COPPER STREAK TRAIL
EUGENE MANLOVE RHODES
Author of Stepsons Of Light, Good Men And True, West Is West, etc.
TO THE READER OF THIS BOOK FROM ONE WHO SAW LIFE UNSTEADILY AND IN PART
The stage line swung aside in a huge half-circle, rounding the northern end of the Comobabi Range and swinging far out to skirt the foothills. Mr. Peter Johnson had never been to Silverbell: his own country lay far to the north, beyond the Gila. But he knew that Silverbell was somewhere east of the Comobabi, not north; and confidently struck out to find a short cut through the hills. From Silverbell a spur of railroad ran down to Redrock. Mr. Johnson's thought was to entrain himself for Tucson.
The Midnight horse reached along in a brisk, swinging walk, an optimistic walk, good for four miles an hour. He had held that gait since three o'clock in the morning, with an hour off for water and breakfast at Smith's Wells, the first stage station out from Cobre; it was now hot noon by a conscientious sun—thirty-six miles. But Midnight did not care. For hours their way had been through a trackless plain of uncropped salt grass, or grama, on the rising slopes: now they were in a country of worn and freshly traveled trails: wise Midnight knew there would be water and nooning soon. Already they had seen little bands of horses peering down at them from the high knolls on their right.
Midnight wondered if they were to find sweet water or alkali. Sweet, likely, since it was in the hills; Midnight was sure he hoped so. The best of these wells in the plains were salt and brackish. Privately, Midnight preferred the Forest Reserve. It was a pleasant, soft life in these pinewood pastures. Even if it was pretty dull for a good cow-horse after the Free Range, it was easier on old bones. And though Midnight was not insensible to the compliment Pete had paid him by picking him from the bunch for these long excursions to the Southland deserts, he missed the bunch.
They had been together a long time, the bunch; Pete had brought them from the Block Ranch, over in New Mexico. They were getting on in years, and so was Pete. Midnight mused over his youthful days—the dust, the flashing horns, the shouting and the excitement of old round-ups.
It is a true telling that thoughts in no way unlike these buzzed in the rider's head as a usual thing. But to-day he had other things to think of.
With Kid Mitchell, his partner, Pete had lately stumbled upon a secret of fortune—a copper hill; a warty, snubby little gray hill in an insignificant cluster of little gray hills. But this one, and this one only, precariously crusted over with a thin layer of earth and windblown sand, was copper, upthrust by central fires; rich ore, crumbling, soft; a hill to be loaded, every yard of it, into cars yet unbuilt, on a railroad yet undreamed-of, save by these two lucky adventurers.
They had blundered upon their rich find by pure chance. For in the southwest, close upon the Mexican border, in the most lonesome corner of the most lonesome county of thinly settled Arizona, turning back from a long and fruitless prospecting trip, they had paused for one last, half-hearted venture. One idle stroke of the pick in a windworn bare patch had turned up—this!
So Pete Johnson's thoughts were of millions; not without a queer feeling that he wouldn't have the least idea what to do with them, and that he was parting with something in his past, priceless, vaguely indefinable: a sharing and acceptance of the common lot, a brotherhood with the not fortunate.
Riding to the northwest, Pete's broad gray sombrero was tilted aside to shelter from the noonday sun a russet face, crinkled rather than wrinkled, and dusty. His hair, thinning at the temples, vigorous at the ears, was crisply white. A short and lately trimmed mustache held a smile in ambush; above it towered such a nose as Wellington loved.
It was broad at the base; deep creases ran from the corners of it, flanking the white mustache, to a mouth strong, full-lipped and undeniably large, ready alike for laughter or for sternness.
The nose—to follow the creases back again—was fleshy and beaked at the tip; it narrowed at the level bridge and broadened again where it joined the forehead, setting the eyes well apart. The eyes themselves were blue, just a little faded—for the man was sixty-two—and there were wind-puckers at the corners of them. But they were keen eyes, steady, sparkling and merry eyes, for all that; they were deep-set and long, and they sloped a trifle, high on the inside corners; pent in by pepper-and-salt brows, bushy, tufted and thick, roguishly aslant from the outer corners up to where they all but met above the Wellingtonian nose. A merry face, a forceful face: Pete was a little man, five feet seven, and rather slender than otherwise; but no one, in view of that face, ever thought of him as a small man or an old one.
The faint path merged with another and another, the angles of convergence giving the direction of the unknown water hole; they came at last to the main trail, a trunk line swollen by feeders from every ridge and arroyo. It bore away to the northeast, swerving, curving to pitch and climb in faultless following of the rule of roads—the greatest progress with the least exertion. Your cow is your best surveyor.
They came on the ranch suddenly, rounding a point into a small natural amphitheater. A flat-roofed dugout, fronted with stone, was built into the base of a boulder-piled hill; the door was open. Midnight perked his black head jauntily and slanted an ear.
High overhead, a thicket of hackberry and arrow-weed overhung the little valley. From this green tangle a pipe line on stilts broke away and straddled down a headlong hill. Frost was unknown; the pipe was supported by forked posts of height assorted to need, an expedient easier than ditching that iron hillside. The water discharged into a fenced and foursquare earthen reservoir; below it was a small corral of cedar stakes; through the open gate, as he rode by, Pete saw a long watering-trough with a float valve. Before the dugout stood a patriarchal juniper, in the shade of which two saddled horses stood droop-hipped, comfortably asleep. Waking, as Pete drew near, they adjusted their disarray in some confusion and eyed the newcomers with bright-eyed inquiry. Midnight, tripping by, hailed them with a civil little whinny.
A tall, heavy man upreared himself from the shade. His example was followed by another man, short and heavy. Blankets were spread on a tarpaulin beyond them.
"'Light, stranger," said the tall man heartily. "Unsaddle and eat a small snack. We was just taking a little noonday nap for ourselves."
"Beans, jerky gravy, and bread," announced the short man, waiter fashion. "I'll hot up the coffee."
With the word he fed little sticks and splinters to a tiny fire, now almost burned out, near the circumference of that shaded circle.
"Yes, to all that; thank you," said Pete, slipping off.
He loosened the cinches; so doing he caught from the corner of his eye telegraphed tidings, as his two hosts rolled to each other a single meaningful glance, swift, furtive, and white-eyed. Observing which, every faculty of Pete Johnson's mind tensed, fiercely alert, braced to attention.
