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The Judgment of Bolinas Plain by Bret Harte

The following is the complete text of Bret Harte's The Judgment of Bolinas Plain. The various books, short stories and poems we offer are presented free of charge with absolutely no advertising as a public service from Internet Accuracy Project.

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The Judgment of Bolinas Plain by Bret Harte


by Bret Harte

The wind was getting up on the Bolinas Plain. It had started the fine alkaline dust along the level stage road, so that even that faint track, the only break in the monotony of the landscape, seemed fainter than ever. But the dust cloud was otherwise a relief; it took the semblance of distant woods where there was no timber, of moving teams where there was no life. And as Sue Beasley, standing in the doorway of One Spring House that afternoon, shading her sandy lashes with her small red hand, glanced along the desolate track, even HER eyes, trained to the dreary prospect, were once or twice deceived.


It was a man's voice from within. Sue took no notice of it, but remained with her hand shading her eyes.

"Sue! Wot yer yawpin' at thar?"

"Yawpin'" would seem to have been the local expression for her abstraction, since, without turning her head, she answered slowly and languidly: "Reckoned I see'd som' un on the stage road. But 'tain't nothin' nor nobody."

Both voices had in their accents and delivery something of the sadness and infinite protraction of the plain. But the woman's had a musical possibility in its long-drawn cadence, while the man's was only monotonous and wearying. And as she turned back into the room again, and confronted her companion, there was the like difference in their appearance. Ira Beasley, her husband, had suffered from the combined effects of indolence, carelessness, misadventure, and disease. Two of his fingers had been cut off by a scythe, his thumb and part of his left ear had been blown away by an overcharged gun; his knees were crippled by rheumatism, and one foot was lame from ingrowing nails,--deviations that, however, did not tend to correct the original angularities of his frame. His wife, on the other hand, had a pretty figure, which still retained--they were childless--the rounded freshness of maidenhood. Her features were irregular, yet not without a certain piquancy of outline; her hair had the two shades sometimes seen in imperfect blondes, and her complexion the sallowness of combined exposure and alkaline assimilation.

She had lived there since, an angular girl of fifteen, she had been awkwardly helped by Ira from the tail-board of the emigrant wagon in which her mother had died two weeks before, and which was making its first halt on the Californian plains, before Ira's door. On the second day of their halt Ira had tried to kiss her while she was drawing water, and had received the contents of the bucket instead,--the girl knowing her own value. On the third day Ira had some conversation with her father regarding locations and stock. On the fourth day this conversation was continued in the presence of the girl; on the fifth day the three walked to Parson Davies' house, four miles away, where Ira and Sue were married. The romance of a week had taken place within the confines of her present view from the doorway; the episode of her life might have been shut in in that last sweep of her sandy lashes.

Nevertheless, at that moment some instinct, she knew not what, impelled her when her husband left the room to put down the dish she was washing, and, with the towel lapped over her bare pretty arms, to lean once more against the doorpost, lazily looking down the plain. A cylindrical cloud of dust trailing its tattered skirt along the stage road suddenly assaulted the house, and for an instant enveloped it. As it whirled away again something emerged, or rather dropped from its skirts behind the little cluster of low bushes which encircled the "One Spring." It was a man.

"Thar! I knew it was suthin'," she began aloud, but the words somehow died upon her lips. Then she turned and walked towards the inner door, wherein her husband had disappeared,--but here stopped again irresolutely. Then she suddenly walked through the outer door into the road and made directly for the spring. The figure of a man crouching, covered with dust, half rose from the bushes when she reached them. She was not frightened, for he seemed utterly exhausted, and there was a singular mixture of shame, hesitation, and entreaty in his broken voice as he gasped out:--

"Look here!--I say! hide me somewhere, won't you? Just for a little. You see--the fact is--I'm chased! They're hunting me now,--they're just behind me. Anywhere will do till they go by! Tell you all about it another time. Quick! Please do!"

In all this there was nothing dramatic nor even startling to her. Nor did there seem to be any present danger impending to the man. He did not look like a horse-thief nor a criminal. And he had tried to laugh, half-apologetically, half-bitterly,--the consciousness of a man who had to ask help of a woman at such a moment.

She gave a quick glance towards the house. He followed her eyes, and said hurriedly: "Don't tell on me. Don't let any one see me. I'm trusting you.

"Come," she said suddenly. "Get on THIS side."

