"Oh, come off the roof," said Dick impatiently; "they must have seen SOMETHING, you know. The young lady wouldn't lie!"
Monsieur Ribaud leaned over, with a mysterious, cynical smile, and lowering his voice said:—
"You have reason to say so. You have hit it, my friend. There WAS a something! And if we regard the young lady, you shall hear. The story of Mademoiselle de Fontonelles is that she has walked by herself alone in the garden,—you observe, ALONE—in the moonlight, near the edge of the wood. You comprehend? The mother and the Cure are in the house,—for the time effaced! Here at the edge of the wood—though why she continues, a young demoiselle, to the edge of the wood does not make itself clear—she beholds her ancestor, as on a pedestal, young, pale, but very handsome and exalte,—pardon!"
"Nothing," said Dick hurriedly; "go on!"
"She beseeches him why! He says he is lost! She faints away, on the instant, there—regard me!—ON THE EDGE OF THE WOOD, she says. But her mother and Monsieur le Cure find her pale, agitated, distressed, ON THE SOFA IN THE SALON. One is asked to believe that she is transported through the air—like an angel—by the spirit of Armand de Fontonelles. Incredible!"
"Well, wot do YOU think?" said Dick sharply.
The cafe proprietor looked around him carefully, and then lowered his voice significantly:—
"A what?" said Dick, with a gasp.
"A lover!" repeated Ribaud. "You comprehend! Mademoiselle has no dot,—the property is nothing,—the brother has everything. A Mademoiselle de Fontonelles cannot marry out of her class, and the noblesse are all poor. Mademoiselle is young,—pretty, they say, of her kind. It is an intolerable life at the old chateau; mademoiselle consoles herself!"
Monsieur Ribaud never knew how near he was to the white road below the railing at that particular moment. Luckily, Dick controlled himself, and wisely, as Monsieur Ribaud's next sentence showed him.
"A romance,—an innocent, foolish liaison, if you like,—but, all the same, if known of a Mademoiselle de Fontonelles, a compromising, a fatal entanglement. There you are. Look! for this, then, all this story of cock and bulls and spirits! Mademoiselle has been discovered with her lover by some one. This pretty story shall stop their mouths!"
"But wot," said Dick brusquely, "wot if the girl was really skeert at something she'd seen, and fainted dead away, as she said she did,—and—and"—he hesitated—"some stranger came along and picked her up?"
Monsieur Ribaud looked at him pityingly.
"A Mademoiselle de Fontonelle is picked up by her servants, by her family, but not by the young man in the woods, alone. It is even more compromising!"
"Do you mean to say," said Dick furiously, "that the ragpickers and sneaks that wade around in the slumgallion of this country would dare to spatter that young gal?"
"I mean to say, yes,—assuredly, positively yes!" said Ribaud, rubbing his hands with a certain satisfaction at Dick's fury. "For you comprehend not the position of la jeune fille in all France! Ah! in America the young lady she go everywhere alone; I have seen her—pretty, charming, fascinating—alone with the young man. But here, no, never! Regard me, my friend. The French mother, she say to her daughter's fiance, 'Look! there is my daughter. She has never been alone with a young man for five minutes,—not even with you. Take her for your wife!' It is monstrous! it is impossible! it is so!"
There was a silence of a few minutes, and Dick looked blankly at the iron gates of the park of Fontonelles. Then he said: "Give me a cigar."
Monsieur Ribaud instantly produced his cigar case. Dick took a cigar, but waved aside the proffered match, and entering the cafe, took from his pocket the letter to Mademoiselle de Fontonelles, twisted it in a spiral, lighted it at a candle, lit his cigar with it, and returning to the veranda held it in his hand until the last ashes dropped on the floor. Then he said, gravely, to Ribaud:—
"You've treated me like a white man, Frenchy, and I ain't goin' back on yer—though your ways ain't my ways—nohow; but I reckon in this yer matter at the shotto you're a little too previous! For though I don't as a gin'ral thing take stock in ghosts, I BELIEVE EVERY WORD THAT THEM FOLK SAID UP THAR. And," he added, leaning his hand somewhat heavily on Ribaud's shoulder, "if you're the man I take you for, you'll believe it too! And if that chap, Armand de Fontonelles, hadn't hev picked up that gal at that moment, he would hev deserved to roast in hell another three hundred years! That's why I believe her story. So you'll let these yer Fontonelles keep their ghosts for all they're worth; and when you next feel inclined to talk about that girl's LOVER, you'll think of me, and shut your head! You hear me, Frenchy, I'm shoutin'! And don't you forget it!"
Nevertheless, early the next morning, Monsieur Ribaud accompanied his guest to the railway station, and parted from him with great effusion. On his way back an old-fashioned carriage with a postilion passed him. At a sign from its occupant, the postilion pulled up, and Monsieur Ribaud, bowing to the dust, approached the window, and the pale, stern face of a dignified, white-haired woman of sixty that looked from it.
"Has he gone?" said the lady.
"Assuredly, madame; I was with him at the station."
"And you think no one saw him?"
"No one, madame, but myself."
"And—what kind of a man was he?"
Monsieur Ribaud lifted his shoulders, threw out his hands despairingly, yet with a world of significance, and said:—
The carriage drove on and entered the gates of the chateau. And Monsieur Ribaud, cafe proprietor and Social Democrat, straightened himself in the dust and shook his fist after it.
A NIGHT ON THE DIVIDE
With the lulling of the wind towards evening it came on to snow—heavily, in straight, quickly succeeding flakes, dropping like white lances from the sky. This was followed by the usual Sierran phenomenon. The deep gorge, which, as the sun went down, had lapsed into darkness, presently began to reappear; at first the vanished trail came back as a vividly whitening streak before them; then the larches and pines that ascended from it like buttresses against the hillsides glimmered in ghostly distinctness, until at last the two slopes curved out of the darkness as if hewn in marble. For the sudden storm, which extended scarcely two miles, had left no trace upon the steep granite face of the high cliffs above; the snow, slipping silently from them, left them still hidden in the obscurity of night. In the vanished landscape the gorge alone stood out, set in a chaos of cloud and storm through which the moonbeams struggled ineffectually.
It was this unexpected sight which burst upon the occupants of a large covered "station wagon" who had chanced upon the lower end of the gorge. Coming from a still lower altitude, they had known nothing of the storm, which had momentarily ceased, but had left a record of its intensity in nearly two feet of snow. For some moments the horses floundered and struggled on, in what the travelers believed to be some old forgotten drift or avalanche, until the extent and freshness of the fall became apparent. To add to their difficulties, the storm recommenced, and not comprehending its real character and limit, they did not dare to attempt to return the way they came. To go on, however, was impossible. In this quandary they looked about them in vain for some other exit from the gorge. The sides of that gigantic white furrow terminated in darkness. Hemmed in from the world in all directions, it might have been their tomb.
But although THEY could see nothing beyond their prison walls, they themselves were perfectly visible from the heights above them. And Jack Tenbrook, quartz miner, who was sinking a tunnel in the rocky ledge of shelf above the gorge, stepping out from his cabin at ten o'clock to take a look at the weather before turning in, could observe quite distinctly the outline of the black wagon, the floundering horses, and the crouching figures by their side, scarcely larger than pygmies on the white surface of the snow, six hundred feet below him. Jack had courage and strength, and the good humor that accompanies them, but he contented himself for a few moments with lazily observing the travelers' discomfiture. He had taken in the situation with a glance; he would have helped a brother miner or mountaineer, although he knew that it could only have been drink or bravado that brought HIM into the gorge in a snowstorm, but it was very evident that these were "greenhorns," or eastern tourists, and it served their stupidity and arrogance right! He remembered also how he, having once helped an Eastern visitor catch the mustang that had "bucked" him, had been called "my man," and presented with five dollars; he recalled how he had once spread the humble resources of his cabin before some straying members of the San Francisco party who were "opening" the new railroad, and heard the audible wonder of a lady that a civilized being could live so "coarsely"? With these recollections in his mind, he managed to survey the distant struggling horses with a fine sense of humor, not unmixed with self-righteousness. There was no real danger in the situation; it meant at the worst a delay and a camping in the snow till morning, when he would go down to their assistance. They had a spacious traveling equipage, and were, no doubt, well supplied with furs, robes, and provisions for a several hours' journey; his own pork barrel was quite empty, and his blankets worn. He half smiled, extended his long arms in a decided yawn, and turned back into his cabin to go to bed. Then he cast a final glance around the interior. Everything was all right; his loaded rifle stood against the wall; he had just raked ashes over the embers of his fire to keep it intact till morning. Only one thing slightly troubled him; a grizzly bear, two-thirds grown, but only half tamed, which had been given to him by a young lady named "Miggles," when that charming and historic girl had decided to accompany her paralytic lover to the San Francisco hospital, was missing that evening. It had been its regular habit to come to the door every night for some sweet biscuit or sugar before going to its lair in the underbrush behind the cabin. Everybody knew it along the length and breadth of Hemlock Ridge, as well as the fact of its being a legacy from the fair exile. No rifle had ever yet been raised against its lazy bulk or the stupid, small-eyed head and ruff of circling hairs made more erect by its well-worn leather collar. Consoling himself with the thought that the storm had probably delayed its return, Jack took off his coat and threw it on his bunk. But from thinking of the storm his thoughts naturally returned again to the impeded travelers below him, and he half mechanically stepped out in his shirt-sleeves for a final look at them.
But here something occurred that changed his resolution entirely. He had previously noticed only the three foreshortened, crawling figures around the now stationary wagon bulk. They were now apparently making arrangements to camp for the night. But another figure had been added to the group, and as it stood perched upon a wagon seat laid on the snow Jack could see that its outline was not bifurcated like the others. But even that general suggestion was not needed! the little head, the symmetrical curves visible even at that distance, were quite enough to indicate that it was a woman! The easy smile faded from Jack's face, and was succeeded by a look of concern and then of resignation. He had no choice now; he MUST go! There was a woman there, and that settled it. Yet he had arrived at this conclusion from no sense of gallantry, nor, indeed, of chivalrous transport, but as a matter of simple duty to the sex. He was giving up his sleep, was going down six hundred feet of steep trail to offer his services during the rest of the night as much as a matter of course as an Eastern man would have offered his seat in an omnibus to a woman, and with as little expectation of return for his courtesy.