"Now what? Some more of the same. Lights out! Protect yourself!" he thought, taking off the saddle. Aloud he said:
"One of Zurich's ranches, isn't it? I saw ZK burned on the gateposts."
He passed his hand along Midnight's sweaty back for possible bruise or scald; he unfolded the Navajo saddle blanket and spread it over the saddle to dry. He took the sudaderos—the jute sweatcloths under the Navajo—and draped them over a huge near-by boulder in the sun, carefully smoothing them out to prevent wrinkles; to all appearance without any other care on earth.
"Yes; horse camp," said the tall man. "Now you water the black horse and I'll dig up a bait of corn for him. Wash up at the trough."
"Puesto que si!" said Pete.
He slipped the bit out of Midnight's mouth, pushing the headstall back on the sleek black neck by way of lead rope, and they strode away to the water pen, side by side.
When they came back a nose-bag, full of corn, stood ready near the fire. Pete hung this on Midnight's head. Midnight munched contentedly, with half-closed eyes, and Pete turned to the fire.
"Was I kidding myself?" he inquired. "Or did somebody mention the name of grub?"
"Set up!" grinned the tall man, kicking a small box up beside a slightly larger one, which served as a table. "Nothing much to eat but food. Canned truck all gone."
The smaller host poured coffee. Pete considered the boxes.
"You didn't pack these over here?" he asked, prodding the table with his boot-toe to elucidate his meaning. "And yet I didn't see no wheel marks as I come along."
"Fetch 'em from Silverbell. We got a sort of wagon track through the hills. Closer than Cobre. Some wagon road in the rough places! Snakes thick on the east side; but they don't never get over here. Break their backs comin' through the gap. Yes, sir!"
"Then I'll just june along in the cool of the evenin'," observed Pete, ladling out a second helping of jerked venison. "I can follow your wagon tracks into town. I ain't never been to Silverbell. Was afraid I might miss it in the dark. How far is it? About twenty mile, I reckon?"
"Just about. Shucks! I was in hopes you'd stay overnight with us. Bill and me, we ain't seen no one since Columbus crossed the Delaware in fourteen-ninety-two. Can't ye, now?" urged the tall man coaxingly. "We'll pitch horseshoes—play cards if you want to; only Bill and me's pretty well burnt out at cards. Fox and geese too—ever play fox and geese? We got a dandy fox-and-goose board—but Bill, he natcherly can't play. He's from California, Bill is."
"Aw, shut up on that!" growled Bill.
"Sorry," said Pete, "I'm pushed. Got to go on to-night. Want to take that train at seven-thirty in the morning, and a small sleep for myself before that. Maybe I'll stop over as I come back, though. Fine feed you got here. Makes a jim-darter of a horse camp."
"Yes, 'tis. We aim to keep the cattle shoved off so we can save the grass for the saddle ponies."
"Must have quite a bunch?"
"'Bout two hundred. Well, sorry you can't stay with us. We was fixin' to round up what cows had drifted in and give 'em a push back to the main range this afternoon. But they'll keep. We'll stick round camp; and you stay as late as you can, stranger, and we'll stir up something. I'll tell you what, Bill—we'll pull off that shootin' match you was blowin' about." The tall man favored Johnson with a confidential wink. "Bill, he allows he can shoot right peart. Bill's from California."
Bill, the short man, produced a gray-and-yellow tobacco sack and extracted a greasy ten-dollar greenback, which he placed on the box table at Johnson's elbow.
"Cover that, durn you! You hold stakes, stranger. I'll show him California. Humph! Dam' wall-eyed Tejano!"
"I'm a Texan myself," twinkled Johnson.
"What if you are? You ain't wall-eyed, be you? And you ain't been makin' no cracks at California—not to me. But this here Jim—look at the white-eyed, tow-headed grinnin' scoundrel, will you?—Say, are you goin' to cover that X or are you goin' to crawfish?"
"Back down? You peevish little sawed-off runt!" yelped Jim. "I been lettin' you shoot off your head so's you'll be good and sore afterward. I always wanted a piece of paper money any way—for a keepsake. You wait!"
He went into the cabin and returned with a tarnished gold piece and a box of forty-five cartridges.
"Here, stakeholder!" he said to Johnson.
Then, to Bill: "Now, then, old Californy—you been all swelled-up and stumping me for quite some time. Show us what you got!"
It was an uncanny exhibition of skill that followed. These men knew how to handle a sixshooter. They began with tin cans at ten yards, thirty, fifty—and hit them. They shot at rolling cans, and hit them; at high-thrown cans, and hit them; at cards nailed to hitching-posts; then at the pips of cards. Neither man could boast of any advantage. The few and hairbreadth misses of the card pips, the few blanks at the longer ranges, fairly offset each other. The California man took a slightly crouching attitude, his knees a little bent; held his gun at his knee; raising an extended and rigid arm to fire. The Texan stood erect, almost on tiptoe, bareheaded; he swung his gun ear-high above his shoulder, looking at his mark alone, and fired as the gun flashed down. The little California man made the cleaner score at the very long shots and in clipping the pips of the playing cards; the Texan had a shade the better at the flying targets, his bullets ranging full-center where the other barely grazed the cans.
"I don't see but what I'll have to keep this money. You've shot away all the cartridges in your belts and most of the box, and it hasn't got you anywheres," observed Pete Johnson pensively. "Better let your guns cool off. You boys can't beat each other shooting. You do right well, too, both of you. If you'd only started at it when you was young, I reckon you'd both have been what you might call plumb good shots now."
He shook his head sadly and suppressed a sigh.
"Wait!" advised the Texan, and turned to confront his partner. "You make out quite tol'lable with a gun, Billiam," he conceded. "I got to hand it to you. I judged you was just runnin' a windy. But have you now showed all your little box of tricks?"
"Well, I haven't missed anything—not to speak of—no more than you did," evaded Bill, plainly apprehensive. "What more do you want?"
"Pausin' lightly to observe that it ought to be easy enough to best you, if we was on horseback—just because you peek at your sights when you shoot—I shall now show you something."
A chuck box was propped against the juniper trunk. From this the Texan produced a horseshoe hammer and the lids from two ten-pound lard pails. He strode over to where, ten yards away, two young cedars grew side by side, and nailed a lid to each tree, shoulder-high.
"There!" he challenged his opponent. "We ain't either of us going to miss such a mark as that—it's like putting your finger on it. But suppose the tree was shooting back? Time is what counts then. Now, how does this strike you? You take the lid on the left and I'll take the other. When the umpire says Go! we'll begin foggin'—and the man that scores six hits quickest gets the money. That's fair, isn't it, Johnson?"
