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Chapter XXXI. Goodheart Makes a Promise and Breaks It

Pauline was a singularly honest little soul, but she now discovered in herself unsuspected capacity for duplicity. She went singing about her work, apparently care-free as a lark. Presently, still humming a French chanson, she appeared on the porch swinging a key, passed the two men with a gay little nod, and disappeared around the corner of the house to the cellar.

The rancher apologized for the key. "We've had to lock the cellar lately since so many movers have been going through on this road. Eh bien! Our hams--they took wings and flew."

Polly rattled the milk pans for a moment or two and then listened. From above there came to her the sound of three faint raps on the woodwork of the bed. She crept up the stairs that led from the cellar into the house. At the top of them was a trapdoor. Very slowly and carefully she pushed this up. Through the opening she passed into a bedroom.

Softly the girl stole to the bed. From the cellar she had brought a butcher knife and with this she sawed at the rope which bound the prisoner.

"But your handcuffs. What can we do about them?" she whispered.

Clanton stretched his stiff muscles. He made no answer in words. For a moment or two his arms writhed, then from out of the iron bracelet his long slender hand slowly twisted. Soon the second wrist was also free.

"I've had a lot of fun poked at my girl hands, but they come in useful sometimes," he murmured.

"I'll have to hurry back or I'll be missed," she told him. "You'll find a saddled horse in the aspens."

He caught her by the shoulders and held her fast. "You've been the truest little friend ever a man had. You've stuck by me an' believed in me even when I didn't believe in myself any longer. No matter what folks said about me or about you for takin' an interest in such a scamp, you never quit fightin' to keep me decent. I've heard tell of guardian angels--well, that's what you've been to me, little pilgrim."

"I haven't forgotten the boy who rode up Escondido Canon to save me from death and dishonor," Pauline cried softly.

"You've paid that debt fifty times. I owe you more than I can tell. I wisht I knew a way to pay it."

Her soft and dusky eyes clung to his pleadingly. "If you get away, Jim, you will be good, won't you?"

"I'll be as good as I've got it in me to be. I don't know how good that is, Polly. But I'll do my level best."

"Oh, I'm so glad," she whispered. "Good luck--heaps of it."

He was not quite sure whether it was his privilege to kiss the parted red lips upturned to him, but he took a chance and was not rebuked.

Pauline went noiselessly down the steps again into the cellar while Clanton held the trapdoor. He lowered it inch by inch so that it would not creak, then spread over it the Navajo rug that had been there before the entrance of the girl.

Pierre Roubideau was still on his first pipe when Polly came round the corner of the house and stopped at the porch steps.

"I want to show you our new colt, Jack," she said to the deputy. This matter-of-fact statement came a little shyly and a little tremulously from her lips. Her heart was beating furiously.

The officer rose at once. "Just a minute," he said, and went into the house.

He unlocked the door of the room where Clanton was and glanced in. The prisoner lay on the bed in the moonlight, the blankets drawn over him. From his deep, regular breathing Jack judged him to be asleep. He relocked the door and joined Pauline.

The face of the girl was very white in the moonlight. Her big eyes flashed at him a question. Had he discovered that his prisoner was free?

They walked slowly toward the corral. From it Goodheart could see the front of the house, but not the cellar entrance at the side. Neither of them spoke until they reached the fence. He turned and leaned his elbows against it, facing the house.

Pauline was under great nervous tension. Her lips were dry and her throat parched. If the guard at the rear caught sight of the prisoner while he was escaping, Clanton would certainly be shot down. She knew Jim better than to hope that he would let himself be taken again alive.

The conscience of the girl troubled her too. She was doing this to save the life of a friend, but it was impossible not to feel a sense of treachery toward this other friend whose approval was so much more vital to her happiness. Would Jack think that she had conspired against his honor in an underhanded way? He was a man of strict principles. Would he cast her off and have no more to do with her?

She woke from her worries to discover that an emotional climax was imminent. Jack was telling her, in awkward, broken phrases, of his love for her. Polly had waited a long time for his confession, but coming at this hour it filled her with shame and distress. What an evil chance that he should be blurting out the story of his faith and trust in her while she was in the act of betraying him!

"Don't, Jack, don't!" she begged.

"It's all right," he said gently. "I know you don't care for me. But I had to tell you. Just had to do it. Couldn't keep still any longer. It's all right, Polly. I can stand it. I didn't go for to worry you."

