Amberley had not married, and although he felt the omission to be matter for regret, he had never, as far as his recollection served him, found his wish to do so particularized in favor of any one woman.
"No, I ain't never married," he reluctantly admitted, when Enoch Baker, his next-door neighbor at Lame Gulch, pressed the point.
Enoch lived with his wife just round on the other side of Bear Mountain, only three miles away, and although his now elderly consort was reputed to be unamiable,—not to say cantankerous,—yet her existence, and the existence in the world outside, of many children and grandchildren, conferred upon him the enviable dignity of a man of family. He was a Yankee, and his thirst for information was not to be lightly appeased.
"Disapp'inted?" he asked, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, and pulling out a venerable tobacco-pouch, with a view to "fillin' her up" again. "Disapp'inted?"
"Yes; ruther,—bein' as I was always fond of children."
Amberley was himself a tall, limp-looking downeaster, with pleasant, unsuspicious eyes, and a guileless spirit. He used to hand his cattle over to Baker once a year, and let him drive them with his own down the long mountain road to Springtown, and it was understood than he did not inquire too curiously in the matter of commissions. The stores and fodder which Enoch delivered over to him in exchange, together with a plausibly varying amount of hard cash, seemed to Simon an ample return for the scrawny cattle he sent to market. And Enoch, for his part, was always willing to testify that Amberley was a pleasant man to deal with.
"What was she like?" Enoch inquired, in the tone of a connoisseur, transfixing Amberley with his shrewd eyes.
"Don't know's I could tell you, neighbor, I kind o' fancied the ones with the snappin' black eyes. But I ruther guess some other kind would ha' done's well, when it come to the pint."
Enoch raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"Wouldn't ary one on 'em hev you?" he asked.
"Never asked 'em," was the reply. "It was this way," Amberley went on, gathering himself together for the unaccustomed effort of expounding a situation. "I never seemed to feel to hev gumption enough to raise a family."
Enoch's countenance took on a judicial look. "Yet you've got a good eddication," he remarked, after thoughtful consideration of the case. "You've got book larnin' enough to make your way."
"Wall, yes; the eddication's stayed by me. I ruther guess 'twas the gumption that got knocked out. That was at Antietam."
"Didn't know you was in the war," Enoch exclaimed, with a visible accession of respect. "Was you hit?"
"Wall, yes; in the head. I wa' n't much more 'n a youngster, and when they let me loose the doctors said I was good 's new; 'n I ruther guess I was, all except the gumption. 'T was kind o' curous, too," he went on, warming to his subject, and fumbling at something on the side of his head. "When the bullet ploughed through here, the settin' sun was in my eyes; 'n soon's I got on my feet agin I wanted to go West. I was let go there in Virginia, 'n though I hankered after my own folks as bad as anybody, there was nothin' for it, but to turn toward the settin' sun. 'N fust I went to Ohio, 'n then to Illinois, 'n then to Missouri, 'n so on here. Never could manage to stop more 'n a few years in one place till I come up agin the Rocky Mountings. Since then I've felt kind o' settled and satisfied."
But Simon's satisfaction was destined to be rudely broken in upon.
One pleasant September day somebody picked up something in the Gulch that looked like a dingy bit of quartz, and carried it down to Springtown, and shortly after that a squad of men appeared upon the scene. The mountains, faithless to their trust, had let them in. They gathered together along the Gulch and on the side of Bear Mountain, where Amberley could see them, little remote groups, sometimes losing themselves among the pine-trees, sometimes showing plain against the sky on the exposed comb of the mountain-side. By and by more men came and rougher ones, bringing mules and oxen with them, and camping in tents which they deserted by day. When the early snow came, Amberley could see, more plainly than before, the doings of the encroaching enemy. Great black scars were made in the snow; sledges, laden with weird, ungainly masses of wood and iron, were hauled up the mountain-side. Here and there a structure appeared, that had a grotesque resemblance to a gallows. The uncouth monsters planted themselves along the hillside, where they breathed forth smoke and emitted strange noises. Amberley could hear the rattling of chains, the creaking of timbers; a hoarse shout would sometimes come ringing across the Gulch through the thin frosty air, if the wind was that way.
In September it was that the bit of quartz was carried down to Springtown; before the winter snows had thought of melting, a town of rude frame huts had sprung up in the hollow below, and Lame Gulch was a flourishing mining-camp. All the rough-scuff of the countryside promptly gathered there, and elbowed, with equal indifference, the honest miner, the less honest saloon-keeper, and the capitalist, the degree of whose claim to that laudatory adjective was not to be so easily fixed. No one seemed out of place in the crazy, zigzag streets, no sound seemed foreign to this new, conglomerate atmosphere. The fluent profanity of the mule-driver, the shrill laugh of the dance-hall; the prolonged rattle and final roar of the ore-chute, the steady pick of the laborer at the prospect-hole;—each played its part to burden and stain the pure, high air that had seemed so like the air of Heaven itself.
Amberley stayed on in his lonely lean-to, or roamed over his desecrated acres, bewildered and aggrieved. What were the mountains thinking of to admit these savage hordes! Whither should he go, where should he find a refuge, since his trusted allies had played him false? He loathed it all, loathed most of all Enoch's exultant suggestion that there might be gold on their land.
"But we'll lay low for a while," Enoch said, with an air of profound cunning. "We'll wait till they're plumb crazy, and then we kin git our own price!"
And Amberley stayed on all through that trying winter, simply because he knew of no better place to go to, and the spring came and found him there, unreconciled, to be sure, but leading his usual life. And so it happened that one day, when the snow had disappeared from all the southerly slopes, and the wind was toward the Camp, so that the sounds he hated came dulled and hushed to his ear, Amberley ventured a few rods down the hillside in search of a missing calf. The truant was a pretty, white-nosed creature, a special pet of his master's, with great brown, confiding eyes, and ample ears, and Amberley had named him Simon. Not a usual name for a calf, as Simon was well aware, but somehow it gave the lonely man a peculiar pleasure to know that his name was borne by a cheerful young thing, with frisky tail and active legs, and everything to live for.
As the elder Simon strolled down the hillside on this particular spring day, calling and peering from side to side, his eye fell upon the first daisy of the season, nestling close at his feet,—a single blossom among a crowded group of little short-stemmed scrubby buds. He stooped to pick it, and was standing, lost in wonder over its frailty and its hardihood, when a child's voice struck his ear, calling, "Come Bossie, come!"
Stepping around a projecting rock close at hand, Amberley came upon a pretty scene. On a wide level sunny space, where young grass was already springing, stood a little figure in blue, with yellow hair flying about in the breeze; a tiny hand filled with grass, held out toward the doubtful yet covetous Simon Jr. The child stood perfectly still, her square little back turned to her new observer, while the calf stumped cautiously toward her. At a safe distance he stopped and sniffed at the tiny hand, then kicked up his heels and pranced away again. The little drama repeated itself several times, the child standing always motionless, with extended arm, and calling upon "Bossie" in enticing tones to come.
Won over at last by her constancy,—or by his own greed,—"Bossie" ventured near enough to snatch the proffered tidbit; then off he scampered, in ungrateful haste, mouthing the delicate morsel.
A sigh of relief and satisfaction went up from the little figure, while one small hand gravely rubbed and kneaded the arm which had so pluckily maintained its uncomfortable position. Amberley approached with his short-stemmed daisy.
"How do you do, little girl?" he inquired in his most polite manner. "Would you like a daisy?"
"Yes," was the reply, spoken with a slight lisp.
"You are very good to feed Simon," Amberley proceeded, quite set at ease by the gracious acceptance of his offering.
"Yes;" said the child once more, this time with a rising inflection.
"Simon is my calf, you know," Amberley went on. "Here, Simon, come along."
Simon Jr., was already approaching, with an eye to business, and even as his master spoke, he had got his nose into a certain wide, baggy pocket in the old army trousers, and was poking it about in very familiar fashion.
"Wait a minute, Simon," said Amberley, drawing himself gently away. "Here, little girl, you take a bit of the salt in your hand and he'll come for it."
"Yes," came the assenting voice; and Simon Jr., once convinced that the pocket was closed to him, approached the child with easy confidence, and not only devoured the proffered salt, but continued to lick the grimy little palm when it was quite bare of that pleasing stimulant.
Then the child laughed, a queer little short, grown-up laugh, and declared: "I like Simon."
"So do I," said Amberley, casting about for some new blandishment. "Let's come up to the shanty and draw a picture of him."
"Yes," the little sphinx replied.
Amberley held out his hand, with a poignant dread lest she should refuse to take it; a thrill of pleasure, almost as poignant, went up his arm and so on to his heart, as the tiny hand rested in his own.
"What is your name?" he asked. They were rounding the big boulder and beginning the short ascent to the cabin.
"Eliza Christie, and I'm six years old," she replied, tugging the while at his hand, to help herself over a rough place. Then,—"What's yours?" she asked.
"Same's the calf," she commented. "Was either of you named for the other?"
"Yes; the calf was."
"I was named for my sainted grandmother. Bella Jones says Eliza's an ugly name, but Ma says if 't was good enough for my sainted grandmother it's good enough for me."
"I think Eliza's a real pretty name," Amberley declared in a tone of conviction, as he warded off the renewed advances of Simon. "If ever I have another calf I shall call it Eliza."
"I like both the Simons," Eliza announced, with flattering openness.
To such a declaration as this, modesty forbade any reply, and the two went on in silence to the cabin door, closely followed by the white-nosed gourmand.
Outside the lean-to was a bench, roughly modelled on Amberley's recollection of the settle outside his mother's kitchen door.
"You'd better set there, Eliza," he said; "It's prettier outside than in;" and he lifted her to the seat, and left her there, with her fat little legs sticking straight out in front of her.
