"Very well. By the way, the band's going to practise in town to-night. Don't you want to go?"
"I'd like to, but I promised Jim I'd go with him."
Bennington felt this as a discordant note.
"Do you know him very well?" he asked jealously.
"He's my best friend. I like him very much. He is a fine fellow. You must meet him."
"I've met him," said Bennington shortly.
"Now you must go," she commanded, after a pause. "I want to stay here for a while." "No," as he opened his mouth to object. "I mean it! Please be good!"
After he had gone she sat still until sundown. Once she shook her shoulders impatiently. "It is silly!" she assured herself. As before, the shadow of Harney crept out to the horizon's edge. There it stopped. Twilight fell.
"No Spirit Mountain to-night," she murmured wistfully at last. "Almost do I believe in the old legend."
AN ADVENTURE IN THE NIGHT
After supper that night Bennington found himself unaccountably alone in camp. Old Mizzou had wandered off up the gulch. Arthur had wandered off down the gulch. The woman had locked herself in her cabin.
So, having nothing else to do, he got out the manuscript of Aliris: A Romance of all Time, and read it through carefully from the beginning. To his surprise he found it very poor. Its language was felicitous in some spots, but stilted in most; the erudition was pedantic, and dragged in by the ears; the action was idiotic; and the proportions were padded until they no longer existed as proportions. He was astounded. He began to see that he had misconceived the whole treatment of it. It would have to be written all over again, with the love story as the ruling motif. He felt very capable of doing the love story. He drew some paper toward him and began to write.
You see he was already developing. Every time a writer is made to appreciate that his work is poor he has taken a step in advance of it. Although he did not know that was the reason of it, Bennington perceived the deficiencies of Aliris, because he had promised to read it to the girl. He saw it through her eyes.
The young man became absorbed in redescribing the heroine with violet eyes. A sudden slamming of the door behind him brought him, startled, to his feet. He laughed, and was about to sit down again, but noticed that the door had remained open. He arose to shut it. Over the trunks of the nearer pines played a strange flickering light, throwing them now into relief, now into shadow. "Strange!" murmured Bennington to himself, and stepped outside to investigate. As he crossed the sill he was seized on either side.
He cried out and struggled blindly, but was held as in a vice. His captors, whom he dimly perceived to be large men in masks, whirled him sharply to the left, and he found himself face to face with a third man, also masked. Beyond him were a score or so more, some of whom bore pine torches, which, partly blazing and partly smoking, served to cast the weird light he had seen flickering on the tree trunks. Perfect silence reigned. The man with whom Bennington was fronted eyed him gravely through the holes in his mask.
"I'd like to know what this means?" broke out the Easterner angrily.
The men did not reply. They stood motionless, as silent as the night. In spite of his indignation, the young man was impressed. He twisted his shoulders again. The men at either arm never tightened a muscle to resist, and yet he was held beyond the possibility of escape.
"What's the matter? What're you trying to do? Take your hands off me!" he cried.
Again the silence fell.
Then at the end of what seemed to the Easterner a full minute the masked figure in front spoke.
"Thar is them that thinks as how it ain't noways needful thet ye knows," it said in slow and solemn accents, "but by the mercy of th' others we gives y' thet much satisfaction."
"You comes hyar from a great corp'ration thet in times gone by we thinks is public spirited an' enterprisin', which is a mistake. You pays th' debt of said corp'ration, so they sez, an' tharfore we welcomes you to our bosom cordial. What happens? You insults us by paying such low-down ornary cusses as Snowie. Th' camp is just. She arises an' avenges said insult by stringin' of you up all right an' proper. We gives you five minutes to get ready."
"What do you mean?"
"We hangs you in five minutes."
The slow, even voice ceased, and again the silence was broken only by the occasional bursting crackle of a blister in the pine torches. Bennington tried to realize the situation. It had all come about so suddenly.
"I guess you've got the joke on me, boys," he ventured with a nervous little laugh. And then his voice died away against the stony immobility of the man opposite as laughter sinks to nothing against the horror of a great darkness. Bennington began to feel impressed in earnest. Across his mind crept doubts as to the outcome. He almost screamed aloud as some one stole up behind and dropped over his throat the soft cold coil of a lariat. Then, at a signal from the chief, the two men haled him away.
They stopped beneath a gnarled oak halfway down the slope to the gulch bottom, from which protruded, like a long witch arm, a single withered branch. Over this the unseen threw the end of the lariat. Bennington faced the expressionless gaze of twenty masks, on which the torchlight threw Strong black shadows. Directly in front of him the leader posted himself, watch in hand.
"Any last requests?" he inquired in his measured tones.
Bennington felt the need of thinking quickly, but, being unused to emergencies, he could not.
"Anywhar y' want yore stuff sent?" the other pursued relentlessly.
Bennington swallowed, and found his voice at last.
"Now be reasonable," he pleaded. "It isn't going to do you any good to hang me. I didn't mean to make any distinctions. I just paid the oldest debts, that's all. You'll all get paid. There'll be some more money after a while, and then I can pay some more of you. If you kill me, you won't get any at all."
"Won't get any any way," some one muttered audibly from the crowd.
The man with the watch never stirred.
"Two minutes more," he said simply.
One of the men, who had been holding the young man's arms, had fallen back into the crowd when the lariat was thrown over the oak limb. During the short colloquy just detailed, the attention of the other had become somewhat distracted. Bennington wrenched himself free, and struck this man full in the face.
He had never in his well-ordered life hit in anger, but behind this blow was desperation, and the weight of a young and active body. The man went down. Bennington seized the lariat with both hands and tried to wrench it over his head.
The individual who had done all the talking leaped forward toward him, and dodging a hastily aimed blow, seized him about the waist and threw him neatly to the ground. Bennington struggled furiously and silently. The other had great difficulty in holding him down.
"Come here, some of you fellows," he cried, panting and laughing a little. "Tie his hands, for the love of Heaven."
In another moment the Easterner, his arms securely pinioned, stood as before. He was breathing hard and the short struggle had heated his blood through and through. Bunker Hill had waked up. He set his teeth, resolving that they should not get another word out of him.
The timekeeper raised one hand warningly. Over his shoulder Bennington dimly saw a tall muscular figure, tense with the expectation of effort, lean forward to the slack of the lariat. He stared back to the front.
The leader raised his pistol to give the signal. Bennington shut his eyes. Then ensued a pause and a murmuring of low voices. Bennington looked, and, to his surprise, perceived Lawton's girl in earnest expostulation with the leader of the band. As he listened their voices rose, so he caught snatches of their talk.
"Confound it all!" objected the man in exasperated tones, "you don't play fair. That wasn't the agreement at all."
"Agreement or no agreement, this thing's gone far enough," she rejoined sharply. "I've watched the whole performance, and I've been expecting for the last ten minutes you'd have sense enough to quit."
The voices died to a murmuring. Once the girl stamped her foot, and once the man spread his hands out in deprecation. The maskers grouped about in silent enjoyment of the scene. At last the discussion terminated.
"It's all up, boys," cried the man savagely, tearing off his mask. To Bennington's vast surprise, the features of Jim Fay were discovered. He approached and began sullenly to undo the young man's pinioned arms. The others rolled up their masks and put them in their pockets. They laughed to each other consumedly. The tall man approached, rubbing his jaw.
"You hits hard, sonny," said he, "and you don't go down in yore boots[A] a little bit."
The group began to break up and move down the gulch, most of the men shouting out a good-natured word or so of farewell. Bennington, recovering from his daze at the rapid passage of these events, stepped forward to where Fay and the girl had resumed their discussion. He saw that the young miner had recovered his habitual tone of raillery, and that the girl was now looking up at him with eyes full of deprecation.
"Miss Lawton," said Bennington with formality, "I hope you will allow me, after your great kindness, to see that you get down the gulch safely."
Fay cut in before the girl could reply.
"Don't bother about that, de Laney," said he, in a most cavalier fashion. "I'll see to it."
"I did not address you, sir!" returned Bennington coldly. The Westerner's eyes twinkled with amusement. The girl interrupted.
"Thank you very much, Mr. de Laney, but Mr. Fay is right—I wouldn't trouble you." Her eyes commanded Fay, and he moved a little apart.
"Don't be angry," she pleaded hurriedly, in an undertone, "but it's better that way to-night. And I think you acted grandly."
"You are the one who acted grandly," he replied, a little mollified. "How can I ever thank you? You came just in time."
"You're not angry, are you?" she coaxed.
"No, of course not; what right have I to be?"
"I don't like that—quite—but I suppose it will do. You'll be there to-morrow?"
"You know I will."
"Then good-night." She gave his folded arm a hasty pat and ran on down the hill after Fay, who had gone on. Bennington saw her seize his shoulders, as she overtook him, and give them a severe shake.
The light of the torches down the gulch wavered and disappeared. Bennington returned to his room. On the table lay his manuscript, and the ink was hardly dried on the last word of it. Outside a poor-will began to utter its weird call. The candle before him sputtered, and burned again with a clear flame.