She wept.

Her tears distressed him. He urged her to forget his presumption. She had been so good to him that he had spoken in spite of himself.

Pauline found she could not let him deceive himself. If she let him go now, perhaps he might never come back.

"You goose!"

Though the words came smothered through her handkerchief, he gained incredible comfort from them.

"Polly!" he cried.

"Don't you say a word, Jack," she ordered. "Let me do the talking."

"If you'll tell me that--that--you care anything for--for--"

"--For a big stupid who is too modest ever to think enough of himself," she completed. "Well, I do. I care a great deal for him."

"You don't mean--"

"I do, too. That's just what I mean. No, you keep back there till I'm through, Jack. I want to find out if you love me as much as I do you."

"Polly!" he cried a second time.

Her small face was very serious and white in the moonshine.

"Suppose we don't agree about something. Say I do a thing that seems right to me, but it doesn't seem right to you. What then?"

"It'll seem right to me if you do it," he answered.

"That's just a compliment."

"No, it's the truth. Whatever you do seems right to me."

"But suppose I do something that you think is wrong. Perhaps it may seem to you disloyal."

"If you do it because you think you ought to I'll not find it disloyal."

"Sure, Jack?"

"Certain sure," he answered.

"It's a promise?"

"It's a promise."

Little imps of mischief bubbled into the brown eyes. "Then why don't you kiss me, goose?"

He caught her to him with a fierce rapture.

There came to them the sudden sound of drumming hoofs. A shot rang out in the night. Goodheart, with the first kiss of his sweetheart almost on his lips, flung Pauline aside and ran to the house.

The other guard met him at the front steps. "By God, he's gone!" the man cried.

"Clanton?"

"Yep."

"Can't be. He was handcuffed, tied to the bed, and locked in. I've got the key in my pocket."

The deputy sheriff took the steps at one bound, flung himself across the parlor, and unlocked the door. One glance showed him the empty bed, the displaced rug, and the trapdoor. He stepped forward and picked up the bits of rope and the handcuffs.

"Some one cut the rope and freed him," he said, confounded at the impossibility of the thing that had occurred.

"Must of slipped his hands out of the cuffs, looks like," the guard suggested.

"He got me to give him a bigger size--complained they chafed his wrists."

"Some trick that, if he has got kid hands."

The chill eyes of Goodheart gimleted into those of his assistant. "Did you do this, Brad? God help you if you did."

A light step sounded on the threshold. Pauline came into the room. "I did it, Jack," she said.

"You!"

"I came up through the trapdoor when I was in the cellar. I cut the rope and told him there was a horse saddled in the aspens."

Thoughts raced in his bewildered mind. She had planned all this carefully. Almost under his very eyes she had done it. Then she had lured him from the house to give Clanton a better chance. She had let him make love to her so that she could keep him at the corral while the prisoner escaped. It was all a trick. Even now she was laughing up her sleeve at the way she had made a fool of him.

"You saddled the horse and left it there." His statement was a question, too.

"Yes. I had to save him. I knew he was innocent."

All the explanations she had intended shriveled up before the scorn in his eyes. He brushed past her without a word and strode out of the house.

Pauline went to her room and flung herself on the bed. After a time her father came in and sat down beside the girl. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"I know what you think, dad," she said without turning her head. "But I couldn't help it, I had to do it."

"It may make you trouble, ma petite."

"I can't help that. Jim didn't kill Mr. Webb. I know it."

"After a fair trial a jury said he did, Polly. We have to take their word for it."

"You think I did wrong then."

"You did what you think was right. In my heart is no blame for you."

He comforted her as best he could and left her to sleep. But she did not sleep. All through the night she lay and listened. She was miserably unhappy. Her head and her heart ached. Jack had promised that she should be the judge of what was right for her to do, and at the first test he had failed her. She made excuses for him, but the hurt of her disappointment could not be assuaged.

In the early morning she heard the clatter of horses' hoofs in the yard. During the night she had not undressed. Now she rose and went out to meet her lover. He was at the stable, a gaunt figure, hollow-eyed, dusty, and stern. He had failed to recapture his prisoner.

"Jack," she pleaded, reaching out a hand timidly toward him.

Again he rejected her advance in grim silence. Swinging to the saddle, he rode out of the gate and down the road toward Live-Oaks.

With a little whimper Polly moved blindly to the house through her tears.

William MacLeod Raine