Mrs. Laughton had found what she had been looking for all her life—the man under her bed.
Every night of her nearly thirty years of existence this pretty little person had stooped on her knees, before saying her prayers, and had investigated the space beneath her bed, a light brass affair, hung with a chintz valance; had then peered beneath the dark recess of the dressing-case, and having looked in the deep drawer of the bureau and into the closet, she fastened her door and felt as secure as a snail in a shell. As she never, in this particular business, seemed to have any confidence in Mr. Laughton, in spite of the fact that she admired him and adored him, neither his presence nor his absence ever made any variation in the performance. She had gone through the motions, however, for so long a time that they had come to be in a manner perfunctory, and the start she received on this night of which I speak made her prayers quite impossible.
What was she to do? She, a coward par eminence, known to be the most timorous of the whole family; her tremors at all sorts of imagined dangers affording laughter to the flock of sisters and brothers. Should she stay on her knees after having seen that dark shape, as if going on with her prayers, while revolving some plan of procedure? That was out of the question. Scream? She couldn't have screamed to save her life. Run? She could no more have set one foot before the other, than if her body had melted from the waist down. She was deadly faint and cold and shaking, and all in a second, in the fraction of a second, before she had risen from her stooping posture.
Oh, why wasn't it Virginia instead? Virginia had always had such heroic plans of making the man come out of his hiding-place at the point of her pistol; and Virginia could cock a pistol and wasn't covered with cold shivers at the sight of one, as she was. If it had only been Francie, whose shrill voice could have been heard over the side of the earth, or Juliet, whose long legs would have left burglar, and house, too, in the background between the opening and slamming of a door. Either of them was so much more fit than she, the chicken-hearted one of the family, to cope with this creature. And they were all gone to the wedding with Fred, and would not be at home till to-morrow; and Tom had just returned from the town and handed her his roll of bills, and told her to take care of it till he came back from galloping down to the works with Jules; and she had tucked it into her belt, and had asked him, a little quakingly, what if any of the men of the Dead Line that they had heard of or Red Dan or an Apache came along; and he had laughed, and said she had better ask them in and reproach them for making such strangers of themselves as not to have called in the two years she had been in this part of the country; and she had the two maids with her, and he should be back directly. And she had looked out after him a moment over the wide prairie to the hills, all bathed in moonlight, and felt as if she were a spirit alone in a dead world. And here she was now, the two maids away in the little wing, locked out by the main house, alone with a burglar, and not another being nearer than the works, a half-mile off.
How did this man know that she was without any help here? How did he know that Tom was coming back with the money to pay the men that night? How did he happen to be aware that Tom's money was all in the house? Evidently he was one of the men. No one else could have known anything about it. If that money was taken, nobody would believe the story; Tom would be cashiered; he never could live through the disgrace; he would die of a broken heart, and she of another. They had come out to this remote and lonesome country to build up a home and a fortune; and so many people would be stricken with them! What a mischance for her to be left with the whole thing in her hands, her little, weak, trembling hands—Tom's honor, his good name and his success, their fortune, the welfare of the whole family, the livelihood of all the men, the safety of the enterprise! What made Tom risk things so! How could he put her in such jeopardy? To be sure, he thought the dogs would be safeguard enough, but they had gone scouring after him. And if they hadn't, how could dogs help her with a man under the bed?
It was worse than any loss of money to have such a wretch as this so near one, so shudderingly, so awfully near, to be so close as this to the bottomless pit itself! What was she to do? Escape? The possibility did not cross her mind. Not once did she think of letting Tom's money go. All but annihilated by terror in that heartbeat, she herself was the last thing she thought of.
Light and electricity are swift, but thought is swifter. As I said, this was all in the fraction of a second. Then Mrs. Laughton was on her feet again and before a pendulum could have more than swung backward. The man must know she saw him. She took the light brass bedstead and sent it rolling away from her with all her might and main leaving the creature uncovered. He lay easily on one side, a stout little club like a policeman's billy in his hand, some weapons gleaming in his belt, putting up the other hand to grasp the bedstead as it rolled away.
"You look pretty, don't you?" said she.
Perhaps this was as much of a shock to the man as his appearance had been to her. He was not acquainted with the saying that it is only the unexpected that happens.
"Get up," said she. "I'd be a man if I was a man. Get up. I'm not going to hurt you."
If the intruder had any sense of humor, this might have touched it; the idea of this little fairy-queen of a woman, almost small enough to have stepped out of a rain-lily, hurting him! But it was so different from what he had been awaiting that it startled him; and then, perhaps, he had some of the superstition that usually haunts the evil and ignorant, and felt that such small women were uncanny. He was on his feet now, towering over her.
