He had an odd, intimate feeling—a strong feeling of affection—for every piece of machinery in the power-house. He liked to hear the squeak of the belting and the steady chug-chug of the water-wheels; the purr of the dynamos was music, and he kept the commutators free from dust with loving care.
But these moments alone in the power-house were high-lights in a world of shadows. His periods of elation were brief, for so many things went wrong, and so often, that sometimes he wondered if it was the way some guardian angel had of warning him, of trying to prevent him from keeping on and making a big mistake bigger; or was it only the tests that the Fates have a way of putting humans through and, failing to break their hearts, sometimes let them win?
Important as the power-house was it was only a small portion of the whole. There was still the 10-inch pump in the pump-house with its 75 horse-power motor and the donkey engine with the 50 horse-power motor to get to working right, not to mention the flume and sluice-boxes, with their variety of riffles and every practicable device for trapping the elusive fine gold. And not the least of Bruce's increasing anxieties was "Alf" Banule with his constant "good enough."
It was well toward the end of October and Bruce, hurrying over the trail with sheets of mica for Banule, who was working on the submerged motor which had to be rewound, noticed that the willows were turning black. What a lot had happened since he had noticed the willows turning black last year! A lifetime of hopes and fears, and new experiences had been crowded into twelve flying months.
His mind straying for a moment from the work and its many problems, he fell to thinking of Helen Dunbar and her last letter. When he was not thinking of undercurrents or expanded metal riffles or wondering anxiously if the 10-inch and 8-inch pumps were going to raise sufficient water, or if the foundation built on piling, instead of cement, was "good enough," Bruce was thinking of the girl he loved.
She had written in her last letter—Bruce knew them all by heart—
I had a visitor yesterday. You will be as surprised, when I tell you who it was, as I was to see him. Have you guessed? I'm sure you haven't. None other than our friend Sprudell—very apologetic—very humble and contrite, and with an explanation to offer for his behavior that was really most ingenious. There's no denying he has cleverness of a kind—craft, perhaps, is a better word.
His humility was touching but so unlike him that I should have been alarmed if he had not been so obviously sincere.
Nevertheless his visit has upset me. I've been worried ever since. Perhaps you'll only laugh at me when I tell you that it is because I am afraid for you. Truly I am! I don't know that I can explain exactly so you'll understand but there was something disturbing which I felt when he spoke quite casually of you. It was almost too intangible to put into words but it was like a gloating secret satisfaction, as though he had the best of you in some way, the whip-hand.
It may be just a silly notion, one of those fears that pop into one's head in the most inexplicable way and stick, refusing to be driven out by any amount of logic. Tell me, is there anything that he can do to you? Any way that he can harm you?
I am nervous—anxious—and I cannot help it.
She was anxious about him! That fact was paramount. Somebody in the world was worrying over him. He stopped short in the trail with fresh wonder of it. Every time he thought of it, it gave him a thrill. His face, that had been set in tired, harsh lines of late, softened with a smile of happiness.
And he did so long to give her substantial evidence of his gratitude. If that machinery ever started—if the scrapers ever got to hauling dirt—her reward, his reward, would come quick. That was one of the compensating features of mining; if the returns came at all they came quick. Bruce started on, hastening his footsteps until he almost ran.
The electrical genius was driving a nail with a spirit-level when Bruce reached the pump-house and Bruce flared up in quick wrath.
"Stop that, Banule! Isn't there a hammer on this place?"
"Didn't see one handy," Banule replied cheerfully, "took the first thing I could reach."
"It just about keeps one pack-train on the trail supplying you with tools."
"Guess I am a little careless." Banule seemed unruffled by the reproach—because he had heard it so many times before, no doubt.
"Yes, you're careless," Bruce answered vigorously, "and I'm telling you straight it worries me; I can't help wondering if your carelessness extends to your work. There, you know, you've got me, for I can't tell. I must trust you absolutely."
Banule shrugged a shoulder—
"This ain't the first plant I've put up, you know." He added—"I'll guarantee that inside two weeks we'll be throwin' dirt. Eh, Smaltz? Ain't I right?"
Smaltz, who was stooping over, did not immediately look up. Bruce saw an odd expression cross his face—an expression that was something like derision. When he felt Bruce looking at him it vanished instantly and he straightened up.
"Why, yes," with his customary grin, "looks like we orter make a start."
The peculiar emphasis did not escape Bruce and he was still thinking of the look he had caught on Smaltz's face as he asked Banule:
"Is this mica right? Is it the kind you need?"
Smaltz looked at Banule from the corner of his eye.
"'Taint exactly what I ought to have," Banule responded cheerfully. "I forgot to specify when I ordered, but I guess I can make it do—it's good enough."
It seemed to Bruce that his over-strained nerves snapped all at once. He did not recognize the sound of his voice when he turned on Banule:
"S'help me, I'm goin' to break every bone in your body if you don't cut out that 'good enough'! How many hundred times have I got to tell you that nothing's good enough on this plant until it's right?"
"I didn't mean anything," Banule mumbled, temporarily cowed.
Bruce heard Smaltz snicker as he walked away.
The sluice-boxes upon which Bruce was putting the finishing touches were his particular pride. They were four feet wide and nearly a quarter of a mile in length. The eight per cent grade was steep enough to carry off boulders twice, three times, the size of a man's head when there was a force of water behind them.
The last box was well over the river at a point where it was sufficiently swift to take off the "tailings" and keep it free. The top earth, which had to be removed to uncover the sand-bank, was full of jagged rocks that had come down in snowslides from the mountain and below this top earth was a strata of small, smooth boulders—"river wash."
This troublesome "overburden" necessitated the use of iron instead of wooden riffles, as the bumping and grinding of the boulders would soon have worn the latter down to nothing. So, for many weary trips, a string of footsore pack-horses had picked their way down the dangerous trail from Ore City, loaded to their limit with pierced iron strips, rods, heavy sacks of nuts and bolts.
It had been laborious, nerve-racking work and every trip had had its accident, culminating in the loss of the best pack-horse in the string, the horse having slipped off the trail, scattering its pack, as Smaltz announced it, "from hell to breakfast."
But the iron strips and rods were made into riffles now, and laid. Bruce surveyed the whole with intense satisfaction as he stood by the sluice-boxes looking down the long grade. It was his work and he knew that he had done it well. He had spared no labor to have it right—nothing had been just "good enough."
There was cocoa matting under the riffles of the first six boxes. Half-way the length of the sluice-boxes the finest gravel, yellow and black sand, dropped through perforated sheet-iron grizzles into the "undercurrents" while the rocks and boulders rushed on through the sluice-boxes to the river.
At the end of the undercurrents there was a wide table having a slight grade, and this table was covered with canton flannel over which was placed more riffles of expanded metal. And, as a final precaution, lest some infinitesimal amount of gold escape, there was a mercury trap below the table. While Bruce was expecting to catch the greater part of it in the first six sluice-boxes he was not taking a single chance.
Now, as he stood by the sluice-boxes looking their length, he allowed himself to dream for a moment of the days when the mercury, turned to amalgam, should be lying thick with gold behind the riffles; to anticipate the unspeakable happiness of telegraphing his success to Helen Dunbar.
Even with the tangible evidence before his eyes it was hard to realize that after all the struggle, he was so near his goal. The ceaseless strain and anxiety had left their marks upon his face. He looked older by years than when he had stood by the river dipping water into his old-fashioned cradle and watching "Slim" scramble among the rocks.
But it would be worth it all—all and more—he told himself exultingly, if he succeeded—as he must. His eyes shone with enthusiasm and he tingled with his joy, as he thought what success meant.
A sound behind him brought him back to earth. He turned to see Toy picking his way gingerly over the rocks.
"You old rascal!" he cried joyfully. "Dog-gone, I'm glad to see you, though you don't deserve it."
"I come back now," the Chinaman announced serenely. "No go way no more I think."
THE MIDNIGHT VISITOR
Toy raised his head sharply from his little flat pillow where he lay in his tent, pitched for convenience beside the kitchen, and listened. A sound like the cautious scraping of the sagging storehouse door on the other side of the kitchen had awakened him. He was not sure that he had not dreamed it or that it was not merely renewed activities on the part of his enemies, the pack-rats, between whom and himself there waged constant war. There was a possibility that some prowling animal might push in the door, but, as the month was now November and the nights were as cold as winter, he was not too anxious to crawl from his warm nest and investigate until he was sure.
Hearing nothing more he dropped back on his pillow sleepily, vowing fresh vengeance on the pack-rats who at that moment no doubt were carrying off rice and rolled oats. Suddenly there came a fresh sound, very distinct in the stillness, somewhat like the side of a big tin bulging where it had been dented. To ease his mind rather than because he expected to find anything Toy slipped his feet into his thick-soled Chinese slippers and shuffled out into the night.
The faintest gleam of light was coming through the opening in the storehouse door, which Toy himself had carefully closed. It was all of eleven o'clock and the men, Toy knew, had been in bed for hours. He stepped noiselessly inside and stared with all his eyes at Smaltz. Smaltz was about to extinguish the candle which he had been shielding with his coat.
"What you do? What you gittee?"
