Smith rounded up before the tent with a curve like a skater, bringing his four horses to a stop in fine style. No matter how Smith's parts might be exaggerated by rumor or humor in other ways, as a teamster he stood without a peer between Cody and Green River. He leaped to the ground with surprising agility and set himself about arranging the interior of the coach for the accommodation of his passengers. He was chewing on something which might have been bear-meat or buckskin, from its apparent tenacious and unyielding nature.
Agnes Horton was to ride on the box with Smith, for she had a camera and wanted to catch some views. Smith grew so red over handing her up that Dr. Slavens began to fear lest he might take fire from internal heat and leave them with only the ashes of a driver on their hands. But they all got placed without any such melancholy tragedy, with a great many cries of "Oh, Mr. Smith!" here, and "Oh, Mr. Smith!" there, and many head-puttings-out on the part of the ladies inside, and gallantries from Mr. Walker and Mr. Horace Bentley, the lawyer.
William Bentley, the toolmaker, with the basket of lunch upon his knees, showered the blessing of his kindly smile upon them all, as if he held them to be only children. Mrs. Mann, her black bag on her arm, squeaked a little when the coach lurched on the start, knocking her head and throwing her hat awry.
Smith, proud of his load, and perhaps a little vain on account of so much unusual loveliness at his side, swung down the main street with its early morning crowds. People waved at them the friendly signals of the highroad of adventure, and June, in defiance of terrible eyebrows and admonishing pokes, waved back at them, her wild hair running over her cheeks. So they set out in the bright morning to view the promised land.
They struck off down the Meander stage-road, which ran for the greater part of its way through the lands awaiting the disposition of chance. Mainly it followed the survey of the railroad, which was to be extended to Meander, and along which men and teams were busy even then, throwing up the roadbed.
To the north there was a rise of land, running up in benched gradations to white and barren distant heights; behind them were brown hills. Far away in the blue southwest—Smith said it was more than eighty miles—there stood the mountains with their clean robes of snow, while scattered here and there about the vast plain through which they drove, were buttes of blue shale and red ledges, as symmetrical of side and smooth of top as if they had been raised by the architects of Tenochtitlan for sacrifice to their ugly gods.
"Old as Adam," said Smith, pointing to one gray monument whose summit had been pared smooth by the slow knife of some old glacier. The sides of the butte looked almost gay in the morning light in their soft tones of blue and red.
"From appearances it might very well be," agreed Agnes.
She looked at Smith and smiled. There was the glory of untrammeled space in her clear eyes, a yearning as of the desert-born on the far bounds of home. Smith drove on, his back very straight.
"Older," said he with laconic finality after holding his peace for a quarter of a mile.
Smith spoke as if he had known both Adam and the butte for a long time, and so was an unquestionable authority. Agnes was not disposed to dispute him, so they lurched on in silence along the dust-cushioned road.
"That ain't the one the Indian girl jumped off of, though," said Smith, meditatively.
She turned to him quickly, ready for a story from the picturesque strangler of bears. Smith was looking between the ears of the off-leader. He volunteered no more.
"Well, where is the one she jumped from?" she pressed.
"Nowhere," said Smith.
"Oh!" she said, a bit disappointed.
"Everywhere I've went," said he, "they've got some high place where the Indian girl jumped off of. In Mezoury they've got one, and even in Kansas. They've got one in Minnesota and Illinoy and Idaho, and bend my eyebrows if I know all the places they ain't got 'em! But don't you never let 'em take you in on no such yarns. Them yarns is for suckers."
Somehow Agnes felt grateful toward Smith, whose charitable purpose doubtless was to prevent her being taken in. But she was sorry for the fine tradition and hated to give it up.
"But didn't one ever jump off a cliff or—anything?" she asked.
Smith struck out with a free-arm swing and cracked his whip so loudly that three female heads were at once protruded from the windows below.
"What I want to know," said he argumentatively, "is, who seen 'em jump?"
"I don't know," she admitted; "but I suppose they found their bodies."
"Don't you believe it!" depreciated Smith. "Indian maidens ain't the jumpin' kind. I never seen one of 'em in my day that wouldn't throw down the best feller she ever had for a red umbreller and a dime's worth of stick candy."
"I'm sorry for the nice stories your knowledge of the Indian character spoils," she laughed.
"The thing of it in this country is, miss, not to let 'em take you in," Smith continued. "That's what they're out for—to take in suckers. No matter how wise you may be in some other place, right here in this spot you may be a sucker. Do you git my words?"
"I think so," she responded, "and thank you. I'll try to keep my eyes open."
"They's places in this country," Smith went on, for he liked to talk as well as the next one, once he got under way, "where you could put your pocketbook down at the fork of the road with your card on top of it and go back there next week and find it O. K. But they's other places where if you had your money inside of three safes they'd git at it somehow. This is one of that kind of places."
They had been dropping down a slope scattered with gray lava chunks and set with spiked soapweed, which let them to the river level. Ahead of them, twisted cottonwoods and red willows marked the brink of the stream.
"This is the first bench," said Smith, "and it's mainly good land. Before the books was opened for registration the gover'ment give the Indians choice of a homestead apiece, and they picked off all this land down here. Oh, well, on up the river they's a little left, and if I draw a low number I know where to put my hand on a piece."
"It looks nice and green here," said she, admiring the feathery vegetation, which grew as tall as the stage along the roadway.
"Yes, but you want to watch out for greasewood," advised Smith, "when you come to pick land in this country. It's a sign of alkali. Pick that gray, dusty-lookin' stuff. That's sage, and where it grows big, anything'll grow when you git the water on it."
"But how do you get the water on this hilly land?" she asked.
The question had been troubling her ever since she had taken her first look at the country, and nobody had come forward with a satisfactory explanation.
"You got to go up the river till you strike your level," explained Smith, "and then you tap it and take the water to your land."
"But if you're on the 'third bench' that I hear them talking about so much—then what do you do up there, a thousand or two feet above the river?"
"You go back where you come from if you're wise," said Smith.
When they reached the section which, according to Smith, had not all been taken up by the Indians already, the party got out occasionally for closer inspection of the land. The men gravely trickled the soil through their fingers, while the women grabbed at the sweet-smelling herbs which grew in abundance everywhere, and tore their sleeves reaching for the clusters of bullberries, then turning red.
Dr. Slavens and William Bentley tried for fish, with a total catch between them of one small trout, which was carried in triumph to the place picked upon by Smith for the noonday camp. Smith would not trust the coffee to any hand but his own, and he blackened up the pot shamefully, Mrs. Reed declared.
But what did Smith care for the criticism of Mrs. Reed when he was making coffee for Agnes? What did he care, indeed, for the judgment of the whole world when he was laying out his best efforts to please the finest woman who ever sat beside him on the box, and one for whom he was ready to go any distance, and do any endeavors, to save her from being made a sucker of and taken in and skinned?
It was pleasant there by the river; so pleasant that there was not one of them but voted Wyoming the finest and most congenial spot in the world, with the kindest skies, the softest summer winds, and the one place of all places for a home.
"Yes," Smith remarked, tossing pebbles into the river from the place where he sat cross-legged on the ground with his pipe, "it takes a hold of you that way. It goes to twenty below in the winter, sometimes, and the wind blows like the plug had popped out of the North Pole, and the snow covers up the sheep on the range and smothers 'em, and you lose all you got down to the last chaw of t'backer. But you stick, some way, and you forgit you ever had a home back in Indiana, where strawberries grow."
"Why, don't they grow here?" asked the miller's wife, holding a bunch of red bullberries caressingly against her cheek.
"I ain't seen a natural strawberry in fourteen years," said Smith, more proud than regretful, as if such a long abstinence were a virtue.
"Natural?" repeated Mrs. Reed. "Surely you don't mean that they manufacture them here?"
"They send 'em here in cans," explained Smith, "pale, with sour water on 'em, no more like real, ma'am, than a cigarette's like a smoke."
The men with pipes chuckled their appreciation of the comparison. Horace Bentley, with a fresh cigarette—which he had taken out of a silver case—in his fingers, turned it, quizzically smiling as he struck a match.
"It's an imitation," said he; "but it's good enough for me."
The sun was slanting near the rough hills beyond the river when they started back to Comanche.
"You've seen the best of the reservation," explained Smith, "and they ain't no earthly use in seein' the worst of it."
They were well along on the way, passing through a rough and outcast stretch of country, where upheaved ledges stood on edge, and great blocks of stone poised menacingly on the brows of shattered cliffs, when Smith, who had been looking sharply ahead, pulled in suddenly and turned to Agnes with apologetic questioning in his eyes. It seemed to her that he had something on his mind which he was afraid to put into words.
"What is it, Mr. Smith?" she asked.
"I was just goin' to say, would you mind goin' inside and lettin' that doctor man take your place for a while?"