She seemed to take very naturally to the situation, and indeed her small, sturdy person looked as much a part of the homely scene as the stubby little daisy she held in her hand. As she sat there in the sunshine, placid and self-contained, a mysterious trampling and crackling began among the trees close at hand, and one after another, three solemn-eyed cows emerged into the clearing and fixed a wondering gaze upon the little visitor. She, nothing daunted, calmly returned their gaze, only holding the daisy a little more tightly, lest one of the new-comers should take it into her head to dispute the prize; and Simon found her, upon his return, confronting the horned monsters with unruffled tranquillity.
Acknowledging the presence of the cows only by a friendly "Shoo, there!" he established himself beside his waiting guest upon the settle, his long legs crossed, by way of a table.
"Can you draw?" he asked.
"No; I don't know my letters," she replied, with unconscious irrelevance.
"How would you like to have me learn you?"
"I'd like it."
"Well; I'll learn you O first. That's the first letter I learned;" and he made a phenomenally large and round O in the upper left-hand corner of the sheet. The paper, finding insufficient resting-place upon the bony knee, took occasion to flap idly in the gentle southerly breeze; upon which the child took hold of it with a quaint air of helpfulness which was singularly womanly.
"Now I've learned O," she remarked, "I'd like to learn another."
"Well, there's an I; see, there?"
"The other one looks more like an eye," she observed critically.
"So it does, so it does!" Amberley admitted, much impressed by the discovery. "But then it's an O all the same, and this one is an I."
"Yes; well, I've learned that. Now, make another."
Thus unheralded and unawares come the great moments of life. When little Eliza mounted that wooden settle, her mind was innocent of artificial accomplishments; before she again stood on her round fat legs, she had begun the ascent of that path which leads away up to the heights of human knowledge. It is a long ascent and few accomplish it, but the first essential steps had been taken: little Eliza had become a Scholar!
Not only had she learned to recognize an O and an I, an S, an M, and an N, but she had laboriously made each one of them with her own hand. And, furthermore, she had seen them combined in a wonderful group which, if her teacher was to be credited, stood for Simon! It was better than drawing, infinitely better! Anybody could make a round thing with four crooked legs and a thin tail, and call it a calf—but only a scholar could put five letters together and make them stand for a man and a calf beside; a man with a kind voice and a big beard, and a calf that would lick a person's hand! Oh, but life had grown a wonderful thing to little Eliza, when she trotted down the hillside, clinging to the fingers of her new friend, and holding the sturdy little daisy in the other sturdy little hand.
And life had grown even more wonderful to Simon Amberley. He had not passed such a pleasant day since he could remember, and he had certainly never in his life had so much to look forward to; for had not Eliza promised to come again the next day, and to bring Bella Jones with her?
He went into the cabin after his chores were done, and pulled out an old cowhide trunk with the hair pretty well worn off it, and there, inside, he found the battered family Bible which had been sent out, at his request, when his mother died; and a copy of Shakespeare's Plays in one volume which he had got as a prize at school. There, too, were Miss Edgeworth's Rosamond, and Nathaniel P. Willis' Poems, and one volume of Dr. Kane's Explorations at the North Pole. "Quite a library," he said to himself, with conscious pride. He had not read in a book for twenty years; not since the time, back in Ohio, when he had bought Scott's complete Works at auction, and had to sell them again to pay his way to Missouri, whither he had gone in obedience to that mysterious prompting of the setting sun.
By and by he strolled up the hill to get the sunset light. It was very splendid on the glittering snow of the heights over yonder. After all, he reflected, the mountains knew pretty well what they were about. If they had not let the enemy through, those little girls would not have got in, and he should not have felt as if he were beginning life all over again.
Before a month had passed, Simon found himself established in the new character of Lame Gulch Professor. So, at least, Enoch called him, and it was not displeasing to the subject of Enoch's pleasantry to know that others had adopted the suggestion and bestowed upon him that honorable title. His little class numbered fifteen or twenty children of assorted ages and dispositions, who came, lured by rumors of pleasant things, and remained to imbibe learning with more or less avidity. There was an absence of restraint about this novel school which appealed strongly to the childish heart. The scholars were free to come and go as they pleased, a privilege which, once established, they were not inclined to take undue advantage of. They sat on the most amusing seats, improvised from fallen tree trunks, or small wood-piles, or cocks of hay. They called their teacher what they pleased: sometimes Simon, sometimes Teacher, sometimes Mister! Bella Jones always said "Perfessor." They studied from whatever book they liked best, each child bringing the "Reader" or "Speller" he could most easily lay hands on. But they learned more from Simon's books than from their own. That book of William Shakespeare's stood easily first in their estimation, for when the "perfessor" read from it, they somehow understood the story, in spite of the hard words which, taken by themselves, seemed to mean nothing at all.
If a ground squirrel scuttled across the clearing, no one was so quick to observe him as the teacher himself, and before Fritz Meyer could seize a stone to fire at the tame little chap, the young sportsman had become so interested in something Simon was saying about its ways and nature, that he forgot what he wanted of the stone.
"How do you spell squirrel?" asked a sharp-featured boy one day, as he watched the twinkling eyes of one of the tiny creatures.
Simon drew his brows together over his mild eyes, with a mighty effort at thinking.
"How do you spell squirrel?" he repeated. "How do you spell it? Well; you begin with an sk, of course—and then there's a w.—I don't know, Tim, but that's too hard a word to spell until you're growed up. But I'll learn you to spell woodchuck! We used to go after woodchucks when I was a youngster."
What boy could insist upon the spelling of a paltry little ground squirrel, with beady eyes and nervous, inconsequent motions, when there was talk of a woodchuck, lowering in his black hole, ready to fix his sharp teeth in the nose of the first intruding terrier? If they learned in after years that the spelling-books knew nought of a k or a w in squirrel,—and some of them never did!—we may be very sure that it was not Simon Amberley that fell in their estimation!
Sometimes Simon Jr. came to school, and there was a sudden, exhilarating scramble in pursuit of his tail; now and then a hard-worked mother would bring her baby and sit as guest of honor in Simon's solitary "cane-bottom," where she would inadvertently learn items of interest with regard to "yon Cassius," or "bluff Harry," or a certain young lady who was described as being "little" but "fierce,"—a good deal like Molly Tinker whose "man" kept the "Golden Glory Saloon." On one occasion a rattlesnake lifted its head drowzily from behind a rock near by, and was despatched offhand by Simon. It was this exploit which filled the measure of Simon's fame.
"Any fool kin learn readin' an' writin'," said Patsy Linders, the eldest of the band, who, by the way, had yet to prove himself fool enough to do so. "But I'll be durned if I ever seen a stun fired as neat as that!"
"Simon's smarter 'n anybody," little Eliza declared in reply. "He's smarter 'n you nor me, 'n he's smarter 'n David an' Goliath, 'n he's my Simon!"
No one was disposed to question Eliza's prior claim to Simon. She always sat beside him on the original settle against the lean-to. She would not abdicate the seat even when the ground grew hot and pleasant and she saw half her mates lying on the short sparse grass with their heels in the air, conning their books, or falling asleep over them, as the case might be. She felt it her prerogative to sit right there, with her chubby legs sticking out in front of her; there, where she could pull at Simon's sleeve and interrupt his discourse as often as she pleased.
And so it came about, that by the time spring had passed into summer, sumptuous wildflowers succeeding the first little scrubby daisy, a blessed idyl of quaint child life, dear to Simon's heart, had grown out of the chance meeting on the hillside. It was as if Simon's clearing were a charmed circle into which no evil could enter, to which no echo of the greed and brutality of the mining-camp could make its way. When his permission was respectfully asked to sink a few prospect holes on his land, Simon unhesitatingly rejected the proposal, with all its glittering possibilities. As soon would the President and Fellows of Harvard College permit the sinking of prospect holes in the sacred "yard" itself, as the Lame Gulch Professor allow his "school" to be molested.
But, alas! it is written in the books that no earthly circle shall be forever charmed, no human enterprise exempt from evil. And it was little Eliza herself, Simon's champion and dictator, faithful, plucky little Eliza, by whom the evil entered in.
She came, one hot July day, and planted herself quite unconcernedly beside the professor, and he, looking down into the funny little round face, beheld a great black-and-blue bump on the forehead. The sight grieved him to the soul, even before he knew its tragic meaning.
"Did you tumble down, Eliza?" he asked with great concern.
"No," said Eliza.
"Did you bump your head agin something?"
"Did anybody hurt you?" and already the professor was casting wrathful glances from boy to boy, well calculated to strike terror to the heart of the culprit.
"Not much;" said the matter-of-fact little voice.
"I guess 't was her pa done it," spoke up Patsy Linders. "He's a bloomin' terror when he's drunk."
Without a word, Simon rose and led the little creature into the lean-to, where he tenderly bathed the bruise in cold water, giving no voice to the swelling indignation that tore through him. His tone and touch were but the gentler for that, as he sought to soothe the self-contained little victim, who, truth to tell, seemed not much in need of his ministrations.
"My lamb!" he murmured. "My little lamb!"
"Ma said to never mind," the plucky little lamb remarked. "He ain't often so."
"Do you love your father?" asked Simon, seeking to fathom the blue eyes for the truth.
The blue eyes were, for the moment, intent upon a swarm of flies disporting themselves upon the window-pane.
"Do you love your father?" Simon asked again.
"No;" quoth Eliza, "I wish he was dead."
Now Simon Amberley was slow to anger; indeed it may be doubted whether he had ever in all his life before been thoroughly roused; and perhaps for that very reason, the surging flood of indignation, so new to his experience, seemed to him like a call from heaven. All day he fed his wrath on the deeds of Scripture warriors, reading aloud from the sacred records, till Patsy Linders exclaimed, enraptured, that "the Bible was a durned good book, by Jiminy!"
Little Eliza stayed on, as she often did after the school was dispersed, sure that "her Simon," would find some new and agreeable entertainment for her.
"Did your father ever hit you before?" Amberley asked casually, as they strung a handful of painter's-brush into a garland, which it was thought might prove becoming to Simon Jr.'s complexion.
"Yes," said Eliza.
"More than once?"