He understood her, and slipped to her side, half-creeping, half-crouching like a dog behind her skirts, but keeping her figure between him and the house as she moved deliberately towards the barn, scarce fifty yards away. When she reached it she opened the half-door quickly, said: "In there--at the top--among the hay"--closed it, and was turning away, when there came a faint rapping from within. She opened the door again impatiently; the man said hastily: "Wanted to tell you--it was a man who insulted a WOMAN! I went for him, you see--and"--

But she shut the door sharply. The fugitive had made a blunder. The importation of her own uncertain sex into the explanation did not help him. She kept on towards the house, however, without the least trace of excitement or agitation in her manner, entered the front door again, walked quietly to the door of the inner room, glanced in, saw that her husband was absorbed in splicing a riata, and had evidently not missed her, and returned quietly to her dish-washing. With this singular difference: a few moments before she had seemed inattentive and careless of what she was doing, as if from some abstraction; now, when she was actually abstracted, her movements were mechanically perfect and deliberate. She carefully held up a dish and examined it minutely for cracks, rubbing it cautiously with the towel, but seeing all the while only the man she had left in the barn. A few moments elapsed. Then there came another rush of wind around the house, a drifting cloud of dust before the door, the clatter of hoofs, and a quick shout.

Her husband reached the door, from the inner room, almost as quickly as she did. They both saw in the road two armed mounted men--one of whom Ira recognized as the sheriff's deputy.

"Has anybody been here, just now?" he asked sharply.


"Seen anybody go by?" he continued.

"No. What's up?"

"One of them circus jumpers stabbed Hal Dudley over the table in Dolores monte shop last night, and got away this morning. We hunted him into the plain and lost him somewhere in this damned dust."

"Why, Sue reckoned she saw suthin' just now," said Ira, with a flash of recollection. "Didn't ye, Sue?"

"Why the h-ll didn't she say it before?--I beg your pardon, ma'am; didn't see you; you'll excuse haste."

Both the men's hats were in their hands, embarrassed yet gratified smiles on their faces, as Sue came forward. There was the faintest of color in her sallow cheek, a keen brilliancy in her eyes; she looked singularly pretty. Even Ira felt a slight antenuptial stirring through his monotonously wedded years.

The young woman walked out, folding the towel around her red hands and forearms--leaving the rounded whiteness of bared elbow and upper arm in charming contrast--and looked gravely past the admiring figures that nearly touched her own. "It was somewhar over thar," she said lazily, pointing up the road in the opposite direction to the barn, "but I ain't sure it WAS any one."

"Then he'd already PASSED the house afore you saw him?" said the deputy.

"I reckon--if it WAS him," returned Sue.

"He must have got on," said the deputy; "but then he runs like a deer; it's his trade."

"Wot trade?"


"Wot's that?"

The two men were delighted at this divine simplicity. "A man who runs, jumps, climbs--and all that sort, in the circus."

"But isn't he runnin', jumpin', and climbin' away from ye now?" she continued with adorable naivete.

The deputy smiled, but straightened in the saddle. "We're bound to come up with him afore he reaches Lowville; and between that and this house it's a dead level, where a gopher couldn't leave his hole without your spottin' him a mile off! Good-by!" The words were addressed to Ira, but the parting glance was directed to the pretty wife as the two men galloped away.

An odd uneasiness at this sudden revelation of his wife's prettiness and its evident effect upon his visitors came over Ira. It resulted in his addressing the empty space before his door with, "Well, ye won't ketch much if ye go on yawpin' and dawdlin' with women-folks like this;" and he was unreasonably delighted at the pretty assent of disdain and scorn which sparkled in his wife's eyes as she added:--

"Not much, I reckon!"

"That's the kind of official trash we have to pay taxes to keep up," said Ira, who somehow felt that if public policy was not amenable to private sentiment there was no value in free government. Mrs. Beasley, however, complacently resumed her dish-washing, and Ira returned to his riata in the adjoining room. For quite an interval there was no sound but the occasional click of a dish laid upon its pile, with fingers that, however, were firm and untremulous. Presently Sue's low voice was heard.

"Wonder if that deputy caught anything yet. I've a good mind to meander up the road and see."

But the question brought Ira to the door with a slight return of his former uneasiness. He had no idea of subjecting his wife to another admiring interview. "I reckon I'll go myself," he said dubiously; "YOU'D better stay and look after the house."

Her eyes brightened as she carried a pile of plates to the dresser; it was possible she had foreseen this compromise. "Yes," she said cheerfully, "you could go farther than me."