Having resumed his coat, with a bottle of whiskey thrust into its pocket, he put on a pair of india-rubber boots reaching to his thighs, and, catching the blanket from his bunk, started with an axe and shovel on his shoulder on his downward journey. When the distance was half completed he shouted to the travelers below; the cry was joyously answered by the three men; he saw the fourth figure, now unmistakably that of a slender youthful woman, in a cloak, helped back into the wagon, as if deliverance was now sure and immediate. But Jack on arriving speedily dissipated that illusive hope; they could only get through the gorge by taking off the wheels of the wagon, placing the axle on rude sledge-runners of split saplings, which, with their assistance, he would fashion in a couple of hours at his cabin and bring down to the gorge. The only other alternative would be for them to come to his cabin and remain there while he went for assistance to the nearest station, but that would take several hours and necessitate a double journey for the sledge if he was lucky enough to find one. The party quickly acquiesced in Jack's first suggestion.
"Very well," said Jack, "then there's no time to be lost; unhitch your horses and we'll dig a hole in that bank for them to stand in out of the snow." This was speedily done. "Now," continued Jack, "you'll just follow me up to my cabin; it's a pretty tough climb, but I'll want your help to bring down the runners."
Here the man who seemed to be the head of the party—of middle age and a superior, professional type—for the first time hesitated. "I forgot to say that there is a lady with us,—my daughter," he began, glancing towards the wagon.
"I reckoned as much," interrupted Jack simply, "and I allowed to carry her up myself the roughest part of the way. She kin make herself warm and comf'ble in the cabin until we've got the runners ready."
"You hear what our friend says, Amy?" suggested the gentleman, appealingly, to the closed leather curtains of the wagon.
There was a pause. The curtain was suddenly drawn aside, and a charming little head and shoulders, furred to the throat and topped with a bewitching velvet cap, were thrust out. In the obscurity little could be seen of the girl's features, but there was a certain willfulness and impatience in her attitude. Being in the shadow, she had the advantage of the others, particularly of Jack, as his figure was fully revealed in the moonlight against the snowbank. Her eyes rested for a moment on his high boots, his heavy mustache, so long as to mingle with the unkempt locks which fell over his broad shoulders, on his huge red hands streaked with black grease from the wagon wheels, and some blood, stanched with snow, drawn from bruises in cutting out brambles in the brush; on—more awful than all—a monstrous, shiny "specimen" gold ring encircling one of his fingers,—on the whiskey bottle that shamelessly bulged from his side pocket, and then—slowly dropped her dissatisfied eyelids.
"Why can't I stay HERE?" she said languidly. "It's quite nice and comfortable."
"Because we can't leave you alone, and we must go with this gentleman to help him."
Miss Amy let the tail of her eye again creep shudderingly over this impossible Jack. "I thought the—the gentleman was going to help US," she said dryly.
"Nonsense, Amy, you don't understand," said her father impatiently. "This gentleman is kind enough to offer to make some sledge-runners for us at his cabin, and we must help him."
"But I can stay here while you go. I'm not afraid."
"Yes, but you're ALONE here, and something might happen."
"Nothing could happen," interrupted Jack, quickly and cheerfully. He had flushed at first, but he was now considering that the carrying of a lady as expensively attired and apparently as delicate and particular as this one might be somewhat difficult. "There's nothin' that would hurt ye here," he continued, addressing the velvet cap and furred throat in the darkness, "and if there was it couldn't get at ye, bein', so to speak, in the same sort o' fix as you. So you're all right," he added positively.
Inconsistently enough, the young lady did not accept this as gratefully as might have been imagined, but Jack did not see the slight flash of her eye as, ignoring him, she replied markedly to her father, "I'd much rather stop here, papa."
"And," continued Jack, turning also to her father, "you can keep the wagon and the whole gorge in sight from the trail all the way up. So you can see that everything's all right. Why, I saw YOU from the first." He stopped awkwardly, and added, "Come along; the sooner we're off the quicker the job's over."
"Pray don't delay the gentleman and—the job," said Miss Amy sweetly.
Reassured by Jack's last suggestion, her father followed him with the driver and the second man of the party, a youngish and somewhat undistinctive individual, but to whose gallant anxieties Miss Amy responded effusively. Nevertheless, the young lady had especially noted Jack's confession that he had seen them when they first entered the gorge. "And I suppose," she added to herself mentally, "that he sat there with his boozing companions, laughing and jeering at our struggles."
But when the sound of her companions' voices died away, and their figures were swallowed up in the darkness behind the snow, she forgot all this, and much else that was mundane and frivolous, in the impressive and majestic solitude which seemed to descend upon her from the obscurity above.
At first it was accompanied with a slight thrill of vague fear, but this passed presently into that profound peace which the mountains alone can give their lonely or perturbed children. It seemed to her that Nature was never the same, on the great plains where men and cities always loomed into such ridiculous proportions, as when the Great Mother raised herself to comfort them with smiling hillsides, or encompassed them and drew them closer in the loving arms of her mountains. The long white canada stretched before her in a purity that did not seem of the earth; the vague bulk of the mountains rose on either side of her in a mystery that was not of this life. Yet it was not oppressive; neither was its restfulness and quiet suggestive of obliviousness and slumber; on the contrary, the highly rarefied air seemed to give additional keenness to her senses; her hearing had become singularly acute; her eyesight pierced the uttermost extremity of the gorge, lit by the full moon that occasionally shone through slowly drifting clouds. Her nerves thrilled with a delicious sense of freedom and a strange desire to run or climb. It seemed to her, in her exalted fancy, that these solitudes should be peopled only by a kingly race, and not by such gross and material churls as this mountaineer who helped them. And, I grieve to say,—writing of an idealist that WAS, and a heroine that IS to be,—she was getting outrageously hungry.
There were a few biscuits in her traveling-bag, and she remembered that she had been presented with a small jar of California honey at San Jose. This she took out and opened on the seat before her, and spreading the honey on the biscuits, ate them with a keen schoolgirl relish and a pleasant suggestion of a sylvan picnic in spite of the cold. It was all very strange; quite an experience for her to speak of afterwards. People would hardly believe that she had spent an hour or two, all alone, in a deserted wagon in a mountain snow pass. It was an adventure such as one reads of in the magazines. Only something was lacking which the magazines always supplied,—something heroic, something done by somebody. If that awful-looking mountaineer—that man with the long hair and mustache, and that horrible gold ring,—why such a ring?—was only different! But he was probably gorging beefsteak or venison with her father and Mr. Waterhouse,—men were always such selfish creatures!—and had quite forgotten all about her. It would have been only decent for them to have brought her down something hot; biscuits and honey were certainly cloying, and somehow didn't agree with the temperature. She was really half starved! And much they cared! It would just serve them right if something DID happen to her,—or SEEM to happen to her,—if only to frighten them. And the pretty face that was turned up in the moonlight wore a charming but decided pout.
Good gracious, what was that? The horses were either struggling or fighting in their snow shelters. Then one with a frightened neigh broke from its halter and dashed into the road, only to be plunged snorting and helpless into the drifts. Then the other followed. How silly! Something had frightened them. Perhaps only a rabbit or a mole; horses were such absurdly nervous creatures! However, it is just as well; somebody would see them or hear them,—that neigh was quite human and awful,—and they would hurry down to see what was the matter. SHE couldn't be expected to get out and look after the horses in the snow. Anyhow, she WOULDN'T! She was a good deal safer where she was; it might have been rats or mice about that frightened them! Goodness!
She was still watching with curious wonder the continued fright of the animals, when suddenly she felt the wagon half bumped, half lifted from behind. It was such a lazy, deliberate movement that for a moment she thought it came from the party, who had returned noiselessly with the runners. She scrambled over to the back seat, unbuttoned the leather curtain, lifted it, but nothing was to be seen. Consequently, with feminine quickness, she said, "I see you perfectly, Mr. Waterhouse—don't be silly!" But at this moment there was another shock to the wagon, and from beneath it arose what at first seemed to her to be an uplifting of the drift itself, but, as the snow was shaken away from its heavy bulk, proved to be the enormous head and shoulders of a bear!
Yet even then she was not WHOLLY frightened, for the snout that confronted her had a feeble inoffensiveness; the small eyes were bright with an eager, almost childish curiosity rather than a savage ardor, and the whole attitude of the creature lifted upon its hind legs was circus-like and ludicrous rather than aggressive. She was enabled to say with some dignity, "Go away! Shoo!" and to wave her luncheon basket at it with exemplary firmness. But here the creature laid one paw on the back seat as if to steady itself, with the singular effect of collapsing the whole side of the wagon, and then opened its mouth as if in some sort of inarticulate reply. But the revelation of its red tongue, its glistening teeth, and, above all, the hot, suggestive fume of its breath, brought the first scream from the lips of Miss Amy. It was real and convincing; the horses joined in it; the three screamed together! The bear hesitated for an instant, then, catching sight of the honey-pot on the front seat, which the shrinking-back of the young girl had disclosed, he slowly reached forward his other paw and attempted to grasp it. This exceedingly simple movement, however, at once doubled up the front seat, sent the honey-pot a dozen feet into the air, and dropped Miss Amy upon her knees in the bed of the wagon. The combined mental and physical shock was too much for her; she instantly and sincerely fainted; the last thing in her ears amidst this wreck of matter being the "wheep" of a bullet and the sharp crack of a rifle.
She recovered her consciousness in the flickering light of a fire of bark, that played upon the rafters of a roof thatched with bark and upon a floor of strewn and shredded bark. She even suspected she was lying upon a mattress of bark underneath the heavy bearskin she could feel and touch. She had a delicious sense of warmth, and, mingled with this strange spicing of woodland freedom, even a sense of home protection. And surely enough, looking around, she saw her father at her side.