[Footnote A: Western—to become frightened.]
THE HEAVENS OPENED
Bennington awoke early the next morning, a pleased glow of anticipation warming his heart, and almost before his eyes were opened he had raised himself to leap out of the bunk. Then with a disappointed sigh he sank back. On the roof fell the heavy patter of raindrops.
After a time he arose and pulled aside the curtains of a window. The nearer world was dripping; the farther world was hidden or obscured by long veils of rain, driven in ragged clouds before a west wind. Yesterday the leaves had waved lightly, the undergrowth of shrubs had uplifted in feathery airiness of texture, the ground beneath had been crisp and aromatic with pine needles. Now everything bore a drooping, sodden aspect which spoke rather of decay than of the life of spring. Even the chickens had wisely remained indoors, with the exception of a single bedraggled old rooster, whose melancholy appearance added another shade of gloom to the dismal outlook. The wind twisted his long tail feathers from side to side so energetically that, even as Bennington looked, the poor fowl, perforce, had to scud, careened from one side to the other, like a heavily-laden craft, into the shelter of his coop. The wind, left to its own devices, skittered across cold-looking little pools of water, and tried in vain to induce the soaked leaves of the autumn before to essay an aerial flight.
The rain hit the roof now in heavy gusts as though some one had dashed it from a pail. The wind whistled through a loosened shingle and rattled around an ill-made joint. Within the house itself some slight sounds of preparation for breakfast sounded the clearer against the turmoil outside. And then Bennington became conscious that for some time he had felt another sound underneath all the rest. It was grand and organlike in tone, resembling the roar of surf on a sand beach as much as anything else. He looked out again, and saw that it was the wind in the trees. The same conditions that had before touched the harp murmur of a stiller day now struck out a rush and roar almost awe-inspiring in its volume. Bennington impulsively threw open the window and leaned out.
The great hill back of the camp was so steep that the pines growing on its slope offered to the breeze an almost perpendicular screen of branches. Instead of one, or at most a dozen trees, the wind here passed through a thousand at once. As a consequence, the stir of air that in a level woodland would arouse but a faint whisper, here would pass with a rustling murmur; a murmur would be magnified into a noise as of the mellow falling of waters; and now that the storm had awakened, the hill caught up its cry with a howl so awful and sustained that, as the open window let in the full volume of its blast, Bennington involuntarily drew back. He closed the sash and turned to dress.
After the first disappointment, strange to say, Bennington became quite resigned. He had felt, a little illogically, that this giving of a whole day to the picnic was not quite the thing. His Puritan conscience impressed him with the sacredness of work. He settled down to the fact of the rainstorm with a pleasant recognition of its inevitability, and a resolve to improve his time.
To that end, after breakfast, he drew on a pair of fleece-lined slippers, donned a sweater, occupied two chairs in the well-known fashion, and attacked with energy the pages of Le Conte's Geology. This book, as you very well know, discourses at first with great interest concerning erosions. Among other things it convinces you that a current of water, being doubled in swiftness, can transport a mass sixty-four times as heavy as when it ran half as fast. This astounding proposition is abstrusely proved. As Bennington had resolved not to make his reading mere recreation, he drew diagrams conscientiously until he understood it. Then he passed on to an earnest consideration of why the revolution of the globe and the resistance of continents cause oceanic currents of a particular direction and velocity. Besides this, there was much easier reading concerning alluvial deposits. So interested did he grow that Old Mizzou, coming in, muddy-hoofed and glistening from a round of the stock, found him quite unapproachable on the subject of cribbage. The patriarch then stumped over to Arthur's cabin.
After dinner, Bennington picked up the book again, but found that his brain had reached the limit of spontaneous mental effort. He looked for Old Mizzou and the cribbage game. The miner had gone to visit Arthur again. Bennington wandered about disconsolately.
For a time he drummed idly on the window pane. Then he took out his revolver and tried to practise through the open doorway. The smoke from the discharges hung heavy in the damp air, filling the room in a most disagreeable fashion. Bennington's trips to see the effect of his shots proved to him the fiendish propensity of everything he touched, were it never so lightly, to sprinkle him with cold water. Above all, his skill with the weapon was not great enough as yet to make it much fun. He abandoned pistol shooting and yawned extensively, wishing it were time to go to bed.
In the evening he played cribbage with Old Mizzou. After a time Arthur and his wife came in and they had a dreary game of "cinch," the man speaking but little, the woman not at all. Old Mizzou smoked incessantly on a corncob pipe charged with a peculiarly pungent variety of tobacco, which filled the air with a blue vapour, and penetrated unpleasantly into Bennington's mucous membranes.
The next morning it was still raining.
Bennington became very impatient indeed, but he tackled Le Conte industriously, and did well enough until he tried to get it into his head why various things happen to glaciers. Then viscosity, the lines of swiftest motion, relegation, and directions of pressure came forth from the printed pages and mocked him. He arose in his might and went forth into the open air.
Before going out he had put on his canvas shooting coat and a pair of hobnailed leather hunting boots, laced for a little distance at the front and sides. He visited the horses, standing disconsolate under an open shed in the corral; he slopped, with constantly accruing masses of sticky earth at his feet, to the chicken coop, into which he cast an eye; he even took the kitchen pails and tramped down to the spring and back. In the gulch he did not see or hear a living thing. A newly-born and dirty little stream was trickling destructively through all manner of shivering grasses and flowers. The water from Bennington's sleeves ran down over the harsh canvas cuffs and turned his hands purple with the cold. He returned to the cabin and changed his clothes.
The short walk had refreshed him, but it had spurred his impatience. Outside, the world seemed to have changed. His experience with the Hills, up to now, had always been in one phase of their beauty—that of clear, bright sunshine and soft skies. Now it was as a different country. He could not get rid of the feeling, foolish as it was, that it was in reality different; and that the whole episode of the girl and the rock was as a vision which had passed. It grew indistinct in the presence of this iron reality of cold and wet. He could not assure himself he had not imagined it all. Thus, belated, he came to thinking of her again, and having now nothing else to do, he fell into daydreams that had no other effect than to reveal to him the impatience which had been, from the first, the real cause of his restlessness under the temporary confinement. Now the impatience grew in intensity. He resolved that if the morrow did not end the storm, he would tramp down the gulch to make a call. All this time Aliris lay quite untouched.
The next day dawned darker than ever. After breakfast Old Mizzou, as usual, went out to feed the horses, and Bennington, through sheer idleness, accompanied him. They distributed the oats and hay, and then stood, sheltered from the direct rain, conversing idly.
Suddenly the wind died and the rain ceased. In the place of the gloom succeeded a strange sulphur-yellow glare which lay on the spirit with almost physical oppression. Old Mizzou shouted something, and scrambled excitedly to the house. Bennington looked about him bewildered.
Over back of the hill, dimly discernible through the trees, loomed the black irregular shape of a cloud, in dismal contrast to the yellow glare which now filled all the sky. The horses, frightened, crowded up close to Bennington, trying to push their noses over his shoulder. A number of jays and finches rushed down through the woods and darted rapidly, each with its peculiar flight, toward a clump of trees and bushes standing on a ridge across the valley.
From the cabin Old Mizzou was shouting to him. He turned to follow the old man. Back of him something vast and awful roared out, and then all at once he felt himself struggling with a rush of waters. He was jammed violently against the posts of the corral. There he worked to his feet.
The whole side of the hill was one vast spread of shallow tossing water, as though a lake had been let fall on the summit of the ridge. The smaller bushes were uprooted and swept along, but the trees and saplings held their own.
In a moment the stones and ridgelets began to show. It was over. Not a drop of rain had fallen.
Bennington climbed the corral fence and walked slowly to the house. The blacksmith shop was filled to the window, and Arthur's cabin was not much better. He entered the kitchen. The floor there was some two inches submerged, but the water was slowly escaping through the down-hill door by which Bennington had come in. Across the dining-room door Mrs. Arthur had laid a folded rug. In front of the barrier stood the lady herself, vigorously sweeping back the threatening water from her only glorious apartment.
Bennington took the broom from her and swept until the cessation of the flood made it no longer necessary. Mrs. Arthur commenced to mop the floor. The young man stepped outside. There he was joined a moment later by the other two.
They offered no explanation of their whereabouts during the trouble, but Bennington surmised shrewdly that they had hunted a dry place.
"Glory!" cried Old Mizzou. "Lucky she misses us!"
"What was it? Where'd it come from?" inquired Bennington, shaking the surface drops from his shoulders. He was wet through.
"Cloud-burst," replied the miner. "She hit up th' ridge a ways. If she'd ever burst yere, sonny, ye'd never know what drownded ye. Look at that gulch!"