Smith doubtless had his reason, she thought, although it hurt her pride that he should withhold his confidence. But she yielded her place without further questioning, with a great amount of blushing over the stocking which a protruding screwhead was responsible for her showing to Dr. Slavens as he assisted her to the ground.
The sudden stop, the excitement incident to changing places, threw the women within the coach into a cackle.
"Is it robbers?" demanded Mrs. Reed, getting hold of June's hand and clinging to it protectingly as she put her head out and peered up at Smith, who was sitting there stolidly, his eyes on the winding trail ahead, his foot on the brake.
"No, ma'am," answered Smith, not looking in her direction at all.
"What is it, then?" quavered Mrs. Mann from the other side of the stage.
She could not see Smith, and the desolation of their surroundings set her fancy at work stationing dusty cowboy bandits behind each riven, lowering stone.
"Oh, I hope it's robbers!" said June, bouncing up and down in her seat. "That would be just fine!"
"Hush, hush!" commanded her mother, shaking her correctively. "Such a wicked wish!"
Milo Strong, the teacher from Iowa, had grown very pale. He buttoned his coat and kept one hand in the region of his belt. One second he peered wildly out of the windows on his side, the next he strained to see if devastation and ruin were approaching from the other.
"Smith doubtless had some very commonplace reason for making the change," said William Bentley, making room for Agnes beside him. "I expect Miss Horton talked too much."
With that the stage started and their fears subsided somewhat. On the box Smith was looking sharply at the doctor. Then he asked:
"Can you drive better than you can shoot, or shoot better than you can drive?"
"I guess it's about a stand-off," replied the doctor without a ripple of excitement; "but I was brought up with four mules."
Without another word Smith stood on the footboard, and Dr. Slavens slid along to his place. Smith handed the physician the lines and took the big revolver from its pocket by the seat.
"Two fellers on horseback," said he, keeping his eyes sharply on the boulder-hedged road, "has been dodgin' along the top of that ridge kind of suspicious. No reason why any honest man would want to ride along up there among the rocks when he could ride down here where it's smooth. They may be straight or they may be crooked. I don't know. But you meet all kinds along this road."
The doctor nodded. Smith said no more, but stood, one knee on the seat, with his pistol held in readiness for instant action. When they reached the top of the ridge nobody was in sight, but there were boulders enough, and big enough, on every hand to conceal an army. Smith nodded; the doctor pulled up.
The stage had no sooner stopped than Walker was out, his pistol in hand, ready to show June and all her female relatives so dear that he was there to stand between them and danger as long as their peril might last.
Smith looked around carefully.
"Funny about them two fellers!" he muttered.
From the inside of the stage came June's voice, raised in admiration of Mr. Walker's intrepidity, and her mother's voice, commanding her to be silent, and not draw down upon them the fury of the bandits, who even then might be taking aim at them from behind a rock.
Nobody appearing, between whom and June he might precipitate himself, Walker mounted a rock for a look around. He had no more than reached the top when the two horsemen who had caused the flurry rode from behind the house-size boulder which had hidden them, turned their backs, crouching in their saddles as if to hide their identity, and galloped off.
"Huh! Old Hun Shanklin's one of 'em," sniffed Smith, plainly disgusted that the affair had turned out so poorly.
He put his weapon back in its place and took the lines.
"And that feller, he don't have to go around holdin' people up with a gun in his hand," he added. "He's got a safer and surer game of it than that."
"And that's no cross-eyed view of it, either," Dr. Slavens agreed.
Walker came over and stood beside the near wheel.
"One of them was Hun Shanklin!" said he, whispering up loudly for the doctor's ear, a look of deep concern on his youthful face.
Slavens nodded with what show of unconcern he could assume. For, knowing what he knew, he wondered what the gambler was there for, and why he seemed so anxious to keep the matter of his identity to himself.
When they arrived at Comanche the sun was down. Mrs. Reed hurried June indoors, all exclamations and shudders over what she believed to have been a very narrow escape. Vowing that she never would go exploring around in that wild land again, she whisked off without a word for Smith.
The others shook hands with the driver, Agnes coming last. He took off his hat when it came her turn.
"Keep your eyes skinned," he advised her, "and don't let 'em play you for a sucker. Any time you need advice, or any help that I can give you, if I'm not here I'm on the road between here and Meander. You can git me over there by telephone."
"Thank you, Mr. Smith," said she warmly and genuinely, wondering why he should take such an unaccountable interest in her.
The others had gone about their business, thinking strongly of supper, leaving Smith and her alone beside the old green stage.
"But don't ask for Smith if you call me up," said he, "for that's only my first name, and they's a horse-wrangler over there with that for his last. They might think you wanted him."
"Oh, I didn't know!" she stammered, all confusion over the familiarity that she had been taking all day. "I didn't know your other name—nobody ever told me."
"No; not many of 'em down here knows it," he responded. "But up at Meander, at the barn, they know it. It's Phogenphole."
"But if you don't like it," added Smith, speaking with great fervor, and leaning toward her a little eagerly and earnestly, "I'll have a bill put through the Legislature down at Cheyenne and change it!"
They ate supper that evening by lantern-light, with the night noise of Comanche beginning to rise around them earlier than usual. Those who were there for the reaping realized that it would be their last big night, for on the morrow the drawing would fall. After the first day's numbers had been taken from the wheel at Meander, which would run up into the thousands, the waiting crowds would melt away from Comanche as fast as trains could carry them. So those who were on the make had both hands out in Comanche that night.
They all wondered how it would turn out for them, the lumberman and the insurance agent—who had not been of the party that day in Smith's coach—offering to lay bets that nobody in the mess would draw a number below five hundred. There were no takers. Then they offered to bet that all in the mess would draw under five hundred. Mrs. Reed rebuked them for their gambling spirit, which, she said, was rampant in Comanche, like a plague.
As has been previously said, one must go fast and far to come to a place where there is neither a Hotel Metropole nor a newspaper. Doubtless there are communities of civilized men on the North American continent where there is neither, but Comanche was not one of them.
In Comanche the paper was a daily. Its editor was a single-barreled grafter who wore a green mohair coat and dyed whiskers. His office and establishment occupied an entire twelve-by-sixteen tent; the name of the paper was The Chieftain.
The Chieftain had been one of the first enterprises of Comanche. It got there ahead of the first train, arriving in a wagon, fully equipped. The editor had an old zinc cut of a two-storied brick business house on a corner, which he had run with a grocery-store advertisement when he was getting out a paper in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This he now made use of with impressive effect and inspiring display of his cheerful confidence in his own future and that of the town where, like a blowing seed of cottonwood, he had found lodgment.
He ran this cut in every issue at the top of what would have been his editorial column if there had been time for him to write one, with these words:
FUTURE HOME OF THE CHIEFTAIN ON THE CORNER THIS PAPER NOW OCCUPIES, AS DESIGNED BY THE EDITOR AND OWNER, J. WALTER MONG
From the start that Editor Mong was making in Comanche his dream did not appear at all unreasonable. Everybody in the place advertised, owing to some subtle influence of which Mr. Mong was master, and which is known to editors of his brand wherever they are to be found. If a business man had the shield of respectability to present to all questioners, he advertised out of pride and civic spirit; if he had a past, J. Walter Mong had a nose, sharpened by long training in picking up such scents; and so he advertised out of expediency.
That being the way matters stood, The Chieftain carried very little but advertisements. They paid better than news, and news could wait its turn, said the editor, until he settled down steadily into a weekly and had room for it.
But Mr. Mong laid himself out to give the returns from the drawing for homesteads, it being one of those rare chances in which an editor could combine business and news without putting on an extra form. The headquarters of the United States land-office for that territory being at Meander, the drawing was to take place there. Meander was sixty miles farther along, connected with the railroad and Comanche by stage and telephone. So, every hour of the eventful day, Editor Mong was going to issue an extra on telephonic information from the seat of the drawing.
On the day of the drawing, which came as clear and bright as the painted dreams of those who trooped Comanche's streets, there remained in the town, after the flitting entrants had come and gone, fully thirty thousand expectant people. They were those in whom the hope of low numbers was strong. For one drawing a low number must make his selection of land and file on it at Meander within a few days.
In the case of the first number, the lucky drawer would have but three days to make his selection and file on it. If he lapsed, then Number Two became Number One, and all down the line the numbers advanced one.
So, in case that the winner of Number One had registered and gone home to the far East or the middle states, he couldn't get back in time to save his valuable chance. That gave big hope to those who expected nothing better than seven or nine or something under twenty. Three or four lapses ahead of them would move them along, each peg adding thousands to their winnings, each day running out for them in golden sands.
By dawn the streets were filled by early skirmishers for breakfast, and sunrise met thousands more who, luggage in hand, talked and gesticulated and blocked the dusty passages between the unstable walls of that city of chance, which soon would come down and disappear like smoke from a wayside fire. The thousands with their bags in hand would not sleep another night beneath its wind-restless roofs. All those who expected to draw Claim Number One were ready to take the stage or hire a special conveyance to Meander, or, failing of their expectations in the lottery, to board the special trains which the railroad had made ready, and leave for home.
