"He might kill somethin', if 'twould lift a little, but there's nothin' stirrin' in such a storm as this. I feel like a murderer settin' here."
Sprudell watched him fearfully lest the irresolution he read in his face change to resolve, and urged:
"There's nothing we can do but wait."
Days after the most sanguine would have abandoned hope, Uncle Bill hung on. Sprudell paced the cabin like a captive panther, and his broad hints became demands.
"A month of this, and there would be another killin'; I aches to choke the windpipe off that dude," the old man told himself, and ignored the peremptory commands.
The crust that he prayed for came at last, but no sign of Bruce; then a gale blowing down the river swept it fairly clear of snow.
"Git ready!" Griswold said one morning. "We'll start." And Sprudell jumped on his frosted feet for joy. "We'll take it on the ice to Long's Crossin'," he vouchsafed shortly. "Ore City's closest, but I've no heart to pack you up that hill."
He left a note on the kitchen table, though he had the sensation of writing to the dead; and when he closed the door he did so reverently, as he would have left a mausoleum. Then, dragging blankets and provision behind them on the sled, they started for the river, past the broken snow and the shallow grave where the dead madman lay, past the clump of snow-laden willows where the starving horses that had worked their way down huddled for shelter, too weak to move. Leaden-hearted, Uncle Bill went with reluctant feet. Before a bend of the river shut from sight the white-roofed cabin from which a tiny thread of smoke still rose, he looked over his shoulder, wagging his head.
"I don't feel right about goin'. I shorely don't."
THE RETURNED HERO
It is said that no two persons see another in exactly the same light. Be that as it may, it is extremely doubtful if Uncle Bill Griswold would have immediately recognized in the debonair raconteur who held a circle breathless in the Bartlesville Commercial Club the saffron-colored, wild-eyed dude whom he had fished off the slide rock with a pair of "galluses" attached to a stout pole.
The account of Sprudell's adventure had leaked out and even gotten into print, but it was not until some time after that his special cronies succeeded in getting the story from his own lips.
There was not a dry eye when he was done. That touch about thinking of them and the Yawning Jaws, and grappling hand to hand with The White Death—why, the man was a poet, no matter what his enemies said; and, as though to prove it, Abe Cone sniffled so everybody looked at him.
"We're proud of you! But you musn't take such a chance again, old man."
A chorus echoed Y. Fred Smart's friendly protest. "'Tain't right to tempt Providence."
But Sprudell laughed lightly, and they regarded him in admiration—danger was the breath of life to some.
But this reckless, peril-courting side was only one side of the many-sided T. Victor Sprudell. From nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, he was the man of business, occupied with facts and figures and the ever-interesting problem of how to extract the maximum of labor for the minimum of wage. That "there is no sentiment in business" is a doctrine he practised to the letter. He was hard, uncompromising, exact.
Rather than the gratifying cortege which he pictured in his dreams, a hansom cab or a motorcycle could quite easily have conveyed all the sorrowing employees of the Bartlesville Tool Works who voluntarily would have followed its president to his grave.
But when Sprudell closed his office door, he locked this adamantine, quibbling, frankly penurious, tyrannical man of business inside, and the chameleon does not change its color with greater ease than Sprudell took on another and distinct personality. On the instant he became the "good fellow," his pink face and beaming eyes radiating affability, conviviality, an all-embracing fondness for mankind, also a susceptible Don Juan keenly on the alert for adventure of a sentimental nature.
In appearance, too, he was a credit to the Bartlesville Commercial Club, when, with his pink face glowing above a glimpse of crimson neck scarf, dressed in pearl-gray spats, gray topcoat, gray business clothes indistinctly barred with black, and suede gloves of London smoke, he bounded up the clubhouse steps with the elasticity of well-preserved fifty, lightly swinging a slender stick. His jauntily-placed hat was a trifle, a mere suspicion, too small, and always he wore a dewy boutonniere of violets, while his thick, gray hair had a slight part behind which it pleased him to think gave the touch of distinction and originality he coveted.
This was the lighter side of T. Victor Sprudell. The side of himself which he took most seriously was his intellectual side. When he was the scholar, the scientist, the philosopher, he demanded and received the strictest attention and consideration from his immediate coterie of friends. So long as he was merely le bon diable, the jovial clubman, it was safe to banter and even to contradict him; but when the conversation drifted into the higher realms of thought, it was tacitly understood that the privileges of friendship were revoked. At such moments it was as though the oracle of Delphi spoke.
This ambition to shine as a man of learning was the natural outcome of his disproportionate vanity, his abnormal egotism, his craving for prominence and power. Sprudell was a man who had had meager youthful advantages, but through life he had observed the tremendous impression which scholarly attainments made upon the superficially educated—which they made upon him.
So he set about acquiring knowledge.
He dabbled in the languages, and a few useful words and phrases stuck. He plunged into the sciences, and arose from the immersion dripping with a smattering of astronomy, chemistry, biology, archaeology, and what not. The occult was to him an open book, and he was wont temporarily to paralyze the small talk of social gatherings with dissertations upon the teachings of the ancients which he had swallowed at a gulp. He criticised the schools of modern painting in impressive art terms, while he himself dashed off half-column poems at a sitting for the Courier, in which he had acquired controlling stock.
In other words, by a certain amount of industry, T. Victor Sprudell had become a walking encyclopaedia of misinformation with small danger of being found out so long as he stayed in Bartlesville.
Certainly Abe Cone—born Cohen—who had made his "barrel" in ready-made clothing, felt in no position to contradict him when he stated his belief in the theory of transmigration as expounded by Pythagoras, and expressed the opinion that by chance the soul of Cleopatra might be occupying the graceful body of the club cat. Abe was not acquainted with the doctrine of Pythagoras, though he had heard somewhere that the lady was a huzzy; so he discreetly kept his mouth closed and avoided the cat. Intellectually Sprudell's other associates were of Abe's caliber, so he shone among them, the one bright, particular star—too vain, too fundamentally deficient to know how little he really knew.
Nevertheless he was the most thoroughly detested, the most hated man in Bartlesville. And those who hated feared him as they hated and feared the incendiary, the creeping thief, the midnight assassin; for he used their methods to attain his ends, along with a despot's power.
No man or woman who pricked his vanity, who incurred his displeasure, was safe from his vengeance. No person who wounded his self-esteem was too obscure to escape his vindictive malice, and no means that he could employ, providing it was legally safe, was too unscrupulous, too petty, to use to punish the offender. Hounding somebody was his recreation, his one extravagance. He exhumed the buried pasts of political candidates who had crossed him; he rattled family skeletons in revenge for social slights; he published musty prison records, and over night blasted reputations which had been years in the building. His enmity cost salaried men positions through pressure which sooner or later he always found the way to bring to bear, and even mere "day's jobs" were not beneath his notice. Yet his triumphs cost him dear. Merry groups had a way of dissolving at his coming. He read dislike in many a hostess's eye, and, save for the small coterie of inferior satellites, Sprudell in his own club was as lonely as a leper. But so strong was this dominating trait that he preferred the sweetness of revenge to any tie of fellowship or hope of popularity. The ivy of friendship did not grow for him.
By a secret ballot, Sprudell in his own town could not have been elected dog-catcher, yet his money and his newspaper made him dangerous and a power.
When he regaled his fellow members with the dramatic story of his sufferings, he said nothing of Bruce Burt. Bruce Burt was dead, of that he had not the faintest doubt. He intended to keep the promise he had made to hunt the Naudain fellow's relatives, but for the present he felt that his frosted feet were paramount.
SPRUDELL GOES EAST
With an air of being late for many important engagements, T. Victor Sprudell bustled into the Hotel Strathmore in the Eastern city that had been Slim's home and inscribed his artistic signature upon the register; and as a consequence Peters, city editor of the Evening Dispatch, while glancing casually over the proofs that had just come from the composing room, some hours later, paused at the name of T. Victor Sprudell, Bartlesville, Indiana, among the list of hotel arrivals.
Mr. Peters shoved back his green shade, closed one eye, and with the other stared fixedly at the ceiling. One of the chief reasons why he occupied the particular chair in which he sat was because he had a memory like an Edison record, and now he asked himself where and in what connection he had seen this name in print before.
Who was this Sprudell? What had he done? Had he run away with somebody, embezzled, explored—explored, that was more like it! Ah, now he remembered—Sprudell was a hero. Two "sticks" in the Associated Press had informed the world how nobly he had saved somebody from something.
Peters scanned the city room. The bright young cub who leaps to fame in a single story was not present. The city editor had no hallucinations regarding such members of his staff as he saw at leisure, but thought again, as he had often thought before, that the world had lost some good plumbers and gasfitters when they turned to newspaper work. He said abruptly to the office boy:
"Tell Miss Dunbar to come here."
In a general way, Mr. Peters did not approve of women in journalism, but he did disapprove very particularly of making any distinction between the sexes in the office. Yet frequently he found himself gripping the chair arm to prevent himself from rising when she entered; and in his secret soul he knew that he looked out of the window to note the weather before giving her an out-of-town assignment. When she came into the city room now he conquered this annoying impulse of politeness by not immediately looking up.
"You sent for me?"
"Go up to the hotel and see this man" (he underscored the name and handed her the proof); "there might be a story in him. He saved somebody's life out West—his guide's, as I recall it. Noble-hero story—brave tenderfoot rescuing seasoned Westerner—reversal of the usual picture. Might use his photograph."
"I'll try," as she took the slip. It was characteristic of her not to ask questions, which was one of the several reasons why the city editor approved of her.
"In that event I know we can count on it." Mr. Peters waited expectantly and was not disappointed.
She was walking away but turned her head and looked back at him over her shoulder. The sudden, sparkling smile changed her face like some wizard's magic from that of a sober young woman very much in earnest to a laughing, rather mischievous looking little girl of ten or twelve.
There are a few women who even at middle-age have moments when it seems as though the inexorable hand of Time were forced back to childhood by the youthfulness of their spirit. For a minute, or perhaps a second merely, the observer receives a vivid impression of them as they looked before the anxieties and sorrows which come with living had left their imprint.