The water had now drained from the hill entirely. It could be seen that most of the surface earth had been washed away, leaving the skeleton of the mountain bare. Some of the more slightly rooted trees had fallen, or clung precariously to the earth with bony fingers. But the gulch itself was terrible. The mountain laurel, the elders, the sarvis bushes, the wild roses which, a few days before, had been fragrant and beautiful with blossom and leaf and musical with birds, had disappeared. In their stead rolled an angry brown flood whirling in almost unbroken surface from bank to bank. Several oaks, submerged to their branches, raised their arms helplessly. As Bennington looked, one of these bent slowly and sank from sight. A moment later it shot with great suddenness half its length into the air, was seized by the eager waters, and whisked away as lightly as though it had been a tree of straw. Dark objects began to come down with the stream. They seemed to be trying to preserve a semblance of dignity in their stately bobbing up and down, but apparently found the attempt difficult. The roar was almost deafening, but even above it a strangely deliberate grinding noise was audible. Old Mizzou said it was the grating of boulders as they were rolled along the bed of the stream. The yellow glow had disappeared from the air, and the gloom of rain had taken its place.
A fine mist began to fall. Bennington for the first time realized he was wet and shivering, and so he turned inside to change his clothes.
"It'll all be over in a few hours," remarked Arthur. "I reckon them Spanish Gulch people'll wish they lived up-stream."
Bennington paused at the doorway.
"That's so," he commented. "How about Spanish Gulch? Will it all be drowned out?"
"No, I reckon not," replied Arthur. "They'll get wet down a lot, and have wet blankets to sleep in to-night, that's all. You see the gulch spraddles out down there, an' then too all this timber'll jam down this gulch a-ways. That'll back up th' water some, and so she won't come all of a rush."
"I see," said Bennington.
The afternoon was well enough occupied in repairing to some extent the ravages of the brief storm. A length of the corral had succumbed to the flood, many valuable tools in the blacksmith shop were in danger of rust from the dampness, and Arthur and his wife had been completely washed out. All three men worked hard setting things to rights. The twilight caught them before their work was done.
Bennington found himself too weary to attempt an unknown, debris-covered road by dark. He played cribbage with Old Mizzou and won.
About half past nine he pushed back his chair and went outside. The stars had come out by the thousand, and a solitary cricket, which had in some way escaped the deluge, was chirping in the middle distance. With a sudden uplift of the heart he realized that he would see "her" on the morrow. He learned that no matter how philosophically we may have borne a separation, the prospect of its near end shows us how strong the repression has been; the lifting of the bonds makes evident how much they have galled.
THE WORLD MADE YOUNG
The morning fulfilled the promise of the night before. Bennington de Laney awoke to a sun-bright world, fresh with the early breezes. A multitude of birds outside the window bubbled and warbled and carolled away with all their little mights, either in joy at the return of peace, or in sorrow at the loss of their new-built houses. Sorrow and joy sound much alike as nature tells them. The farther ridges and the prairies were once more in view, but now, oh, wonder! the great plain had cast aside its robes of monk brown, and had stepped forth in jolly green-o'Lincoln. The air was full of tingling life. Altogether a morning to cry one to leap eagerly from bed, to rush to the window, to drink in deep draughts of electric balmy ozone, and to thank heaven for the grace of mere existence.
That at least is what Bennington did. And he did more. He despatched a hasty breakfast, and went forth and saddled his steed, and rode away down the gulch, with never a thought of sample tests, and never a care whether the day's work were done or not. For this was springtime, and the air was snapping with it. Near the chickens' shelter the burnished old gobbler spread his tail and dragged his wings and puffed his feathers and swelled himself red in the face, to the great admiration of a demure gray-brown little turkey hen. Overhead wheeled two small hawks screaming. They clashed, and light feathers came floating down from the encounter; yet presently they flew away together to a hole in a dead tree. Three song sparrows dashed almost to his very feet, so busily fighting that they hardly escaped the pony's hoofs. Everywhere love songs trilled from the underbrush; and Bennington de Laney, as young, as full of life, as unmated as they, rode slowly along thinking of his lady love, and——
"Hullo! Where are you going?" cried she.
He looked up with eager joy, to find that they had met in the middle of what used to be the road. The gulch had been swept bare by the flood, not only of every representative of the vegetable world, but also of the very earth in which it had grown. From the remains of the roadbed projected sharp flints and rocks, among which the broncos picked their way.
"Good-morning, Mary," he cried. "I was just coming to see you. Wasn't it a great rain?"
"And isn't the gulch awful? Down near our way the timber began to jam, and it is all choked up; but up here it is desolate."
He turned his horse about, and they paced slowly along together, telling each other their respective experiences in the storm. It seemed that the Lawtons had known nothing of the cloud-burst itself, except from its effects in filling up the ravine. Rumours of the drowning of a miner were about.
It soon became evident that the brightness of the morning was reflected from the girl's mood. She fairly sparkled with gaiety and high spirits. The two got along famously.
"Where are you going?" asked Bennington at last.
"On the picnic, of course," she rejoined promptly. "Weren't you invited? I thought you were."
"I thought it would be too wet," he averred in explanation.
"Not a bit! The rain dries quickly in the hills, and the cloud-burst only came into this gulch. I have here," she went on, twisting around in her saddle to inspect a large bundle and a pair of well-stuffed saddle bags, "I have here a coffee pot, a frying pan, a little kettle, two tin cups, and various sorts of grub. I am fixed for a scout sure. Now when we get near your camp you must run up and get an axe and some matches."
Bennington observed with approval the corpulency of the bundle and the skilful manner with which it was tied on. He noted, with perhaps more approval, her lithe figure in its old-fashioned painter's blouse and rough skirt, and the rosiness of her cheeks under a cloth cap caught on awry. As the ponies sought a path at a snail's pace through the sharp flints, she showed in a thousand ways how high the gaiety of her animal spirits had mounted. She sang airy little pieces of songs. She uttered single clear notes. She mocked, with a ludicrously feminine croak, the hoarse voice of a crow sailing over them. She rallied Bennington mercilessly on his corduroys, his yellow flapped pistol holster, his laced boots. She went over in ridiculous pantomime the scene of the mock lynching, until Bennington rolled in his saddle with light-hearted laughter, and wondered how it was possible he had ever taken the affair seriously. When he returned with the axe she was hugely alarmed lest he harm himself by his awkward way of carrying it, and gave him much wholesome advice in her most maternal manner. After all of which she would catch his eye, and they would both laugh to startle the birds.
Blue Lead proved to be some distance away, for which fact Bennington was not sorry. At length they surmounted a little ridge. Over its summit there started into being a long cool "draw," broad and shallow near the top, but deepening by insensible degrees into a canon filled already with broad-leaved shrubs, and thickly grown with saplings of beech and ash. Through the screen of slender trunks could be seen miniature open parks carpeted with a soft tiny fern, not high enough to conceal the ears of a rabbit, or to quench the flame of the tiger lily that grew there. Soon a little brook sprang from nowhere, and crept timidly through and under thick mosses. After a time it increased in size, and when it had become large enough to bubble over clear gravel, Mary called a halt.
"We'll have our picnic here," she decided.
The ravine at this point received another little gulch into itself, and where the two came together the bottom widened out into almost parklike proportions. On one side was a grass-plot encroached upon by numerous raspberry vines. On the other was the brook, flowing noisily in the shade of saplings and of ferns.
Bennington unsaddled the horses and led them over to the grass-plot, where he picketed them securely in such a manner that they could not become entangled. When he returned to the brookside he found that Mary had undone her bundle and spread out its contents. There were various utensils, some corn meal, coffee, two slices of ham, raw potatoes, a small bottle of milk, some eggs wonderfully preserved by moss inside the pail, and some bread and cake. Bennington eyed all this in dismay. She caught his look and laughed.
"Can't you cook? Well, I can; you just obey orders."
"We won't get anything to eat before night," objected Bennington dolefully as he looked over the decidedly raw material.
"And he's so hungry!" she teased. "Never mind, you build a fire."
Bennington brightened. He had one outdoor knack—that of lighting matches in a wind and inducing refractory wood to burn. His skill had often been called into requisition in the igniting of beach fires, and the so-called "camp fires" of girls. He collected dry twigs from the sunny places, cut slivers with his knife, built over the whole a wigwam-shaped pyramid of heavier twigs, against which he leaned his firewood. Then he touched off the combination. The slivers ignited the twigs, the twigs set fire to the wigwam, the wigwam started the firewood. Bennington's honour was vindicated. He felt proud.
Mary, who had been filling the coffee pot at the creek, approached and viewed the triumph. She cast upon it the glance of scorn.
"That's no cooking fire," said she.
So Bennington, under her directions, placed together the two parallel logs with the hewn sides and built the small bright fire between them.
"Now you see," she explained, "I can put my frying pan, and coffee pot, and kettle across the two logs. I can get at them easy, and don't burn my fingers. Now you may peel the potatoes."
The Easterner peeled potatoes under constant laughing amendment as to method. Then the small cook collected her materials about her, in grand preparation for the final rites. She turned back the loose sleeves of her blouse to the elbow.
This drew an exclamation from Bennington.
"Why, Mary, how white your arms are!" he cried, astonished.
She surveyed her forearm with a little blush, turning it back and forth.
"I am pretty tanned," she agreed.
