"It isn't that I object to," protested the Easterner, leaning forward from the rough log wall to give emphasis to his words, "for I believe in everyone having his fun his own way. If you're going in for orgies, why, have 'em good orgies, and be done with it. But my kick's on letting these innocent young girls who are just out for the fun--it's awful!"
"It's hell!" assented the Westerner, cheerfully.
"Now, look at that pretty creature over there----"
The young miner followed his companion's gaze through the garishly lit crowd. Then, as though in doubt as to whether he had seen correctly, he tried it again.
"Which do you mean?" he asked, puzzled.
"The one in red. Now, she----"
The Westerner snorted irrepressibly.
"What's the matter with you?" inquired the Easterner, looking on him with suspicious eyes.
The other choked his laugh in the middle, and instantly assumed an expression of intense solemnity. It was as though a candle had blown out in the wind.
"Beg pardon. Nothing," he asserted with brevity of enunciation. "Go on."
The girl in red was standing tiptoe on a bench under one of the big lanterns. She was holding her little palm slantwise over the chimney, and by blowing against it was trying to put out the lamp. Her face was very serious and flushed. Occasionally the lamp would flare up a little, and she would snatch her hand away with a pretty gesture of dismay as the uprising flame would threaten to scorch it. A group of interested men surrounded and applauded her. Two on the outside stood off the proprietor of the dance-hall. The proprietor was objecting.
"Well, then, just look at that girl, I say," the Easterner went on. "She's as pretty and fresh and innocent as a mountain flower. She's having the time of her young life, and she just thinks it means a good time and nothing else. Some day she'll find out it means a lot else. I tell you, it's awful!"
The Westerner surveyed his friend's flushed face with silent amusement. The girl finally succeeded in blowing the light out, and everybody yelled.
"Same old fellow you were in college, aren't you, Bert?" he said, affectionately; "succouring the distressed and borrowing other people's troubles. What can you do?"
"Do, do! What can any man do? Take her out of this! appeal to her better nature!"
Bert started impulsively forward to where the girl--with assistance--was preparing to jump from the bench. The miner caught his sleeve in alarm.
"Hold on, don't make a row! Wait a minute!" he begged; "she isn't worth it! There, now listen," as the other sank back expectantly to his former position. His bantering manner returned. "You and the windmills," he breathed, in relief. "I'll just shatter your ideals a few to pay for that scare. You shall now hear a fact or so concerning that pretty, innocent girl--I forget your other adjective. In the first place, she isn't in the mountain-flower business a little bit. Her name is Anne Bingham, but she is more popularly known as Bismarck Anne, chiefly because of all the camps of our beloved territory Bismarck is the only one she hasn't visited. Therefore, it is concluded she must have come from there."
"Bismarck Anne!" repeated the Easterner, wonderingly. "She isn't the one----"
"The very same. She's about as bad as they make 'em, and I don't believe she misses a pay-day dance a year. She's all right, now; but you want to come back a little later. Anne will be drunk--gloriously drunk--and very joyful. I will say that for her. She has all the fun there is in it while it lasts."
"Whew!" whistled the Easterner, in dazed repulsion, looking with interest on the girl's animated face.
"Oh, what do you care!" responded the miner, carelessly. "She has her fun."
Bismarck Anne jumped into the nearest man's arms, was kissed, bestowed a slap, and flitted away down the room. She deftly stole the accordion from beneath the tall look-out stool on which a musician sat and ran, evolving strange noises from the instrument, and scampering in and out among the benches, pursued by its owner. The men all laughed heartily, and tried to trip up the pursuer. The women laughed hollow laughs, to show they were not jealous of the sensation she was creating. Finally she ran into the proprietor, just turning from relighting the big lamp. The proprietor, being angry, rescued the accordion roughly; whereupon Anne pouted and cast appealing glances on her friends. The friends responded to a man. The proprietor set up the drinks.
The music started up again. Miners darted here and there toward the gaudily dressed women, and, seizing them about the waist, held them close to their sides, as a claim of proprietorship before the whole world. Perspiring masters of ceremonies, self-constituted and drunk, rushed back and forth, trying to put a semblance of the quadrilateral into the various sets. Everybody shuffled feet impatiently.