By nine o'clock it seemed to the waiting throngs that several ordinary days had passed since they left their sagging canvas cots at daybreak to stand attendant upon the whim of chance. They gathered in the blazing sun in front of the office of the paper, looking in at Editor Mong, who seemed more like a quack doctor that morning than ever before, with his wrinkled coat-sleeves pushed above his elbows and his cuffs tucked back over them, his black-dyed whiskers gleaming in shades of green when the sun hit them, like the plumage of a crow.
For all the news that came to Comanche over the telephone-wire that day must come through the office of The Chieftain. There was but one telephone in the town; that was in the office of the stage-line, and by arrangement with its owners, the editor had bottled up the slightest chance of a leak.
There would be no bulletins, the editor announced. Anyone desiring news of the drawing must pay twenty-five cents for a copy of the paper containing it. It was the editor's one great chance for graft, and he meant to work it until it was winded.
The lottery was to open in Meander at ten o'clock; but long before that hour the quivering excitement which shook the fabric of Comanche had reached the tent where Mrs. Reed mothered it over the company of adventurers. The lumberman and insurance agent were away early; Sergeant Schaefer and Milo Strong followed them to the newspaper office very shortly; and the others sat out in front, watching the long shadows contract toward the peg that June had driven in the ground the day before at the line of ten o'clock.
"Well, this is the day," said William Bentley. "What will you take for your chance, Doctor?"
"Well, it wouldn't take very much to get it this morning," Dr. Slavens replied, peering thoughtfully at the ground, "for it's one of those things that grow smaller and smaller the nearer you approach."
"I'd say twenty-five hundred for mine," offered Horace.
"Great lands!" exclaimed Mrs. Reed, blinking, as she looked out across the open toward the river. "If anybody will give me three dollars for my chance he can take it, and welcome."
"Then you'd feel cheap if you won," June put in. "It's worth more than that even up in the thousands; isn't it, Mr. Walker?"
Walker was warm in his declaration that it would be a mighty small and poor piece of Wyoming that wouldn't be worth more than that.
"We haven't heard from you, Miss Horton," said William Bentley.
"I'm afraid nothing would tempt me to part with my chance," Agnes replied. "I hold it just the reverse of Dr. Slavens. The longer I look at it the bigger it gets."
The doctor was the only one present who understood fully how much she had built around that chance. Their eyes met as he looked across at her; he remembered what she had said of planting trees, and having roses beside her door.
"It's almost there!" cried June, looking at her stake.
"Twenty minutes yet," announced Horace, who sat with his watch in his palm.
They were all bonneted and booted, ready for an expedition, although they had none in sight. It was as if they expected Number One to come flying through the town, to be caught and held by the swiftest of foot, the one alert and ready to spring up and dash after it.
"Shall we go over to the newspaper office?" asked the doctor, looking across again and catching Agnes' eyes.
June jumped up and accepted the proposal for all.
"Oh, let's do!" she exclaimed. "Let's be there to get the very first word!"
On the part of the ladies there was a dash into the tent to adjust their headgear before glasses and to renew the powder on their noses. While they were gone Horace Bentley, the lawyer, stood with his watch exposed to his impatient eye.
"In five minutes," he announced as the ladies rejoined them, "they will draw the first name from the wheel at Meander. I hope that it may be the name of someone in this party."
"I hope it will be yours," said Dr. Slavens' eyes as he looked earnestly at Agnes; and: "Number Two would do very well for me in case your name came first," her eyes seemed to answer him.
But there was none by who knew what had passed between them of their hopes, so none could read the messages, even if there had been any so curious as to try.
Mrs. Mann was humming a little song as they started away toward the newspaper office, for she was tiring of Wyoming, where she had not seen a single cowboy yet; and the prospect of returning to the miller was growing dear to her heart. There was a quiet over Comanche that morning which seemed different from the usual comparative peace of that portion of the day—a strained and fevered quiet, as of hushed winds before a gale. It took hold of even June as the party passed through the main street, joining the stream of traffic which pressed in one direction only.
They could not arrive within a square of the newspaper-tent, for the crowd around it was packed and dense; so they stopped where there was breathing-space among groups of men who stood with their gripsacks between their feet, waiting for the first word.
At five minutes past ten the editor of The Chieftain handed his printer a slip of paper, and the name of the winner of Claim Number One was put in type. The news was carried by one who pushed through the throng, his hat on the back of his head, sweat drenching his face. The man was in a buck-ague over the prospect of that name being his own, it seemed, and thought only of drawing away from the sudden glare of fortune until he could collect his wits.
Some people are that way—the timid ones of the earth. They go through life leaving a string of baited traps behind them, lacking courage to go back and see what they have caught.
More than two hundred names were in the first extra run off The Chieftain's press at half-past ten. The name of the winner of Number One was Axel Peterson; his home in Meander, right where he could step across the street and file without losing a minute.
Milo Strong, the schoolmaster from Iowa, drew Number Thirty-Seven. None of the others in the colony at the Hotel Metropole figured in the first returns.
They went back as silently as they had come, the doctor carrying the list in his hand. Before the tent stood the lumberman and the insurance agent, their bags in their hands.
"We've got just six minutes to catch the first train out," said the insurance agent, his big smile just as wide as ever. "Good luck to you all, and hope we meet again."
The lumberman waved his farewell as he ran. For them the gamble was off. They had staked on coming in below one hundred, and they had lost. There was nothing more to hang around Comanche for, and it is supposed that they caught the train, for they were seen there no more.
There were several hundred others in that quick-coming and quick-going population whose hopes were dispersed by the printed list. And so the town suffered a heavy drain with the departure of the first train for the East. The railroad company, foreseeing the desire to be gone, had arranged a long string of coaches, with two engines hitched up and panting to set out. The train pulled away with every inch of space occupied.
All day the enterprising editor printed and sold extras. His press, run by an impertinent little gasoline engine, could turn out eighteen hundred of those single-sheet dodgers in an hour, but it couldn't turn them out fast enough. Every time Editor Mong looked out of his tent and saw two men reading one paper he cursed his limited vision which had stood in the way of putting sixty dollars more into a press of twice that capacity. As it was, the day's work brought him nearly three thousand dollars, money on the spot; no back subscriptions to worry over, no cabbage or cordwood in exchange.
When the drawing closed for the day and the last extra was off, more than three thousand numbers had been taken from the wheel at Meander. The only one among the Metropole colony to draw after the first published list was Agnes Horton. Claim Number Nine Hundred and Five fell to her lot.
Claims that high were useless, and everybody knew it; so interest dropped away, the little gasoline engine popped its last impertinent pop and subsided, and the crowds drifted off to get ready to depart as fast as trains could be made up to haul them. Sergeant Schaefer, having failed of his expectations, felt a revival of interest in the military life, and announced that he would leave on the first train out next morning.
That night the price of cots suffered a dispiriting drop. Fifty cents would hire the most exclusive bed in the phantom city of Comanche.
As for Dr. Slavens, the day's events had left him with a dazed feeling of insecurity. His air was cleared of hope; he could not touch a stable bit of footing as far around him as he could reach. He had counted a good deal on drawing something along in the early hundreds; and as the day wore along to his disappointment in that hope he thought that he might come tagging in at the end, in the mean way that his cross-grained luck had of humiliating him and of forcing the fact that he was more or less a failure before his eyes.
No matter what he drew under three thousand, he said, he'd take it and be thankful for it. If he could locate on a trickle of water somewhere and start out with a dozen ewes and a ram, he'd bury himself away in the desert and pull the edges of it up around him to keep out the disappointments of the world. A man might come out of it in a few years with enough money—that impenetrable armor which gives security even to fools—to buy a high place for himself, if he couldn't win it otherwise. Men had done well on small beginnings with sheep; that country was full of them; and it was a poor one, indeed, that wasn't able to buy up any ten doctors he could name.
So Dr. Slavens ran on, following the lead of a fresh dream, which had its foundation on the sands of despair. When the drawing had passed the high numbers which he had set as his possible lowest, he felt like sneaking away, whipped, to hide his discouragement where there was no one to see. His confounded luck wouldn't even grant him the opportunity of burying himself out there in that gray sea of blowing dust!
There was no use in trying to disguise the fact any longer; he was a fizzle. Some men were designed from the beginning for failures, and he was one of the plainest patterns that ever was made. There was a place for Axel Peterson, the alien, but there was no place for him.
In spite of his age and experience, he did not understand that the world values men according to the resistance they interpose against it; according to the stamping down of feet and the presenting of shoulders and the squaring arms to take its blows. Cowards make a front before it and get on with amazing success; droves of poltroons bluster and storm, with empty shells of hearts inside their ribs, and kick up a fine dust in the arena, under the cloud of which they snatch down many of the laurels which have been hung up for worthier men. Success lies principally in understanding that the whole game is a bluff on the world's part, and that the biggest bluffer in the ring takes down the purse.
