"See here, Don Nepomuceno. I guess that Backus has been talking some about me. He's dead, but I've got to say it--he was a darned liar, anyway; and he knew nothing about this business but what he invented for himself. She's not my girl. I'm not that sort of a man." He stopped abruptly.
"Assuredly not," assented the Mexican with eager courtesy. "You say so, and that is enough for us; though, indeed, we are ourselves not always so scrupulous in these matters."
"Felipe bolted with her," said the brain-weary man, going over past events almost mechanically; "her father took her from him; I took her from her father, and I've promised to give her over to Felipe. He's a plumb idiot, but if she likes him that's her lookout. My business is to see them married and make it all square. When I take any business in hand, I can't rest till I get it done. I'll take you to witness, Don Nepomuceno; I'll give them ten cows and calves on the shares to set 'em up in housekeeping."
"But certainly," exclaimed Don Nepomuceno, "your kindness is admirable.
It is a deed of charity! It was but last time his Grace the Archbishop of Santa Fe was dining with my cousin that he spoke of the admirable goodness of Dona Mariana Chavez in giving dowers to poor maidens. And now you will be so rich with the profits of your mine that you may dower all the Indian maidens in the pueblo if you like. In truth, such a deed must be pleasing to the saints; it will fill our padre with admiration to hear of such a truly virtuous action, 'worthy of one of the pillars of our holy Church!'"
"Much more like the heavy father at the end of a play!" muttered Stephens perversely. "'Bless you, my children,' and down comes the curtain. I reckon I'm a bit young to play the part. Hang it all! I wish the old gentleman would stop."
Don Nepomuceno turned to the peon. "Here, Pedro, hasten; ride to the pueblo, and take the old woman along and fetch the girl,--Josefa, you say?--yes; go, then, and fetch her and tell her she is to be married at once. Say that those are the orders of the Americano. But first you can tell Rufino to go and find the padre--bid him hasten as dinner is served," he rubbed his hands exultingly as his sister and Juana brought in the long-desired feast, and Andres appeared with an old flagon which he had filled with El Paso wine. Don Nepomuceno poured some into a glass and offered it to Stephens. "Drink, my friend, drink; you need it, and we will all drink a cup in your honour."
Stephens took the glass and looked with a grim smile at his own hand which held it. The hand was shaking like an old man's. "I guess I've about wore myself plumb out," he said. "You'd best let me go off to my own place and rest. I'm not good company just now."
"No, no, you mustn't go," cried the Mexican; "you shall rest in my house. We have more rooms than one. And behold, here is the American doctor now. In a good hour you come, Senor el Doctor. Sit you down, my friends, and eat. Sister, you and Andres will entertain them while the doctor and I take care of Don Estevan." And he took his unresisting guest apart into a quiet room where Doctor Benton might examine his wounded hand. Gently the rude bandages were undone, and Manuelita was summoned from her post beside Rocky, who was now sleeping peacefully, to wait on a new patient.
Bravely she looked on while the doctor cleansed the wound and produced his curved needles and silk and sewed up the gash.
"You'll do all right so, I guess," said he to the prospector when he had finished. "You've got to keep quiet, you know, and knock off whiskey."
("Never touch it," growled Stephens, in an undertone.) "Right you are, stick to that,"--the doctor had a flask of old Bourbon himself in his pocket at the moment,--"worst thing out for inflammation. Well, you look as if you were in good hands here," he smiled as he spoke. "I am going back to the Sandovals now. It's a very interesting case that I've got over there. We don't get arrow-wounds very often nowadays." He folded up his surgical case with its wicked-looking little shining blades. "The stage has gone on to Wingate," he continued, "and they'll have to get along without me at the Fort for a day or two longer. I'll be back again here in the evening and have another look at you and at our friend Rocky. You needn't fret about him; the knife only just touched the lung; he's going to get over it all right, though at the same time I think we'd best not disturb him now."
"But you must not go till you have dined," cried Don Nepomuceno hospitably. "Do me the honour to come into the other room and join our friends there"; and the doctor yielded to the request readily enough.
Don Nepomuceno lingered behind him for a moment.
"Now you must repose yourself, Don Estevan. Here you will be undisturbed. Manuelita is going to sit by the door and sing to our guests, and there is nothing more reposeful than singing. Take your guitar, my daughter, and sit here and we can enjoy it as we take our dinner." He passed through the door as Manuelita slid the ribbon of her guitar over her shoulder and struck a chord.
She sang--who knows how the song had reached her?--words that had travelled far, and were first written in another tongue by a poet of another race, but when she heard them they seemed to tell her a whole sad and beautiful history in the two short verses, and she found the plaintive tune of an old ballad that suited them, and sung them often to herself. Now, called upon unexpectedly to sing, the favourite words were on her lips almost before she knew what they were--
"Solitario se alza un pino, Del Norte en arida cumbre; Duerme, y con blanca cubierta Hielos y nieves le cubren.