He briefly explained the situation. They had been at first attracted by the cry of the frightened horses and their plunging, which they could see distinctly, although they saw nothing else. "But, Mr. Tenbrook"—
"Mr. Who?" said Amy, staring at the rafters.
"The owner of this cabin—the man who helped us—caught up his gun, and, calling us to follow, ran like lightning down the trail. At first we followed blindly, and unknowingly, for we could only see the struggling horses, who, however, seemed to be ALONE, and the wagon from which you did not seem to have stirred. Then, for the first time, my dear child, we suddenly saw your danger. Imagine how we felt as that hideous brute rose up in the road and began attacking the wagon. We called on Tenbrook to fire, but for some inconceivable reason he did not, although he still kept running at the top of his speed. Then we heard you shriek—"
"I didn't shriek, papa; it was the horses."
"My child, I knew your voice."
"Well, it was only a VERY LITTLE scream—because I had tumbled." The color was coming back rapidly to her pink cheeks.
"And, then, at your scream, Tenbrook fired!—it was a wonderful shot for the distance, so everybody says—and killed the bear, though Tenbrook says it oughtn't to. I believe he wanted to capture the creature alive. They've queer notions, those hunters. And then, as you were unconscious, he brought you up here."
"WHO brought me?"
"Tenbrook; he's as strong as a horse. Slung you up on his shoulders like a feather pillow."
"And then, as the wagon required some repairing from the brute's attack, we concluded to take it leisurely, and let you rest here for a while."
"And where is—where are THEY?"
"At work on the wagon. I determined to stay with you, though you are perfectly safe here."
"I suppose I ought—to thank—this man, papa?"
"Most certainly, though of course, I have already done so. But he was rather curt in reply. These half-savage men have such singular ideas. He said the beast would never have attacked you except for the honey-pot which it scented. That's absurd."
"Then it's all my fault?"
"Nonsense! How could YOU know?"
"And I've made all this trouble. And frightened the horses. And spoilt the wagon. And made the man run down and bring me up here when he didn't want to!"
"My dear child! Don't be idiotic! Amy! Well, really!"
For the idiotic one was really wiping two large tears from her lovely blue eyes. She subsided into an ominous silence, broken by a single sniffle. "Try to go to sleep, dear; you've had quite a shock to your nerves, added her father soothingly. She continued silent, but not sleeping.
"I smell coffee."
"You've been having coffee, papa?"
"We DID have some, I think," said the wretched man apologetically, though why he could not determine.
"Before I came up? while the bear was trying to eat me?"
"I've a horrid taste in my mouth. It's the honey. I'll never eat honey again. Never!"
"Perhaps it's the whiskey."
"The whiskey. You were quite faint and chilled, you know. We gave you some."
"I'd like some coffee. I don't think he'd begrudge me that, if he did save my life."
"I dare say there's some left." Her father at once bestirred himself and presently brought her some coffee in a tin cup. It was part of Miss Amy's rapid convalescence, or equally of her debilitated condition, that she made no comment on the vessel. She lay for some moments looking curiously around the cabin; she had no doubt it had a worse look in the daylight, but somehow the firelight brought out a wondrous luxury of color in the bark floor and thatching. Besides, it was not "smelly," as she feared it would be; on the contrary the spicy aroma of the woods was always dominant. She remembered that it was this that always made a greasy, oily picnic tolerable. She raised herself on her elbow, seeing which her father continued confidently, "Perhaps, dear, if you sat up for a few moments you might be strong enough presently to walk down with me to the wagon. It would save time."
Amy instantly lay down again. "I don't know what you can be thinking of, papa. After this shock really I don't feel as if I could STAND alone, much less WALK. But, of course," with pathetic resignation, "if you and Mr. Waterhouse supported me, perhaps I might crawl a few steps at a time."
"Nonsense, Amy. Of course, this man Tenbrook will carry you down as he brought you up. Only I thought,—but there are steps, they're coming now. No!—only HE."
The sound of crackling in the underbrush was followed by a momentary darkening of the open door of the cabin. It was the tall figure of the mountaineer. But he did not even make the pretense of entering; standing at the door he delivered his news to the interior generally. It was to the effect that everything was ready, and the two other men were even then harnessing the horses. Then he drew back into the darkness.
"Papa," said Amy, in a sudden frightened voice, "I've lost my bracelet."
"Haven't you dropped it somewhere there in the bunk?" asked her father.
"No. It's on the floor of the wagon. I remember now it fell off when I tumbled! And it will be trodden upon and crushed! Couldn't you run down, ahead of me, and warn them, papa, dear? Mr. Tenbrook will have to go so slowly with me." She tumbled out of the bunk with singular alacrity, shook herself and her skirts into instantaneous gracefulness, and fitted the velvet cap on her straying hair. Then she said hurriedly, "Run quick, papa dear, and as you go, call him in and say I am quite ready."
Thus adjured, the obedient parent disappeared in the darkness. With him also disappeared Miss Amy's singular alacrity. Sitting down carefully again on the edge of the bunk, she leaned against the post with a certain indefinable languor that was as touching as it was graceful. I need not tell any feminine readers that there was no dissimulation in all this,—no coquetry, no ostentation,—and that the young girl was perfectly sincere! But the masculine reader might like to know that the simple fact was that, since she had regained consciousness, she had been filled with remorse for her capricious and ungenerous rejection of Tenbrook's proffered service. More than that, she felt she had periled her life in that moment of folly, and that this man—this hero—had saved her. For hero he was, even if he did not fulfill her ideal,—it was only SHE that was not a heroine. Perhaps if he had been more like what she wished she would have felt this less keenly; love leaves little room for the exercise of moral ethics. So Miss Amy Forester, being a good girl at bottom, and not exactly loving this man, felt towards him a frank and tender consideration which a more romantic passion would have shrunk from showing. Consequently, when Tenbrook entered a moment later, he found Amy paler and more thoughtful, but, as he fancied, much prettier than before, looking up at him with eyes of the sincerest solicitude.
Nevertheless, he remained standing near the door, as if indicating a possible intrusion, his face wearing a look of lowering abstraction. It struck her that this might be the effect of his long hair and general uncouthness, and this only spurred her to a fuller recognition of his other qualities.
"I am afraid," she began, with a charming embarrassment, "that instead of resting satisfied with your kindness in carrying me up here, I will have to burden you again with my dreadful weakness, and ask you to carry me down also. But all this seems so little after what you have just done and for which I can never, NEVER hope to thank you!" She clasped her two little hands together, holding her gloves between, and brought them down upon her lap in a gesture as prettily helpless as it was unaffected.
"I have done scarcely anything," he said, glancing away towards the fire, "and—your father has thanked me."
"You have saved my life!"
"No! no!" he said quickly. "Not that! You were in no danger, except from my rifle, had I missed."
"I see," she said eagerly, with a little posthumous thrill at having been after all a kind of heroine, "and it was a wonderful shot, for you were so careful not to touch me."
"Please don't say any more," he said, with a slight movement of half awkwardness, half impatience. "It was a rough job, but it's over now."
He stopped and chafed his red hands abstractedly together. She could see that he had evidently just washed them—and the glaring ring was more in evidence than ever. But the thought gave her an inspiration.
"You'll at least let me shake hands with you!" she said, extending both her own with childish frankness.
"Hold on, Miss Forester," he said, with sudden desperation. "It ain't the square thing! Look here! I can't play this thing on you!—I can't let you play it on me any longer! You weren't in any danger,—you NEVER were! That bear was only a half-wild thing I helped to ra'r myself! It's taken sugar from my hand night after night at the door of this cabin as it might have taken it from yours here if it was alive now. It slept night after night in the brush, not fifty yards away. The morning's never come yet—till now," he said hastily, to cover an odd break in his voice, "when it didn't brush along the whole side of this cabin to kinder wake me up and say 'So long,' afore it browsed away into the canyon. Thar ain't a man along the whole Divide who didn't know it; thar ain't a man along the whole Divide that would have drawn a bead or pulled a trigger on it till now. It never had an enemy but the bees; it never even knew why horses and cattle were frightened of it. It wasn't much of a pet, you'd say, Miss Forester; it wasn't much to meet a lady's eye; but we of the woods must take our friends where we find 'em and of our own kind. It ain't no fault of yours, Miss, that you didn't know it; it ain't no fault of yours what happened; but when it comes to your THANKING me for it, why—it's—it's rather rough, you see—and gets me." He stopped short as desperately and as abruptly as he had begun, and stared blankly at the fire.
A wave of pity and shame swept over the young girl and left its high tide on her cheek. But even then it was closely followed by the feminine instinct of defence and defiance. The REAL hero—the GENTLEMAN—she reasoned bitterly, would have spared her all this knowledge.
"But why," she said, with knitted brows, "why, if you knew it was so precious and so harmless—why did you fire upon it?"
"Because," he said almost fiercely, turning upon her, "because you SCREAMED, and THEN I KNEW IT HAD FRIGHTENED YOU!" He stopped instantly as she momentarily recoiled from him, but the very brusqueness of his action had dislodged a tear from his dark eyes that fell warm on the back of her hand, and seemed to blot out the indignity. "Listen, Miss," he went on hurriedly, as if to cover up his momentary unmanliness. "I knew the bear was missing to-night, and when I heard the horses scurrying about I reckoned what was up. I knew no harm could come to you, for the horses were unharnessed and away from the wagon. I pelted down that trail ahead of them all like grim death, calkilatin' to get there before the bear; they wouldn't have understood me; I was too high up to call to the creature when he did come out, and I kinder hoped you wouldn't see him. Even when he turned towards the wagon, I knew it wasn't YOU he was after, but suthin' else, and I kinder hoped, Miss, that you, being different and quicker-minded than the rest, would see it too. All the while them folks were yellin' behind me to fire—as if I didn't know my work. I was half-way down—and then you screamed! And then I forgot everything,—everything but standing clear of hitting you,—and I fired. I was that savage that I wanted to believe that he'd gone mad, and would have touched you, till I got down there and found the honey-pot lying alongside of him. But there,—it's all over now! I wouldn't have let on a word to you only I couldn't bear to take YOUR THANKS for it, and I couldn't bear to have you thinking me a brute for dodgin' them." He stopped, walked to the fire, leaned against the chimney under the shallow pretext of kicking the dull embers into a blaze, which, however, had only the effect of revealing his two glistening eyes as he turned back again and came towards her. "Well," he said, with an ineffectual laugh, "it's all over now, it's all in the day's work, I reckon,—and now, Miss, if you're ready, and will just fix yourself your own way so as to ride easy, I'll carry you down." And slightly bending his strong figure, he dropped on one knee beside her with extended arms.
