"He's gone in," said Bachelor Billy, examining the foot-prints, "he's gone in toward the face. I ken the place richt well, it's mony's the time I ha' travelled it."
They hurried in along the heading, not stopping to look for other tracks, but expecting to find the boy's body ahead of them at every step they took.
When they reached the face, they turned and looked at each other in surprise.
"He's no' here," said Billy.
"It's strange, too," replied Conway. "He couldn't 'a' got off o' the headin'!"
He stooped and examined the floor of the passage carefully, holding his lamp very low.
"Billy," he said, "I believe he's come in an' gone out again. Here's tracks a-pointin' the other way."
"So he has, Mike, so he has; the puir lad!"
Bachelor Billy was thinking of the disappointment Ralph must have felt when he saw the face of the heading before him, and knew that his journey in had been in vain.
Already the two men had turned and were walking back.
At the point where they had entered the heading they found foot-prints leading out toward the slope. They had not noticed them at first.
They followed them hastily, and came, as Ralph had come, to the fall.
"He's no' climbit it," said Billy. "He's gone up an' around it. The lad knew eneuch aboot the mines for that."
They passed up into the chambers, but the floor was too dry to take the impress of footsteps, and they found no trace of the boy.
When they reached the upper limit of the fall, Billy said:—
"We mus' turn sharp to the left here, or we'll no' get back. It's a tarrible windin' headin'."
But Conway had discovered tracks, faintly discernible, leading across into a passage used by men and mules to shorten the distance to the inner workings.
"He's a-goin' stret back," said Billy, sorrowfully, as they slowly followed these traces, "he's a-goin' stret back to whaur he cam' through."
Surely enough the prints of the child's feet soon led the tired searchers back to the opening from Conway's chamber.
They looked at each other in silent disappointment, and sat down for a few moments to rest and to try to think.
Bachelor Billy was the first to rise to his feet.
"Mike," he said, "the lad's i' this auld mine. Be it soon or late I s'all find 'im. I s'all search the place fra slope to headin'-face. I s'all no' gae oot till I gae wi' the boy or wi' 'is body; what say ye? wull ye help?"
Conway grasped the man's hand with a pressure that meant more than words, and they started immediately to follow their last track back. They passed up and down all the chambers in the tier till they reached the point, at the upper limit of the fall, where Ralph had turned into the foot-way. Their search had been a long and tiresome one and had yielded to them no results.
They began to appreciate the fact that a thorough exploration of the mine could not be made in a short time by two worn-out men. Billy blamed himself for not having thought sooner to send for other and fresher help.
"Ye mus' go now, Mike," he said. "Mayhap it'd take days wi' us twa here alone, an' the lad's been a-wanderin' aroun' so."
But Conway demurred.
"You're the one to go," he said. "You can't stan' it in here much longer, an' I can. You're here at the risk o' your life. Go on out with ye an' get a bit o' the fresh air. I'll stay and hunt for the boy till the new men comes."
But Bachelor Billy was in earnest.
"I canna do it," he said. "I would na get farther fra the lad for warlds, an' him lost an' a-dyin' mayhap. I'll stan' it. Never ye fear for me! Go on, Mike, go on quick!"
Conway turned reluctantly to go.
"Hold out for an hour," he shouted back, "an' we'll be with ye!"
Before the sound of his footsteps had died away, Billy had picked up his lamp again and started down on the easterly side of the fall, making little side excursions as he went, hunting for foot-prints on the floor of the mine.
When he came to the heading, he turned to go back to the face of the fall. It was but a few steps. There was a little stream of water running down one side of the passage and he lay down by it to drink. Half hidden in the stream he espied a miner's lamp. He reached for it in sudden surprise. He saw that it had been lately in use. He started to his feet and moved up closer to the fall, looking into the dark places under the rock. His foot struck something; it was the oil-can. He picked it up and examined it. There was blood on it; and both can and lamp were empty. He looked up at the face of the fall and then the truth came slowly into his mind. The boy had attempted to climb through that wilderness of rock, had reached the precipice, had fallen to the floor, had spilled his oil, and had wandered off into the dreadful darkness, hurt and helpless.
"Oh, the puir lad!" he said, aloud. "Oh, the puir dear lad! He canna be far fra here," he continued, "not far. Ralph! Ralph!"
He waited a moment in silence, but there was no answer. Then, hastily examining the passage as he went, he hurried down along the heading.
At one place he found a burned match. The boy had gone this way, then. He hastened on. He came to a point where two headings met, and stopped in indecision. Which route had Ralph taken? He decided to try the one that led to the slope. He went in that way, but he had not gone ten rods before he came upon a little heap of charred rags in the middle of the passage. He could not understand it at first; but he was not long in discovering what it meant. Ralph had burned his jacket to light up the path.
"Ah! the sufferin' child!" he murmured; "the dear sufferin' child!"