"Suena con una palmera Que en el Oriente, alla lejos, Se entristece sola y muda En el ardiente desierto."
The notes mingled in the tired American's dreamy thoughts, and through his unstrung mind coursed strange fanciful applications of the poet's words--
"A lone pine stands in the Northland On a bald and barren height; He sleeps, by the snows enfolded In a mantle of wintry white."
"'A lone pine'--that's so, a lone pine like that one over the prospector's grave. I reckon if that lode there turns out all that Rocky said I'll have to call it Lone Pine. Suits me, too, the name does; I've always played a lone hand; ay, and I know what the barren mountain heights are, if any man ever did, and many's the time I've slept on them with the snow over me for a blanket--"
"He dreams of a lonely palm-tree Afar in the morning land"--
"'He dreams of a palm-tree'--no, that's not me, after all. I haven't dreamt much. Yes, by thunder, I have though! I dreamt some up in the sierra. I dreamt a lot of queer things by that old cliff-dweller's fire I relit after I found the Lone Pine; I thought this whole New Mexican country here was asleep, and that maybe I was the man to wake her up.
Ah, and I thought, too, that I must have been asleep myself to have played a lone hand so long when I needn't, when I might have had a woman's love, and got some joy and happiness into life instead of toughing it out in solitude. I believe I've been a blamed idiot."
He listened as in a trance to the throbbing, wailing strings, while the sweet voice of the girl sang the last verse a second time--
"He dreams of a lonely palm-tree, Afar in the morning land, Consumed with unspoken longing In a waste of burning sand."
By Heaven! had she been alone too? He almost sprang up to call to her, but it seemed to him he could not move. He stood on a lonely height under the pine-tree; he looked down on the grave of the man who had died there alone, and far away in a vision he beheld San Remo and the Casa Sanchez; and he saw more--he saw Manuelita. He could not break the spell and stand beside her there. He had had his chance, and now it was too late. He had dreamt through the summer, and now the winter had come, and its icy fetters bound him fast. Immovable on his crag he could only dream--dream of the happiness that might have been his, and long for it with a passionate desire that seemed as if it could burst the very mountains to let him pass, and yet was powerless to bring him an inch nearer to the spot that he longed for. The numbness of despair came upon him, his bewildered thoughts sank deeper into dreamland, and the tired brain at last was steeped in all-restoring forgetfulness.
He awoke suddenly with a start, the room was empty; the subdued voices came to him through the open door, but the guests were gone. How long had he slept? For answer he saw the scarlet light of sunset glowing on the adobe wall across the patio.
He sprang up like a giant refreshed and looked around, while the memory of what had taken place began to come back to him. "I must have been here for hours and hours. Her singing was like a charm. But where has she gone to? I've got to find her again right away. Why on earth did I lie there like a log all this time? What have I been doing all day, anyhow?"
He looked at his bandaged left hand, and passed his right over his forehead, and as his brain cleared the whole of the morning's work came back to him like a flash.
"I had to kill them, but I hate to think of it now. It was a butcherly job. That's not the way I want to live. Yes, I hate it," he repeated, standing in the middle of the empty room. He felt an unreasoning repulsion when he thought of the light-minded crowd that had cheered him so wildly on his return from the slaughter, and had laughed and jested over it. "Killing men is a mighty serious matter, whatever they may think," he muttered gloomily, "but most of these folks don't see it in that light. She's different, though, and it's she that I want, and not her people. Now, how am I going to find her alone?"
As he stood there the faint whine of a dog caught his ear.
"Faro, old man! Think of my forgetting you and your wounds when there's no one to see after you but me! I must have been off my nut." He strode out through the door, and beheld in the adjoining room his dog snugly established on a pile of blankets with all the dignity of a spoilt invalid, and there, kneeling beside him, her glossy head bent over the bulldog's picturesquely ugly face, was Manuelita.
"I made the doctor of the soldiers look at him," she said, glancing up at the tall American with a shy laugh. "He was almost angry when I asked him, and said he was no doctor of dogs; but I made him do it;" and she gave another little laugh of triumph.
"I reckon you could make most people do what you say, senorita," he answered, but he did not echo her laugh. He stood there looking down at her, and as he looked a great peace seemed to descend upon him. The anger and the strain, the battle-fury and the revulsion that followed it, all seemed to pass away from his mind, and a reverent awe came over his soul as though he had entered into a sanctuary, a sanctuary where even his own honest love showed to him as earthly and selfish, whence every thought but one was banished, the thought of a woman inexpressibly gentle and good, with a tender heart for every living thing. With a sudden movement he caught her hand in his own, and hers so soft and innocent lay in his so lately red with enemies' blood.
He knelt on one knee, and bowed his head and lifted the captive hand to his lips.
"I am not fit to come near you," he said, "but unless I have you, I can never care for anything in the whole world again. I am an uncouth ruffian, I know; but if you will teach me, I will learn to be gentle in time. Will you try me?"
He turned his face to hers, her lips met his, and the compact was sealed.