Now it is one thing to be carried up a hill in temperate, unconscious blood and practical business fashion by a tall, powerful man with steadfast, glowering eyes, but quite another thing to be carried down again by the same man, who has been crying, and when you are conscious that you are going to cry too, and your tears may be apt to mingle. So Miss Amy Forester said: "Oh, wait, please! Sit down a moment. Oh, Mr. Tenbrook, I am so very, very sorry," and, clapping her hand to her eyes, burst into tears.
"Oh, please, please don't, Miss Forester," said Jack, sitting down on the end of the bunk with frightened eyes, "please don't do that! It ain't worth it. I'm only a brute to have said anything."
"No, no! You are SO noble, SO forgiving!" sobbed Miss Forester, "and I have made you go and kill the only thing you cared for, that was all your own."
"No, Miss,—not all my own, either,—and that makes it so rough. For it was only left in trust with me by a friend. It was her only companion."
"HER only companion?" echoed Miss Forester, sharply lifting her bowed head.
"Except," said Jack hurriedly, miscomprehending the emphasis with masculine fatuity,—"except the dying man for whom she lived and sacrificed her whole life. She gave me this ring, to always remind me of my trust. I suppose," he added ruefully, looking down upon it, "it's no use now. I'd better take it off."
Then Amy eyed the monstrous object with angelic simplicity. "I certainly should," she said with infinite sweetness; "it would only remind you of your loss. But," she added, with a sudden, swift, imploring look of her blue eyes, "if you could part with it to me, it would be such a reminder and token of—of your forgiveness."
Jack instantly handed it to her. "And now," he said, "let me carry you down."
"I think," she said hesitatingly, "that—I had better try to walk," and she rose to her feet.
"Then I shall know that you have not forgiven me," said Jack sadly.
"But I have no right to trouble"—
Alas! she had no time to finish her polite objection, for the next moment she felt herself lifted in the air, smelled the bark thatch within an inch of her nose, saw the firelight vanish behind her, and subsiding into his curved arms as in a hammock, the two passed forth into the night together.
"I can't find, your bracelet anywhere, Amy," said her father, when they reached the wagon.
"It was on the floor in the lint," said Amy reproachfully. "But, of course, you never thought of that!"
My pen halts with some diffidence between two conclusions to this veracious chronicle. As they agree in result, though not in theory or intention, I may venture to give them both. To one coming from the lips of the charming heroine herself I naturally yield the precedence. "Oh, the bear story! I don't really remember whether that was before I was engaged to John or after. But I had known him for some time; father introduced him at the Governor's ball at Sacramento. Let me see!—I think it was in the winter of '56. Yes! it was very amusing; I always used to charge John with having trained that bear to attack our carriage so that he might come in as a hero! Oh, of course, there are a hundred absurd stories about him,—they used to say that he lived all alone in a cabin like a savage, and all that sort of thing, and was a friend of a dubious woman in the locality, whom the common people made a heroine of,—Miggles, or Wiggles, or some such preposterous name. But look at John there; can you conceive it?" The listener, glancing at a very handsome, clean-shaven fellow, faultlessly attired, could not conceive such an absurdity. So I therefore simply give the opinion of Joshua Bixley, Superintendent of the Long Divide Tunnel Company, for what it is worth: "I never took much stock in that bear story, and its captivating old Forester's daughter. Old Forester knew a thing or two, and when he was out here consolidating tunnels, he found out that Jack Tenbrook was about headed for the big lead, and brought him out and introduced him to Amy. You see, Jack, clear grit as he was, was mighty rough style, and about as simple as they make 'em, and they had to get up something to account for that girl's taking a shine to him. But they seem to be happy enough—and what are you going to do about it?"
And I transfer this philosophic query to the reader.
THE YOUNGEST PROSPECTOR IN CALAVERAS
He was scarcely eight when it was believed that he could have reasonably laid claim to the above title. But he never did. He was a small boy, intensely freckled to the roots of his tawny hair, with even a suspicion of it in his almond-shaped but somewhat full eyes, which were the greenish hue of a ripe gooseberry. All this was very unlike his parents, from whom he diverged in resemblance in that fashion so often seen in the Southwest of America, as if the youth of the boundless West had struck a new note of independence and originality, overriding all conservative and established rules of heredity. Something of this was also shown in a singular and remarkable reticence and firmness of purpose, quite unlike his family or schoolfellows. His mother was the wife of a teamster, who had apparently once "dumped" his family, consisting of a boy and two girls, on the roadside at Burnt Spring, with the canvas roof of his wagon to cover them, while he proceeded to deliver other freight, not so exclusively his own, at other stations along the road, returning to them on distant and separate occasions with slight additions to their stock, habitation, and furniture. In this way the canvas roof was finally shingled and the hut enlarged, and, under the quickening of a smiling California sky and the forcing of a teeming California soil, the chance-sown seed took root and became known as Medliker's Ranch, or "Medliker's," with its bursting garden patch and its three sheds or "lean-to's."
The girls helped their mother in a childish, imitative way; the boy, John Bunyan, after a more desultory and original fashion—when he was not "going to" or ostensibly "coming from" school, for he was seldom actually there. Something of this fear was in the mind of Mrs. Medliker one morning as she looked up from the kettle she was scrubbing, with premonition of "more worriting," to behold the Reverend Mr. Staples, the local minister, hale John Bunyan Medliker into the shanty with one hand. Letting Johnny go, he placed his back against the door and wiped his face with a red handkerchief. Johnny dropped into a chair, furtively glancing at the arm by which Mr. Staples had dragged him, and feeling it with the other hand to see if it was really longer.
"I've been requested by the schoolmaster," said the Rev. Mr. Staples, putting his handkerchief back into his broad felt hat with a gasping smile, "to bring our young friend before you for a matter of counsel and discipline. I have done so, Sister Medliker, with some difficulty,"—he looked down at John Bunyan, who again felt his arm and was satisfied that it WAS longer—"but we must do our dooty, even with difficulty to ourselves, and, perhaps, to others. Our young friend, John Bunyan, stands on a giddy height—on slippery places, and," continued Mr. Staples, with a lofty disregard to consecutive metaphor, "his feet are taking fast hold of destruction." Here the child drew a breath of relief, possibly at the prospect of being on firm ground of any kind at last; but Sister Medliker, to whom the Staples style of exordium had only a Sabbath significance, turned to her offspring abruptly:—
"And what's these yer doin's now, John? and me a slavin' to send ye to school?"
Thus appealed to, Johnny looked for a reply at his feet, at his arm, and at the kettle. Then he said: "I ain't done nothin', but he"—indicating Staples—"hez been nigh onter pullin' off my arm."
"It's now almost a week ago," continued Mr. Staples, waving aside the interruption with a smile of painful Christian tolerance, "or perhaps ten days—I won't be too sure—that the schoolmaster discovered that Johnny had in his possession two or three flakes of fine river gold—each of the value of half a dollar, or perhaps sixty-two and one half cents. On being questioned where he got them he refused to say; although subsequently he alleged that he had 'found' them. It being a single instance, he was given the benefit of the doubt, and nothing more was said about it. But a few days after he was found trying to pass off, at Mr. Smith's store, two other flakes of a different size, and a small nugget of the value of four or five dollars. At this point I was called in; he repeated to me, I grieve to say, the same untruthfulness, and when I suggested to him the obvious fact that he had taken it from one of the miner's sluice boxes and committed the grievous sin of theft, he wickedly denied it—so that we are prevented from carrying out the Christian command of restoring it even ONE fold, instead of four or five fold as the Mosaic Law might have required. We were, alas! unable to ascertain anything from the miners themselves, though I grieve to say they one and all agreed that their 'take' that week was not at all what they had expected. I even went so far as to admit the possibility of his own statement, and besought him at least to show me where he had found it. He at first refused with great stubbornness of temper, but later consented to accompany me privately this afternoon to the spot." Mr. Staples paused, and sinking his voice gloomily, and with his eyes fixed upon Johnny, continued slowly: "When I state that, after several times trying to evade me on the way, he finally led me to the top of Bald Hill, where there is not a scrap of soil, and not the slightest indication, and still persisted that he found it THERE, you will understand, Sister Medliker, the incorrigibility of his conduct, and how he has added the sin of 'false witness' to his breaking the Eighth Commandment. But I leave him to your Christian discipline! Let us hope that if, through his stiff-necked obduracy, he has haply escaped the vengeance of man's law, he will not escape the rod of the domestic tabernacle."
"Ye kin leave him to me," said Mrs. Medliker, in her anxiety to get rid of the parson, assuming a confidence she was far from feeling.
"So be it, Sister Medliker," said Staples, drawing a long, satisfactory breath; "and let us trust that when you have rastled with his flesh and spirit, you will bring us joyful tidings to Wednesday's Mother's Meeting."
He clapped his soft hat on his head, cast another glance at the wicked Johnny, opened the door with his hand behind him, and backed himself into the road.
"Now, Johnny," said Mrs. Medliker, setting her lips together as the door closed, "look me right in the face, and say where you stole that gold."
But Johnny evidently did not think that his mother's face at that moment offered any moral support, for he did not look at her; but, after gazing at the kettle, said slowly, "I didn't steal no gold."
"Then," said Mrs. Medliker triumphantly, "if ye didn't steal it, you'd say right off HOW ye got it."
Children are often better logicians than their elders. To John Bunyan the stealing of gold and the mere refusal to say where he got it were two distinct and separate things; that the negation of the second proposition meant the affirmation of the first he could not accept. But then children are also imitative, and fearful of the older intellect. It struck Johnny that his mother might be right, and that to her it really meant the same thing. So, after a moment's silence he replied more confidently, "I suppose I stoled it."
