“If we are going to be married?” he suggested.
“Yes,” whispered Dot.
Hill walked a few paces in silence. Then, unexpectedly, he drew the nervous little hand he held through his arm. “Well, you needn’t tell me any more,” he said. “I know the rest.”
She started and stood still. There was quick fear in the look she threw him. “You mean Jack told you—”
“No, I don’t,” said Hill. “Jack has never yet told me anything I couldn’t have told him ages before. I knew from the beginning. It was the fellow they called Buckskin Bill, wasn’t it?”
She quivered from head to foot and was silent.
Hill went on ruthlessly. “First, by a stroke of luck, he saved you from death by snake-bite. He always had the luck on his side, that chap. I should have caught him but for that. I’d got him—I’d got him in the hollow of my hand. But you”—for the first time there was a streak of tenderness in his speech—“you were a new chum then—you held me up. Remember how you covered his retreat when we came up? Did you really think I didn’t know?”
She uttered a sobbing laugh. “I was very frightened, too. I always was scared at the law.”
Hill nodded. He also was grimly smiling.
“But you dared it. You’d have dared anything for him that day. He always got the women on his side.”
She winced a little.
“It’s true,” he asserted. “I know what happened—as well as if I’d seen it. He made love to you in a very gallant, courteous fashion. I never saw Buckskin Bill, but I believe he was always courteous when he had time. And he promised to come back, didn’t he—when he’d given up being a thief and a swindler and had turned his hand to an honest trade? All that—for your sake!... Yes, I thought so. But, my dear child, do you really imagine he meant it—after all these years?”
She looked at him with a piteous little smile. “He—he’d be worth having—if he did, wouldn’t he?” she said.
“I wonder,” said Hill.
He waited for a few moments, then laid his hand upon her shoulder with a touch that seemed to her as heavy as the hand of the law.
“I can’t help thinking,” he said, “that you’d find a plain man like myself more satisfactory to live with. It’s for you to decide. Only—it seems a pity to waste your life waiting for someone who will never come.”
She could not contradict him. The argument was too obvious. She longed to put that steady hand away from her, but she felt physically incapable of doing so. An odd powerlessness possessed her. She was as one caught in a trap.
Yet after a second or two she mustered strength to ask a question to which she had long desired an answer. “Did you ever hear any more of him?”
“Not for certain. I believe he left the country, but I don’t know. Anyway, he found this district too hot to hold him, for he never broke cover in this direction again. I should have had him if he had.”