“But one friend like you would seem to be enough.”
“I ain’t what I uster be, Mr. Breeze,” said the man meditatively, “and mebbe ye don’t know who I am. I’m Abe Shuckster, of Shuckster’s Ranch—one of the biggest in Petalumy. I was a rich man until a year ago, when Jim got inter trouble. What with mortgages and interest, payin’ up Jim’s friends and buying off some ez was set agin him, thar ain’t much left, and when I’ve settled that bill for the schooner lying off the Heads there I reckon I’m about played out. But I’ve allus a shanty at Petalumy, and mebbe when things is froze over and Jim gets back—you’ll come and see him—for you ain’t seen him at his best.”
“I suppose his wife and children go with him?” said Breeze.
“No! He’s agin it, and wants them to come later. But that’s all right, for you see she kin go back to their own house at the Mission, now that the Vigilants are givin’ up shadderin’ it. So long, Mr. Breeze! We’re startin’ afore daylight. Sorry you didn’t see Jim in condition.”
He grasped Breeze’s hand warmly and slipped out of the door softly. For an instant Mr. Breeze felt inclined to follow him into the room and make a kinder adieu to the pair, but the reflection that he might embarrass the wife, who, it would seem, had purposely avoided accompanying her husband when he entered, withheld him. And for the last few minutes he had been doubtful if he had any right to pose as her friend. Beside the devotion of the man who had just left him, his own scant kindness to her children seemed ridiculous.
He went to bed, but tossed uneasily until he fancied he heard stealthy footsteps outside his door and in the passage. Even then he thought of getting up, dressing, and going out to bid farewell to the fugitives. But even while he was thinking of it he fell asleep and did not wake until the sun was shining in at his windows.
He sprang to his feet, threw on his dressing-gown, and peered into the passage. Everything was silent. He stepped outside—the light streamed into the hall from the open doors and windows of both rooms—the floor was empty; not a trace of the former occupants remained. He was turning back when his eye fell upon the battered wooden doll set upright against his doorjamb, holding stiffly in its jointed arms a bit of paper folded like a note. Opening it, he found a few lines written in pencil.
God bless you for your kindness to us, and try to forgive me for touching your papers. But I thought that you would detect it, know why I did it, and then help us, as you did! Good-by!
Mr. Breeze laid down the paper with a slight accession of color, as if its purport had been ironical. How little had he done compared to the devotion of this delicate woman or the sacrifices of that rough friend! How deserted looked this nest under the eaves, which had so long borne its burden of guilt, innocence, shame, and suffering! For many days afterwards he avoided it except at night, and even then he often found himself lying awake to listen to the lost voices of the children.