Helen Dunbar had this trick of expression to a marked degree and for a fleeting second she always looked like a little girl in shoe-top frocks and pigtails. Mr. Peters had noticed it often, and as a student of physiognomy he had found the transformation so fascinating that he had not only watched for it but sometimes endeavored to provoke it. He also reflected now as he looked after her, that her appearance was a credit to the sheet—a comment he was not always able to make upon the transitory ladies of his staff.
The unconscious object of the newspaper's attention was seated at a desk in the sitting-room of his suite in the Hotel Strathmore, alternately frowning and smiling in the effort of composition.
Mr. Sprudell had a jaunty, colloquial style when he stooped to prose.
"Easy of access, pay dirt from the grass roots, and a cinch to save," he was writing, when a knock upon the door interrupted him.
"Come in!" He scowled at the uniformed intruder.
"A card, sir." It was Miss Dunbar's, of the Evening Dispatch.
"What the dickens!" Mr. Sprudell looked puzzled. "Ah yes, of course!" For a second, an instant merely, Mr. Sprudell had quite forgotten that he was a hero.
"These people will find you out." His tone was bored. "Tell her I'll be down presently."
When the door closed, he walked to the glass.
He twitched at his crimson neck scarf and whisked his pearl-gray spats; he made a pass or two with his military brushes at his cherished part, and took his violets from a glass of water to squeeze them dry on a towel. While he adjusted his boutonniere, he gazed at his smiling image and twisted his neck to look for wrinkles in his coat. "T. Victor Sprudell, Wealthy Sportsman and Hero, Reluctantly Consents to Be Interviewed" was a headline which occurred to him as he went down in the elevator.
The girl from the Dispatch awaited him in the parlor. Mr. Sprudell's genial countenance glowed as he advanced with outstretched hand.
Miss Dunbar noted that the hand was warm and soft and chubby; nor was this dapper, middle-aged beau exactly the man she had pictured as the hero of a thrilling rescue. He looked too self-satisfied and fat.
"Now what can I do for you, my dear young lady?" Mr. Sprudell drew up a chair with amiable alacrity.
"We have heard of you, you know," she began smilingly.
"Oh, really!" Mr. Sprudell lifted one astonished brow. "I cannot imagine——" He was thinking that Miss Dunbar had remarkably good teeth.
"And we want you to tell us something of your adventure in the West."
"Er—the last one."
"Oh, that little affair of the blizzard?" Mr. Sprudell laughed inconsequently. "Tut, tut! There's really nothing to tell."
"We know better than that." She looked at him archly.
It was then he discovered that she had especially fine eyes.
"I couldn't have done less than I did, under the circumstances." Mr. Sprudell closed a hand and regarded the polished nails modestly. "But—er—frankly, I would rather not talk for publication."
"People who have actually done something worth telling will never talk," declared Miss Dunbar, in mock despair, "while those——"
"But you can understand," interrupted Mr. Sprudell, with a gesture of depreciation, "how a man feels to seem to"—he all but achieved a blush—"to toot his own horn."
"I can understand your reluctance perfectly" Miss Dunbar admitted sympathetically, and it was then he noticed how low and pleasant her voice was. She felt that she did understand perfectly—she had a notion that nothing short of total paralysis of the vocal cords would stop him after he had gone through the "modest hero's" usual preamble.
"But," she urged, "there is so much crime and cowardice, so many dreadful things, printed, that I think stories of self-sacrifice and brave deeds like yours should be given the widest publicity—a kind of antidote—you know what I mean?"
"Exactly," Mr. Sprudell acquiesced eagerly. "Moral effect upon the youth of the land. Establishes standards of conduct, raises high ideals in the mind of the reader. Of course, looking at it from that point of view——" Obviously Mr. Sprudell was weakening.
"That's the view you must take of it," insisted Miss Dunbar sweetly.
Mr. Sprudell regarded his toe. Charming as she was, he wondered if she could do the interview—him—justice. A hint of his interesting personality would make an effective preface, he thought, and a short sketch of his childhood culminating in his successful business career.
"Out there in the silences, where the peaks pierce the blue——" began Mr. Sprudell dreamily.
"Where?" Miss Dunbar felt for a pencil.
"Er—Bitter Root Mountains." The business-like question and tone disconcerted him slightly.
Mr. Sprudell backed up and started again:
"Out there in the silence, where the peaks pierce the blue, we pitched our tents in the wilderness—in the forest primeval. We pillowed our heads upon nature's heart, and lay at night watching the cold stars shivering in their firmament." That was good! Mr. Sprudell wondered if it was original or had he read it somewhere? "By day, like primordial man, we crept around beetling crags and scaled inaccessible peaks in pursuit of the wild things——"
"Who crept with you?" inquired Miss Dunbar prosaically. "How far were you from a railroad?"
A shade of irritation replaced the look of poetic exaltation upon Sprudell's face. It would have been far better if they had sent a man. A man would undoubtedly have taken the interview verbatim.
"An old prospector and mountain man named Griswold—Uncle Bill they call him—was my guide, and we were—let me see—yes, all of a hundred miles from a railroad."
"What you were saying was—a—beautiful," declared Miss Dunbar, noting his injured tone, "but, you see, unfortunately in a newspaper we must have facts. Besides"—she glanced at the wrist watch beneath the frill of her coat sleeve—"the first edition goes to press at eleven-forty-five, and I would like to have time to do your story justice."
Mr. Sprudell reluctantly folded his oratorical pinions and dived to earth.
Beginning with the moment when he had emerged from the canyon where he had done some remarkable shooting at a band of mountain sheep—he doubted if ever he would be able to repeat the performance—and first sensed danger in the leaden clouds, to the last desperate struggle through the snowdrifts in the paralyzing cold of forty below, with poor old Uncle Bill Griswold on his back, he told the story graphically, with great minuteness of detail. And when divine Providence led him at last to the lonely miner's cabin on the wild tributary of the Snake, and he had sunk, fainting and exhausted, to the floor with his inert burden on his back, Mr. Sprudell's eyes filled, touched to tears by the story of his own bravery.
Miss Dunbar's wide, intent eyes and parted lips inspired him to go further. Under the stimulus of her flattering attention and the thought that through her he was talking to an audience of at least two hundred thousand people, he forgot the caution which was always stronger than any rash impulse. The circulation of the Dispatch was local; and besides, Bruce Burt was dead, he reasoned swiftly.
He told her of the tragedy in the lonely cabin, and described to her the scene into which he had stumbled, getting into the telling something of his own feeling of shock. In imagination she could see the big, silent, black-browed miner cooking, baking, deftly doing a woman's work, scrubbing at the stains on logs and flooring, wiping away the black splashes like a tidy housewife. "This is my story," she thought.
"Why did they quarrel?"
"It began with a row over pancakes, and wound up with a fight over salt."
She stared incredulously.
"Fact—he said so."
"And what was the brute's name?"
He answered, not too readily:
"And the man he murdered?"
"They called him Slim Naudain."
"Naudain!" Her startled cry made him look at her in wonder. "Naudain! What did they call him beside Slim?"
"Frederick was his given name."
"Freddie!" she whispered, aghast.
Sprudell stared at her, puzzled.
"It must be! The name is too uncommon."
"I don't understand."
"He must have been my brother—my half-brother—my mother was married twice. It is too dreadful!" She stared at Sprudell with wide, shocked eyes.
Sprudell was staring, too, but he seemed more disconcerted than amazed.
"It's hardly likely," he said, reassuringly. "When did you hear from him last?"
"It has been all of twelve years since we heard from him even indirectly. I wrote to him in Silver City, New Mexico, where we were told he was working in a mine. Perhaps he did not get my letter; at least I've tried to think so, for he did not answer."
Indecision, uncertainty, were uppermost among the expressions on Sprudell's face, but the girl did not see them, for her downcast eyes were filled with tears. Finally he said slowly and in a voice curiously restrained.
"Yes, he did receive it and I have it here. It's a very strange coincidence, Miss Dunbar, the most remarkable I have ever known; you will agree when I tell you that my object in coming East was to find you and your mother for the purpose of turning over his belongings—this letter you mention, an old photograph of you and some five hundred dollars in money he left."
"It's something to remember, that at least he kept my letter and my picture." She swallowed hard and bit her lips for self-control. "He was not a good son or a good brother, Mr. Sprudell," she continued with an effort, "but since my father and mother died he's been all I had. And I've made myself believe that at heart he was all right and that when he was older he would think enough of us some time to come home. I've counted on it—on him—more than I realized until now. It is"—she clenched her hands tightly and swallowed hard again—"a blow."
Sprudell replied soothingly
"This fellow Burt said his partner thought a lot of you."
"It's strange," Helen looked up reflectively, "that a cold-blooded murderer like that would have turned over my brother's things—would have sent anything back at all."
"I made him," said Sprudell.
"I'm too shocked yet to thank you properly," she said, rising and giving him her hand, "but, believe me, I do appreciate your disinterested kindness in making this long trip from Bartlesville, and for total strangers, too."
"Tut! tut!" Mr. Sprudell interrupted. "It's nothing—nothing at all; and now I wish you'd promise to dine with me this evening. I'll call for you if I may and bring the money and the letter and picture. From now on I want you to feel that I am a friend who is always at your service. Tut! tut! don't embarrass me with thanks."
He accompanied her to the door, then stepped back into the parlor to watch her pass the window and cross the street. He liked her brisk, alert step, her erect carriage, and the straight lines of the dark clothes she wore mightily became her slender figure. "Wouldn't a girl like that"—his full, red lips puckered in a whistle—"wouldn't she make a stir in Bartlesville!"
Sprudell returned to his task, but with abated enthusiasm. A vague uneasiness, which may have been his conscience, disturbed him. He would write furiously, then stop and read what he had written with an expression of dissatisfaction.
