Of the various sentimental fallacies entertained by adult humanity in regard to childhood, none are more ingeniously inaccurate and gratuitously idiotic than a comfortable belief in its profound ignorance of the events in which it daily moves, and the motives and characters of the people who surround it. Yet even the occasional revelations of an enfant terrible are as nothing compared to the perilous secrets which a discreet infant daily buttons up, or secures with a hook-and-eye, or even fastens with a safety-pin across its gentle bosom. Society can never cease to be grateful for that tact and consideration--qualities more often joined with childish intuition and perception than with matured observation--that they owe to it; and the most accomplished man or woman of the great world might take a lesson from this little audience who receive from their lips the lie they feel too palpable, with round-eyed complacency, or outwardly accept as moral and genuine the hollow sentiment they have overheard rehearsed in private for their benefit.
It was not strange therefore that the little people of the Indian Spring school knew perhaps more of the real relations of Cressy McKinstry to her admirers than the admirers themselves. Not that this knowledge was outspoken--for children rarely gossip in the grown-up sense--or even communicable by words intelligent to the matured intellect. A whisper, a laugh that often seemed vague and unmeaning, conveyed to each other a world of secret significance, and an apparently senseless burst of merriment in which the whole class joined and that the adult critic set down to "animal spirits"--a quality much more rare with children than generally supposed--was only a sympathetic expression of some discovery happily oblivious to older preoccupation. The childish simplicity of Uncle Ben perhaps appealed more strongly to their sympathy, and although, for that very reason, they regarded him with no more respect than they did each other, he was at times carelessly admitted to their confidence. It was especially Rupert Filgee who extended a kind of patronizing protectorate over him--not unmixed with doubts of his sanity, in spite of the promised confidential clerkship he was to receive from his hands.
On the day of the events chronicled in the preceding chapter, Rupert on returning from school was somewhat surprised to find Uncle Ben perched upon the rail-fence before the humble door of the Filgee mansion and evidently awaiting him. Slowly dismounting as Rupert and Johnny approached, he beamed upon the former for some moments with arch and yet affable mystery.
"Roopy, old man, I s'pose ye've got yer duds all ready in yer pack, eh?"
A flush of pleasure passed over the boy's handsome face. He cast, however, a hurried look down on the all-pervading Johnny.
"'Cause ye see we kalkilate to take the down stage to Sacramento at four o'clock," continued Uncle Ben, enjoying Rupert's half sceptical surprise. "Ye enter into office, so to speak, with me at that hour, when the sellery, seventy-five dollars a month and board, ez private and confidential clerk, begins--eh?"
Rupert's dimples deepened in charming, almost feminine, embarrassment. "But dad--?" he stammered.
"Et's all right with HIM. He's agreeable."
Uncle Ben followed Rupert's glance at Johnny, who however appeared to be absorbed in the pattern of Uncle Ben's new trousers.
"That's fixed," he said with a meaning smile. "There's a sort o' bonus we pays down, you know--for a Chinyman to do the odd jobs."
"And teacher--Mr. Ford--did ye tell him?" said Rupert brightening.
Uncle Ben coughed slightly. "He's agreeable, too, I reckon. That is," he wiped his mouth meditatively, "he ez good ez allowed it in gin'ral conversation a week ago, Roop."
A swift shadow of suspicion darkened the boy's brown eyes. "Is anybody else goin' with us?" he said quickly.
"Not this yer trip," replied Uncle Ben complacently. "Ye see, Roop," he continued, drawing him aside with an air of comfortable mystery, "this yer biz'ness b'longs to the private and confidential branch of the office. From informashun we've received"--
"WE?" interrupted Rupert.
"'We,' that's the OFFICE, you know," continued Uncle Ben with a heavy assumption of business formality, "wot we've received per several hands and consignee--we--that's YOU and ME, Roop--we goes down to Sacramento to inquire into the standin' of a certing party, as per invoice, and ter see--ter see--ter negotiate you know, ter find out if she's married or di-vorced," he concluded quickly, as if abandoning for the moment his business manner in consideration of Rupert's inexperience. "We're to find out her standin', Roop," he began again with a more judicious blending of ease and technicality, "and her contracts, if any, and where she lives and her way o' life, and examine her books and papers ez to marriages and sich, and arbitrate with her gin'rally in conversation--you inside the house and me out on the pavement, ready to be called in if an interview with business principals is desired."
Observing Rupert somewhat perplexed and confused with these technicalities, he tactfully abandoned them for the present, and consulting a pocket-book said, "I've made a memorandum of some pints that we'll talk over on the journey," again charged Rupert to be punctually at the stage office with his carpetbag, and cheerfully departed.