The coffee pot was filled and placed across the logs at one end, and left to its own devices a little removed from the hottest of the fire. The kettle stood next, half filled with salted water, in which nestled the potatoes like so many nested eggs. Mary mixed a mysterious concoction of corn meal, eggs, butter, and some white powder, mushing the whole up with milk and water. The mixture she spread evenly in the bottom of the frying pan, which she set in a warm place.
"It isn't much of a baking tin," she commented, eyeing it critically, "but it'll do."
Under her direction Bennington impaled the two slices of ham on long green switches, and stuck these upright in the ground in such a position that the warmth from the flames could just reach them.
"They'll never cook there," he objected.
"Didn't expect they would," she retorted briefly. Then relenting, "They finish better if they're warmed through first," she explained.
By this time the potatoes were bubbling energetically and the coffee was sending out a fragrant steam. Mary stabbed experimentally at the vegetables with a sharpened sliver. Apparently satisfied, she drew back with a happy sigh. She shook her hair from her eyes and smiled across at Bennington.
"Ready! Go!" cried she.
The frying pan was covered with a tin plate on which were heaped live coals. More coals were poked from between the logs on to a flat place, were spread out thin, and were crowned by the frying pan and its glowing freight. Bennington held over the fire a switch of ham in each hand, taking care, according to directions, not to approach the actual blaze. Mary borrowed his hunting knife and disappeared into the thicket. In a moment she returned with a kettle-lifter, improvised very simply from a forked branch of a sapling. One of the forks was left long for the hand, the other was cut short. The result was like an Esquimaux fishhook. She then relieved Bennington of his task, while that young man lifted the kettle from the fire and carefully drained away the water.
"Dinner!" she called gaily.
Bennington looked up surprised. He had been so absorbed in the spells wrought by this dainty woods fairy that he had forgotten the flight of time. It was enough for him to watch the turn of her wrist, the swift certainty of her movements, to catch the glow lit in her face by the fire over which she bent. Then he suddenly remembered that her movements had all along tended toward dinner, and were not got up simply and merely that he might discover new charms in the small housekeeper.
He found himself seated on a rock with a tin plate in his lap, a tin cup at his side, and an eager little lady in front of him, anxious that he should taste all her dishes and deliver an opinion forthwith.
The coffee he pronounced nectar; the ham and mealy potatoes, delicious; the "johnny-cake" of a yellow golden crispness which the originator of johnny-cake might envy; and the bread and cake and butter and sugar only the less meritorious that they had not been prepared by her own hands and on the spot.
"And see!" she cried, clapping her hands, "the sun is still directly over us. It is not night yet, silly boy!"
AND HE DID EAT
After the meal he wanted to lie down in the grasses and watch the clouds sail by, but she would have none of it. She haled him away to the brookside. There she showed him how to wash dishes by filling them half full of water in which fine gravel has been mixed, and then whirling the whole rapidly until the tin is rubbed quite clean. Never was prosaic task more delightful. They knelt side by side on the bank, under the dense leaves, and dabbled in the water happily. The ferns were fresh and cool. Once a redbird shot confidently down from above on half-closed wing, caught sight of these intruders, brought up with a swish of feathers, and eyed them gravely for some time from a neighbouring treelet. Apparently he was satisfied with his inspection, for after a few minutes he paid no further attention to them, but went about his business quietly. When the dishes had been washed, Mary stood over Bennington while he packed them in the bundle and strapped them on the saddle.
"Now," said she at last, "we have nothing more to think of until we go home."
She was like a child, playing with exhaustless spirits at the most trivial games. Not for a moment would she listen to anything of a serious nature. Bennington, with the heavier pertinacity of men when they have struck a congenial vein, tried to repeat to some extent the experience of the last afternoon at the rock. Mary laughed his sentiment to ridicule and his poetics to scorn. Everything he said she twisted into something funny or ridiculous. He wanted to sit down and enjoy the calm peace of the little ravine in which they had pitched their temporary camp, but she made a quiet life miserable to him. At last in sheer desperation he arose to pursue, whereupon she vanished lightly into the underbrush. A moment later he heard her clear laugh mocking him from some elder thickets a hundred yards away. Bennington pursued with ardour. It was as though a slow-turning ocean liner were to try to run down a lively little yacht.
Bennington had always considered girls as weak creatures, incapable of swift motion, and needing assistance whenever the country departed from the artificial level of macadam. He had also thought himself fairly active. He revised these ideas. This girl could travel through the thin brush of the creek bottom two feet to his one, because she ran more lightly and surely, and her endurance was not a matter for discussion. The question of second wind did not concern her any more than it does a child, whose ordinary mode of progression is heartbreaking. Bennington found that he was engaged in the most delightful play of his life. He shouted aloud with the fun of it. He had the feeling that he was grasping at a sunbeam, or a mist-shape that always eluded him.
He would lose her utterly, and would stand quite motionless, listening, for a long time. Suddenly, without warning, an exaggerated leaf crown would fall about his neck, and he would be overwhelmed with ridicule at the outrageous figure he presented. Then for a time she seemed everywhere at once. The mottled sunlight under the trees danced and quivered after her, smiling and darkening as she dimpled or was grave. The little whirlwinds of the gulches seized the leaves and danced with her too, the birches and aspens tossed their hands, and rising ever higher and wilder and more elf-like came the mocking cadences of her laughter.
After a time she disappeared again. Bennington stood still, waiting for some new prank, but he waited in vain. He instituted a search, but the search was fruitless. He called, but received no reply. At last he made his way again to the dell in which they had lunched, and there he found her, flat on her back, looking at the little summer clouds through wide-open eyes.
Her mood appeared to have changed. Indeed that seemed to be characteristic of her; that her lightness was not so much the lightness of thistle down, which is ever airy, the sport of every wind, but rather that of the rose vine, mobile and swaying in every breeze, yet at the same time rooted well in the wholesome garden earth. She cared now to be silent. In a little while Bennington saw that she had fallen asleep. For the first time he looked upon her face in absolute repose.
Feature by feature, line by line, he went over it, and into his heart crept that peculiar yearning which seems, on analysis, half pity for what has past and half fear for what may come. It is bestowed on little children, and on those whose natures, in spite of their years, are essentially childlike. For this girl's face was so pathetically young. Its sensitive lips pouted with a child's pout, its pointed chin was delicate with the delicacy that is lost when the teeth have had often to be clenched in resolve; its cheek was curved so softly, its long eyelashes shaded that cheek so purely. Yet somewhere, like an intangible spirit which dwelt in it, unseen except through its littlest effects, Bennington seemed to trace that subtle sadness, or still more subtle mystery, which at times showed so strongly in her eyes. He caught himself puzzling over it, trying to seize it. It was most like a sorrow, and yet like a sorrow which had been outlived. Or, if a mystery, it was as a mystery which was such only to others, no longer to herself. The whole line of thought was too fine-drawn for Bennington's untrained perceptions. Yet again, all at once, he realized that this very fact was one of the girl's charms to him; that her mere presence stirred in him perceptions, intuitions, thoughts—yes, even powers—which he had never known before. He felt that she developed him. He found that instead of being weak he was merely latent; that now the latent perceptions were unfolding. Since he had known her he had felt himself more of a man, more ready to grapple with facts and conditions on his own behalf, more inclined to take his own view of the world and to act on it. She had given him independence, for she had made him believe in himself, and belief in one's self is the first principle of independence. Bennington de Laney looked back on his old New York self as on a being infinitely remote.
She awoke and opened her eyes slowly, and looked at him without blinking. The sun had gone nearly to the ridge top, and a Wilson's thrush was celebrating with his hollow notes the artificial twilight of its shadow.
She smiled at him a little vaguely, the mists of sleep clouding her eyes. It is the unguarded moment, the instant of awakening. At such an instant the mask falls from before the features of the soul. I do not know what Bennington saw.
"Mary, Mary!" he cried uncontrolledly, "I love you! I love you, girl."
He had never before seen any one so vexed. She sat up at once.
"Oh, why did you have to say that!" she cried angrily. "Why did you have to spoil things! Why couldn't you have let it go along as it was without bringing that into it!"
She arose and began to walk angrily up and down, kicking aside the sticks and stones as she encountered them.
"I was just beginning to like you, and now you do this. Oh, I am so angry!" She stamped her little foot. "I thought I had found a man for once who could be a good friend to me, whom I could meet unguardedly, and behold! the third day he tells me this!"
"I am sorry," stammered Bennington, his new tenderness fleeing, frightened, into the inner recesses of his being. "I beg your pardon, I didn't know—Don't! I won't say it again. Please!"
The declaration had been manly. This was ridiculously boyish. The girl frowned at him in two minds as to what to do.
"Really, truly," he assured her.
She laughed a little, scornfully. "Very well, I'll give you one more chance. I like you too well to drop you entirely." (What an air of autocracy she took, to be sure!) "You mustn't speak of that again. And you must forget it entirely." She lowered at him, a delicious picture of wrath.