Ira reflected. He could also send them about their business if they thought of returning. He lifted his hat from the floor, took his rifle down carefully from its pegs, and slouched out into the road. Sue watched him until he was well away, then flew to the back door, stopping only an instant to look at her face in a small mirror on the wall,--yet without noticing her new prettiness,--then ran to the barn. Casting a backward glance at the diminishing figure of her husband in the distance, she threw open the door and shut it quickly behind her. At first the abrupt change from the dazzling outer plain to the deep shadows of the barn bewildered her. She saw before her a bucket half filled with dirty water, and a quantity of wet straw littering the floor; then lifting her eyes to the hay-loft, she detected the figure of the fugitive, unclothed from the waist upward, emerging from the loose hay in which he had evidently been drying himself. Whether it was the excitement of his perilous situation, or whether the perfect symmetry of his bared bust and arms--unlike anything she had ever seen before--clothed him with the cold ideality of a statue, she could not say, but she felt no shock of modesty; while the man, accustomed to the public half-exposure in tights and spangles, was more conscious of detected unreadiness than of shame.

"Gettin' the dust off me," he said, in hurried explanation; "be down in a second." Indeed, in another moment he had resumed his shirt and flannel coat, and swung himself to the floor with a like grace and dexterity, that was to her the revelation of a descending god. She found herself face to face with him,--his features cleansed of dirt and grime, his hair plastered in wet curls on his low forehead. It was a face of cheap adornment, not uncommon in his profession--unintelligent, unrefined, and even unheroic; but she did not know that. Overcoming a sudden timidity, she nevertheless told him briefly and concisely of the arrival and departure of his pursuers.

His low forehead wrinkled. "Thar's no getting away until they come back," he said without looking at her. "Could ye keep me in here to-night?"

"Yes," she returned simply, as if the idea had already occurred to her; "but you must lie low in the loft."

"And could you"--he hesitated, and went on with a forced smile--"you see, I've eaten nothing since last night. Could you"--

"I'll bring you something," she said quickly, nodding her head.

"And if you had"--he went on more hesitatingly, glancing down at his travel-torn and frayed garments--"anything like a coat, or any other clothing? It would disguise me also, you see, and put 'em off the track."

She nodded her head again rapidly: she had thought of that too; there was a pair of doeskin trousers and a velvet jacket left by a Mexican vaquero who had bought stock from them two years ago. Practical as she was, a sudden conviction that he would look well in the velvet jacket helped her resolve.

"Did they say"--he said, with his forced smile and uneasy glance--"did they--tell you anything about me?"

"Yes," she said abstractedly, gazing at him.

"You see," he began hurriedly, "I'll tell you how it was."

"No, don't!" she said quickly. She meant it. She wanted no facts to stand between her and this single romance of her life. "I must go and get the things," she added, turning away, "before he gets back."

"Who's HE?" asked the man.

She was about to reply, "My husband," but without knowing why stopped and said, "Mr. Beasley," and then ran off quickly to the house.

She found the vaquero's clothes, took some provisions, filled a flask of whiskey in the cupboard, and ran back with them, her mouth expanded to a vague smile, and pulsating like a schoolgirl. She even repressed with difficulty the ejaculation "There!" as she handed them to him. He thanked her, but with eyes fixed and fascinated by the provisions. She understood it with a new sense of delicacy, and saying, "I'll come again when he gets back," ran off and returned to the house, leaving him alone to his repast.

Meantime her husband, lounging lazily along the high road, had precipitated the catastrophe he wished to avoid. For his slouching figure, silhouetted against the horizon on that monotonous level, had been the only one detected by the deputy sheriff and the constable, his companion, and they had charged down within fifty yards of him before they discovered their mistake. They were not slow in making this an excuse for abandoning their quest as far as Lowville: in fact, after quitting the distraction of Mrs. Beasley's presence they had, without in the least suspecting the actual truth, become doubtful if the fugitive had proceeded so far. He might at that moment be snugly ensconced behind some low wire-grass ridge, watching their own clearly defined figures, and waiting only for the night to evade them. The Beasley house seemed a proper place of operation in beating up the field. Ira's cold reception of the suggestion was duly disposed of by the deputy. "I have the RIGHT, ye know," he said, with a grim pleasantry, "to summon ye as my posse to aid and assist me in carrying out the law; but I ain't the man to be rough on my friends, and I reckon it will do jest as well if I 'requisition' your house." The dreadful recollection that the deputy had the power to detail him and the constable to scour the plain while he remained behind in company with Sue stopped Ira's further objections. Yet, if he could only get rid of her while the deputy was in the house,--but then his nearest neighbor was five miles away! There was nothing left for him to do but to return with the men and watch his wife keenly. Strange to say, there was a certain stimulus in this which stirred his monotonous pulses and was not without a vague pleasure. There is a revelation to some natures in newly awakened jealousy that is a reincarnation of love.