This was a slip—Johnson had not given his name—a slip unnoticed by either of the ZK men, but not by Johnson.
"Fair enough, I should say," he answered.
"Why, Jim, that ain't practical—that ain't!" protested Bill uneasily. "You was talking about the tree a-shootin' back—but one shot will stop most men, let alone six. What's the good of shootin' a man all to pieces?"
"Suppose there was six men?"
"Then they get me, anyway. Wouldn't they, Mr. Umpire?" he appealed to Peter Johnson, who sat cross-legged and fanned himself with his big sombrero.
"That don't make any difference," decided the umpire promptly. "To shoot straight and quickest—that's bein' a good shot. Line up!"
Bill lined up, unwillingly enough; they stuffed their cylinders with cartridges.
"Don't shoot till I say: One, two, three—go!" admonished Pete. "All set? One—two—three—go!"
A blending, crackling roar, streaked red and saffron, through black smoke: the Texan's gun flashed down and up and back, as a man snaps his fingers against the frost; he tossed his empty gun through the sunlight to the bed under the juniper tree and spread out his hands. Bill was still firing—one shot—two!
"Judgment!" shouted the Texan and pointed. Six bullet holes were scattered across his target, line shots, one above the other; and poor Bill, disconcerted, had missed his last shot!
"Jim, I guess the stuff is yours," said Bill sheepishly.
The big Texan retrieved his gun from the bed and Pete gave him the stakes. He folded the bill lovingly and tucked it away; but he flipped the coin from his thumb, spinning in the sun, caught it as it fell, and glanced askant at old Pete.
"How long ago did you say it was when you began shootin'?" He voiced the query with exceeding politeness and inclined his head deferentially. "Or did you say?"
Pete pondered, pushing his hand thoughtfully through his white hair.
"Oh, I began tryin' when I was about ten years old, or maybe seven. It's been so long ago I scarcely remember. But I didn't get to be what you might call a fair shot till about the time you was puttin' on your first pair of pants," he said sweetly. "There was a time, though, before that—when I was about the age you are now—when I really thought I could shoot. I learned better."
A choking sound came from Bill; Jim turned his eyes that way. Bill coughed hastily. Jim sent the gold piece spinning again.
"I'm goin' to keep Bill's tenspot—always," he announced emotionally. "I'll never, never part with that! But this piece of money—" He threw it up again. "Why, stranger, you might just as well have that as not. Bill can be stakeholder and give us the word. There's just six cartridges left in the box for me."
Peter Johnson smiled brightly, disclosing a row of small, white, perfect teeth. He got to his feet stiffly and shook his aged legs; he took out his gun, twirled the cylinder, and slipped in an extra cartridge.
"I always carry the hammer on an empty chamber—safer that way," he explained.
He put the gun back in the holster, dug up a wallet, and produced a gold piece for the stakeholder.
"You'd better clean your gun, young man," he said. "It must be pretty foul by now."
Jim followed this advice, taking ten minutes for the operation. Meantime the Californian replaced the targets with new ones—old tin dinner plates this time—and voiced a philosophical regret over his recent defeat. The Texas man, ready at last, took his place beside Pete and raised his gun till the butt of it was level with his ear, the barrel pointing up and back. Johnson swung up his heavy gun in the same fashion.
"Ready?" bawled Bill. "All right! One—two—three—go!"
Johnson's gun leaped forward, blazing; his left hand slapped back along the barrel, once, twice; pivoting, his gun turned to meet Bill, almost upon him, hands outstretched. Bill recoiled; Pete stepped aside a pace—all this at once. The Texan dropped his empty gun and turned.
"You win," said Pete gently.
Not understanding yet, triumph faded from the Texan's eyes at that gentle tone. He looked at the target; he looked at Bill, who stood open-mouthed and gasping; then he looked at the muzzle of Mr. Johnson's gun. His face flushed red, and then became almost black. Mr. Johnson held the gun easily at his hip, covering both his disarmed companions: Mr. Johnson's eyebrows were flattened and his mouth was twisted.
"It's loaded!" croaked Bill in a horrified voice. "The skunk only shot once!"
Peter corrected him:
"Three times. I fanned the hammer. Look at the target!"
Bill looked at the target; his jaw dropped again; his eyes protruded. There were three bullet holes, almost touching each other, grouped round the nail in the center of Pete's tin plate.
"Well, I'm just damned!" he said. "I'll swear he didn't shoot but once."
"That's fannin' the hammer, Shorty," drawled Pete. "Ever hear of that? Well, now you've seen it. When you practice it, hold your elbow tight against your ribs to steady your gun while you slap the hammer back. For you, Mr. Jim—I see you've landed your six shots; but some of 'em are mighty close to the edge of your little old plate. Poor shootin'! Poor shootin'! You ought to practice more. As for speed, I judge I can do six shots while you're making four. But I thought I'd best not—to-day. Son, pick up your gun, and get your money from Shorty."
Mr. Jim picked up his gun and threw out the empty shells. He glared savagely at Mr. Johnson, now seated happily on his saddle.
"If I just had hold of you—you benched-legged hound! Curse your soul, what do you mean by it?" snarled Jim.
"Oh, I was just a-thinkin'," responded Pete lightly. "Thinkin' how helpless I'd be with you two big huskies, here with my gun empty. Don't snicker, Bill! That's rude of you. Your pardner's feeling plenty bad enough without that. He looks it. Mr. Bill, I'll bet a blue shirt you told the Jim-person to wait and see if I wouldn't take a little siesta, and you'd get me whilst I was snoozing. You lose, then. I never sleep. Tex, for the love of Mike, do look at Bill's face; and Bill, you look at Mr. Jim, from Texas! Guilty as charged! Your scheme, was it, Texas? And Shorty Bill, he told you so? Why, you poor toddling innocents, you won't never prosper as crooks! Your faces are too honest.
"And that frame-up of yours—oh, that was a loo-loo bird! Livin' together and didn't know which was the best shot—likely! And every tin can in sight shot full of holes and testifyin' against you! Think I'm blind, hey? Even your horses give you away. Never batted an eyelash durin' that whole cannonade. They've been hearin' forty-fives pretty reg'lar, them horses have."
"I notice your old black ain't much gun-shy, either," ventured Bill.