"Hang it all." He threw his work down finally, and, thrusting his hands in the pockets of his trousers, paced up and down the floor to "have it out." What could the girl do with the place if she had it? It was a property which required money and experience and brains to handle. Besides, he had committed himself to his friends, talked of it, promoted it partially, and they shared his enthusiasm. It was something which appealed intensely to the strong vein of sensationalism in him. What a pill it would be for his enemies to swallow if he went West and made another fortune! They might hate him, but they would have to admit his brains. To emerge, Midaslike, from the romantic West with bags of yellow gold was the one touch needed to make him an envied, a unique and picturesque, figure. He could not give it up. He meant to be honest—he would be honest—but in his own way.
He would see that the girl profited by the development of the ground. He would find a way. Already there was a hazy purpose in his head which, if it crystallized, would prove a most satisfactory way. Sprudell sat down again and wrote until the prospectus of the Bitter Root Placer Mining Company was ready for the printer.
UNCLE BILL FINDS NEWS IN THE "TRY-BUNE"
When anybody remained in Ore City through the winter it was a tacit confession that he had not money enough to get away; and this winter the unfortunates were somewhat more numerous than usual. Those who remained complained that they saw the sun so seldom that when it did come out it hurt their eyes, and certain it is that owing to the altitude there were always two months more of winter in Ore City than in any other camp in the State.
After the first few falls of snow a transcontinental aeroplane might have crossed the clearing in the thick timber without suspecting any settlement there, unless perchance the aeronaut was flying low enough to see the tunnels which led like the spokes of a wheel from the snow-buried cabins to the front door of the Hinds House.
When the rigid cold of forty below froze everything that would freeze, and the wind drove the powdery snow up and down the Main street, there would not be a single sign of life for hours; but at the least cessation the inhabitants came out like prairie dogs from their holes and scuttled through their tunnels, generally on borrowing expeditions: that is, if they were not engaged at the time in conversation, cribbage, piute or poker in the comfortable office of the Hinds House. In which event they all came out together.
In winter the chief topic was a continual wonder as to whether the stage would be able to get in, and in summer as to whether when it did get in it would bring a "live one." No one ever looked for a "live one" later than September or earlier than June.
There had been a time when the hotel was full of "live ones," and nearly every mine owner had one of his own in tow, but this was when the Mascot was working three shifts and a big California outfit had bonded the Goldbug.
But a "fault" had come into the vein on the Mascot and they had never been able to pick up the ore-shoot again. So the grass grew ankle-deep on the Mascot hill because there were no longer three shifts of hob-nailed boots to keep it down. The California outfit dropped the Goldbug as though it had been stung, and a one-lunger stamp-mill chugged where the camp had dreamed of forty.
In the halcyon days, the sound that issued from "The Bucket o' Blood" suggested wild animals at feeding time; but the nightly roar from the saloon even in summer had sunk to a plaintive whine and ceased altogether in winter. Machinery rusted and timbers rotted while the roof of the Hinds House sagged like a sway-backed horse; so did the beds, so also did "Old Man" Hinds' spirits, and there was a hole in the dining-room floor where the unwary sometimes dropped to their hip-joints.
But the Hinds House continued to be, as it always had been, the social centre, the news bureau, the scene where large deals were constantly being conceived and promulgated—although they got no further. Each inhabitant of Ore City had his set time for arriving and departing, and he abided as closely by his schedule as though he kept office hours.
There was a generous box of saw-dust near the round sheet-iron stove which set in the middle of the office, and there were many straight-backed wooden chairs whose legs were steadied with baling wire and whose seats had been highly polished by the overalls of countless embryo mining magnates. On one side of the room was a small pine table where Old Man Hinds walloped himself at solitaire, and on the other side of the room was a larger table, felt-covered, kept sacred to the games of piute and poker, where as much as three dollars sometimes changed hands in a single night.
At the extreme end of the long office was a plush barber chair, and a row of gilt mugs beneath a gilt mirror gave the place a metropolitan air, although there was little doing in winter when whiskers and long hair became assets.
Selected samples of ore laid in rows on the window-sills; there were neat piles heaped in the corners, along the walls, and on every shelf, while the cabinet-organ, of Jersey manufacture, with its ornamental rows of false stops and keys, which was the distinguishing feature of the office, had "spec'mins" on the bristling array of stands which stood out from it in unexpected places like wooden stalagmites.
The cabinet-organ setting "catty-cornered" beside the roller-towel indicated the presence of womankind, and it indicated correctly, for out in the kitchen was Mrs. Alonzo Snow, and elsewhere about the hotel were her two lovely daughters, the Misses Violet and Rosie Snow,—facetiously known as "the Snowbirds."
Second to the stove in the office, the Snow family was the attraction in the Hinds House, for the entertainment they frequently furnished was as free as the wood that the habitues fed so liberally to the sheet-iron stove.
A psychological writer has asserted that when an extremely sensitive person meets for the first time one who is to figure prominently in his life, he experiences an inward tremor. Whether it was that Old Man Hinds was not sufficiently sensitive or was too busy at the time to be cognizant of inward tremors, the fact is he was not conscious of any such sensation when the "Musical Snows" alighted stiffly from the Beaver Creek stage; yet they were to fill not only his best rooms but his whole horizon.
"Nightingales and Prodigies," the handbills said, and after the concert nobody questioned their claims. The "Musical Snows" liked the people, the food, the scenery—and the climate which was doing Mr. Snow such a lot of good—so well that they stayed on. There were so many of them and they rested so long that their board-bill became too hopelessly large to pay, so they did not dishearten themselves by trying.
Then while freight was seven cents a pound from the railroad terminus and Old Man Hinds was staring at the ceiling in the tortured watches of the night trying to figure out how he could make three hams last until another wagon got in, a solution came to him which seemed the answer to all his problems. He would turn the hotel over to the "Musical Snows" and board with them! It was the only way he could ever hope to catch up. To board them meant ruin.
So the Snow family abandoned their musical careers and consented to assume the responsibility temporarily—at least while Pa was "poahly." This was four years ago, and "Pa" was still poahly.
He spent most of his time in a rocking chair upstairs by the stove-pipe hole where he could hear conveniently. When the stove-pipe parted at the joint, as it sometimes did, those below knew that Mr. Snow had inadvertently clasped the stove-pipe too tightly between his stockinged feet, though there were those who held that it happened because he did not like the turn the talk was taking. At any rate the Snow family spread themselves around most advantageously. Mr. Will Snow, the tenor of the "Plantation Quartette," appeared behind the office desk, while Mr. Claude Snow, the baritone, turned hostler for the stage-line and sold oats to the freighters. And "Ma" Snow developed such a taste for discipline and executive ability that while she was only five feet four and her outline had the gentle outward slope of a churn, Ore City spoke of her fearfully as "SHE."
Her shoulders were narrow, her chest was flat, and the corrugated puffs under her eyes with which she arose each morning looked like the half-shell of an English walnut. By noon these puffs had sunk as far the other way, so it was almost possible to tell the time of day by Ma Snow's eyes; but she could beat the world on "The Last Rose of Summer," and she still took high C.
Regular food and four years in the mountain air had done wonders for "The Infant Prodigies," Miss Rosie and Miss Vi, who now weighed close to two hundred pounds, tempting an ungallant freighter to observe that they must be "throw-backs" to Percheron stock and adding that "they ought to work great on the wheel." Their hips stood out like well-filled saddle pockets and they still wore their hair down their backs in thin braids, but, as the only girls within fifty miles, the "Prodigies" were undisputed belles.
One dull day in early December, when the sky had not lightened even at noon, a monotonous day in the Hinds House, since there had been no impromptu concert and the cards had been running with unsensational evenness, while every thread-bare topic seemed completely talked out, Uncle Bill walked restlessly to the window and by the waning light turned a bit of "rock" over in his hand.
The sight was too much for Yankee Sam, who hastily joined him.
"Think you got anything, Bill?"
"I got a hell-uv-a-lot of somethin' or a hell-uv-a-lot of nothin'. It's forty feet across the face."
"Shoo!" Sam took it from him and picked at it with a knife-point, screwing a glass into his eye to inspect the particle which he laid out carefully in his palm.
"Looks like somethin' good."
"When I run a fifty foot tunnel into a ledge of antimony over on the Skookumchuck it looked like somethin' good." Uncle Bill added drily: "I ain't excited."
"It might be one of them rar' minerals." Yankee Sam hefted it judicially. "What do you hold it at?"
"Anything I can git."
"You ought to git ten thousand dollars easy when Capital takes holt."
"I'd take a hundred and think I'd stuck the feller, if I could git cash."
"A hundred!" Yankee Sam flared up in instant wrath. "It's cheap fellers like you that's killin' this camp!"
"Mortification had set in on this camp 'fore I ever saw it, Samuel," replied Uncle Bill calmly. "I was over in the Buffalo Hump Country doin' assessment work fifteen hundred feet above timber-line when the last Live One pulled out of Ore City. They ain't been one in since to my knowledge. The town's so quiet you can hear the fish come up to breathe in Lemon Crick and I ain't lookin' for a change soon."
"You wait till spring."
"I wore out the bosoms of two pair of Levi Strauss's every winter since 1910 waitin' for spring, and I ain't seen nothin' yet except Capital makin' wide circles around Ore City. This here camp's got a black eye."
"And who give it a black eye?" demanded Yankee Sam wrathfully. "Who done it but knockers like you? I 'spose if Capital was settin' right alongside you'd up and tell 'em you never saw a ledge yet in this camp hold out below a hundred feet?"
Uncle Bill replied tranquilly:
"Would if they ast me."
"You'd rather see us all starve than boost."
"Jest as lief as to lie."
"Well, that's what we're goin' to do if somethin' don't happen this Spring. She'll own this camp. Porcupine Jim turned over 'the Underdog' yesterday and Lannigan's finished eatin' on 'The Gold-dust Twins'." He moved away disconsolately. "Lord, I wish the stage would get in."
At this juncture Judge George Petty turned in from the street, hitting both sides of the snow tunnel as he came. He fumbled at the door-knob in a suspicious manner and then stumbled joyously inside.
"Boys," he announced exuberantly, "I think I heerd the stage."
The group about the red-hot stove regarded him coldly and no one moved. It was like him, the ingrate, to get drunk alone. When he tried to wedge a chair into the circle they made no effort to give him room.
