"Cyan't do that more'n once," observed the outlaw, taking a long breath.
"They don't want her more'n once," replied Alfred, sagely.
The men tried to take score. This was not easy. Out of the hundred and twelve cartridges with which they had started the fight, there remained sixty-eight. That meant they had expended thirty-nine in the last charge alone. As near as they could make out, they had accounted for eight of the enemy, four in the melee just finished. Besides, there were a number of ponies down. At first glance this might seem like poor shooting. It was not. A rapidly moving figure is a difficult rifle-mark with the best of conditions. In this case the conditions would have rendered an Easterner incapable of hitting a feather pillow at three yards.
And now began the most terrible part of this terrible day. A dozen of the warriors dismounted, made a short circle to the left, and disappeared in a thin growth of dried grasses, old mulliens, and stunted, scattered brush barely six inches high. There seemed hardly cover enough to hide a man, and yet the dozen were as completely swallowed up as though they had plunged beneath the waters of the sea. Only occasionally the top of a grass tuft or a greasewood shivered. It became the duty of Alfred and his companion to shoot suddenly and accurately at these motions. This was necessary in order to discourage the steady concealed advance of the dozen, who, when they had approached to within as few yards as their god of war would permit, purposed to rush in and finish their opponents out of hand. And that rush could never be stopped. The white men knew it perfectly well, so they set conscientiously to work with their handful of cartridges to convince the reds that it is not healthy to crawl along ridge-tops on an autumn day. Sundry outlying Indians, with ammunition to waste, took belly and knee rests and strengthened the thesis to the contrary.
The brisk fighting had warmed the contestants' blood. Now a cold wind penetrated through their woollens to the goose-flesh. It was impossible to judge of the effect of the shots, but both knew that the accuracy of their shooting was falling off. Clench his teeth as he would, hold his breath as steadfastly as he might, Alfred could not accomplish that steady, purposeful, unblinking pressure on the trigger so necessary to accuracy. In spite of himself, the rifle jerked ever so little to the right during the fall of the hammer. Soon he adopted the expedient of pulling it suddenly which is brilliant but uncertain. The ground was very cold. Before long both men would have felt inclined to risk everything for the sake of a little blood-stimulating tramp back and forth. The danger did not deter them. Only the plainsman's ingrained horror of throwing away a chance held them, shivering pitiably, to their places.
Still they managed to keep the dozen at a wary distance, and even, they suspected, to hit some. This was the Indians' game—to watch; to wait; to lie with infinite patience; to hitch nearer a yard, a foot, an inch even; and then to seize with the swiftness of the eagle's swoop an opportunity which the smallest imprudence, fruit of weariness, might offer. One by one the precious cartridges spit, and fell from the breech-blocks empty and useless. And still the tufts of grass wavered a little nearer.
"I wish t' hell, stranger, you-all hadn't edged off south," chattered Alfred. "We'd be nearer th' Pierre trail."
"I'm puttin' in my spare wishin' on them Injins," shivered the other; "I sure hopes they aims to make a break pretty quick; I'm near froze."
About two o'clock the sun came out and the wind died. Though its rays were feeble at that time of year, their contrast with the bleakness that had prevailed during the morning threw a perceptible warmth into the crouching men. Alfred succeeded, too, in wriggling a morsel of raw bacon from the pack, which the two men shared. But the cartridges were running very low.
"We establishes a dead-line," suggested Alfred. "S' long as they slinks beyond yonder greasewood, they lurks in safety. Plug 'em this side of her."
"C'rrect," agreed the stranger.
This brought them a season of comparative quiet. They even made out to smoke, and so were happy. Over near the hill the body of Indians had gone into camp and were taking it easy. The job of wiping out these troublesome whites had been sublet, and they wasted no further anxiety over the affair. This indifference irritated the outlaw exceedingly.
"Damn siwashes!" he grumbled.
"Look out!" warned Alfred.
The dead-line was overpassed. Swaying tufts of vegetation marked the rapid passage of eel-like bodies. The Indians had decided on an advance, being encouraged probably by the latter inaccuracy of the plainsmen's fire. Besides, the day was waning. It was no cat-and-mouse game now; but a rush, like the other except that all but the last twenty or thirty yards would be made under cover. The besieged turned their attention to it. Over on the hill the bucks had arisen from their little fires of buffalo chips, and were watching. On the summit of the farther ridge rode silhouetted sentinels.
Alfred selected a tuft and fired just ahead of it. A crack at his side indicated that the stranger, too, had gone to work. It was a discouraging and nervous business. The shooter could never tell whether or not he had hit. The only thing he was sure of was that the line was wriggling nearer and nearer. He felt something as though he were shooting at a man with blank cartridges. This test of nerve was probably the most severe of the fight.
But it was successfully withstood. Alfred felt a degree of steadiness return to him with the excitement and the change of weather. The Winchester spat as carefully as before. Suddenly it could no longer be doubted that the line was beginning to hesitate. The outlaw saw it, too.
"Give it to 'em good!" he cried.
Both men shot, and then again.
The line wavered.
"Two more shots will stop 'em!" cried the road-agent, and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked against an empty chamber.
"I'm done!" he cried, hopelessly. His cartridges were gone.
Alfred laid his own Winchester on the ground, turned over on his back, and puffed a cloud of smoke straight up toward the sky.
"Me, too," said he.
The cessation of the shooting had put an end to the Indians' uncertainty. Another moment would bring them knowledge of the state of affairs.
"Don't get much outen my scalp, anyway," said Alfred, uncovering his bald head.
The sentinel on the distant ridge was riding his pony in short-looped circles and waving a blanket in a peculiar way above his head. From the grass nine Indians arose, stooped, and scuttled off like a covey of running quail. Over by the fires warriors were leaping on their ponies, and some were leading other ponies in the direction of the nine. An air of furtive but urgent haste characterised all these movements. Alfred lent an attentive ear.
"Seems a whole lot like a rescue," he remarked, quietly. "I reckon th' boys been followin' of my trail."
The stranger paused in the act of unhobbling the one remaining pony. In the distance, faintly, could be heard cheers and shots intended as encouragement.
"They's comin' on th' jump," said Alfred.
By this time the stranger had unfastened the horse.
"I reckon we quits," said he, mounting; "I jest nat'rally takes this bronc, because I needs him more'n you do. So long. I may 's well confide that I'm feelin' some glad jest now that them Injins comes along."
And then his pony fell in a heap, and began to kick up dirt and to snort blood.
"I got another, so you just subside a lot," commanded Alfred, recocking his six-shooter.
The stranger lay staring at him in astonishment.
"Thought you was busted on catridges!" he cried.
"You-all may as well know," snapped Alfred, "that's long as I'm an officer of this yere district, I'm a sheriff first and an Injin-fighter afterward."
"What the hell!" wondered the road-agent, still in a daze.
"Them's th' two catridges that would have stopped 'em," said Alfred.
This story is most blood-and-thundery, but, then, it is true. It is one of the stories of Alfred; but Alfred is not the hero of it at all—quite another man, not nearly so interesting in himself as Alfred.
At the time, Alfred and this other man, whose name was Tom, were convoying a band of Mexican vaqueros over to the Circle-X outfit. The Circle-X was in the heat of a big round-up, and had run short of men. So Tom and Alfred had gone over to Tucson and picked up the best they could find, which best was enough to bring tears to the eyes of an old-fashioned, straight-riding, swift-roping Texas cowman. The gang was an ugly one: it was sullen, black-browed, sinister. But it, one and all, could throw a rope and cut out stock, which was not only the main thing—it was the whole thing.
Still, the game was not pleasant. Either Alfred or Tom usually rode night-herd on the ponies—merely as a matter of precaution—and they felt just a trifle more shut off by themselves and alone than if they had ridden solitary over the limitless alkali of the Arizona plains. This feeling struck in the deeper because Tom had just entered one of his brooding spells. Tom and Alfred had been chums now for close on two years, so Alfred knew enough to leave him entirely alone until he should recover.
The primary cause of Tom's abstraction was an open-air preacher, and the secondary cause was, of course, a love affair. These two things did not connect themselves consciously in Tom's mind, but they blended subtly to produce a ruminative dissatisfaction.
When Tom was quite young he had fallen in love with a girl back in the Dakota country. Shortly after a military-post had been established near by, and Anne Bingham had ceased to be spoken of by mayors' daughters and officers' wives. Tom, being young, had never quite gotten over it. It was still part of his nature, and went with a certain sort of sunset, or that kind of star-lit evening in which an imperceptible haze dims the brightness of the heavens.
The open-air preacher had chosen as his text the words, "passing the love of woman," and Tom, wandering idly by, had caught the text. Somehow ever since the words had run in his mind. They did not mean anything to him, but merely repeated themselves over and over, just as so many delicious syllables which tickled the ear and rolled succulently under the tongue. For, you see, Tom was only an ordinary battered Arizona cow-puncher, and so, of course, according to the fireside moralists, quite incapable of the higher feelings. But the words reacted to arouse memories of black-eyed Anne, and the memories in turn brought one of his moods.