"See here—you!" said the big Texan. "You talk pretty biggity. It's mighty easy to run a whizzer when you've got the only loaded gun in camp. If I had one damned cartridge left it would be different."
"Never mind," said Johnson kindly. "I'll give you one!"
Rising, he twirled the cylinder of his gun and extracted his three cartridges. He threw one far down the hillslope; he dropped one on the ground beside him; he tossed the last one in the sand at the Texan's feet.
Jim, from Texas, looked at the cartridge without animation; he looked into Pete Johnson's frosty eyes; he kicked the cartridge back.
"I lay 'em down right here," he stated firmly. "I like a damned fool; but you suit me too well."
He stalked away toward his horse with much dignity. He stopped halfway, dropped upon a box, pounded his thigh and gave way to huge and unaffected laughter; in which Bill joined a moment later.
"Oh, you little bandy-legged old son-of-a-gun!" Jim roared. "You crafty, wily, cunnin' old fox! I'm for you! Of all the holy shows, you've made Bill and me the worst—'specially me. 'There, there!' you says, consolin' me up like I was a kid with a cracked jug. 'There, there! Never mind—I'll give you one!' Deah, oh, deah! I'll never be able to keep this still—never in the world. I'm bound to tell it on myself!" He wiped tears from his eyes and waved his hand helplessly. "Take the ranch, stranger. She's yours. I wouldn't touch you if you was solid gold and charges prepaid."
"Oh, don't make a stranger of me!" begged Pete. "You was callin' me by the name of Johnson half an hour ago. Forgot yourself, likely."
"Did I?" said Jim indifferently. "No odds. You've got my number, anyway. And I thought we was so devilish sly!"
"Well, boys, thank you for the dinner and all; but I'd best be jogging. Got to catch that train."
Knitting his brows reflectively he turned a questioning eye upon his hosts. But Shorty Bill took the words from his mouth.
"I'm like Jim: I've got a-plenty," he said. "But there's a repeating rifle in the shack, if you don't want to risk us. You can leave it at Silverbell for us if you want to—at the saloon. And we can ride off the other way, so you'll be sure."
"Maybe that'll be best—considerin'," said Pete. "I'll leave the gun."
"See here, Johnson," said Jim stiffly. "We've thrown 'em down, fair and square. I think you might trust us."
Pete scratched his head in some perplexity.
"I think maybe I might if it was only myself to think of. But I'm representing another man's interest too. I ain't takin' no chances."
"Yes—I noticed you was one of them prudent guys," murmured Jim.
Pete ignored the interruption.
"So, not rubbin' it in or anything, we'd best use Bill's plan. You lads hike off back the way I come, and I'll take your rifle and drag it. So long! Had a good time with you."
"Adios!" said Bill, swinging into the saddle.
"Hold on, Bill! Give Johnson back his money," said Jim.
"Oh, you keep it. You won it fair. I didn't go to the finish."
"Look here—what do you think I am? You take this money, or I'll be sore as a boil. There! So long, old hand! Be good!" He spurred after Bill.
Mr. Johnson brought the repeater from the dugout and saddled old Midnight. As he pulled the cinches tight, he gazed regretfully at his late companions, sky-lined as they topped a rise.
"There!" said Mr. Johnson with conviction. "There goes a couple of right nice boys!"
The immemorial traditions of Old Spain, backed by the counsel of a brazen sun, made a last stand against the inexorable centuries: Tucson was at siesta; noonday lull was drowsy in the corridors of the Merchants and Miners Bank. Green shades along the south guarded the cool and quiet spaciousness of the Merchants and Miners, flooded with clear white light from the northern windows. In the lobby a single client, leaning on the sill at the note-teller's window, meekly awaited the convenience of the office force.
The Castilian influence had reduced the office force, at this ebb hour of business, to a spruce, shirt-sleeved young man, green-vizored as to his eyes, seated at a mid-office desk, quite engrossed with mysterious clerical matters.
The office force had glanced up at Mr. Johnson's first entrance, but only to resume its work at once. Such industry is not the custom; among the assets of any bank, courtesy is the most indispensable item. Mr. Johnson was not unversed in the ways of urbanity; the purposed and palpable incivility was not wasted upon him; nor yet the expression conveyed by the back of the indefatigable clerical person—a humped, reluctant, and rebellious back. If ever a back steeled itself to carry out a distasteful task according to instructions, this was that back. Mr. Pete Johnson sighed in sympathy.
The minutes droned by. A clock, of hitherto unassuming habit, became clamorous; it echoed along the dreaming corridors. Mr. Johnson sighed again.
The stone sill upon which he leaned reflected from its polished surface a face carved to patience; but if the patient face had noted its own reflection it might have remarked—and adjusted—eyebrows not so patient, flattened to a level; and a slight quiver in the tip of a predatory nose. The pen squeaked across glazed paper. Mr. Johnson took from his pocket a long, thin cigar and a box of safety matches.
The match crackled, startling in the silence; the clerical person turned in his chair and directed at the prospective customer a stare so baleful that the cigar was forgotten. The flame nipped Johnson's thumb; he dropped the match on the tiled floor and stepped upon it. The clerk hesitated and then rose.
"He loves me—he loves me not!" murmured Mr. Johnson sadly, plucking the petals from an imaginary daisy.
The clerk sauntered to the teller's wicket and frowned upon his customer from under eyebrows arched and supercilious; he preserved a haughty silence. Before this official disapproval Peter's eyes wavered and fell, abashed.
"I'll—I'll stick my face through there if you'd like to step on it!" he faltered.
The official eyebrows grew arrogant.
"You are wasting my time. Have you any business here?"
"Ya-as. Be you the cashier?"
"I'd like to borrow some money," said Pete timidly. He tucked away the unlit cigar. "Two thousand. Name of Johnson. Triangle E brand—Yavapai County! Two hundred Herefords in a fenced township. Three hundred and twenty acres patented land. Sixty acres under ditch. I'd give you a mortgage on that. Pete Johnson—Peter Wallace Johnson on mortgages and warrants."
"I do not think we would consider it."
"Good security—none better," said Pete. "Good for three times two thousand at a forced sale."
"Doubtless!" The official shoulders shrugged incredulity.
"I'm known round here—you could look up my standing, verify titles, and so on," urged Pete.
"I could not make the loan on my own authority."
Pete's face fell.
"Can't I see Mr. Gans, then?" he persisted.
"He's out to luncheon."
"Be back soon?"
"I really could not say."