"You don't believe me!" The Judge's mouth, which had been upturned at the corners like a "dry" new moon, as promptly became a "wet" one and drooped as far the other way.
"Somethin' you been takin' must a quickened your hearin'," said Yankee Sam sourly. "She's an hour and a half yet from bein' due."
"'Twere nothin'," he answered on the defensive, "but a few drops of vaniller and some arnicy left over from that sprain. You oughtn't to feel hard toward me," he quavered, wilting under the unfriendly eyes. "I'd a passed it if there'd been enough to go aroun'."
"An' after all we've done fer ye," said Lannigan, "makin' ye Jestice of the Peace to keep ye off the town."
"Jedge," said Uncle Bill deliberately, "you're gittin' almost no-account enough to be a Forest Ranger. I aims to write to Washington when your term is out and git you in the Service."
The Judge jumped up as though he had been stung.
"Bill, we been friends for twenty year, an' I'll take considerable off you, but I want you to understan' they'r a limit. You kin call me a wolf, er a Mormon, er a son-of-a-gun, but, Bill, you can't call me no Forest Ranger! Bill," pleadingly, and his face crumpled in sudden tears, "you didn't mean that, did you? You wouldn't insult an ol', ol' frien'?"
"You got the ear-marks," Uncle Bill replied unmoved. "For a year now you've walked forty feet around that tree that fell across the trail to your cabin rather than stop and chop it out. You sleeps fourteen hours a day and eats the rest. The hardest work you ever do is to draw your money. Hell's catoots! It's a crime to keep a born Ranger like you off the Department's pay-roll."
"You think I'm drunk now and I'll forgit. Well—I won't." The Judge shook a tremulous but belligerent fist. "I'll remember what you said to me the longest day I live, and you've turned an ol', ol' frien' into an enemy. Whur's that waumbat coat what was hangin' here day 'fore yistiday?"
In offended dignity the Judge took the waumbat coat and retreated to the furthermost end of the office, where he covered himself and went to sleep in the plush barber-chair.
In the silence which followed, Miss Vi doing belated chamberwork upstairs sounded like six on an ore-wagon as she walked up and down the uncarpeted hall.
"Wisht they'd sing somethin'," said Porcupine Jim wistfully.
As though his desire had been communicated by mental telepathy Ma Snow's soprano came faintly from the kitchen—"We all like she-e-e—p-." Miss Rosie's alto was heard above the clatter of the dishes she was placing on the table in the dining-room—"We all like she-e-e—p-." Miss Vi's throaty contralto was wafted down the stairs—"We all like she-e-e-p." "Have gone" sang the tenor. "Have gone astray—astray"—Mr. Snow's booming bass came through the stove-pipe hole. The baritone arrived from the stable in time to lend his voice as they all chorded.
"The stage's comin'," the musical hostler announced when the strains died away. The entranced audience dashed abruptly for the door.
A combination of arnica and vanilla seemed indeed to have sharpened the Judge's hearing for the stage was fully an hour earlier than any one had reason to expect.
"Don't see how he can make such good time over them roads loaded down like he is with Mungummery-Ward Catalogues and nails comin' by passel post." Yankee Sam turned up his coat collar and shivered.
"Them leaders is turrible good snow-horses; they sabe snow-shoes like a man." Lannigan stretched his neck to catch a glimpse of them through the pines before they made the turn into the Main street.
There was a slightly acid edge to Uncle Bill's tone as he observed:
"I ought to git my Try-bune to-night if the postmistress at Beaver Crick is done with it."
"Git-ep! Eagle! Git-ep, Nig!" They could hear the stage driver urging his horses before they caught sight of the leader's ears turning the corner.
Then Porcupine Jim, who had the physical endowment of being able to elongate his neck like a turtle, cried excitedly before anyone else could see the rear of the stage: "They's somebudy on!"
A passenger? They looked at each other inquiringly. Who could be coming into Ore City at this time of year? But there he sat—a visible fact—in the back seat—wearing a coon-skin cap and snuggled down into a coon-skin overcoat looking the embodiment of ready money! A Live One—in winter! They experienced something of the awe which the Children of Israel must have felt when manna fell in the wilderness. Even Uncle Bill tingled with curiosity.
When the steaming stage horses stopped before the snow tunnel, the population of Ore City was waiting like a reception committee, their attitudes of nonchalance belied by their gleaming, intent eyes.
The stranger was dark and hatchet-faced, with sharp, quick-moving eyes. He nodded curtly in a general way and throwing aside the robes sprang out nimbly.
A pang so sharp and violent that it was nearly audible passed through the expectant group. Hope died a sudden death when they saw his legs. It vanished like the effervescence from charged water, likewise their smile. He wore puttees! He was the prospectors' ancient enemy. He was a Yellow Leg! A mining expert—but who was he representing? Without knowing, they suspected "the Guggenheimers"—when in doubt they always suspected the Guggenheimers.
They stood aside to let him pass, their cold eyes following his legs down the tunnel, waiting in the freezing atmosphere to avoid the appearance of indecent haste, though they burned to make a bee-line for the register.
"Wilbur Dill,—Spokane" was the name he inscribed upon the spotless page with many curlicues, while Ma Snow waited with a graceful word of greeting, bringing with her the fragrant odors of the kitchen.
"Welcome to our mountain home."
As Mr. Dill bowed gallantly over her extended hand he became aware that there was to be fried ham for supper.
He was shown to his room but came down again with considerable celerity, rubbing his knuckles, and breaking the highly charged silence of the office with a caustic comment upon the inconvenience of sleeping in cold storage.
There was a polite murmur of assent but nothing further, as his hearers knew what he did not—that Pa Snow upstairs was listening. Yankee Sam however tactfully diverted his thoughts to the weather, hoping thus indirectly to draw out his reason for undertaking the hardship of such a trip in winter. But whatever Mr. Dill's business it appeared to be of a nature which would keep, although they sat expectantly till Miss Rosie coyly announced supper.
"Don't you aim to set down, Uncle Bill?" she asked kindly as the rest filed in.
"Thanks, no, I et late and quite hearty, an' I see the Try-bune's come."
"I should think you'd want to eat every chance you got after all you went through out hunting."
"It's that, I reckon, what's took my appetite," the old man answered soberly, as he produced his steel-rimmed spectacles and started to read what the Beaver Creek postmistress had left him of his newspaper.
Inside, Mr. Dill seated himself at the end of the long table which a placard braced against the castor proclaimed as sacred to the "transient." A white tablecloth served as a kind of dead-line over which the most audacious regular dared not reach for special delicacies when Ma Snow hovered in the vicinity.
"Let me he'p yoah plate to some Oregon-grape jell," Ma Snow was urging in her honied North Carolina accent, when, by that mysterious sixth sense which she seemed to possess, or the eye which it was believed she concealed by the arrangement of her back hair, she became suddenly aware of the condition of Mr. Lannigan's hands.
She whirled upon him like a catamount and her weak blue eyes watered in a way they had when she was about to show the hardness of a Lucretia Borgia. Her voice, too, that quivered as though on the verge of tears, had a quality in it which sent shivers up and down the spines of those who were familiar with it.
"Lannigan, what did I tell you?"
It was obvious enough that Lannigan knew what she had told him for he immediately jerked his hands off the oilcloth, and hid them under the table.
He answered with a look of innocence:
"Why, I don't know ma'am."
"Go out and wash them hands!"
Hands, like murder, will out. Concealment was no longer possible, since it was a well-known fact that Lannigan had hands, so he held them in front of him and regarded them in well-feigned surprise.
"I declare I never noticed!"
It was difficult to imagine how such hands could have escaped observation, even by their owner, as they looked as though he had used them for scoops to remove soot from a choked chimney. Also the demarcation lines of various high tides were plainly visible on his wrists and well up his arms. He arose with a wistful look at the platter of ham which had started on its first and perhaps only lap around the table.
Uncle Bill glanced up and commented affably:
"You got ran out, I see. I thought she'd flag them hands when I saw you goin' in with 'em."
Lannigan grunted as he splashed at the wash basin in the corner.
"I notice by the Try-bune," went on Uncle Bill with a chuckle, "that one of them English suffragettes throwed flour on the Primeer and—" His mouth opened as a fresh headline caught his eye, and when he had finished perusing it his jaw had lengthened until it was resting well down the bosom of his flannel shirt . . . The headline read:
BRAVE TENDERFOOT SAVES HIS GUIDE FROM DEATH IN BLIZZARD T. VICTOR SPRUDELL CARRIES EXHAUSTED OLD MAN THROUGH DEEP DRIFTS TO SAFETY A MODEST HERO
Uncle Bill removed his spectacles and polished them deliberately. Then he readjusted them and read the last paragraph again:
"The rough old mountain man, Bill Griswold, grasped my hand at parting, and tears of gratitude rolled down his withered cheeks as he said good-bye. But, tut! tut!" declared Mr. Sprudell modestly: "I had done nothing."
Uncle Bill made a sound that was somewhere between his favorite ejaculation and a gurgle, while his face wore an expression which was a droll mixture of amazement and wrath.
"Oh, Lannigan!" he called, then changed his mind and, instead, laid the paper on his knee and carefully cut out the story, which had been copied from an Eastern exchange, and placed it in his worn leather wallet.
While seated in the office of the Hinds House, with his eyes rolled to the ceiling, listening in well-feigned rapture to "Rippling Waves" on the cabinet organ, and other numbers rendered singly and ensemble by the Musical Snows, Mr. Dill in reality was wondering by what miracle he was going to carry out Sprudell's specific instructions to keep his errand a secret.
"The great, white light which plays upon a throne" is not more searching than that which follows the movements of a possible Live One in a moribund mining camp, and, in spite of his puttees, Ore City hoped against hope that some benefit might be derived from the stranger's presence.
Dill's orders were to get upon the ground which had been worked in a primitive way by a fellow named Bruce Burt—now deceased he was told—and relocate it in Sprudell's name together with seven other contiguous claims, using the name of dummy locators which would give Sprudell control of one hundred and sixty acres by doing the assessment work upon one. Also Dill was instructed to run preliminary survey lines if possible and lose no time in submitting estimates upon the most feasible means of washing the ground.