Tom, and Alfred, and the ponies, and the cook-wagon, and the cook, and the Mexican vaqueros had done the alkali for three days. Underfoot had been an exceedingly irregular plain; overhead an exceedingly bright and trying polished sky; around about an exceedingly monotonous horizon-line and dense clouds of white dust. At the end of the third day everybody was feeling just a bit choked up and tired, and, to crown a series of petty misfortunes, the fire failed to respond to Black Sam's endeavours. This made supper late.
Now at one time in this particular locality Arizona had not been dry and full of alkali. A mighty river, so mighty that in its rolling flood no animal that lives to-day would have had the slightest chance, surged down from the sharp-pointed mountains on the north, pushed fiercely its way through the southern plains, and finally seethed and boiled in eddies of foam out into a southern sea which has long since disappeared. On its banks grew strange, bulbous plants. Across its waters swam uncouth monsters with snake-like necks. Over it alternated storms so savage that they seemed to rend the world, and sunshine so hot that it seemed that were it not for the bulbous plants all living things would perish as in an oven.
In the course of time conditions changed, and the change brought the Arizona of to-day. There are now no turbid waters, no bulbous plants, no uncouth beasts, and, above all, no storms. Only the sun and one other thing remain: that other thing is the bed of the ancient stream.
On one side—the concave of the curve—is a long easy slope, so gradual that one hardly realises where it shades into the river-bottom itself. On the other—the convex of the curve—where the swift waters were turned aside to a new direction, is a high, perpendicular cliff running in an almost unbroken breastwork for a great many miles, and baked as hard as iron in this sunny and almost rainless climate. Occasional showers have here and there started to eat out little transverse gullies, but with a few exceptions have only gone so far as slightly to nick the crest. The exceptions, reaching to the plain, afford steep and perilous ascents to the level above. Anyone who wishes to pass the barrier made by the primeval river must hunt out for himself one of these narrow passages.
On the evening in question the cowmen had made camp in the hollow beyond the easy slope. On the rise, sharply silhouetted against the west, Alfred rode wrangler to the little herd of ponies. Still farther westward across the plain was the clay-cliff barrier, looking under the sunset like a narrow black ribbon. In the hollow itself was the camp, giving impression in the background of a scattering of ghostly mules, a half-circle of wagons, ill-defined forms of recumbent vaqueros, and then in the foreground of Sam with his gleaming semicircle of utensils, and his pathetic little pile of fuel which would not be induced to gleam at all.
For, as has been said, Black Sam was having great trouble with his fire. It went out at least six times, and yet each time it hung on in a flickering fashion so long that he had felt encouraged to arrange his utensils and distribute his provisions. Then it had expired, and poor Sam had to begin all over again. The Mexicans smoked yellow-paper cigarettes and watched his off-and-on movements with sullen distrust; they were firmly convinced that he was indulging in some sort of a practical joke. So they hated him fervently and wrapped themselves in their serapes. Tom sat on a wagon-tongue swinging a foot and repeating vaguely to himself in a singsong inner voice, "passing the love of woman, passing the love of woman," over and over again. His mind was a dull blank of grayness. From time to time he glanced at Sam, but with no impatience: he was used to going without. Sam was to him a matter of utter indifference.
As to the cook himself, he had a perplexed droop in every curve of his rounded shoulders. His kinky gray wool was tousled from perpetual undecided scratching, and his eyes had something of the dumb sadness of the dog as he rolled them up in despair. Life was not a matter of indifference to him. Quite the contrary. The problem of damp wood + matches = cooking-fire was the whole tangle of existence. There was something pitiable in it. Perhaps this was because there is something more pathetic in a comical face grown solemn than in the most melancholy countenance in the world.
At last the moon rose and the fire decided to burn. With the seventh attempt it flared energetically; then settled to a steady glow of possible flap-jacks.
But its smoke was bitter, and the evening wind fitful. Bitter smoke on an empty stomach might be appropriately substituted for the last straw of the proverb—when the proverb has to do with hungry Mexicans. Most of the recumbent vaqueros merely cursed a little deeper and drew their serapes closer, but Jose Guiterrez grunted, threw off his blanket, and approached the fire.
Sam rolled the whites of his eyes up at him for a moment, grinned in a half-perplexed fashion, and turned again to his pots and pans. Jose, being sulky and childish, wanted to do something to somebody, so he insolently flicked the end of his long quirt through a mess of choice but still chaotic flap-jacks. The quirt left a narrow streak across the batter. Sam looked up quickly.
"Doan you done do dat!" he said, with indignation.
He looked upon the turkey-like Jose for a heavy moment, and then turned back to the cooking. In rescuing an unstable coffee-pot a moment later, he accidentally jostled against Jose's leg. Jose promptly and fiercely kicked the whole outfit into space. The frying-pan crowned a sage-brush; the coffee-pot rolled into a hollow, where it spouted coffee-grounds and water in a diminishing stream; the kettle rolled gently on its side; flap-jacks distributed themselves impartially and moistly; and, worst of all, the fire was drowned out altogether.
Black Sam began stiffly to arise. The next instant he sank back with a gurgle in his throat and a knife thrust in his side.
The murderer stood looking down at his victim. The other Mexicans stared. The cowboy jumped up from the tongue of the wagon, drew his weapon from the holster at his side, took deliberate aim, and fired twice. Then he turned and began to run toward Alfred on the hill.
A cowboy cannot run so very rapidly. He carries such a quantity of dunnage below in the shape of high boots, spurs, chaps, and cartridge-belts that his gait is a waddling single-foot. Still, Tom managed to get across the little stony ravine before the Mexicans recovered from their surprise and became disentangled from their ponchos. Then he glanced over his shoulder. He saw that some of the vaqueros were running toward the arroya, that some were busily unhobbling the mules, and that one or two had kneeled and were preparing to shoot. At the sight of these last, he began to jump from side to side as he ran. This decreased his speed. Half-way up the hill he was met by Alfred on his way to get in the game, whatever it might prove to be. The little man reached over and grasped Tom's hand. Tom braced his foot against the stirrup, and in an instant was astride behind the saddle. Alfred turned up the hill again, and without a word began applying his quirt vigorously to the wiry shoulders of his horse. At the top of the hill, as they passed the grazing ponies, Tom turned and emptied the remaining four chambers of his revolver into the herd. Two ponies fell kicking; the rest scattered in every direction. Alfred grunted approvingly, for this made pursuit more difficult, and so gained them a little more time.
Now both Alfred and Tom knew well enough that a horse carrying two men cannot run away from a horse carrying one man, but they also knew the country, and this knowledge taught them that if they could reach the narrow passage through the old clay bluff, they might be able to escape to Peterson's, which was situated a number of miles beyond. This would be possible, because men climb faster when danger is behind them than when it is in front. Besides, a brisk defence could render even an angry Mexican a little doubtful as to just when he should begin to climb. Accordingly, Alfred urged the pony across the flat plain of the ancient riverbed toward the nearest and only break in the cliff. Fifteen miles below was the regular passage. Otherwise the upper mesa was as impregnable as an ancient fortress. The Mexicans had by this time succeeded in roping some of the scattered animals, and were streaming over the brow of the hill, shouting wildly. Alfred looked back and grinned. Tom waved his wide sombrero mockingly.
When they approached the ravine, they found the sides almost perpendicular and nearly bare. Its bed was V-shaped, and so cut up with miniature gullies, fantastic turrets and spires, and so undermined by former rains as to be almost impassable. It sloped gently at first, but afterward more rapidly, and near the top was straight up and down for two feet or more. As the men reached it, they threw themselves from the horse and commenced to scramble up, leading the animal by the bridle-rein. From riding against the sunset their eyes were dazzled, so this was not easy. The horse followed gingerly, his nose close to the ground.
It is well known that quick, short rains followed by a burning sun tend to undermine the clay surface of the ground and to leave it with a hard upper shell, beneath which are cavities of various depths. Alfred and Tom, as experienced men, should have foreseen this, but they did not. Soon after entering the ravine the horse broke through into one of the underground cavities and fell heavily on his side. When he had scrambled somehow to his feet, he stood feebly panting, his nostrils expanded.
"How is it, Tom?" called Alfred, who was ahead.
"Shoulder out," said Tom, briefly.
Alfred turned back without another word, and putting the muzzle of his pistol against the pony's forehead just above the line of the eyes he pulled the trigger. With the body the two men improvised a breastwork across a little hummock. Just as they dropped behind it the Mexicans clattered up, riding bareback. Tom coolly reloaded his pistol.
The Mexicans, too, were dazzled from riding against the glow in the west, and halted a moment in a confused mass at the mouth of the ravine. The two cowboys within rose and shot rapidly. Three Mexicans and two ponies fell. The rest in wild confusion slipped rapidly to the right and left beyond the Americans' line of sight. Three armed with Winchesters made a long detour and dropped quietly into the sage-brush just beyond accurate pistol-range. There they lay concealed, watching. Then utter silence fell.
The rising moon shone full and square into the ravine, illuminating every inch of the ascent. A very poor shot could hardly miss in such a light and with such a background. The two cowmen realised this and settled down more comfortably behind their breastwork. Tom cautiously raised the pony's head with a little chunk of rock, thus making a loophole through which to keep tab on the enemy, after which he rolled on his belly and began whittling in the hard clay, for Tom had the carving habit—like many a younger boy. Alfred carefully extracted a short pipe from beneath his chaparajos, pushed down with his blunt forefinger the charge with which it was already loaded, and struck a match. He poised this for a moment above the bowl of the pipe.