Smaltz whirled swiftly at the shrill demand with a startled look on his impudent face.
"Oh—hello," he said uncertainly.
"Why you come? What you want?"
"Why—er—I wanted to see if they was any more of them eight-penny nails left. I'll need some to-morrow and bein' awake frettin' and stewin' over my work I thought I'd come up and take a look. Besides," with his mocking grin, "the evenin's reely too lovely to stay in bed."
"You lie, I think." Toy's teeth were chattering with cold and excitement. "Why you come? What you want?"
"You oughtn't to say those rude, harsh things. They're apt to hurt the feelin's of a sensitive feller like me."
"What you steal?" Toy pointed a trembling finger at the inside pocket of Smaltz's coat where it bulged.
"You wrong me," said Smaltz sorrowfully in mock reproach. "That's my Bible, Chink."
After Smaltz had gone Toy lighted a candle and poked among the boxes, cans, and sacks. He knew almost to a pound how much sugar, flour, rice, coffee, beans, and other provisions he had, but nothing, that he could discover, had been disturbed. The nail kegs and reserve tools in the corner, wedges, axe-handles and blades, files and extra shovels all were there. It was a riddle Toy could not solve yet he knew that Smaltz had not told the truth.
A white man who was as loyal to Bruce as Toy would have told him immediately of Smaltz's mysterious midnight visit to the storehouse, but that was not the yellow man's way. Instead he watched Smaltz like a hawk, eying him furtively, appearing unexpectedly at his elbow while he worked. From that night on, instead of one shadow Smaltz found himself with two.
Toy never had liked Smaltz from the day he came. Those who knew the Chinaman could tell it by the scrupulous politeness with which he treated him. He was elaborately exact and fair but he never spoke to him unless it was necessary. Toy yelled at and bullied those he liked but a mandarin could not have surpassed him in dignity when he addressed Smaltz.
Bruce surmised that the Chinaman must share his own instinctive distrust, yet Smaltz, with his versatility, had proved himself more and more valuable as the work progressed.
Banule's sanguine prophecy that they would be "throwin' dirt" within two weeks had failed of fulfilment because the pump motors had sparked when tried out. So small a matter had not disturbed the cheerful optimism of the genius, who declared he could remedy it with a little further work. Days, weeks, a month went by and still he tinkered, while Bruce, watching the sky anxiously, wondered how much longer the bad weather would hold off. As a convincing evidence of the nearness of winter, Porcupine Jim, who considered himself something of a naturalist, declared that the grasshoppers had lost their hind-legs.
While the time sped, Bruce realized that he must abandon his dream of taking out enough gold to begin to repay the stockholders. The most he could hope for now was a few days' run.
"If only I could get into the pay-streak! If I can just get enough out of the clean-up to show them that it's here; that it's no wild-cat; that I've told them the truth!" Over and over he said these things monotonously to himself until they became a refrain to every other thought.
In the middle of the summer he had been forced to ask for more money. He was days nerving himself to make the call; but there was no alternative—it was either that or shut down. He had written the stockholders that it would surely be the last, and his relief and gratitude had been great at their good-natured response.
Now the sparking of the motors which unexpectedly prolonged the work had once more exhausted his funds. It took all Bruce's courage to write again. It seemed to him that it was the hardest thing he had ever done but he accomplished it as best he could. He was peremptorily refused.
His sensations when he read the letter are not easy to describe. There was more than mere business curtness in the denial. There was actual unfriendliness. Furthermore, it contained an ultimatum to the effect that if the season's work was unsuccessful they would accept an offer which they had had for their stock.
With Helen's warning still fresh in his mind, Bruce understood the situation in one illuminating flash. Under the circumstances, no one but Sprudell would want to buy the stock. Obviously Sprudell had gotten in touch with the stockholders and managed somehow to poison their minds. This was the way, then, that he intended taking his revenge!
Harrah's secretary had written Bruce in response to his last appeal that Harrah had been badly hurt in an aeroplane accident in France and that it would not be possible to communicate with him for months perhaps. This was a blow, for Bruce counted him his only friend.
Bruce had neither the time nor money to go East and try to undo the harm Sprudell had done, and, furthermore, little heart for the task of setting himself right with people so ready to believe.
There was just one thing that remained for Bruce to do. He could use the amount he had saved from his small salary as general manager and continue the work as long as the money lasted. When this was gone he was done. In any event it meant that he must face the winter there alone. If the machinery was still not in working order when he came to the end of his resources it meant that he was stranded, flat broke, unable even to go outside and struggle.
In his desperation he sometimes thought of appealing to his father. The amount he required was insignificant compared to what he knew his father's yearly income must be. He doubted if even Harrah's fortune was larger than the one represented by his father's land and herds; but just as often as he thought of this way out just so often he realized that there were some things he could not do—not even for Helen Dunbar—not even to put his proposition through.
That humiliation would be too much. To go back begging after all these years—no, no, he could not do it to save his life! He would meet the pay-roll with his own checks so long as he had a cent, and hope for the best until he knew there was no best.
The end of his rope was painfully close the day Banule announced, after frequent testings, that they might start.
During short intervals of pumping, Bruce had been able by ground-sluicing to work off a considerable area of top soil and now that the machinery was declared to be ready for a steady run he could set the scrapers at once in the red gravel streak that contained the "pay."
The final preparation before starting was to pour the mercury behind the riffles in the sluice-boxes. When it lay quivering and shining behind each block and bar Bruce felt that his gargantuan bread-crumb had been dragged almost to the goal. It was well, too, he told himself with indescribable relief, for, not only his money, but his courage, his nerves, were well-nigh gone.
Bruce would trust no one but himself to pour the mercury in the boxes.
"That looks like good lively 'quick'," Smaltz commented as he watched him at the task.
"It should be; it was guaranteed never to have been used." He added with a smile: "Let's hope when we see it again it won't be quite so lively."
"Looks like it orter be as thick as mush if you can run a few thousand yards of that there pay-streak over it." There was a mocking look in Smaltz's yellow-brown eyes which Bruce, stooping over, did not see. He only heard the hopeful words.
"Oh, Smaltz—Smaltz—if it only is! Success means so much to me!" Unaccountably, such a tide of feeling rose within him that Bruce bared his heart to the man he did not like.
Smaltz looked at him with a curious soberness.
"Does it?" he responded after a pause.
"And I've tried so hard."
"You've sure worked like a horse." There was a look that was half pity, half grudging admiration on Smaltz's impudent face.
Banule was to run the power-house for the day and complete some work inside, so when Bruce had finished with the mercury he told Smaltz to telephone Banule from the pump-house that they were ready to start. Therefore while Bruce took his place at the lever on the donkey-engine enclosed in a temporary shed to protect the motor from rain and dust, Smaltz went to the pump-house as he was bid.
When Banule answered his ring he shouted:
"Let her go in about two minutes—two minutes—d'ye hear?" The telephone receiver was shaking in Smaltz's hand and he was breathing hard.
"Yes," Banule answered irritably, "but don't yell so in my ear."
Smaltz already had slammed the receiver back on the hook. With a swift movement he threw in the switch and jumped for the outside. He dropped from the high platform and fell among the rocks some ten feet below. Instantly he scrambled to his feet and crouching, dodging among the boulders that strewed the river bank, he ran at top speed until he reached the sluice-boxes. The carpenter came out from his shop to take a leisurely survey of the world and Smaltz threw himself flat until he had turned inside again.
Then, still crouching, looking this way and that, watching the trail, he took a bottle from his pocket and pulling the cork with his teeth poured the contents over the mercury almost to the upper end of the first box. He went as far as he dared without being seen by Bruce inside the shed.
The pumps had already started and the big head of water was coming with a rush down the steep grade, but Smaltz had done his evil work thoroughly for wherever the mercury laid thickest it glittered with iridescent drops of kerosene.
He was thrusting the bottle back in his pocket, his tense expression relaxed, when he turned his head sharply at the sound of a crashing in the brush.
"Toy!" Smaltz looked startled—scared.
It was Toy, his skin a waxy yellow and his oblique eyes blazing with excitement and rage.
"I savvy you, Smaltz! I savvy you!" His voice was a shrill squawk. "I savvy you!" His fingers with their long, sharp nails were opening and shutting like claws.
Smaltz knew that he had seen him from the hill and, watching, had understood. It was too late to run, useless to evade, so he stood waiting while shrieking, screeching at every step, the Chinaman came on.
He flew at Smaltz's face like a wild-cat, clawing, scratching, digging in his nails and screaming with every breath: "I savvy you! I savvy you!"
Smaltz warded him off without striking, trying to get his hand over his mouth; but in vain, and the Chinaman kept up his shrill accusing cry, "I savvy you, Smaltz! I savvy you!" There was little chance, however, of his being heard above the rush of the water through the sluice-boxes and the bumping and grinding together of the rocks and boulders that it carried down.
Then Smaltz struck him. Toy fell among the rocks, sprawling backwards. He got to his feet and came back. Once more he clawed and clung and once more Smaltz knocked him down. A third time he returned.
"You're harder to kill nor a cat," Smaltz grinned without malice, but he threw him violently against the sluice-box.