They saddled the horses and took their way homeward in silence. The tenderness put out its flower head from the inner sanctuary. Apparently the coast was clear. It ventured a little further. The evening was very shadowy and sweet and musical with birds. The tenderness boldly invaded Bennington's eyes, and spoke, oh, so timidly, from his lips.
"I will do just as you say," it hesitated, "and I'll be very, very good indeed. But am I to have no hope at all?"
"Why can't you keep off that standpoint entirely?"
"Just that one question; then I will."
"Well," grudgingly, "I suppose nothing on earth could keep the average mortal from hoping; but I can't answer that there is any ground for it."
"When can I speak of it again?"
"I don't know—after the Pioneer's Picnic."
"That is when you cease to be a mystery, isn't it?"
She sighed. "That is when I become a greater mystery—even to myself, I fear," she added in a murmur too low for him to catch.
They rode on in silence for a little space more. The night shadows were flowing down between the trees like vapour. The girl of her own accord returned to the subject.
"You are greatly to be envied," she said a little sadly, "for you are really young. I am old, oh, very, very old! You have trust and confidence. I have not. I can sympathize; I can understand. But that is all. There is something within me that binds all my emotions so fast that I can not give way to them. I want to. I wish I could. But it is getting harder and harder for me to think of absolutely trusting, in the sense of giving out the self that is my own. Ah, but you are to be envied! You have saved up and accumulated the beautiful in your nature. I have wasted mine, and now I sit by the roadside and cry for it. My only hope and prayer is that a higher and better something will be given me in place of the wasted, and yet I have no right to expect it. Silly, isn't it?" she concluded bitterly.
Bennington made no reply.
They drew near the gulch, and could hear the mellow sound of bells as the town herd defiled slowly down it toward town.
"We part here," the young man broke the long silence. "When do I see you again?"
"I do not know."
The girl shook herself from a reverie. "If you want me to believe you, come every afternoon to the Rock, and wait. Some day I will meet you there."
She was gone.
OLD MIZZOU RESIGNS
Bennington went faithfully to the Rock for four days. During whole afternoons he sat there looking out over the Bad Lands. At sunset he returned to camp. Aliris: A Romance of all Time gathered dust. Letters home remained unwritten. Prospecting was left to the capable hands of Old Mizzou until, much to Bennington's surprise, that individual resigned his position.
The samples lay in neatly tied coffee sacks just outside the door. The tabulations and statistics only needed copying to prepare them for the capitalist's eye. The information necessary to the understanding of them reposed in a grimy notebook, requiring merely throwing into shape as a letter to make them valuable to the Eastern owner of the property. Anybody could do that.
Old Mizzou explained these things to Bennington.
"You-all does this jes's well's I," he said. "You expresses them samples East, so as they kin assay 'em; an' you sends them notes and statistics. Then all they is to do is to pay th' rest of the boys when th' money rolls in. That ain't none of my funeral."
"But there's the assessment work," Bennington objected.
"That comes along all right. I aims to live yere in the camp jest th' same as usual; and I'll help yo' git started when you-all aims to do th' work."
"What do you want to quit for, then? If you live here, you may as well draw your pay."
"No, sonny, that ain't my way. I has some prospectin' of my own to do, an' as long as I is a employay of Bishop, I don't like to take his time fer my work."
Bennington thought this very high-minded on the part of Old Mizzou.
"Very well," he agreed, "I'll write Bishop."
"Oh, no," put in the miner hastily, "no need to trouble. I resigns in writin', of course; an' I sees to it myself."
"Well, then, if you'll help me with the assessment work, when shall we begin?"
"C'yant jest now," reflected Old Mizzou, "'cause, as I tells you, I wants to do some work of my own. A'ter th' Pioneer's Picnic, I reckons."
The Pioneer's Picnic seemed to limit many things.
Bennington shipped the ore East, tabulated the statistics, and wrote his report. About two weeks later he received a letter from Bishop saying that the assay of the samples had been very poor—not at all up to expectations—and asking some further information. As to the latter, Bennington consulted Old Mizzou. The miner said, "I told you so," and helped on the answer. After this the young man heard nothing further from his employer. As no more checks came from the East, he found himself with nothing to do.
For four afternoons, as has been said, he fruitlessly haunted the Rock. On the fifth morning he met the girl on horseback. She was quite the same as at first, and they resumed their old relations as if the fatal picnic had never taken place. In a very few days they were as intimate as though they had known each other for years.
Bennington read to her certain rewritten parts of Aliris: A Romance of all Time, which would have been ridiculous to any but these two. They saw it through the glamour of youth; for, in spite of her assertions of great age, the girl, too, felt the whirl of that elixir in her veins. You see, he was twenty-one and she was twenty: magic years, more venerable than threescore and ten. She gave him sympathy, which was just what he needed for the sake of his self-confidence and development, just the right thing for him in that effervescent period which is so necessary a concomitant of growth. The young business man indulges in a hundred wild schemes, to be corrected by older heads. The young artist paints strange impressionism, stranger symbolism, and perhaps a strangest other-ism, before at last he reaches the medium of his individual genius. The young writer thinks deep and philosophical thoughts which he expresses in measured polysyllabic language; he dreams wild dreams of ideal motive, which he sets forth in beautiful allegorical tales full of imagery; and he delights in Rhetoric—flower-crowned, flashing-eyed, deep-voiced Rhetoric, whom he clasps to his heart and believes to be true, although the whole world declares her to be false; and then, after a time, he decides not to introduce a new system of metaphysics, but to tell a plain story plainly. Ah, it is a beautiful time to those who dwell in it, and such a funny time to those who do not!
They came to possess an influence over each other. She decided how they should meet; he, how they should act. She had only to be gay, and he was gay; to be sad, and he was sad; to show her preference for serious discourse, and he talked quietly of serious things; to sigh for dreams, and he would rhapsodize. It sometimes terrified her almost when she saw how much his mood depended on hers. But once the mood was established, her dominance ceased and his began. If they were sad or gay or thoughtful or poetic, it was in his way and not in hers. He took the lead masterfully, and perhaps the more effectually in that it was done unconsciously. And in a way which every reader will understand, but which genius alone could put into words, this mutual psychical dependence made them feel the need of each other more strongly than any merely physical dependence ever could.
There is much to do in a new and romantic country, where the imminence of a sordid, dreary future, when the soil will raise its own people and the crop will be poor, is mercifully veiled. The future then counts little in the face of the Past—the Past with its bearded strong men of other lands, bringing their power and vigour here to be moulded and directed by the influences of the frontier. Its shadow still lies over the land.
They did it all. The Rock was still the favourite place to read or talk—crossbars nailed on firmly made "shinning" unnecessary now—but it was often deserted for days while they explored. Bennington had bought the little bronco, and together they extended their investigations of the country in all directions. They rode to Spring Creek Valley. They passed the Range over into Custer Valley. Once they climbed Harney by way of Grizzly Gulch.
Thus they grew to know the Hills intimately. From the summit of the Rock they would often look abroad over the tangle of valleys and ridges, selecting the objective points for their next expedition. Many surprises awaited them, for they found that here, as everywhere, a seemingly uniform exterior covered an almost infinite variety.
Or again, the horses were given a rest. The sarvis-berries ripened, and they picked hatfuls. Then followed the raspberries on the stony hills. They walked four unnecessary miles to see a forest fire, and six to buy buckskin work from a band of Sioux who had come up into the timber for their annual supply of tepee poles. They taught their ponies tricks. They even went wading together, like two small children, in a pool of Battle Creek.
Bennington was deliciously, carelessly, forgetfully happy. Only there was Jim Fay. That individual was as much of a persecution as ever, and he seemed to enjoy a greater intimacy with the girl than did the Easterner. He did not see her as often as did the latter, but he appeared to be more in her confidence. Bennington hated Jim Fay.
THE SPIRES OF STONE
One afternoon they had pushed over back of Harney, up a very steep little trail in a very tiny cleft-like canon, verdant and cool. All at once the trail had stood straight on end. The ponies scrambled up somehow, and they found themselves on a narrow open mesa splashed with green moss and matted with an aromatic covering of pine needles.
Beyond the easternmost edge of the plateau stood great spires of stone, a dozen in all, several hundred feet high, and of solid granite. They soared up grandly into the open blue, like so many cathedral spires, drawing about them that air of solitude and stillness which accompanies always the sublime in Nature. Even boundless space was amplified at the bidding of their solemn uplifted fingers. The girl reined in her horse.
"Oh!" she murmured in a hushed voice, "I feel impertinent—as though I were intruding."
A squirrel many hundreds of feet below could be heard faintly barking.
"There is something solemn about them," the boy agreed in the same tone, "but, after all, we are nothing to them. They are thinking their own thoughts, far above everything in the world."
She slipped from her horse.
"Let's sit here and watch them," she said. "I want to look at them, and feel them."
They sat on the moss, and stared solemnly across at the great spires of stone.
"They are waiting for something there," she observed; "for something that has not come to pass, and they are looking for it always toward the East. Don't you see how they are waiting?"