"What's the row anyway?" he inquired, with pardonable curiosity.
"Now, it's jest fifteen mile to th' cut," said Tom, disregarding Alfred's question entirely, "an' of co'se they's goin' to send a posse down thar on th' keen jump. That'll take clost onto three hours in this light. Then they'll jest pot us a lot from on top."
Alfred puffed three times toward the moonlight, and looked as though the thing were sufficiently obvious without wasting so much breath over it.
"We've jest got to git out!" concluded Tom, earnestly.
"An' how are we goin' to do it?"
Alfred paused in the act of blowing a cloud.
"Because, if we makes a break, those Greasers jest nat'rally plugs us from behind th' minute we begins to climb."
Alfred condescended to nod. Tom suspended his whittling for a reply.
"Well," said Alfred, taking his pipe from his mouth—Tom contentedly took up whittling again—"there's only one way to do it, and that's to keep them so damn busy in front that they can't plug us."
Tom looked perplexed.
"We just got to take our chances on the climbing. Of course, there's bound to be th' risk of accident. But when I give th' word, you mosey, and if one of them pots you, it'll be because my six-shooter's empty."
"But you can't expec' t' shoot an' climb!" objected Tom.
"Course not," replied Alfred, calmly. "Division of labour: you climb; I shoot."
A light dawned in Tom's eyes, and he shut his jaws with a snap.
"I guess not!" said he, quietly.
"Yo' laigs is longer," Alfred urged, in his gentle voice, "and yo'll get to Peterson's quicker;" and then he looked in Tom's eyes and changed his tone. "All right!" he said, in a business-like manner. "I'll toss you for it."
For reply, Tom fished out an old pack of cards.
"I tell you," he proposed, triumphantly, "I'll turn you fer it. First man that gits a jack in th' hand-out stays."
He began to manipulate the cards, lying cramped on his side, and in doing so dropped two or three. Alfred turned to pick them up. Tom deftly slipped the jack of diamonds to the bottom of the pack. He inserted in the centre those Alfred handed him, and began at once to deal.
"Thar's yore's," he said, laying out the four of clubs, "an' yere's mine," he concluded, producing the jack of diamonds. "Luck's ag'in me early in th' game," was his cheerful comment.
For a minute Alfred was silent, and a decided objection appeared in his eyes. Then his instinct of fair play in the game took the ascendant. He kicked off his chaps in the most business-like manner, unbuckled his six-shooter and gave it to Tom, and perched his hat on the end of his quirt, which he then raised slowly above the pony's side for the purpose of drawing the enemy's fire. He did these things quickly and without heroics, because he was a plainsman. Hardly had the bullets from three Winchesters spatted against the clay before he was up and climbing for dear life.
The Mexicans rushed to the opening from either side, fully expecting to be able either to take wing-shots at close range, or to climb so fast as to close in before the cowboys would have time to make a stand at the top. In this they shut off their most effective fire—that of the three men with the Winchesters—and, instead of getting wing-shots themselves, they received an enthusiastic battering from Tom at the range of six yards. Even a tenderfoot cannot over-shoot at six yards. What was left of the Mexicans disappeared quicker than they had come, and the three of the Winchesters scuttled back to cover like a spent covey of quail.
Tom then lit Alfred's pipe, and continued his excellent sculpture in the bed of hard clay. He knew nothing more would happen until the posse came. The game had passed out of his hands. It had become a race between a short-legged man on foot and a band of hard riders on the backs of very good horses. Viewing the matter dispassionately, Tom would not have cared to bet on the chances.
As has been stated, Alfred was a small man and his legs were short—and not only short, but unused to exertion of any kind, for Alfred's daylight hours were spent on a horse. At the end of said legs were tight boots with high French heels, which most Easterners would have considered a silly affectation, but which all Westerners knew to be purposeful in the extreme—they kept his feet from slipping forward through the wide stirrups. In other respects, too, Alfred was handicapped. His shoulders were narrow and sloping and his chest was flat. Indoors and back East he would probably have been a consumptive; out here, he was merely short-winded.
So it happened that Alfred lost the race.
The wonder was not that he lost, but that he succeeded in finishing at Peterson's at all. He did it somehow, and even made a good effort to ride back with the rescuing party, but fell like a log when he tried to pick up his hat. So someone took off his boots, also, and put him to bed.
As to the rescuing party, it disbanded less than an hour later. Immediately afterward it reorganized into a hunting party—and its game was men. The hunt was a long one, and the game was bagged even unto the last, but that is neither here nor there.
Poor Tom was found stripped to the hide, and hacked to pieces. Mexicans are impulsive, especially after a few of them have been killed. His equipment had been stolen. The naked horse and the naked man, bathed in the light of a gray dawn, that was all—except that here and there fluttered bits of paper that had once been a pack of cards. The clay slab was carved deeply—a man can do much of that sort of thing with two hours to waste. Most of the decorative effects were arrows, or hearts, or brands, but in one corner were the words, "passing the love of woman," which was a little impressive after all, even though Tom had not meant them, being, as I said, only an ordinary battered Arizona cow-puncher incapable of the higher feelings.
How do I know he played the jack of diamonds on purpose? Why, I knew Tom, and that's enough.
THE SAVING GRACE
Once upon a time there was an editor of a magazine who had certain ideas concerning short stories. This is not wonderful, for editors have such ideas; and when they find a short story which corresponds, they accept it with joy and pay good sums for it. This particular editor believed that a short story should be realistic. "Let us have things as they are!" he was accustomed to cry to his best friend, or the printer's devil, or the office cat, whichever happened to be the handiest. "Life is great enough to say things for itself, without having to be helped out by the mawkish sentimentality of an idiot! Permit us to see actual people, living actual lives, in actual houses, and I should hope we have common-sense enough to draw our own morals!" He usually made these chaotic exclamations after reading through several pages of very neat manuscript in which the sentences were long and involved, and in which were employed polysyllabic adjectives of a poetic connotation. This editor liked short, crisp sentences. He wanted his adjectives served hot. He despised poetic connotation. Being only an editor, his name was Brown. If he had been a writer, he would have had three names, beginning with successive letters of the alphabet.
Now, one day, it happened that there appeared before this editor, Brown, a young man bearing a roll of manuscript. How he had gotten by the office boy Brown could not conceive, and rolled manuscript usually gave him spasms. The youth, however, presented a letter of introduction from Brown's best friend. He said he had a story to submit, and he said it with a certain appearance of breathlessness at the end of the sentence, which showed Brown that it was his first story. Brown frowned inwardly, and smiled outwardly. He begged the youth to take a seat. As all the seats were filled with unopened papers and unbound books, the youth said he preferred to stand.
Brown asked the youth questions, in a perfunctory manner, not because he cared to know anything about him, but because he liked the man who had written the letter. The youth's name proved to be Severne, and he was the most serious-minded youth who had ever stepped from college into writing. He spoke of ideals. Brown concluded that the youth's story probably dealt with the time of the Chaldaean astronomers, and contained a deep symbolical truth, couched in language of the school of Bulwer Lytton or Marie Corelli. So, after the youth had gone, he seized the roll of manuscript, for the purpose of glancing through it. If he had imagined the story of any merit, he would not have been in such haste; but as his best friend had introduced the writer, he thought he would like to get a disagreeable task over at once.
He glanced the story through. Then he read it carefully. Then he slammed it down hard on his desk—to the vast confusion of some hundreds of loose memoranda, which didn't matter much, anyway—and uttered a big, bad word. The sentences in the story were short and crisp. The adjectives were served very hot indeed. There was not a single bit of poetic connotation. It described life as it really was.
Brown, the editor, published the story, and paid a good price for it. Severne, the author, wrote more stories, and sold them to Brown. The two men got to be very good friends, and Severne heard exactly how Brown liked short stories and why, and how his, Severne's, stories were just that kind.
All this would have been quite an ideal condition of affairs, and an object-lesson to a harsh world and other editors, were it not that Severne was serious-minded. He had absolutely no sense of humour. Perspectives there were none for him, and due proportions did not exist. He took life hard. He looked upon himself gravely as a serious proposition, like the Nebular Hypothesis or Phonetic Reform. The immediate consequence was that, having achieved his success through realism, he placed realism on a pedestal and worshipped it as the only true (literary) god. Severne became a realist of realists. He ran it into the ground. He would not describe a single incident that he had not viewed from start to finish with his own eyes. He did not have much to do with feelings direct, but such as were necessary to his story he insisted on experiencing in his own person; otherwise the story remained unwritten. And as for emotions—such as anger, or religion, or fear—he would attempt none whose savour he had not tasted for himself. Unkind and envious rivals—not realists—insisted that once Severne had deliberately gotten very drunk on Bowery whiskey in order that he might describe the sensations of one of his minor characters in such a condition. Certain it is, he soon gained the reputation among the unintelligent of being a crazy individual, who paid people remarkably well to do strange and meaningless things for him. He was always experimenting on himself and others.
This was ridiculous enough, but it would hardly have affected anyone but crusty old cranks who delight in talking about "young fools," were it not for the fact that Severne was in love. And that brings us to the point of our story.