"I might talk to Mr. Longman, perhaps?"
"Mr. Longman is on a trip to the Coast."
Johnson twisted his fingers nervously on the onyx sill. Then he raised his downcast eyes, lit with a fresh hope.
"Is—is the janitor in?" he asked.
"You are pleased to be facetious, sir," the teller replied. His lip curled; he turned away, tilting his chin with conscious dignity.
Mr. Johnson tapped the sill with the finger of authority.
"Young man, do you want I should throw this bank out of the window?" he said severely. "Because if you don't, you uncover some one a grown man can do business with. You're suffering from delusions of grandeur, fair young sir. I almost believe you have permitted yourself to indulge in some levity with me—me, P. Wallace Johnson! And if I note any more light-hearted conduct on your part I'll shake myself and make merry with you till you'll think the roof has done fell on you. Now you dig up the Grand Panjandrum, with the little round button on top, or I'll come in unto you! Produce! Trot!"
The cashier's dignity abated. Mr. Johnson was, by repute, no stranger to him. Not sorry to pass this importunate borrower on to other hands, he tapped at a door labeled "Vice-President," opened it, and said something in a low voice. From this room a man emerged at once—Marsh, vice-president, solid of body, strong of brow. Clenched between heavy lips was a half-burned cigar, on which he puffed angrily.
"Well, Johnson, what's this?" he demanded.
"You got money to sell? I want to buy some. Let me come in and talk it up to you."
"Let him in, Hudson," said Marsh. His cigar took on a truculent angle as he listened to Johnson's proposition.
It appeared that Johnson's late outburst of petulance had cleared his bosom of much perilous stuff. His crisp tones carried a suggestion of lingering asperity, but otherwise he bore himself with becoming modesty and diffidence in the presence of the great man. He stated his needs briskly and briefly, as before.
"Money is tight," said Marsh curtly.
He scowled; he thrust his hands into his pockets as if to guard them; he rocked back upon his heels; his eyes were leveled at a point in space beyond Pete's shoulder; he clamped his cigar between compressed lips and puffed a cloud of smoke from a corner of a mouth otherwise grimly tight.
Mr. Peter Johnson thought again of that unlit cigar, came swiftly to tiptoe, and puffed a light from the glowing tip of Marsh's cigar before that astonished person could withdraw his gaze from the contemplation of remote infinities. The banker recoiled, flushed and frowning; the teller bent hastily over his ledger.
Johnson, puffing luxuriously, renewed his argument with a guileless face. Marsh shook his head and made a bear-trap mouth.
"Why don't you go to Prescott, Johnson? There's where your stuff is. They know you better than we do."
"Why, Mr. Marsh, I don't want to go to Prescott. Takes too long. I need this money right away."
"Really—but that is hardly our affair, is it?" A frosty smile accompanied the query.
"Aw, what's wrong? Isn't that security all right?" urged Pete.
"No doubt the security is exactly as you say," said the banker, "but your property is in another county, a long distance from here. We would have to make inquiries and send the mortgage to be filed in Prescott—very inconvenient. Besides, as I told you before, money is tight. We regret that we cannot see our way to accommodate you. This is final!"
"Shucks!" said Pete, crestfallen and disappointed; he lingered uncertainly, twisting his hat brim between his hands.
"That is final," repeated the banker. "Was there anything else?"
"A check to cash," said Pete humbly.
He went back into the lobby, much chastened; the spring lock of the door snapped behind him.
"Wait on this gentleman, if you please, Mr. Hudson," said Marsh, and busied himself at a cabinet.
Hudson rose from his desk and moved across to the cashier's window. His lip curved disdainfully. Mr. Johnson's feet were brisk and cheerful on the tiles. When his face appeared at the window, his hat and the long black cigar were pushed up to angles parallel, jaunty and perilous. He held in his hand a sheaf of papers belted with a rubber band; he slid over the topmost of these papers, face down.
"It's endorsed," he said, pointing to his heavy signature.
"How will you have it, sir?" Hudson inquired with a smile of mocking deference.
"Quick and now," said Pete.
Hudson flipped over the check. The sneer died from his face. His tongue licked at his paling lips.
"What does this mean?" he stammered.
"Can't you read?" said Pete.
The cashier did not answer. He turned and called across the room:
"Mr. Marsh! Mr. Marsh!"
Marsh came quickly, warned by the startled note in the cashier's voice. Hudson passed him the check with hands that trembled a little. The vice-president's face mottled with red and white. The check was made to the order of P.W. Johnson; it was signed by Henry Bergman, sheriff of Pima County, and the richest cowman of the Santa Cruz Valley; the amount was eighty-six thousand dollars.
Marsh glowered at Johnson in a cold fury.
"Call up Bergman!" he ordered.
Hudson made haste to obey.
"Oh, that's all right! I'd just as soon wait," said Pete cheerfully. "Hank's at home, anyhow. I told him maybe you'd want to ask about the check."
"He should have notified us before drawing out any such amount," fumed Marsh. "This is most unusual, for a small bank like this. He told us he shouldn't need this money until this fall."
"Draft on El Paso will do. Don't have to have cash."
"All very well—but it will be a great inconvenience to us, just the same."
"Really—but that is hardly our affair, is it?" said Pete carelessly.
The banker smote the shelf with an angry hand; some of the rouleaus of gold stacked on the inner shelf toppled and fell; gold pieces clattered on the floor.
"Johnson, what is your motive? What are you up to?"
"It's all perfectly simple. Old Hank and me used to be implicated together in the cow business down on the Concho. One of the Goliad Bergmans—early German settlers."
Here Hudson hung up and made interruption.
"Bergman says the check is right," he reported.
Johnson resumed his explanation:
"As I was sayin', I reckon I know all the old-time cowmen from here to breakfast and back. Old Joe Benavides, now—one of your best depositors; I fished Joe out of Manzanillo Bay thirty year back. He was all drowned but Amen."
Wetting his thumb he slipped off the next paper from under the rubber band. Marsh eyed the sheaf apprehensively and winced.
"Got one of Joe's checks here," Pete continued, smoothing it out. "But maybe I won't need to cash it—to-day."
"Johnson," said the vice-president, "are you trying to start a run on this bank? What do you want?"
"My money. What the check calls for. That is final."
"This is sheer malice."