"Where did he hit you last time?"
"Here." And Eliza pulled up the blue calico sleeve, and displayed a pretty bad bruise on the arm.
Simon paused a moment in his cross-examination.
"And you wish he was dead?" he asked at last, between his set teeth.
"What does he look like?"
"Something like you," was the startling response; "only different."
The amendment was, at first blush, more gratifying to Simon than the original statement. Yet, when Eliza was gone, he went and looked in his bit of a looking-glass, half hoping to find some touch of the latent ruffian in his face. All he saw there was a kindly, unalarming countenance, with a full blond beard, and thick blond hair. The eyes had a look of bewilderment which did not lessen their habitual mildness. He straightened his tall form, and threw his shoulders back, and he set his mouth in a very firm, determined line; but, somehow, the mild eyes would not flash, and a profound misgiving penetrated his soul. Was he the man after all, to terrorize a ruffian? The ruffian in question was an unknown quantity to his would-be intimidator, who boasted but a calling acquaintance with Eliza's mother,—a pale, consumptive creature, with that "better-days" air about her, which gives the last touch of pitifulness to poverty and hardship.
Little as he had frequented the now thriving metropolis of Lame Gulch, Amberley knew pretty well where to look for his man, and as he sallied forth that same evening, with the purpose of investigating the "unknown quantity," he bent his steps, not in the direction of the rickety cabin in the hollow there, but toward the "Lame Gulch Opera House." This temple of the muses was easily discoverable, being situated in the main street of the town, and marked by a long transparency projecting above the door, upon which the luminous inscription, "Opera House," was visible from afar.
Upon entering beneath this alluring sign, Amberley found himself in a full-blown "sample room," the presence of whose glittering pyramids of bottles was still further emphasized by the following legend, "Patronize the bar and walk in!" which was inscribed above an inner portal.
The new-comer stepped up to the bar-tender.
"Do you know whether a miner named Conrad Christie is in there?" he asked.
"I guess likely enough," was the reply. "Mr. Christie is one of our regular patrons. Won't you take a drink, Mister?"
"No;" said Simon, shortly.
"No? Ain't that ruther a pity? But pass right in, Sir. Any friend of Mr. Christie's is welcome here."
Whereupon Mr. Christie's "friend" passed through the door, into the long, narrow "Opera House." It was a dirty, cheerless hole, in spite of the brilliance of many oil lamps, shining among the flimsy decorations. At the end of the tunnel-shaped room was a rude stage, festooned with gaudy, squalid hangings, beneath which a painted siren was singing a song which Simon did not listen to. The floor of the auditorium was filled with chairs and tables in disorderly array, the occupants of which seemed to be paying more attention to their liquor and their cards than to the cracked voice of the songstress. There was a rattling of glasses, the occasional clink of money, frequent shrill laughs and deeper-chested oaths and guffaws; the fumes of beer and whisky mingled with the heavy canopy of smoke which gave to the flaring lights a lurid aspect, only too well befitting the place and the occasion.
"Wal, I swan!" exclaimed a familiar voice close at Simon's elbow: and, turning, he beheld the doughty Enoch, seated at a table close to the door, imbibing beer at the hands of a gaudy young woman in a red silk gown.
Simon looked at the elderly transgressor in speechless astonishment.
"Yas, here I be," said Enoch, jauntily, "consortin' with the hosts of Belial. Take a cheer, Simon, take a cheer."
"I guess not," said Simon, slowly; "I don't have no special hankerin' after Belial, myself. Do you happen to know a man named Conrad Christie?"
"Him's the gentleman," the red-silk Hebe volunteered. "Him in the yeller beard and the red necktie, rakin' in the chips."
Amberley took a critical survey of his adversary. He was a man of forty, or thereabouts, singularly like Simon himself in build and coloring, with enough of the ruffian in his aspect to give the professor an envious sense of inferiority. He was playing cards with a fierce-looking fellow in a black beard, who seemed to be getting the worst of it.
Simon was conscious afterwards of having turned his back on Enoch rather abruptly; of having interrupted, by his departure, an outpouring of confidence in regard to "Mis' Baker's tantrums." At the time, however, he had but one thought and that was to strike while the iron was hot. He felt that the iron was becoming very hot indeed, as he stepped up to the yellow-haired gambler, who was again engaged in the satisfactory ceremony of "rakin' 'em in."
"Mr. Christie," Simon said, and hot as the iron was, he could not control a slight tremor in his voice, not of fear, but of excitement. "Mr. Christie, I've got something to say to you. Will you step outside with me?"
Christie measured his interlocutor from head to foot, till Simon felt himself insulted in every inch of his person. The peace-loving hermit had time for blood-thirsty thoughts before the answer struck his ear.
"Not much!" came the reply at last, while the speaker gathered up the cards and began dealing. "If this place is good enough for me, I reckon it's good enough for a blasted Sissy of your description!"
No one would do Mr. Christie the injustice to suppose that his remark was unembellished by more forcible expressions than are hereby recorded. Yet, somehow, the worst of them lacked the sting that Simon managed to get into his reply, as he said, in a suppressed voice: "This place ain't good enough, as far's that goes, for the meanest skunk God ever created! But it'll do for what we've got to settle between us."
"Have a seat, Mister?"
A sick-looking girl, with blazing cheeks, had placed a chair for him. "Have a——"
The words died on her lips before the solemn, reproachful look the professor turned upon her.
"And Jinny looked smart As a cranberry tart!"
sang the discordant voice from the stage, which nobody thought of listening to.
"It's the Lame Gulch Professor," the black-haired man remarked, taking a look at his cards, before turning to his glass for refreshment.
"Damn the Lame Gulch Professor!" Christie retorted, by way of acknowledging the introduction.
Then Simon spoke again.
"Mr. Christie, you've got the prettiest and smartest little girl in Lame Gulch," he declared, laying down his proposition in a tone of extreme deliberation; "and you hit her over the head last night, and 't ain't the first time neither."
"Is that the latest news you've got to give us?" asked Christie, passing his hand caressingly over his pistol, which lay like a lap-dog on his knees.
"Better let that alone," said the black-haired gambler, persuasively. "The professor's ben good to my kids."
The threat was so very covert that the sensitive Christie did not feel himself called upon to recognize it as such.
"He ain't no target," Christie declared, with unutterable contempt. "I'd as soon shoot a door-mat!" whereupon he proceeded, in a disengaged manner, to empty the contents of the black bottle into a glass, flinging the bottle under the table, with a praiseworthy regard for appearances.
Simon breathed deep and hard, and again there was an exasperating tremor in his low-pitched voice, which drawled more than usual, as he said:
"No; 't ain't the latest news! What I specially come to tell you was, that if you ever lay hands on that child agin, I'll shoot you deader 'n any door-mat you ever wiped your great cowardly boots on!"
Each word of this speech seemed to cleave its separate, individual way with a slow, ponderous significance. Christie passed his hand absently down the barrel of the pistol on his knees, till his fingers rested on the trigger. If he had had any murderous intention, however, he seemed to think better of it, for he contented himself with a shrug and an oath, and the supercilious inquiry: "What are you givin' us, anyway?" The man of the black beard eyed his movements with a furtive interest. Amberley stood a moment, to give a still more deliberate emphasis to his words, thinking, the while, that in spite of the unvarnished frankness on either side, neither he nor his adversary had quite made each other out. Then he turned and threaded his way among the tables to the door, as quietly and composedly as he had come; while the girl on the stage repeated the assertion in regard to "Jinny's" smart looks, in which she seemed still unable to awaken the slightest interest in those who should have been her auditors. Before he had passed Enoch's chair, which was placed discreetly near the exit, the pair of gamblers were at it again. Not even the luck had been turned by the interruption. Christie was sweeping in the chips to the same refrain of the "cranberry tarts."
When, to Simon's infinite relief, little Eliza appeared at school the next morning, the teacher scrutinized her jealously in search of bumps and bruises. There was nothing to be seen but the original bump, and that was reduced in size, though somewhat intensified in color, since the day before.
"I wonder how I should feel when I had shot him!" thought Simon, and his mind reverted to the rattlesnake, and to a sneaking compunction which had seized him when the tail gave its death-quiver. The possibility of missing his mark when once obliged to shoot did not enter his mind. He was fighting on the side of right and justice, and possessing, as he did, but small knowledge of the world and its ways, he had implicit faith in the triumphant outcome of all such encounters.
He took small credit to himself for any temerity he had shown. Somehow it seemed to him that the thing had been made very easy. He felt moderately sure that he owed his safety to the villainous-looking man in the black beard; and, indeed, that was quite in order, for he had been given to understand that Providence was not above making use of the meanest instruments to the accomplishment of a good end. There were times when he was even constrained to hope that, by the same Great Influence, a spark of magnanimity had been awakened in Christie's abandoned soul; and once, when Eliza reported that her "pa" had given her a nickle, he almost believed that those seemingly ineffective words of his had, thanks to that same all-powerful intervention, made an impression. He became positively hopeful that this might be the case, when nearly a month had passed, and no further harm had come to his "lamb."
One morning Bella Jones, who ordinarily kept rather fashionable hours, came panting up the hill, the first to arrive. She was a dressy young person, whose father kept a "sample-room." Looking hastily about, to make sure that no one was there to have forestalled her, she cried, still quite out of breath:
"Eliza Christie, she's lost her ma! Died in the night of a hemorag! Eliza ain't cried a drop, 'n her pa he's just settin' there like he was shot!"
"Like he was shot!" Simon shivered at the words as if a cold wind had passed, striking a chill through the intense August day.
The professor kept school that morning as usual, but he did not sit on the settle against the lean-to, and when Patsy Lenders undertook to hoist himself up on it, the boy got his ears boxed. Patsy stated afterwards, in maintenance of the justifiable pride of "ten years goin' on eleven," that he "wouldn't ha' took it from anybody but the perfessor," and he "wouldn't ha' took it from him, if 't hadn't a ben for that snake!"