But he was utterly unprepared for the darkening change in his mother's face, and her furious accents. "You stole it?—you STOLE it, you limb! And you sit there and brazenly tell me! Who did you steal it from? Tell me quick, afore I wring it out of you!"
Completely astounded and bewildered at this new turn of affairs, Johnny again fell back upon the dreadful truth, and gasped, "I don't know."
"You don't know, you devil! Did you take it from Frazer's?"
"From the Simmons Brothers?"
"From the Blazing Star Company?"
"From a store?"
"Then, in created goodness!—WHERE did you get it?"
Johnny raised his brown-gooseberry eyes for a single instant to his mother's and said, "I found it."
Mrs. Medliker gasped again and stared hopelessly at the ceiling. Yet she was conscious of a certain relief. After all, it was POSSIBLE that he had found it—liar as he undoubtedly was.
"Then why don't you say where, you awful child?"
"Don't want to!"
Johnny would have liked to add that he saw no reason why he should tell. Other people who found gold were not obliged to tell. There was Jim Brody, who had struck a lead and kept the locality secret. Nobody forced him to tell. Nobody called him a thief; nobody had dragged him about by the arm until he showed it. Why was it wrong that a little boy should find gold? It wasn't agin the Commandments. Mr. Staples had never got up and said, "Thou shalt not find gold!" His mother had never made him pray not to find it! The schoolmaster had never read him awful stories of boys who found gold and never said anything about it, and so came to a horrid end. All this crowded his small boy's mind, and, crowding, choked his small boy's utterance.
"You jest wait till your father comes home," said Mrs. Medliker, "and he'll see whether you 'want to' or not. And now get yourself off to bed and stay there."
Johnny knew that his father—whose teams had increased to five wagons, and whose route extended forty miles further—was not due for a week, and that the catastrophe was yet remote. His present punishment he had expected. He went into the adjoining bedroom, which he occupied with his sister, and began to undress. He lingered for some time over one stocking, and finally cautiously removed from it a small piece of flake gold which he had kept concealed all day under his big toe, to the great discomfort of that member. But this was only a small, ordinary self-martyrdom of boyhood. He scratched a boyish hieroglyphic on the metal, and when his mother's back was turned scraped a small hole in the adobe wall, inserted the gold in it, and covered it up with a plaster made of the moistened debris. It was safe—so was his secret—for it need not, perhaps, be stated here that Johnny HAD told the truth and HAD honestly found the gold! But where?—yes, that was his own secret! And now, Johnny, with the instinct of all young animals, dismissed the whole subject from his mind, and, reclining comfortably upon his arm, fell into an interesting study of the habits of the red ant as exemplified in a crack of the adobe wall, and with the aid of a burnt match succeeded in diverting for the rest of the afternoon the attention of a whole laborious colony.
The next morning, however, brought trouble to him in the curiosity of his sisters, heightened by their belief that he could at any moment be taken off to prison—which was their understanding of their mother's story. I grieve to say that to them this invested him with a certain romantic heroism, from the gratification of which the hero himself was not exempt. Nevertheless, he successfully evaded their questioning, and on broader impersonal grounds. As girls, it was none of their business! He wasn't a-going to tell them HIS secrets! And what did they know about gold, anyway? They couldn't tell it from brass! The attitude of his mother was, however, still perplexing. She was no longer actively indignant, but treated him with a mysterious reserve that was the more appalling. The fact was that she no longer believed in his theft,—indeed, she had never seriously accepted it,—but his strange reticence and secretiveness piqued her curiosity, and even made her a little afraid of him. The capacity for keeping a secret she believed was manlike, and reminded her—for no reason in the world—of Jim Medliker, her husband, whom she feared. Well, she would let them fight it out between them. More than that, she was finally obliged to sink her reserve in employing him in the necessary "chores" for the house, and he was sent on an errand to the country store at the cross-roads. But he first extracted his gold-flake from the wall, and put it in his pocket.
On arriving at the store, it was plain even to his boyish perceptions that the minister had circulated his miserable story. Two or three of the customers spoke to each other in a whisper, and looked at him. More than that, when he began his homeward journey he saw that two of the loungers were evidently following him. Half in timidity and half in boyish mischief he once or twice strayed from the direct road, and snatched a fearful joy in observing their equal divergence. As he passed Mr. Staples's house he saw that reverend gentleman sneak out of his back gate, and, without seeing the two others, join in the inquisitorial procession. But the events of the past day had had their quickening effect upon Johnny's intellect. A brilliantly wicked thought struck him. As he was passing a perfectly bare spot on the road he managed, without being noticed, to cast his glittering flake of gold on the sterile ground at the other side of the road, where the minister's path would lie. Then, at a point where the road turned, he concealed himself in the brush. The Reverend Mr. Staples hurried forward as he lost sight of the boy in the sweep of the road, but halted suddenly. Johnny's heart leaped. The minister looked around him, stooped, picked up the piece of gold, thrust it hurriedly in his waistcoat pocket, and continued his way. When he reached the turn of the road, before passing it, he availed himself of his solitude to pause and again examine the treasure, and again return it to his pocket. But, to Johnny's surprise, he here turned back, walked quickly to the spot where he had found it, carefully examined the locality, kicking the loose soil and stones around with his feet until he had apparently satisfied himself that there was no more, and no gold-bearing indications in the soil. At this moment, however, the two other inquisitors came in sight, and Mr. Staples turned quickly and hurried on. Before he had passed the brush where Johnny was concealed, the two men overtook him and exchanged greetings. They both spoke of "Johnny" and his crime; of having followed him with a view of finding out where he went to procure his gold, and of his having again evaded them. Mr. Staples agreed with their purpose, but, to Johnny's intense astonishment, SAID NOTHING ABOUT HIS OWN FIND! When they had passed on, the boy slipped from his place of concealment and followed them at a distance until his own house came in view. Here the two men diverged, but the minister continued on towards the other "store" and post-office on the main road.
He would have told his mother what he had seen, and his surprise that the minister had not spoken of finding the gold to the other men, but he was checked, first by his mother's attitude towards him, which was clearly the same as the minister's, and, second, by the knowledge that she would have condemned his dropping the gold in the minister's path,—though he knew not WHY,—or asked his reason for it, which he was equally sure he could not formulate, though he also knew not why. But that evening, as he was returning from the spring with water, he heard the minister's voice in the kitchen. It had been a day of surprises and revelations to Johnny, but the climax seemed to be reached as he entered the room; and he now stood transfixed and open-mouthed as he heard Mr. Staples say:—
"It's all very well, Sister Medliker, to comfort your heart with vain hopes and delusions. A mother's leanin's is the soul's deceivin's,—and yer leanin' on a broken reed. If the boy truly found that gold he'd have come to ye and said: 'Behold, mother, I have found gold in the highways and byways; rejoice and be exceedin' glad!' and hev poured it inter yer lap. Yes," continued Mr. Staples aggressively to the boy, as he saw him stagger back with his pail in hand, "yes, sir, THAT would have been the course of a Christian child!"
For a moment Johnny felt the blood boiling in his ears, and a thousand words seemed crowding in his throat. "Then"—he gasped and choked. "Then"—he began again, and stopped with the suffocation of indignation.
But Mr. Staples saw in his agitation only an awakened conscience, and, nudging Mrs. Medliker, leaned eagerly forward for a reply. "Then," he repeated, with suave encouragement, "go on, Johnny! Speak it out!"
"Then," said Johnny, in a high, shrill falsetto that startled them, "then wot for did YOU pick up that piece o' gold in the road this arternoon, and say nothin' of it to the men who followed ye? Ye did; I seed yer! And ye didn't say nothin' of it to anybody; and ye ain't sayin' nothin' of it now ter maw! and ye've got it in yer vest! And it's mine, and I dropped it! Gimme it."
Astonishment, confusion, and rage swelled and empurpled Staples' face. It was HIS turn to gasp for breath. Yet in the same moment he made an angry dash at the boy. But Mrs. Medliker interfered. This was an entirely new feature in the case. Great is the power of gold. A single glance at the minister's confusion had convinced her that Johnny's accusation was true, and it was Johnny's MONEY—constructively HERS—that the minister was concealing. His mere possession of that gold had more effect in straightening out her loose logic than any sense of hypocrisy.
"You leave the boy be, Brother Staples," said Mrs. Medliker sharply. "I reckon wot's his is hisn, spite of whar he got it."
Mr. Staples saw his mistake, and smiled painfully as he fumbled in his waistcoat pocket. "I believe I DID pick up something," he said, "that may or may not have been gold, but I have dropped it again or thrown it away; and really it is of little concern in our moral lesson. For we have only HIS word that it was really his! How do we KNOW it?"
"Cos it has my marks on it," said Johnny quickly; "it had a criss-cross I scratched on it. I kin tell it good enuf."
Mr. Staples turned suddenly pale and rose. "Of course," he said to Mrs. Medliker with painful dignity, "if you set so much value upon a mere worldly trifle, I will endeavor to find it. It may be in my other pocket." He backed out of the door in his usual fashion, but instantly went over to the post-office, where, as he afterwards alleged, he had changed the ore for coin in a moment of inadvertence. But Johnny's hieroglyphics were found on it, and in some mysterious way the story got about. It had two effects that Johnny did not dream of. It had forced his mother into an attitude of complicity with him; it had raised up for him a single friend. Jake Stielitzer, quartz miner, had declared that Burnt Spring was "playing it low down" on Johnny! That if they really believed that the boy took gold from their sluice boxes, it was their duty to watch their CLAIMS and not the boy. That it was only their excuse for "snooping" after him, and they only wanted to find his "strike," which was as much his as their claims were their own! All this with great proficiency of epithet, but also a still more recognized proficiency with the revolver, which made the former respected.
"That's the real nigger in the fence, Johnny," said Jake, twirling his huge mustache, "and they only want to know where your lead is,—and don't yer tell 'em! Let 'em bile over with waitin' first, and that'll put the fire out. Does yer pop know?"
