“Can’t you climb up?” he demanded.
She shook her head despairingly, and he lost no time in trying to persuade her. Jumping to catch the lip of the cavern’s mouth, he ascended cat-like, and a moment later he had drawn her up after him.
“I’d like to know what got the matter with you all at once,” he said severely, when they were crowded together in the narrow rock cell; and then, without waiting for her answer: “You stay here while I drop down and keep those fellows away from this side of things.”
But it was too late. The men were already at the barrel-spring, as an indistinct murmur of voices testified. The girl had another trembling fit when she heard them, and Tom’s wonder was fast lapsing into contempt or something like it.
“Oh-h-h!” she shuddered. “Do you reckon they saw us, Tom-Jeff?”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” he whispered back unfeelingly. “We could see them plain enough.”
“He’ll kill me, for shore, Tom-Jeff! O God!”
Tom’s lip curled. The wolf does not mate with the jackal. Not all her beauty could atone for such spiritless cringing. Love would have pitied her, but passion is not moved by qualities opposite to those which have evoked it.
“Then you know them—or one of them, at least,” he said. “Who is he?”
She would not tell; and since the murmur of voices was still plainly audible, she begged in dumb-show for silence. Whereupon Tom shut his mouth and did not open it again until the sound of the voices had died away and the fainter tappings of the hammers on the pipe-line advertised the retreat of the inspection party.
“They’re gone now,” he said shortly. “Let’s get out of here before we stifle.”
But a second time ill chance intervened. Tom had a leg over the brink and was looking for a soft leaf bed to drop into, when the baying of a hound broke on the restored quiet of the mountain side. “Oh, dang it all!” said Tom heartily, and drew back into hiding.
The girl’s ague fit of fear had passed, and she seemed less concerned about the equivocal situation than a girl should be; at least, this is the way Tom’s thought was shaping itself. He tried to imagine Ardea in Nan’s place, but the thing was baldly unimaginable. A daughter of the Dabneys would never run and cower and beg to be hidden at the possible cost of her good name. And Nan’s word did not help matters.
“What makes you so cross to me, Tom-Jeff?” she asked, when he drew back with the impatient exclamation. “I hain’t done nothin’ to make you let on like you hate me, have I?”
“I don’t hate you,” said Tom, frowning. “If I did, I shouldn’t care.” Just then the hound burst out of the laurel thicket on the brow of the lower slope, running with its nose to the ground, and he added: “That’s Japhe Pettigrass’s dog; I hope to goodness he isn’t anywhere behind it.”
But the horse-trader was behind the dog; so close behind that he came out on the continuation of the pipe-line path while the hound was still nosing among the leaves where Tom had lain sunning himself and telling his tale of woe.