Seated in his comfortable office in Spokane, Mr. Dill had foreseen no great difficulties in the way of earning his ample fee, but it seemed less ample after one hundred miles by stage over three summits, and a better understanding of conditions. Between the stage-driver's sweeping denunciations of road-supervisors in general and long and picturesque castigations of the local road supervisor in particular, Mr. Dill had adroitly extracted the information that the twenty-mile trail to the river was the worst known, and snow-line blazes left by "Porcupine Jim" were, in summer, thirty feet in the air.
Mr. Dill learned enough en route to satisfy himself that he was going to earn every dollar of his money, and when he reached Ore City he was sure of it. The problem before him was one to sleep on, or rather, thinking with forebodings of the clammy sheets upstairs, to lie awake on. However, something would perhaps suggest itself and Mr. Dill was resourceful as well as unhampered by any restrictions regarding the truth.
The Snow family were at their best that evening, and Ma Snow's rendition of "The Gypsy's Warning" was received with such favor that she was forced to sing the six verses twice and for a third encore the entire family responded with "The Washington Post March" which enabled Mr. Snow, who had tottered down from his aerie, to again demonstrate his versatility by playing the concertina with long, yellow fingers, beating the cymbals and working the snare-drum with his feet.
Ma Snow wore her coral-rose breast-pin, and a tortoise-shell comb thrust through her knob of ginger-colored hair added to her dignity and height; while Miss Vi and Miss Rosie Snow were buttoned into their stylish princess gowns, with large red bows sprouting back of each ear. In truth, the dress of each member of the family bore some little touch which hinted delicately at the fact that with them it had not been always thus.
All Ore City was present. Those who "bached" had stacked their dishes and hurried from the supper-table to the Hinds House, where the regular boarders were already tilted on the rear legs of their chairs with their heads resting comfortably on the particular oily spot on the unbleached muslin sheeting, which each recognized as having been made by weeks of contact with his own back hair.
A little apart and preoccupied sat Uncle Bill with the clipping in his wallet burning like a red-hot coal. He could have swallowed being "carried down the mountain side," but the paragraph wherein "tears of gratitude rained down his withered cheeks" stuck, as he phrased it, in his craw. It set him thinking hard of Bruce Burt and the young fellow's deliberate sacrifice of his life for one old "Chink." Somehow he could not rid himself of blame that he had let him go alone. As soon as he could get back to Ore City he had headed a search party that had failed to locate even the tent under the unusual fall of snow. Well, if Burt had taken a life, even accidentally, he had in expiation given his own.
As he brooded, occasionally the old man glanced at Wilbur Dill. He had seen him before—but where? The sharp-faced, sharp-eyed Yellow-Leg was associated in the older man's mind with something shady, but what it was he could not for the time recall.
"Rosie, perhaps Mr. Dill would like to hear 'When the Robins Nest Again,'" Ma Snow suggested in the sweet, ingratiating tones of a mother with two unattached daughters.
Mr. Dill declared that it was one of his favorite compositions, so Miss Rosie obligingly stood forth with the dog-eared music.
"When the Robins Nest Again, and the flower-r-rs—" she was warbling, but they never bloomed, for Mrs. Snow started for the door, explaining: "I'm sure I heard a scrunching." She threw it open and the yellow light fell upon a gaunt figure leaning against the entrance of the snow tunnel. The man was covered with frost and icicles where his breath had frozen on his cap and upturned collar, while it was obvious from his snow-caked knees and elbows that he had fallen often. He stood staring dumbly at the light and warmth and at Ma Snow, then he stooped and began fumbling clumsily at the strappings of his snow-shoes.
"Won't you-all come in?" Ma Snow, recovering a little from her surprise, asked hospitably.
He pitched forward and would again have gone down but that he threw out his hand and caught the door-jamb.
"Bruce Burt! Hell's catoots! Bruce Burt!" Uncle Bill was on his knees outside in an instant, jerking and tugging at the snow-clogged buckles.
Chairs came down on their forelegs with a thump and Ore City shambled forward in curiosity and awkward congratulation. Mr. Dill did not move. He was gazing at the scene in mingled resentment and consternation. Was this the Bruce Burt whose claims he was sent to survey? It was plain enough that Bruce Burt "now deceased" was very much alive, and he, Dill, had crossed three summits on a wild goose chase, since it was obvious he could not relocate a man's ground while he was actually living upon it. Why didn't Sprudell find out that he was deceased before he sent a busy engineer on such a trip in winter? Mr. Dill sat frowning at Bruce, while willing hands helped him out of the coat his fingers were too stiff to unbutton.
"I've been coming since daylight." He spoke thickly, as though even his tongue were cold. "I played out on the last big hill and sat so long I chilled."
"And I guess you're hungry," Uncle Bill suggested.
Hungry! The word stabbed Ma Snow to the heart and her heels went clickity-click as she flew for the kitchen.
Divested of his coat Bruce looked a big, starved skeleton. The cords of his neck were visible when he turned his head, his cheeks were hollow, his wrist-bones were prominent like those of a fever convalescent.
"You're some ga'nted up," Uncle Bill commented as he eyed him critically. "Don't hardly look as though you'd winter."
The shadow of a smile crossed Bruce's dark face.
"Toy and I proved just about the length of time a man can go without eating, and live."
"You made it then? You got to Toy—he's all right?"
"Yes," briefly, "but none too soon. The snow had broken the tent down, so we made it over the ridge to an old tunnel . . . I killed a porcupine but we ran out of matches and there was no dry wood or sticks to make a fire."
"I et raw wolf onct in Alasky," Yankee Sam interjected reminiscently. "'Tain't a dish you'd call for in a restauraw, and I reckon procupine's got much the same flavor of damp dog. How did you get the Chinaman down?"
"I rigged up a travois when he could travel and hauled him to the cabin, where's he's waiting now. We are nearly out of grub, so I had to come."
Of the fierce hunger, the wearing, unceasing fight against Arctic cold, and, when weakened and exhausted by both, the dumb, instinctive struggle for life against the combination, Bruce said nothing; but in a dozen commonplace sentences described physical sufferings sufficient for a lifetime—which is the western way.
He walked to the desk, where the gifted tenor, clerk and post-master stood pleased and expectant, pen in hand, waiting for him to register.
"Is there any mail for me?" He tried to speak casually but, to himself the eager note in his voice seemed to shriek and vibrate. Making every allowance for delays and changed addresses he had calculated that by now he should have an answer from Slim's mother or sister. He did not realize how positively he had counted on a letter until the clerk shook his head.
"Nothing?" Bruce looked at him blankly.
"Nothing." The answer seemed to take the last scrap of his vitality. He moved to the nearest chair and sat down heavily.
The thought of assuming Slim's responsibilities, of making up for his own futile years, and bringing to pass at least a few of his mother's dreams for him, had become a kind of obsession since that first night of horror after his quarrel with Slim. It had kept him going, hanging on doggedly, when, as he since believed, he might have given up. It seemed to have needed the ghastly, unexpected happening in the lonely cabin to have aroused in him the ambition which was his inheritance from his mother. But it was awake at last, the stronger perhaps for having lain so long dormant.
Failures, humiliating moments, hasty, ungenerous words, heartless deeds, have a way of coming back with startling vividness in the still solitude of mountains, and out of the passing of painful panoramas had grown Bruce's desire to "make good." Now, in the first shock of his intense disappointment he felt that without a tangible incentive he was done before he had started.
"Mistah Bruce, if you'll jest step out and take what they is," announced Ma Snow from the doorway. "And watch out foah yoah laig in this hole heah." She called over her shoulder: "Mistah Hinds, I want you should get to work and fix that place to-morrow or I'll turn yoah ol' hotel back on yoah hands. You heah me?"
The threat always made Old Man Hinds jump like the close explosion of a stick of giant powder.
Bruce looked at the "light" bread and the Oregon-grape "jell," the steaming coffee and the first butter he had seen in months, while before his plate on the white tablecloth at the "transient" end of the table, sat a slice of ham with an egg! like a jewel—its crowning glory.
Ma Snow whispered confidentially:
"One of the hins laid day 'fore yistiddy." The prize had been filched from Mr. Snow, one of whose diversions was listening for a hen to cackle.
From his height Bruce looked down upon the work-stooped little woman and he saw, not her churn-like contour nor her wrinkled face, but the light of a kind heart shining in her pale eyes. He wanted to cry—he—Bruce Burt! He fought the inclination furiously. It was too ridiculous—weak, sentimental, to be so sensitive to kindness. But he was so tired, so lonely, so disappointed. He touched Ma Snow's ginger-colored hair caressingly with his finger tips and the impulsive, boyish action made for Bruce a loyal friend.
In the office, Mr. Dill was noticeably abstracted. His smiling suavity, his gracious manner, had given place to taciturnity and Ore City's choicest bon mots, its time-tested pleasantries, fell upon inattentive ears. As a matter of fact, his bones ached like a tooth from three long, hard days in the mail-carrier's sledges, and also he recognized certain symptoms which told him that he was in for an attack of dyspepsia due to his enforced diet en route, of soda-biscuit, ham, and bacon. But these were minor troubles as compared to the loss of the fee which in his mind he had already spent. The most he could hope for, he supposed, was compensation for his time and his expenses.
He sat in a grumpy silence until Bruce came out of the dining-room, then he stated his intention of going to bed and asked for a lamp. As he said good-night curtly he noticed Uncle Bill eyeing him hard, as he had observed him doing before, but this time there was distinct hostility in the look.
"What's the matter with that old rooster?" he asked himself crossly as he clumped upstairs to bed.
"I know that young duck now," said Uncle Bill in an undertone, as Bruce sat down beside him. "He's a mining and civil engineer—a good one, too—but crooked as they come. He's a beat."
"He's an engineer?" Bruce asked in quick interest.