A little further along he saw a boy's cap lying in the way. He picked it up and placed it in his bosom. He brushed away a tear or two from his eyes and hastened on. It was no time to weep over the lad's sufferings when he expected to find his body at every step he took. But he went a long distance and saw no other sign of the boy's passage. He came to a place at last where the dirt on the floor of the heading was wet. He bent down and made careful scrutiny from side to side, but there were no foot-prints there save his own. He had, in his haste gone too far. He turned back with a desperate longing at his heart. He knew that the lad must be somewhere near.
At one point, an unblocked entrance opened from the heading into the air-way at an acute angle. He thought the boy might have turned into that, and he passed up through it and so into the chambers. He stopped at times to call Ralph's name, but no answer ever came. He wandered back, finally, toward the fall, and down into the heading where the burned coat was. After a few moments of rest, he started again, examining every inch of the ground as he went. This time he found where Ralph had turned off into the air-way. He traced his foot-prints up through an entrance into the chambers and there they were again lost. But he passed on through the open places, calling as he went, and came finally to the sump near the foot of the slope. He held his lamp high and looked out over the black surface of the water. Not far away the roof came down to meet it. A dreadful apprehension entered the man's mind. Perhaps Ralph had wandered unconsciously into this black pool and been drowned. But that was too terrible; he would not allow himself to think of it. He turned away, went back up the chamber, and crossed over again to the air-way. Moving back a little to search for foot-prints, he came to an old door-way and sat clown by it to rest—yes, and to weep. He could no longer think of the torture the child must have endured in his wanderings through the old mine and keep the tears from his eyes. He almost hoped that death had long ago come to the boy's relief.
"Oh, puir lad!" he sobbed, "puir, puir lad!"
Below him, in the darkness, he heard the drip of water from the roof. Aside from that, the place was very, very still.
Then, for a moment, his heart stopped beating and he could not move.
He had heard a voice somewhere near him saying:—
"Good-night, Uncle Billy! If I wake first in the mornin', I'll call you—good-night!"
It was what Ralph was used to saying when he went to bed at home. But it was not Ralph's voice sounding through the darkness; it was only the ghost of Ralph's voice.
In the next moment the man's strength returned to him; he seized his lamp and leaped through the old door-way, and there at his feet lay Ralph. The boy was living, breathing, talking.
Billy fell on his knees beside him and began to push the hair back from his damp forehead, kissing it tenderly as he did so.
"Ralph," he said, "Ralph, lad, dinna ye see me? It's your Uncle Billy, Ralph, your Uncle Billy."
The boy did not open his eyes, but his lips moved.
"Did you call me, Uncle Billy?" he asked. "Is it mornin'? Is it daylight?"
"It'll soon be daylight, lad, verra soon noo, verra soon."
He had fastened his lamp in his cap, placed his arms gently under the child's body, and lifted him to his breast. He stood for a moment then, questioning with himself. But the slope was the nearest and the way to it was the safest, and there was no time to wait. He started down the air-way on his journey to the outer world, bearing his burden as tenderly as a mother would have borne her babe, looking down at times into the still face, letting the tears drop now and then on the paper pinned to the boy's breast.
He stopped to rest after a little, holding the child on his knees as he sat, and looking curiously at the letter, on which his tears had fallen. He read it slowly by the light of his lamp, bending back the fold to do so. He did not wonder at it. He knew what it meant and why the boy had fastened it there.
"Ye s'all gae to her, lad," he said, "ye s'all gae to the mither. I'm thankfu', verra thankfu', that the father kenned the truth afoor he deed."
He raised his precious burden to his heart and began again his journey.
The water in the old sump had risen and flowed across the heading and the air-way and far up into the chambers, and he was compelled to go around it. The way was long and devious; it was blocked and barred; he had often to lay his burden down and make an opening through some walled-up entrance to give them room for passage.
There were falls in his course, and he clambered across rough hills of rock and squeezed through narrow openings; but every step brought him nearer to the slope, and this thought nerved him to still greater effort. Yet he could not wholly escape the water of the sump. He had still to pass through it. It was cold and black. It came to his ankles as he trudged along. By and by it reached to his knees. When it grew to be waist-deep he lifted the child to his shoulder, steadied himself against the side wall of the passage and pushed on. He slipped often, he became dizzy at times, there were horrible moments when he thought surely that the dark water would close over him and his precious burden forever. But he came through it at last, dripping, gasping, staggering on till he reached the foot of the old slope. There he sat down to rest. From away back in the mine the echoing shouts of the rescuing party came faintly to his ears. Conway had returned with help. He tried to answer their call, but the cry stuck in his throat.
He knew that it would be folly for him to attempt to reach them; he knew also that they would never trace his course across that dreadful waste of water.
There was but one thing to do; he must go on, he must climb the slope.
He gave one look up the long incline, gathered his burden to his breast and started upward. The slope was not a steep one. There were many in that region that were steeper; but to a man in the last stage of physical exhaustion, forcing his tired muscles and his pain-racked body to carry him and his helpless charge up its slippery way, it was little less than precipitous.
It was long too, very long, and in many places it was rough with dislodged props and caps and fallen rock.
Many and many a time Bachelor Billy fell prone upon the sloping floor, but, though he was powerless to save himself, though he met in his own body the force of every blow, he always held the child out of harm's way.