Toy lost his balance, toppled, and went over backward, reaching out wildly to save himself as he fell. The water turned him over but he caught the edge of the box. His loose purple "jumper" of cotton and silk ballooned at the back as he swung by one hand in the on-rushing water, thick and yellow with sand, filled with the grinding boulders that came down as, though shot from a catapult, drowning completely his, agonized cry of "Bluce! Bluce!"
It was only a second that he hung with his wild beseeching eyes on Smaltz's scared face while his frail, old body acted as a wedge for the racing water and the rocks. Then he let go and turned over and over tumbling grotesquely in the wide sluice-box while the rocks pounded and ground him, beat him into insensibility. He shot over the tail-race into the river limp and unresisting, like a dead fish.
Toy's disappearance was mysterious and complete. There was not a single clue to show which way he had gone, or how, or why. Only one thing seemed certain and that was that his departure was unpremeditated.
His potatoes were in a bucket of water, peeled and ready for dinner; the bread he had set to raise was waiting to be kneaded; his pipe laid on the window sill while his hoarded trinkets for the little Sun Loon were still hidden under the pad of the bed in his tent. His fish-pole in its usual place disposed of the theory that he had fallen in the river, and although trained eyes followed every trail there was not a single telltale track. He had vanished as though he had gone straight up.
His disappearance sobered the men. There was something uncanny about it; they lowered their voices When they speculated and all their latent superstition arose. Porcupine Jim declared that the place was "hoodooed" and as evidence enumerated the many accidents and delays. Bruce himself wondered if the malignant spirit of Slim was lingering on the river to harry him as he had in life.
Smaltz was now in the power-house doing at last the specific work for which he had been hired. To all Bruce's questions, he replied that the machinery there was "doing fine." Down below, the pump-house motors were far from satisfactory, sparking and heating in a way that Bruce, who did not know the a, b, c's of electricity, could see was not right. While the pumps and scrapers were working Banule dared not leave the motors alone.
Then, after a couple of days' unsatisfactory work, the water dropped so low in Big Squaw creek that there was only sufficient pressure to use one scraper. Bruce discharged all the crew save Smaltz, Banule, and Porcupine Jim, who labored in the kitchen—a living insult to the Brotherhood of Cooks. While Bruce, by running back and forth between the donkey-engine and the top sluice-box where the scraper dumped, managed to do the work of two men ten hours a day.
His nerves were at a tension, for along with the strain of his responsibilities was the constant fear of a serious break-down. Banule made light of the sparking motors but the bearings were heating badly, daily necessitating more frequent stops. When a grounded wire sent the leaking current through the cable that pulled the scraper, and knocked Bruce flat, he was not convinced by Banule's assurance that it "didn't amount to much." It was all evidence to Bruce that fundamentally something was wrong.
But in spite of the time lost the cut was deepening and the side walls stood up so that every scraper that emptied into the sluice-boxes was from the pay-streak. Bruce fairly gloated over each cubic yard that he succeeded in getting in, for the sample pans showed that it was all he had hoped for, and more.
If only the riffles were saving it and the tables catching the fine gold!
This he could not know until the clean-up and he did not mean to stop until he had brought in the last load he dared before a freeze. So far the weather had been phenomenal, the exceptional open fall had been his one good piece of luck. Under usual weather conditions, to avoid cleaning up through the ice he would have been obliged to have shut down at least a month before.
So the work kept on intermittently until an incredibly late date in November. The leaves of the poison oak had turned crimson, the tall tamaracks in the high mountains were gold, frost crystals glittered each morning on the planks and boards, but Big Squaw creek kept running steadily and the sunshine soon melted the skim ice that formed over night.
By this time Bruce had a fresh worry. It kept him awake hour after hour at night. The mercury was not looking right where it showed behind the riffles. It was too lively. There was something in it, of course, but not enough to thicken it as he had hoped. He could see the flakes of gold sticking to it as though it had been sprinkled with Nepaul pepper but the activity of it where it showed in quantity alarmed him more than he would confess to himself.
The change of weather came in the night. That day he started to clean-up. A chill wind was blowing from the east and the sky was dark with drab, low-hanging clouds when Bruce put on his hip-boots and began to take up riffles. A thin sheet of water flowed through the boxes, just sufficient to keep the sand and gravel moving down as he took up the riffles one at a time and recovered the mercury each had contained.
Bruce's feet and fingers grew numb working in the icy water with a scrubbing brush and a small scoop but they were no colder than the cold hand of Premonition that lay heavy upon him.
Behind the riffles at the top of the first box the mercury was amalgam—all that he could have wished for—beyond that point it suddenly stopped and all that he recovered as he worked down looked to be as active as when he had poured it from the flask.
What was wrong? He asked himself every conceivable question as he worked with aching hands and feet. Had he given the boxes too much grade? Had he washed too fast—crowded the dirt so that it had not had time to settle? Was it possible that after all the gold was too light and fine to save in paying quantities?
Hope died hard and he tried to make himself believe that the lower boxes and the tables had caught it—that there was more in the mercury than there looked. But the tension as he took up riffle after rime with the one result was like watching a long-drawn-out race with all one's possessions staked on the losing horse.
He took up riffles until it was a physical impossibility to work longer in the numbing water, his fingers could not hold the scoop. Then he went to the pump-house and told Banule to telephone Smaltz to shut down.
"He wants to know if you'll be pumpin' again?"
"Yes, after awhile. Tell him to stay there. I'm going to squeeze out the 'quick' I've taken up, but I want to get as near finished to-day as I can. You come and help me."
As Bruce walked back to the sluice-boxes with bowed head he was thinking that the day was well suited to the ending of his roseate dreams. Failure is dull, drab, colorless, and in his heart he had little doubt that for some reason still to be explained, he had failed. Just how badly remained to be seen.
Bruce had scooped the mercury into a clean granite kettle and now, while he held the four corners of a square of chamois skin, Banule poured mercury from the kettle into the centre of the skin until told to stop.
"Looks like you ought to get several hundred dollars out of that," Banule said hopefully as Bruce gathered the four corners, twisted them and began to squeeze.
"Yes, looks like I ought to," Bruce replied ironically.
The quicksilver came through the pores of the skin in a shower of shining globules.
Banule's expression of lively interest in the process was gradually replaced by one of bewilderment as with every twist the contents kept squeezing through until it looked as though there would be no residue left. It was a shock even to Bruce, who was prepared for it, when he spread the chamois skin on a rock and looked at the ball of amalgam which it contained.
Banule stared at it, open-mouthed.
"What's the matter? Where's it gone? And out of all that dirt!"
Bruce shook his head; his voice was barely audible:
"I don't know." The sagging clouds were not heavier than his heart—"I wish I did."
Banule stood a moment in silent sympathy.
"Guess you won't work any more to-day," he suggested.
"Yes; tell Smaltz to start," Bruce answered dully.
"I've got to save the mercury anyhow."
"Say," he hesitated—obviously he found the confession embarrassing or else he hated to lay the final straw upon the camel's back—"just before you told me to shut down, the motor on the small pump started sparkin' pretty bad."
"Yes?" Bruce knew that if Banule admitted it was "pretty bad" it was bad indeed.
"I'll look it over if we can stop awhile."
Bruce shook his head.
"There's not an hour to lose. It's going to storm; I must get done."
"I 'spose we can start." Banule looked dubious. "I'll try it, but I think we'll have to quit."
Was there anything more that could happen? Bruce asked himself in dumb misery as he picked up his scoop and brush and mechanically went to work when the pumps started and the water came.
His feet and hands were soon like ice but he was scarcely conscious of the pain for his heart-ache was so much greater. As he pursued the elusive quicksilver and worked the sand and gravel to the end of the box all he could see was the stack of receipted bills which the work and plant had cost, in shocking contrast to that tiny ball of amalgam lying in the chamois-skin on the rock. He had spent all of $40,000 and he doubted if he would take $20 from the entire clean-up as it now looked.
How could he break the news to Helen Dunbar? Where would he find the courage to tell the unfriendly stockholders the exact truth? It was a foregone conclusion that they would consider him a fakir and a crook.
It had to be done. As, in his imagination, he faced the ordeal he unconsciously straightened up.
"Burt! Burt! come quick!" Banule was waving his arms frantically from the platform of the pump-house. There was desperation in his cry for help. He dashed back inside as soon as he saw Bruce jump out of the sluice-box. Before Bruce reached the pump-house he heard Banule ringing the telephone violently, and his frenzied shout:
"Shut down, Smaltz! Shut down! Where are you? Can't you hear? For God's sake shut down, everything's burnin' up!"
He was ringing as though he would have torn the box loose from the wall when Bruce reached the pump-house door. Bruce turned sick when he heard the crackling of the burning motors and saw the electric flames.
"Somethin's happened in the power-house! I can't ring him! He must have got a shock! Until I know what's wrong, I don't dare shut down for fear I'll burn everything out up there!"
"Keep her going!" Bruce bounded through the door and dropped from the platform. Then he threw off his hat as he always did when excited, and ran. And how he ran! With his fists clenched and his arms tight against his sides he ran as though the hip-boots were the seven-league boots of fable.
