"Ss-sh!" Mr. Dill hissed, not in resentment but in alarm as he glanced over his shoulder. "That's Burt's father." From the corner of his mouth—"I think he's got money."
Money! The word acted like a strychnia tablet upon Ore City's retarded circulation. Money! Warmth returned to its extremities. It looked at the object of these hopeful suspicions as though its many heads swung on a single neck. He was sitting by the stove in a suit of clothes that must have cost as much as fifteen dollars and he appeared as oblivious to their concentrated gaze as though he were alone in the middle of his ranch.
The strange female was still unaccounted for. Ore City had the tense, over-strained feeling of a spectator trying to watch all the acts in a triple-ringed circus. When she removed her outer wraps it was seen that she was not only young but, in Ore City's eyes, overpoweringly good-looking. Was she married? Every question paled beside this one. Surely—they looked at Uncle Bill contemptuously—even if he had struck something she would not marry that old codger.
When she walked to the stove to warm her hands if they had followed their impulses they would have jumped and run. The bravest among them dared not raise his eyes two inches above the bottom part of the stove-door though in each mind there was a wild groping for some light and airy nothing to show how much he felt at ease. Something which should be appropriate and respectful, yet witty.
And of course it must be Porcupine Jim who finally spoke.
"That's a hard stage ride, ma'am," he said deferentially. "Them jolts is enough to tear the linin' out of a lady. They does me up and I'm quite hearty."
Ore City blushed to the roots of its hair and there was murder in the eyes that turned on Jim. Didn't he know nothin'—that Swede?
They felt somewhat relieved when she laughed.
"It is rather bumpy but I enjoyed it. The mountains are wonderful, and the air, and everybody is so kind; it's a new world to me and I love it all!"
Ore City fairly purred. Was she married? There was a general movement—a surreptitious smoothing of back hair—an apologetic fumbling at the spot sacred to neckties. The judge buttoned up the two remaining buttons of his waistcoat. Lannigan concealed his hands.
The shadow of a grin flitted across John Burt's face, for he sometimes saw and heard more than was generally believed.
"If you was aimin' to stay any length of time, ma'am," Yankee Sam fished innocently, "we kin git up a picnic and show you somethin' of the country when the snow goes off. About three days' ride from here I know a real nice view."
Helen thanked him adequately and explained that she was not sure how long she would remain. "I should like to stay, though," she added, "long enough to see the boom."
Ore City sat up as if she had said, "bomb."
"By the way, I wonder, if Mr. Griswold is here?"
It was Uncle Bill then! He'd ought to be lynched. It was sickening the luck some people had.
Uncle Bill came forward wonderingly.
"Here I be."
Helen put out a friendly hand:
"You don't know me, of course, but I've heard a great deal about you."
"I'm most afraid to ask what it is, ma'am, for lyin' and stealin' is the only crimes I denies."
"I'll tell you when I know you better," Helen laughed, "because I hope we're going to be good friends."
He looked keenly into her face. "I wouldn't never look for any trouble between you and me, ma'am. Shake." He added with a smile: "I ain't got so many friends that I kin afford to turn one down."
"You'll have enough of them shortly," Helen smiled. "I know the world sufficiently well to be sure of that. I hope I'm the first to congratulate you on your good fortune. Mr. Dill has told me something of your luck. He says you're going to be the saviour of the camp."
"I been crucified a-plenty," Uncle Bill replied, with a significant look at Ore City sitting with its mouth agape, "but," modestly, "I wouldn't hardly like to go as far as to call myself that."
When Bruce was left alone in the gloomy canyon, where the winter sun at its best did not shine more than three hours in the twenty-four, he had wondered whether the days or nights would be the hardest to endure. It was now well into December, and still he did not know. They were equally intolerable.
During the storms which kept him inside he spent the days looking at the floor, the nights staring at the ceiling, springing sometimes to his feet burning with feverish energy, a maddening desire to do something—and there was nothing for him to do but wait. Moments would come when he felt that he could go out and conquer the world bare-handed but they quickly passed with a fresh realization of his helplessness, and he settled back to the inevitable.
It was folly to go out penniless—unarmed; he had learned that lesson in the East and his condition then had been affluence compared to this. He was doing the one thing that it was possible for him to do in the circumstances—to get money enough to go outside.