When he had disappeared Johnny Filgee, without a single word of explanation, fell upon his brother, and at once began a violent attack of kicks and blows upon his legs and other easily accessible parts of his person, accompanying his assault with unintelligible gasps and actions, finally culminating in a flood of tears and the casting of himself on his back in the dust with the copper-fastened toes of his small boots turning imaginary wheels in the air. Rupert received these characteristic marks of despairing and outraged affection with great forbearance, only saying, "There, now, Johnny, quit that," and eventually bearing him still struggling into the house. Here Johnny, declaring that he would kill any "Chinyman" that offered to dress him, and burn down the house after his brother's infamous desertion of it, Rupert was constrained to mingle a few nervous, excited tears with his brother's outbreak. Whereat Johnny, admitting the alleviation of an orange, a four-bladed knife, and the reversionary interest in much of Rupert's personal property, became more subdued. Sitting there with their arms entwined about each other, the sunlight searching the shiftless desolation of their motherless home, the few cheap playthings they had known lying around them, they beguiled themselves with those charming illusions of their future intentions common to their years--illusions they only half believed themselves and half accepted of each other. Rupert was quite certain that he would return in a few days with a gold watch and a present for Johnny, and Johnny, with a baleful vision of never seeing him again, and a catching breath, magnificently undertook to bring in the wood and build the fire and wash the dishes "all of himself." And then there were a few childish confidences regarding their absent father--then ingenuously playing poker in the Magnolia Saloon--that might have made that public-spirited, genial companion somewhat uncomfortable, and more tears that were half smiling and some brave silences that were wholly pathetic, and then the hour for Rupert's departure all too suddenly arrived. They separated with ostentatious whooping, and then Johnny, suddenly overcome with the dreadfulness of all earthly things, and the hollowness of life generally, instantly resolved to run away!
To do this he prepared himself with a purposeless hatchet, an inconsistent but long-treasured lump of putty and all the sugar that was left in the cracked sugar-bowl. Thus accoutred he sallied forth, first to remove all traces of his hated existence that might be left in his desk at school. If the master were there he would say Rupert had sent him; if he wasn't, he would climb in at the window. The sun was already sinking when he reached the clearing and found a cavalcade of armed men around the building.
Johnny's first conviction was that the master had killed Uncle Ben or Masters, and that the men, taking advantage of the absence of his--Johnny's--big brother, were about to summarily execute him. Observing no struggle from within, his second belief was that the master had been suddenly elected Governor of California and was about to start with a state escort from the school-house, and that he, Johnny, was in time to see the procession. But when the master appeared with McKinstry, followed by part of the crowd afoot, this quick-witted child of the frontier, from his secure outlook in the "brush," gathered enough from their fragmentary speech to guess the serious purport of their errand, and thrill with anticipation and slightly creepy excitement.
A duel! A thing hitherto witnessed only by grown-up men, afterwards swaggering with importance and strange technical bloodthirsty words, and now for the first time reserved for a BOY--and that boy him, Johnny!--to behold in all its fearful completeness! A duel! of which, he, Johnny, meanly abandoned by his brother, was now exalted perhaps to be the only survivor! He could scarcely credit his senses. It was too much!
To creep through the brush while the preliminaries were being settled, reach a certain silver fir on the appointed ground, and with the aid of his now lucky hatchet, climb unseen to its upper boughs, was an exciting and difficult task, but one eventually overcome by his short but energetic legs. Here he could not only see all that occurred, but by a fortunate chance the large pine next to him had been selected as the limit of the ground. The sharp eyes of the boy had long since penetrated the disguises of the remaining masked men, and when the long, lank figure of the master's self-appointed second took up its position beneath the pines in full view of him, although hidden from the spectators, Johnny instantly recognized it to be none other than Seth Davis. The manifest inconsistency of his appearance as Mr. Ford's second with what Johnny knew of his relations to the master was the one thing that firmly fixed the incident in the boy's memory.
The men were already in position. Harrison stepped forward to give the word. Johnny's down-hanging legs tingled with cramp and excitement. Why didn't they begin? What were they waiting for? What if it were interrupted, or--terrible thought--made up at the last moment? Would they "holler" out when they were hit, or stagger round convulsively as they did at the "cirkiss"? Would they all run away afterwards and leave Johnny alone to tell the tale? And--horrible thought!--would any body believe him? Would Rupert? Rupert, had he "on'y knowed this," he wouldn't have gone away.
With a child's perfect faith in the invulnerable superiority of his friends, he had not even looked at the master, but only at his destined victim. Yet as the word "two" rang out Johnny's attention was suddenly attracted to the surprising fact that the master's second, Seth Davis, had also drawn a pistol, and from behind his tree was deliberately and stealthily aiming at McKinstry! He understood it all now--he was a friend of the master's. Bully for Seth!
Crack! Z-i-i-p! Crackle! What a funny noise! And yet he was obliged to throw himself flat upon the bough to keep from falling. It seemed to have snapped beneath him and benumbed his right leg. He did not know that the master's bullet, fired in the air, had ranged along the bough, stripping the bark throughout its length, and glancing with half-spent force to inflict a slight flesh wound on his leg!