As they came into the house a slight circumstance, which an hour ago would have scarcely touched his sluggish sensibilities, now appeared to corroborate his fear. His wife had changed her cuffs and collar, taken off her rough apron, and evidently redressed her hair. This, with the enhanced brightness of her eyes, which he had before noticed, convinced him that it was due to the visit of the deputy. There was no doubt that the official was equally attracted and fascinated by her prettiness, and although her acceptance of his return was certainly not a cordial one, there was a kind of demure restraint and over-consciousness in her manner that might be coquetry. Ira had vaguely observed this quality in other young women, but had never experienced it in his brief courtship. There had been no rivalry, no sexual diplomacy nor insincerity in his capture of the motherless girl who had leaped from the tail-board of her father's wagon almost into his arms, and no man had since come between them. The idea that Sue should care for any other than himself had been simply inconceivable to his placid, matter-of-fact nature. That their sacrament was final he had never doubted. If his two cows, bought with his own money or reared by him, should suddenly have developed an inclination to give milk to a neighbor, he would not have been more astonished. But THEY could have been brought back with a rope, and without a heart throb.

Passion of this kind, which in a less sincere society restricts its expression to innuendo or forced politeness, left the rustic Ira only dumb and lethargic. He moved slowly and abstractedly around the room, accenting his slight lameness more than ever, or dropped helplessly into a chair, where he sat, inanely conscious of the contiguity of his wife and the deputy, and stupidly expectant of--he knew not what. The atmosphere of the little house seemed to him charged with some unwholesome electricity. It kindled his wife's eyes, stimulating the deputy and his follower to coarse playfulness, enthralled his own limbs to the convulsive tightening of his fingers around the rungs of his chair. Yet he managed to cling to his idea of keeping his wife occupied, and of preventing any eyeshot between her and her guests, or the indulgence of dangerously flippant conversation, by ordering her to bring some refreshment. "What's gone o' the whiskey bottle?" he said, after fumbling in the cupboard.

Mrs. Beasley did not blench. She only gave her head a slight toss. "Ef you men can't get along with the coffee and flapjacks I'm going to give ye, made with my own hands, ye kin just toddle right along to the first bar, and order your tangle-foot there. Ef it's a barkeeper you're looking for, and not a lady, say so!"

The novel audacity of this speech, and the fact that it suggested that preoccupation he hoped for, relieved Ira for a moment, while it enchanted the guests as a stroke of coquettish fascination. Mrs. Beasley triumphantly disappeared in the kitchen, slipped off her cuffs and set to work, and in a few moments emerged with a tray bearing the cakes and steaming coffee. As neither she nor her husband ate anything (possibly owing to an equal preoccupation) the guests were obliged to confine their attentions to the repast before them. The sun, too, was already nearing the horizon, and although its nearly level beams acted like a powerful search-light over the stretching plain, twilight would soon put an end to the quest. Yet they lingered. Ira now foresaw a new difficulty: the cows were to be brought up and fodder taken from the barn; to do this he would be obliged to leave his wife and the deputy together. I do not know if Mrs. Beasley divined his perplexity, but she carelessly offered to perform that evening function herself. Ira's heart leaped and sank again as the deputy gallantly proposed to assist her. But here rustic simplicity seemed to be equal to the occasion. "Ef I propose to do Ira's work," said Mrs. Beasley, with provocative archness, "it's because I reckon he'll do more good helpin' you catch your man than you'll do helpin' ME! So clear out, both of ye!" A feminine audacity that recalled the deputy to himself, and left him no choice but to accept Ira's aid. I do not know whether Mrs. Beasley felt a pang of conscience as her husband arose gratefully and limped after the deputy; I only know that she stood looking at them from the door, smiling and triumphant.

Then she slipped out of the back door again, and ran swiftly to the barn, fastening on her clean cuffs and collar as she ran. The fugitive was anxiously awaiting her, with a slight touch of brusqueness in his eagerness.

"Thought you were never coming!" he said.

She breathlessly explained, and showed him through the half-opened door the figures of the three men slowly spreading and diverging over the plain, like the nearly level sun-rays they were following. The sunlight fell also on her panting bosom, her electrified sandy hair, her red, half-opened mouth, and short and freckled upper lip. The relieved fugitive turned from the three remoter figures to the one beside him, and saw, for the first time, that it was fair. At which he smiled, and her face flushed and was irradiated.