"No," said Johnny.
"Nor yer mar?"
Jake whistled. "Then it's only YOU, yourself?"
Johnny nodded violently, and his brown eyes glistened.
"It's a heap of information to be packed away in a chap of your size, Johnny. Makes you feel kinder crowded inside, eh? MUST keep it to yourself, eh?"
"Have to," said Johnny with a gasp that was a little like a sigh.
It caused Jake to look at him attentively. "See here, Johnny," he said, "now ef ye wanted to tell somebody about it,—somebody as was a friend of yours,—ME, f'r instance?"
Johnny slowly withdrew the freckled, warty little hand that had been resting confidingly in Jake's and gently sidled away from him. Jake burst into a loud laugh.
"All right, Johnny boy," he said with a hearty slap upon the boy's back, "keep yer head shut ef yer wanter! Only ef anybody else comes bummin' round ye, like this, jest turn him over TO ME, and I'll lift him outer his boots!"
Jake kept his word, and his distance thereafter. Indeed, it was after this first and last conversation with him that the influence of his powerful protection was so strong that all active criticisms of Johnny ceased, and only a respectful surveillance of his movements lingered in the settlement. I do not know that this was altogether distasteful to the child; it would have been strange, indeed, if he had not felt at times exalted by this mysterious influence that he seemed to have acquired over his fellow creatures. If he were merely hunting blackberries in the brush, he was always sure, sooner or later, to find a ready hand offered to help and accompany him; if he trapped a squirrel or tracked down a wild bees' hoard, he generally found a smiling face watching him. Prospectors sometimes stopped him with: "Well, Johnny, as a chipper and far-minded boy, now WHAR would YOU advise us to dig?" I grieve to say that Johnny was not above giving his advice,—and that it was invariably of not the smallest use to the recipient.
And so the days passed. Mr. Medliker's absence was protracted, and the hour of retribution and punishment still seemed far away. The blackberries ripened and dried upon the hillside, and the squirrels had gathered their hoards; the bees no longer came and went through the thicket, but Johnny was still in daily mysterious possession of his grains of gold! And then one day—after the fate of all heroic humanity—his secret was imperilled by the blandishments and machinations of the all-powerful sex.
Florry Fraser was a little playmate of Johnny's. Why, with his doubts of his elder sister's intelligence and integrity, he should have selected a child two years younger, and of singular simplicity, was, like his other secret, his own. What SHE saw in him to attract her was equally strange; possibly it may have been his brown-gooseberry eyes or his warts; but she was quite content to trot after him, like a young squaw, carrying his "bow-arrow," or his "trap," supremely satisfied to share his woodland knowledge or his scanter confidences. For nobody who knew Johnny suspected that she was privy to his great secret. Howbeit, wherever his ragged straw hat, thatched with his tawny hair, was detected in the brush, the little nankeen sunbonnet of Florry was sure to be discerned not far behind. For two weeks they had not seen each other. A fell disease, nurtured in ignorance, dirt, and carelessness, was striking right and left through the valleys of the foothills, and Florry, whose sister had just recovered from an attack, had been sequestered with her. But one morning, as Johnny was bringing his wood from the stack behind the house, he saw, to his intense delight, a picket of the road fence slipped aside by a small red hand, and a moment after Florry squeezed herself through the narrow opening. Her round cheeks were slightly flushed, and there was a scrap of red flannel around her plump throat that heightened the whiteness of her skin.
"My!" said Johnny, with half-real, half-affected admiration, "how splendiferous!"
"Sore froat," said Florry, in a whisper, trying to insert her two chubby fingers between the bandage and her chin. "I mussent go outer the garden patch! I mussent play in the woods, for I'll be seed! I mussent stay long, for they'll ketch me outer bed!"
"Outer bed?" repeated Johnny, with intense admiration, as he perceived for the first time that Florry was in a flannel nightgown, with bare legs and feet.
Whereupon these two delightful imps chuckled and wagged their heads with a sincere enjoyment that this mere world could not give! Johnny slipped off his shoes and stockings and hurriedly put them on the infant Florry, securing them from falling off with a thick cord. This added to their enjoyment.
"We can play cubby house in the stone heap," whispered Florry.
"Hol' on till I tote in this wood," said Johnny. "You hide till I come back."
Johnny swiftly delivered his load with an alacrity he had never shown before. Then they played "cubby house"—not fifty feet from the cabin, with a hushed but guilty satisfaction. But presently it palled. Their domain was too circumscribed for variety. "Robinson Crusoe up the tree" was impossible, as being visible from the house windows. Johnny was at his wits' end. Florry was fretful and fastidious. Then a great thought struck him and left him cold. "If I show you a show, you won't tell?" he said suddenly.
"Got any penny?"
"Got any slate pencil?"
"Ain't got any pins nor nuthin'? You kin go in for a pin."
But Florry had none of childhood's fluctuating currency with her, having, so to speak, no pockets.
"Well," said Johnny, brightening up, "ye kin go in for luv."
The child clipped him with her small arms and smiled, and, Johnny leading the way, they crept on all fours through the thick ferns until they paused before a deep fissure in the soil half overgrown with bramble. In its depths they could hear the monotonous trickle of water. It was really the source of the spring that afterwards reappeared fifty yards nearer the road, and trickled into an unfailing pool known as the Burnt Spring, from the brown color of the surrounding bracken. It was the water supply of the ranch, and the reason for Mr. Medliker's original selection of that site. Johnny lingered for an instant, looked carefully around, and then lowered himself into the fissure. A moment later he reached up his arms to Florry, lowered her also, and both disappeared from view. Yet from time to time their voices came faintly from below—with the gurgle of water—as of festive gnomes at play.
At the end of ten minutes they reappeared, a little muddy, a little bedraggled, but flushed and happy. There were two pink spots on Florry's cheeks, and she clasped something tightly in her little red fist.
"There," said Johnny, when they were seated in the straw again, "now mind you don't tell."
But here suddenly Florry's lips began to quiver, and she gave vent to a small howl of anguish.
"You ain't bit by a trant'ler nor nuthin'?" said Johnny anxiously. "Hush up!"
"But what?" said Johnny.
"Mar said I MUST tell! Mar said I was to fin' out where you get the truly gold! Mar said I was to get you to take me," howled Florry, in an agony of remorse.
Johnny gasped. "You Injin!" he began.
"But I won't—Johnny!" said Florry, clutching his leg frantically. "I won't and I sha'n't! I ain't no Injin!"
Then, between her sobs, she told him how her mother and Mr. Staples had said that she was to ask Johnny the next time they met to take her where they found the "truly gold," and she was to remember where it was and to tell them. And they were going to give her a new dolly and a hunk of gingerbread. "But I won't—and I sha'n't!" she said passionately. She was quite pale again.
Johnny was convinced, but thoughtful. "Tell 'em," he said hoarsely, "tell 'em a big whopper! They won't know no better. They'll never guess where." And he briefly recounted the wild-goose chase he had given the minister.
"And get the dolly and the cake," said Florry, her eyes shining through her tears.
"In course," said Johnny. "They'll get the dolly back, but you kin have eated the cake first." They looked at each other, and their eyes danced together over this heaven-sent inspiration. Then Johnny took off her shoes and stockings, rubbed her cold feet with his dirty handkerchief, and said: "Now you trot over to your mar!"
He helped her through the loose picket of the fence and was turning away when her faint voice again called him.
He turned back; she was standing on the other side of the fence holding out her arms to him. He went to her with shining eyes, lifted her up, and from her hot but loving little lips took a fatal kiss.
For only an hour later Mrs. Fraser found Florry in her bed, tossing with a high fever and a light head. She was talking of "Johnny" and "gold," and had a flake of the metal in her tiny fist. When Mr. Staples was sent for, and with the mother and father, hung anxiously above her bed, to their eager questioning they could only find out that Florry had been to a high mountain, ever so far away, and on the top of it there was gold lying around, and a shining figure was giving it away to the people.
"And who were the people, Florry dear," said Mr. Staples persuasively; "anybody ye know here?"
"They woz angels," said Florry, with a frightened glance over her shoulder.
I grieve to say that Mr. Staples did not look as pleased at the celestial vision as he might have, and poor Mrs. Fraser probably saw that in her child's face which drove other things from her mind. Yet Mr. Staples persisted:—
"And who led you to this beautiful mountain? Was it Johnny?"
Florry opened her eyes on the speaker. "I fink it was Dod," she said, and closed them again.
But here Dr. Duchesne hurried in, and after a single glance at the child hustled Mr. Staples from the room. For there were grave complications that puzzled him, Florry seemed easier and quieter under his kindly voice and touch, but did not speak again,—and so, slowly sinking, passed away that night in a dreamless sleep. This was followed by a mad panic at Burnt Spring the next day, and Mrs. Medliker fled with her two girls to Sacramento, leaving Johnny, ostensibly strong and active, to keep house until his father's return. But Mr. Medliker's return was again delayed, and in the epidemic, which had now taken a fast hold of the settlement, Johnny's secret—and indeed the boy himself—was quite forgotten. It was only on Mr. Medliker's arrival it was known that he had been lying dangerously ill, alone, in the abandoned house. In his strange reticence and firmness of purpose he had kept his sufferings to himself,—as he had his other secret,—and they were revealed only in the wasted, hollow figure that feebly opened the door to his father.
On which intelligence Mr. Staples was, as usual, promptly on the spot with his story of Johnny's secret to the father, and his usual eager questioning to the fast-sinking boy. "And now, Johnny," he said, leaning over the bed, "tell us ALL. There is One from whom no secrets are hid. Remember, too, that dear Florry, who is now with the angels, has already confessed."
Perhaps it was because Johnny, even at that moment, hated the man; perhaps it was because at that moment he loved and believed in Florry, or perhaps it was only that because at that moment he was nearer the greater Truth than his questioner, but he said, in a husky voice, "You lie!"
Staples drew back with a flushed face, but lips that writhed in a pained and still persistent eagerness. "But, Johnny, at least tell us where—wh—wow—wow."