He began to wonder, at last, if he could ever get the lad to the surface; if, within fifty rods of the blessed outer air, he would not after all have to lie down and die with Ralph in his arms.
But as soon as such thoughts came to him he brought his tremendous will and magnificent courage to the rescue, and arose and struggled on.
The boy had not spoken since the journey began, nor had he opened his eyes. He was still unconscious, but he was breathing; his heart was beating, there was life in his body, and that was all that could be asked or hoped for.
At last! oh, at last! The straight, steep, dreadful half mile of slope was at Bachelor Billy's back. He stood out once more in the free and open air. Under his feet were the grass and flowers and yielding soil; over his head were the shining stars, now paling in the east; below him lay the fair valley and the sleeping town clothed lightly in the morning mist; and in his arms he still held the child who had thought never again to draw breath under the starry sky or in the dewy air. There came a faint breeze, laden with all the fragrance of the young morning, and it swept Ralph's cheek so gently that the very sweetness of it made his eyes to open.
He looked at the reddening east, at the setting stars still glowing in the western sky, at the city church spires rising out of the sea of silver mist far down below him, and then at last up into the dear old face and the tear-wet eyes above him, and he said: "Uncle Billy, oh, Uncle Billy! don't you think it's beautiful? I wish—I wish my mother could see it."
"Aye, lad! she s'all look upon it wi' ye, mony's the sweet mornin' yet, an it please the good God."
The effort to look and to speak had overpowered the weary child, and he sank back again into unconsciousness.
Then began the journey home. Not to the old cottage; that was Ralph's home no longer, but to the home of wealth and beauty now, to the mansion yonder in the city where the mother was waiting for her boy.
Aye! the mother was waiting for her boy.
They had sent a messenger on horseback shortly after midnight to tell her that the lad's tracks had been found in the old mine, that all the men at hand had started in there to make the search more thorough, that by daylight the child would be in her arms, that possibly, oh! by the merest possibility, he might still be living.
So through the long hours she had waited, had waited and watched, listening for a footfall in the street, for a step on the porch, for a sound at her door; yet no one came. The darkness that lay upon the earth seemed, also, to lie heavily on her spirit.
But now, at last, with the gray light that told of coming day, there crept into her heart a hope, a confidence, a serenity of faith that set it quite at rest.
She drew back the curtains and threw open the windows to let in the morning air.
The sky above the eastern hilltops was aglow with crimson; in the zenith it was like the color of the sweet pale rose.
She felt and knew that her boy was living and that very soon he would be with her. Doubt had disappeared wholly from her mind. She threw open the great hall doors that he might have a gracious and a fitting welcome to his home.
She went up once more to the room in which he was to lie until health should return to him, to see that it was ready to receive him.
When she again descended the stairs she saw the poor, bent figure of a man, carrying a burden in his arms, staggering weakly up the walk, laboring with awful effort at the steps of the porch. He was wet and wretched, he was hatless and ragged, but on his soiled face was a smile befitting one of God's angels.
He kissed his burden tenderly, and gave it into the lady's arms.
"I've brought 'im to ye fra the edge o' daith. His title to your luve is pinnit on 'is breast. I'm thankfu'—thankfu' for ye—both."
Bachelor Billy's work was done. He had lived to place his dearest treasure in the safest place on earth; there was nothing left for him to do. He sank down gently to the floor of the broad hall. The first sunlight of the new day flashed its rays against the stained-glass windows, and the windows caught them and laid them in coverlets of blue and gold across the prostrate form of this humblest of earth's heroes.
Under them was no stain visible, no mark of poverty, no line of pain; he lay like a king in state with the cloth of gold across his body, and a crown of gold upon his head; but his soul, his brave, pure, noble soul, ah! that was looking down from the serene and lofty heights of everlasting life.
* * * * *
Yes, he lived, Ralph lived and became well and strong. He took his name and his estates and chose his mother for his guardian; and life for him was very, very beautiful.
The summer passed and the singing birds grew silent in the woods and fields. The grain stood golden, and the ripe fruit dropped from vine and tree. October came, with her frosty nights and smoky days. She dashed the hill-sides with her red and yellow, and then she held her veil of mist for the sun's rays to shine through, lest the gorgeous coloring should daze the eyes of men.
On one of these most beautiful autumnal days, Ralph and his mother went driving through the country roads, gathering golden-rod and purple aster and the fleecy immortelle. When they returned they passed through the cemetery gates and drove to one spot where art and nature had combined to make pleasant to the living eye the resting-places of the dead, and they laid their offering of fresh wild-flowers upon the grave of one who had nobly lived and had not ignobly died. Above the mound, a block of rugged granite rose, bearing on its face the name and age and day of death of William Buckley, and also this inscription:—
"Having finished his work, by the will of God he fell asleep."
As they drove back toward the glowing west, toward the pink clouds that lay above the mountain-tops behind which the sun had just now disappeared, toward the bustling city and the dear, dear home, Ralph lifted up his face and kissed his mother on her lips. But he did not speak; the happiness and peace within him were too great for words.