Then they fell to talk,--he grateful, boastful,--as the distant figures grew dim; she quickly assenting, but following his expression rather than his words, with her own girlish face and brightening eyes. But what he said, or how he explained his position, with what speciousness he dwelt upon himself, his wrongs, and his manifold manly virtues, is not necessary for us to know, nor was it, indeed, for her to understand. Enough for her that she felt she had found the one man of all the world, and that she was at that moment protecting him against all the world! He was the unexpected, spontaneous gift to her, the companion her childhood had never known, the lover she had never dreamed of, even the child of her unsatisfied maternal yearnings. If she could not comprehend all his selfish incoherences, she felt it was her own fault; if she could not follow his ignorant assumptions, she knew it was SHE who was deficient; if she could not translate his coarse speech, it was because it was the language of a larger world from which she had been excluded. To this world belonged the beautiful limbs she gazed on,--a very different world from that which had produced the rheumatic deformities and useless mayhem of her husband, or the provincially foppish garments of the deputy. Sitting in the hayloft together, where she had mounted for greater security, they forgot themselves in his monologue of cheap vaporing, broken only by her assenting smiles and her half-checked sighs. The sharp spices of the heated pine-shingles over their heads and the fragrance of the clover-scented hay filled the close air around them. The sun was falling with the wind, but they heeded it not; until the usual fateful premonition struck the woman, and saying "I must go now," she only half-unconsciously precipitated the end. For, as she rose, he caught first her hand and then her waist, and attempted to raise the face that was suddenly bending down as if seeking to hide itself in the hay. It was a brief struggle, ending in a submission as sudden, and their lips met in a kiss, so eager that it might have been impending for days instead of minutes.

"Oh, Sue! where are ye?"

It was her husband's voice, out of a darkness that they only then realized. The man threw her aside with a roughness that momentarily shocked her above any sense of surprise or shame: SHE would have confronted her husband in his arms,--glorified and translated,--had he but kept her there. Yet she answered, with a quiet, level voice that astonished her lover, "Here! I'm just coming down!" and walked coolly to the ladder. Looking over, and seeing her husband with the deputy standing in the barnyard, she quickly returned, put her finger to her lips, made a gesture for her companion to conceal himself in the hay again, and was turning away, when, perhaps shamed by her superior calmness, he grasped her hand tightly and whispered, "Come again tonight, dear; do!" She hesitated, raised her hand suddenly to her lips, and then quickly disengaging it, slipped down the ladder.

"Ye haven't done much work yet as I kin see," said Ira wearily. "Whitey and Red Tip [the cows] are hangin' over the corral, just waitin'."

"The yellow hen we reckoned was lost is sittin' in the hayloft, and mustn't be disturbed," said Mrs. Beasley, with decision; "and ye'll have to take the hay from the stack to-night. And," with an arch glance at the deputy, "as I don't see that you two have done much either, you're just in time to help fodder down."

Setting the three men to work with the same bright audacity, the task was soon completed--particularly as the deputy found no opportunity for exclusive dalliance with Mrs. Beasley. She shut the barn door herself, and led the way to the house, learning incidentally that the deputy had abandoned the chase, was to occupy a "shake-down" on the kitchen-floor that night with the constable, and depart at daybreak. The gloom of her husband's face had settled into a look of heavy resignation and alternate glances of watchfulness, which only seemed to inspire her with renewed vivacity. But the cooking of supper withdrew her disturbing presence for a time from the room, and gave him some relief. When the meal was ready he sought further surcease from trouble in copious draughts of whiskey, which she produced from a new bottle, and even pressed upon the deputy in mischievous contrition for her previous inhospitality.

"Now I know that it wasn't whiskey only ye came for, I'll show you that Sue Beasley is no slouch of a barkeeper either," she said.

Then, rolling her sleeves above her pretty arms, she mixed a cocktail in such delightful imitation of the fashionable barkeeper's dexterity that her guests were convulsed with admiration. Even Ira was struck with this revelation of a youthfulness that five years of household care had checked, but never yet subdued. He had forgotten that he had married a child. Only once, when she glanced at the cheap clock on the mantel, had he noticed another change, more remarkable still from its very inconsistency with her burst of youthful spirits. It was another face that he saw,--older and matured with an intensity of abstraction that struck a chill to his heart. It was not HIS Sue that was standing there, but another Sue, wrought, as it seemed to his morbid extravagance, by some one else's hand.

Yet there was another interval of relief when his wife, declaring she was tired, and even jocosely confessing to some effect of the liquor she had pretended to taste, went early to bed. The deputy, not finding the gloomy company of the husband to his taste, presently ensconced himself on the floor, before the kitchen fire, in the blankets that she had provided. The constable followed his example. In a few moments the house was silent and sleeping, save for Ira sitting alone, with his head sunk on his chest and his hands gripping the arms of his chair before the dying embers of his hearth.