The dance began with a swirl of noise and hilarious confusion. Bismarck Anne added to the hilarity. She was having a high old time; why shouldn't she? She had had three glasses of forty-rod, and was blessed by nature with a lively disposition and an insignificant bump of reverence. Moreover, she was healthy of body, red of blood, and reckless of consequences. Pleasure appealed to her; the stir of action, the delight of the flow of high spirits, thrilled through every fibre of her being. She had no beliefs, as far as she knew. If she could have told of them, they would have proved simple in the extreme--that life comes to those who live out their possibilities, and not to those who deny them. And Anne had many possibilities, and was living them fast. She felt almost physically the beat of pleasure in the atmosphere about her, and from it she reacted to a still higher pitch. She had drunk three glasses, and her head was not strong. Her feet moved easily, and she was very certain of her movements. She had become just hazy enough in her mental processes to have attained that happy indifference to what is likely to happen in the immediate future, and that equally happy disregard of consequences which the virtuous never experience. Impressions reduced themselves to their lowest terms--movement and noise. The room was full of rapidly revolving figures. The racket was incessant, and women's laughter rose shrill above it, like wind above a storm. Anne moved amid it all as the controller of its destinies, and wherever she went seemed to her to be the one stable point in the kaleidoscopic changes. Men danced with her, but they were meaningless men. One begged her to dance with him, but Anne stopped to watch a youth blowing brutishly from puffed cheeks, so the man cursed and left her for another girl. Beyond the puffing youth lights were dancing, green and red. Anne paused and looked at them gravely.
The people, the room, the sounds seemed to her to come and go in great bursts. Between these bursts Anne knew nothing except that she was happy; above all else she was happy. As incidents men kissed her and she drank; but these things were not essentially different from the lights and the bursts of consciousness. Anne began to take everything for granted.
After a time Anne paused again to look gravely at strange lights. But this time they seemed not to be red or green, but to be of orange, in long, fiery flashes, like ribbons thrown suddenly out and as suddenly withdrawn. The noise stopped, and was succeeded by a buzzing. For a moment the girl's blurred vision saw clearly the room, all still, except for a man huddled in one corner, and on the floor a slowly gathering pool of red. Someone thrust her out of the door with others, and she began to step aimlessly, uncertainly, along the broad street.
She felt dimly the difference between the hot air of the dance-hall and the warm air out of doors. The great hills and the stars and the silhouetted houses came and went in visions, just as had the people and the noise inside the hall. The idea of walking came to her, and occupied her mind to the exclusion of everything else, and she set about it with great intentness. How far she went and in what direction did not seem to matter. When she moved she was happy; when she stopped she was miserable. So she wandered on in the way she knew, and yet did not know, out of the broad streets of the town, through a wide cleft in the hills, up a long grassy valley that wound slowly and mounted gradually, following the brawl of the stream, until at last she found herself in a little fern-grown dell at the entrance of Iron Creek Pass. She pushed her fingers through her fallen hair, and idly over the shimmering stuff of her gown. Far above her she saw waveringly the stars. Finally the idea of sleep came to her, just as the idea of walking had come to her before. She sank to her knees, hesitated a moment, and then, with the sigh of a tired child, she pillowed her head on her soft round arm and closed her eyes.
* * * * *
The poor-wills ceased their plaintive cries. A few smaller birds chirped drowsily. Back of the eastern hills the stars became a little dimmer, and the soft night breeze, which had been steadily blowing through the darkened hours, sank quietly to sleep. The subtle magic of nature began to sketch in the picture of day, throwing objects forward from the dull background, taking them bodily out of the blackness, as though creating them anew. Fresh life stirred through everything. The vault of heaven seemed full of it, and all the ravines and by-ways caught up its overflow in a grand chorus of praise to the new-whitening morning.
The woman stirred drowsily and arose, throwing back her heavy hair from her face. The flush of sleep still dyed her cheek a rich crimson, which came and went slowly in the light of the young sun, vying in depth now with the silk of her gown, now with the still deeper tones of a mountain red-bird which splattered into rainbow tints the waters of the brook. She caught the sound of the stream, and went to it. The red-bird retreated circumspectly, silently. She knelt at the banks and splashed the icy water over her face and throat, another red-bird, another wild thing pulsing and palpitating with life. Then she arose to the full height of her splendid body and looked abroad.
The morning swept through her like a river and left her clean. In the eye of nature and before the presence of nature's innumerable creatures she stood as innocent as they. She had entered into noisome places, but so had the marsh-hawk poising grandly on motionless wing there above. She had scrambled in the mire, and she was ruffled and draggled and besmirched; so likewise had been the silent flame-bird in the thicket, but he had washed clean his plumes and was now singing the universal hymn from the nearest bush-top. The woman drew her lungs full of the morning. She stretched slowly, lazily, her muscles one by one, and stood taller and freer for the act. The debauch of the last night, the debauches of other and worse nights, the acid-like corrosion of that vulgarity which is more subtle than sin even, all these things faded into a past that was dead and gone and buried forever. The present alone was important, and the present brought her, innocent, before an innocent nature. As she stood there dewy-eyed, wistful, glowing, with loosened hair, the grasses clinging to her, and the dew, she looked like a wide-eyed child-angel newly come to earth. To her the morning was great and broad, like a dream to be dreamed and awakened from, something unreal and evanescent which would go. Her heart unfolded to its influence, and she felt within her that tenderness for the beautiful which is nearest akin to holy tears.