"Not a bit of it. You're all wrong. Just common prudence—that's all. You see, I needed a little money. As I was tellin' you, I got right smart of property, but no cash just now; nor any comin' till steer-sellin' time. So I come down to Tucson on the rustle. Five banks in Tucson; four of 'em, countin' yours, turned me down cold."
"If you had got Bergman to sign with you—" Marsh began.
"Tell that to the submarines," said Pete. "Good irrigated land is better than any man's name on a note; and I don't care who that man is. A man might die or run away, or play the market. Land stays put. Well, after my first glimpse of the cold shoulder I ciphered round a spell. I'm a great hand to cipher round. Some one is out to down me; some one is givin' out orders. Who? Mayer Zurich, I judged. He sold me a shoddy coat once. And he wept because he couldn't loan me the money I wanted, himself. He's one of these liers-in-wait you read about—Mayer is.
"So I didn't come to you till the last, bein' as Zurich was one of your directors. I studied some more—and then I hunted up old Hank Bergman and told him my troubles," said Pete suavely. "He expressed quite some considerable solicitude. 'Why, Petey, this is a shockin' disclosure!' he says. 'A banker is a man that makes a livin' loanin' other people's money. Lots of marble and brass to a bank, salaries and other expenses. Show me a bank that's quit lendin' money and I'll show you a bank that's due to bust, muy pronto! I got quite a wad in the Merchants and Miners,' he says, 'and you alarm me. I'll give you a check for it, and you go there first off to-morrow and see if they'll lend you what you need. You got good security. If they ain't lendin',' he says, 'then you just cash my check and invest it for me where it will be safe. I lose the interest for only four days,' he says—'last Monday, the fifteenth, being my quarter day. Hold out what you need for yourself.'
"'I don't want any,' says I. 'The First National say they can fit me out by Wednesday if I can't get it before. Man don't want to borrow from his friends,' says I. 'Then put my roll in the First National,' says Hank. That's all! Only—I saw some of the other old-timers last night." Pete fingered his sheaf significantly.
"You have us!" said Marsh. "What do you want?"
"I want the money for this check—so you'll know I'm not permeated with any ideas about heaping coals of fire on your old bald head. Come through, real earnest! I'll see about the rest. Exerting financial pressure is what they call this little racket you worked on me, I believe. It's a real nice game. I like it. If you ever mull or meddle with my affairs again I'll turn another check. That's for your official information—so you can keep the bank from any little indiscretions. I'm telling you! This isn't blackmail. This is directions. Sit down and write me a draft on El Paso."
Marsh complied. Peter Johnson inspected the draft carefully.
"So much for the bank for to-day, the nineteenth," said Pete. "Now a few kind words for you as the individual, Mr. George Marsh, quite aside from your capacity as a banker. You report to Zurich that I applied for a loan and you refused it—not a word more. I'm tellin' you! Put a blab on your office boy." He rolled his thumb at young Hudson. "And hereafter if you ever horn in on my affairs so much as the weight of a finger tip—I'm tellin' you now!—I'll appear to you!"
The world was palpably a triangle, baseless to southward; walled out by iron, radiant ramparts—a black range, gateless, on the east; a gray range on the west, broken, spiked, and bristling. At the northern limit of vision the two ranges closed together to what seemed relatively the sharp apex of the triangle, the mere intersection of two lines. This point, this seemingly dimensionless dot, was in reality two score weary miles of sandhills, shapeless, vague, and low; waterless, colorless, and forlorn. Southward the central desert was uninhabitable; opinions differed about the edges.
Still in Arizona, the eye wearied; miles and leagues slid together to indistinguishable inches. Then came a low line of scattered hills that roughly marked the Mexican border.
The mirage played whimsical pranks with these outpost hills. They became, in turn, cones, pyramids, boxes, benches, chimney stacks, hourglasses. Sometimes they soared high in air, like the kites of a baby god; and, beneath, the unbroken desert stretched afar, wavering, misty, and dim.
Again, on clear, still days, these hills showed crystalline, thin, icy, cameo-sharp; beyond, between, faint golden splotches of broad Sonoran plain faded away to nothingness; and, far beyond that nothingness, hazy Sonoran peaks of dimmest blue rose from illimitable immensities, like topmasts of a very large ship on a very small globe; and the earth was really round, as alleged.
It was fitting and proper that the desert, as a whole, had no name: the spinning earth itself has none. Inconsiderable nooks and corners were named, indeed—Crow Flat, the Temporal, Moonshine, the Rinconada. It should rather be said, perhaps, that the desert had no accepted name. Alma Mater, Lungs called it. But no one minded Lungs.
Mr. Stanley Mitchell woke early in the Blue Bedroom to see the morning made. He threw back the tarpaulin and sat up, yawning; with every line of his face crinkled up, ready to laugh for gladness.
The morning was shaping up well. Glints of red snapped and sparkled in the east; a few late stars loitered along the broad, clean skies. A jerky clatter of iron on rock echoed from the cliffs. That was the four hobbled horses, browsing on the hillside: they snuffed and snorted cheerfully, rejoicing in the freshness of dawn. From a limestone bluff, ten feet behind the bed, came a silver tinkle of falling water from a spring, dripping into its tiny pool.
Stan drew in a great breath and snuffed, exactly as the horses snuffed and from the same reason—to express delight; just as a hungry man smacks his lips over a titbit. Pungent, aromatic, the odor of wood smoke alloyed the taintless air of dawn. The wholesome smell of clean, brown earth, the spicy tang of crushed herb and shrub, of cedar and juniper, mingled with a delectable and savory fragrance of steaming coffee and sizzling, spluttering venison.
Pete Johnson sat cross-legged before the fire. This mess of venison was no hit-or-miss affair; he was preparing a certain number of venison steaks, giving to each separate steak the consideration of an artist.
Stanley Mitchell kicked the blankets flying. "Whoo-hoo-oo! This is the life!" he proclaimed. Orisons more pious have held less gratitude.
He tugged on one boot, reached for the other—and then leaped to his feet like a jack-in-the-box. With the boot in his hand he pointed to the south. High on the next shadowy range, thirty miles away, a dozen scattered campfires glowed across the dawn.
"What the Billy-hell?" he said, startled.
"I will say wallop! I won't be a lady if I can't say wallop!" quoth Stan rebelliously. "What's doing over at the Gavilan? There's never been three men at once in those fiend-forsaken pinnacles before. Hey! S'pose they've struck it rich, like we did?"
"I'm afraid not," sighed Pete. "You toddle along and wash um's paddies. She's most ripe."