"Slim" had brought a collection of traps down the river from Meadows, and Bruce had set these out. So far he had been rather lucky and the pile of skins in the corner was growing—lynx, cougar, marten, mink—but it still was not high enough.
If Bruce had been less sensitive, more world-hardened, his failure would not have seemed such a crushing, unbearable thing, but alone in the killing monotony he brooded over the money he had sunk for other people until it seemed like a colossal disgrace for which there was no excuse and that he could never live down. In his bitter condemnation of himself for his inexperience, his ill-judged magnanimity, he felt as though his was an isolated case—that no human being ever had made such mistakes before.
But it was thoughts of Helen that always gave his misery its crowning touch. She pitied him, no doubt, because, she was kind, but in her heart he felt she must despise him for a weakling—a braggart who could not make good his boasts. She needed him, too,—he was sure of it—and lack of money made him as helpless to aid her as though he were serving a jail sentence. When, in the night, his mind began running along this line he could no longer stay in his bunk; and not once, but many times, he got up and dressed and went outside, stumbling around in the brush, over the rocks—anything to change his thoughts.
He tried his utmost to put her out of his mind, yet as he plodded on his snow-shoes, along his fifteen-mile trap line, either actively or subconsciously his thoughts were of her. He could no longer imagine himself feeling anything more than a mild interest in any other woman. He loved her with the same concentration of affection that he had loved his mother.
Bruce had formed the habit of wondering what she would think of this and that—of imagining how she would look—what she would say—and so all through the summer she had been associated with the work. He had anticipated the time when he should be showing her the rapids with the moonlight shining on the foam, the pink and amber sunsets behind the umbrella tree, and when the wind blew among the pines of listening with her to the sounds that were like Hawaiian music in the distance.
Now, try as he would, he could not rid himself of the habit, and, as he pushed his way among the dark underbrush of creeks, he was always thinking that she, too, would love that "woodsy" smell; that she, too, would find delight in the frozen waterfalls and the awesome stillness of the snow-laden pines.
But just so often as he allowed his imagination rein, just so often he came back to earth doubly heavy-hearted, for the chance that she would ever share his pleasure in these things seemed to grow more remote as the days went by.
Bruce had built himself a shelter at the end of his trap-line that consisted merely of poles and pine boughs leaned against a rim-rock. Under this poor protection, wrapped in a blanket, with his feet toward the fire at the entrance and his back against the wall, he spent many a wretched night. Sometimes he dozed a little, but mostly wide-eyed, he counted the endless hours waiting for the dawn.
During the summer when things had continually gone wrong Bruce had found some comfort in recounting the difficulties which his hero of the Calumet and Hecla had gone through in the initial stages of the development of that great mine. But that time had passed, for, while Alexander Agassiz had had his struggles, Bruce told himself with a shadowy smile, he never had been up against a deal like this! there was no record that he ever had had to lie out under a rim-rock when the thermometer stood twenty and twenty-five below.
In the long, soundless nights that had the cold stillness of infinite space, Bruce always had the sensation of being the only person in the universe. He felt alone upon the planet. Facts became hazy myths, truths merely hallucinations, nothing seemed real, actual, except that if he slept too long and the fire went out he would freeze to death under the rim-rock.
It was only when he dropped down from the peaks and ridges and began to follow his own steps back, that he returned to reality and things seemed as they are again. Then it was not so hard to believe that over beyond that high, white range there were other human beings—happy people, successful people, people with plenty to read and plenty to do, people who looked forward with pleasure, not dread, to the days as they came.
He was so lonely that he always felt a little elated when he came across an elk track in the snow. It was evidence that something was stirring in the world beside himself.
One day three deer came within thirty feet of him and stared.
"I suppose," he mused, "they're wondering what I am? Dog-gone!" with savage cynicism. "I'm wondering that myself."
Whatever small portion of his spirits he had recovered by exercise and success at his traps, always disappeared again on his return down Big Squaw Creek. To pass the head-gate and the flume gave him an acute pang, while the high trestle which represented so much toil and sweat, hurt him like a stab. It seemed unbelievable that he could fail after all that work!
When he passed the power-house with its nailed windows and doors he turned his head the other way. It was like walking by a graveyard where some one was sleeping that he loved.