It was high noon. The sun was pouring down upon the group of children in the clearing in front of the lop-sided cabin, and upon the empty settle up against it; upon the brooding heights that spanned the horizon beyond the Gulch, upon the fragrant pine-trees close at hand. Simon Jr. had just strayed along with a blossoming yucca protruding from his mouth, and the professor had driven him farther up the slope. Returning from this short excursion, Simon beheld two figures coming up the Gulch; a blond-bearded man, and a little girl in blue. He hurried toward them in real trepidation. He could not bear to see the lamb actually in the company of the wolf. The three met on the edge of the clearing; Christie was the first to speak.
"I've brought you Eliza," he said, in a steady, matter-of-fact voice, something like Eliza's own. "Her ma's dead, 'n you can have her 'f you want her. She thinks you'd like her."
"What do you mean?" asked Simon, his voice clouding over, so that it was hardly audible. "Can I hev her for my own?"
"Yes; that's the proposition! 'N there's a hundred dollars in her pocket which is all the capital I can raise to-day. I can do the funeral on tick. No; I won't try to get her away from you. She ain't my style."
Simon was stooping down with his eyes on a level with Eliza's.
"Say, Eliza," he asked, "would you like to be my little girl?"
"Yes," quoth Eliza.
"And come and live with me all the time?"
"Yes!" and she put out a little hand and touched his face.
"She won't be no great expense to you," said Christie.
Simon stood up and cast a significant glance about him.
"I guess if I let them prospectors in on my land," he said, "there won't be no great call for economizing!"
The two men stood a moment facing each other with the same half-defiant, half-puzzled look they had exchanged at that other meeting, not so long ago. Christie was the first to break the silence.
"There wa' n't never much love lost between Eliza and me," he remarked, as if pursuing a train of thought that had been interrupted. "After the two boys died of the shakes, down in the Missouri Bottoms, both in one week, I kind o' lost my interest in kids. But I'd like to know she was in better hands than mine, for her mother's sake."
"Eliza," said Simon, in a tone of gentle authority which the Lame Gulch Professor rarely assumed. "Eliza, give your pa that money, and tell him to bury your ma decent."
Christie took the money.
"Well," said he, "I guess you're correct about the prospectors. They're right after your claim!—Good-bye Eliza."
"Good-bye," said Eliza, digging the heel of her boot into the bed of pine needles.
Yet Christie did not go.
"I'll send her duds up after the funeral," he said. "And her ma's things along with them. And, say!" he added with a sort of gulp of determination, while a dark flush went over his face. "About that door-mat, you know. It wasn't respectful and—I apologize!"
With that, Christie strode down the hill to his dead wife, and Simon and the child turned and walked hand in hand toward the lean-to. Half way across the clearing Simon Jr. unabashed by his late ejection, joined the pair.
"She's our little girl now, Simon," said the professor, gravely.
"Yes," quoth Eliza, with equal gravity.
Upon which Simon Jr. kicked up his heels in the most intelligent manner, and pranced off in pursuit of the succulent yucca.
THE BOSS OF THE WHEEL.
When contrasted with the ordinary grog-shop and gambling den of Lame Gulch, the barroom of the Mountain Lion has an air of comfort and propriety which is almost a justification of its existence. If men must drink and gamble,—and no one acquainted with a mining-camp would think of doubting the necessity,—here, at least, is a place where they may do so with comparative decency and decorum. The Mountain Lion, which is in every respect a well-conducted hostelry, tolerates no disorderly persons, and it is therefore the chosen resort, not only of the better class of transient visitors, but of the resident aristocracy as well. In the spacious office are gathered together each evening, mining-engineer and real-estate broker, experts and prospectors from Denver, men from Springtown in search of business and diversion, to say nothing of visitors from the eastern and western seaboards; and hither, to the more secluded and less pretentious barroom, at least, come the better class of miners, those who have no special taste for bloodshed and other deviltry, and who occasionally go so far as to leave their firearms at home. Some slight prejudice, to be sure, was created among the independent Sons of Toil, when it was found that the Mountain Lion did not permit its waiters to smoke cigarettes while on duty; but such cavillers were much soothed upon learning that a "bust dude" had been quite as summarily dealt with when he broke forth into song at the dinner-table. This latter victim of severity and repression was a certain Mr. Newcastle, a "gent gone to seed" as he was subsequently described, and he had protested against unkind restrictions by declaring that such exhibitions of talent were typ-sical of a mining-camp. He pronounced typ-sical with an almost audible hyphen, as if his voice had stubbed its toe. But Mr. Newcastle's involuntary wit was of no avail, and he was forced to curb his songful spirit until a more fitting season.
So it came about that the Mountain Lion had not been in existence ten days before it had gone on record as a thoroughly "first-class" establishment. No wonder, then, that an air of peculiar respectability attached itself to the "wheel" itself which revolved in a corner of the barroom night after night, whirling into opulence or penury, such as entrusted their fortunes to its revolutions. Despite its high-toned patronage, however, the terms "roulette" and "croupier" found small favor with the devotees at that particular shrine of the fickle goddess, and Dabney Dirke, its presiding genius, was familiarly known among "the boys," as "the boss of the wheel." "Waxey" Smithers,—he who was supposed to have precipitated Jimmy Dolan's exit from a disappointing world,—had been heard to say that "that feller Dirke" was too (profanely) high-toned for the job. Nevertheless, the wheel went round at Dirke's bidding as swiftly and uncompromisingly as heart could wish, and to most of those gathered about that centre of attraction the "boss" seemed an integral part of the machine.
Dabney Dirke was an ideal figure for the part he had to play. He was tall and thin and Mephistophelian, though not of the dark complexion which is commonly associated with Mephistopheles. His clean-shaven face got its marked character, not from its coloring but from its cut; Nature's chisel would seem to have been more freely used than her brush in this particular production. The face was long and thin and severe, the nose almost painfully sensitive, the mouth thin and firmly closed rather than strong. The chin did not support the intention of the lips, nor did the brows quite do their duty by the eyes, which had a steely light, and might have gleamed with more effect if they had been somewhat more deeply set. The hair was sparse and light, and the complexion of that kind of paleness which takes on no deeper tinge from exposure to sun or wind or from passing emotion.
There were two indications that "the boss of the wheel" was also a gentleman;—he put on a clean collar every day, and he did not oil his hair. It would have been strange indeed if two such glaring peculiarities had escaped the subtle perception of Mr. Smithers, and it was rather to be wondered at that such inexcusable pretensions did not militate against the "boss" in his chosen calling.—That the calling was in this case deliberately chosen, may as well be admitted at the outset.
Dabney Dirke had once, in a very grievous moment, sworn that he would "go to the devil," and had afterwards found himself so ill-suited to that hasty enterprise, that he had been somewhat put to it to get started on the downward path.
He was the only son of a Wall Street magnate who had had the misfortune to let his "transactions" get the better of him. Dirke often thought of his father when he watched the faces of the men about the "wheel." There was little in the outer aspect, even of the men of civilized traditions who stood among the gamblers, to remind him of the well-dressed, well-groomed person of his once prosperous parent. But in their faces, when the luck went against them, was a look that he was poignantly familiar with; a look which had first dawned in his father's face, flickeringly, intermittently, and which had grown and intensified, week after week, month after month, till it had gone out in the blankness of despair. That was when the elder Dirke heard his sentence of imprisonment. For Aaron Dirke's failure had involved moral as well as financial ruin.
He had died of the shock, as some of his creditors thought it behooved him to do,—died in prison after one week's durance. His son envied him; but dying is difficult in early youth, and Dabney Dirke did not quite know how to set about.
Sometimes when he gave the wheel the fateful turn, he tried to cheat himself with an idea that it obeyed his will, this wonderful, dizzying, maddening wheel, with its circle of helpless victims. But there were moments when he felt himself more at the mercy of the wheel than any wretched gambler of them all. As he stood, with his curiously rigid countenance, performing his monotonous functions in the peculiar silence which characterizes the group around a gaming table, he sometimes felt himself in the tangible grasp of Fate; as if the figures surrounding the table had been but pictures on his brain, and he, the puppet impersonating Fate to them, the real and only victim of chance. At such times he could get free from this imaginary bondage only by a deliberate summoning up of those facts of his previous existence which alone seemed convincingly real. They marshalled themselves readily enough at his bidding, those ruthless invaders of an easy, indolent life;—penury and disgrace, wounded pride and disappointed love, and, bringing up the rear, that firm yet futile resolve of his to go to the devil. Dabney Dirke, with his tragic intensity, had often been the occasion of humor in other men, but it is safe to say that his own mind had never been crossed by a single gleam of that illumining, revivifying flame. For that reason he took his fate and himself more seriously, Heaven help him!—than even his peculiar ill-fortune warranted.
At the time of his father's failure and disgrace he had been the accepted suitor of a girl whom he idealized and adored, and in his extremity she had failed him. She had weakly done as she was bid, and broken faith with him. It was on this occasion that he laid upon himself the burdensome task of which mention has been made.
"Frances," he had said, with the solemnity of a Capuchin friar taking his vows; "Frances, if you cast me off I shall go to the devil!"
Frances was very sorry, and very reproachful, and withal, not a little nattered by this evidence of her negative influence; but she gave him her blessing and let him go, whither he would; and he, with the inconsequent obstinacy of his nature, carried with him a perfectly unimpaired ideal of her, sustained by her tearful assurance that she should always love him and pray for him. Even when he heard within the year that she was about to make a brilliant marriage with a titled Frenchman whom she had met at Newport, he persisted in thinking of her as the victim, not of her own inconstancy, but of parental sternness. He sometimes saw her pretty face quite distinctly before his eyes, as he looked out across the swiftly spinning wheel, into the smoke-hung barroom,—the pretty face with the tearful eyes and the quivering lip of shallow feeling, the sincerity of which nothing could have made him doubt,—and somehow that pictured face had always the look of loving and praying for him.