"He's anything that suits, when it comes to pulling off a mining deal. He'd 'salt' his own mother, he'd sell out his grandmother, but in his profession there's none better if he'd stay straight. I knowed him down in Southern Oregon—he was run out."
"Have you heard yet from Sprudell?"
"Yes," Uncle Bill answered grimly. "As you might say, indirectly. I want you should take a look at this."
He felt for his leather wallet and handed Bruce the clipping.
"Don't skip any," he said acidly. "It's worth a careful peruse."
There was a little likelihood of that after Bruce had read the headlines.
"I hopes you takes special note of tears of gratitude rainin' down my withered cheeks," said Uncle Bill savagely, "I relishes bein' published over the world as a sobbin' infant."
Bruce folded the clipping mechanically many times before he handed it back. There was more in it to him than the withholding of credit which belonged to an obscure old man, or the self-aggrandizement of a pompous braggart. To Bruce it was indicative of a man with a moral screw loose, it denoted a laxity of principle. With his own direct standards of conduct it was equivalent to dishonesty.
"You didn't git no answer to your letter, I notice," Griswold commented, following Bruce's thoughts.
They smoked in silence for a time, the target of interested eyes, Bruce unconscious that the stories of his feats of strength and his daring as a boatman had somehow crossed the almost impassable spurs of mountain between Ore City and Meadows to make a celebrity of him, not only in Ore City but as far as the evil reputation of the river went.
"You'll hardly be startin' back to-morrow, will you, Burt?"
"To-morrow? No, nor the next day." There was a hard ring in Bruce's voice. "I've changed my mind. I'm going outside! I'm going to Bartlesville, Indiana, to see Sprudell!"
"Good!" enthusiastically. "And if you has cause to lick that pole kitty hit him one for me."
Wilbur Dill, who had not expected to close his eyes, was sleeping soundly, while Bruce in the adjoining room, who had looked forward to a night of rest in a real bed, was lying wide awake staring into the dark. His body was worn out, numb with exhaustion, but his mind was unnaturally alert. It refused to be passive, though it desperately needed sleep. It was active with plans for the future, with speculation concerning Sprudell, with the rebuilding of the air castles which had fallen with his failure to find mail. In the restless days of waiting for Toy to get well enough to leave alone for a few days while he went up to Ore City for mail and provisions, a vista of possibilities had unexpectedly opened to Bruce. He was standing one morning at the tiny window which overlooked the river, starting across at Big Squaw creek, with its cascades of icicles pendant from its frozen mouth.
What a stream Big Squaw creek was, starting as it did all of thirty miles back in the unknown hills, augmented as it came by trickling rivulets from banks of perpetual snow and by mountain springs, until it grew into a roaring torrent dashing itself to whiteness against the green velvet boulders, which in ages past had crashed through the underbrush down the mountainside to lie forever in the noisy stream! And the unexpected fern-fringed pools darkened by overhanging boughs, under which darted shadows of the trout at play—why he had thought, if they had Big Squaw creek back in Iowa, or Nebraska, or Kansas, or any of those dog-gone flat countries where you could look further and see less, and there were more rivers with nothing in them than any other states in the Union, they'd fence it off and charge admission. They'd—it was then the idea had shot into his mind like an inspiration—they'd harness Big Squaw creek if they had it back in Iowa, or Nebraska, or Kansas, and make it work! They'd build a plant and develop power!
The method which had at once suggested itself to Sprudell was slow in coming to Bruce because he was unfamiliar with electricity. In the isolated districts where he had lived the simpler old-fashioned, steam-power had been employed and his knowledge of water-power was chiefly from reading and hearsay.
But he believed that it was feasible, that it was the solution of the difficulty, if the expense were not too great. With a power-house at the mouth of Squaw creek, a transmission wire across the river and a pump-house down below, he could wash the whole sand-bar into the river and all the sand-bars up and down as far as the current would carry! In his excitement he had tried to outline the plan to Toy, who had more that intimated that he was mad.
The Chinaman had said bluntly: "No can do."
Placer-mining was a subject upon which Toy felt qualified to speak, since, after a cramped journey from Hong Kong, smuggled in his uncle's clothes hamper, he had started life in America at fourteen, carrying water to his countrymen placering in "Chiny" Gulch; after which he became one of a company who, with the industry of ants, built a trestle of green timber one hundred and fifty feet high to carry water to the Beaver Creek diggings and had had his reward when he had seen the sluice-box run yellow with gold and had taken his green rice bowl heaping full upon the days of division.
Those times were quick to pass, for the white men had come, and with their fists and six-shooters drove them from the ground, but the eventful days surcharged with thrills were the only ones in which he counted he lived. He laundered now, or cooked, but he had never left the district and he loved placer-mining as he loved his life.
Bruce had found small comfort in discussing his idea with Toy, for Toy knew only the flume and the ditch of the days of the 60's, so he was eager to submit his plan to some one who knew about such things and he wished that he had had an opportunity of talking to the "Yellow-Leg." If it was practicable, he wanted to get an idea of the approximate cost.
Bruce was thinking of the "Yellow-Leg" and envying him his education and knowledge when a new sound was added to the audible slumbers of the guests of the Hinds House and of the Snow family, who were not so musical when asleep. Accustomed to stillness, as he was, the chorus that echoed through the corridor had helped to keep him awake, this and the uncommon softness of a feather pillow and a cotton mattress that Mr. Dill in carping criticism had likened unto a cement block.
This new disturbance which came through the thin partition separating his room from Dill's was like the soft patter of feet—bare feet—running around and around. Even a sudden desire for exercise seemed an inadequate explanation in view of the frigid temperature of the uncarpeted rooms. Bruce was still more mystified when he heard Dill hurdling a chair, and utterly so when his neighbor began dragging a wash-stand into the centre of the room. Making all due allowance for the eccentricities of Yellow-Legs, Bruce concluded that something was amiss, so, slipping into his shoes, he tapped upon the stranger's door.
The activity within continuing, he turned the knob and stepped inside where Mr. Dill was working like a beaver trying to add a heavy home-made bureau to the collection in the middle of the floor. Shivering in his striped pajamas he was staring vacantly when Bruce lighted the lamp and touched him on the shoulder.
"You'd better hop into bed, mister."
Mr. Dill mumbled as he swung his arms in the gesture of swimming.
"Got to keep movin'!"
"Wake up." Bruce shook him vigorously.
The suspected representative of the "Guggenheimers" whined plaintively: "Itty tootsies awfy cold!"
"Itty tootsies will be colder if you don't get 'em off this floor," Bruce said with a grin, as he dipped his fingers in the pitcher and flirted the ice water in his face.
"Oh—hello!" Intelligence returned to Mr. Dill's blank countenance. "Why, I must have been walking in my sleep. I always do when I sleep in a strange place, but I thought I'd locked myself in. I dreamed I was a fish freezing up in a cake of ice."
"It's not surprising."
"Say." Mr. Dill looked at him wistfully as he stood on one foot curling his purple toes around the other knee. "I wonder if you'd let me get in with you? I'm liable to do it again—sleeping cold and all."
"Sure," said Bruce sociably, leading the way. "Come ahead."
The somnambulist chattered:
"I've been put out of four hotels already for walking into other people's rooms, and once I got arrested. I've doctored for it."
While lamenting his inability to discuss his proposition with the engineer, the last thing Bruce anticipated was to be engaged before daylight in the humane and neighborly act of warming Wilbur Dill's back, but so it is that Chance, that humorous old lady, thrusts Opportunity in the way of those in whom she takes an interest.
Bruce was so full of his subject that he saw nothing unusual in propounding his questions in Mr. Dill's ear under the covers in the middle of the night.
"How many horse-power could you develop from a two-hundred-feet head with a minimum flow of eight hundred miners' inches?"
"Hey?" Mr. Dill's muffled voice sounded startled.
Bruce repeated the question, and added:
"I'm going out on the stage in the morning and it leaves before you're up. I'd like mightily to know a few things in your line if you don't mind my asking."
He was leaving, was he? Going out on the stage? Figuratively, Mr. Dill sat up.
"Certainly not." His tone was cordial. "Any information at all——"
As clearly as he could, Bruce outlined the situation, estimating that a flume half a mile in length would be necessary to get this two-hundred-foot head, with perhaps a trestle bridging the canyon of Big Squaw creek. And Dill, wide awake enough now, asked practical, pertinent questions, which made Bruce realize that, as Uncle Bill had said, whatever doubt there might be about his honesty there could be none at all concerning his ability.
He soon had learned all that Bruce could tell him of the situation, of the obstacles and advantages. He knew his reason for wishing to locate the pump-house at the extreme end of the bar, the best place to cross the river with the transmission wire, of the proximity of saw-timber, and of the serious drawback of the inaccessibility of the ground. Bruce could think of no detail that Dill had overlooked when he was done.
"Transportation is your problem," the engineer said, finally. "With the machinery on the ground the rest would be a cinch. But there's only the river or an expensive wagon-road. A wagon-road through such country might cost you the price of your plant or more. And the river with its rapids, they tell me, is a terror; so with the water route eliminated, there remains only your costly wagon-road."
"But," Bruce insisted anxiously, "what would be your rough estimate of the cost of such a plant, including installation?"
"At a guess, I'd say $25,000, exclusive of freight, and as you know the rates from the coast are almighty high."
"Twenty-five thousand dollars!" And five hundred, Bruce reminded himself, was about the size of his pile.
"Don't mention it," Mr. Dill yawned. "One good turn deserves another, and, thanks to you, I'm almost warm."
Because Mr. Dill yawned it did not follow that he slept. On the contrary, he was as wide awake as Bruce himself and when Bruce gently withdrew from the sociable proximity of a bed that sagged like a hammock, and tiptoed about the room while dressing, going downstairs to the office wash-basin when he discovered that there was skating in the water-pitcher, lest the sound of breaking ice disturb his bed-fellow, Dill was gratefully appreciative.
He really liked the fellow, he did for a fact—in spite of his first prejudice against him for being alive. Besides, since he was going outside, as he had told him, for an indefinite stay, he might not interfere so much with his plans after all, for Mr. Dill, too, had had an inspiration.