With a green-wood poker he lifted the lid from the bake-oven. The biscuit were not browned to his taste; he dumped the blackening coals from the lid and slid it into the glowing heart of the fire; he raked out a new bed of coals and lifted the little three-legged bake-oven over them; with his poker he skillfully flirted fresh coals on the rimmed lid and put it back on the oven. He placed the skillet of venison on a flat rock at his elbow and poured coffee into two battered tin cups. Breakfast was now ready, and Pete raised his voice in the traditional dinner call of the ranges:
"Come and get it or I'll throw it out!"
Stanley came back from a brisk toilet at Ironspring. He took a preliminary sip of coffee, speared a juicy steak, and eyed his companion darkly. Mr. Johnson plied knife and fork assiduously, with eyes downcast and demure.
Stanley Mitchell's smooth young face lined with suspicion.
"When you've been up to some deviltry I can always tell it on you—you look so incredibly meek and meechin', like a cat eatin' the canary," he remarked severely. "Thank you for a biscuit. And the sugar! Now what warlockry is this?" He jerked a thumb at the far-off fires. "What's the merry prank?"
Mr. Johnson sighed again.
"Deception. Treachery. Mine." He looked out across the desert to the Gavilan Hills with a complacent eye. "And breach of trust. Mine, again."
"Who you been betrayin' now?"
"Just you. You and your pardner; the last bein' myself. You know them location papers of ours I was to get recorded at Tucson?"
"Well, now," said Pete, "I didn't file them papers. Something real curious happened on the way in—and I reckon I'm the most superstitious man you ever see. So I tried a little experiment. Instead, I wrote out a notice for that little old ledge we found over on the Gavilan a month back. I filed that, just to see if any one was keeping cases on us—and I filed it the very last thing before I left Tucson: You see what's happened." He waved his empty coffee-cup at the campfires. "I come right back and we rode straight to Ironspring. But there's been people ridin' faster than us—ridin' day and night. Son, if our copper claims had really been in the Gavilan, instead of a-hundred-and-then-some long miles in another-guess direction—then what?"
"We'd have found our claim jumped and a bunch to swear they'd been working there before the date of our notices; that they didn't find the scratch of a pick on the claim, no papers and no monument—that's what we'd have found."
"Correct! Pass the meat."
"But we haven't told a soul," protested Stanley. "How could any one know? We all but died of thirst getting back across the desert—the wind rubbed out our tracks; we laid up at Soledad Springs a week before any one saw us; when we finally went in to Cobre no one knew where we had been, that we had found anything, or even that we'd been looking for anything. How could any one know?"
"This breakfast is getting cold," said Pete Johnson. "Good grub hurts no one. Let's eat it. Then I'll let a little ray of intelligence filter into your darkened mind."
Breakfast finished, Stan piled the tin dishes with a clatter. "Now then, old Greedy! Break the news to me."
Pete considered young Stan through half-closed lids—a tanned, smooth-faced, laughing, curly-headed, broad-shouldered young giant.
"You got any enemies, pardner?"
"Not one in the world that I know of," declared Stan cheerfully.
"Back in New York, maybe?"
"Not a one. No reason to have one."
Pete shook his head reflectively.
"You're dreadful dumb, you know. Think again. Think hard. Take some one's girl away from him, maybe?"
"Not a girl. Never had but one Annie," said Stanley. "I'm her Joe."
"Ya-as. Back in New York. I've posted letters to her: Abingdon P.O. Name of Selden."
Stanley went brick red.
"That's her. I'm her Joe. And when we get this little old bonanza of ours to grinding she won't be in New York any more. Come again, old-timer. What's all this piffle got to do with our mine?"
"If you only had a little brains," sighed Johnson disconsolately, "I'd soon find out who had it in for you, and why. It's dreadful inconvenient to have a pardner like that. Why, you poor, credulous baa-lamb of a trustful idiot, when you let me go off to file them papers, don't you see you give me the chance to rob you of a mine worth, just as she stands, 'most any amount of money you chance to mention? Not you! You let me ride off without a misgivin'."
"Pish!" remarked Stan scornfully. "Twaddle! Tommyrot! Pickles!"
Pete wagged a solemn forefinger.
"If you wasn't plumb simple-minded and trustin' you would 'a' tumbled long ago that somebody was putting a hoodoo on every play you make. I caught on before you'd been here six months. I thought, of course, you'd been doin' dirt to some one—till I come to know you."
"I thank you for those kind words," grinned Mitchell; "also, for the friendly explanation with which you cover up some bad luck and more greenhorn's incompetence."
"No greenhorn could be so thumbhandsided as all that," rejoined Pete earnestly. "Your irrigation ditches break and wash out; cattle get into your crops whenever you go to town; but your fences never break when you're round the ranch. Notice that?"
"I did observe something of that nature," confessed Mitchell. "I laid it to sheer bad luck."
The older man snorted.
"Bad luck! You've been hoodooed! After that, you went off by your lonesome and tried cattle. Your windmills broke down; your cattle was stole plumb opprobrious—Mexicans blamed, of course. And the very first winter the sheep drifted in on you—where no sheep had never blatted before—and eat you out of house and home."
"I sold out in the spring," reflected Stanley. "I ran two hundred head of stock up to one hundred and twelve in six months. Go on! Your story interests me, strangely. I begin to think I was not as big a fool as I thought I was, and that it was foolish of me to ever think my folly was—"
Johnson interrupted him.
"Then you bought a bunch of sheep. Son, you can't realize how great-minded it is of me to overlook that slip of yours! You was out of the way of every man in the world; you was on your own range, watering at your own wells—the only case like that on record. And the second dark night some petulant and highly anonymous cowboys run off your herder and stampeded your woollies over a bluff."
"Sheep outrages have happened before," observed Stan, rather dryly.
"Sheep outrages are perpetrated by cowmen on cow ranges," rejoined Pete hotly. "I guess I ought to know. Sheepmen aren't ever killed on their own ranges; it isn't respectable. Sheepmen are all right in their place—and hell's the place."
"Peter!" said Stan. "Such langwidge!"
"Wallop! Wallop!" barked Peter, defiant and indignant. "I will say wallop! Now you shut up whilst I go on with your sad history. Son, you was afflicted some with five-card insomnia—and right off, when you first came, you had it fair shoved on you by people usually most disobligin'. It wasn't just for your money; there was plenty could stack 'em higher than you could, and them fairly achin' to be fleeced, at that. If your head hadn't been attached to your shoulders good and strong, if you hadn't figured to be about square, or maybe rectangular, you had a chance to be a poker fiend or a booze hoist."