Of course he was in love in a most serious-minded fashion. He did not get much fun out of it. He brooded most of the time over lovers' duties to each other and mankind. He had likewise an exalted conception of the sacred, holy, and lofty character of love itself. This is commendable, but handicaps a man seriously. Girls do not care for that kind of love as a steady thing. Far be it from me to insinuate that those quite angelic creatures ever actually want to be kissed; but if, by any purely accidental chance, circumstances bring it about that, without their consent or suspicion, a brute of a man might surprise them awfully—well, said brute does not gain much by not springing the surprise. Being adored on a pedestal is nice—in public. So you must see that Severne's status in ordinary circumstances would be precarious. Conceive his fearful despair at finding his heart irrevocably committed to a young lady as serious-minded as himself, equally lacking in humour, and devoted mind and soul to the romantic or idealistic school of fiction! They often discussed the point seriously and heatedly. Each tried conscientiously to convert the other. As usual, the attempt, after a dozen protracted interviews, ended in the girl's losing her temper. This made Severne angry. Girls are so unreasonable!
"What do you suppose I care how your foolish imaginary people brush their teeth and button their suspenders and black their boots? I know how old man Smith opposite does, and that is more than enough for me!" she cried.
"The insight into human nature expresses itself thus," he argued, gloomily.
"Rubbish!" she rejoined. "The idea of a man's wasting the talents heaven has given him in describing as minutely and accurately as he can all the nasty, little, petty occurrences of everyday life! It is sordid!"
"The beautiful shines through the dreariness, as it does in the real life people live," he objected, stubbornly.
"The beautiful is in the imagination," she cried, with some heat; "and the imagination is God-given; it is the only direct manifestation of the divine on earth. Without imagination no writing can have life."
As this bordered on sentiment, abhorred of realism, Severne muttered something that sounded like "fiddlesticks." They discussed the relation of imagination to literature on this latter basis. At the conclusion of the discussion, Miss Melville, for that was her name, delivered the following ultimatum:
"Well, I tell you right now, Robert Severne, that I'll never marry a man who has not more soul in him than that. I am very much disappointed in you. I had thought you possessed of more nobility of character!"
"Don't say that, Lucy," he begged, in genuine alarm. Serious-minded youths never know enough not to believe what a girl says.
"I will say that, and I mean it! I never want to see you again!"
"Does that mean that our engagement is broken?" he stammered, not daring to believe his ears.
"I should think, sir, that a stronger hint would be unnecessary."
He bowed his head miserably. "Isn't there anything I can do, Lucy? I don't want to be sent off like this. I do love you!"
She considered. "Yes, there is," she said, after a moment. "You can write a romantic story and publish it in a magazine. Then, and not until then, will I forgive you."
She turned coldly, and began to examine a photograph on the mantelpiece. After an apparently interminable period, receiving no reply, she turned sharply.
"Well!" she demanded.
Now, in the interval, Severne had been engaged in building a hasty but interesting mental pose. He had recalled to mind numerous historical and fictitious instances in which the man has been tempted by the woman to depart from his heaven-born principles. In some of these instances, when the woman had tempted successfully, the man had dwelt thenceforth in misery and died in torment, amid the execrations of mankind. In others, having resisted the siren, he had glowed with a high and exalted happiness, and finally had ascended to upper regions between applauding ranks of angels—which was not realism in the least. Art, said Severne to himself, is an enduring truth. Human passions are misleading. Self-sacrifice is noble. He resolved on the spot to become a martyr to his art.
"I will never do it!" he answered, and stalked majestically from the room.
Severne took his trouble henceforward in a becomingly serious-minded manner. For many years he was about to live shrouded in gloom—a gloom in whose twilight could be dimly discerned the shattered wreck of his life. After a long period, from the debris of said wreck, he would build the structure of a great literary work of art, which all mankind would look upon with awe, but which he, standing apart, would eye with indifference, all joy being stricken dead by his memories of the past. But that was in the future. Just now he was in the gloom business. So, being a wealthy youth, he decided to go far, far away. This was necessary in order that he might bury his grief.
He rather fancied battle-fields and carnage, but there were no wars. It would add to the picture if he could return bronzed and battle-scarred, but as that was impossible, he resolved to return bronzed, at any rate. So he bought a ticket to a small town in Wyoming. There he and his steamer-trunk boarded Thompson's stage, and journeyed to Placer Creek, where the two of them, he and the trunk, took up their quarters in a little board-ceiled room in the Prairie Dog Hotel.
The place was admirably adapted for glooming. It was a ramshackle affair of four streets and sixteen saloons. Some of the houses, and all of the saloons, had once been painted. In front were hitching-rails. To the hitching-rails, at all times of the day, were tied ponies patiently turning their tails to the Wyoming breezes. Wyoming breezes are always going somewhere at the rate of from thirty to sixty miles an hour. Beyond the town, in one direction, were some low mountains, well supplied with dark gorges, narrow canons, murmuring water-falls, dashing brooks, and precipitous descents. Beyond the town, in the other direction, lay a broad, rolling country, on which cattle and cowboys dwelt amid profanity and dust. Severne arose in a cold room, washed his face in hard water, and descended to breakfast. The breakfast could not have been better adapted to beginning a day of gloom. It started out with sticky oatmeal, and ended with clammy cakes, between which was much horror. After breakfast, he wandered in the dark gorges, narrow canons, et cetera, and contemplated with melancholy but approving interest his noble sacrifice and the wreck of his life. Thence he returned to town.
In town, various incomprehensible individuals with a misguided sense of humour did things to him, the reason of which he could not understand in the least, mainly because he had himself no sense of humour, misguided or otherwise. The things they did frightened and bewildered him. But he examined them gravely through his shortsighted spectacles, noting just how they were done, just how their perpetrators looked and acted, and just how he felt.
After some days his literary instincts perforce awoke. In spite of his gloom, he caught himself sifting and assorting and placing things in their relative values. In fine, he began to conceive a Western story. Shortly after, he cleaned his fountain pen, by inserting a thin card between the gold and the rubber feeder, and sat down to write. As he wrote he grew more and more pleased with the result. The sentences became crisper and crisper. The adjectives fairly sizzled. Poetic connotation faded as a mountain mist. And he remembered and described just how Alkali Ike spit through his mustache—which was disgusting, but real. It was his masterpiece. He wrote on excitedly. Never was such a short story!
But then there came a pause. He had successfully mounted his hero, and started him in full flight down the dark gorge or narrow canon—I forget which—pursued by the avenging band. There interposed here a frightful difficulty. He did not know how a man felt when pursued by an avenging band. He had never been pursued by an avenging band himself. What was he to do? To be sure, he could imagine with tolerable distinctness the sensations to be experienced in such a crisis. He could have put them on paper with every appearance of realism. But he had no touchstone by which to test their truth. He might be unconsciously false to his art, to which he had vowed allegiance at such cost! It would never do.
So, naturally, he did the obvious thing—that is to say, the obvious thing to a serious-minded writer with no sense of humour. He went forth and sought an acquaintance named Colorado Jim, and made to him a proposition. It took Severne just two hours and six drinks to persuade Colorado Jim. At the end of that time Colorado Jim, in his turn, went forth, shaking his head doubtfully, and emitting from time to time cavernous chuckles which bubbled up from his interior after the well-known manner of the "Old Faithful" geyser. He hunted out six partners of his own—"pards," he called them—to whom he spoke at length. The six pards stared at Colorado Jim in gasping silence for some time. Then the seven went into a committee of the whole. The decision of the committee was that the tenderfoot was undoubtedly crazy, harmless, and to be humoured—at a price. Besides, the humouring would be fun. After a number of drinks, Colorado Jim and the pards concluded that it would be lots of fun!
Early the next morning, they rode out of town in the direction of the hills. At the entrance to the dark gorge—or deep canon—they met Severne, also mounted. After greetings, the latter distributed certain small articles.
"Now," said he, most gravely, "I will ride ahead about as far as that rock there, and when I get ready to start, I will wave my hand. You're to chase me just as you'd chase a real horse-thief, and I'll try to keep ahead of you. You keep shooting with the blank cartridges as fast as you can. Understand?"
They said they did. They did not. But it was fun.
Severne rode to the bowlder in the dark gorge—I am sure it was the dark gorge—and turned. The pards were lined up in eagerness for the start. They had made side bets as to who would get there first. He waved his hand, and struck spurs to his horse. The pursuit began.
The horse on which Severne was mounted was a good one. The way he climbed up through that dark gorge was a caution to thoroughbreds. Behind whooped the joyous seven, and the cracking of pistols was a delight to the ear. The outfit swept up the gulch like a whirlwind.
Severne became quite excited. The swift motion was exhilarating. He mentally noted at least a hundred and ten most realistic minor details. He felt that his money had not been wasted. And then he noticed that he was gradually drawing ahead of his pursuit. Better and better! He would not only experience pursuit, but he would achieve in his own person a genuine escape, for he knew that, whatever the mythical character of the bullets, the Westerners had a real enough intention of racing each other and him to the top of the ridge. He plied his quirt, and looked back. The pursuers were actually dropping behind. Even to his inexperienced eye their animals showed signs of distress.
At this place the narrow gulch divided. Severne turned to the left, as being more nearly level. Down from the right-hand bisection came the boys of the Triangle X outfit.