He was giddy and a little frightened. And he had seen nobody hit, nor nothin'. It was all a humbug! Seth had disappeared. So had the others. There was a faint sound of voices and something like a group in the distance--that was all. It was getting dark, too, and his leg was still asleep, but warm and wet. He would get down. This was very difficult, for his leg would not wake up, and but for the occasional support he got by striking his hatchet in the tree he would have fallen in descending. When he reached the ground his leg began to pain, and looking down he saw that his stocking and shoe were soaked with blood.
His small and dirty handkerchief, a hard wad in his pocket, was insufficient to staunch the flow. With a vague recollection of a certain poultice applied to a boil on his father's neck, he collected a quantity of soft moss and dried yerba buena leaves, and with the aid of his check apron and of one of his torn suspenders tightly wound round the whole mass, achieved a bandage of such elephantine proportions that he could scarcely move with it. In fact, like most imaginative children, he became slightly terrified at his own alarming precautions. Nevertheless, although a word or an outcry from him would have at that moment brought the distant group to his assistance, a certain respect to himself and his brother kept him from uttering even a whimper of weakness.
Yet he found refuge, oddly enough, in a suppressed but bitter denunciation of the other boys of his acquaintance. What was Cal. Harrison doing, while he, Johnny, was alone in the woods, wounded in a grown-up duel--for nothing would convince this doughty infant that he had not been an active participant? Where was Jimmy Snyder that he didn't come to his assistance with the other fellers? Cowards all; they were afraid. Ho, ho! And he, Johnny, wasn't afraid! ho--he didn't mind it! Nevertheless he had to repeat the phrase two or three times until, after repeated struggles to move forward through the brush, he at last sank down exhausted. By this time the distant group had slowly moved away, carrying something between them, and leaving Johnny alone in the fast coming darkness. Yet even this desertion did not affect him as strongly as his implicit belief in the cowardly treachery of his old associates.
It grew darker and darker, until the open theatre of the late conflict appeared enclosed in funereal walls; a cool searching breath of air that seemed to have crept through the bracken and undergrowth like a stealthy animal, lifted the curls on his hot forehead. He grasped his hatchet firmly as against possible wild beasts, and as a medicinal and remedial precaution, took another turn with his suspender around his bandage. It occurred to him then that he would probably die. They would all feel exceedingly sorry and alarmed, and regret having made him wash himself on Saturday night. They would attend his funeral in large numbers in the little graveyard, where a white tombstone inscribed to "John Filgee, fell in a duel at the age of seven," would be awaiting him. He would forgive his brother, his father, and Mr. Ford. Yet even then he vaguely resented a few leaves and twigs dropped by a woodpecker in the tree above him, with a shake of his weak fist and an incoherent declaration that they couldn't "play no babes in the wood on HIM." And then having composed himself he once more turned on his side to die, as became the scion of a heroic race! The free woods, touched by an upspringing wind, waved their dark arms above him, and higher yet a few patient stars silently ranged themselves around his pillow.
But with the rising wind and stars came the swift trampling of horses' hoofs and the flashing of lanterns, and Doctor Duchesne and the master swept down into the opening.
"It was here," said the master quickly, "but they must have taken him on to his own home. Let us follow."
"Hold on a moment," said the doctor, who had halted before the tree. "What's all this? Why, it's baby Filgee--by thunder!"
In another moment they had both dismounted and were leaning over the half conscious child. Johnny turned his feverishly bright eyes from the lantern to the master and back again.
"What is it, Johnny boy?" asked the master tenderly. "Were you lost?"
With a gleam of feverish exaltation, Johnny rose, albeit wanderingly, to the occasion!
"Hit!" he lisped feebly, "Hit in a doell! at the age of theven."
"What!" asked the bewildered master.
But Doctor Duchesne, after a single swift scrutiny of the boy's face, had unearthed him from his nest of leaves, laid him in his lap, and deftly ripped away the preposterous bandage. "Hold the light here. By Jove! he tells the truth. Who did it, Johnny?"
But Johnny was silent. In an interval of feverish consciousness and pain, his perception and memory had been quickened; a suspicion of the real cause of his disaster had dawned upon him--but his childish lips were heroically sealed. The master glanced appealingly at the Doctor.
"Take him before you in the saddle to McKinstry's," said the latter promptly. "I can attend to both."
The master lifted the boy tenderly in his arms. Johnny, stimulated by the prospect of a free ride, became feebly interested in his fellow sufferer.
"Did Theth hit him bad?" he asked.
"Seth?" echoed the master, wildly.
"Yeth. I theed him when he took aim."
The master did not reply, but the next moment Johnny felt himself clasped in his arms in the saddle before him, borne like a whirlwind in the direction of the McKinstry ranch.