But the timid hearts of the earth never learn this; the sentimentalists and the poets do not understand it. You can't go along sweeping a clear path for your feet with a bunch of flowers. What you need is a good, sound club. When a hairy shin impedes, whack it, or make a feint and a bluff. You'll be surprised how easily the terrifying hulks of adversity are charmed out of the highway ahead of you by a little impertinence, a little ginger, and a little gall.
Many a man remains a coward all his life because somebody cowed him when he was a boy. Dr. Slavens had put his hands down, and had stood with his shoulders hunched, taking the world's thumps without striking back, for so many years in his melancholy life that his natural resistance had shrunk. On that day he was not as nature had intended him, but as circumstances had made him.
It had become the friendly fashion in camp for the doctor and Agnes to take a walk after supper. June's mother had frowned on the boldness of it, whispering to June's aunt. But the miller's wife, more liberal and romantic, wouldn't hear of whisperings. She said their conduct was as irreproachable in that country as eating peas with a spoon.
"I wish I was in her place!" she sighed.
"Dorothy Ann!" gasped Mrs. Reed. "Remember your husband, Dorothy Ann!"
"I do," sighed the miller's wife.
"Well, if you were in her place you'd ask somebody to accompany you on your moonlight strolls, I hope. I hope that's what you'd do, Dorothy Ann."
"No," answered the miller's wife thoughtfully. "I'd propose. She'll lose him if she doesn't."
On the evening of that day of blasted hopes the two of them walked away in the gloaming toward the river, with few words between them until they left the lights of Comanche behind.
"Mr. Strong is considerably elated over his luck," said Agnes at last, after many sidling glances at his gloomy profile.
"That's the way it goes," Dr. Slavens sighed. "I don't believe that chance is blind; I think it's just perverse. I should say, not counting myself, that Strong is the least deserving of any man in the crowd of us. Look at old Horace Bentley, the lawyer. He doesn't say anything, but you can see that his heart is aching with disappointment."
"I have noticed it," she agreed. "He hasn't said ten words since the last extra."
"When a man like that dreams, he dreams hard—and deep," the doctor continued. "But how about yourself?"
She laughed, and placed a restraining hand upon his arm.
"You're going too fast," she panted. "I'll be winded before we get to the river."
"I guess I was trying to overtake my hopes," said he. "I'm sorry; we'll go slower—in all things—the rest of the way."
She looked at him quickly, a little curiously, but there was no explanation in his eyes, fixed on the graying landscape beyond the river.
"It looks like ashes," said he softly, with a motion of the hand toward the naked hills. "There is no life in it; there is nothing of the dead. It is a cenotaph of dreams. But how about your claim?"
"It's a little farther up than I had expected," she admitted, but with a cheerful show of courage which she did not altogether feel.
"Yes; it puts you out of the chance of drawing any agricultural land, throws you into the grazing and mineral," said he.
"Unless there are a great many lapses," she suggested.
"There will be hundreds, in my opinion," he declared. "But in case there are not enough to bring you down to the claim worth having—one upon which you could plant trees and roses and such things?"
"I'll stick to it anyhow," said she determinedly.
"So this is going to be home?" he asked.
"Home," she answered with a caressing touch upon the word. "I came here to make it; I sha'n't go away without it. I don't know just how long it will take me, nor how hard it will be, but I'm going to collect interest on my hopes from this country before I turn my back."
"You seem to believe in it," said he.
"Perhaps I believe more in myself," she answered thoughtfully. "Have you determined what you are going to do?"
He laughed—a short, harsh expression of ironical bitterness.
"I've gone through the mill today of heat and cold," said he. "First, I was going to sell my relinquishment for ten thousand dollars as soon as the law would allow, but by noon I had come down to five hundred. After that I took up the notion of sheep stronger than Milo, from Iowa, ever thought of it. It took just one more extra to put that fire out, and now the ashes of it aren't even warm. Just what my next phantasy will be I can't say."
"But you're going to stay here, aren't you?"
"I've thought of that, too. I've thought of making another try at it in a professional way. But this is a big, empty country. Few people live in it and fewer die. I don't know."
"Well, you're a doctor, not an undertaker, anyhow," she reminded him.
"Yes; I missed my calling," he laughed, with the bitterness of defeat.
"No," she corrected; "I didn't mean that. But perhaps at something else you might get on faster here—business of some kind, I mean."
"If I had the chance!" he exclaimed wearily, flinging his hat to the ground as he sat beside her on a boulder at the river's edge. "I've never had a square and open chance at anything yet."
"I don't know, of course," said she. "But the trouble with most of us, it seems to me, is that we haven't the quickness or the courage to take hold of the chance when it comes. All of us let so many good ones get away."
Dusk had deepened. The star-glow was upon the river, placid there in its serene approach to the rough passage beyond. He sat there, the wind lifting the hair upon his forehead, pondering what she had said.
Was it possible that a man could walk blindly by his chances for thirty-five years, only to be grasping, empty-palmed, after them when they had whisked away? For what else did his complainings signify? He had lacked the courage or the quickness, or some essential, as she had said, to lay hold of them before they fled away beyond his reach forever.
There was a chance beside him going to waste tonight—a golden, great chance. Not for lack of courage would he let it pass, he reflected; but let it pass he must. He wanted to tell her that he would be a different man if he could remain near her all the rest of his years; he longed to say that he desired dearly to help her smooth the rough land and plant the trees and draw the water in that place which she dreamed of and called home.
But there was nothing in his past to justify her confidence in his future. Women worth having did not marry forlorn hopes in the expectation of making a profit out of them by and by. He had no hearth to offer her; he had no thatch; he had not a rood of land to lead a mountain stream across and set with the emerald and royal purple of alfalfa; not a foot of greensward beside the river, where a yeaning ewe might lie and ease the burden of her pains. He had nothing to offer, nothing to give. If he asked, it must be to receive all and return nothing, except whatever of constancy time might prove out of his heart.
If he had even a plan to lay down before her and ask her to share, it would be something, he thought; or a brave resolve, like her own. But there was emptiness all around him; his feet could not find a square yard of solid earth to shape his future upon. It was not that he believed that she cared for money or the material rewards of success, for she had spoken bitterly of that. The ghosts of money's victims were behind her; she had said as much the first time they had talked of their hopes in that new land.
There must be something in that place for him, as she had said; there must be an unimproved opportunity which Fate had fashioned for his hand. Hope lifted its resilient head again. Before the morning he must have a plan, and when he had the plan he would speak.
"We'll have to be breaking up camp in a day or two more," Agnes said, disturbing the long silence which had settled between them.
"I suppose so," he responded; "but I don't know what the plans of the others are."
"Mr. Strong is going to Meander in the morning," she told him; "and Horace Bentley is going with him, poor fellow, to look around, he says. William Bentley told me this evening that he would leave for home in a day or two, and Mrs. Reed and her charges are waiting to hear from a friend of June's who was in school with her—I think she is the Governor's daughter, or maybe he's an ex-governor—about a long-standing invitation to visit her in her summer home, which is near here, as they compute distances in Wyoming."
"And Schaefer is leaving in the morning," reflected the doctor. "That leaves but you and me unaccounted for. Are you going on to Meander soon?"
"Yes; I want to be there to file when my time comes."
"I've thought of going over there to feel things out, too," Dr. Slavens went on. "This place will shrink in a few days like a piece of wet leather in the sun. They'll have nothing left of it but the stores, and no business to sustain them until the country around here is settled. That may be a long time yet. Still, there may be something around here for me. I'm going to look into the possibilities tomorrow. And we'll have at least another talk before we part?"
"Many more, I hope," she said.
Her answer presented an alluring lead for him to say more, but before he could speak, even if minded to do it, she went on:
"This has been a pleasant experience, this camping in the clean, unused country, and it would be a sort of Persian poet existence if we could go on with it always; but of course we can't."
"It isn't all summer and fair skies here," he reminded her, "any more than it is in—well, Persia. Twenty below in winter sometimes, Smith said. Do you remember?"
"Yes," she sighed. "But it seems impossible."
"You wouldn't believe this little river could turn into a wild and savage torrent, either, a few hundred yards along, if you had nothing to judge it by but this quiet stretch," he returned. "But listen to it down there, crashing against the rocks!"
"There's no news of that rash man who went into the canyon for the newspaper?" Agnes asked.
"He must have lodged in there somewhere; they haven't picked him up on the other side," he said, a thoughtful abstraction over him.
"I hope you've given up the thought of trying to explore it?"
"I haven't thought much about it lately," he replied; "but I'm of the same opinion. I believe the difficulties of the canyon are greatly exaggerated. In fact, as I told you before, the reward posted by that newspaper looks to me like easy money."
"It wouldn't pay you if the reward were ten times as large," she declared with a little argumentative heat.