He was trying, with the alternate quickness and inaction of an inexperienced intellect and an imagination morbidly awakened, to grasp the situation before him. The common sense that had hitherto governed his life told him that the deputy would go to-morrow, and that there was nothing in his wife's conduct to show that her coquetry and aberration would not pass as easily. But it recurred to him that she had never shown this coquetry or aberration to HIM during their own brief courtship,--that she had never looked or acted like this before. If this was love, she had never known it; if it was only "women's ways," as he had heard men say, and so dangerously attractive, why had she not shown it to him? He remembered that matter-of-fact wedding, the bride without timidity, without blushes, without expectation beyond the transference of her home to his. Would it have been different with another man?--with the deputy, who had called this color and animation to her face? What did it all mean? Were all married people like this? There were the Westons, their neighbors,--was Mrs. Weston like Sue? But he remembered that Mrs. Weston had run away with Mr. Weston from her father's house. It was what they called "a love match." Would Sue have run away with him? Would she now run away with--?

The candle was guttering as he rose with a fierce start--his first impulse of anger--from the table. He took another gulp of whiskey. It tasted like water; its fire was quenched in the greater heat of his blood. He would go to bed. Here a new and indefinable timidity took possession of him; he remembered the strange look in his wife's face. It seemed suddenly as if the influence of the sleeping stranger in the next room had not only isolated her from him, but would make his presence in her bedroom an intrusion on their hidden secrets. He had to pass the open door of the kitchen. The head of the unconscious deputy was close to Ira's heavy boot. He had only to lift his heel to crush that ruddy, good-looking, complacent face. He hurried past him, up the creaking stairs. His wife lay still on one side of the bed, apparently asleep, her face half-hidden in her loosened, fluffy hair. It was well; for in the vague shyness and restraint that was beginning to take possession of him he felt he could not have spoken to her, or, if he had, it would have been only to voice the horrible, unformulated things that seemed to choke him. He crept softly to the opposite side of the bed, and began to undress. As he pulled off his boots and stockings, his eye fell upon his bare, malformed feet. This caused him to look at his maimed hand, to rise, drag himself across the floor to the mirror, and gaze upon his lacerated ear. She, this prettily formed woman lying there, must have seen it often; she must have known all these years that he was not like other men,--not like the deputy, with his tight riding-boots, his soft hand, and the diamond that sparkled vulgarly on his fat little finger. A cold sweat broke over him. He drew on his stockings again, lifted the outer counterpane, and, half undressed, crept under it, wrapping its corner around his maimed hand, as if to hide it from the light. Yet he felt that he saw things dimly; there was a moisture on his cheeks and eyelids he could not account for; it must be the whiskey "coming out."

His wife lay very still; she scarcely seemed to breathe. What if she should never breathe again, but die as the old Sue he knew, the lanky girl he had married, unchanged and uncontaminated? It would be better than this. Yet at the same moment the picture was before him of her pretty simulation of the barkeeper, of her white bared arms and laughing eyes, all so new, so fresh to him! He tried to listen to the slow ticking of the clock, the occasional stirring of air through the house, and the movement, like a deep sigh, which was the regular, inarticulate speech of the lonely plain beyond, and quite distinct from the evening breeze. He had heard it often, but, like so many things he had learned that day, he never seemed to have caught its meaning before. Then, perhaps, it was his supine position, perhaps some cumulative effect of the whiskey he had taken, but all this presently became confused and whirling. Out of its gyrations he tried to grasp something, to hear voices that called him to "wake," and in the midst of it he fell into a profound sleep.

The clock ticked, the wind sighed, the woman at his side lay motionless for many minutes.

Then the deputy on the kitchen floor rolled over with an appalling snort, struggled, stretched himself, and awoke. A healthy animal, he had shaken off the fumes of liquor with a dry tongue and a thirst for water and fresh air. He raised his knees and rubbed his eyes. The water bucket was missing from the corner. Well, he knew where the spring was, and a turn out of the close and stifling kitchen would do him good. He yawned, put on his boots softly, opened the back door, and stepped out. Everything was dark, but above and around him, to the very level of his feet, all apparently pricked with bright stars. The bulk of the barn rose dimly before him on the right, to the left was the spring. He reached it, drank, dipped his head and hands in it, and arose refreshed. The dry, wholesome breath that blew over this flat disk around him, rimmed with stars, did the rest. He began to saunter slowly back, the only reminiscence of his evening's potations being the figure he recalled of his pretty hostess, with bare arms and lifted glasses, imitating the barkeeper. A complacent smile straightened his yellow mustache. How she kept glancing at him and watching him, the little witch! Ha! no wonder! What could she find in the surly, slinking, stupid brute yonder? (The gentleman here alluded to was his host.) But the deputy had not been without a certain provincial success with the fair. He was true to most men, and fearless to all. One may not be too hard upon him at this moment of his life.