There was a certain little ring, bearing a design of a four-leaved clover done in diamonds, a trinket of her girlhood days, which she used to let him wear "for luck." He had it on his little finger the day his father was sentenced. Its potency might fairly have been questioned after that, yet when she took it back he felt as if the act must have a blighting influence upon his destinies, quite apart from the broken engagement which it marked.
He had accepted for the nonce a place at the foot of the ladder in a bankers' and brokers' office which was offered him by one of the partners, an old friend of his father's. He held the place for some months, and, being quite devoid of ambition, he soon came to loathe the daily grind. Through that, as through, the later vicissitudes of his career, his mind clung, with a curious, mechanical persistency, to that troublesome vow which he had made.
The difficulty lay in his entire constitutional lack of vicious tendencies. He had no taste for drink and none for bad company; highway robbery was played out, and the modern substitutes for it were too ignoble to be thought of. Had that not been the case his perplexities might have found an easy solution, for more than one golden opportunity offered for bald, barefaced breach of trust. One day in particular, he found himself in the street with thirty thousand dollars in his trousers' pocket. This not unprecedented situation derived its special significance from the fact that the day was the one fixed for Frances Lester's marriage. As Dirke walked up the street he saw, in fact, the carriages drawn up before Trinity Church, and he knew that the ceremony was going forward. He was struck with the dramatic possibilities of the moment. Were he to decamp on the spot, he might be in time to get into the morning papers, and Frances would know with what eclat he had celebrated her wedding day. He raised his hand to signal a cab, but the driver did not see him, and ten minutes later the money had gone to swell his employers' bank-account. He had often questioned what would have been his next step, supposing that particular cab-driver had had his wits about him and seen the signal. He was loath to admit that he would merely have been at the expense of driving the few blocks to the same destination which he had reached more economically on foot!
He had returned in time to stand among the crowd on the sidewalk and see the bridal party issue from the church. When bride and bridegroom crossed the narrow space between the awning and the carriage door, Dirke had his first opportunity of seeing the Count de Lys. He could not but perceive that the man was the possessor of a high-bred, handsome face, but perhaps it was, under the circumstances, not altogether surprising that he found the handsome face detestable. The mere sight of the black moustache and imperial which the Frenchman wore so jauntily was enough to make the unhappy broker's clerk forswear all kindred ornaments to the end of his days.
A broker's clerk he did not long remain, however. He was too restless for that, too much at odds with the particular sort of life his situation forced him into. Within a month of the day on which he had proved himself so signally unfitted for the role of rascal, he had thrown up his position and cut himself loose from all his old moorings. It was in a spirit of fantastic knight-errantry that he turned his face westward, a spirit that gave him no rest until, at the end of many months, he finally dropped anchor in the riotous little harbor of Lame Gulch. This turbulent haven seemed to promise every facility for the shipwreck on which he had so perversely set his heart, and he was content to wait there for whatever storm or collision should bring matters to a crisis. Perhaps the mere steady under-tow would suck him down to destruction. The under-tow is not inconsiderable among the seething currents of life in a two-year-old mining-camp.
Dirke had not been long in the camp, before his indefeasible air of integrity and respectability had attracted the attention of no less a personage than the proprietor of the roulette wheel, who invited him to run the wheel on a salary. It was now some three months since he had entered upon this vocation, and it had, on the whole, been a disappointment to him. He had accepted the position with an idea that he should be playing the sinister role of tempter, that he should feel himself at last acting a very evil part. To his surprise and chagrin he found that he was conscious of no moral relation whatever with the victims of the wheel. It was not he who enticed them; it was not he who impoverished them. On the contrary, given his contract with the "bank," he was doing his duty as simply and scrupulously here as in the Wall Street office, performing a certain function for certain pay, accountable to an employer now as hitherto. And, indeed, when he reflected upon the glimpses of Wall Street methods he had got, and upon the incalculable turns of the Wall Street wheel, whirling its creatures into opulence or penury as capriciously as the roulette wheel itself, he could not but feel that he was serving the same master now as heretofore, and to very much the same ends. And now, as heretofore, he had no reassuring sense of being on the downward path.
He used to amuse himself during the day,—for his time was his own from dawn to dark,—in trying to work out the law of averages, following out the hints he gathered from the working of the wheel. He had always had a taste for mathematics, having rather "gone in" for that branch at college. Fleeting visions of becoming an astronomer had visited him from time to time; but the paralysis of wealth had deterred him while he was yet ostensible master of his own fate, and now the same inherent weakness of character which had made him a slave to wealth, made him a slave to poverty, and he regarded whatever latent ambition he had ever cherished as a dead issue. His mind sometimes recurred to those neglected promptings of happier days, as he went forth under the stars after hours, and cleared his brain by a walk in the pure night air. It was his habit to make for the hills outside the camp, and his solitary wanderings were much cheered by the light of those heavenly lamps. At this high altitude they had a peculiar brilliance that seemed to give them a nearer, more urgent significance than elsewhere. He felt that it was inconsistent in him to look at the stars and to inquire into the law of averages. It would be more in character, he told himself,—that is, more in the character he aspired to—if he were to embrace the exceptional advantages Lame Gulch offered for doing something disreputable. Yet the stars shone down, undaunted and serene, upon the squalid camp, and into the bewildered soul of Dabney Dirke, so fantastically pledged to do violence to its own nature. Sometimes they twinkled shrewdly, comprehendingly; sometimes they glowed with a steady splendor that seemed to dominate the world. There were nights when the separate stars were blended, to his apprehension, in one great symphony of meaning; again certain ones stood out among the others, individual and apart. There was Jupiter up there. He did not look as if he were revolving with lightning speed about the sun, and the moons revolving about him were not even visible. That was the kind of roulette wheel a man might really take an interest in! And while he dallied with the stars and with those higher promptings which their radiance symbolized, he yet clung persistently to the purely artificial bonds he had put upon himself.
Poor Dabney Dirke! If he had possessed the saving grace of humor he could not have dedicated the golden years of youth to anything so hopelessly chimerical and absurd. He would have perceived that he was enacting the part of an inverted Don Quixote; a character grotesque enough when planted on its own erratic legs, but hopelessly ridiculous when made to stand on its head and defy its windmills up-side-down. As it was, he continued to take himself seriously, and to argue with himself on every concession made to a nature at bottom sound and well-inclined, if not well-balanced; and he was still standing at his incongruous post, performing its duties with dogged industry, when something happened which created a commotion within him. The man who had married Frances Lester came to Lame Gulch and gravitated, as every guest of the Mountain Lion is sure to do, for the passing moment at least, to the barroom of the house. The count was a member of a French syndicate engaged in the erection of a "stamp-mill" at Lame Gulch, and he was making a flying trip from the East with one of his compatriots, to take a look at the property. He was a man of medium height whose nationality and rank were equally unmistakable, and his air of distinction attracted no little attention upon his entrance. Dirke, however, did not see him. There was a throng of men about the wheel, and the "boss" was regarding their movements with the perfunctory attention which his duties required, when a hand, whiter than the others, was thrust forward. As it placed a silver dollar on the board a flash of diamonds caught Dirke's eye, and he recognized the "lucky ring" he had once worn. It was a closer fit for the little finger of the present wearer than it had been for his own. There was little need of further investigation to establish the identity of the new-comer.
The wheel went round and the ball dropped in the stranger's favor. Dirke glanced at him as he pocketed his winnings. The handsome face antagonized him even more strongly than it had six months ago.
M. de Lys did not play again immediately. He watched the wheel with a quiet intentness, as if he were establishing some subtle, occult influence over it. Then the white hand was quietly extended, and a gold piece glittered where it had touched. Again the ball declared itself in favor of the Frenchman.
He played at intervals for more than an hour, with unvarying success. Eager, inexperienced boys rashly staked and often lost; laborers with haggard faces saw their earnings swept away; but the count, always calm and deliberate, won,—won repeatedly, invariably. He rarely risked more than ten dollars on a single turn; he never placed his money on a number. He played red or black, and the ball followed his color as the needle follows the magnet. Dirke began to dread the sight of that white hand; the gleam of the diamonds seemed to pierce and pain him like sharp steel.
An hour had passed and Dirke estimated that de Lys must have won several hundred dollars. Other men had begun to choose his color, and the "bank" was feeling the drain. Yet the machine itself was not more unconcerned than the "boss" appeared, as he paid out the money lost, and set the wheel spinning to new issues. Black, red,—red, black; so the ball fell, but always in favor of the white hand with the flashing brilliants. The group about the table was becoming excited; Dirke knew very well that if the thing went on much longer the "bank" would have to close down.
There was a moment's pause, while all waited to follow the stranger's lead. Then the white hand reached forward and placed four five-dollar gold pieces upon the red. A dozen gnarled and grimy hands swarmed like a flock of dingy birds above the board, and each one laid its coin upon the red. Round went the wheel; the ball sped swiftly in its groove. Then the speed slackened, the ball seemed to hesitate and waver like a sentient thing making choice; there was the light click of the drop; the "bank" had won.
After that the white hand played with varying luck, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. The other players began staking on their own account again. And then, some time after midnight, de Lys began losing, as persistently, as uninterruptedly as he had won. He played as deliberately as before, with a something more of calculating intentness, but the charm was broken; the wheel seemed to whirl with an intelligent revolt. Just as surely as the white hand placed a coin upon the black, the red had it; just as certainly as the diamonds flashed above the red, the ball found its way into the black. The handsome face grew slightly strained and eager—so slightly that the change would have escaped the ordinary observer. For the first time Dirke found a satisfaction in the contemplation of those high-bred features. Silver, gold, banknotes,—each and all were swept into the coffers of the "bank." His losses must already exceed his winnings, Dirke thought. The thought animated him with a malignant joy. For the first time he felt an interest in the fall of the ball; for the first time too, he felt the evil in his nature vibrate into life.
Three turns of the wheel had taken place with no appearance of the white hand upon the board. "Busted," had been the laconic comment of a by-stander. Dirke glanced at the count and their eyes met. The gambler was fingering the "lucky ring." As he caught Dirke's eye he drew the ring from his finger.