"Perhaps not," said he, as if he had but a passing and shallow interest in the subject.
Sitting there bareheaded to the wind, which was dropping down coldly from the far mountains, he seemed to be in a brooding humor.
"The moon is late tonight," he noted. "Shall we wait till it rises?"
"Yes," she answered, feeling the great gentleness that there was about him when he was in a serious way.
Why he had not been successful in the profession for which nature plainly had designed him she could not understand; for he was a man to inspire confidence when he was at his best, and unvexed by the memory of the bitter waters which had passed his lips. She felt that there would be immeasurable solace in his hand for one who suffered; she knew that he would put down all that he had in life for a friend.
Leaning her chin upon her palm, she looked at him in the last light of the west, which came down to them dimly, as if falling through dun water, from some high-floating clouds. As if following in her thought something that had gone before, she said:
"No; perhaps you should not stay in this big, empty country when there are crowded places in the world that are full of pain, and little children in them dying for the want of such men as you."
He started and turned toward her, putting out his hand as if to place it upon her head.
"How did you know that it's the children that give me the strongest call back to the struggle?" he asked.
"It's in your eyes," said she. And beneath her breath she added: "In your heart."
"About all the success that I ever won I sacrificed for a child," he said, with reminiscent sadness.
"Will you tell me about it?"
"It was a charity case at that," he explained, "a little girl who had been burned in a fire which took all the rest of the family. She needed twenty-two square inches of skin on her breast. One gave all that he could very well part with——"
"That was yourself," she nodded, drawing a little nearer to him quite unconsciously.
"But that was not half enough," he continued as if unaware of the interruption. "I had to get it into the papers and ask for volunteers, for you know that an average of only one in three pieces of cuticle adheres when set into a wound, especially a burn. The papers made a good deal of it, and I couldn't keep my name out, of course. Well, enough school-children came forward to patch up three or four girls, and together we saved her.
"No matter. The medical association of that city jumped me very promptly. The old chaps said that I had handled the case unprofessionally and had used it merely for an advertisement. They charged unprofessional conduct against me; they tried me in their high court and found me guilty. They dug the ground from under my feet and branded me as a quack. They broke me, they tried to have my license to practice revoked. But they failed in that. That was three years ago. I hung on, but I starved. So when I speak in what may seem a bitter way of the narrow traditions of my profession, you know my reason is fairly well grounded."
"But you saved the little girl!"
It was too dark for him to see her eyes. The tears that lay in them could not drop their balm upon his heart.
"She's as good as new," said he cheerfully, fingering the inner pocket of his coat. "She writes to me right along. Here's a picture-card that followed me here, mailed from the home that the man who gave his tough old hide to mend her found for her when she was well. She lives in Oklahoma now, and her sweet fortitude under her misfortune has been a remembrance to sustain me over many a hungry day."
"But you saved the little girl!" Agnes repeated with unaccountable insistence, as if trying to beat down the injustice of his heavy penance with that argument.
And then he saw her bow her head upon her folded arms like a little child, and weep in great sobs which came rackingly as if torn from the core of her heart.
Dr. Slavens picked up his hat, put it on, got to his feet, and took a stride away from her as if he could not bear the sight of her poignant sympathy. Then he turned, came back, and stooped above her, laying his hand upon her hair.
"Don't do that!" he pleaded. "All that's gone, all that I've missed, is not worth a single tear. You must not make my troubles your own, for at the worst there's not enough for two."
She reached out her tear-wet hand and clung to his, wordless for a little while. As it lay softly within his palm he stroked it soothingly and folded it between his hands as if to yield it freedom nevermore. Soon her gust of sorrow passed. She stood beside him, breathing brokenly in the ebb of that overmastering tide. In the opening of the broad valley the moon stood redly. The wind trailed slowly from the hills to meet it, as if to warm itself at its beacon-fire.
"You saved the little girl!" said she again, laying her warm hand for a moment against his cheek.
In that moment it was well for Dr. Warren Slavens that the lesson of his hard years was deep within his heart; that the continence and abnegation of his past had ripened his restraint until, no matter how his lips might yearn to the sweets which were not his own, they would not taste. He took hold of himself with a rough hand, for the moonlight was upon her trembling lips; it stood imprisoned in the undried tears which lay upon her cheeks.
The invitation was there, and the time, such as the lines of a man's life are plotted to lead up to from the beginning. But there was lacking too much on his part for an honest man to stoop and gather what presented. He might have folded his arms about her and drawn her to his breast, as the yearning of his soul desired; he might have kissed her lips and dispelled the moonlight from her trembling tears—and spoiled it all for both.
For that would have been a trespass without mitigation, a sacrilege beyond excuse. When a man took a woman like that in his arms and kissed her, according to his old-fashioned belief, he took from every other man the right to do so, ever. In such case he must have a refuge to offer her from the world's encroachments, and a security to requite her in all that she yielded for his sake.
Such he had not. There was no hearthstone, there was no roof-tree, there was no corner of refuge in all the vast, gray world. He had no right to take where he could not give, although it wrenched his heart to give it up.
He took the soft, warm hand which had bestowed its benediction on his cheek, and held it in childish attitude, swinging at his side. No word was said as they faced back to the unstable city, their shadows trailing them, long and grotesque, like the sins of men which come after them, and gambol and grimace for all the world to see but those who believe them hidden.
A MIDNIGHT EXTRA
Dr. Slavens sat on the edge of his cot, counting his money. He hadn't a great deal, so the job was not long. When he finished he tucked it all away in his instrument-case except the few coins which he retained in his palm.
It would not last much longer, thought he. A turn would have to be made soon, or he must hunt a job on the railroad or a ranch. Walker had talked a lot about having Dr. Slavens come in on the new sheep venture with him, on the supposition, of course, that the physician had money. Walker had told him also a great deal about men who had started in that country as herders, "running a band of sheep" on shares, receiving so much of the increase of the flock year by year. Many of the richest sheepmen in that country had started that way only a few years before, so Walker and others said.
Perhaps, thought Dr. Slavens, there might be a chance to hook up with Walker under such an arrangement, put his whole life into it, and learn the business from the ground up. He could be doing that while Agnes was making her home on her claim, perhaps somewhere near—a few hundred miles—and if he could see a gleam at the farther end of the undertaking after a season he could ask her to wait. That was the best that he could see in the prospect just then, he reflected as he sat there with his useless instrument-case between his feet and the residue of the day's expenses in his hand.
Agnes had gone into the section of the tent sacred to the women; he supposed that she was going to bed, for it was nearly eleven o'clock. Strong and Horace were asleep in their bunks, for they were to take the early stage for Meander in the morning. Walker and William Bentley and Sergeant Schaefer were out.
The little spark of hope had begun to glow under Slavens' breath. Perhaps Walker and sheep were the solution of his life's muddle. He would find Walker before the young man took somebody else in with him, expose the true state of his finances, and see whether Walker would entertain a proposal to give him a band of sheep on shares.
Like every man who is trying to do something that he isn't fitted to, because he has failed of his hopes and expectations in the occupation dearest to his heart, Slavens heated up like a tin stove under the trashy fuel of every vagrant scheme that blew into his brain.
Sheep was all that he could see now. Already he had projected ahead until he saw himself the complacent owner of vast herds; saw the miles of his ranches; saw the wool of his flocks being trampled into the long sacks in his own shearing-sheds. And all the time his impotent instrument-case shone darkly in the light of his candle, lying there between his feet at the edge of the canvas bed.
With a sigh he came back from his long flight into the future, and took up his instrument-case with caressing hand. Placing it on his knees, he opened it and lifted the glittering instruments fondly.
Of course, if he could make it go at his profession that would be the thing. It would be better than all the sheep on Wyoming's dusty hills. A little surgery somewhere, with its enameled table and white fittings, and automobiles coming and going all day, and Agnes to look in at evening——. Yes, that would be the thing.
Perhaps sheep for a few years would help to that end. Even five years would leave him right in the middle stretch of life, with all his vigor and all the benefit of experience. Sheep looked like the solution indeed. So thinking, he blew out his candle and went out to look for Walker.
At the door of the tent he stopped, thinking again of Agnes, and of the moonlight on her face as they stood by the riverside, trembling again when the weight of the temptation which had assailed him in that moment swept over him in a heart-lifting memory. Perhaps Agnes condemned him for refusing the opportunity of her lips. For when a woman expects to be kissed, and is cheated in that expectation, it leaves her in censorious mood. But scorn of an hour would be easier borne than regret of years.
So he reflected, and shook his head solemnly at the thought. He passed into the shadows along the deserted street, going toward the sounds which rose from beneath the lights beyond.
Comanche appeared livelier than ever as he passed along its thronged streets. Those who were to leave as soon as they could get a train were making a last reckless night of it; the gamblers were busy at their various games.