Bruce always had been peculiarly depressed by abandoned homesteads, deserted cabins, machinery left to rust, because they represented wasted efforts, failure, but when these monuments to dead hopes were his own! His quickened footsteps sometimes became very nearly like a run.
It was from such a trip that Bruce came back to his cabin after two days' absence more than ordinarily heavy-hearted, if that were possible, though his luck had been unusually good. He had a cougar, one lynx, and six dark marten. Counting the State bounty on the cougar, the green skins be brought back represented close to a hundred dollars. At that rate he soon could go "outside."
But to-night the thought did not elate him. What was there for him outside? What was there for him anywhere? As he had trudged along the trail through the broken snow, the gloom of the canyon had weighed upon him heavily, but it was the chill silence in the bare cabin when he opened the door that put the finishing touches upon his misery. The emptiness of it echoed in his heart.
The blankets were in a mound in the bunk; he had been too disheartened before he left even to sweep the floor; the ashes over-flowed the stove hearth and there was no wood split. The soiled dishes, caked with hardened grease, made him sick. The chimney of the lamp he lighted was black with smoke. It was the last word in cheerlessness, and there was no reason to think, Bruce told himself, that it would not be in such surroundings that he would end his days. He was tired, hungry; his vitality and spirits were at low ebb.
He warmed over a pan of biscuits and cold bacon and threw a handful of coffee in the dismal looking coffee pot. When it was ready he placed it on the clammy oilcloth and sat down. He eyed the food for a moment—the ever-present bacon, the sticky can of condensed milk, the black coffee in the tin cup, the biscuits covered with protuberances that made them look like a panful of horned toads. He realized suddenly that, hungry as he had thought himself, he could not eat.
With a sweeping, vehement gesture he pushed it all from him. The tin cup upset and a small waterfall of coffee splashed upon the floor, the can of condensed milk rolled across the table and fell off but he did not pick it up. Instead, he folded his arms upon the oilcloth in the space he had made and dropping his forehead upon his ragged shirt-sleeve, he cried. Bruce had hit bottom.
Older, wiser, braver men than Bruce have cried in some crisis of their lives. Tears are no sign of weakness. And they did not come now because he was quitting—because he did not mean to struggle on somehow or because there was anything or anybody of whom he was afraid. It was only that he was lonely, heartsick, humiliated, weary of thinking, bruised with defeat.
These tears were different from the ready tears of childhood, different from the last he had shed upon his dead mother's unresponsive shoulder; these came slowly—smarting, stinging as they rose. His shoulders moved but he made no sound.
* * * * *
A little way from the cabin where the steep trail from Ore City dropped off the mountain to the sudden flatness of the river bar, some dead branches cracked and a horse fell over a fallen log, upsetting the toboggan that it dragged and taking Uncle Bill with it. Helen hurried to the place where he was trying to extricate himself from the tangle.
"Are you dead, Uncle Bill?"
"Can't say—I never died before. Say," in a querulous whisper as he helped the floundering horse up—"Why don't you notice where you're goin'? Here you come down the mountain like you had fur on your feet, and the minute I gits you where I wants you to be quiet you make more noise nor a cow-elk goin' through the brush. How you feelin', ma'am?" to Helen. "I expect you're about beat."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Uncle Bill, but I'm not. You tried so hard to keep me from coming I don't think I'd tell you if I was."
"You wouldn't have to—I reckon I'd find it out before we'd gone far. I've noticed that when a lady is tired or hungry she gits powerful cross."
"Where did you learn so much about women?"
"I've picked up considerable knowledge of the female disposition from wranglin' dudes. A bald-face bear with cubs is a reg'lar streak of sunshine compared to a lady-dude I had out campin' once—when she got tired or hungry, or otherwise on the peck. Her and me got feelin' pretty hos-tile toward each other 'fore we quit.
"I didn't so much mind packin' warm water mornin's for her to wash her face, or buttonin' her waist up the back, or changin' her stirrups every few miles or gittin' off to see if it was a fly on her horse's stummick that made him switch his tail, but I got so weak I couldn't hardly set in the saddle from answerin' questions and tryin' to laugh at her jokes.
