, just now, calkilatin' to find me?" said Collinson gravely.

"Yes, yes," she said quickly, still grasping both his hands, but with her head slightly turned in the direction of the mill.

"But who told ye where to find the mill?" he said, with gentle patience.

"A friend," she said hurriedly. "Perhaps," she added, with a singular smile, "a friend of the friend who told you."

"I see," said Collinson, with a relieved face and a broadening smile, "it's a sort of fairy story. I'll bet, now, it was that old Barker woman that Chivers knows."

Her teeth gleamed rigidly together in the moonlight, like a death's-head. "Yes," she said dryly, "it was that old Barker woman. Say, Seth," she continued, moistening her lips slowly, "you're guarding this place alone?"

"Thar's another feller up the trail,--a sentry,--but don't you be afeard, he can't hear us, Sade."

"On this side of the mill?"

"Yes! Why, Lord love ye, Sadie! t'other side o' the mill it drops down straight to the valley; nobody comes yer that way but poor low-down emigrants. And it's miles round to come by the valley from the summit."

"You didn't hear your friend Chivers say that the sheriff was out with his posse to-night hunting them?"

"No. Did you?"

"I think I heard something of that kind at Skinner's, but it may have been only a warning to me, traveling alone."

"Thet's so," said Collinson, with a tender solicitude, "but none o' these yer road-agents would have teched a woman. And this yer Chivers ain't the man to insult one, either."

"No," she said, with a return of her hysteric laugh. But it was overlooked by Collinson, who was taking his gun from beside the tree where he had placed it, "Where are you going?" she said suddenly.

"I reckon them fellers ought to be warned o' what you heard. I'll be back in a minit."

"And you're going to leave me now--when--when we've only just met after these years," she said, with a faint attempt at a smile, which, however, did not reach the cold glitter of her eyes.

"Just for a little, honey. Besides, don't you see, I've got to get excused; for we'll have to go off to Skinner's or somewhere, Sadie, for we can't stay in thar along o' them."

"So you and your wife are turned out of your home to please Chivers," she said, still smiling.

"That's whar you slip up, Sadie," said Collinson, with a troubled face; "for he's that kind of a man thet if I jest as much as hinted you was here, he'd turn 'em all out o' the house for a lady. Thet's why I don't propose to let on anything about you till to- morrow."

"To-morrow will do," she said, still smiling, but with a singular abstraction in her face. "Pray don't disturb them now. You say there is another sentinel beyond. He is enough to warn them of any approach from the trail. I'm tired and ill--very ill! Sit by me here, Seth, and wait! We can wait here together--we have waited so long, Seth,--and the end has come now."

She suddenly lapsed against the tree, and slipped in a sitting posture to the ground. Collinson cast himself at her side, and put his arm round her.

"Wot's gone o' ye, Sade? You're cold and sick. Listen. Your hoss is just over thar feedin'. I'll put you back on him, run in and tell 'em I'm off, and be with ye in a jiffy, and take ye back to Skinner's."

"Wait," she said softly. "Wait."

"Or to the Silver Hollow--it's not so far."

She had caught his hands again, her rigid face close to his, "What hollow?--speak!" she said breathlessly.

"The hollow whar a friend o' mine struck silver. He'll take yur in."

Her head sank against his shoulder. "Let me stay here," she answered, "and wait."

He supported her tenderly, feeling the gentle brushing of her hair against his cheek as in the old days. He was content to wait, holding her thus. They were very silent; her eyes half closed, as if in exhaustion, yet with the strange suggestion of listening in the vacant pupils.

"Ye ain't hearin' anythin', deary?" he said, with a troubled face.

"No; but everything is so deathly still," she said in a frightened whisper.

It certainly was very still. A singular hush seemed to have slid over the landscape; there was no longer any sound from the mill; there was an ominous rest in the woodland, so perfect that the tiny rustle of an uneasy wing in the tree above them had made them start; even the moonlight seemed to hang suspended in the air.

"It's like the lull before the storm," she said with her strange laugh.

But the non-imaginative Collinson was more practical. "It's mighty like that earthquake weather before the big shake thet dried up the river and stopped the mill. That was just the time I got the news o' your bein' dead with yellow fever. Lord! honey, I allus allowed to myself thet suthin' was happenin' to ye then."

She did not reply; but he, holding her figure closer to him, felt it trembling with a nervous expectation. Suddenly she threw him off, and rose to her feet with a cry. "There!" she screamed frantically, "they've come! they've come!"

A rabbit had run out into the moonlight before them, a gray fox had dashed from the thicket into the wood, but nothing else.

"Who's come?" said Collinson, staring at her.

"The sheriff and his posse! They're surrounding them now. Don't you hear?" she gasped.

There was a strange rattling in the direction of the mill, a dull rumble, with wild shouts and outcries, and the trampling of feet on its wooden platform. Collinson staggered to his feet; but at the same moment he was thrown violently against his wife, and they both clung helplessly to the tree, with their eyes turned toward the ledge. There was a dense cloud of dust and haze hanging over it.

She uttered another cry, and ran swiftly towards the rocky grade. Collinson ran quickly after her, but as she reached the grade he suddenly shouted, with an awful revelation in his voice, "Come back! Stop, Sadie, for God's sake!" But it was too late. She had already disappeared; and as he reached the rock on which Chivers had leaped, he felt it give way beneath him.

But there was no sound, only a rush of wind from the valley below. Everything lapsed again into its awful stillness. As the cloud lifted from where the mill had stood, the moon shone only upon empty space. There was a singular murmuring and whispering from the woods beyond that increased in sound, and an hour later the dry bed of the old mill-stream was filled with a rushing river.

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