The doctor passed the tent where Hun Shanklin had been stationed with his crescent table. Shanklin was gone, and another was in his place with an army-game board, or chuck-a-luck, doing well with the minnows in the receding sea. Wondering what had become of Shanklin, he turned to go down a dark little street which was a quick cut to the back entrance of the big gambling-tent, where he expected to find Walker and go into the matter of sheep.
Even at that moment the lights were bright in the office of The Chieftain. The editor was there, his green coat wide open, exposing his egg-spattered shirt-front to all who stopped to look, and making a prodigious show of excitement at the imposing-stone, where the form of the last extra of the day lay under his nervous hand.
The printer was there also, his hair standing straight where he had roached it back out of his eyes with inky fingers, setting type for all he was worth. In a little while those on the street heard the familiar bark of the little gasoline engine, and hundreds of them gathered to inquire into the cause of this late activity.
"Running off an extra," said Editor Mong. A great, an important piece of news had just reached the office of The Chieftain, and in a few minutes an extra would be on the streets, with the secret at the disposal of every man who had two bits in his pants. Those were the identical words of that advance-guard of civilization and refinement, Mr. J. Walter Mong.
It was midnight when the circulator of The Chieftain—engaged for that important day only—burst out of the tent with an armful of papers, crying them in a voice that would have been red if voices had been colored in Comanche, it was so scorched from coming out of the tract which carried liquor to his reservoir.
"Ho-o-o! Git a extree! Git a extree! All about the mistake in the winner of Number One! Git a extree! Ho-o-o-o!"
People caught their breaths and stopped to lean and listen. Mistake in the winner of Number One? What was that? The parched voice was plain enough in that statement:
"Mistake in the winner of Number One."
A crowd hundreds deep quickly surrounded the vender of extras, and another crowd assembled in front of the office, where Editor Mong stood with a pile of papers at his hand, changing them into money almost as fast as that miracle is performed by the presses of the United States Treasury.
Walker and William Bentley bored through the throng and bought a paper. Standing under the light at a saloon door, they read the exciting news. Editor Mong had cleared a place for it, without regard to the beginning or the ending of anything else on the page, in the form which had carried his last extra of the day. There the announcement stood in bold type, two columns wide, under an exclamatory
William Bentley read aloud:
Owing to a mistake in transmitting the news by telephone, the name of the winner of Claim Number One in today's land-drawing at Meander was omitted. The list of winners published heretofore in The Chieftain is correct, with the single exception that each of them moves along one number. Number One, as announced, becomes Number Two, and so on down the list.
The editor regrets this error, which was due entirely to the excitement and confusion in the office at Meander, and takes this earliest opportunity of rectifying it.
The editor also desires to announce that The Chieftain will appear no longer as a daily paper. Beginning with next Monday it will be issued as a four-page, five-column weekly, containing all the state, national, and foreign news. Price three dollars a year in advance. The editor thanks you for your loyal support and patronage.
The winner of Claim Number One is Dr. Warren Slavens, of Kansas City, Missouri. Axel Peterson, first announced as the winner, drew Number Two.
Editor Mong had followed the tradition of the rural school of journalism in leaving the most important feature of his news for the last line.
"Well!" said the toolmaker. "So our doctor is the winner! But it's a marvel that the editor didn't turn the paper over to say so. I never saw such a botch at writing news!"
He did not know, any more than any of the thousands who read that ingenuous announcement, that Editor Mong was working his graft overtime. They did not know that he had entered into a conspiracy to deceive them before the drawing began, the clerk in charge of the stage-office and the one telephone of the place being in on the swindle.
Mong knew that the Meander stage would leave for Comanche at eight in the morning, or two hours before the drawing began. It was the only means, exclusive of the telephone, by which news could travel that day between the two places, and as it could carry no news of the drawing his scheme was secure.
Mong had feared that his extras might not move with the desired celerity during the entire day—in which expectation he was agreeably deceived—so he deliberately withheld the name of the winner of Number One, substituting for it in his first extra the name of the winner of Number Two. He believed that every person in Comanche would rush out of bed with two bits in hand for the extra making the correction, and his guess was good.
Walker and Bentley hurried back to the Hotel Metropole to find that Sergeant Schaefer had arrived ahead of them with the news. They were all up in picturesque deshabille, Horace with a blanket around him like a bald-headed brave, his bare feet showing beneath it. The camp was in a state of pleasurable excitement; but Dr. Slavens was not there to share it, nor to receive the congratulations which all were ready to offer with true sincerity.
"I wonder where he is?" questioned Horace a little impatiently.
He did not like to forego the ceremony, but he wanted to get back to bed, for a man's legs soon begin to feel chilly in that mountain wind.
"He left here not very long ago," said Agnes; "perhaps not more than an hour. I was just preparing to go to bed."
"It's a fine thing for him," commented Sergeant Schaefer. "He can relinquish as soon as he gets his papers for ten or twelve thousand dollars. I understand the railroad's willing to pay that."
"It's nice and comfortable to have a millionaire in our midst," said June. "Mother, you'd better set your cap for him."
"June Reed!" rebuked her mother sharply above the laughter which the proposal provoked.
But under the hand of the night the widow blushed warmly, and with a little stirring of the treasured leaves of romance in her breast. She had thought of trying for the doctor, for she was only forty-seven, and hope lives in the female heart much longer than any such trifling term.
They sat and talked over the change this belated news would make in the doctor's fortunes, and the men smoked their pipes, and the miller's wife suggested tea. But nobody wanted to kindle a fire, so she shivered a little and went off to bed.
The night wore on, Comanche howling and fiddling as it never had howled and fiddled before. One by one the doctor's friends tired of waiting for him and went to bed. Walker, William Bentley, and Agnes were the last of the guard; the hour was two o'clock in the morning.
"I believe you'd just as well go to bed, Miss Horton," suggested Bentley, "and save the pleasure of congratulating him until tomorrow. I can't understand why he doesn't come back."
"I didn't know it was so late," she excused, rising to act on his plainly sensible view of it.
"Walker and I will skirmish around and see if we can find him," said Bentley. "It's more than likely that he's run across some old friend and is sitting talking somewhere. You've no notion how time slips by in such a meeting."
"And perhaps he doesn't know of his good fortune yet," she suggested.
"Oh, it's all over town long ago," Walker put in. "He knows all about it by this time."
"But it isn't like him to keep away deliberately and shun sharing such good news with his friends," she objected.
"Not at all like him," agreed Bentley; "and that's what's worrying me."
She watched them away until the gloom hid them; then went to her compartment in the tent, shut off from the others like it by gaily flowered calico, such as is used to cover the bed-comforts of the snoring proletariat. It was so thin that the light of a candle within revealed all to one without, or would have done so readily, if there had been any bold person on the pry.
There she drew the blanket of her cot about her and sat in the dark awaiting the return of Bentley and Walker. There was no sleep in her eyes, for her mind was full of tumult and foreboding and dread lest something had befallen Dr. Slavens in the pitfalls of that gray city, the true terrors and viciousness of which she could only surmise.
Bentley and Walker went their way in silence until they came to the lights. There was no thinning of the crowds yet, for the news in the midnight extra had given everybody a fresh excuse for celebrating, if not on their own accounts, then on account of their friends. Had not every holder of a number been set back one faint mark behind the line of his hopes?
Very well. It was not a thing to laugh over, certainly, but it was not to be mended by groans. So, if men might neither groan nor laugh, they could drink. And liquor was becoming cheaper in Comanche. It was the last big night; it was a wake.
"Well, I'll tell you," said Walker, "I don't think we'd better look for him too hard, for if we found him he wouldn't be in any shape to take back there by now."
"You mean he's celebrating his good luck?" asked Bentley.
"Sure," Walker replied. "Any man would. But I don't see what he wanted to go off and souse up alone for when he might have had good company."
"I think you've guessed wrong, Walker," said Bentley. "I never knew him to take a drink; I don't believe he'd celebrate in that way."
Even if he had bowled up, protested Walker, there was no harm in it. Any man might do it, he might do it himself; in fact, he was pretty sure that he would do it, under such happy conditions, although he believed a man ought to have a friend or two along on such occasions.
From place to place they threaded their way through the throng, which ran in back-currents and cross-currents, leaving behind it upon the bars and gaming-tables an alluvium of gold. Dr. Slavens was not at any of the tables; he was not reeling against any of the bars; nor was he to be seen anywhere in the sea of faces, mottled with shadows under the smoky lights.
"Walker, I'm worried," Bentley confessed as they stood outside the last and lowest place of diversion that remained to be visited in the town.
"I tell you, it flies up and hits a man that way," protested Walker. "Sheep-herders go that way all of a sudden after a year or two without a taste of booze, sometimes. He'll turn up in a day or two, kind of mussed up and ashamed; but we'll show him that it's expected of a gentleman in this country once in a while, and make him feel at home."
"Yes, of course," Bentley agreed, his mind not on the young man's chatter nor his own reply. "Well, let's run through this hole and have it over with."