To the boys of the Triangle X outfit but one course was open. Here were Colorado Jim and the pards on foundered horses, pursuing a rapid individual who was escaping only too easily. Never desert a comrade. The Triangle X boys uttered whoops, and joined the game at speed. Not gaining as rapidly as they wished, they produced long revolvers—and began to shoot. It is a little difficult to hit anything from a running horse. Severne heard the reports, and congratulated himself on the realistic qualities of his little drama. Then suddenly his hat went spinning from his head. At the same instant a bullet ploughed through the leather on his pommel. Zip! zip! went other bullets past his ears. The boys of Triangle X outfit were beginning to get the range.
He looked back. To his horror he discovered that Colorado Jim and the pards had disappeared, and that their places had been taken by a number of maniacs on jumping little ponies. The maniacs were yelling "Yip! Yip! Yip!" and shooting at him. He could not understand it in the least; but the bullets were mighty convincing. He used his quirt and spurs.
If Severne really wished to experience the feelings of a man pursued, he attained his desire. It is not pleasant to be shot at. Severne entertained sensations of varied coherence, but one and all of a vividness which was of the greatest literary value. Only he was not in a mood to appreciate literary values. He attended strictly to business, which was to lift the excellent animal on which he was mounted as rapidly as possible over the ground. In this he attained a moderate success. Venturing a backward glance, after a few moments, he noted with pleasure that the distance between himself and the maniacs had sensibly increased. Then one of those zipping bullets passed between his body and his arm, cut off three heavy locks of the horse's mane, and entered the base of the poor animal's skull. Severne suddenly found himself in the road. The maniacs swept up at speed, reining in suddenly at the distance of three feet, in such a manner as to scatter much gravel over him. Severne sat up.
The maniacs, with commendable promptness, jerked Severne to his feet. Several more bent over his horse.
"Jess's I thought!" shouted one of these. "Jess's I thought! He's stole this cayuse. This is Hank Smith's bronc. I'd know him any-whar!"
"That's right! Bar O brand!" cried several.
Then men who held him yanked Severne here and there. "End of yore rope this trip! Steal hosses, will ye!" said they.
"I didn't steal the horse!" cried poor Severne; "I hired him from Smith."
A roar of laughter greeted this statement.
"Hired Colorado and the boys to chase you, too, didn't ye!" suggested one, with heavy sarcasm.
"Yes, I did," answered Severne, sincerely.
They laughed again. "Nerve!" said they.
Near the fallen horse several began discussing the affair. "I tell you I know I done it!" argued one. "I ketched him between the sights, jest's fair as could be."
"G'wan, he flummuxed jest's I cut loose!"
"Well, boys," called the leader, impatiently, "get along!"
A man came forward, and silently threw a loop about Severne's neck. In Wyoming they hang horse-thieves. Severne realised this, and told them all about everything. They listened to him, and laughed delightedly. Never had they hanged such a funny horse-thief. They appreciated his efforts to amuse them, and assured him often that he was a peach. When he paused, they encouraged him to say some more. At every new disclosure they chuckled with admiration, as though at a tremendous but splendid lie. Severne was getting more realistic experience in ten minutes than he had had in all his previous life; but realistic experience does not do one much good at the end of a rope on top of a Wyoming mountain. Then, after a little, they deftly threw the coil of rope over the limb of a tree, and hung him up, and left him. They did not shoot him full of holes, as is the usual custom. He had been a funny horse-thief, so in return they were lenient. Severne kicked. "Dancin' good," they observed, as they turned the corner.
Around the corner they met the frantic James. They cut Severne down, and worked over him for some time. Then they carried him down to Placer Creek, and worked over him a lot more. The Triangle X boys were distinctly aggrieved. They had applauded those splendid lies, and now they turned out not to be lies at all, but merely an extremely crazy sort of truth. They relieved their feelings by getting very drunk and shooting out the lights.
It took Severne a week to get over it. Ten days after that he returned East. He had finished a masterpiece. The flight down the canon was pictured so vividly that you could almost hear the crack of the pistols, and the hero's sentiments were so well described that in reading about them you became excited yourself. Severne read it three times, and he thought it as good the third time as the first. Then he copied it all out on the typewriter. This is the severest test a writer can give his work. The most sparkling tale loses its freshness when run through the machine, especially if the unfortunate author cannot make the thing go very fast. It seemed as good even after this ordeal.
"Behold," said he, congratulating himself, "this is the best story I ever wrote! Blamed if it isn't one of the best stories I ever read! Your romanticists claim that the realistic story has no charm, nor excitement, nor psychical thrill. This'll show them!"
So he hurried to deliver it to Brown. Then he posed industriously to himself, and tried hard to do some more glooming, but it was difficult work. Someway he felt his cause not hopeless. This masterpiece would go far to convince her that he was right after all.
Three days later he received a note from Brown asking him to call. He did so. The editor handed him back his story, more in sorrow than in anger, and spoke reprovingly about deserting one's principles. Brown was conscientious. He believed that the past counted nothing in face of the present. Severne pressed for an explanation. Then said Brown:
"Severne, I have used much of your stuff, and I have liked it. The sentences have been crisp. The adjectives have been served hot. You have eschewed poetic connotation. And, above all, you have shown men and life as they are. I am sorry to see that you have departed from that noble ideal."
"But," cried Severne, in expostulation, "do not these qualities appear in my story?"
"At first they do," responded Brown, "but later—ah!" He sighed.
"What do you mean?"
"The ride down the canon," he explained. "The sentences are crisp and the adjectives hot. But, alas! there is much poetic connotation, and, so far from representing real life, it seems to me only the perperoid lucubrations of a disordered imagination."
"Why, that part is the most realistic in the whole thing!" cried the unhappy author, in distress.
"No," replied the editor, firmly, "it is not. It is not realism at all. Even if there were nothing objectionable about the incident, the man's feelings are frightfully overdrawn. No man ever was such an everlasting coward as you make out your hero! I should be glad to see something else of yours—but that, no!"
Somewhat damped, Severne took his manuscript home with him. There he re-read it. All his old enthusiasm returned. It was exactly true. Realism could have had no more accurate exposition of its principles. He cursed Brown, and inclosed stamps to the Decade. After a time he received a check and a flattering letter. Realism stood vindicated!
In due course the story appeared. During the interim Severne had found that his glooming was becoming altogether too realistic for his peace of mind. As time went on and he saw nothing of Lucy Melville, he began to realise that perhaps, after all, he was making a mistake somewhere. At certain recklessly immoral moments he even thought a very little of proving false to art. To such depths can the human soul descend!
The evening after the appearance of his story in the Decade, he was sitting in front of his open fire in very much that mood. The lamps had not been lighted. To him came Mortimer, his man. "A leddy to see you, sir; no name," he announced, solemnly.
Severne arose in some surprise. "Light the lamp, and show her up," he commanded, wondering who she could be.
At the sound of his voice, the visitor pushed into the room past Mortimer.
"Never mind the lamp," cried Lucy Melville. The faithful Mortimer left the room, and—officially—heard no more.
"Why, Lucy!" cried Severne.
In the dim light he could see that her cheeks were glowing with excitement. She crossed the room swiftly, and put her hands on his shoulders. "Bob," she said, gravely, with tears in her eyes, "I know I ought not to be here, but I just couldn't help it! After you were so noble! And it won't matter, for I'm going in just a minute."
Severne cast his mind back in review of his noble acts. "What is it, Lucy?" he inquired.
"As if you could ask!" she cried. "I never knew of a man's doing so tactful and graceful and beautiful a thing in my life! And I don't care a bit, and I believe you were right, after all."
"Right about what?" he begged, getting more and more bewildered.
"About the realism, of course."
She looked up at him again, pointing out her chin in the most adorable fashion. Even serious-minded men have moments of lucidity. Severne had one now.
"Oh, no, you mustn't, Bob—dear!" she cried, blushing.
"But really, Bob," she went on, after a moment, "even if realism is all right, you must admit that your last story is the best thing you ever wrote."
"Why, yes, I do think so," he agreed, wondering what that had to do with it.
"I'm so glad you do. Do you know, Bob," she continued, happily, "I read it all through before I noticed whose it was. And I kept saying to myself, 'I do wish Bob could see this story. I'm sure it would convince him that imagination is better than realism'; for really, Bob," she cried, with enthusiasm, "it is the best imaginative story I ever read. And when I got to the end, and saw the signature, and realised that you had deserted your literary principles just for my sake, and had actually gone to work and written such a splendid imaginative story after all you had said; and then, too, when I realised what a delicate way you had taken to let me know—because, of course, I never read that magazine of Brown's—oh, Bob!" she concluded, quite out of breath.
Severne hesitated for almost a minute. He saw his duty plainly; he was serious-minded; he had no sense of humour. Then she looked up at him as before, pointing her chin out in the most adorable fashion.
"Oh, Bob! Again! I really don't think you ought to!"
And Art; oh, where was it?
In the old mining days out West the law of the survival of the fittest held good, and he who survived had to be very fit indeed. There were a number of ways of not surviving. One of them was to die. And there were a number of ways of being very fit; such as holding an accurate gun or an even temper, being blessed with industry or a vital-tearing ambition, knowing the game thoroughly or understanding the great American expedient of bluff. In any case the man who survived must see his end clearly through that end's means. Whether it were gold, poker, or life, he must cling to his purpose with a bulldog tenacity that no amount of distraction could loosen. Otherwise, as has been said, he died, or begged, or robbed, or became a tramp, or committed the suicide of horse-stealing, or just plain drifted back East broken—a shameful thing.