In the stretch of deep sand he had to cross the weight was killing. The drag of the heavy boots seemed to pull his legs from their sockets but he did not slacken his pace. His breath was coming in gasps when he started up the steep trail which led from the sand over a high promontory. He clutched at bushes, rocks, anything to pull himself up and the pounding of his heart sounded to him like the chug of a steamboat, before he reached the top.
The veins and arteries in his forehead and neck seemed bursting, as did his over-taxed lungs, when he started stumbling and sliding down the other side. It was not the distance he had covered which had so winded him, nor even the terrific pace, but the dragging weight of the hip-boots. They felt as though they were soled with lead.
He imagined that he had crawled but as a matter of fact the distance would never be covered in the same space of time again.
The perspiration was trickling from his hair and through his thick eyebrows when he reached the boat landing where ordinarily they crossed. He brushed it out of his eyes with the back of his sleeve and stared at the place where usually the boat rode. It was gone! Smaltz had taken it instead of the overhead tram in which he always crossed.
There was no time to speculate as to Smaltz's reason. He kept on running along the river until he came to the steps of the platform where the heavy iron cage, suspended from a cable, was tied to a tree. Bruce bounded up the steps two at a time and loosened the rope. It was not until then that he saw that the chain and sprocket, which made the crossing easy, were missing. This, too, was strange. There was no time for speculation. Could he cross in it hand over hand? For answer he put his knee on the edge and kicked off.
The impetus sent it well over the river. Then it struck the slack in the cable and slowed up. Bruce set his teeth and went at it hand over hand. The test came when it started up grade. No ordinary man could have budged it and Bruce pulled to the very last ounce of his strength. He moved it only an inch at a time—slipping back two inches frequently when he changed hands.
If he lost the grip of both hands for a single second and slid back to the middle of the slack he realized that he was too near exhausted to pull up again, so, somehow, he hung on, making inarticulate sounds as he exerted superhuman strength, groaning like an animal loaded beyond its limit. If only he could last!
When he reached the platform on the other side he was just able to throw an arm around the tree and crawl out while the ponderous iron cage squeaking on the rusty cable rolled back to the middle of the river, where it swung to and fro.
Bruce gathered himself and tried to run. His legs refused to obey his will and he had to fall back to a walk. He hung over from the waist like a bent old man, his arms swinging limply at his sides.
He knew from the small amount of water going over the spillway that the machinery was still running and as he drew nearer to the power-house he could hear the hiss of the 200-feet head as it hit the wheel.
He dreaded entering for fear of what he should see. He had little doubt but that Smaltz was dead—electrocuted—roasted. He expected the sickening odor of burning flesh. He had been so long in getting there—but he had done his best—the power must be shut off first—he must get to the lever—if only he could run. His thoughts were incoherent—disconnected, but all of Smaltz. Smaltz had been loyal; Smaltz never had shirked; but he never had shown Smaltz the slightest evidence of friendship because of his unconquerable dislike.
Bruce was reproaching himself as he stepped up on the wooden casing which covered the pipes and nozzles inside the power-house. There he stopped and stood quite motionless, looking at Smaltz. Smaltz's face wore a look of keenest interest, as with one shoulder braced against the side of the building, his hands in his pockets, he watched the plant burn up.
Down below, Banule had thrown out the switch and the machinery was running away. A rim of fire encircled the commutators. The cold, blue flame of electrical energy was shooting its jagged flashes from every piece of magnetic metal it could reach, while the crackling of the short-circuited wires was like the continuous, rattling reports of a rapid-fire gun.
There was something terrifying in the sight of the racing machinery, something awe-inspiring in the spectacle of a great power gone mad. The wind from the round blur that represented the fly-wheel was a gale and in the semi-dusk,—Smaltz had closed the double-doors—the leaping flames and the screech of the red-hot bearings made the place an Inferno.
For a moment the amazing, unexpected sight deprived Bruce of the power to move. Then he jumped for the lever and shut down. It was not until the machinery responded that Smaltz turned. His yellow-brown eyes widened until they looked round. He had not counted on anyone's being able to cross the river for fully half an hour.
If Smaltz had been the villain of fiction, he would have been a coward as well. But Smaltz was not a coward. It is true he was startled—so startled that his skin turned a curious yellow-green like a half-ripe pear—but he was not afraid. He knew that he was "in for it." He knew that something was going to happen, and quick. That Bruce was sitting on the wooden casing quietly pulling off his heavy boots did not deceive him in the least.
It was as still as the tomb in the power-house when Bruce stood up and walked toward Smaltz. Grimy streaks of perspiration showed on his colorless face, from which every drop of blood seemed to have fled, and his black eyes, that shone always with the soft brilliancy of a warm, impulsive nature and an imaginative mind, were glittering and purposeful.
Smaltz stood his ground as Bruce advanced.
"Why didn't you answer that telephone, Smaltz?"
In feigned surprise Smaltz glanced at the box.
"I declare—the receiver's dropped off the hook!"
Bruce ignored the answer; he did not even look, but stepped closer.
"Why didn't you shut down?"
Smaltz summoned his impudent grin, but it wavered and faded under Bruce's burning eyes even while he replied in a tone of injured innocence—
"How should I know? The bell didn't ring—Banule hadn't told me to."
Bruce paid no attention to the foolish excuse. He demanded again:
"Why didn't you shut down, Smaltz?"
"I've told you once," was the sullen answer.
Bruce turned to the telephone and rang the bell hard.
"Hello—hello—hello!" came the frantic reply.
"Can you swim, Banule?"
"Then take it where the cable crosses the river. Come quick." He put the receiver back on its hook and stepped to the lever. Smaltz's eyes opened wide as Bruce shoved it hard. He stared as though he thought Bruce had gone out of his mind. Then the dynamos began to pick up.
"What you goin' to do?" he shouted above the screech of the belting and the hot bearings.
"You're going to tell the truth!" The last vestige of Bruce's self-control vanished. His voice, which had been nearly a whisper, was like the sudden roar of a deep-hurt bear. His dark face was distorted to ugliness with rage. He rushed Smaltz—with his head down—and Smaltz staggered with the shock. Then they grappled and went down. Once more it was pandemonium in the power-house with the screeching of the red hot bearings and the glare of the crackling blue flames that meant the final and complete destruction of the plant. Over and over the grimy, grease-soaked floor of the power-house they rolled and fought. Brutally, in utter savagery, Bruce ground Smaltz's face into the rough planks littered with nails and sharp-copper filings, whenever he could—dragging him, shoving him, working him each second a little closer to the machinery with the frenzy of haste. He had not yet recovered from his run but Smaltz was no match for his great strength.
A glimmer of Bruce's purpose came to Smaltz at last.
"What—you tryin'—to do?" he panted.
Bruce panted back:
"I'm going to kill you! Do you hear?" His eyes were bloodshot, more than ever he looked like some battle-crazed grizzly seeing his victim through a blur or rage and pain. "If I can—throw you—across those commutators—before the fireworks stop—I'm goin' to give you fifteen hundred volts!"
A wild fright came in Smaltz's eyes.
"Let me up!" he begged.
For answer Bruce shoved him closer to the dynamo. He fought with fresh desperation.
"Don't do that, Burt! My God—Don't do that!"
"Then talk—talk! She's going fast. You've got to tell the truth before she stops! Why did you burn out this plant?"
Smaltz would not answer. Bruce lifted him bodily from the floor. In the struggle he threw out a hand to save himself and his finger touched the spring that held the carbons. He screamed with the shock, but the blue flashes were close to his face blinding him before he suddenly relaxed:
"I'm all in. I'll tell."
Bruce let him drop back hard upon the floor and thrust a knee into his chest.
The words came with an effort; he seemed afraid of their effect upon Bruce, then, uncertainly:
For the fraction of a second Bruce stared into Smaltz's scared face. "You were paid," he repeated slowly. "Who—" and then the word came rapier-like as had the thought—"Sprudell!"
"He told me to see that you didn't start. He left the rest to me." With sullen satisfaction: "And it's cost him plenty—you bet—"
Inexplicable things suddenly grew clear to Bruce.
"You turned the boat loose in Meadows—"
"You wrecked it on that rock—"
"You fouled the mercury in the boxes?"
"And Toy!" The look of murder came back into Bruce's face, his hand crept toward Smaltz's throat. "Don't lie! What did you do to Toy?"
Smaltz whispered—he could barely speak—"I'm tellin' the truth—it was an accident. He jumped me—I threw him off and he fell in the sluice-box—backward—I tried to save him—I did—that's straight." Smaltz kept rolling his head back and forth in an oil-soaked spot where a grease cup leaked. Bruce's knee was grinding into his ribs and chest and his fingers were tightening on his throat.
Bruce raised himself a little and looked down at Smaltz. As he stared at the smudged, bleeding face and into the yellow-brown eyes with their dilated pupils, the rage in his own gave place to a kind of intense curiosity, the scrutiny one gives to a repulsive and venomous insect or reptile he has captured. He was trying to impress upon his own mind the incredible fact that this human being, lying helpless beneath him, watching him with questioning fear, had ruined him without the least personal malice—had robbed him of all he had strained, and worked, and fought for, for pay! It seemed like a preposterous, illogical dream; yet there he lay, alive, real, his face less than two feet from his own.
