- CHAPTER II THE END OF THE BEGINNING--THE WHEEL
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THE END OF THE BEGINNING--THE WHEEL
"Vic," asks the lieutenant, as they near the ranch, "Where did you go to school?"
"Why?" the girl sharply.
"I ask because you seem to be above the others, in speech and manners."
"I never went to school; my mother taught me-at home, and as long as she lived we had books. Pop says I got my fine speech from them. But I didn't; my mother was a lady."
"Yes, she's dead. If she were alive I'd never leave her. Pop won't mind after a day or two. My mother was an actress."
"And--lived way out here?"
"No, she didn't live: she just stayed! She was an orphan back east somewhere, and she came west with half a dozen others to join the company at McCook's theatre. She didn't know the kind of a theatre it was, a saloon, gambling place, dance house, and show all in one. McCook sent their tickets on for them. He was a brute beast they say, | | 26 or worse, and when the girls got out here, and found what they had come to, he laughed at them. They owed him, and they had to stay."
"Those were the Black Hill days, I fancy."
"Yes--back in the seventies. Mother couldn't stand it long. It was a horrible life; she had had some great trouble before coming west, and when she would not obey the rules of that awful place McCook discharged her. She had no money, she still owed him, in fact. She was taken sick at her boarding-house, and was about to be put out when Pop heard of it. He was a wild young cowboy then and handsome. He had seen her at the theatre and spoken with her more than once. You know how they do at those places?"
"Yes," he looked at her keenly.
"Well--Pop was in the bar-room of the hotel where she was, and he went straight up to her room and asked her to marry him out and out. It was that or--worse, and--she married him. He was good to her, always, and he was a different man while she lived." She stopped abruptly, and for a little while both were silent. Then--"Do you know why I have told you this?" she asks shortly.
"No; tell me."
"Because I want you to see that I know what I am about, and to help me get away. I shall die if I stay here; just as my mother did. I won't stay here."
"Does your--your step-mother--"
She checks him with a sharp, angry exclamation. "She is not my step-mother!"
The lieutenant bites his lips, and rides on in silence | | 27 for a time. He is not greatly shocked by the girl's ideas and intentions, and he thinks that they may lead to "better things" than the life of a fifth-rate circus equestrienne. "She would make a sensation in the city," he assures himself, "given a year or two of training and stage polish." And then he begins to discuss with her the possibilities of her new project, and to draw for her word pictures of the theatre proper and the vaudeville stage.
"And--do you think I could make a success there?" she asks breathlessly, at last. "Say--with the--the bicycle?"
"I'm sure of it," he declares. "You're pretty enough, and light enough, and you've got the grit. As for the bike, why yes. If you can sit and stand on a horse, you can't fail to master enough tricks to make you a good drawing card. And--I'll try to help you."
"But--you will be in camp."
"Oh, no I won't. I'm mustered out in just two weeks, and I won't lose trace of you , my dear."
And now they are at the ranche, and they turn out the horses, and silently separate.
"Good-night--or morning," he whispers. "Don't let them hear you getting in. As for me, I'll smoke a cigar outside, I think, and go in boldly afterwards."
Vic finds it easy enough to enter her room unheard, so easy, indeed, that when she finds herself unable to sleep, and seeing still, as in a vision, the fascinating whirl of the bicycle, with the tarletan skirted figure poised above it, or gliding swiftly over the track, and she cannot shake off the thoughts that | | 28 have taken such full and complete possession of her, and, by and by, thinking of the lieutenant smoking his cigar outside, she drops again from her window and steps around to the front.
So many questions arise in her mind. Why should she not join him? Why should he not tell her more about this strange, fascinating, new world of which she has heard just the beginning?
She gains the front, and the group of feeble trees with the backless wooden bench beneath; but he is not there, and she goes on and pauses opposite the open and uncurtained window where the injured soldier, his attendant, left behind by Corporal Craig, and the lieutenant are quartered all together.
In the meantime Lieutenant Beale has hastened to the side of his suffering comrade; his conscience now, for the first time, beginning to whisper of neglect and forgetfulness of duty. The attendant meets him at the door with a finger on his lip, draws him further away, and whispers--
"He's a dying man, Lieutenant! I've seen too many hurts. like his, an' I know the symptoms, I doubt if he lives till the morning. He's asked for you, sir, again and again, an' I made bold to tell him you had rode into town to report his case to the captain and get further orders."
"Well--that was a kind lie, at all events, Brace."
"Yes, sir. I don't mind telling of them kind, to save a dying man's feelings. He asked would I bring you to him at once, when you came, and leave you alone together. There's nothing to be done, now, and so I'll just swing into the old hammock while you go in. You'll call me if there's need?"| | 29
"Yes, yes--and thank you, Brace. Take this."
He thrust into the man's hand the unlighted cigar he has been holding between his fingers, and, quite oblivious now of Vic and her hopes and fears, enters the room where the man he has known as Dick Hill--while quite aware that the name was not his real one--lies breathing hard, and, evidently, much worse than when doctor left the ranche pronouncing his case serious but not beyond hope, and affirming that there was nothing to fear for the present.
These two have been comrades since the day of their first meeting in a mining camp six years before. They have sought fortune together and in many ways, and at last, in a mood of desperate abandon, had enlisted together in the regular army. They have served better than some, for both are brave with the bravery of the reckless, the dare-devil soldier, which is in no manner akin to the courage of the conscientious or morally strong.