As she stood thus, musing, it seemed natural that a human figure should enter and become part of the dream. It seemed natural that it should be a man, and young; that he should be handsome and bold. It seemed natural that he should rein in his horse at the sight of her. So inevitable was it all, so much in keeping with the soft sky, the brooding shadow of the mountain, the squirrel noises, and the day, that she stood there motionless, making no sign, looking up at him with parted lips, saying nothing. He was only a fraction, a small fraction, of all the rest. His fine brown eyes, the curl of his long hair, the bronze of his features mattered no more to her than the play of the sunlight on Harney.
Then he spurred his horse forward, and something in her seemed to snap. From the dream-present the woman was thrust roughly back into her past. The sunlight faded away before her eyes, oozing from the air in drop after drop of golden splendour, the songs of the birds died, the murmuring of the brook became an angry brawl that accused the world of wickedness. The morning fled. From a distance, far away, farther than Harney, farther than the sky, the stranger's brown eyes looked pityingly. Her sin was no longer animal. It had touched her soul. Instead of an incident it had become a condition which hemmed her in, from which she could not escape. Suddenly she saw the difference. She dwelt in darkness; he, with his clear soul, dwelt in light. She threw herself face downward on the earth, weeping and clutching the grass in the agony of her sin.
Then a new sound smote the air. She sat upright and listened.
Around the bend she heard a high-pitched voice declaiming in measured tones.
"'Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all generations,'" the voice chanted.
"'The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth all that he bowed down.'"
The speaker strode in sight. He was one of the old-fashioned itinerant preachers occasionally seen in the Hills, filled with fanatic enthusiasm, journeying from place to place on foot, exhorting by the fear of hell fire rather than by the hope of heaven's bliss, half-crazy, half-inspired, wholly in earnest. His form was gaunt. He was clad in a shiny black coat buttoned closely, and his shoes showed dusty and huge beneath his carefully turned-up trousers. A beaver of ancient pattern was pushed far back from his narrow forehead, and from beneath it flashed vividly his fierce hawk-eyes. Over his shoulder, suspended from a cane, was a carpet-bag. He stepped eagerly forward with an immense excess of nervous force that carried him rapidly on. Nothing more out of place could be imagined than this comical figure against the simplicity of the hills. Yet for that very reason he was the more grateful to the woman's perturbed soul. She listened eagerly for his next words.
He strode fiercely across the stones of the little ford, declaiming with energy, with triumph:
"'The eyes of all wait upon Thee, and Thou givest them their meat in due season.
"'Thou openest Thine hand, and satisfieth the desire of every living thing.
"'The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works.
"'The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth.
"'He will fulfil the desire of all that fear Him: He also will hear their cry and save them.'"
Anne saw but two things plainly in all the world--the clear-eyed stranger like a god; this fiery old man who spoke words containing strange, though vague, intimations of comfort. From the agony of her soul but one thought leaped forth--to make the comfort real, to find out how to raise herself from her sin, to become worthy of the goodness which she had that morning for the first time clearly seen. She sprang forward and seized the preacher's arm. Interrupted in his ecstasy, he rolled his eyes down on her but half comprehending.
"How? How?" she gasped. "Help me! What must I do?"
She held out her empty hands with a gesture of appeal. The old man's mind still burned with the fever of his fanatical inspiration. He hardly saw her, and did not understand all the import of her words. He looked at her vacantly, and caught sight of her outstretched hands.
"'And to work with your hands as we command you,'" he quoted vaguely, then shook himself free of her detaining grasp and marched grandly on, rolling out the mighty syllables of the psalms.
"To work with my hands; to work with my hands," the woman repeated looking at her outspread palms. "Yes, that is it!" she said, slowly.
* * * * *
Anne Bingham washed dishes at the Prairie Dog Hotel for a week. The first day was one of visions; the second one of irksomeness; the third one of wearisome monotony. The first was as long as it takes to pass from one shore to the other of the great dream-sea; the second was an age; the third an eternity. The first was rose-hued; the second was dull; the third was filled with the grayness that blurs activity turned to mechanical action.
And on the eighth day occurred the monthly pay-day dance of the Last Chance mine. All the men were drunk, all the women were drunker, but drunkest of all was the undoubted favourite of the company, Bismarck Anne. Two men standing by the door saw nothing remarkable about that--it had happened the last week. But in that time Bismarck Anne had had her chance, she had eaten of the fruit of the Tree, and so now was in mortal sin.