Finally, Bruce took his knee from his chest and got up. Smaltz pulled himself to his feet and stood uncertainly.
"Well—I suppose it's jail." There was sullen resignation in his voice.
Bruce stopped the machinery without answering. Then he folded his arms and leaned his broad shoulders against the rough boards of the power-house while, eying Smaltz, he considered. A year ago he would have killed him—he would have killed him begging on his knees, but taking a human life either makes a man callous or sobers him and the remorse which had followed the tragedy in the cabin was a sensation Bruce never wanted to experience again.
Penitentiaries were made for men like Smaltz—but in a country of long and difficult distances, with the lax courts and laws indifferently enforced, to put Smaltz where he belonged was not so simple as it might sound. It required time and money; Bruce had neither to spare.
It was so still in the power-house that the ticking of the dollar watch hanging on a nail sounded like a clock. Smaltz shifted feet nervously. At last Bruce walked to the work-bench and took a carpenter's pencil from a box and sharpened it. He smoothed out some wrapping paper then motioned Smaltz to sit down.
"I want you to write what you told me—exactly—word for word. Write it in duplicate and sign your name."
Consternation overspread Smaltz's face. A verbal confession to save himself from being electrocuted was one thing, to put it in black and white was quite another. He hesitated. Bruce saw the mutiny in his face; also the quick, involuntary glance he gave toward a monkey-wrench which lay on the end of the work-bench within his reach.
Rage burned up in Bruce again.
"Don't you know when you've got enough?" He stepped forward and removed the heavy wrench from Smaltz's reach. "I'll give you just one minute by the watch there to make up your mind. You'd better write, for you won't be able when I'm through!"
They measured each other, eye to eye again. Each could hear the breathing of the other in the silence while the watch ticked off the seconds. An over-sanguine pack-rat tried to scramble up the tar-paper covering on the outside and squeaked as he fell back with a thud, but the face of neither man relaxed. Smaltz took the full limit of the time. He saw Bruce's fingers work, then clinch. Suddenly he grinned—a sheepish, unresentful grin.
"I guess you're the best man," He slouched to the bench and sat down.
He was still writing when Banule came, breathing hard and still dripping from his frigid swim. He stopped short and his jaw dropped at seeing Smaltz. He was obviously disappointed at finding him alive.
Smaltz handed Bruce the paper when he had finished and signed his name. Neither the writing or composition was that of an illiterate man. Bruce read it carefully and handed it to Banule:
"Read this and witness it."
Banule did as he was told, for once, apparently, too dumfounded for comment.
"Now copy it," said Bruce, and Smaltz obeyed.
When this was done, signed and witnessed Smaltz looked up inquiringly—his expression said—"What next?"
Bruce stepped to the double doors and slid the bolt.
"There's your trail—now hit it!" He motioned into the wilderness as he threw the doors wide.
Incredulity, amazement, appeared on Smaltz's face.
In the instant that he stood staring a vein swelled on Bruce's temple and in a spasm of fury he cried:
"Go, I tell you! Go while I can keep my hands off you—you—" he finished with an oath.
Smaltz went. He snatched his coat from its nail as he passed but did not stop for his hat. It was not until he reached the slab which served as a bridge over the water from the spillway that he recovered anything of his impudent nonchalance. He was in the centre of it when he heard Banule say:
"If it ud be me I'd a put a lash rope round his neck and drug him up that hill to jail."
Smaltz wheeled and came back a step.
"Oh, you would, would you? Say, you fakir, I'm glad you spoke. I almost forgot you." There was sneering, utter contempt in Smaltz's voice. "Fakir," he reiterated, "you get that, do you, for I'm pickin' my words and not callin' names by chance. You're the worst that ever come off the Pacific coast—and that's goin' some."
He turned sharply to Bruce.
"You know even a liar sometimes tells the truth and I'm goin' to give it to you straight now. I've nothin' to win or lose. This machinery never will run. The plant was a failure before it was put up. And," he nodded contemptuously at Banule, "nobody knew it better than that dub."
"Jennings," he went on "advised this old-fashioned type of machinery because it was the only kind he understood and he wanted the job of putting it up, honestly believin' at the time that he could. When he realized that he couldn't, he sent for Banule to pull him through.
"Jennings failed because of his ignorance but this feller knows, and whatever he's done he has done knowin' that his work couldn't by any chance last. All he's thought of was gettin' the plant up somehow so it would run temporarily—any old way to get through—get his money, and get out. He's experimented continually at your expense; he's bungled the job from beginning to end with his carelessness—his 'good enough' work.
"You were queered from the start with them armatures he wound back there on the Coast. He and Jennings took an old fifty horse-power motor and tried to wind it for seventy-five. There wasn't room for the copper so they hammered in the coils. They ruptured the insulation in the armature and that's why it's always short-circuited and sparked. He rated it at seventy-five and it's never registered but fifty at its best. He rated the small motor at fifty and it developed thirty—no more. The blue print calls for 1500 revolutions on the big pump and the speed indicator shows 900. Even if the motors were all right, the vibration from that bum foundation that he told you was 'good enough' would throw them out, in time.
"All through he's lied and bluffed, and faked. He has yet to put up his first successful plant. Look up his record if you think it ain't the truth. What's happened here is only a repetition of what's happened everywhere he's ever been. It would be a fortune if 'twas figured what his carelessness has cost the men for whom he's worked.
"In the eyes of the law I'm guilty of wreckin' this plant but in fact I only put on the finishin' touches. I've shortened your misery, Burt, I've saved you money, for otherwise you'd have gone tryin' to tinker it up. Don't do it. Take it from me it isn't worth it. From start to finish you've been stung."
He turned mockingly to Banule:
"As we know, Alphy, generally there's a kind of honor among crooks that keeps us from squeakin' on each other, but that little speech of yourn about takin' a turn of a las' rope round my neck kind of put me on the prod. That virtuous pose of yours sort of set my teeth on edge, knowin' what I do, and I ain't told half of what I could if I had the time. However, Alphy," he shot a look at Bruce's face, "if you'll take the advice of a gent what feels as though a log had rolled over him, you'll sift along without puttin' up any holler about your pay."
Smaltz was a liar, as he said, but Bruce knew that he had told the truth regarding Banule's work. He confirmed the suspicions and fears that had been in Bruce's mind for months. Therefore, when he said quietly to Banule—"You'd better go up the hill!" there was that in his voice and eyes which made that person take his departure with only a little less celerity than Smaltz had taken his.
It remained for Bruce to gather up Banule's scattered tools, drain the pumps, and nail the pump-house door. When he closed the head gate and turned the water back into Big Squaw Creek, removed the belting from the pulleys in the power-house and shut the place up tight, he felt that it was much like making arrangements for his own funeral.
At last everything was done and Porcupine Jim, who had stayed on a day or so to help, was waiting for Bruce to finish his letter to Helen Dunbar so he could take it up the hill. Jim sat by the kitchen stove whistling dismally through his teeth while Bruce groped for words in which to break the news of his complete failure.
If only he could truthfully hold out some hope! But there was not the slightest that he could see. Harrah was out of it. The stockholders had lost both confidence and interest in him and his proposition and would sell out, as they had notified him they would do if the season's work was a failure—and consider themselves lucky to have the chance. It was a foregone conclusion that Sprudell would shortly own the controlling stock.
There was nothing for it but the blunt truth so Bruce wrote:
Sprudell boasted that he would down me and he has. Villainy, incompetency and carelessness have been too strong a combination for my inexperience to beat.
I've failed. I'm broke. I've spent $40,000 and have nothing to show for it but a burned-out plant of an obsolete type.
You can't imagine how it hurts to write these words. The disappointment and humiliation of it passes belief. No one who has not been through an experience like it could ever, even faintly, understand.
I grow hot and cold with shame when I look back now and see my mistakes. They are so plain that it makes me feel a fool—an ignorant, conceited, inexperienced fool. I've learned many lessons, but at what a price!
You'll see from the enclosed paper what I was up against. But it does not excuse me, not in the least. Thinking myself just, I was merely weak. A confiding confidence in one's fellowman is very beautiful in theory but there's nothing makes him more ridiculous when it's taken advantage of. When I recall the suspicious happenings that should have warned me from Jenning's incompetency to Smaltz's villainy I have no words in which to express my mortification. The stockholders cannot condemn me more severely for my failure than I condemn myself.
You are the beginning and end of everything with me. All my hopes, my ambitions, my life itself have come to centre in you. It was the thought that it was for you that kept me going when I have been so tired doing two men's work that I could scarcely drag one foot after the other. It made me take risks I might otherwise never have dared to take. It kept me plodding on when one failure after another smashed me in the face so fast that I could not see for the blackness.
I never dreamed that love was like this—that it was such a spur—such an incentive—or that it could add so to the bitterness of failure. For I do love you, Helen; I see now that I have loved you from the time I saw you with Sprudell—further back than that, from the time I shook your picture out of that old envelope.