Beginning together in the ranks, the chances of the soldier has left the one a corporal and raised the other to the grade of first lieutenant. Yesterday they congratulated each other upon their speedy release from military hardships. A few more days and they would be mustered out together, but now--
The sick man turns his face toward the door as his comrade enters.
"So glad you've come, old fellow," he says weakly. "I want--to talk--with you, and--the doctor says I may--that it won't--hurt, or hurry me out of the ranks."
He has much to say about their past life, their | | 30 failures, and their doubtful successes; and Beale listens with patience, but with growing anxiety as well.
"Are you sure it won't hurt you to talk so much, Dick?" he asks at last. "The doctor thought you would sleep to-night, or, rather, this morning. Did--did you want to tell me anything--important?"
"Yes; and--I'll get it over now; Will, as for sleeping--I will have enough of that soon. I'm not deceived about myself, old man. I'll be mustered out before you are. I've heard my last drum taps, and it'll be 'lights out' for me soon."
"Hush, Dick!--you've lost your grip. We'll see you through this; but you must not keep up this, you know."
There is silence for a little time, and a figure, sitting upon the grass directly beneath the window, begins to creep noiselessly away, but stops again as the feeble voice resumes--
"Well, I want you to get my little grip that you've looked after and kept safe for me so long; and--I want you to do me a last kindness; will you?"
"I've told you lots about my boyhood escapades and tricks, but--I've never told you who I am . I am going to tell you now--and--I want you to send my few traps home to my little sister--and to-tell them when--I am gone."
"I will--if I must, Dick."
"It will have to be. I've been thinking to-night of the home I left because I longed for adventure and hated restraint. It was a home--of plenty--but | | 31 --my mother died when I was six years--old, and when I was two years older my father married. I have a sweet half-sister whom I fairly doted on. I was her slave; but when my step-mother went abroad and took her I began to fret, and at fifteen I ran away."
"Let me give you the cordial now, Dick, and--talk slowly."
He takes the cordial without demur, and goes on. "For a few years I wrote, now and then, to Daisy, as I had nicknamed my sister, and I kept a journal at her request--jotting down what I was willing to let sweet eyes read. But--gradually, as I grew more reckless, I wrote less often. Then my people went from the old home to the city; and, after a time, I--lost them. It's four years--now--since I've heard from home, and it's more, since they've seen my face. The day before--we went on this last march, I wrote--a long letter--telling them of my--wanderings, and--I addressed it--in care--of a lawyer in New York, who--I was sure--would be able to reach--them."
"Rest a little, Dick."
"Not--yet. I must have it--out--now. My sister's letters--my journal--I never sent it--and the, my letters are--in the little--grip."
He paused, his breath seemed failing.
"I don't--mind--your reading them--all, Will--old man. We've been--friends--good friends--eh?"
"Yes, Dick, good friends, always."
"Always--until now; and so--you have a-right--to know--more--about me. I want you--to | | 32 know, and to see my--sister. Tell her the best--you can--about me. Give her--the papers--everything, with all my love. I've never cared--for any other--woman." He paused again, then, "Will you do all this--Will?"
"Yes, yes! I promise it. But, Dick," and he bends above the fellow, "tell me--the name! "
"The--name--of course--it's on--the papers--and--it's--"
The listener outside lifts herself to the very window's level, in her effort to catch the name whispered with the dying man's last effort at speech. But it is uttered too feebly, and then the room is silent, save for the breathing of the fast dying man.
When Doctor Mitchell rides up on his roan bronco next morning, he finds a still and sheeted form, where, so lately, a sufferer had lain. And, standing, and looking down upon the calm dead, he turns suddenly.
"Any relation to you , Lieutenant?" he asks, in his abrupt way.
"None. A close friend, however."
"Only that? I had not observed it when he lay, conscious and pain-racked, but--as he lies there now--there is really a close resemblance. Same height and weight; hair and eyes same colour, straight noses, both. If you had worn your beards the same way you might have passed for brothers--ever observed the likeness?"
The Lieutenant starts at the first word, and now stands looking closely, earnestly, at the still, dead face.
"Never, except as to height," he replied; "we have worn each other's clothes before now."
The Rington Brother Great Circus spends two more days in the post-town; and, early on the morning of the third, is loaded upon the fast freight, en route for Sydney, one hundred miles eastward. And when Jim Harch goes to the door of his daughter's room, some hours later, to reprove her for her "dam'ed laziness," he finds only a scrap of paper, with these words upon it--
"Goodbye, Pop, I've 'gone to join the circus.' Don't follow me up. If you do I'll have to tell people about Dutch Kate . Be good to Roxie, I've taken Dare.--VIC."
Roxie is the aged mule whose last days she has been protecting and solacing with succulent grasses, and Dare is her well-trained pony. Jim Harch pauses to swear before he has read the last lines, but when he does read them, his jaw drops, and he mutters hoarsely, and with vindictive force, "The little devil! "Then he tears up the note, and presently goes round to the kitchen and announces, with well-assumed indifference, "Vic-trine has skipped! Goe with that d--d circus, and took Dare along with 'er!"
Ten days later Lieutenant Beale lays aside his sword and shoulder-straps and goes eastward.
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