"No," said he, gruffly; "I don't suppose you're going to hurt me. And I'm not going to hurt you, if you hand over that money."
"What money?" opening her eyes with a wide sort of astonishment.
"Come! None of your lip. I want that money!"
"Why, I haven't any money! Oh, yes, I have, to be sure, but—"
"I thought you'd remember it," said the man, with a grin.
"But I want it!" she exclaimed.
"I want it, too!" said he.
"Oh, it wouldn't do you any good," she reasoned. "Fifteen dollars. And it's all the money I've got in the world!"
"I don't want no fifteen dollars," said the man; "and I don't want none of your chinning. I want the money your husband's going to pay off with—"
"Oh, Tom's money!" in quite a tone of relief. "Oh! I haven't anything to do with Tom's money. If you can get any money out of Tom it's more than I can do. And I wouldn't advise you to try, either; for he always carries a pistol in the same pocket with it, and he's covered all over with knives and derringers and bull-dogs, so that sometimes I don't like to go near him till he's unloaded. You have to, in this country of desperadoes. You see—"
"Yes, I see, you little hen-sparrer," his eyes coming back to her from a survey of the room, "that you've got Tom's money in the house here, and would like to throw me off the scent!"
"If I had," said she, "you'd only get it across my dead body! Hadn't you better look for it, and have me tell you when you're hot and when you're cold?"
"Come!" said he, again; "I've had enough of your slack—"
"You're not very polite," she said, with something like a pout.
"People in my line ain't," he answered, grimly. "I want that money! and I want it now! I've no time to lose. I'd rather come by it peaceable," he growled, "but if—"
"Well, you can take it; of course, you're the stronger. But I told you before, it's all I have, and I've very particular use for it. You just sit down!" she cried, indicating a chair, with the air of really having been alone so long in these desolate regions as to be glad of having some one to talk to, and throwing herself into the big one opposite, because in truth she could not stand up another moment. And perhaps feeling as if a wren were expostulating with him about robbing her nest, the man dropped the angry arm with which he had threatened her, and leaned over the back of the chair.
"There it is," said she, "right under your hand all the time. You won't have to rip up the mattress for it, or rummage the clothes-press, or hunt through the broken crockery on the top shelves of the kitchen cupboard," she ran on, as if she were delighted to hear the sound of her own voice, and couldn't talk fast enough. "I always leave my purse on the dressing-case, though Tom has told me, time and again, it wasn't safe. But out here—"
"Stop!" thundered the man. "If you know enough to stop. Stop! or I'll cut your cursed tongue out and make you stop. And then, I suppose, you'd gurgle. That's not what I want—though I'll take it. I've told you, time and again, that I want the paymaster's money. That isn't right under my hand—and where is it? I'll put daylight through that little false heart of yours if you don't give it to me without five more words—"
"And I've told you just as often that I've nothing to do with the paymaster's money, and I wish you would put daylight anywhere, for then my husband would come home and make an end of you!" And with the great limpid tears overflowing her blue eyes, Rose Laughton knew that the face she turned up at him was enough to melt the sternest heart going.
"Do you mean to tell me—" said he, evidently wavering, and possibly inclining to doubt if, after all, she were not telling the truth, as no man in his senses would leave such a sum of money in the keeping of such a simpleton.
"I don't mean to tell you anything!" she cried. "You won't believe a word I say, and I never had any one doubt my word before. I hate to have you take that fifteen dollars, though. You never would in the world, if you knew how much self-denial it stands for. Every time I think I would like an ice-cream, out in this wilderness, where you might as well ask for an iceberg, I've made Tom give me the price of one. You won't find anything but ribbons there. And when I've felt as if I should go wild if I couldn't have a box of Huyler's candy, I've made Tom give me the price of that. There's only powder and tweezers and frizzes in those boxes," as he went over the top of the dressing-case, still keeping a lookout on her. "And when we were all out of lager and apollinaris, and Tom couldn't—that's my laces, and I wish you wouldn't finger them; I don't believe your hands are clean—and Tom couldn't get anything to drink, I've made him put in the price of a drink, and lots of ten-cent pieces came that way, and—But I don't imagine you care to hear about all that. What makes you look at me so?" For the man had left his search again, and his glance was piercing her through and through. "Oh, your eyes are like augers turning to live coals!" she cried. "Is that the way you look at your wife? Do you look at your children the same way?"
"That lay won't work," said he, with another grin. "I ain't got no feelings to work on. I ain't got no wife or kids."