I'm telling you this so you'll know why my tongue ran away with my judgment when I talked so much to you of my plans and expectations, hoping that in spite of the great disappointment my failure will be to you, it will make you a little more lenient.
I have failed so completely that I don't even dare ask you if you care the least bit for me. It's presumptuous to suggest it— it seems like presuming because you have been kind. But even if such a miracle could be, I have nothing to offer you. I don't mean to quit but it may be years before I get again the chance that I had down here.
I love you, Helen, truly, completely: I am sure there will never be any one else for me. If only for this reason won't you write to me sometimes, for your letters will mean so much in the days that are ahead of me.
When he had finished, Bruce gave Jim the letter and paid him off with the check that took the last of his balance in the bank.
From the doorway of the shack he watched the Swede climb the hill, following him with his eyes until he had rounded the last point before the zig-zag trail disappeared into the timber on the ridge. A pall of awful loneliness seemed to settle over the canyon as the figure passed from sight and as Bruce turned inside he wondered which was going to be the worst—the days or nights. His footsteps sounded hollow when he walked across the still room. He stopped in the centre and looked at the ashes overflowing the hearth of the greasy range, at the unwashed frying-pan on the dirty floor, at the remains of Jim's lunch that littered the shabby oilcloth on the table. A black wave of despair swept over him. This was for him instead of cleanliness, comfort, brightness, friendly people—and Helen Dunbar. This squalor, this bare loneliness, was the harsh penalty of failure. He put his hand to his throat and rubbed it for it ached with the sudden contraction of the muscles, but he made no sound.
* * * * *
One of the pictures with which Bruce tortured himself was Helen's disappointment when she should read his letter. He imagined the animation fading from her face, the tears rising slowly to her eyes. Her letters had shown how much she was counting on what he had led her to expect, for she had written him of her plans; so the collapse of her air-castles could not be other than a blow.
And he was right. The blunt news was a blow. In one swift picture Helen saw herself trudging drearily along the dull, narrow road of genteel poverty to the end of her days, sacrificing every taste, and impulse, and instinct to the necessity of living, for more and more as she thought her freedom closer the restrictions of economic slavery chaffed.
But as she read on, her face grew radiant and when she raised the letter impulsively to her lips her eyes were luminous with happiness. He loved her—he had told her so—that fact was paramount. It overshadowed everything else, even her disappointment. The conditions against which she rebelled so fiercely suddenly shrank to small importance. It was extraordinary how half-a-dozen sentences should change the world! She was so incredibly happy that she could have cried.
In her eagerness, she had read the first of Bruce's letter hastily so she had not grasped the full significance of what he had written of the part in his failure that Sprudell had played. It was not until she read it again together with Smaltz's confession, that it came to her clearly. When it did she was dumfounded by the extent of Sprudell's villainy, his audacity, the length to which his mania for revenge would take him. It was like a plot in one of his own preposterous melodramas!
And was he to be allowed to get away with it? Were his plans to work out without a hitch? she asked herself furiously. She realized that Bruce's hands were tied, that the complete exhaustion of his resources left him helpless.
She sat at her desk for a long time, mechanically drawing little designs upon a blotter. Wild impulses, impractical plans, followed each other in quick succession. They crystallized finally into a definite resolve, and her lips set in a line of determination.
"I don't know how much or how little I can do, but, T. Victor Sprudell," Helen clenched a small fist and shook it in the direction in which she imagined Bartlesville lay, "I'm going to fight!"
If much of Helen's work was uncongenial it at least had the merit of developing useful traits. It had given her confidence, resourcefulness, persistency and when she was aroused, as now, these qualities were of the sort most apt to furnish the exultant Sprudell with a disagreeable surprise.
* * * * *
It was not such a difficult matter as Helen had thought to get from the investors a thirty days' option upon their stock. In the first place they were frankly amused and interested by her request; and, in the second, while Sprudell had succeeded in shaking their confidence in Bruce he had not inspired any liking for himself. Besides, he had not been able to conceal his eagerness and they felt that his offer would keep. It was unusual and quite outside their experiences, but in these days of women architects, legislators, financiers, who could tell where the sex would turn up next? So at a meeting of the stockholders it was agreed that it would do no harm to "give the girl a chance" though they made no secret of the fact that they had little expectation that she would be able to take up the option.
When it was secure and she had obtained leave of absence from the office, Helen felt that the hardest part of the task she had assigned herself was done. To acquaint Bruce's father with Sprudell's plot and enlist him on Bruce's side seemed altogether the easiest part of her plan. She had no notion that she was the brilliant lady-journalist to whom the diplomat, the recluse, the stern and rock-bound capitalist, give up the secrets of their souls, but she did have an assured feeling that with the arguments she had to offer she could manage Bruce's "Dad."
Therefore on the monotonous journey west her nerves relaxed and with a comfortable feeling of security she rehearsed her case as she meant to present it, which was to conclude with an eloquent plea for help. It seemed to her that in spite of the years of estrangement it would be the most natural thing in the world for Burt, when he heard all the facts, to rush to the rescue of his son. Of the result she really entertained no doubt.
But she was reckoning without John Burt. Reasoning that would apply to nearly any other man did not at all fit Bruce's father. Helen had the sensation of having run at full speed against a stone wall when Burt came toward her slowly, leading his saddle-horse through one of the corrals near the unpretentious ranch-house, which she had reached after a long drive.
The amenities to which she was accustomed were not, as the phrase is, John Burt's long suit. He did not raise his hat, extend a hand, or evince the slightest interest by any lighting of the eye. With his arm thrown across his saddle he waited for her to begin, to state her business and be gone.
The broad backs of ten thousand cattle glistened in the sun as they fed inside the John Burt ranch, but owing to his seedy appearance their owner was frequently mistaken for his own hired man. Self-centred, of narrow views, strong prejudices, saving to penuriousness, whatever there was of sentiment, or warm human impulse, in his nature, seemed to have been buried with Bruce's mother. He had not re-married, but this was the only outward evidence by which any one could know that the memory of "his Annie" was as green as the day she died. He never spoke of her nor of his son, and Burt's life seemed to have for its aim the piling up of dollars faster than his neighbors.
Helen grasped something of his character in her swift appraisement. As she returned his impersonal gaze she realized that to him she was simply a female—a person in petticoats who was going to take up his time and bore him until he could get rid of her. She was not accustomed to a reception of this kind; it disconcerted her, but chiefly the magnitude of her task loomed before her.
The sudden, unexpected fear of failure threw her into a panic. The feeling which came upon her was like stage-fright. In the first awkward moment she could scarcely remember why she had come, much less what she had intended to say. But he was too indifferent to notice her confusion and this helped her somewhat to recover her presence of mind.
When she mentioned the distance she had travelled to see him he was entirely unimpressed and it was not until she mentioned Bruce's name that he appeared to realize that she was not an agent trying to sell him a book. Then Helen saw in his eyes his mental start;—the look of resignation vanished and his black brows, so like Bruce's, contracted in a frown.
"He's alive then," Burt's voice was hard.
"I've come to see you on his behalf."
"Oh, he's in trouble." His voice had an acid edge. "He wants me to help him out."
"In trouble—yes—but I'm not sure he'd forgive me if he knew I had come."
"Still sore, is he?" His features stiffened.
"Not sore," Helen pleaded, "but—proud."
"Stubborn"—curtly—"mulish. But why should you come to me?"
"Why shouldn't I? You're his father and he needs a helping hand just now more perhaps than he ever will again."
"Being his father is no reason, that I can see. He's never written me a line."
"And you've never tried to find him," Helen retorted.
"He had a good home and he ran away. He was fourteen—old enough to know what he was doing."
"Fourteen!" repeated Helen scornfully throwing diplomacy to the winds at his criticism of Bruce, "Fourteen!—and you judged him as though he were a man of your own age and experience!"
"I made $20 a month and my board when I was fourteen."
"That doesn't prove anything except a difference in ambition. You wanted the $20 a month and Bruce wanted an education."
"He owed me some respect." Burt declared obstinately. At the moment he and Bruce looked marvellously alike.
"And don't you think you owed him anything?" Helen's cheeks were flaming. The last thing she had expected was to quarrel with Bruce's father, but since she was in it she meant to stand her ground. She had made a muddle of it she felt, and her chances of success were slim indeed. "Don't you think a child is entitled to the best chance for happiness and success that his parents can give him? All Bruce asked was an education—the weapon that every child has a right to, to enable him to fight his own battles. I had the best education my parents could afford and at that I'm not bowed down with gratitude for the privilege of struggling merely to exist."
She expected him to reply with equal heat but instead he ignored her argument and with a return to his former manner as though his flare-up of interest had passed, asked indifferently:
"What's he done?"
"Nothing to be ashamed of," Helen answered vigorously, "and everything to be proud of. He's put up a plucky fight but the odds are too strong against him and he's going to lose unless you come to the rescue—quick."
Burt combed the horse's mane with his fingers.
"What's he in—what's he doing?" There was no personal interest in the question.