"CAPITAL TAKES HOLT"
It is a safe wager that where two or three prospectors meet in a mining camp or cabin, the length of time which will elapse before the subject of conversation reverts to food will not exceed ten minutes and in this respect the inhabitants of Ore City who "bached" were no exception. The topic was introduced in the office of the Hinds House this morning as soon as there was a quorum.
"I declare, I doubts if I lives to see grass," said Yankee Sam despondently as he manicured a rim of dough from his finger-nails with the point of a savage-looking jack-knife. "I opened my next-to-the-last sack of flour this mornin' and 'twas mouldy. I got to eat it though, and like as not t'other's the same. I tell you," lugubriously, "the pickin's is gittin' slim on this range!"
"I know one thing," declared Judge George Petty, who was sober and irritable, "if N. K. Rippetoe sends me in any more of that dod-gasted Injun bakin' powder, him and me is goin' to fall out. I warned him once I'd take my trade away and now he's gone and done it again. It won't raise nothin', not nothin'!"
"An' you can't drink it," Lanningan observed pointedly.
"You remember them dried apples I bought off the half-breed lady down on the Nez Perce Reserve? Well," said Porcupine Jim sourly, "they walked off day 'fore yistiddy—worms. I weighed that lady out cash gold, and look what she's done on me! I wouldn't wonder if them apples wa'nt three to four year old."
"If only we could find out what that Yellow-Leg's after." Lannigan's face was cross-lined with anxiety. "If some of us could only unload somethin' on him, then the rest of us could borry till Capital took holt in the spring."
"S-ss-sh! That's him," came a warning whisper.
"Good morning, gentlemen. I seem to have slept late."
It was apparent to all that Mr. Dill's spirits were decidedly better than when he had retired.
Yankee Sam suggested humorously:
"I reckon they was a little slow gittin' around with the tea-kittle to thaw you out, so you could git up."
Mr. Dill declared that he had been agreeably disappointed in his night; that he really felt quite rested and refreshed.
"If it isn't too soon after breakfast, friends," he said tentatively, as he produced a flask.
It was quickly made clear to him that it was never too soon, or too late, for that matter, and a suggestion of force was necessary to tear the flask from Yankee Sam's face.
"What? Teetotaler?" As Uncle Bill shook his head.
"Not exactly; sometimes I take a little gin for my kidnas."
Ore City looked at him in unfeigned surprise. Mr. Dill, however, believed he understood. The old man either knew him or had taken a personal dislike—maybe both—at any rate he ceased to urge.
"Gentlemen," impressively, and Ore City felt intuitively that its acute sufferings, due to ungratified curiosity, were at an end, "no doubt you've wondered why I'm here?"
Ore City murmured a hypocritical protest.
"That would be but natural," Mr. Dill spoke slowly, drawling his words, animated perhaps by the spirit which prompts the cat to prolong the struggles of the dying mouse, "but I have postponed making my mission known until rejuvenated by a good night's sleep. Now, gentlemen, if I can have your support, your hearty co-operation, I may tell you that I am in a position—to make Ore City boom! In other words—Capital Is Going to Take Hold!"
Porcupine Jim, who, through long practice and by bracing the ball of his foot against the knob on the stove door, was able to balance himself on one rear leg of his chair, lost his footing on the nickel knob and crashed to the floor, but he "came up smiling," offering for inspection a piece of ore in his extended hand.
"Straight cyanidin' proposition, averagin' $60 to the ton with a tunnel cross-cuttin' the ore-shoot at forty feet that samples $80 where she begins to widen—" Lack of breath prevented Porcupine Jim from saying that the hanging wall was of schist and the foot wall of granite and he would take $65,000 for it, if he could have 10 per cent. in cash.
The specimen which Yankee Sam waved in the face of Capital's representative almost grazed his nose.
"This here rock is from the greatest low-grade proposition in Americy! Porphery dike with a million tons in sight and runnin' $10 easy to the ton and $40,000 buys it on easy terms. Ten thousand dollars down and reg'lar payments every six months, takin' a mortgage—"
"I'm a s-showin' y-you the best f-free-millin' proposition outside of C-California," Judge George Petty stammered in his eagerness. "That there mine'll m-make ten m-men rich. They's stringers in that there ledge that'll run $5,000—$10,000 to the ton. I t-tell you, sir, the 'B-Bouncin' B-Bess' ain't no m-mine—she's a b-bonanza! And, when you git down to the secondary enrichment you'll take it out in c-c-chunks!"
Inwardly, Lannigan was cursing himself bitterly that he had eaten "The Gold-Dust Twins," but, searching through his pockets, fortunately, he found a sample from the "Prince o' Peace." He handed it to Mr. Dill, together with a magnifying glass.
"Take a look at this, will you?" He indicated a minute speck with his fingernail.
Mr. Dill lost the speck and was some time in finding it and, while he searched, the stove pipe separated at the joint, calling attention to the fact that the sufferer upstairs was nervous. Pa Snow's voice came so distinctly down the stove-pipe hole that there was reason to believe he was on his hands and knees.
"Befoah you should do anything definite, we-all should like if you would look ovah 'The Bay Hoss.' It's makin' a fine showin', and 'The Under Dawg' is on the market, too, suh."
In the excitement Uncle Bill sat puffing calmly on his pipe.
Mr. Dill with a gesture brushed aside the waving arms and eager hands:
"And haven't you anything to sell?" he asked him curiously. "Don't you mine?"
"Very little," Uncle Bill drawled tranquilly: "I dudes."
"I keeps an 'ad' in the sportin' journals, and guides."
"Oh, yes, hunters—eastern sportsmen—" Mr. Dill nodded. "But I thought I recognized an old-time prospector in you."
"They's no better in the hull West," Yankee Sam declared generously, while Uncle Bill murmured that there was surer money in dudes. "Show Dill that rar' mineral, Uncle Bill." To Dill in an aside: "He's got a mountain of it and it's somethin' good."
Uncle Bill made no move.
"I aims to hold it for the boom."
"And what's your honest opinion of the country, Mr. Griswold?" Dill asked conciliatingly. "What do you think well find when we reach the secondary enrichment?"
A pin dropping would have sounded like a tin wash boiler rolling downstairs in the silence which fell upon the office of the Hinds House. Uncle Bill, looking serenely at the circle of tense faces, continued to smoke while he took his own time to reply.
"I'm a thinkin',"—puff-puff—"that when you sink a hundred feet below the surface,"—puff-puff—"you won't git a damn thing."
Involuntarily Yankee Sam reached for the poker and various eyes sought the wood-box for a sizable stick of wood.
"Upon what do you base your opinion?" asked Mr. Dill, taken somewhat aback. "What makes you think that?"
"Because we're in it now. The weatherin' away of the surface enrichment made the placers we washed out in '61-'64."
Judge George Petty glowered and demanded contemptuously:
"Do you know what a mine is?"
"Well," replied Uncle Bill tranquilly, "not allus, but ginerally a mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar."
Yankee Sam half rose from his chair and pointed an accusing poker at Uncle Bill.
"That old pin-head is the worst knocker that ever queered a camp. If we'd a knowed you was comin'," turning to Mr. Dill, "we'd a put him in a tunnel with ten days' rations and walled him up."
"They come clost to lynchin' me onct on Sucker Crick in Southern Oregon for tellin' the truth," Uncle Bill said reminiscently, unperturbed.
Southern Oregon! Wilbur Dill looked startled. Ah, that was it! He looked sharply at Griswold, but the old man's face was blank.
"We're all entitled to our opinions," he said lightly, though his assurance had abated by a shade, "but, judging superficially, from the topography of the country, I'm inclined to disagree."
Ore City's sigh of relief was audible.
Mr. Dill continued:
"And I—we are willing to back our confidence in your camp by the expenditure of a reasonable amount, in order to find out; but, gentlemen, you've raised your sights too high. Your figures'll have to come down if we do business. A prospect isn't a mine, you know, and there's not been much development work done, as I understand."
"How was you aimin' to work it," Uncle Bill asked mildly, "in case you did git anything? The Mascot burned its profits buyin' wood fer steam."
"The riddles of yesterday are the commonplaces of to-day, my friend. The world has moved since the arrastre was invented and steam is nearly as obsolete. Hydro-electric is the only power to-day and that's what I—we—propose to use."
Ore City's eyes widened and then they looked at Uncle Bill. What drawback would he think of next? He never disappointed.
"There ain't water enough down there in Lemon Crick in August to run a churn."
Mr. Dill laughed heartily: "Right you are—but how about the river down below—there's water enough in that, if all I'm told is true."
For once he surprised the old man into an astonished stare.
"The river's all of twenty mile from here."
"They've transmitted power from Victoria Falls on the Zembesi River, in Rhodesia, six hundred miles to the Rand."
Chortling, Ore City looked at the camp hoodoo in triumph.—That should hold him for a while.
"I wish you luck," said Uncle Bill, his complacency returning, "but Ore City ain't the Rand. You'll never pull your money back."
"And in our own country they send 'juice' two hundred and forty-five miles from Au Sable to Baltic Creek, Michigan."
* * * * *
Before his departure Bruce had arranged with Porcupine Jim to load a toboggan with provisions and snowshoe down to Toy. Mr. Dill was delighted when he learned this fortunate circumstance, for it enabled him to make a trip to the river for the purpose, as he elaborately explained, of "looking out a power-site, and the best route to string the wires."
While he was gone, properties to the value of half a million in the aggregate changed hands—but no cash. It was like the good old days to come again, to see the embryo magnates whispering in corners, to feel once more a delicious sense of mystery and plotting in the air. Real estate advanced in leaps and bounds and "Lemonade Dan" overhauled the bar fixtures in the Bucket o' Blood, and stuffed a gunny-sack into a broken window pane with a view to opening up. In every shack there was an undercurrent of excitement and after the dull days of monotony few could calm themselves to a really good night's sleep. They talked in thousands and the clerk's stock of Cincos, that had been dead money on his hands for over three years, "moved" in three days—sold out to the last cigar!