I am obliged to admit that these undignified accents came from Mr. Staples' own lips, and were due to the sudden pressure of Mr. Medliker's arm around his throat. The teamster was irascible and prompt through much mule-driving, and his arm was, from the same reason, strong and sinewy. Mr. Staples felt himself garroted and dragged from the room, and only came to under the stars outside, with the hoarse voice of Mr. Medliker in his ears:—
"You're a minister of the gospel, I know, but ef ye say another word to my Johnny, I'll knock the gospel stuffin' out of ye. Ye hear me! I'VE DRIVEN MULES AFORE!"
He then strode back into the room. "Ye needn't answer, Johnny, he's gone."
But so, too, had Johnny, for he never answered the question in this world, nor, please God, was he required to in the next. He lay still and dead. The community was scandalized the next day when Mr. Medliker sent for a minister from Sacramento to officiate at his child's funeral, in place of Mr. Staples, and then the subject was dropped.
But the influence of Johnny's hidden treasure still remained as a superstition in the locality. Prospecting parties were continually made up to discover the unknown claim, but always from evidence and data altogether apocryphal. It was even alleged that a miner had one night seen the little figures of Johnny and Florry walking over the hilltop, hand in hand, but that they had vanished among the stars at the very moment he thought he had discovered their secret. And then it was forgotten; the prosperous Mr. Medliker, now the proprietor of a stage-coach route, moved away to Sacramento; Medliker's Ranch became a station for changing horses, and, as the new railway in time superseded even that, sank into a blacksmith's shop on the outskirts of the new town of Burnt Spring. And then one day, six years after, news fell as a bolt from the blue!
It was thus recorded in the county paper: "A piece of rare good fortune, involving, it is said, the development of a lead of extraordinary value, has lately fallen to the lot of Mr. John Silsbee, the popular blacksmith, on the site of the old Medliker Ranch. In clearing out the failing water-course known as Burnt Spring, Mr. Silsbee came upon a rich ledge or pocket at the actual source of the spring,—a fissure in the ground a few rods from the road. The present yield has been estimated to be from eight to ten thousand dollars. But the event is considered as one of the most remarkable instances of the vagaries of 'prospecting' ever known, as this valuable 'pot-hole' existed undisturbed for EIGHT YEARS not FIFTY YARDS from the old cabin that was in former times the residence of J. Medliker, Esq., and the station of the Pioneer Stage Company, and was utterly unknown and unsuspected by the previous inhabitants! Verily truth is stranger than fiction!"
A TALE OF THREE TRUANTS
The schoolmaster at Hemlock Hill was troubled that morning. Three of his boys were missing. This was not only a notable deficit in a roll-call of twenty, but the absentees were his three most original and distinctive scholars. He had received no preliminary warning or excuse. Nor could he attribute their absence to any common local detention or difficulty of travel. They lived widely apart and in different directions. Neither were they generally known as "chums," or comrades, who might have entered into an unhallowed combination to "play hookey."
He looked at the vacant places before him with a concern which his other scholars little shared, having, after their first lively curiosity, not unmixed with some envy of the derelicts, apparently forgotten them. He missed the cropped head and inquisitive glances of Jackson Tribbs on the third bench, the red hair and brown eyes of Providence Smith in the corner, and there was a blank space in the first bench where Julian Fleming, a lanky giant of seventeen, had sat. Still, it would not do to show his concern openly, and, as became a man who was at least three years the senior of the eldest, Julian Fleming, he reflected that they were "only boys," and that their friends were probably ignorant of the good he was doing them, and so dismissed the subject. Nevertheless, it struck him as wonderful how the little world beneath him got on without them. Hanky Rogers, bully, who had been kept in wholesome check by Julian Fleming, was lively and exuberant, and his conduct was quietly accepted by the whole school; Johnny Stebbins, Tribbs's bosom friend, consorted openly with Tribbs's particular enemy; some of the girls were singularly gay and conceited. It was evident that some superior masculine oppression had been removed.
He was particularly struck by this last fact, when, the next morning, no news coming of the absentees, he was impelled to question his flock somewhat precisely concerning them. There was the usual shy silence which follows a general inquiry from the teacher's desk; the children looked at one another, giggled nervously, and said nothing.
"Can you give me any idea as to what might have kept them away?" said the master.
Hanky Rogers looked quickly around, began, "Playin' hook—" in a loud voice, but stopped suddenly without finishing the word, and became inaudible. The master saw fit to ignore him.
"Bee-huntin'," said Annie Roker vivaciously.
"Who is?" asked the master.
"Provy Smith, of course. Allers bee-huntin'. Gets lots o' honey. Got two full combs in his desk last week. He's awful on bees and honey. Ain't he, Jinny?" This in a high voice to her sister.
The younger Miss Roker, thus appealed to, was heard to murmur that of all the sneakin' bee-hunters she had ever seed, Provy Smith was the worst. "And squirrels—for nuts," she added.
The master became attentive,—a clue seemed probable here. "Would Tribbs and Fleming be likely to go with him?" he asked.
A significant silence followed. The master felt that the children recognized a doubt of this, knowing the boys were not "chums;" possibly they also recognized something incriminating to them, and with characteristic freemasonry looked at one another and were dumb.
He asked no further questions, but, when school was dismissed, mounted his horse and started for the dwelling of the nearest culprit, Jackson Tribbs, four miles distant. He had often admired the endurance of the boy, who had accomplished the distance, including the usual meanderings of a country youth, twice a day, on foot, in all weathers, with no diminution of spirits or energy. He was still more surprised when he found it a mountain road, and that the house lay well up on the ascent of the pass. Autumn was visible only in a few flaming sumacs set among the climbing pines, and here, in a little clearing to the right, appeared the dwelling he was seeking.
"Tribbses," or "Tribbs's Run," was devoted to the work of cutting down the pines midway on a long regularly sloping mountain-side, which allowed the trunks, after they were trimmed and cut into suitable lengths, to be slid down through rude runs, or artificial channels, into the valley below, where they were collected by teams and conveyed to the nearest mills. The business was simple in the extreme, and was carried on by Tribbs senior, two men with saws and axes, and the natural laws of gravitation. The house was a long log cabin; several sheds roofed with bark or canvas seemed consistent with the still lingering summer and the heated odors of the pines, but were strangely incongruous to those white patches on the table-land and the white tongue stretching from the ridge to the valley. But the master was familiar with those Sierran contrasts, and as he had never ascended the trail before, it might be only the usual prospect of the dwellers there. At this moment Mr. Tribbs appeared from the cabin, with his axe on his shoulder. Nodding carelessly to the master, he was moving away, when the latter stopped him.
"Is Jackson here?" he asked.
"No," said the father, half impatiently, still moving on. "Hain't seen him since yesterday."
"Nor has he been at school," said the master, "either yesterday or to-day."
Mr. Tribbs looked puzzled and grieved. "Now I reckoned you had kep' him in for some devilment of his'n, or lessons."
"Not ALL NIGHT!" said the master, somewhat indignant at this presumption of his arbitrary functions.
"Humph!" said Mr. Tribbs. "Mariar!" Mrs. Tribbs made her appearance in the doorway. "The schoolmaster allows that Jackson ain't bin to school at all." Then, turning to the master, he added, "Thar! you settle it between ye," and quietly walked away.
Mrs. Tribbs looked by no means satisfied with or interested in the proposed tete-a-tete. "Hev ye looked in the bresh" (i. e., brush or underwood) "for him?" she said querulously.
"No," said the master, "I came here first. There are two other boys missing,—Providence Smith and Julian Fleming. Did either of them"—
But Mrs. Tribbs had interrupted him with a gesture of impatient relief. "Oh, that's all, is it? Playin' hookey together, in course. 'Scuse me, I must go back to my bakin'." She turned away, but stopped suddenly, touched, as the master fondly believed, by some tardy maternal solicitude. But she only said: "When he DOES come back, you just give him a whalin', will ye?" and vanished into her kitchen.
The master rode away, half ashamed of his foolish concern for the derelicts. But he determined to try Smith's father, who owned a small rancho lower down on a spur of the same ridge. But the spur was really nearer Hemlock Hill, and could have been reached more directly by a road from there. He, however, kept along the ridge, and after half an hour's ride was convinced that Jackson Tribbs could have communicated with Provy Smith without coming nearer Hemlock Hill, and this revived his former belief that they were together. He found the paternal Smith engaged in hoeing potatoes in a stony field. The look of languid curiosity with which he had regarded the approach of the master changed to one of equally languid aggression as he learned the object of his visit.
"Wot are ye comin' to ME for? I ain't runnin' your school," he said slowly and aggressively. "I started Providence all right for it mornin' afore last, since when I never set eyes on him. That lets ME out. My business, young feller, is lookin' arter the ranch. Yours, I reckon, is lookin' arter your scholars."
"I thought it my business to tell you your son was absent from school," said the master coldly, turning away. "If you are satisfied, I have nothing more to say." Nevertheless, for the moment he was so startled by this remarkable theory of his own responsibility in the case that he quite accepted the father's callousness,—or rather it seemed to him that his unfortunate charges more than ever needed his protection. There was still the chance of his hearing some news from Julian Fleming's father; he lived at some distance, in the valley on the opposite side of Hemlock Hill; and thither the master made his way. Luckily he had not gone far before he met Mr. Fleming, who was a teamster, en route. Like the fathers of the other truants, he was also engaged in his vocation. But, unlike the others, Fleming senior was jovial and talkative. He pulled up his long team promptly, received the master's news with amused interest, and an invitation to spirituous refreshment from a demijohn in his wagon.
"Me and the ole woman kind o' spekilated that Jule might hev been over with Aunt Marthy; but don't you worry, Mr. Schoolmaster. They're limbs, every one o' them, but they'll fetch up somewhere, all square! Just you put two fingers o' that corn juice inside ye, and let 'em slide. Ye didn't hear what the 'lekshun news was when ye was at Smith's, did ye?"
The master had not inquired. He confessed he had been worried about the boys. He had even thought that Julian might have met with an accident.