Helen hesitated for a second, knowing instinctively the effect her answer would have upon him—then she replied with a touch of defiance:
"Minin'!" His tone was full of disgust, much as though she had said gambling or burglary. "I might have known it would be some fool thing like that. No, ma'am," harshly, "by writin' first you might have saved yourself the trip for not a dollar of my money ever has or ever will go into any minin' scheme. I don't speculate."
"But Mr. Burt—" Helen began pleadingly. She had a panicky feeling that she was going to cry.
"It's no use arguin'," he interrupted. "He can't get me into any wild-cat minin' scheme—"
"It isn't a wild-cat mining scheme," Helen defended hotly.
Burt went on—
"If he wants to come home and help me with the cattle and behave himself now that he's fooled away his time and failed—"
"But he hasn't failed." Helen insisted with eager impatience. "He won't fail if——"
"Well he's hard up—he wants money——" Burt spoke as though the fact were a crime.
"A good many men have been 'hard up' and needed money before they succeeded," Helen pleaded. "Surely you know that crises come in nearly every undertaking where there isn't unlimited capital, obstacles and combinations of circumstances that no one can forsee. And if you knew what Bruce has had to fight——"
Helen had expected of course to tell Bruce's father of the placer properties and his efforts to develop them. She had thought he would have a father's natural pride in what Bruce had accomplished in the face of dangers and difficulties. She had intended to tell him of Sprudell, to show him Smaltz's confession, and the options which would defeat Sprudell's plotting, but in the face of his narrow obstinacy, his deep prejudices, she felt the futility of words or argument. She had not for a moment counted upon such opposition; now she felt helpless, impotent before this armor of hardness.
"I don't care what he's had to fight. I'd just as soon put my money in the stove as put it in a mining scheme. There's two things I never do, young lady, and that's speculate and go on people's notes."
"But, Mr. Burt," she begged hopelessly, "If you'd only make an exception—just this once. Go to him—see for yourself that all he needs is a helping hand across this one hard place."
"I got on without any helping hands. Nobody saw me across hard places. I've told you the only way that he can expect to get anything from me."
"Then it's useless, quite, quite useless for me to say any more?" Helen was struggling hard to keep her voice steady to the end. "No matter what the circumstances may be you refuse to do anything for Bruce?"
"That's the size of it—unless he comes back. There's plenty for him to do here." His tone was implacable and he was waiting with a stolid patience for her to go.
"I'm sorry if I've bored you and I shan't inflict you any more. Please remember that Bruce knew nothing of my coming. I came upon my own responsibility. But his success meant so much to him—to me that I—that I——" she choked and turned away abruptly. She dared not even say good-bye.
Burt remained standing by his horse looking after her straight, slender figure as she walked toward the gate. His face was still sphinx-like but there was a speculative look in his shrewd eyes. Bruce's success "meant so much to her," did it? That, then, was why she had come. The distance she had travelled for the purpose of seeing him had not impressed him in the least before.
Helen was halfway to the gate when she stopped to replace the rubber that stuck in the muddy corral and slipped from her heel. Her chin was quivering, her sensitive lips drooped and, feeling that Burt was looking at her, she raised her eyes to his. They were brimming full of tears. She looked for all the world like a sorrowful, disappointed, woe-begone little girl of not more than ten or twelve.
The unconscious pathos of some look or pose grips the heart harder than any spoken word and so it was that this unstudied trick of expression found the vulnerable spot in Burt's armor—the spot which might have remained impervious indefinitely to any plea. It went straight to his one weakness, his single point of susceptibility, and that was his unsuspected but excessive fondness for little girls.
The distinct picture that was firmly fixed in his unimaginative mind before Bruce was born was still there; the picture of that little girl with flaxen hair that had blue ribbons in it, with a laughing mouth that had tiny sharp teeth like pearls, and who was to come dancing to meet him with her arms outstretched each time that he rode into the yard. That the dream was never realized was one of the real disappointments of Burt's life. Inexplicably he saw that little girl again as he looked at Helen's upturned face with its quivering chin and swimming, reproachful eyes.
John Burt had a queer feeling of something wilting, crumbling inside of him, something hard and cold giving way around his heart. He could not have explained it, it was not his way to try, but he took an impulsive step toward her and called out:
"Wait a minute! Go on in the house till I put up my horse, I'll hear what you have to say."
UNCLE BILL IS OSTRACIZED
Uncle Bill Griswold sat by the window in the office of the Hinds House where he could watch the stage road, and, as usual this winter, he was sitting by himself. It was thus that Ore City punished reticence.
Uncle Bill was suspected of knowing something—of having business—of his own—and keeping it to himself. A display of friendly interest in his affairs having received no encouragement and various lines of adroit cross-examination having been successfully blocked, Ore City was forced to regard his stubborn reserve as a hostile act for which it was tacitly agreed he should be disciplined. Therefore it withdrew its own confidences and company. Uncle Bill was shunned, left alone to enjoy his secret. The heavy hand of Public Opinion was upon him. Socially he was an outcast. Conversation ceased when he approached as if he had been a spy. Games of solo, high-five, and piute went on without him and in heated arguments no one any longer asked his views.
This latter offense however was only an aggravation of the real one which dated back to the memorable occasion when Wilbur Dill had asked his opinion of the "secondary enrichment." It was held that a man who would tell the truth at a time like that was a menace to the camp and the sooner he moved on the better.
In the early spring the old man had disappeared into the mountain with powder, drills, and a three months' grub-stake. He had told no one of his destination, and when he had returned the most he would say was that he had "been peckin' on a ledge all summer." He sent samples of his rock outside but did not show the assays. He wrote letters and began to get mail in blank, non-committal envelopes and added to the general feeling of exasperation by always being at the desk before even the clerk had time to make out the postmarks. Oh, he was up to something—that was certain—something that would "knock" the camp no doubt. They wouldn't put it past him.
If Uncle Bill felt his exile or harbored resentment at being treated like a leper he was too proud to give any sign.
There had been but little change in the Hinds House in a year. Only a close observer would have noted that it had changed at all. There was a trifle more baling-wire intertwined among the legs of the office chairs and a little higher polish on the seats. The grease spots on the unbleached muslin where Ore City rested its head were a shade darker and the monuments of "spec'mins" were higher. The Jersey organ had lost two stops and a wooden stalagmite was broken. "Old Man" Hinds in a praiseworthy attempt to clean his solitaire deck had washed off the spots or at least faded them so that no one but himself could tell what they were. The office was darker, too, because of the box-covers nailed across the windows where a few more panes had gone out. Otherwise it might have been the very day a year ago that Judge George Petty had lurched through the snow tunnel jubilantly announcing the arrival of the stage.
Only this year there was no snow tunnel and the Judge was sober—sober and despondent.
His attitude of depression reflected more or less the spirit of the camp, which for once came near admitting that "if Capital didn't take holt in the Spring they might have to quit."
"Anyway," Yankee Sam was saying, lowering his voice to give the impression to Uncle Bill at the window that he, too, had affairs of a private nature, "I learnt my lesson good about givin' options. That were our big mistake—tyin' ourselves up hand and foot with that feller Dill. Why, if a furrin' syndicate had walked in here and offered me half a million fer my holdin's in that porphory dike I couldn't a done a stroke of business. Forfeit money in the bank after this for Samuel. But if ever I lays eyes on that rat—" Yankee Sam glared about the circle—"you watch my smoke! Mind what I tell you."
"What about the deal he give me on The Prince o' Peace?" demanded Lannigan. "Look what he cost me! The money I spent on them stamps writin' to know what was doin' would a kept me eatin' for a month. Maybe you think because I don't roar much I ain't angery. If I had the price I'd hire somebudy regalar to help me hate that feller!"
"I hold that he's worse than robbed me!" Judge Petty struck his knee with a tremulous fist. "He took one whole year off'n my life, that's what he's done—pure murder, ain't it? Expectin' to sell every mail, all summer, and then bein' disappinted has shore took it out of me. Made an ol' man of me, as you might say, as was hale and hearty. I might have knowed, too; you had only to look in his face to see what he was! 'Crook' was wrote all over him. There's a law for the likes o' Wilbur Dill—false pretenses."
"Law!" contemptuously. "Pa" Snow spent more of his time downstairs now in a rocking chair upholstered with a soogan, where he could vent his bitterness at short range. Disappointment over the sale of "The Bay Horse" had made a socialist of him. "The law—a long way we'd get havin' the law on him! The law's no use to the poor man—he's only got one weapon he can count on; and while I've never set out to let no man's blood, if that skunk ever pokes his nose inside these premises he'll find a red-hot Southerner waitin' for him!" Mr. Snow looked so altogether ferocious that Ore City more than half believed him.
"Seems like everything this year has been agin us." The despondent voice behind the stove sounded hopeless. "Burt's proposition fizzlin' out on the river is goin' to hurt this camp wonderful. It's surprisin' how fast the news of a failure gits around among Capital. I knew the way he was startin' in to work—in fact I told him—that he never could make nothin'."
"When I first went down to work for him I advised steam but he goes ahead, and look what's happened—broke down and you can gamble he won't start up again." Lannigan added confidently as though he spoke from personal knowledge—"Them stockholders is done puttin' up money."