"What will you place against that?" he asked, handing it over to the boss. His English was careful and correct, yet as Gallic as his face itself.
Dirke examined the ring judicially, wondering, the while, that it did not burn his fingers. The moment in which he last held it thus was far more vivid to his consciousness than the present instant and the present scene.
"Twenty-five dollars," he said, in his most official tone, as he returned the ring to its owner.
The wheel spun, the ring glittered on the red. The count leaned slightly forward. Dirke watched only the wheel. He had a wild notion that the result was life or death to him, yet why, he could not tell. Then the wheel slackened, the ball hesitated, paused, dropped. Black had won!
M. de Lys turned on his heel and left the table. An hour later the room was empty and the lights were out.
When Dirke passed through the office of the Mountain Lion and stepped out on the veranda, the night was far spent, but the deep June sky was still spangled with stars. He stood for an instant at the top of the steps, hardly aware of the delicious wash of the night air on his face, which yet he paused to enjoy. There was a foot-fall close at hand and a voice.
"M. le croupier?" the voice queried.
He turned sharp about. The Frenchman stood there with his hat raised, a gentleman to the finger-tips. Involuntarily Dirke lifted his own hat, and lifted it after the manner of a gentleman. The manner was not lost upon the Frenchman.
"Monsieur," said the latter, courteously; "I had the misfortune to lose a ring this evening. I shall redeem it on the morrow, when I can command my resources."
The "boss" looked him full in the face. They could not distinguish one another's features in the starlight, yet the two personalities were as plainly in evidence as could have been the case in the broad light of day.
"No, you won't!" Dirke retorted, coolly, planting his hat firmly on his head again. He was angry with himself for having removed it.
"May I ask Monsieur why not?"
"Because the ring is sold!"
The Frenchman started visibly.
"And the purchaser? Would you have the courtesy to indicate to me the purchaser?"
The rudely spoken monosyllable put an abrupt period to the conversation.
Dirke passed down the steps and along the deserted street. As he paced the length of the board sidewalk, which helped itself over the ups and downs of the ungraded thoroughfare by means of short, erratic flights of steps at certain points, he distinctly heard footsteps following. They sounded plainly on the plank walk, and he did not for a moment doubt whose they were. His hands were in his coat-pockets. On the little finger of his left hand was the ring.
He paused, opposite the brightly lighted windows of the last saloon in the row. The town ended there, the street lapsing into a rough and trackless barren. Here he waited for the Frenchman to come up with him. He watched his progress with a curious interest, noting how the figure was at one moment lost in the shadow, only to emerge, the next instant, into the full light that streamed from some nocturnal haunt. As he came up with Dirke, the electric light over the entrance to the saloon shone full upon them both.
Dirke waited for him to speak. Again he raised his hat, but this time Dirke was on his guard and was not to be betrayed into any concession to courtesy. There was a slight shrug of the shoulders as the Frenchman replaced his hat. He spoke, however, in a conciliatory tone:
"It is a fine evening," he observed. "I have followed your example. I go for a walk."
"You have followed me, you mean," said Dirke, bluntly. "I heard you behind me."
Then, moved by a sudden impulse to precipitate matters, he drew his left hand from his pocket. The diamonds flashed in the light.
M. de Lys's eyes flashed in response. With all his unabated elegance, he had something the look of a tiger ready to spring upon his prey. But he held himself in check.
"Monsieur!" he cried, and there was a savage note in his voice, which Dirke would not have credited him with. "Monsieur! If you decline to permit me to pay for that ring to-morrow, I am ready to fight for it to-night!" He pronounced the word "fight" with a peculiar, hissing emphasis.
"Not to-night," Dirke rejoined quietly.
"And why not to-night, Monsieur, may I ask?"
"Because I am armed, and you are not."
At the word Dirke had drawn his right hand from his pocket; the barrel of a pistol gleamed white between them.
The Frenchman recoiled. His face was not pleasant to look upon, yet his antagonist would have been sorry to lose the sight of it.
Dirke stood, tall and slim and commanding, his face set in the accustomed lines. No emotion whatever was to be seen there, not even contempt for the man who shrank from sure death in such a cause. For fully twenty seconds they faced each other in the glaring light of the saloon, pent up passion visible in the one, invisible in the other. In Dirke's face, and bearing, however, devoid as it was of any emotion, one quality was but the more recognizable for that, and the count knew that the man before him was available as an antagonist.
"Monsieur," he said, with strong self-control, "it is possible that you do not understand—that you are not aware—that—Monsieur! The ring which you are pleased to wear so—so—conspicuously is the property of—The ring, Monsieur, is sacred to me!"
"Sacred!" Dirke repeated. "Sacred!" The word was an arraignment, not to be overlooked.
"Monsieur!" the count cried.
"I was merely struck by your peculiar treatment of sacred things," Dirke replied, his tone dropping to the level of absolute indifference. "It is—unconventional, to say the least."
He lifted his hand and examined the ring with an air of newly aroused interest. He wondered, half-contemptuously, at the man's self-control.
"Monsieur," he heard him say. "You are a gentleman; I perceive it beneath the disguise of your vocation,—of your conduct. When I say to you that the sight of that ring upon your finger compromises my honor,—that it is an insult to me,—you comprehend; is it not so?"
"Quite so," Dirke replied, with carefully studied offensiveness.
"Then, Monsieur, it will perhaps be possible at another time to correct the inequality in point of arms to which you have called my attention." The challenge was admirably delivered.
"I should think nothing could be simpler," Dirke rejoined, and he deliberately put his pistol in his pocket.
They parted without more words, de Lys stumbling once as he made his way along the uneven sidewalk, Dirke keeping on across the barren upland, sure-footed and serene.
It had come at last, his great opportunity; all the evil in his nature was roused at last; jealousy, vindictiveness, unscrupulousness. He gloated over his own iniquity; every feature of it rejoiced him. He had no moral right to that ring,—all the dearer his possession of it! This man had never injured him;—the more delicious his hatred of him. The Frenchman with his exasperating air of success was to him the insolent embodiment of that which had been wrongfully wrested from him, Dabney Dirke, who had as good a right to success as another. Some philanthropists, made such by prosperity and ease, spent their lives in trying to even things off by raising the condition of their fellow-creatures to their own. Well, he had the same object to be attained, by different means. He would even things off by grading to his own level. Was not that a perfectly logical aim, given the circumstances which induced it?
He lifted his hand and moved it to and fro, that he might catch the gleam of the stones in the faint starlight. In the mere joy of seeing the ring there upon his finger he almost forgot for the moment what its significance was. It scarcely reminded him just then of the girl with the tearful eyes, usually so present with him. Her face seemed to be receding from his memory; the whole story of his life seemed to grow dim and ill-defined. His mind was curiously elate with a sense of achievement, a certainty that he was near the goal, that fulfilment was at hand.
He was still pursuing his way up the hill, walking slowly, with bent head, like a philosopher in revery, when he became aware that the day was dawning. The stars were growing dim and vanishing one by one, in the pale light which came like a veil across their radiance. A dull, creeping regret invaded his mind. He had loved the stars, he could have studied them with joy; under a happier fate he might have been high in their counsels. As he watched their obliteration in the dawn of a day deliberately dedicated to evil, a profound yearning for their pure tranquil eternal light came upon him, and as Jupiter himself withdrew into the impenetrable spaces, Dirke turned his eyes downward with a long, shuddering sigh. His downcast gaze fell upon the poor earthly brilliance of the diamonds.
It was not until he heard from the count, a few hours later, that Dirke found himself restored to the state of mind which he was pleased to consider natural. The call for action dissipated his misgivings, carried him beyond the reach of doubts and regrets, gave him an assurance that Fate had at last ranged itself on his side. For even if duelling were not a peculiarly un-American institution, it is a mode of warfare of such refinement and elaborateness, as to be utterly foreign to the atmosphere of a mining-camp, and Dirke could only regard the challenge which came to him in due form and order that morning, as a special interposition of those darker powers which he had so long, and hitherto so vainly invoked. He went about his preparations for the meeting in an exaltation of spirit, such as he had never before experienced. Paradoxical as it may seem, absurd as it really was, he was sustained, uplifted, by the sense of immolating himself upon the altar of an ideal cause. He was about to do an ideally evil thing, to the accomplishment of an ideally evil end. Insane as this feeling was, it was his inspiration, and he felt himself, for the first time in his life, acting consistently, courageously, confidently.
The meeting took place on a remote, barren hillside, on the edge of a dead forest whose gaunt stems stood upright, or leaned against each other, a weird, unearthly company. As Dirke arrived with his second,—a saturnine Kentuckian, with a duelling record of his own,—he glanced about the desolate spot thinking it well chosen. Only one feature of the scene struck him as incongruous. It was a prickly poppy standing there, erect and stiff, its coarse, harsh stem and leaves repellent enough, yet bearing on its crest a single flower, a wide white silken wonder, curiously at variance with the spirit of the scene. Dirke impatiently turned away from the contemplation of it, which had for an instant fascinated him, and faced, instead, the count, who was approaching from below, accompanied by his friend and countryman.
Shots were to be exchanged but once, and though the principals were both good shots, the seconds anticipated nothing serious. The count, for his part, was not desirous of killing his adversary, and he had no reason to suppose that the latter thirsted for his blood. He considered the incident which had led to this unpleasant situation as a mere freak on the part of this morose individual whom he had unfortunately run afoul of. He had, indeed, moments of wondering whether the man were quite in his right mind.
Dirke wore the ring, and he gloried in wearing it, as he took his place, elate, exultant, yet perfectly self-contained.
"Are you ready?" the Kentuckian asked, and the sense of being "ready" thrilled him through every nerve.
At the given signal, Dirke raised his pistol in deliberate, deadly aim. De Lys saw it, and a subtle change swept his face, while he instantly readjusted his own aim. In Dirke's countenance there was no change, no slightest trace of any emotion whatever. Yet both seconds perceived, in the flash of time allowed, that the combat was to be a mortal one, and that it was Dirke who had thus decreed it.