"'Say,' says she, 'ain't you got no sense of humor?' atter I'd let out somethin' between a groan and a squeal. 'I had,' I says, ''till I was shot in the head.' 'Shot in the head! Why didn't it kill you?' 'The bullet struck a bolt, ma'am, and glanced off.' We rode seven hours that day without speakin' and 'twere the only enjoyable time I had. Dudin' wouldn't be a bad business," Uncle Bill added judicially, "if it weren't for answerin' questions and listenin' to their second-hand jokes. Generally they're smart people when they're on their home range and sometimes they turns out good friends."
"Like Sprudell." Helen suggested mischievously.
"Sprudell!" The old man's eyes blazed and he fairly jumped at the sound of the name. "I ain't blood-thirsty and I never bore that reputation but if I had knowed as much about that feller as I know now he'd a slept in that there snow-bank until spring.
"You know, ma'am," Uncle Bill went on solemnly while he cast an eye back up the trail for Burt who had fallen behind, "when a feller's drunk or lonesome he's allus got some of a dream that he dreams of what he'd do if he got rich. Sometimes its a hankerin' to travel, or be State Senator, or have a whole bunch of bananny's hangin' up in the house to onct. I knowed an old feller that died pinin' for a briled lobster with his last breath. Since I read that piece about sobbin' out my gratitude on Sprudell's broad chest it's woke a new ambition in me. Every time I gits about three fingers of 'cyanide' from the Bucket o' Blood under my belt I sees pictures of myself gittin' money enough together to go back to Bartlesville, Indianny, and lick him every day, reg'lar, or jest as often as I kin pay my fine, git washed up, and locate him agin." Uncle Bill added reflectively:
"If this deal with Dill goes through without any hitch, I'd ort to be able to start about the first of the month."
"When you get through with him," Helen laughed, "I'll review the book he's publishing at his own expense. Here comes Mr. Burt; he looks fagged out."
"These plains fellers are never any good on foot," Uncle Bill commented as Burt caught up. "Now," to Burt and Helen, "I'll jest hold this war-horse back while you two go on ahead. Down there's his light."
There was eagerness in Burt's voice as he said:
"Yes, I'd like to have a look at him before he knows we're here. I'm curious to see how he lives—what he does to pass the time."
"I hope as how you won't ketch him in the middle of a wild rannicaboo of wine, women and song," Uncle Bill suggested dryly. "Bachin' in the winter twenty miles from a neighbor is about the most dissipatin' life I know. There must be somethin' goin' on this evenin' or he wouldn't be settin' up after it's dark under the table."
"I'm so excited I'm shaking." Helen declared. "My teeth are almost chattering. I'm so afraid he'll hear us. That will spoil the surprise."
But Bruce had not heard. In complete abandonment to his wretchedness he was still sitting at the table with his head upon his arm. So it was that his father saw him after fifteen years.
When he had thought of Bruce it was always as he had seen him that day through the window of the prairie ranch house—his head thrown back in stubborn defiance, his black eyes full of the tears of childish anger and hurt pride, running bare-footed and bare-headed down the dusty road—running, as he realized afterward, out of his life.
He had bitterly imagined that his son was prospering somewhere, with a wife and children of his own, too indifferent in his contentment and success to bother with his old Dad; and the picture had hardened his heart.
His own life had been no bed of roses—no pioneer's was—and he, too, had known loneliness, hardships, but never anything like this. His shrewd face, deep-seamed and weather-beaten by the suns and snows of many years, worked. Then he straightened his shoulders, stooped from years of riding, and the black eyes under their thick eyebrows flashed.
"So this was that Sprudell fellow's work, was it? He was trying to freeze Bruce out, down him because he thought he had no backing—break him on the rack!" His teeth shut hard and the fingers inside his mittens clenched. "There were people in the world who thought they could treat Bruce like that—and get away with it? Annie's boy—his son! Not yet, by God, not while steers were bringing nine-sixty on the hoof."
Burt strode around the corner and threw the door back wide.
"Bruce! Bruce! You mustn't feel so bad!" Excitement made his voice sound harsh, but there was no mistaking the sympathy intended or the yearning in his face.
Bruce jumped, startled, to his feet and stared, his vision dimmed by the smarting tears. Was it a ghost—was he, too, getting "queer?"
"Haven't you anything to say to me, Bruce?"