Mr. Fleming wiped his mouth, with a humorous affectation of concern. "Met with an ACCIDENT? Yes, I reckon not ONE accident, but TWO of 'em. These yer accidents Jule's met with had two legs, and were mighty lively accidents, you bet, and took him off with 'em; or mebbe they had four legs, and he's huntin' 'em yet. Accidents! Now I never thought o' that! Well, when you come across him and THEM ACCIDENTS, you just whale 'em, all three! And ye won't take another drink? Well, so long, then! Gee up!" He rolled away, with a laugh, in the heavy dust kicked up by his plunging mules, and the master made his way back to the schoolhouse. His quest for that day was ended.
But the next morning he was both astounded and relieved, at the assembling of school, to find the three truants back in their places. His urgent questioning of them brought only the one and same response from each: "Got lost on the ridge." He further gathered that they had slept out for two nights, and were together all the time, but nothing further, and no details were given. The master was puzzled. They evidently expected punishment; that was no doubt also the wish of their parents; but if their story was true, it was a serious question if he ought to inflict it. There was no means of testing their statement; there was equally none by which he could controvert it. It was evident that the whole school accepted it without doubt; whether they were in possession of details gained from the truants themselves which they had withheld from him, or whether from some larger complicity with the culprits, he could not say. He told them gravely that he should withhold equally their punishment and their pardon until he could satisfy himself of their veracity, and that there had been no premeditation in their act. They seemed relieved, but here, again, he could not tell whether it sprang from confidence in their own integrity or merely from youthful hopefulness that delayed retribution never arrived!
It was a month before their secret was fully disclosed. It was slowly evolved from corroborating circumstances, but always with a shy reluctance from the boys themselves, and a surprise that any one should think it of importance. It was gathered partly from details picked up at recess or on the playground, from the voluntary testimony of teamsters and packers, from a record in the county newspaper, but always shaping itself into a consecutive and harmonious narrative.
It was a story so replete with marvelous escape and adventure that the master hesitated to accept it in its entirety until after it had long become a familiar history, and was even forgotten by the actors themselves. And even now he transcribes it more from the circumstances that surrounded it than from a hope that the story will be believed.
Master Provy Smith had started out that eventful morning with the intention of fighting Master Jackson Tribbs for the "Kingship" of Table Ridge—a trifling territory of ten leagues square—Tribbs having infringed on his boundaries and claimed absolute sovereignty over the whole mountain range. Julian Fleming was present as referee and bottle-holder. The battle ground selected was the highest part of the ridge. The hour was six o'clock, which would allow them time to reach school before its opening, with all traces of their conflict removed. The air was crisp and cold,—a trifle colder than usual,—and there was a singular thickening of the sun's rays on the ridge, which made the distant peaks indistinct and ghostlike. However, the two combatants stripped "to the buff," and Fleming patronizingly took position at the "corner," leaning upon a rifle, which, by reason of his superior years, and the wilderness he was obliged to traverse in going to school, his father had lent him to carry. It was that day a providential weapon.
Suddenly, Fleming uttered the word, "Sho!" The two combatants paused in their first "squaring off" to see, to their surprise, that their referee had faced round, with his gun in his hand, and was staring in another direction.
"B'ar!" shouted the three voices together. A huge bear, followed by its cubs, was seen stumbling awkwardly away to the right, making for the timber below. In an instant the boys had hurried into their jackets again, and the glory of fight was forgotten in the fever of the chase. Why should they pound each other when there was something to really KILL? They started in instant pursuit, Julian leading.
But the wind was now keen and bitter in their faces, and that peculiar thickening of the air which they had noticed had become first a dark blue and then a whitening pall, in which the bear was lost. They still kept on. Suddenly Julian felt himself struck between the eyes by what seemed a snowball, and his companions were as quickly spattered by gouts of monstrous clinging snowflakes. Others as quickly followed—it was not snowing, it was snowballing. They at first laughed, affecting to retaliate with these whirling, flying masses shaken like clinging feathers from a pillow; but in a few seconds they were covered from head to foot by snow, their limbs impeded or pinioned against them by its weight, their breath gone. They stopped blindly, breathlessly. Then, with a common instinct, they turned back. But the next moment they heard Julian cry, "Look out!" Coming towards them out of the storm was the bear, who had evidently turned back by the same instinct. An ungovernable instinct seized the younger boys, and they fled. But Julian stopped with leveled rifle. The bear stopped too, with sullen, staring eyes. But the eyes that glanced along the rifle were young, true, and steady. Julian fired. The hot smoke was swept back by the gale into his face, but the bear turned and disappeared in the storm again. Julian ran on to where his companions had halted at the report, a little ashamed of their cowardice. "Keep on that way!" he shouted hoarsely. "No use tryin' to go where the b'ar couldn't. Keep on!"
"Keep on—whar? There ain't no trail—no nuthin'!" said Jackson querulously, to hold down a rising fear. It was true. The trail had long since disappeared; even their footprints of a moment before were filled up by the piling snow; they were isolated in this stony upland, high in air, without a rock or tree to guide them across its vast white level. They were bitterly cold and benumbed. The stimulus of the storm and chase had passed, but Julian kept driving them before him, himself driven along by the furious blast, yet trying to keep some vague course along the waste. So an hour passed. Then the wind seemed to have changed, or else they had traveled in a circle—they knew not which, but the snow was in their faces now. But, worst of all, the snow had changed too; it no longer fell in huge blue flakes, but in millions of stinging gray granules. Julian's face grew hard and his eyes bright. He knew it was no longer a snow-squall, but a lasting storm. He stopped; the boys tumbled against him. He looked at them with a strange smile.
"Hev you two made up?" he said.
"Make up, then."
They clasped each other's red, benumbed fingers and laughed, albeit a little frightened at Julian. "Go on!" he said, curtly.
They went on dazedly, stupidly, for another hour.
Suddenly Provy Smith's keen eyes sparkled. He pointed to a singular irregular mound of snow before them, plainly seen above the dreary level. Julian ran to it with a cry, and began wildly digging. "I knew I hit him," he cried, as he brushed the snow from a huge and hairy leg. It was the bear—dead, but not yet cold. He had succumbed with his huge back to the blast, the snow piling a bulwark behind him, where it had slowly roofed him in. The half-frozen lads threw themselves fearlessly against his furry coat and crept between his legs, nestling themselves beneath his still warm body with screams of joy. The snow they had thrown back increased the bulwark, and drifting over it, in a few moments inclosed them in a thin shell of snow. Thoroughly exhausted, after a few grunts of satisfaction, a deep sleep fell upon them, from which they were awakened only by the pangs of hunger. Alas! their dinners—the school dinners—had been left on the inglorious battlefield. Nevertheless, they talked of eating the bear if it came to the worst. They would have tried it even then, but they were far above the belt of timber; they had matches—what boy has not?—but no WOOD. Still, they were reassured, and even delighted, with this prospect, and so fell asleep again, stewing with the dead bear in the half-impervious snow, and woke up in the morning ravenous, yet to see the sun shining in their faces through the melted snow, and for Jackson Tribbs to quickly discover, four miles away as the crow flies, the cabin of his father among the flaming sumacs.
They started up in the glare of the sun, which at first almost blinded them. They then discovered that they were in a depression of the table-land that sloped before them to a deep gully in the mountainside, which again dropped into the canyon below. The trail they had lost, they now remembered, must be near this edge. But it was still hidden, and in seeking it there was danger of some fatal misstep in the treacherous snow. Nevertheless, they sallied out bravely, although they would fain have stopped to skin the bear, but Julian's mandate was peremptory. They spread themselves along the ridge, at times scraping the loose snow away in their search for the lost trail.
Suddenly they all slipped and fell, but rose again quickly, laughing. Then they slipped and fell again, but this time with the startling consciousness that it was not THEY who had slipped, but THE SNOW! As they regained their feet they could plainly see now that a large crack on the white field, some twenty feet in width, extended between them and the carcass of the bear, showing the glistening rock below. Again they were thrown down with a sharp shock. Jackson Tribbs, who had been showing a strange excitement, suddenly gave a cry of warning. "Lie flat, fellers! but keep a-crawlin' and jumpin'. We're goin' down a slide!" And the next moment they were sliding and tossing, apparently with the whole snow-field, down towards the gullied precipice.
What happened after this, and how long it lasted, they never knew. For, hurried along with increasing momentum, but always mechanically clutching at the snow, and bounding from it as they swept on, they sometimes lost breath, and even consciousness. At times they were half suffocated in rolling masses of drift, and again free and skimming over its arrested surface, but always falling, as it seemed to them, almost perpendicularly. In one of these shocks they seemed to be going through a thicket of underbrush; but Provy Smith knew that they were the tops of pine-trees. At last there was one shock longer and lasting, followed by a deepening thunder below them. The avalanche had struck a ledge in the mountain side, and precipitated its lower part into the valley.
Then everything was still, until Provy heard Julian's voice calling. He answered, but there was no response from Tribbs. Had he gone over into the valley? They set up a despairing shout! A voice—a smothered one—that might be his, came apparently from the snow beneath them. They shouted again; the voice, vague and hollow, responded, but it was now surely his.
"Where are you?" screamed Provy.
"Down the chimbley."
There was a black square of adobe sticking out of the snow near them. They ran to it. There was a hole. They peered down, but could see nothing at first but a faint glimmer.
"Come down, fellows! It ain't far!" said Tribbs's voice.
"Wot yer got there?" asked Julian cautiously.
"Suthin' to eat."
That was enough. In another instant Julian and Provy went down the chimney. What was a matter of fifteen feet after a thousand? Tribbs had already lit a candle by which they could see that they were in the cabin of some tunnel-man at work on the ridge. He had probably been in the tunnel when the avalanche fell, and escaped, though his cabin was buried. The three discoverers helped themselves to his larder. They laughed and ate as at a picnic, played cards, pretended it was a robber's cave, and finally, wrapping themselves in the miner's blankets, slept soundly, knowing where they were, and confident also that they could find the trail early the next morning. They did so, and without going to their homes came directly to school—having been absent about fifty hours. They were in high spirits, except for the thought of approaching punishment, never dreaming to evade it by anything miraculous in their adventures.