When the time arrived that they had calculated Dill should return, even to the hour, the person who was coming back from the end of the snow tunnel at the front door of the Hinds House, that commanded a good view of the trail, always met someone going out to ask if there was "any sight of 'em?" and he, in turn, took his stand at the mouth of the tunnel, until driven in by the cold. In this way, there was nearly always someone doing lookout duty.
Ore City's brow was corrugated with anxiety when Dill and Porcupine Jim had exceeded by three days the time allotted them for their stay. Wouldn't it be like the camp's confounded luck if Capital fell off of something and broke its neck?
Their relief was almost hysterical when one evening at sunset Lannigan shouted joyfully: "Here they come!"
They dashed through the tunnel to see Mr. Dill dragging one foot painfully after the other to the hotel. He seemed indifferent to the boisterous greeting, groaning merely:
"Oh-h-h, what a hill!"
"We been two days a makin' it," Jim vouchsafed cheerfully. "Last night we slept out on the snow."
"You seem some stove up." Uncle Bill eyed Dill critically. "And looks like you have fell off twenty pounds."
"Stove up!" exclaimed Dill plaintively. "Between Jim's cooking and that hill I took up four notches in my belt. I wouldn't make that trip again in winter if the Alaska Treadwell was awaiting me as a gift at the other end."
"You'll git used to it," consoled Uncle Bill, "you'll learn to like it when you're down there makin' that there 'juice.' I mind the time I went to North Dakoty on a visit—I longed for one of these hills to climb to rest myself. The first day they set me out on the level, I ran away—it took four men to head me off."
"We found where we kin develop 250,000 jolts," Porcupine Jim announced.
"Volts, James," corrected Mr. Dill, and added, dryly, "Don't start in to put up the plant until I get back."
He was coming back then—he was! Figuratively, all Ore City fell at his feet, though strictly only two scrambled for the privilege of unbuckling his snow-shoes, and only three picked up his bag.
THE GHOST AT THE BANQUET
T. Victor Sprudell's dinner guests were soon to arrive, and Mr. Sprudell's pearl gray spats were twinkling up and down the corridor of Bartlesville's best hotel, and back and forth between the private dining-room and the Room of Mystery adjoining, where mechanics of various kinds had been busy under his direction, for some days.
But now, so far as he could see, everything was in perfect working order and he had only to sit back and enjoy his triumph and receive congratulations; for once more Mr. Sprudell had demonstrated his versatile genius!
The invited guests came, all of them—a few because they wanted to, and the rest because they were afraid to stay away. Old Man "Gid" Rathburn, who cherished for Sprudell the same warm feeling of regard that he had for a rattlesnake, occupied the seat of honor, while John Z. Willetts, a local financier, whose closet contained a skeleton that Sprudell by industrious sleuthing had managed to unearth, was placed at his host's left to enjoy himself as best he could. Adolph Gotts, who had the contract for the city paving and hoped to renew it, was present for the sole purpose, as he stated privately, of keeping the human catamount off his back. Others in the merry party were Abram Cone and Y. Fred Smart.
The dinner was the most elaborate the chef had been able to devise, the domestic champagne was as free as the air, and Mr. Sprudell, stimulated by the presence of the moneyed men of Bartlesville and his private knowledge of the importance of the occasion, was keyed up to his best. Genial, beaming, he quoted freely from his French and Latin phrase-book and at every turn of the conversation was ready with appropriate verse—his own, mostly.
This was Mr. Sprudell's only essay at promoting, but he knew how it was done. A good dinner, wine, cigars; and he had gone the ingenious guild of money-raisers one better by an actual, uncontrovertible demonstration of the safety and value of his scheme.
His personal friends already had an outline of the proposition, with the promise that they should hear more, and now, after a dash through "Spurr's Geology Applied to Mining," he was prepared to tell them all that their restricted intelligences could comprehend.
When the right moment arrived, Mr. Sprudell arose impressively. In an attentive silence, he gave an instructive sketch of the history of gold-mining, beginning with the plundering expeditions of Darius and Alexander, touching lightly on the mines of Iberia which the Roman wrestled from the Carthagenians, and not forgetting, of course, the conquest of Mexico and Peru inspired by the desire for gold.
When his guests were properly impressed by the wide range of his reading, he skillfully brought the subject down to modern mines and methods, and at last to his own incredible good fortune, after hardships of which perhaps they already had heard, in securing one hundred and sixty acres of valuable placer-ground in the heart of a wild and unexplored country—a country so dangerous and inaccessible that he doubted very much if it had ever been trod by any white foot beside his own and old "Bill" Griswold's.
The climax came when he dramatically announced his intention of making a stock company of his acquisition and permitting Bartlesville's leading citizens to subscribe!
Mr. Sprudell's guests received the news of the privilege which was to be accorded them in an unenthusiastic silence. In fact his unselfish kindness seemed to inspire uneasiness rather than gratitude in Bartlesville's leading citizens. They could bring themselves to swallow his dinners, but to be coerced into buying his mining stock was a decidedly bitter dose.
Well-meaning but tactless, Abe Cone expressed the general feeling, when he observed:
"I been stung once, already, and I ain't lookin' for it again."
To everyone's surprise Abe got off unscathed. In fact Mr. Sprudell laughed good-naturedly.
"Stung, Abe—that's the word. And why?" He answered himself. "Because you were investing in something you did not understand."
"It looked all right," Abe defended. "You could see the gold stickin' out all over the rock, but I was 'salted' so bad I never got enough to drink since. I don't understand this placer-mining either, when it comes to that."
Adolph Gotts, who had been a butcher, specializing in sausage, before he became a city contractor, was about to say the same thing, when Sprudell interrupted triumphantly:
"Ah, but you will before I'm done." It was the moment for which he had waited. "Follow me, gentlemen."
He threw open the door of the adjoining room with a wide gesture, his face radiant with elation.
The company stared, and well it might, for at a signal a miniature placer mine started operation.
The hotel porter shovelled imported sand into a sluice-box through which a stream of water ran and at the end was the gold-saving device invented by Mr. Sprudell which was to revolutionize placer-mining!
The sand contained the gold-dust that represented half of Bruce's laborious summer's working and when Sprudell finally removed his coat and cleaned up the sluice boxes and the gold-saving machine, the residue left in the gold-pan was enough to give even a "'49'er" heart failure.
His triumph was complete. There was a note of awe even in Old Man "Gid" Rathburn's voice, while Abe Cone fairly grovelled as he inquired:
"Is it all like that? Where does it come from? How did it git into that dirt?"
Mr. Sprudell removed his eyeglasses with great deliberation and pursed his lips:
"In my opinion," he said weightily—he might have been an eminent geologist giving his opinion of the conglomerate of the Rand banket, or Agricola elucidating his theory of vein formation—"in my opinion the gold found in this deposit was derived from the disintegration of gold-bearing rocks and veins in the mountains above. Chemical and mechanical processes are constantly freeing the gold from the rocks with which it is associated and wind and water carry it to lower levels, where, as in this instance, it concentrates and forms what we call placers."
Mr. Sprudell spoke so slowly and chose his words with such care that the company received the impression that this theory of placer deposit was his own and in spite of their personal prejudice their admiration grew.
"As undoubtedly you know," continued Mr. Sprudell, tapping his glasses judicially upon the edge of the sluice-box, "the richest gold in all alluvial deposits—"
"What is an alluvial deposit?" inquired Abe Cone, eagerly.
Mr. Sprudell looked hard at Abram but did not answer, one reason being that he wished to rebuke the interruption, and another that he did not know. He reiterated: "The richest gold in all alluvial deposits is found upon bed-rock. This placer, gentlemen, is no exception and while it is pay-dirt from the grass roots and the intermediate sand and gravel abundantly rich to justify their exploitation by Capital, it is upon bed-rock that will be uncovered a fortune to dazzle the mind of man!
"Like myself, you are practical men—you want facts and figures, and when you invest your money you want to be more than reasonably sure of its return. Gentlemen, I have in the hands of a printer a prospectus giving the values of the ground per cubic yard, and from this data I have conservatively, very conservatively, calculated the profits which we might reasonably anticipate. You will be startled, amazed, bewildered by the magnitude of the returns upon the investment which I am giving you the opportunity to make.
"I shall say no more at present, gentlemen, but when my prospectus is off the press I shall place it in your hands—"
"Gemman to see you, suh."
"Said it was important." The bell boy lingered.
"Did he give no name?"
"Yes, suh; he said to tell you Burt—Bruce Burt."
Sprudell grew a curious, chalky white and stood quite still. He felt his color going and turned quickly lest it be observed.
Apologetically, to his guests:
"One moment, if you please."
He remembered that Bruce Burt had warned him that he would come back and haunt him—he wished the corridor was one mile long.
There was nothing of the wraith, or phantom, however, in the broad-shouldered figure in a wide-brimmed Stetson sitting in the office watching Sprudell's approach with ominous intentness.
With a fair semblance of cordiality Sprudell hastened forward with outstretched hand.
"I'm amazed! Astonished—"
"I thought you would be," Bruce answered grimly, ignoring Sprudell's hand. "I came to see about that letter—what you've done."
"Everything within my power, my friend—they're gone."
"Gone! You could not find them?"
"Not a trace." Sprudell looked him squarely in the eye.
"You did your best?"
"Yes, Burt, I did my best."
"Well," Bruce got up slowly, "I guess I'll register." His voice and face showed his disappointment. "You live here, they said, so I'll see you in the morning and get the picture and the 'dust'."
"In the morning, then. You'll excuse me now, won't you? I have a little dinner on."
He lingered a moment to watch Bruce walk across the office and he noticed how he towered almost head and shoulders above the clerk at the desk: and he saw also, how, in spite of his ill-fitting clothes so obviously ready-made, he commanded, without effort, the attention and consideration for which, in his heart, Sprudell knew that he himself had to pay and pose and scheme.
A thought which was so strong, so like a conviction that it turned him cold, flashed into his mind as he looked. If, by any whim of Fate, Helen Dunbar and Bruce Burt should ever meet, all the material advantages which he had to offer would not count a straw's weight with the girl he had determined to marry.