"Yes, like Indian warriors wrapped each in his blanket. They might be the Manitous. They say there are lots of them in the Hills."
"Yes, of course!" she cried, on fire with the idea. "They are the Gods of the people, and they are waiting for something that is coming—something from the East. What is it?"
"Civilization," he suggested.
"Yes! And when this something, this Civilization, comes, then the Indians are to be destroyed, and so their Gods are always watching for it toward the East."
"And," he went on, "when it comes at last, then the Manitous will have to die, and so the Indians know that their hour has struck when these great stone needles fall."
"Why, we have made a legend," she exclaimed with wonder.
They stretched out on their backs along the slope, and stared up at the newly dignified Manitous in delicious silence.
"There was a legend once, you remember?" he began hesitatingly, "the first day we were on the Rock together. It was about a Spirit Mountain."
"Yes, I remember, the day we saw the Shadow."
"You said you'd tell it to me some time."
"Don't you think now is a good time?"
She considered a moment idly.
"Why, yes, I suppose so," she assented, after a pause. "It isn't much of a legend though." She clasped her hands back of her head. "It goes like this," she began comfortably:
"Once upon a time, when the world was very young, there was an evil Manitou named Ne-naw-bo-shoo. He was a very wicked Manitou, but he was also very accomplished, for he could change himself into any shape he wished to assume, and he could travel swifter than the wind. But he was also very wicked. In old times the centres of all the trees were fat, and people could get food from them, but Ne-naw-bo-shoo walked through the forest and pushed his staff down through the middle of the trunks, and that is why the cores of the trees are dark-coloured. Maple sap used to be pure sirup once, too, but Ne-naw-bo-shoo diluted it with rain water just out of spite. But there was one peculiar thing about Ne-naw-bo-shoo. He could not cross a vein of gold or of silver. There was some sort of magic in them that turned him back—repelled him.
"Now, one day two lovers were wandering about on the prairie away east of here. One of them was named Mon-e-dowa, or the Bird Lover, and the other was Muj-e-ah-je-wan, or Rippling Water. And as these two walked over the plains talking together, along came the evil spirit, Ne-naw-bo-shoo, and as soon as he saw them he chased them, intending to kill them and drink their blood, as was his custom.
"They fled far over the prairie. Everywhere that Muj-e-ah-je-wan stepped, prairie violets grew up; and everywhere that Mon-e-dowa stepped, a lark sprang up and began to sing. But the wicked Ne-naw-bo-shoo gained on them fast, for he could run very swiftly.
"Then suddenly they saw in front of them a great mountain, grown with pines and seamed with fissures. This astonished them greatly, for they knew there were no mountains in the prairie country at all; but they had no time to spare, so they climbed quickly up a broad canon and concealed themselves.
"Now, when the wicked Manitou came along he tried to enter the canon too, but he had to stop, because down in the depths of the mountain were veins of gold and silver which he could not cross. For many days he raged back and forth, but in vain. At last he got tired and went away.
"Then Mon-e-dowa and Muj-e-ah-je-wan, who had been living quite peacefully on the game with which the mountain swarmed, came out of the canon and turned toward home. But as soon as they had set foot on the level prairie again, the mountain vanished like a cloud, and then they knew they had been aided by Man-a-boo-sho, the good Manitou."
The girl arose and shook her skirt free of the pine needles that clung to it.
"Ever since then," she went on, eyeing Bennington saucily sideways, "the mountain has been invisible except to a very few. The legend says that when a maid and a warrior see it together they will be——"
"What?" asked Bennington as she paused.
"Dead within the year!" she cried gaily, and ran lightly to her pony.
"Did you like my legend?" she asked, as the ponies, foot-bunched, minced down the steepest of the trail.
"Very much; all but the moral."
"Don't you want to die?"
"Not a bit."
"Then I'll have to."
"That would be the same thing."
And Bennington dared talk in this way, for the next day began the Pioneer's Picnic, and lately she had been very kind.
THE PIONEER'S PICNIC
The Lawtons were not going to the picnic. Bennington was to take Mary down to Rapid, where the girl was to stay with a certain Dr. McPherson of the School of Mines.
An early start was accomplished. They rode down the gulch through the dwarf oaks, past the farthermost point, and so out into the hard level dirt road of Battle Creek canon. Beyond were the pines, and a rugged road, flint-edged, full of dips and rises, turns and twists, hovering on edges, or bosoming itself in deep rock-strewn cuts. Mary's little pony cantered recklessly through it all, scampering along like a playful dog after a stone, leading Bennington's larger animal by several feet. He had full leisure to notice the regular flop of the Tam o'Shanter over the lighter dance of the hair, the increasing rosiness of the cheeks dimpled into almost continual laughter, to catch stray snatches of gay little remarks thrown out at random as they tore along. After a time they drew out from the shadow of the pines into the clearing at Rockerville, where the hydraulic "giants" had eaten away the hill-sides, and left in them ugly unhealed sores. Then more rough pine-shadowed roads, from which occasionally would open for a moment broad vistas of endless glades, clear as parks, breathless descents, or sharp steep cuts at the bottom of which Spring Creek, or as much of it as was not turned into the Rockerville sluices, brawled or idled along. It was time for lunch, so they dismounted near a deep still pool and ate. The ponies cropped the sparse grasses, or twisted on their backs, all four legs in the air. Squirrels chattered and scolded overhead. Some of the indigo-coloured jays of the lowlands shot in long level flight between the trees. The girl and the boy helped each other, hindered each other, playing here and there near the Question, but swerving always deliciously just in time.
After lunch, more riding through more pines. The road dipped strongly once, then again; and then abruptly the forest ceased, and they found themselves cantering over broad rolling meadows knee-high with grasses, from which meadow larks rose in all directions like grasshoppers. Soon after they passed the canvas "schooners" of some who had started the evening before. Down the next long slope the ponies dropped cautiously with bunched feet and tentative steps. Spring Creek was forded for the last time, another steep grassy hill was surmounted, and they looked abroad into Rapid Valley and over to the prairie beyond.
Behind them the Hills lay, dark with the everlasting greenery of the North—even, low, with only sun-browned Harney to raise its cliff-like front above the rest of the range. As though by a common impulse they reined in their horses and looked back.
"I wonder just where the Rock is?" she mused.
They tried to guess at its location.
The treeless ridge on which they were now standing ran like a belt outside the Hills. They journeyed along its summit until late in the afternoon, and then all at once found the city of Rapid lying below them at the mouth of a mighty canon, like a toy village on fine velvet brown.
In the city they separated, Mary going to the McPhersons', Bennington to the hotel. It was now near to sunset, so it was agreed that Bennington was to come round the following morning to get her. At the hotel Bennington spent an interesting evening viewing the pioneers with their variety of costume, manners, and speech. He heard many good stories, humorous and blood-curdling, and it was very late before he finally got to bed.
The immediate consequence was that he was equally late to breakfast. He hurried through that meal and stepped out into the street, with the intention of hastening to Dr. McPherson's for Mary, but this he found to be impossible because of the overcrowded condition of the streets. The sports of the day had already begun. From curb to curb the way was jammed with a dense mass of men, women, and children, through whom he had to worm his way. After ten feet of this, he heard his name called, and looking up, caught sight of Mary herself, perched on a dry-goods box, frantically waving a handkerchief in his direction.
"You're a nice one!" she cried in mock reproach as he struggled toward her. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks flew red signals of enjoyment.
"I know. Well, it didn't matter, any way. I just captured this box. Climb up. There's room. I've lost the doctor and Mrs. McPherson already."
Two mounted men, decorated with huge tin marshals' badges, rode slowly along forcing the crowd back to the right and to the left. The first horse race was on. Suddenly there was an eager scramble, a cloud of dust, a swift impression of dim ghostlike figures. It was over. The crowd flowed into the street again.
The two pressed together, hand in hand, on the top of the dry-goods box. They laughed at each other and everything. Something beautiful was very near to them, for this was the Pioneer's Picnic, and both remembered that the Pioneer's Picnic marked the limit of many things.
"What's next? What's next?" she called excitedly to a tall young cattleman.
The cowboy looked up at her, and his face relaxed into a pleased smile.
"Why, it's a drillin' match over in the next street, miss," he answered politely. "You'd better run right along over and get a good place." He glanced at de Laney, smiled again, and turned away, apparently to follow his own advice.
"Come on, we'll follow him," cried Mary, jumping down.
"And abandon our box?" objected Bennington. But she was already in full pursuit of the tall cowboy.
The ring around the large boulder—dragged by mule team from the hills—had just begun to form when they arrived, so they were enabled to secure good places near the front rank, where they kneeled on their handkerchiefs, and the crowd hemmed them in at the back. The drilling match was to determine which pair of contestants could in a given time, with sledge and drill, cut the deepest hole in a granite boulder. To one who stood apart, the sight must have been picturesque in the extreme. The white dust, stirred by restless feet, rose lazily across the heated air. The sun shone down clear and hot with a certain wide-eyed glare that is seen only in the rarefied atmosphere of the West. Around the outer edge of the ring hovered a few anxious small boys, agonized that they were missing part of the show. Stolidly indifferent Indians, wrapped close in their blankets, smoked silently, awaiting the next pony race, the riders of which were skylarking about trying to pull each other from their horses' backs.