Inside the door four dusty troopers, on detached duty from the military post beyond Meander, sat playing cards. As they appeared to be fairly sober, Walker approached them with inquiries.
No, they hadn't seen Dr. Slavens. Why? What had he done? Who wanted him?
"Well," said a sergeant with service-stripes on his sleeve and a broad, blue scar across his cheek, "if I'd 'a' drawed Number One you bet you wouldn't have to be out lookin' for me. I'd be up on the highest point in Comanche handin' out drinks to all my friends. Ain't seen him, pardner. He ain't come in here in the last two hours, for we've been right here at this table longer than that."
They passed on, to look upon the drunken, noisy dance in progress beyond the canvas partition.
"Not here," said Walker. "But say! There's a man over there that I know."
Bentley looked in that direction.
"The one dancing with the big woman in red," directed Walker.
Bentley had only a glance at Walker's friend, for the young man pulled his arm and hurried him out. Outside Walker seemed to breathe easier.
"I'll tell you," he explained. "It's this way: I didn't suppose he'd want to be seen in there by anybody that knew him. You see, he's the Governor's son."
"Oh, I see," said Bentley.
"So if we happen to run across him tomorrow you'll not mention it, will you?"
"I'll not be advertising it that I was in there in very big letters," Bentley assured him.
"A man does that kind of a thing once in a while," said Walker. "It bears out what I was saying about the doctor. No matter how steady a man is, it flies up and hits him that way once in a while."
"Maybe you're right," yielded Bentley. "I think we'd just as well go to bed."
"Just as well," Walker agreed.
The chill of morning was in the air. As they went back the crowds had thinned to dregs, and the lights in many tents were out.
"She thinks a lot of him, doesn't she?" observed Walker reflectively.
"Who?" asked Bentley, turning so quickly that it seemed as if he started.
"Miss Horton," Walker replied. "And there's class to that girl, I'm here to tell you!"
Agnes, in the darkness of her compartment, strained forward to catch the sound of the doctor's voice when she heard them enter, and when she knew that he was not there a feeling which was half resentment, half accusation, rose within her. Was she to be disappointed in him at last? Had he no more strength in the happy light of his new fortune than to go out and "celebrate," as she had heard the sergeant confidentially charging to Horace, like any low fellow in the sweating throng?
But this thought she put away from her with humiliation and self-reproach, knowing, after the first flash of vexation, that it was unjust. Her fears rose towering and immense again; in the silence of the graying morning she shivered, drawing her cold feet up into the cot to listen and wait.
Walker and Bentley had gone quietly to bed, and in the stillness around her there was an invitation to sleep. But for her there was no sleep in all that night's allotment.
The roof of the tent toward the east grew transparent against the sky. Soon the yellow gleam of the new sun struck it, giving her a sudden warm moment of hope.
It is that way with us. When our dear one lies dying; when we have struggled through a night hideous with the phantoms of ruin and disgrace, then the dawn comes, and the sun. We lift our seamed faces to the bright sky and hope again. For if there is still harmony in the heavens, how can the discord of the earth overwhelm us? So we comfort our hearts, foolishly exalting our troubles to the plane of the eternal consonance.
The sun stood "the height of a lance" when Agnes slipped quietly to the door of the tent. Over the gray desert lands a smoky mist lay low. Comanche, stirring from its dreams, was lighting its fires. Here passed one, the dregs of sleep upon him, shoulders bent, pail in hand, feet clinging heavily to the road, making toward the hydrant where the green oats sprang in the fecund soil. There, among the horses in the lot across the way, another growled hoarsely as he served the crowding animals their hay.
Agnes looked over the sagging tent-roofs with their protruding stovepipes and wondered what would be revealed if all were swept suddenly away. She wondered what fears besides her own they covered, silent in the pure light of day. For Comanche was a place of secrets and deceits.
She laid a fire in the tin stove and put the kettle on to boil. Horace Bentley and Milo Strong were stirring within the tent, making ready for the stage, which departed for Meander at eight.
Mrs. Mann, the miller's wife, came out softly, the mark of the comb in her hair, where it had become damp at the temples during her ablution. She looked about her swiftly as she stood a moment in the door, very trim and handsome in her close-fitting black dress, with a virginal touch of white collar and a coral pin.
Agnes was bending over a bed of coals, which she was raking down to the front of the stove for the toast—a trick taught the ladies of the camp by Sergeant Schaefer—and did not seem to hear her.
"Dr. Slavens hasn't come back?" Mrs. Mann whispered, coming over softly to Agnes' side.
Agnes shook her head, turning her face a moment from the coals.
"I heard you get up," said Mrs. Mann, "and I hurried to join you. I know just how you feel!"
With that the romantic little lady put an arm around Agnes' neck and gave her a hurried kiss, for Horace was in the door. A tear which sprang suddenly leaped down Agnes' face and hissed upon the coals before the girl could take her handkerchief from her sweater-pocket and stop its wilful dash. Under the pretext of shielding her face from the glow she dried those which might have followed it into the fire, and turned to Horace with a nod and smile.
What was there, she asked herself, to be sitting there crying over, like a rough-knuckled housewife whose man has stayed out all night in his cups? If he wanted to stay away that way, let him stay! And then she recalled his hand fumbling at the inner pocket of his coat, and the picture post-card which he had handed her at the riverside.
Still, it wasn't a matter to cry about—not yet at least. She would permit no more disloyal thoughts. There was some grave trouble at the bottom of Dr. Slavens' absence, and she declared to herself that she would turn Comanche over, like a stone in the meadow of which the philosopher wrote, and bare all its creeping secrets to the healthy sun, but that she would find him and clear away the unjust suspicions which she knew were growing ranker in that little colony hour by hour.
They all gathered to bid Sergeant Schaefer good-bye, for he was to rejoin them no more. June pressed upon him a paper-bag of fudge, which she had prepared the day before as a surprise against this event. The sergeant stowed it away in the side pocket of his coat, blushing a great deal when he accepted it.
There was a little sadness in their hearts at seeing the soldier go, for it foretold the dissolution of the pleasant party. And the gloom of Dr. Slavens' absence was heavy over certain of them also, even though Sergeant Schaefer tried to make a joke of it the very last thing he said. They watched the warrior away toward the station, where the engine of his train was even then sending up its smoke. In a little while Horace and Milo followed him to take the stage.
There came a moment after the men had departed when Agnes and William Bentley found themselves alone, the width of the trestle-supported table between them. She looked across at him with no attempt to veil the anxiety which had taken seat in her eyes. William Bentley nodded and smiled in his gentle, understanding way.
"Something has happened to him," she whispered, easing in the words the pent alarm of her breast.
"But we'll find him," he comforted her. "Comanche can't hide a man as big as Dr. Slavens very long."
"He'll have to be in Meander day after tomorrow to file on his claim," she said. "If we can't find him in time, he'll lose it."
THE GOVERNOR'S SON
After a conference with Walker in the middle of the morning, Bentley decided that it would be well to wait until afternoon before beginning anew their search for the doctor. In case he had been called in his professional capacity—for people were being born in Comanche, as elsewhere—it would be exceedingly embarrassing to him to have the authorities lay hands on him as an estray.
"But his instrument-case is under his cot in the tent," persisted Agnes, who was for immediate action.
"He may have had an emergency call out of the crowd," explained Bentley.
In spite of his faith in the doctor, he was beginning to lean toward Walker's view of it. Slavens was big enough to take care of himself, and experienced enough to keep his fingers out of other people's porridge. Besides that, there had to be a motive behind crime, and he knew of none in the doctor's case. He was not the kind of man that the sluggers and holdups of the place practiced upon, sober and straight as he always had been. Then it must be, argued Bentley, that the doctor had his own reason for remaining away. His unexpected luck might have unbalanced him and set him off on a celebration such as was common in such cases.
"Very well," agreed Agnes. "I'll wait until noon, and then I'm going to the police."
Being a regularly incorporated city, Comanche had its police force. There were four patrolmen parading about in dusty deshabille with prominent firearms appended, and a chief who presided over them in a little box-house, where he might be seen with his coat off and a diamond in the front of his white shirt, smoking cigars all day, his heels on the window-sill.
As Dr. Slavens had not appeared at the time designated as her limit by Agnes, Bentley went with her to the chief's office to place the matter before him. It was well that they did not go there for sympathy, and unfortunate that they expected help. The chief received them with disdainful aloofness which amounted almost to contempt. He seemed to regard their appeal to him for the elucidation of the doctor's mystery as an affront.
The chief was a short man, who vainly believed that he could sustain his trousers in dignified position about his hipless body with a belt. The result of this misplaced confidence was a gap between waistcoat and pantaloons, in which his white shirt appeared like a zebra's stripe.