For as he was passing the house he stopped suddenly. Above the dry, dusty, herbal odors of the plain, above the scent of the new-mown hay within the barn, there was distinctly another fragrance,--the smell of a pipe. But where? Was it his host who had risen to take the outer air? Then it suddenly flashed upon him that Beasley did NOT smoke, nor the constable either. The smell seemed to come from the barn. Had he followed out the train of ideas thus awakened, all might have been well; but at this moment his attention was arrested by a far more exciting incident to him,--the draped and hooded figure of Mrs. Beasley was just emerging from the house. He halted instantly in the shadow, and held his breath as she glided quickly across the intervening space and disappeared in the half-opened door of the barn. Did she know he was there? A keen thrill passed over him; his mouth broadened into a breathless smile. It was his last! for, as he glided forward to the door, the starry heavens broke into a thousand brilliant fragments around him, the earth gave way beneath his feet, and he fell forward with half his skull shot away.

Where he fell there he lay without an outcry, with only one movement,--the curved and grasping fingers of the fighter's hand towards his guarded hip. Where he fell there he lay dead, his face downwards, his good right arm still curved around across his back. Nothing of him moved but his blood,--broadening slowly round him in vivid color, and then sluggishly thickening and darkening until it stopped too, and sank into the earth, a dull brown stain. For an instant the stillness of death followed the echoless report, then there was a quick and feverish rustling within the barn, the hurried opening of a window in the loft, scurrying footsteps, another interval of silence, and then out of the farther darkness the sounds of horse-hoofs in the muffled dust of the road. But not a sound or movement in the sleeping house beyond.

The stars at last paled slowly, the horizon lines came back,--a thin streak of opal fire. A solitary bird twittered in the bush beside the spring. Then the back door of the house opened, and the constable came forth, half-awakened and apologetic, and with the bewildered haste of a belated man. His eyes were level, looking for his missing leader as he went on, until at last he stumbled and fell over the now cold and rigid body. He scrambled to his feet again, cast a hurried glance around him,--at the half-opened door of the barn, at the floor littered with trampled hay. In one corner lay the ragged blouse and trousers of the fugitive, which the constable instantly recognized. He went back to the house, and reappeared in a few moments with Ira, white, stupefied, and hopelessly bewildered; clear only in his statement that his wife had just fainted at the news of the catastrophe, and was equally helpless in her own room. The constable--a man of narrow ideas but quick action--saw it all. The mystery was plain without further evidence. The deputy had been awakened by the prowling of the fugitive around the house in search of a horse. Sallying out, they had met, and Ira's gun, which stood in the kitchen, and which the deputy had seized, had been wrested from him and used with fatal effect at arm's length, and the now double assassin had escaped on the sheriff's horse, which was missing. Turning the body over to the trembling Ira, he saddled his horse and galloped to Lowville for assistance.

These facts were fully established at the hurried inquest which met that day. There was no need to go behind the evidence of the constable, the only companion of the murdered man and first discoverer of the body. The fact that he, on the ground floor, had slept through the struggle and the report, made the obliviousness of the couple in the room above a rational sequence. The dazed Ira was set aside, after half a dozen contemptuous questions; the chivalry of a Californian jury excused the attendance of a frightened and hysterical woman confined to her room. By noon they had departed with the body, and the long afternoon shadows settled over the lonely plain and silent house. At nightfall Ira appeared at the door, and stood for some moments scanning the plain; he was seen later by two packers, who had glanced furtively at the scene of the late tragedy, sitting outside his doorway, a mere shadow in the darkness; and a mounted patrol later in the night saw a light in the bedroom window where the invalid Mrs. Beasley was confined. But no one saw her afterwards. Later, Ira explained that she had gone to visit a relative until her health was restored. Having few friends and fewer neighbors, she was not missed; and even the constable, the sole surviving guest who had enjoyed her brief eminence of archness and beauty that fatal night, had quite forgotten her in his vengeful quest of the murderer. So that people became accustomed to see this lonely man working in the fields by day, or at nightfall gazing fixedly from his doorway. At the end of three months he was known as the recluse or "hermit" of Bolinas Plain; in the rapid history-making of that epoch it was forgotten that he had ever been anything else.