There was an odd timidity in his father's voice but it was real enough—it was no hallucination. Simultaneous with the relief the thought flashed through Bruce's mind that his father had seen him through the window in his moment of weakness and despair. His features stiffened and with a quick, shamed movement he brushed his eyes with the back of his hand while his eyes flashed pride and resentment.
"I said all I had to say fifteen years ago when you refused me the chance to make something of myself. If I'd had an education nobody could have made a fool of me like this." His voice vibrated with mingled bitterness and mortification.
"I suppose you've heard all about it and come to say—'I told you so.'"
"I've come to see you through."
"You're too late; I'm down and out." In Bruce's voice Burt recognized his own harsh tones. "You've got nothing that I want now; you might as well go back." His black eyes were relentless—hard.
"Won't you shake hands with me, Bruce?" There was pleading in his voice as he took a step toward his son. Bruce did not stir, and Burt added with an effort: "It ain't so easy as you might think for me to beg like this."
"I begged, too, but it didn't do any good."
"I've come twenty miles—on foot—to tell you that I'm sorry. I'm not young any more, Bruce. I'm an old man—and you're all I've got in the world."
An old man! The words startled Bruce—shocked him. He never had thought of his father as old, or lonely, but always as tireless, self-centred, self-sufficient, absorbed heart and soul in getting rich. He seemed suddenly to see the bent shoulders, the graying hair and eyebrows, the furrows and deep, drooping lines about the mouth that had not been engraved by happiness. There was something forlorn, pathetic about him as he stood there with his hand out asking for forgiveness. And he had plodded through the snow—twenty miles—on foot to see him!
The blood that is thicker than water stirred, and the tugging at his heart strings grew too hard to withstand. He unfolded his arms and stretched out a hand impulsively—"Father!" Then both—"Dad!" he cried.
"My boy!" There was a catch in the old man's voice, misty eyes looked into misty eyes and fifteen years of bitterness vanished as father and son clasped hands.
When Burt could speak he looked at Bruce quizzically and said, "I thought you'd be married by this time, Bruce."
"Married! What right has a Failure to get married?"
"That's no way to talk. What's one slip-up, or two, or three? Nobody's a failure till he's dead. Confidence comes from success, but, let me tell you, boy, practical knowledge comes from jolts."
"Dog-gone! I ought to be awful wise," Bruce answered ironically. "Yes," sobering. "I've learned something—I'm not liable to make the same mistake twice." He added ruefully: "Nor, by the same token, am I likely to have the chance. I suppose I've got the reputation of being something midway between an idiot and a thief."
Burt seemed to consider.
"Well, now, I can't recall that the person who engineered this trip for me used any such names as that. As near as I could make out she was somewhat prejudiced on your side."
"She? Not 'Ma' Snow!"
Burt's eyes twinkled as he shook his head.
"No," drily, "not 'Ma' Snow. She's an estimable lady but I doubt if she could talk me into comin' on a tour like this in winter."
A wonderful light dawned suddenly in Bruce's eyes.
"—Helen. I'm feelin' well enough acquainted with her now to call her Helen. Whatever else we disagree on, Bruce, it looks as though we had the same taste when it comes to girls."
"You know her?" Bruce's tone was as incredulous as his face.
Burt answered with a wry smile:
"After you've ridden on the back seat of that Beaver Creek stage with a person and bumped heads every fifteen feet for a hundred miles, you're not apt to feel like strangers when you get in."
Bruce almost shouted—
"She's in Ore City!"
Bruce fell back into his old attitude at the table, but his father stepped quickly to the door and an instant later threw it open. At his side was Helen—with outstretched arms and face aglow, her eyes shining happily.
Bruce had not known that great and sudden joy could make a person dizzy, but the walls, the floor, everything, seemed to waver as he leaped to his feet.
"I was sure you wouldn't turn your own partner out of doors!" Her lips parted in the smile that he loved and though he could not speak he went toward her with outstretched arms.
Passing the window, Uncle Bill stopped and stood for a second looking into the light.
"Hells catoots!" he muttered gruffly, "Seems like sometimes in this world things happen as they ort." And then, Ore City to the contrary, he demonstrated that he had both presence of mind and tact, for he shouted to Burt in a voice that would have carried a mile on a still night—"Hi! Old Man! Come out and help me with this horse. Sounds like he's down agin and chokin' hisself."
* * * * * *
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