He was a much-bedizened and garnitured man, for all that he lacked a coat to hang his ornaments upon. Stones of doubtful value and unmistakable size ornamented the rings upon his stocky fingers, and dangled in an elaborate "charm" upon the chain of his watch. The only name they ever addressed him by in Comanche other than his official title was Ten-Gallon. Whether this had its origin in his capacity, or his similarity of build to a keg, is not known, but he accepted it with complacency and answered to it with pride.
Ten-Gallon was the chief guardian of the interests of the gamblers' trust of Comanche, which was responsible for his elevation to office—for even the office itself—and which contributed the fund out of which his salary came. It is a curious anomaly of civilization, everywhere under the flag which stretched its stripes in the wind above the little land-office at Comanche, that law-breaking thrives most prosperously under the protection of law.
Gambling in itself had not been prohibited by statute at that time in Wyoming, though its most profitable side diversions—such as dropping paralyzing poisons in a man's drink, snatching his money and clearing out with it, cracking him on the head with a leaden billet, or standing him up at the point of a pistol and rifling him—were, as now, discountenanced under the laws.
But what profit is there in gambling if the hangers-on, the cappers, the steerers, and the snatchers of crumbs in all cannot find protection under the flag and its institutions? That was what the gamblers' trust of Comanche wanted to know. In order to insure it they had the city incorporated, and put in a good, limber-wristed bartender as chief of police.
It was to that dignitary that Dr. Slavens' friends had come with their appeal for assistance. There was discouragement in the very air that surrounded the chief, and in the indifference with which he heard their report. He looked at Agnes with the slinking familiarity of a man who knows but one kind of woman, and judges the world of women thereby. She colored under the insult of his eyes, and Bentley, even-tempered and slow to wrath as he was, felt himself firing to fighting pitch.
"Well," said the chief, turning from them presently with a long gape, terminating in a ructatious sigh, "I'll shake out all the drunks in the calaboose this afternoon, and if your friend's among 'em I'll send him on over to you. No harm could happen to him here in Comanche. He'd be as safe here, night or day, as he would be playin' tennis in the back yard at home."
The chief mentioned that game with scorn and curling of the lip. Then he gazed out of the window vacuously, as if he had forgotten them, his mashed cigar smoking foully between his gemmed fingers.
Bentley looked at Agnes in amazed indignation. When he squared off as if to read his mind to the chief she checked him, and laid her hand on his arm with a compelling pressure toward the door.
"That man's as crooked as the river over there!" he exclaimed when they had regained the sunlight outside the smoke-polluted office.
"That's plain," she agreed; "and it doesn't mitigate my fears for the doctor's safety in the least."
"Walker and I were wrong in our opinion; something has happened to Slavens," said Bentley.
"Your opinion?" she questioned.
"Well, I should say Walker's rather," he corrected. "I only concurred weakly along toward the end. Walker has held out all the time that Slavens went out to hold a celebration all by himself."
"No; he didn't do that," said she calmly. "I thought so for a little while this morning, too. But I know he didn't. Do you suppose——"
She stopped, as if considering something too extravagant to utter.
"Suppose?" he repeated.
"He talked a good deal about going into the canyon to clear up the mystery of that newspaperman and earn the reward," said she.
Bentley shook his head.
"He'd hardly start at night and without preparation."
"He seemed to be a man of peculiar moods. If it came over him suddenly and strongly in an hour of depression he might even go to that desperate length. He believed the difficulties of the canyon were largely exaggerated, anyhow. Once he told me that he would undertake to go through it with nothing more than a pair of moccasins and a lantern. It was his theory that a man would need the moccasins for clinging to the rocks."
"It's a queer notion," said Bentley reflectively.
"Do you think——" she began, halting her words again and looking at him with distended eyes.
"There's no telling what a man might do when desperate and despondent," he answered. "But I don't believe he'd go without leaving some word, or at least making some disposition of his property in writing, in case he never returned. We'll open his bags and see what we can find."
They hurried forward to carry out this intention.
The doctor's baggage consisted of his battered suitcase and the black bag which contained his instruments. Neither was locked, but neither contained any word to explain where he had gone, nor to give support to the belief that he had intended going anywhere.
Walker, whom Bentley and Agnes rejoined at the camp, sat pondering the information supplied by the girl concerning the doctor's designs on the canyon.
"I'll tell you," he declared at length, as if talking to himself, "that man had the nerve to tackle it!"
Agnes looked at him, her face quickening.
"What do you know about him?" she asked.
"I know," said Walker mysteriously, with no intention of bringing his own indiscretions up for the censure of June and her severe mother, "that he had courage enough to tackle anything. I've seen proof of that right here in Comanche, and I want to tell you people that doctor wasn't any man's coward."
"Thank you for saying that," blurted Agnes, wholly unintentionally, a glow of pride on her cheeks.
Mrs. Reed and June looked at her, the widow with a severe opening of her mouth, out of which no sound came; June with a smile behind her hand.
Walker shook his head.
"He had the courage," said he, "but he had too much sense to try to go through that canyon. No white man ever went in there and came out alive. And even if the doctor had wanted to go he wouldn't have started at night."
"I don't know that it would make much difference," said Agnes. "It's always night in that terrible canyon."
"And that's so, too," Walker agreed. "I think I'll go over there and take a look around."
"Do you mind if Mr. Bentley and I go with you?" Agnes asked.
"I was going to suggest it," Walker replied, looking longingly at June.
June asked permission with her eyes; Mrs. Reed nodded, having overcome her fears of Walker, owing to the substantial credentials which he was able to show. Mrs. Mann put on her hat and slipped her black bag a bit farther up her arm, and stood ready in a moment to join the expedition. Mrs. Reed was to remain alone in camp to watch things, for they had been warned that morning by the hotel people against a band of visiting Indians, who picked up anything and everything that was not anchored at least at one end.
It was late in the afternoon; the sun was low when they reached the river. There wasn't anything to be made out of the footprints there. The mouth of the canyon had been visited by a great many tourists, some of whom had ventured within a little way to bring out stones for mementos of their daring days of fearsome adventures in the West.
The party stood looking into the mouth of the narrow slit between the high-towering walls. Down there it was already dark; the eye could pierce the gloom but a little way.
"There are places in there where the sun never shines, even for a second a day," Walker declared. "And that water goes through there with power enough in it to grind a man's bones against the rocks. There must be a fall of more than a thousand feet."
"I don't believe he went in there," said Agnes with finality, after standing as if trance-bound for a long time, gazing after the foam-white river as it roared into the echoing depths.
"No," Walker agreed. "He had too much sense for that."
They were all cheered and lightened by this conclusion. A daylight study of the terrors of the place was sufficient to convince anybody that a man would have to be driven to desperate lengths before he would venture for the dubious reward or narrow notoriety to be gained by following that wild river through its dark way.
"I camped over at the other side one summer," Walker told them as they turned away to go back to Comanche, "and I used to pick up things that had come through—boards and things that people had dropped in over at Meander. It pounds things up, I tell you!"
"Did you ever pick up any gold on the other side?" asked June.
"I never found a trace of any," said Walker. "I think that's all a sheep-herder's yarn."
They saw one of the police force in conversation with Mrs. Reed in front of the tent as they drew near, and hastened forward in the hope that he had brought news of the missing man. Mrs. Reed received them with shocked expression, and a gesture of the hands denoting hopelessness for the salvation of the world.
"It's scandalous!" she declared.
The policeman, a carpenterly looking man full of sandy hairs, stood by, grinning.
"What is it, Mother?" asked June.
"I'll not repeat what he says," announced Mrs. Reed. "I will—not—repeat—it!"
They turned to the officer, who wore his tarnished badge—evidently bought after long service in a pawn-shop at Cheyenne—pinned to his suspender at a point where he could turn his eye down on it whenever the longing, or a desire to feed upon the pride of his official importance, overcame him.
"I was tellin' her that the chief sent me over to say that your friend, the doctor, was seen last night at half-past two in the mornin', jagged up so tight he took two steps back'ards for every one he went ahead. The chief told me to tell you he was layin' under a tent somewhere, and that he'd be as safe as a calf in a barn. I hope that's what you wanted to know."
The policeman turned and went his dusty way after delivering his message from the chief, the wagon-spoke which he carried at the end of a thong twirling at his wrist.
Walker looked around with a little flash of triumph in his eyes, for a man likes to be vindicated in his opinion, even at the expense of his friends' honor. But the gust of pain and disappointment which he saw sweep over Agnes' face set him back with a sudden wrench.
"Say," said he with an assumption of indignation which he did not altogether feel, "I don't believe that!"
"Nor I," declared Bentley, with no need of assuming a part to say it. "I heard a man describing a crook the other day. He said the fellow was so crooked that if you were to shoot him in the top of the head the bullet would make seven holes in his body before it hit the ground. That's the kind of a man that chief is."
"Well, it's scandalous!" declared Mrs. Reed. "Even it he comes back, his conduct is simply disgusting, and I'll never permit him to address a word to my daughter again!"