But Justice, which in those days was apt to nod over the affairs of the average citizen, was keenly awake to offenses against its own officers; and it chanced that the constable, one day walking through the streets of Marysville, recognized the murderer and apprehended him. He was removed to Lowville. Here, probably through some modest doubt of the ability of the County Court, which the constable represented, to deal with purely circumstantial evidence, he was not above dropping a hint to the local Vigilance Committee, who, singularly enough, in spite of his resistance, got possession of the prisoner. It was the rainy season, and business was slack; the citizens of Lowville were thus enabled to give so notorious a case their fullest consideration, and to assist cheerfully at the ultimate hanging of the prisoner, which seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

But herein they were mistaken. For when the constable had given his evidence, already known to the county, there was a disturbance in the fringe of humanity that lined the walls of the assembly room where the committee was sitting, and the hermit of Bolinas Plain limped painfully into the room. He had evidently walked there: he was soaked with rain and plastered with mud; he was exhausted and inarticulate. But as he staggered to the witness-bench, and elbowed the constable aside, he arrested the attention of every one. A few laughed, but were promptly silenced by the court. It was a reflection upon its only virtue,--sincerity.

"Do you know the prisoner?" asked the judge.

Ira Beasley glanced at the pale face of the acrobat, and shook his head.

"Never saw him before," he said faintly.

"Then what are you doing here?" demanded the judge sternly.

Ira collected himself with evident effort, and rose to his halting feet. First he moistened his dry lips, then he said, slowly and distinctly, "Because I killed the deputy of Bolinas."

With the thrill which ran through the crowded room, and the relief that seemed to come upon him with that utterance, he gained strength and even a certain dignity.

"I killed him," he went on, turning his head slowly around the circle of eager auditors with the rigidity of a wax figure, "because he made love to my wife. I killed him because he wanted to run away with her. I killed him because I found him waiting for her at the door of the barn at the dead o' night, when she'd got outer bed to jine him. He hadn't no gun. He hadn't no fight. I killed him in his tracks. That man," pointing to the prisoner, "wasn't in it at all." He stopped, loosened his collar, and, baring his rugged throat below his disfigured ear, said: "Now take me out and hang me!"

"What proof have we of this? Where's your wife? Does she corroborate it?"

A slight tremor ran over him.

"She ran away that night, and never came back again. Perhaps," he added slowly, "because she loved him and couldn't bear me; perhaps, as I've sometimes allowed to myself, gentlemen, it was because she didn't want to bear evidence agin me."

In the silence that followed the prisoner was heard speaking to one that was near him. Then he rose. All the audacity and confidence that the husband had lacked were in HIS voice. Nay, there was even a certain chivalry in his manner which, for the moment, the rascal really believed.

"It's true!" he said. "After I stole the horse to get away, I found that woman running wild down the road, cryin' and sobbin'. At first I thought she'd done the shooting. It was a risky thing for me to do, gentlemen; but I took her up on the horse and got her away to Lowville. It was that much dead weight agin my chances, but I took it. She was a woman and--I ain't a dog!"

He was so exalted and sublimated by his fiction that for the first time the jury was impressed in his favor. And when Ira Beasley limped across the room, and, extending his maimed hand to the prisoner, said, "Shake!" there was another dead silence.

It was broken by the voice of the judge addressing the constable.

"What do you know of the deputy's attentions to Mrs. Beasley? Were they enough to justify the husband's jealousy? Did he make love to her?"

The constable hesitated. He was a narrow man, with a crude sense of the principles rather than the methods of justice. He remembered the deputy's admiration; he now remembered, even more strongly, the object of that admiration, simulating with her pretty arms the gestures of the barkeeper, and the delight it gave them. He was loyal to his dead leader, but he looked up and down, and then said, slowly and half-defiantly: "Well, judge, he was a MAN."

Everybody laughed. That the strongest and most magic of all human passions should always awake levity in any public presentment of or allusion to it was one of the inconsistencies of human nature which even a lynch judge had to admit. He made no attempt to control the tittering of the court, for he felt that the element of tragedy was no longer there. The foreman of the jury arose and whispered to the judge amid another silence. Then the judge spoke:--

"The prisoner and his witness are both discharged. The prisoner to leave the town within twenty-four hours; the witness to be conducted to his own house at the expense of, and with the thanks of, the Committee."

They say that one afternoon, when a low mist of rain had settled over the sodden Bolinas Plain, a haggard, bedraggled, and worn-out woman stepped down from a common "freighting wagon" before the doorway where Beasley still sat; that, coming forward, he caught her in his arms and called her "Sue;" and they say that they lived happily together ever afterwards. But they say--and this requires some corroboration--that much of that happiness was due to Mrs. Beasley's keeping forever in her husband's mind her own heroic sacrifice in disappearing as a witness against him, her own forgiveness of his fruitless crime, and the gratitude he owed to the fugitive.

~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~

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