And then it was, in that crucial moment, that Dirke's groping soul came out into the light,—even as the wide white flower over yonder had come out into the light, springing from its grim, unsightly stem. In that flashing instant of time his true nature, which he had so long sought to belie, took final command. All that was false, fantastic, artificial, loosed its hold and fell away. For the first time in two years Dabney Dirke was perfectly sane.
At the word to fire, he did the one thing possible to the man he was; his pistol flashed straight upwards.
The two shots rang out simultaneously, setting the echoes roaring among the hills. Dirke staggered, but recovered his foothold again and stood an instant, swaying slightly, while he slowly, with an absent look in his face and in his eyes, drew the ring from his finger. As de Lys came up, he dropped the trinket at his feet. Then, slowly, heavily, he sank back, and the men gently lowered him to the ground.
De Lys knelt beside him, white with consternation.
"Monsieur!" he cried; "Monsieur! It was a misunderstanding! I mistook you wholly! And you, you were magnanimous! Ah, mon Dieu!"
And then a wonder came to pass, for Dabney Dirke's lips parted in a smile. The smile was faint, yet indescribably sweet, and the voice was faint, and far-away, in which he murmured brokenly; "It was—a message—to—the stars."
The horror in the faces bending over him was lost in a look of awe. There was an influence mystically soothing in the dying man's words. The dry, soft air played about the group, rustling the short, sparse grass. It seemed the only motion left in a hushed and reverent world.
Then, as the smile deepened upon his face, fixed there by the hand of death, the lips parted for the last time, and Dirke whispered; "I am going—in—for astronomy!"
MR. FETHERBEE'S ADVENTURE.
Mr. Fetherbee was in his element,—a fact which the casual observer would have found it hard to believe; for he was a dapper little gentleman, dainty in his attire and presumably fastidious as to his surroundings, and these last were, in the present instance, hardly calculated to suit a fastidious taste. In a word, Mr. Fetherbee was "doing" Lame Gulch, doing it from the tourist's standpoint, delighting in every distinctive feature of the rough-and-ready, sordid, picturesque, "rustling" young mining-camp.
He was a popular little man, and he had been received with open arms, so to speak, by the Springtown contingent, when he had put in an appearance the day before at the Mountain Lion. He had arrived in a state of high good humor, induced by the stage ride from the railroad terminus, which he had accomplished, perched upon the topmost seat of the big "Concord," scraping acquaintance with a miscellaneous lot of pilgrims, all bound to the same conglomerate Mecca. Indeed, so charmed had he been with the manners and language of his fellow-passengers, that it is to be feared that he did but scant justice to the superb scenery spread out for the delectation of the traveller. There were moments, to be sure, when a line of gleaming snow-caps visible through the interstices of a tract of starveling trees would arrest his attention; yet the more moving and dramatic interest of some chance utterance in his immediate vicinity, was sure to recall him to a delighted contemplation of a rakish sombrero or of a doubtfully "diamond" scarf-pin. When, at last, the stage reached the edge of the sort of basin in which the camp lies, and began the descent of the last declivity, he could scarcely contain himself for sheer joy. What, to him, were the glories of the encircling peaks, the unfolding wonders of this heart of the Rockies, compared with the actual sight of the mushroom growth of pine huts and canvas tents, straggling sparsely up the hill, centring closely in the valley? Children and dogs tumbled over each other on the barren slope which looked like one vast back yard; donkeys grazed there, apparently fattening upon a rich diet of tin cans and shavings. Over yonder was a charred heap which had once been a building of some pretension, as was evident from the rude stone foundation which the blackened timbers leaned against. So Lame Gulch had its history, its traditions, its ruin. The charred timbers already looked older than the everlasting hills that towered on every hand, wrapped in the garment of eternal youth.
"What a lot of houses there are here," Mr. Fetherbee remarked to his next neighbor, a seamy old reprobate with an evil eye.
"Hm!" was the reply, the articulate profanity of which was lost in a cloud of the thickest, vilest tobacco smoke. "Ever seen a mining-camp when the stuff's given out?"
"No; what does it look like?"
"Like a heap of bloomin' peanut-shells chucked in a corner."
At the Mountain Lion were Allery Jones, Harry de Luce, Dick Dayton "the mascot," and half a dozen other Springtown men, and they pounced upon the new-comer with every flattering indication of delight.
Mr. Fetherbee had been but six months a resident of Springtown, but it had hardly taken as many days for Springtown to make the discovery that he was the king of story-tellers. He and his wife had taken up their residence in that most delightful of health resorts, and, having definitively closed up his affairs in the East, he had entered upon the Western life with keen zest. In one particular only he was apparently destined here as elsewhere to the disappointment which had dogged his footsteps from childhood up. Fortune had treated him kindly in many respects; she had given him health and prosperity, she had bestowed upon him a host of friends, and the wife of his choice,—a choice which fifteen years of rather exceptional happiness had amply justified,—best of all, he was endowed with an unfailing relish for these blessings: yet in the one burning desire of his heart he had been persistently frustrated. He had never had an adventure.
Men he knew had found this crowning bliss ready to their hand. There was his old chum, Jack Somers, who had been actually shipwrecked among the Azores; there was Caleb Fitz who had once stopped a runaway horse and saved the lives of two beauteous ladies, getting a corresponding number of his own ribs broken into the bargain; lucky dog! There was that miserable little cad, Sandy Seakum, who had been in Boston at the big fire of '72, and had done something he was forever bragging about in the way of saving a lot of bonds and other securities belonging to his father-in-law. But for Mr. Fetherbee there had been no such honors. He had never met so much as a savage dog; the very burglars had declined to concern themselves with his house; and once when the top story of a hotel he was sleeping in had caught fire, and prodigies of valor were performed in the rescue of the inmates under the roof, he had disgraced himself irretrievably in his own eyes by sleeping through the night unconscious of any disturbance. It was perhaps this unsatisfied craving for adventures of his own which gave such a vivid coloring to his anecdotes of other men's exploits; possibly too, his sense of humor, which had an entirely individual flavor, had been quickened by a sly appreciation of his own oddities.
On the evening of his arrival at Lame Gulch, Mr. Fetherbee had outdone himself. He had sat, the centre of an appreciative group, in the corner of the big office, well away from the roaring wood fire, his chair tilted back against the wall, his hat on the back of his head, spouting entertainment in an uninterrupted stream. Not that Mr. Fetherbee was in the habit of tilting his chair back, or, for the matter of that, of wearing his hat on the back of his head. But here, at Lame Gulch, he felt it incumbent upon him to enter as far as was practicable into the spirit of the piece. As he sat, enveloped in smoke and surrounded by the familiar forms of his Springtown cronies, he was obliged to admit that the "piece" in question had not yet developed much action. Yet the atmosphere was electric with possibilities, and the stage was well peopled with "characters," not one of which escaped the watchful eye of Mr. Fetherbee. A "character" he would have defined as a picturesque and lawless being, given to claim-jumping, murder, and all ungodliness; these qualities finding expression in a countenance at once fascinating and forbidding, a bearing at once stealthy and imperious. If no single one of the slouching, dark-browed apparitions that crossed his vision could be said to fulfil all these requirements, the indications scattered among them were sufficiently suggestive to have an exhilarating effect upon the genial little story-teller.
And now it was morning and the serious business of the day had begun. He was off for "the mines" with Dick Dayton, Allery Jones, and Frank Discombe,—a young mining engineer who was far more proud of his attainments as "Jehu," than of his really brilliant professional reputation. They rattled noisily along the main street of the camp in a loose-jointed vehicle drawn by two ambitious steeds which Allery Jones characterized as "fiery skeletons." It was a glorious September morning, and though there had been a heavy frost in the night, the sensitive mountain air was already, two or three hours after sunrise, warmed and mellowed through and through. The road soon began to rise, taking a fine sweep about the shoulder of Bear Mountain, and then making its way over obstacles of a pronounced nature, through a very poor and peaked "virgin forest." The wood-cutter had hacked his way right and left, combining a quest for firewood with his efforts in the service of the road-builder, scorning to remove stumps and roots, delighting in sharp corners and meaningless digressions. The horses struggled gallantly on, sometimes marching like a sculptor's creation, elevated on a huge pedestal of rock above the wagon which grovelled behind, its wheels sunk to their hubs in the ruts on either side;—sometimes plunging into unexpected depressions, which brought their backs below the level of the dasher. The wheels made their individual way as best they could, without the slightest reference to one another. At one moment Mr. Fetherbee perched with Dayton on the larboard end of the rear axle-tree; a moment later he found himself obliterated beneath the burly form of the latter, whom the exigencies of mountain travel had flung to the starboard side. Released from Dayton's crushing weight, his small person jounced freely about, or came butting against Discombe's back in the most spontaneous manner possible. The threatened dislocation of his joints, the imminent cracking of all his bones, the squeezing of his small person between the upper and the nether millstones of Dayton's portly form and the adamantine seat-cushions; each and every incident of the transit Mr. Fetherbee took in perfectly good part. Yet it may be questioned whether he would have arrived at the goal intact, had it not been for the timely splitting of an under-pinning of the wagon, which caused a sudden collapse in the bows of the storm-tossed bark, and obliged the travellers to descend while yet half a mile distant from their journey's end.
The drive had been a silent function, each man having been preoccupied with the effort to preserve the integrity of his physical structure. Once on their feet, a splashed and battered company, they observed one another critically, bursting into shouts of unrestrained mirth over the astonishing hieroglyphics of mud which had inscribed themselves upon their respective countenances. Mr. Fetherbee himself looked like an Indian brave in full war-paint.