Why Peter lived on was patent enough to anyone. He was harmless, good-natured, and, in the estimation of hard-hewn men, just "queer" enough to be a little pathetic. Anyone who had once caught a fair look at his narrow, hatchet face with the surprised blue eyes and the loose-falling, sparse light hair; or had enjoyed his sweet, rare smile as he deprecatingly answered a remark before effacing himself; or had chanced on the fortune of asking him for some trifling favour to meet his eager and pleased rendering of it: none of these hypothetical individuals, and that meant about everyone who came in contact with Peter at all, could have imagined anybody, let alone themselves, harming a hair of his head. But how he continued to be a prospector remained a puzzle. The life is hard, full of privations, sown with difficulties, clamant for technical knowledge, exacting of physical strength, dependent on shrewdness and knowledge of the world. Peter had none of these, not even in the smallest degree. There was also, of course, the instinct. This Peter did possess. He could follow his leads of crumbling brown rock with that marvellous intuitive knowledge which is so important an element in the equipment of your true prospector. But it is only an element. By all the rules of the game Peter should have failed long since, should have "cashed in and quit" some five years back; and still he grubbed away cheerfully at divers mountains and many ranges. He had not succeeded; still, he had not failed.
Three times had he made his "strike." On the first of these three occasions he had gone in with two San Francisco men to develop the property. The San Francisco men had persuaded him to form a stock company of certain capitalisation. In two deals they had "frozen out" Peter completely, and reorganised on a basis which is paying them good dividends. Returning overwhelmed with sophistries and "explanations" from his expostulatory interview, Peter decided he knew more about quartz leads than about business and the disgorging of gains, so he went over into Idaho to try again. There he found the famous Antelope Gap lode. This time he determined to sell outright and have nothing more to do with the matter after the transfer of the property. He drew up the deeds, received a small amount down, and took notes for the balance. When the notes came due he could not collect them. The mine had been resold to third parties. Peter had no money to contest the affair; and probably would not have done so if he had. He knew too little—or too much—of law; but the instinct was his, so he moved one State farther east to Montana for his third trial. This resulted in the Eagle Ridge. And for the third time he was swindled by a persuasive man and a lying one-sided contract.
A sordid, silly enough little tale, is it not? but that is why men wondered at Peter's survival, marvelled at the recuperative force that made possible his fourth attempt, speculated with a certain awe over that cheerful disposition which had earned him, even in his adversity, the sobriquet of Happy Peter.
All of these phenomena, had they but known it, resulted from one simple cause. Peter's mental retrospect for a considerable space would have conjured up nothing but a succession of grand sweeps of mountains, singing pines, rare western skies, and the simplicity of a frontiersman's log-cabin; and yet to his inner vision over the border of that space lay a very different scene. It was the scene he saw the oftenest. Oftenest? he saw it always; across the mountains, through the pines, beyond the skies. As time went on, the vision simplified itself to Peter, as visions will. It came to have two phases, two elements, which visited him always together.
One of these was a house; the other a girl. The house was low, white-painted, with green blinds and a broad stoop. Its front yard was fragrant with lilacs, noisy with crickets, fluttering with butterflies of sulphur yellow. About it lay a stony, barren farm, but lovely with the glamour of home. The girl was not pretty, as we know girls; but she had straight steady eyes, a wide brow, smooth matronly bands of hair, and a wholesome, homely New England character, sweet, yet with a tang to give it a flavour, like the apples on the tree near the old-fashioned, long-armed well. Peter could gain no competence from the stony farm, no consent from the girl. It was to win both that he had come West.
In those days, around the western curve of the earth, every outlook borrowed the tints of sunset. Nothing but the length of the journey stood between a man and his fortune.
"I love you dearly, Peter," she had said, both hands on his shoulders, "and I do not care for the money. But I have seen too much of it here—too much of the unhappiness that comes from debt, from poverty. Misery does not love the company of those it loves. Go make your fortune, Peter, bravely, and come back to me."
"I will," replied Peter, soberly. "I will, God help me. But it may be long. I don't know; I have not the knack; I am stupid about people, about men."
She smiled, and leaned over to kiss his eyes. "People love you, Peter," she said, simply. "I love you, and I will wait. If it were fifty years, you will find me here ready when you come."
Peter knew this to be true. And so to the unpeopled rooms of the little old Vermont farmhouse Peter's gentle thoughts ever swarmed, like homing bees. In his vision of it the lilac-bush outside the window always smelled of spring; she always sat there beside the open sash, waiting—for him. What wonder that he survived when so many others went down? What wonder that he persevered? What wonder that his patient soul, comparing the eternity of love's happiness with the paltry years of love's waiting, saw nothing in the condition of affairs to ruffle its peaceful serenity? And yet to most the time would have seemed very, very long. Men may blunder against rich pockets or leads and wealthy say farewell to a day which they greeted as the poorest of the poor. So may men win fortunes on a turn of the wheat market. But the one is no more prospecting than the other is business. True prospecting has only the normal percentage of uncertainties, the usual alloy of luck to brighten its toil with the hope of the unexpected. A man must know his business to succeed. A bit of rock, a twist of ledge, a dip of country, an abundance or an absence of dikes—these and many others are the symbols with which the prospector builds the formula that spells gold. And after the formula is made, it must be proved. It is the proving that bends the back, tries the patience, strains to the utmost the man's inborn Instinct of the Metal. For that is the work of the steel and the fire, the water and the power of explosion. Until the proof is done to the Q.E.D., the man must draw for inspiration on his stock of faith. In the morning he sharpens his drills at a forge. In the afternoon he may, by the grace of labour, his Master, have accomplished a little round hole in the rock, which, being filled with powder and fired, will tear loose into a larger hole with debris. The debris must be removed by pick and shovel. After the hole has been sufficiently deepened, the debris must be loaded into a bucket, which must then be hauled to the surface of the ground and emptied. How long do you calculate the man will require to dig in this manner, fifty, a hundred feet? How long to sink one or two such shafts on each and every claim he has staked? How long to excavate the numerous lateral tunnels which the Proof demands?
And besides this, from time to time the shaft must be elaborately timbered in order to prevent its caving in and burying work and workman together—a tedious job, requiring the skill alike of a woodsman, a carpenter, a sailor, and a joiner. The man must make his trips to town for supplies. He must cook his meals. He must meet his fellows occasionally, or lose the power of speech. The years slip by rapidly. He numbers his days by what he has accomplished; and it is little. He measures time by his trips to camp; and they are few. It is no small thing to make three discoveries—and lose them. It is a greater thing to find courage for a fourth attempt.
After the Eagle Ridge fiasco, Peter, as cheerful as ever, journeyed over into Wyoming to try his luck once more. He moved up into the hills, spent a month in looking about him, narrowed his localities to one gulch, and built himself a log cabin in which to live. Then he made his general survey. He went on foot up every gulch, even every little transverse wrinkle that lay tributary to his valley, to the shallow top of it filled with loose stones; he followed the sky-line of every ridge which bordered and limited these gulches; he seized frequent opportunities of making long diagonals down the slopes. Nothing escaped him. In time he knew the general appearance of every bit of drift or outcrop in his district. Then he sat down in his cabin and carefully considered the probabilities. If they had not happened to please him, he would have repeated the whole wearisome process in another valley; but as in this case they did, he proceeded to take the next step. In other words, he went over the same ground again with a sampling-pick and a bundle of canvas bags. Where his theories or experience advised, he broke off quantities of rock from the ledges, which he crushed and mixed in the half of an old blanket; dividing, and recrushing again and again, until an "average" was obtained in small compass. The "average" he took home, where he dumped it into a heavy iron mortar, over which he had suspended a pestle from a springy sapling. By alternately pulling down and letting up on the sapling he crushed the quartz fragments with the pestle into fine red and white sand. The sand he "panned out" for indications of free gold.
The ledges whose averages thus showed the colour, he marked on his map with a cross. Some leads which did not so exhibit gold, but whose other indications he considered promising, he exploited still further, penetrating to a layer below the surface by means of a charge or so of powder. Or perhaps he even spent several weeks in making an irregular hole like a well, from which he carried the broken rock in bags, climbing up a notched tree. Then he selected more samples. This is hard work.
Thus Peter came to know his country, and when he knew it thoroughly, when he had made all his numerous speculations as to horses, blowouts, and slips—then, and not until then, did he stake out his claims; then, and not until then, did he consider himself ready to begin work.