"I'm sure that's fortunate," said Mrs. Laughton. "A family wouldn't have any peace of their lives with you following such a dangerous business. And they couldn't see much of you either. I must say I think you'd be a great deal happier if you reformed—I mean—well, if you left this business, and took up a quarter-section, and had a wife and—"
"Look here!" cried the man, his patience gone. "Are you a fool, or are you bluffing me? I've half a mind to knock your head in," he cried, "and hunt the house over for myself! I would, if there was time."
"You wouldn't find anything if you did," she returned, leaning back in her chair. "I've looked often enough, when I thought Tom had some money. I never found any. What are you going to do now?" with a cry of alarm at his movement.
"I'm going to tie you hand and foot first—"
"Oh, I wouldn't! I'd rather you wouldn't—really! I promise you I won't leave this chair—"
"I don't mean you shall."
"Oh, how can you treat me so!" she exclaimed, lifting up her streaming face. "You don't look like a person to treat a woman so. I don't like to be tied; it makes me feel so helpless."
"What kind of a dumb fool be you, anyway?" said the man, stopping a moment to stare at her. And he made a step then toward the high chest of drawers, half bureau, half writing-desk, for a ball of tape he saw lying there.
"Oh!" she cried, remembering the tar-baby. "Don't! Don't go there! For mercy's sake, don't go there!" raising her voice till it was like the wind in the chimney. "Oh, please don't go there!" At which, as if feeling morally, or rather immorally, sure that what he had come for was in that spot, he seized the handles of the drawer, and down fell the lid upon his head with a whack that jammed his hat over his eyes and blinded him with pain and fury for an instant. And in that instant she had whipped the roll of money from her belt, and had dropped it underneath her chair. "I knew it!" she cried. "I knew it would! It always does. I told you not to go."
"You shet your mouth quick!" roared the man, with a splutter of oaths between each word.
"That's right," she said, leaning over the arm of the chair, her face like a pitying saint's. "Don't mind me, I always tell Tom to swear, when he jams his thumb. I know how it is myself when I'm driving a nail. It's a great relief. I'd put some cold water on your head, but I promised you I wouldn't stir out of the chair—"
The man went and sat down in the chair on whose back he had been leaning.
"I swear, I don't know what to make of you," said he, rubbing his head ruefully.
"You can make friends with me," said she. "That's what you can do. I'm sure I've shown you that I'm friendly enough. I never believe any harm of any one till I see it myself. I don't blame you for wanting the money. I'm always in want of money. I've told you you might take mine, though I don't want you to. But I shouldn't give you Tom's money, even if I knew where it was. Tom would kill me if I did, and I might as well be killed by you as by Tom—and better. You can make friends with me, and be some protection to me till my husband comes. I'm expecting him and Jules every moment."
The man started to his feet.
"Do you see that?" he cried, holding his revolver under her nose. "Look right into that gun! We'll have no more fooling. It'll be your last look if you don't tell me where that money is before I count three."
She put out her hand and calmly moved it aside.
"I've looked into those things ever since I've lived on the prairie," said she. "And I dare say it won't go off—mine won't. Besides, I know very well you wouldn't shoot a woman, and you can't make bricks without straw; and then I've told you I don't know anything about that money."
"You are a game one," said he.
"No, I'm not," she replied. "I'm the most tremendous coward. I've come out here in this wild country to live, and I'm alone a great deal, and I quake at every sound, every creak of a timber, every rustle of the grass. And you don't know anything about what it is to have your heart stand still with horror of a wild beast or a wild Indian or a deserter—a deserting soldier. There's a great Apache down there now, stretched out in his blanket on the floor, before the fire in the kitchen. And I came up here as quick as I could, to lock the door behind us and sit up till Tom came home, and I declare, I never was so thankful in all my life as I was just now to see a white face when I looked at you!"
"Well, I'll be—! Apache!" cried the visitor. "See here, little one, you've saved your husband's money for him. You're a double-handful of pluck. I haven't any idea but you know where it's hid—but I've got to be making tracks. If it wasn't for waking that Apache I'd leave Red Dan's handwriting on the wall."
And almost while he was speaking he had swung himself out of the window to the roof of the porch and had dropped to the ground and made off.
Mrs. Laughton waited till she thought he must be out of hearing, leaning out as if she were gazing at the moon. Then she softly shut and fastened the sash, and crept with shaking limbs to the door and unlocked it, and fell in a dead faint across the threshold. And there, when he returned some three-quarters of an hour later, Tom found her.
"Oh, Tom!" she sobbed, when she became conscious that she was lying in his arms, his heart beating like a trip-hammer, his voice hoarse with fright as he implored her to open her eyes; "is there an Apache in the kitchen?"
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