The day thus pleasantly begun was one of divers experiences, any one of which seemed to contain within itself all the essential elements of an adventure. More than once Mr. Fetherbee felt, as he jocosely expressed it, as if every minute would be the next! Thanks to Discombe's commanding position as superintendent of several of the mines, they were able to investigate the situation pretty thoroughly. They climbed up and down ladders, regardless of the wear and tear upon their breathing apparatus, they hailed the discovery of "free gold" in a bit of ore with as much enthusiasm as if they had been able to distinguish the microscopic speck which was agitating the minds of foreman and superintendent. Into one mine they descended, two passengers at a time, standing on the edge of a huge ore-bucket, which was gently lowered down the shaft. It was a treat to see the gnomelike figure of Mr. Fetherbee poking about among the rocky ribs of Mother Earth, closely attended by the flickering lights and weird shadows cast by the tallow-dip with which he had prudently provided himself early in the day. Emerging into the light of heaven they all rested for a while, sprawling there upon the sun-baked hillside, looking down into a quiet wooded valley full of brooding sunshine and heavenly shadows, while their ears were filled with the din of the ore-bucket, restored to its legitimate function, rattling up the shaft and sending its contents crashing down into the dump.
There was but one moment of the day when Mr. Fetherbee's spirit quailed. His kind friends, anxious that he should miss no feature of "local coloring" had thoughtfully conducted him to the very worst of the miner's boarding-houses, where they all cheerfully partook of strange and direful viands for his sake. Mr. Fetherbee, shrewdly suspecting the true state of the case, had unflinchingly devoured everything that was set before him, topping off his gastronomic martyrdom with a section of apricot pie, of a peculiar consistency and a really poignant flavor. Just as he had swallowed the last mouthful, the proprietor of "The Jolly Delvers" came up, and Mr. Fetherbee, in the first flush of victory, remarked: "Well, sir! That is a pie, and no mistake!" Upon which the host, charmed with this spontaneous tribute, hastened to set before his guest another slice. And then it was that Mr. Fetherbee, but now so unflinching, so imperturbable, laid down his weapons and struck his colors. He eyed the pie, he eyed his delighted fellow-sufferers, and then, in a voice grown suddenly plaintive, he said: "Don't tempt me, sir! It would be against my doctor's orders!"
But even the memory of his discomfiture could not long check the flow of Mr. Fetherbee's spirits, and ten minutes later the valiant little trencher-man was climbing with cheerful alacrity into the wagon, which had been, in the interim, subjected to a judicious application of ropes and wires.
"Think she's quite seaworthy?" he asked, as the structure groaned and "gave" under his light weight.
"Guess she'll weather it," Discombe growled between his teeth which were closed upon the stem of his pipe. "If she doesn't, there'll be a circus!"
"Waves likely to be as high as they were this morning?"
"No; it's a kind of a double back-action slant we've got to tackle this time," and off they rattled, even more musically than before, by reason of the late repairs.
Over the brow of the mountain they went, and down on the other side. For some fifteen minutes they rumbled along so smoothly that the insatiate Mr. Fetherbee experienced a gnawing sense of disappointment and feared that the fun was really over. But presently, without much warning, the road made a sharp curve and began pitching downward in the most headlong manner, taking on at the same time a sharp lateral slant. The brake creaked, and screamed, the wheels scraped and wabbled in their loose-jointed fashion, the horses, almost on their haunches, gave up their usual mode of locomotion, and coasted unceremoniously along, their four feet gathered together in a rigid protest.
"Do you often come this way?" asked Mr. Fetherbee, in a disengaged manner.
"Well, no;" Discombe replied, composedly. "This is my first trip. They sometimes haul the ore down here on a sort of drag, but I guess these are the first wheels that ever—— I say, fellows, you'd better get out and hang on. She's slipping!"
In an instant all but Discombe had sprung out, and seizing the side of the wagon, or the spokes of the stiff front, wheel, in fact anything they could lay hands on, hung on to the endangered craft like grim fate, while Discombe, standing on the step, held the horses up by main force. There were moments when the longed-for adventure seemed imminent, and Mr. Fetherbee's spirits rose. He had quite made up his mind that if the wagon went over he should go with it, go with it into "kingdom come" rather than let go! He wondered whether he should be able to do the situation justice when he got home. It was a pity that Louisa could not see them with her own eyes! Though, on second thoughts, he was afraid he did not present a very dignified appearance, and if Louisa had a weakness, it consisted in the fact that she made a fetich of dignity, especially where her vivacious husband was concerned.
Meanwhile the ground was receding more and more rapidly under his sliding, stumbling feet, and his eyes were full of sand. Dayton and Allery Jones were frankly puffing and groaning, but Mr. Fetherbee scorned to make any such concession to circumstances. He was wondering whether his gait would be permanently out of kilter after this complicated and violent scramble, when he became aware that the lateral slant was gradually lessening. A moment later he and his two companions had loosed their hold and stood stretching and rubbing themselves, while the wagon, under Discombe's pilotage, continued on its way, scooping the horses down the hill at an increasing rate of speed. Just above where they were standing, was a shed-like structure which looked much the worse for wind and weather.
"That's the old shaft of the 'Coreopsis,'" Dayton remarked.
"So it is," said Jones. "Harry de Luce went down on the rope the other day."
"How do you do it?" asked Mr. Fetherbee, much interested.
"Hand over hand, I suppose; or else you just let her slide. De Luce went down like a monkey."
"He must have come up like a monkey! I don't see how he did it!"
"He didn't come up; he went out by the tunnel. It would take more than a monkey to go up three hundred feet on a slack rope, or thirty feet either, for the matter of that."
As Mr. Fetherbee stood mopping his brow, thereby spreading a cake of mud which he had unsuspectingly worn since morning, in a genial pattern over his right temple, a consuming ambition seized him.
"Now that's something I should like to do," he declared. "Anything to prevent?"
"Why, no; not if you're up to that kind of thing. They're doing it every day."
"Why don't you go down that way now?" Dayton asked. "We shall be driving right by the tunnel in an hour or two, and can pick you up."
By this time they had effected an entrance into the shed, the door of which was securely locked, while the boards of one entire side of the tumble-down structure swung in at a touch. The three men stood looking down the pitch black hole into which the rope disappeared.
"Looks kind of pokey, doesn't it?" said Allery Jones. "Think you'd better try it, Fetherbee?"
For answer, Mr. Fetherbee seized the lightly swinging rope with both hands, twisted one leg about it and slid gaily from sight.
"Bon voyage!" called Dayton, down the inky shaft.
"Yage!" came a hollow voice from the reverberating depths. They felt of the rope which was taut and firm.
"He's all right," said Dayton. "There's not enough of him to get hurt," and he squeezed his portly person out between the flapping boards.
"All the same, I shall be glad to see him again," Jones declared, with an anxious frown upon his usually nonchalant countenance; and the two men started briskly down the hill in pursuit of "the team."
Meanwhile, Mr. Fetherbee was making his way slowly and cautiously down the rope. It was a good stout one and he had no real misgivings. Yet the situation was unusual enough to have a piquant flavor. In the first place the darkness was more than inky in character, the kind of blackness in comparison with which the blackest night seems luminous. Then there was the peculiar quality of the air, so different from anything above ground, that the words chill, and dampness, had no special relation to it. In the strange, tomb-like silence, his own breath, his own movements, waked a ghostly, whispering echo which was extremely weird and suggestive. Mr. Fetherbee was enchanted. He felt that he was getting down into the mysterious heart of things; that he was having something which came within an ace of being an adventure. Then, as he felt his way down, farther and farther below the vain surface of things, that intervening ace vanished, and he came up against his adventure with a suddenness that sent a knife-like thrill to his heart. His foot had lost its hold of the rope; he was hanging by his hands only.
Startled into what he condemned as an unreasoning agitation, he began describing a circle with his leg, searching for the lost rope. It must be there, of course; why, of course it must! He had certainly not gone more than fifty or sixty feet, and they had said something about three hundred feet? Where could the rope be? It must have got caught somehow on his coat! Or perhaps his right leg was getting numb and he could not feel anything with it. But no! His leg was all right. He felt out with his left leg. It did not even touch the wall of the shaft. There seemed to be nothing there, nothing at all! Nothing there? Nothing in all the universe, but this bit of rope he was clutching, and himself, a miserable little lump of quivering, straining nerves.
Mr. Fetherbee told himself that this would never do. He loosed the grip of his left hand, and it felt its way slowly down the rope gathering it up inch by inch. He knew by the lightness of the rope that the end was there, yet when he touched it a shiver went through him. A second later the left hand was clutching the rope beside the right, and he had taken a long breath of,—was it relief? Relief from uncertainty, at least. He knew with a positive knowledge that there was but one outcome for the situation. It would be an hour at the very least before his friends reached the tunnel, for Discombe had business to attend to on the way. Even then they might not conclude immediately that anything was amiss. The break in the rope must be recent. It was possible that no one in the mine had discovered it. The old shaft was never used now-a-days, except for just such chance excursions as his. One thing was sure,—he could never hold out an hour. Already his wrists were weakening; he was getting chilled too, now that motion had ceased. He gave himself twenty minutes at the most, and then?—Hm! He wondered what it would be like! He had heard that people falling from a great height had the breath knocked out of them before they—arrived! He was afraid three hundred feet was not high enough for that! What a pity the shaft was not a thousand feet deep! What a pity it had any bottom at all!
"I should have liked a chance to tell Louisa," he said aloud, with a short, nervous laugh, and then,—he was himself again.
To say that Mr. Fetherbee was himself again is to say that he was a self-possessed and plucky little gentleman,—the same gallant little gentleman, dangling here at the end of a rope, with the steady, irresistible force of gravitation pulling him to his doom, as he had ever been in his gay, debonair progress through a safe and friendly world. He forced his thoughts away from the horror to come. His imagination could be kept out of that yawning horror, though his body must be inevitably drawn down into it as by a thousand clutching hands. He forced his thoughts back to the pleasant, prosperous life he had led; to the agreeable people he had known; and most tenderly, most warmly, he thought of Louisa,—Louisa, so kind, so sympathetic, so companionable.