He might be quite wrong in his calculations. In that case, it was all to do over again somewhere else. He had had this happen. Every prospector has. The claims which Peter selected were four in number. He started in without delay on the proof. Foot by foot the shafts descended through the red, the white, vein matter. One by one the spider arms of the tunnels felt out into the innermost crevices of the lode. Little by little Peter's table of statistics filled; here a pocket, there a streak, yon a clear ten feet of low-grade ore. The days, the months, even the years slipped by. Summers came and went with a flurry of thunder-showers that gathered about Harney, spread abroad in long bands of blackness, broke in a deluge of rain and hail and passed out to dissipate in the hot air of the prairies. Autumns, clear-eyed and sweet-breathed, faded wanly in the smoke of their forest fires. Winters sidled by with constant threat of arctic weather which somehow never came; powdering the hills with their snow; making bitter cold the shadows, and warm the silver-like sun. Another spring was at hand. Like all the rest, it coquetted with the season as a young girl with her lover; smiling with the brightness of a western sun; frowning with the fierceness of a sudden snow-squall, strangely out of place in contrast to the greenery of the mountain "parks"; creeping slowly up the gullies from the prairie in staccato notes of bursting buds; at last lifting its many voices in the old swelling song of delight over the birth of new loves and new desires among its creatures.
Like all the rest, did I say? No, not quite. To Peter this particular spring was a rare thing of beauty. Its gilding was a little brighter, its colours a little fresher, its skies a little deeper, its songs rang a little truer than ever the gilding or colours or skies or songs of any spring he had ever known. For he was satisfied. Steadily the value of the property had proved itself. One clear, cold day he collected all his drills and picks and sledges and brought them back to camp, where he stacked them behind the door. It was his way of signing Q.E.D. to the proof.
The doubtful spot on the Jim Crow was not a blow-out, but a "horse." He had penetrated below it. The mines were rich beyond his dreams. Yet he sat there at his noon meal as cheerful, as unexcited, as content as ever. When one has waited so long, impatience sleeps soundly, arouses with the sluggishness of unbelief itself. Outside he saw the sun, for the first time in weeks, and heard the pines singing their endless song. Inside, his fire sparkled and crackled; his kettle purred like a fireside cat. Peter was tired; tired, but content. The dream was very near to him.
When he had finished his meal he got up and examined himself in his little square mirror. Then he did so again. Then he walked heavily back to his table and sat down and buried his face in his hands. When he had looked the first time he had seen a gray hair. When he had looked the second time he had discovered that there were many. With a sudden pang Peter realised that he was getting to be an old man. He took a picture from a pocket-case and looked at that. Was she getting to be an old woman?
It was fearful what a difference that little thought suddenly made. A moment ago he had had the eternities before him. Now there was not an instant to be wasted. Every minute, every second even, that he sat there gazing at the faded old picture in his hand was so much lost to him and to its original. Not God himself could bring it and its possibilities back to him. Until now he had looked about him upon Youth; he must henceforth look back to it—back to the things which might have been, but could never be—and each pulse-beat carried him inevitably farther from even the retrospective simulacrum of their joys. He and she could never begin young now. They must take up life cold in the moulds, ready fashioned. The delight of influencing each other's development was denied such as they; instead, they must find each other out, must throw a thousand strands of loving-kindness to span the gap which the patient years had sundered between them, a gap which should never have widened at all. Again that remorseless hurry of the moments! Each one of them made the cast across longer, increased the need for loving-kindness, demanded anew, for the mere pitiful commonplace task of understanding each other—which any mother and her child find so trivially easy—the power of affection which each would have liked to shower on the other undictated except by the desires of their hearts. Peter called up the image of himself as he had been when he had left the East, and set it remorselessly by the side of that present image in the mirror. Then he looked at the portrait. Could the years have changed her as much? If so, he would hardly know her!
Those miserable years of waiting! He had not minded them before, but now they were horrible. In the retrospect the ceaseless drudgery of rock and pick and drill loomed larger than the truth of it; his patience, at the time so spontaneous a result of his disposition, seemed that of a man clinging desperately to a rope, able to hang on only by the concentration of every ounce of his will. Peter felt himself clutching the rope so hard that he could think of nothing, absolutely nothing, else. He proved a great necessity of letting go.
And for her, these years? What had they meant? By the internal combustion which had so suddenly lighted up the dark corners of his being, he saw with almost clairvoyant distinctness how it must have been. He saw her growing older, as he had grown older, but in the dull apathy of monotony. She had none of this great filling Labour wherewith to drug herself into day-dreams of a future. The seasons as they passed showed her the same faces, growing ever a little more jaded, as dancers in the light of dawn. Perhaps she had ceased counting them? No, he knew better than that. But the pity of it! washing, scrubbing, mending; mending, scrubbing, washing to the time of an invalid's complaints. To-day she was doing as she had done yesterday; to-morrow she would do the same. To-morrow?
"No, by God!" cried Peter, starting to his feet. "There shall be no more to-morrow!"
He took from the shelf over the window a number of pieces of quartz, which he stuffed into the pockets of a pair of saddle-bags lying near the door. In the corral was Jenny, a sleek, fat mare. He saddled Jenny and departed with the saddle-bags, leaving the door of his cabin open to the first comer, as is the hospitable Western way.
At Beaver Dam he spread the chunks of rock out on the bar of the principal saloon and invited inspection. He did not think to find a purchaser among the inhabitants of Beaver Dam, but he knew that the tidings of his discoveries would arouse interest and attract other prospectors to the locality of his claims. In this manner his property would come prominently on the market.
The discoveries certainly were accorded attention enough. Peter was well known. Men were perfectly sure of his veracity and his mining instinct. If Peter said there existed a good lode of the stuff he exhibited to them, that settled it.
"Hum," said a man named Squint-eye Dobs, after examining a bit of the transparent crystal through which small kernels of yellow metal shone. Then he laid down the specimen, and walked quietly out the door without further comment. He had gone to get his outfit ready.
To others, not so prompt of action, Peter explained at length, always in that hesitating, diffident voice of his.
"I have my claims all staked," said he; "you boys can come up and hook onto what's left. There's plenty left. I ain't saying it's as good as mine; still, it's pretty good. I think it'll make a camp."
"Make a camp!" shouted Cheyenne Harry. "I should think it would! If there's any more like that up country you can sell a 'tater-patch if it lays anywheres near the district!"
"Well, I must be goin', boys," said Peter, sidling toward the door; "and I 'spect I'll see some of you boys up there?"
The boys did not care to commit themselves as to that before each other, but they were all mentally locating the ingredients of their prospecting outfits.
"Have a drink, Happy, on me," hospitably suggested the proprietor.
Peter slowly returned to the bar.
"Here's luck to the new claim, Happy," said the proprietor; "and here's hoping the sharps doesn't make all there is on her."
The men laughed, but not ill-naturedly. They all knew Peter, as has been said.
Peter turned again to the door.
"You'll have a reg'lar cyclone up thar by to-morrow!" called a joker after him; "look out fer us! There'll be an unholy mob on hand, and they'll try to do you, sure!"
Peter stopped short, looked at the speaker, and went out hurriedly.
The next morning the men came into his gulch. He heard them even before he had left his bunk—the clink, creak, creak! of their wagons. By the time he had finished breakfast the side-hills were covered with them. From his window he could catch glimpses of them through the straight pines as patches of red, or flashes of light reflected from polished metal. In the canon was the gleam of fires; in the air the smell of wood-smoke and of bacon broiling; among the still bare bushes and saplings the shine of white lean-tops; horses fed eagerly on the young grasses and the browse of trees, raising their heads as the creak of wheels farther down the draw told of yet new-comers. The boom was under way.
Peter knew that the tidings of the discovery would spread. To-morrow a new town would deserve a place on the map. Men would come to the town, men with money, men anxious to invest. With them Peter would treat. There was to be no chance of a careless bargain this time. He would take no chances. And yet he had thought that before.
Peter began to forestall difficulties in his mind. The former experience suggested many, but he drew from the same source their remedies. It was the great unknown that terrified him. In spite of his years, in spite of his gray hairs, in spite of his memories of those former failures, he had to confess to himself that he knew nothing, absolutely nothing of sharpers and their methods. They could not fleece him again in precisely the way they had done so before; but how could he guess at the tricks they had in reserve? Eight years out of a man's life ought surely to teach him caution as thoroughly as twelve. Yet he walked into the Eagle Ridge trap as confidently as he had into the Antelope Gap. He had made it twelve years. What was to prevent his making it sixteen? There is no fear like that of the absolutely unknown. You cannot forestall that; you must depend upon your own self-confidence. Self-confidence was just what Peter did not possess.
Then in a flash he saw what he should have done. It was all so ridiculously simple—a mere question of division of labour. He, Peter, knew prospecting, but did not understand business. Back in his old Vermont home were a dozen honest men who knew business, but understood nothing of prospecting. Nothing would have been easier than to have combined these qualities and lacks. If Peter had returned quietly to his people, concealing his discoveries from the men of Beaver Dam, he could have returned in three weeks' time equipped for his negotiations. Now it was too late. The minute his back was turned they would jump his claims. Peter's mind worked slowly. If he had felt himself less driven by the sight of those gray hairs, he might have come in time to another idea—that of wiring or writing East for a partner, pending whose arrival he could merely hold possession of the claims. As it was, the terror and misgiving, having obtained entry, rapidly usurped the dominion of his thoughts. He could see nothing before him but the inevitable and dread bargaining with unknown powers of dishonesty, nothing behind him but the mistake of starting the "boom."
As the morning wore away he went out into the hills to look about him. The men were all busily enough engaged in chipping out the shallow troughs of their "discoveries," piling supporting rocks about their corner and side stakes, or tacking up laboriously composed mining "notices." They paid scant attention to the man who passed them a hundred yards away. Peter visited his own four claims. On one he found a small group anxiously examining the indications of the lead. He did not join it. The parting words flung after him at the saloon came to his mind. "Look out for us! There'll be an unholy mob on hand, and they'll try to do you, sure."