When the last pair had finished, the judges measured the depths of the holes drilled, and announced the victors.
The crowd shouted and broke for the saloons. The latter had been plying a brisk business, so that men were about ready to embrace in brotherhood or in battle with equal alacrity.
Suddenly it was the dinner hour. The crowd broke. Bennington and Mary realized they had been wandering about hand in hand. They directed their steps toward the McPhersons with the greatest propriety. It was a glorious picnic.
The house was gratefully cool and dark after the summer heat out of doors. The little doctor sat in the darkest room and dissertated cannily on the strange variety of subjects which a Scotchman can always bring up on the most ordinary occasions.
The doctor was not only a learned man, as was evidenced by his position in the School of Mines and his wonderful collections, but was a scout of long standing, a physician of merit, and an Indian authority of acknowledged weight. Withal he was so modest that these things became known only by implication or hearsay, never by direct evidence. Mrs. McPherson was not Scotch at all, but plain comfortable American, redolent of wholesome cleanliness and good temper, and beaming with kindliness and round spectacles. Never was such a doctor; never was such a Mrs. McPherson; never was such a dinner! And they brought in after-dinner coffee in small cups.
"Ah, ha! Mr. de Laney," laughed the doctor, who had been watching him with quizzical eye. "We're pretty bad, but we aren't got quite to savagery yet."
Bennington hastened to disavow.
"That's all right," the doctor reassured him; "that's all right. I didn't wonder at ye in this country, but Mrs. McPherson and mysel' jest take a wee trip occasionally to keep our wits bright. Isn't it so, Mrs. Mac?"
"It is that," said she with a doubtful inner thought as to the propriety of offering cream.
"And as for you," went on the doctor dissertatively, "I suppose ye're getting to be somewhat of a miner yourself. I mind me we did a bit of assay work for your people the other day—the Crazy Horse, wasn't it? A good claim I should judge, from the sample, and so I wrote Davidson."
"When was this?" asked the Easterner, puzzled.
"The last week."
"I didn't know he had had any assaying done."
"O weel," said the doctor comfortably, "it may not have occurred to him to report yet. It was rich."
"Mrs. McPherson, let's talk about dresses," called Mary across the table. "Here we've come down for a holiday and they insist on talking mining."
And so the subject was dropped, but Bennington could not get it out of his mind. Why should Mizzou have had the Crazy Horse assayed without saying anything about it to him? Why had he not reported the result? How did it happen that the doctor's assistants had found the ore rich when the company's assayers East had proved it poor? Why should Mizzou have it assayed at all, since he was no longer connected with the company? But, above all, supposing he had done this with the intention of keeping it secret from Bennington, what possible benefit or advantage could the old man derive from such an action?
He puzzled over this. It seemed to still the effervescence of his joy. He realized suddenly that he had been very careless in a great many respects. The work had all been trusted to Davidson, while he, often, had never even seen it. He had been entirely occupied with the girl. He experienced that sudden sinking feeling which always comes to a man whom neglected duty wakes from pleasure.
What was Davidson's object? Could it be that he hoped to "buy in" a rich claim at a low figure, and to that end had sent poor samples East? The more he thought of this the more reasonable it seemed. His resignation was for the purpose of putting him in the position of outside purchaser.
He resolved to carry through the affair diplomatically. During the afternoon he ruminated on how this was to be done. Mary could not understand his preoccupation. It piqued her. A slight strangeness sprang up between them which he was too distrait to notice. Finally, as he tumbled into bed that night, an idea so brilliant came to him that he sat bolt upright in sheer delight at his own astuteness.
He would ask Dr. McPherson for a copy of the assays. If his suspicions were correct, these assays would represent the richest samples. He would send them at once to Bishop with a statement of the case, in that manner putting the capitalist on his guard. There was something exquisitely humorous to him in the idea of thus turning to his own use the information which Davidson had accumulated for his fraudulent purposes. He went to sleep chuckling over it.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
The next morning the young man had quite regained his good spirits. The girl, on the other hand, was rather quiet.
Dr. McPherson made no objections to furnishing a copy of the assays. The records, however, were at the School of Mines. He drove down to get them, and in the interim the two young people, at Mrs. McPherson's suggestion, went to see the train come in.
The platform of the station was filled to suffocation. Assuming that the crowd's intention was to view the unaccustomed locomotive, it was strange it did not occur to them that the opposite side of the track or the adjacent prairie would afford more elbow room. They huddled together on the boards of the platform as though the appearance of the spectacle depended on every last individual's keeping his feet from the naked earth. They pushed good-naturedly here and there, expostulating, calling to one another facetiously, looking anxiously down the straight, dwindling track for the first glimpse of the locomotive.
Mary and Bennington found themselves caught up at once into the vortex. After a few moments of desperate clinging together, they were forced into the front row, where they stood on the very edge, braced back against the pressure, half laughing, half vexed.
The train drew in with a grinding rush. From the step swung the conductor. Faces looked from the open windows.
On the platform of one of the last cars stood a young girl and three men. One of the men was elderly, with white hair and side whiskers. The other two were young and well dressed. The girl was of our best patrician type—the type that may know little, think little, say little, and generally amount to little, and yet carry its negative qualities with so used an air of polite society as to raise them by sheer force to the dignity of positive virtues. From head to foot she was faultlessly groomed. From eye to attitude she was languidly superior—the impolitic would say bored. Yet every feature of her appearance and bearing, even to the very tips of her enamelled and sensibly thick boots, implied that she was of a different class from the ordinary, and satisfied on "common people" that impulse which attracts her lesser sisters to the vulgar menagerie. She belonged to the proper street—at the proper time of day. Any one acquainted with the species would have known at once that this private-car trip to Deadwood was to please the prosperous-looking gentleman with the side whiskers, and that it was made bearable only by the two smooth-shaven individuals in the background.
She caught sight of the pair directly in front of her, and raised her lorgnette with a languid wrist.
Her stare was from the outside-the-menagerie standpoint. Bennington was not used to it. For the moment he had the Fifth Avenue feeling, and knew that he was not properly dressed. Therefore, naturally, he was confused. He lowered his head and blushed a little. Then he became conscious that Mary's clear eyes were examining him in a very troubled fashion.
Three hours and a half afterward it suddenly occurred to him that she might have thought he had blushed and lowered his head because he was ashamed to be seen by this other girl in her company; but it was then too late.
The train pulled out. The Westerners at once scattered in all directions. Half an hour later the choking cloud dusts rose like smoke from the different trails that led north or south or west to the heart of the Hills.
"The picnic is over," he suggested gently at their noon camping place.
"Yes, thank Heaven!"
"You remember your promise?"
"That you would explain your 'mystery.'"
"I've changed my mind."
A leaf floated slowly down the wind. A raven croaked. The breeze made the sunbeams waver.
"Mary, the picnic is over," he repeated again very gently.
"Yes, yes, yes!"
"I love you, Mary."
The raven spread his wings and flew away.
"Do you love me?" he insisted gently.
"I want you to come to dinner at our house to-morrow noon."
"That is a strange answer, Mary."
"It is all the answer you'll get to-day."
"Why are you so cross? Is anything the matter?"
"I love you, Mary. I love you, girl. At least I can say that now."
"Yes, you can say it—now."
A NOON DINNER
Bennington did not know what to make of his invitation. At one moment he told himself it must mean that Mary loved him, and that she wished him to meet her parents on that account. At the next he tormented himself with the conviction that she thus merely avoided the issue. Between these moods he alternated, without being able to abide in either. He forgot all about Old Mizzou.
Promptly at noon the following day he turned up the little right-hand trail for the first time.
The Lawton house he found, first of all, to be scrupulously neat. It stood on a knoll, as do most gulch cabins, in order that occasional freshets might pass below, and the knoll looked as though it had been clipped with a pair of scissors. Not a crooked little juniper bush was allowed to intrude its plebeian sprawl among the dignified pines and the gracefully infrequent bushes. In front of the cabin itself was a "rockery" of pink quartz, on which were piled elk antlers. The building was L-shaped, of two low stories, had a veranda with a railing, and possessed various ornamental wood edgings, all of which were painted. The whole affair was mathematically squared and correspondingly neat. Some boxes and pots of flowers adorned the window ledges.
Bennington's knock was answered by an elderly woman, who introduced herself at once as Mrs. Lawton. She commenced a voluble and slightly embarrassed explanation of how "she" would be down in a moment or so, at the same time leading the way into the parlour. While this explanation was going forward, Bennington had a good chance to examine his hostess and her surroundings.