"I warned him about the grade he was givin' them sluice-boxes—I went to him first off, didn't I?" Yankee Sam looked around for confirmation. "Do you mind I said at the time he wasn't warshin' that dirt fast enough?"
"Anyhow," declared the Judge querulously, "he ought to 'a piped it off. T'were a hydraulickin' proposition. He could handle it just twice as fast at half the cost. I sent him down word when I heard what he was doin'."
"And wastin' money like he did on all them new style riffles—expanded metal and cocoa matting! Gimme pole riffles with a little strap-iron on the top and if you can't ketch it with that you can't ketch it with nothin'."
"Mostly," said Ma Snow who had come up behind the critic's chair unnoticed, "you've ketched nothin'." She went on in her plaintive voice:
"It's a shame, that's what it is, that Bruce Burt didn't just turn over his business to you-all this summer. With shining examples of success to advise him, like's sittin' here burnin' up my wood t'hout offerin' to split any, he couldn't have failed. Personally, I wouldn't think of makin' a business move without first talkin' it over with the financiers that have made Ore City the money centre that it is!"
"Everybody can learn something," Yankee Sam retorted with a show of spirit.
"Not everybody," Ma Snow's voice had an ominous quaver, "or you'd a learned long ago that you can't knock that young man in my hearin'. I haven't forgot if you have, that the only real money that's been in the camp all Summer has come up from the river."
"We wasn't sayin' anything against him personal," the brash Samuel assured her hastily; but Bruce's champion refused to be mollified.
"What if he did shut down? What of it?" She glared defiance until her pale eyes watered with the strain. "I don't notice anybody here that's ever had gumption enough even to start up. What do you do?" She answered for them—"Jest scratch a hole in the ground, then set and wait for Capital to come and hand you out a million. I dast you to answer!"
It was plain from the silence that no one cared to remove the chip on Ma Snow's shoulder.
"I hear he aims to stay down there all winter alone and trap." Judge Petty made the observation for the sake of conversation merely, as the fact was as well known as that there were four feet of snow outside or that the camp was "busted."
"And it's to his credit," Ma Snow snapped back. "When he's doin' that he ain't runnin' up board bills he cain't pay."
"It's as good a place as any," admitted the Judge, "providin' he don't go nutty." He raised his voice and added with a significant look at Uncle Bill: "Bachin' alone makes some fellers act like a bull-elk that's been whipped out of the herd."
"It takes about four months before you begin to think that somebudy's layin' out in the brush watchin' you—waitin' to rob you even if you haven't got anything to steal but a slab of swine-buzzum and a sack of flour. The next stage," went on the citizen behind the stove speaking with the voice of authority, "is when you pack your rifle along every time you go for a bucket of water, and light you palouser in the middle of the night to go around the cabin lookin' for tracks. Yes, sir," emphatically, "and the more brains you got the quicker you go off."
"You seemed about the same when you got back as when you left that time you wintered alone on the left fork of Swiftwater," Ma Snow commented.
"Like as not you remember that spell I spent t'other side of Sheep-eater Ridge when I druv that fifty foot tunnel single-handed into the Silver King?"
"You've never give us no chance to forgit it," responded an auditor. "We've heard it reg'lar every day since."
"I hadn't seen nobody fer clost to three months," Lemonade Dan continued "when a feller come along, and says: 'I'd like to stop with ye but I'm short of cash.' I counted out a dollar-thirty and I says 'Stranger,' I says, 'that's all I got but it's yourn if you'll stay!'"
"And you'll jump for a new seed catalogue or an Agricultural Bulletin like it was a novel just out," contributed Yankee Sam from his experience. "I've allus been a great reader. I mind how I come clost to burnin' myself out on account of it the fall of '97 when I was ground-sluicin' down there on Snake river. I had a tidy cabin papered with newspapers and one week when 'twere stormin' I got interested in a serial story what was runnin'. It started back of the stove and they was an installment pasted in the cupboard, they was a piece upside down clost to the floor so I had to stand on my head, as you might say, to read it, and the end was on the ceilin'. One evenin' I was standin' on a box with my mouth open and my neck half broke tryin' to see how it come out when I tipped the lamp over. I'm a reg'lar book-worm, when I gits where they's readin'."
"I mind the winter I bached on Crooked Crick I tamed a mouse," ventured Lannigan. "He got so sociable he et out of my fingers."
"He shorely must have been fond of you." Ma Snow looked fixedly at Lannigan's hands. "Mistah Hinds," turning sharply upon that person, who was endeavoring by close inspection to tell whether the last card was a king or queen, "the bacon's froze and there ain't a knife in yoah ol' kitchen that will cut."
"Yes ma'am," murmured Mr. Hinds, hoping against hope that the statement was not a command with his luck just beginning to turn and a sequence in sight.
"If there ain't an aidge on one of them butcher knives that'll cut bread when I start in to get supper—"
But Ma Snow did not deliver her ultimatum. In the first place it was not necessary, for the cowed owner of the Hinds House knew perfectly well what it was, and in the second, Uncle Bill arose suddenly and stood on tiptoe looking through the window in something that approached excitement. Nothing ordinary could jar Uncle Bill's composure—chairs went over in the rush to join him at the window.
The stage was coming—with passengers! It was almost in—they could hear the driver's—"Git ep, Eagle! Git ep, Nig! Git ep—git ep—git ep!" There was luggage on behind and—Yankee Sam's voice broke as though it were changing when he announced it—a female and two men!
Was this Uncle Bill's secret? Had he known? They could learn nothing from his face and his mouth was shut so tight it looked as if he had the lock-jaw.
Who was she? Where was she from? Did she have any money? Was she old or young? Delicacy forbade them to go outside and look straight at a strange lady but a dozen questions rose in every mind. Then simultaneously the same thought came to each. Moved by a common impulse they turned and stared suspiciously at Uncle Bill. Could it be—was it possible that he had been advertising for a wife? Luring some trusting female from her home by representing himself as a mining man forced to reside in this mountain solitude near his valuable properties? Ore City knew of cases like it; and he was just about the age to begin writing to matrimonial bureaus.
Speculation ended abruptly. A sharp intake of breath—a startled gasp ran through the tense group as a pair of nimble, yellow legs flashed from beneath the robes and the citizens of Ore City saw the smiling face of Wilbur Dill! They turned to each other for confirmation lest their own eyes deceive them.
Mr. Dill stamped the snow from his feet, flung open the door and beamed around impartially.
"Well, boys—" he threw off his opulent, fur-lined coat—"it's good to be back."
For the space of a second Ore City stood uncertainly. Then Pa Snow disentangled his feet from the quilt and stepped forth briskly.
"Welcome home!" said the fire-eater cordially.
Dill's return could have but one meaning. He had returned with a "Live One" to take up the options. Hope smouldering to the point of extinction sprang to life and burned like a fire in a cane-brake. Imaginations were loosed on the instant. Once more Ore City began to think in six figures.
Yankee Sam, who had called upon his friends and High Heaven to "watch his smoke," was the next to wring Dill's hand, and Lannigan followed, while the Judge forgot the priceless year of which he had been robbed and elbowed Porcupine Jim aside to greet him. Only Uncle Bill stood aloof turning his jack-knife over and over nonchalantly in the pocket of his Levi Strauss's.
Ore City scowled. Couldn't he be diplomatic for once—the stubborn old burro'—and act glad even if he wasn't? Why didn't he at least step up like a man and say howdy to the woman he had lured from a good home? Where was he raised, anyhow?—drug up in the brush, most like, in Missoury.
Dill looked about inquiringly.
"Ah-h! Mr. Griswold." He strode across the floor. "How are you?"
Ore City's hand flew to its heart, figuratively speaking, and clutched it. No man ever called another "Mister" in that tone unless he had something he wanted. And no man ever answered "tolable" with Uncle Bill's serenity unless he knew he had something the other fellow wanted.
Had he really got hold of something on his prospecting trip this summer? Had he sold? Was he selling? Did this account for Dill's presence and not the options? The chill at their hearts shot to their feet.
Mr. Dill tapped his pocket and lowered his voice—a futile precaution, for at the moment Ore City could have heard a "thousand legger" walk across the floor. "I've got the papers here," he said, "all ready to be signed up if every thing's as represented."
Ore City went limp but not too limp to strain their ears for Uncle Bill's reply.
"Yes," he drawled, "you want to take particular care that I ain't saltin' you. Give plenty of time to your examination. They's no great sweat; I wouldn't sign my name to an application for a fish license that you brought me until I'd had a good lawyer look it over first. As I promised you when you wrote me to open up that ledge, I'll give you the first shot at it, but don't try any funny business. I know now what I got, and I don't need you to help me handle it. I've never made it no secret, Wilbur, that I wouldn't trust you with a red-hot stove."
"I don't see why you should talk to me like this," Dill declared in an injured tone. "You can't point to a single thing I've done."
"I ain't got fingers enough," Uncle Bill said dryly, "and my toes is under cover. It's prob'ly slipped your mind that I was down in south'rn Oregon when you left between two suns; but tain't that"—his old eyes gleamed—"it's what you done last winter—goin' down there deliberate to jump Bruce Burt's claim."