Peter cooked himself a noon meal, but he did not eat much of it. Instead, he sat quite still and stared with wide, blind eyes at the wavering mists of steam that arose from the various hot dishes. From time to time he got up with apparent purpose, which, however, left him before he had taken two steps, so that his movement speedily became aimless, and he sat down again. Late in the afternoon he went the rounds of his claims again, but saw nothing unusual. He did not take the trouble to cook supper. During the evening some men looked in for a moment or so, but went away, because the cabin was empty. Peter was at the moment of their visit walking back and forth, back and forth, away up high there on the top of the ridge, in a little cleared flat space next the stars. When he came to the end, he whirled sharp on his heels. It was six paces one way and five the other. He counted the steps consciously, until the mental process became mechanical. Then the count went on steadily behind his other thoughts—five, six; five, six; five, six; over and over again, like that. About ten o'clock he ceased opening and shutting his hands and began to scream, at first under his breath, then louder in the over tone, then with the full strength of his lungs. A mountain lion on another slope answered him. He stretched his arms up over his head, every muscle tense, and screamed. And then, without appreciable transition, he sank to the rock and hid his face. For the moment the nerve tension had relaxed.
The clear western stars, like fine silver powder, seemed to glimmer in some light stronger than their own, as dust-motes in the sun. A breeze from the prairie rested its light, invisible hands on the man's bent head. Certain homely night-sounds, such as the tree-toads and crickets and the cries of the poor wills, stole here and there through the pine-aisles like living creatures on the wing. A faint, sweet odour of the woods came with them. Peter arose, and drew a deep breath, and went to his cabin. The peace of nature had for the moment become his own.
But then, in the darkness of his low bunk, the old doubts, the old terrors returned. They perched there above him and compelled him to look at them until his eyes were hot and red. "Do, do, do!" said they, until Peter arose, and there, in the chill of dawn, he walked the three miles necessary for the inspection of his claims. Everything was as it should be. The men in the gulch were not yet awake. From the Jim Crow a drowsy porcupine trundled away bristling.
This could not go on. It would be weeks before he could hope even to open his negotiations. Peter cooked himself an elaborate breakfast—and drank half a cup of coffee. Then he sat, as he had the day before, staring straight in front of him, seeing nothing. After a time he placed the girl's picture and the square mirror side by side on the table and looked at them intently.
He rose, kicking his chair over backward, and went out to his claims once more.
The men in the gulch had awakened. Most of them had finished the more imperative demands of location the day before, so now they were more at leisure to satisfy their curiosity and their love of comment by inspecting the original discovery to which all this stampede was due. As a consequence Peter found a great gathering on the Jim Crow. Some of the men were examining chunks of ore, others were preparing to descend the shafts, still others were engaged idly in reading the location-notice tacked against a stub pine. One of the latter, the same individual who had joked Peter in the saloon, caught sight of the prospector as he approached.
"Hullo, Happy!" he called, pointing at the weather-beaten notice. "What do you call this?" He winked at the rest. The history of Peter's losses was well known.
"What?" asked Peter, strangely.
"You ain't got this readin' right. She says 'fifteen hundred feet'; the law says she ought t' read 'fifteen hundred linear feet.' Your claim is n.g. I'm goin' t' jump her on you."
The statement was ridiculous; everybody knew it, and prepared to laugh, loud-mouthed.
Peter, without a word, shot the speaker through the heart. Men said at his trial that it was the most brutal and unprovoked murder they had ever known.
THE GIRL IN RED
"It isn't that I object to," protested the Easterner, leaning forward from the rough log wall to give emphasis to his words, "for I believe in everyone having his fun his own way. If you're going in for orgies, why, have 'em good orgies, and be done with it. But my kick's on letting these innocent young girls who are just out for the fun—it's awful!"
"It's hell!" assented the Westerner, cheerfully.
"Now, look at that pretty creature over there——"
The young miner followed his companion's gaze through the garishly lit crowd. Then, as though in doubt as to whether he had seen correctly, he tried it again.
"Which do you mean?" he asked, puzzled.
"The one in red. Now, she——"
The Westerner snorted irrepressibly.
"What's the matter with you?" inquired the Easterner, looking on him with suspicious eyes.
The other choked his laugh in the middle, and instantly assumed an expression of intense solemnity. It was as though a candle had blown out in the wind.
"Beg pardon. Nothing," he asserted with brevity of enunciation. "Go on."
The girl in red was standing tiptoe on a bench under one of the big lanterns. She was holding her little palm slantwise over the chimney, and by blowing against it was trying to put out the lamp. Her face was very serious and flushed. Occasionally the lamp would flare up a little, and she would snatch her hand away with a pretty gesture of dismay as the uprising flame would threaten to scorch it. A group of interested men surrounded and applauded her. Two on the outside stood off the proprietor of the dance-hall. The proprietor was objecting.
"Well, then, just look at that girl, I say," the Easterner went on. "She's as pretty and fresh and innocent as a mountain flower. She's having the time of her young life, and she just thinks it means a good time and nothing else. Some day she'll find out it means a lot else. I tell you, it's awful!"
The Westerner surveyed his friend's flushed face with silent amusement. The girl finally succeeded in blowing the light out, and everybody yelled.
"Same old fellow you were in college, aren't you, Bert?" he said, affectionately; "succouring the distressed and borrowing other people's troubles. What can you do?"
"Do, do! What can any man do? Take her out of this! appeal to her better nature!"
Bert started impulsively forward to where the girl—with assistance—was preparing to jump from the bench. The miner caught his sleeve in alarm.
"Hold on, don't make a row! Wait a minute!" he begged; "she isn't worth it! There, now listen," as the other sank back expectantly to his former position. His bantering manner returned. "You and the windmills," he breathed, in relief. "I'll just shatter your ideals a few to pay for that scare. You shall now hear a fact or so concerning that pretty, innocent girl—I forget your other adjective. In the first place, she isn't in the mountain-flower business a little bit. Her name is Anne Bingham, but she is more popularly known as Bismarck Anne, chiefly because of all the camps of our beloved territory Bismarck is the only one she hasn't visited. Therefore, it is concluded she must have come from there."
"Bismarck Anne!" repeated the Easterner, wonderingly. "She isn't the one——"
"The very same. She's about as bad as they make 'em, and I don't believe she misses a pay-day dance a year. She's all right, now; but you want to come back a little later. Anne will be drunk—gloriously drunk—and very joyful. I will say that for her. She has all the fun there is in it while it lasts."
"Whew!" whistled the Easterner, in dazed repulsion, looking with interest on the girl's animated face.
"Oh, what do you care!" responded the miner, carelessly. "She has her fun."
Bismarck Anne jumped into the nearest man's arms, was kissed, bestowed a slap, and flitted away down the room. She deftly stole the accordion from beneath the tall look-out stool on which a musician sat and ran, evolving strange noises from the instrument, and scampering in and out among the benches, pursued by its owner. The men all laughed heartily, and tried to trip up the pursuer. The women laughed hollow laughs, to show they were not jealous of the sensation she was creating. Finally she ran into the proprietor, just turning from relighting the big lamp. The proprietor, being angry, rescued the accordion roughly; whereupon Anne pouted and cast appealing glances on her friends. The friends responded to a man. The proprietor set up the drinks.
The music started up again. Miners darted here and there toward the gaudily dressed women, and, seizing them about the waist, held them close to their sides, as a claim of proprietorship before the whole world. Perspiring masters of ceremonies, self-constituted and drunk, rushed back and forth, trying to put a semblance of the quadrilateral into the various sets. Everybody shuffled feet impatiently.
The dance began with a swirl of noise and hilarious confusion. Bismarck Anne added to the hilarity. She was having a high old time; why shouldn't she? She had had three glasses of forty-rod, and was blessed by nature with a lively disposition and an insignificant bump of reverence. Moreover, she was healthy of body, red of blood, and reckless of consequences. Pleasure appealed to her; the stir of action, the delight of the flow of high spirits, thrilled through every fibre of her being. She had no beliefs, as far as she knew. If she could have told of them, they would have proved simple in the extreme—that life comes to those who live out their possibilities, and not to those who deny them. And Anne had many possibilities, and was living them fast. She felt almost physically the beat of pleasure in the atmosphere about her, and from it she reacted to a still higher pitch. She had drunk three glasses, and her head was not strong. Her feet moved easily, and she was very certain of her movements. She had become just hazy enough in her mental processes to have attained that happy indifference to what is likely to happen in the immediate future, and that equally happy disregard of consequences which the virtuous never experience. Impressions reduced themselves to their lowest terms—movement and noise. The room was full of rapidly revolving figures. The racket was incessant, and women's laughter rose shrill above it, like wind above a storm. Anne moved amid it all as the controller of its destinies, and wherever she went seemed to her to be the one stable point in the kaleidoscopic changes. Men danced with her, but they were meaningless men. One begged her to dance with him, but Anne stopped to watch a youth blowing brutishly from puffed cheeks, so the man cursed and left her for another girl. Beyond the puffing youth lights were dancing, green and red. Anne paused and looked at them gravely.