Mrs. Lawton was of the fat but energetic variety. She fairly shone with cleanliness and with an insistent determination to keep busy. You could see that all the time her tongue was uttering polite platitudes concerning the weather, her mind was hovering like a dragon fly over this or that flower of domestic economy. She was one of the women who carry their housekeeping to a perfection uncomfortable both to herself and everybody else, and then delude themselves into the martyrlike belief that she is doing it all entirely for others. As a consequence, she exhibited much of the time an aggrieved air that comported but ludicrously with her tendency to bustle. And it must be confessed that in other ways Mrs. Lawton was ludicrous. Her dumpy little form was dressed in the loudest of prints, the figures of which turned her into a huge flower bed of brilliant cabbage-like blooms. Over this chaos of colours peered her round little face with its snapping eyes. She discoursed in sentences which began coherently, but frayed out soon into nothingness under the stress of inner thought. "I don't see where that husban' of mine is. I reckon you'll think we're just awful rude, Mr. de Laney, and that gal, an' Maude. I declare it's jest enough to try any one's patience, it surely is. You've no idea, Mr. de Laney, what with the hens settin', and this mis'able dry spell that sends th' dust all over everything and every one 'way behin' hand on everythin'——" Her eye was becoming vacant as she wondered about certain biscuits.
"I'm sure it must be," agreed Bennington uncomfortably.
"What was I a-sayin'? You must excuse me, Mr. de Laney, but you, being a man, can have no idea of the life us poor women folks lead, slavin' our very lives away to keep things runnin', and then no thanks fer it a'ter all. I'd just like t' see Bill Lawton try it fer jest one week. He'd be a ravin' lunatic, an' thet I tell him often. This country's jest awful, too. I tell him he must get out sometimes, and I 'spect he will, when he's made his pile, poor man, an' then we'll have a chanst to go back East again. When we lived East, Mr. de Laney, we had a house—not like this little shack; a good house with nigh on to a dozen rooms, and I had a gal to help me and some chanst to buy things once in a while, but now that Bill Lawton's moved West, what's goin' to become o' me I don't know. I'm nigh wore out with it all."
"Then you lived East once?" asked Bennington.
"Law, yes! We lived in Illinoy once, and th' Lord only knows I wisht we lived there yet, though the farmin' was a sight of work and no pay sometimes." The inner doubts as to the biscuits proved too much for her. "Heaven knows, you ain't t' git much to eat," she cried, jumping up, "but you ain't goin' to git anythin' a tall if I don't run right off and tend to them biscuit."
She bustled out. Bennington had time then to notice the decorations of the "parlour." They offered to the eye a strange mixture of the East and West—reminiscences of the old home in "Illinoy" and trophies of the new camping-out on the frontier. From the ceiling hung a heavy lamp with prismatic danglers, surrounded by a globe on which were depicted stags in the act of leaping six-barred gates. By way of complement to this gorgeous centrepiece, the paper on the walls showed, in infinitely recurring duplicate, a huntress in green habit and big hat carrying on a desperate flirtation with a young man in the habiliments of the fifteenth century, while across the background a huddle of dogs pursued a mammoth deer. Mathematically beneath the lamp stood a table covered with a red-figured spread. On the table was a glass bell, underneath which were wax flowers and a poorly-stuffed robin. In one angle of the room austerely huddled a three-cornered "whatnot" of four shelves. Two china pugs and a statuette of a simpering pair of children under a massive umbrella adorned this article of furniture. On the wall ticked an old-fashioned square wooden clock. The floor was concealed by a rag carpet. So much for the East. The West contributed brilliant green copper ore, flaky white tin ore, glittering white quartz ore, shining pyrites, and one or two businesslike specimens of oxygenated quartz, all of which occupied points of exhibit on the "whatnot." Over the carpet were spread a deer skin, and a rug made from the hide of a timber wolf. Bennington found all this interesting but depressing. He was glad when Mrs. Lawton returned and took up her voluble discourse.
In the midst of a dissertation on the relation of corn meal to eggs the door opened, and Mr. Lawton sidled in.
"Oh, here y' are at last!" observed his spouse scornfully, and rattled on. Lawton nodded awkwardly, and perched himself on the edge of a chair. He had assumed an ill-fitting suit of store clothes, in which he unaccustomedly writhed, and evidently, to judge from the sleekness of his hair, had recently plunged his head in a pail of water. He said nothing, but whenever Mrs. Lawton was not looking he winked elaborately and solemnly at Bennington as though to imply that circumstances alone prevented any more open show of cordiality. At last, catching the young man's eye at a more than usually propitious moment, he went through the pantomime of opening a bottle, then furtively arose and disappeared. Mrs. Lawton, remembering her cakes, ran out. Bennington was left alone again. He had not spoken six words.
The door slowly opened, and another member of the family sidled in. Bennington owned a helpless feeling that this was a sort of show, and that these various actors in it were parading their entrances and their exits before him. Or that he himself were the object of inspection on whom the others were satisfying their own curiosity.
The newcomer was a child, a little girl about eight or ten years old. Bennington liked children as a usual thing. No one on earth could have become possessed in this one's favour. She was a creature of regular but mean features, extreme gravity, and evidently of an inquiring disposition. On seeing her for the first time, one sophisticated would have expected a deluge of questions. Bennington did. But she merely stood and stared without winking.
"Hullo, little girl!" Bennington greeted her uneasily.
The creature only stared the harder.
"My doll's name is Garnet M-a-ay," she observed suddenly, with a long-drawn nasal accent.
After this interesting bit of information another silence fell.
"What is your name, little girl?" Bennington asked desperately at last.
"Maude," remarked the phenomenon briefly.
This statement she delivered in that whining tone which the extremely self-conscious infant imagines to indicate playful childishness. She approached.
"D' you want t' see my picters?" she whimpered confidingly.
Bennington expressed his delight.
For seven geological ages did he gaze upon cheap and horrible woodcuts of gentlemen in fashionable raiment trying to lean against conspicuously inadequate rustic gates; equally fashionable ladies, with flat chests, and rat's nest hair; and animals whose attitudes denoted playful sportiveness of disposition. Each of these pictures was explained in minute detail. Bennington's distress became apathy. Mrs. Lawton returned from the cakes presently, yet her voice seemed to break in on the duration of centuries.
"Now, Maude!" she exclaimed, with a proper maternal pride, "you mustn't be botherin' the gentleman." She paused to receive the expected disclaimer. It was made, albeit a little weakly. "Maude is very good with her Book," she explained. "Miss Brown, that's the school teacher that comes over from Hill Town summers, she says Maude reads a sight better than lots as is two or three years older. Now how old would you think she was, Mr. de Laney?"
Mr. de Laney tried to appraise, while the object hung her head self-consciously and twisted her feet. He had no idea of children's ages.
"About eleven," he guessed, with an air of wisdom.
"Jest eight an' a half!" cried the dame, folding her hands triumphantly. She let her fond maternal gaze rest on the prodigy. Suddenly she darted forward with extraordinary agility for one so well endowed with flesh, and seized her offspring in relentless grasp.
"I do declare, Maude Eliza!" she exclaimed in horror-stricken tones, "you ain't washed your ears! You come with me!"
They disappeared in a blue mist of wails.
As though this were his cue, the crafty features of Lawton appeared cautiously in the doorway, bestowed a furtive and searching inspection on the room, and finally winked solemnly at its only occupant. A hand was inserted. The forefinger beckoned. Bennington arose wearily and went out.
Lawton led the way to a little oat shed standing at some distance from the house. Behind this he paused. From beneath his coat he drew a round bottle and two glass tumblers.
"No joke skippin' th' ole lady," he chuckled in an undertone. He poured out a liberal portion for himself, and passed the bottle along. Bennington was unwilling to hurt the old fellow's feelings after he had taken so much trouble on his account, but he was equally unwilling to drink the whisky. So he threw it away when Lawton was not looking.
They walked leisurely toward the house, Lawton explaining various improvements in a loud tone of voice, intended more to lull his wife's suspicions than to edify the young man. The lady looked on them sternly, and announced dinner. At the table Bennington found Mary already seated.
The Easterner was placed next to Mrs. Lawton. At his other hand was Maude Eliza. Mary sat opposite. Throughout the meal she said little, and only looked up from her plate when Bennington's attention was called another way.
Her mere presence, however, seemed to open to the young man a different point of view. He found Mrs. Lawton's lengthy dissertations amusing; he considered Mr. Lawton in the light of a unique character, and Maude Eliza, while as disagreeable as ever, came in for various excuses and explanations on her own behalf in the young man's mind. He became more responsive. He told a number of very good stories, at which the others laughed. He detailed some experiences of his own at places in the world far remote, selected, it must be confessed, with some slight reference to their dazzling effect on the company. Without actually "showing off," he managed to get the effect of it. The result of his efforts was to harmonize to some extent these diverse elements. Mrs. Lawton became more coherent, Mr. Lawton more communicative; Maude Eliza stopped whining—occasionally and temporarily. Bennington had rarely been in such high spirits. He was surprised himself, but then was not that day of moment to him, and would he not have been a strange sort of individual to have seen in the world aught but brightness?