"You're spoofing me, old dear. Wake up; it's morning."
"Don't fool yourself, son. There was a steady organized effort to get you in bad. And it took money to get all these people after your goat. Some one round here was managin' the game, for pay. But't wasn't no Arizona head that did the plannin'. Any Rocky Mountain roughneck mean enough for that would 'a' just killed you once and been done with it. No, sir; this party was plumb civilized—this guy that wanted your goat. He wanted to spoil your rep; he probably had conscientious scruples about bloodshed. Early trainin'," said Mr. Johnson admiringly, "is a wonderful thing! And, after they found you wouldn't fall for the husks and things, they went out to put a crimp in your bank roll. Now, who is to gain by putting you on the blink, huh?"
"No one at all," said Stan. "You're seein' things at night! What happened on the Cobre Trail to stir up your superstitions?"
"Two gay young lads—punchers of Zurich's—tried to catch me with my gun unloaded. That's what! And if herdin' with them blasted baa-sheep hadn't just about ruined your intellect, you'd know why, without asking," said Pete. "Look now! I was so sure that you was bein' systematically hornswoggled that, when two rank strangers made that sort of a ranikiboo play at me, I talked it out with myself, like this—not out loud—just me and Pete colloguing:
"'These gentlemen are pickin' on you, Pete. What's that for?' 'Why,' says Pete, 'that's because you're Stan's pardner, of course. These two laddie-bucks are some small part of the gang, bunch, or congregation that's been preyin' on Stan.' 'What they tryin' to put over on Stan now?' I asks, curiosity getting the better of my good manners. 'Not to pry into private matters any,' says I, 'but this thing is getting personal. I can feel malicious animal magnetism coursin' through every vein and leapin' from crag to crag,' says I. 'A joke's a joke, and I can take a joke as well as any man; but when I'm sick in my bed, and the undertaker comes to my house and looks into my window and says, "Darlin'! I am waitin' for thee!"—that's no joke. And if Stanley Mitchell's facetious friends begin any hilarity with me I'll transact negotiations with 'em—sure! So I put it up to you, Petey—square and aboveboard—what are they tryin' to work on Stan now?'
"'To get his mine, you idjit!' says Pete. 'Now be reasonable,' says I. 'How'd they know we got any mine?' 'Didn't you tote a sample out of that blisterin' old desert?' says Pete. 'We did,' I admits, 'just one little chunk the size of a red apple—and it weighed near a couple of ton whilst we was perishin' for water. But we stuck to it closer than a rich brother-in-law,' says I. 'You been had!' jeers Pete. 'What kind of talk is this? You caught that off o' Thorpe, over on the Malibu—you been had! Talk United States! Do you mean I've been bunked?' I spoke up sharp; but I was feelin' pretty sick, for I just remembered that we didn't register that sample when we mailed it to the assayer.
"'Your nugget's been seen, and sawed, and smeltered. Got that? As part of the skulduggery they been slippin' to young Stan, your package has been opened,' says Petey, leerin' at me. 'Great Scott! Then they know we got just about the richest mine in Arizona!' I says, with my teeth chatterin' so that I stammers. 'Gosh, no! Else the coyotes would be pickin' your bones,' says Pete. 'They know you've got some rich ore, but they figure it to be some narrow, pinchin', piddlin' little vein somewheres. How can they guess you found a solid mountain of the stuff?'
"'Sufferin' cats!' says I. 'Then is every play I make—henceforth and forever, amen—to be gaumed up by a mess of hirelin' bandogs? Persecutin' Stan was all very well—but if they take to molesting me any, it's going to make my blood fairly boil! Is some one going to draw down wages for makin' me mizzable all the rest of my whole life?' 'No such luck,' says Petey. 'Your little ore package was taken from the mail as part of the system of pesterin' Stanley—but, once the big boss-devil glued his bug-eyes on that freeworkin' copper stuff, he throwed up his employer and his per diem, and is now operating roundabout on his own. They take it you might have papers about you showing where your claim is—location papers, likely. That's all! These ducks, here, want to go through you. Nobody wants to kill you—not now. Not yet—any more than usual. But, if you ask me,' said Petey, 'if they ever come to know as much about that copper claim as you know, they'll do you up. Yes, sir! From ambush, likely. So long as they are dependin' on you to lead them to it, you're safe from that much, maybe. After they find out where it is—cuidado!'
"'But who took that package out of the mail, Petey? It might have been any one of several or more—old Zurich, here at Cobre; or the postmaster at Silverbell; or the postal clerks on the railroad; or the post-office people at El Paso.'
"'You're an old pig-headed fool,' says Pete to me; 'and you lie like a thief. You know who it was, same as I do—old C. Mayer Zurich, grand champion lightweight collar-and-elbow grafter and liar, cowman, grubstaker, general storekeeper, postmaster, and all-round crook, right here in Cobre—right here where young Stanley's been gettin' 'em dealt from the bottom for three years. Them other post-office fellows never had no truck with Stanley—never so much as heard of him. Zurich's here. He had the disposition, the motive, the opportunity, and the habit. Besides, he sold you a shoddy coat once. Forgotten that?'"
Pete paused to glower over that coat; and young Mitchell, big-eyed and gasping, seized the chance to put in a word:
"You're an ingenious old nightmare, pardner—you almost make it convincing. But Great Scott, man! Can't you see that your fine, plausible theory is all built on surmise and wild conjecture? You haven't got a leg to stand on—not one single fact!"
"Whilst I was first a-constructing this ingenious theory your objection might have carried force; for I didn't have a fact to stand on, as you observe. I conjectured round pretty spry, too. Reckon it took me all of half a second—while them two warriors was giving me the evil eye. I'll tell you how it was." He related the story of the shooting match and the lost bet. "And to this unprovoked design against an inoffensive stranger I fitted the only possible meaning and shape that would make a lick of sense, dovetailin' in with the real honest-to-goodness facts I already knew."
"But don't you see, old thing, you're still up in the air? Your theory doesn't touch ground anywhere."
"Stanley—my poor deluded boy!—when I got to the railroad I wired that assayer right off. Our samples never reached El Paso. So I wrote out my fake location and filed it. See what followed that filing—over yonder? I come this way on purpose, expecting to see those fires, Stanley. If they hadn't been there we'd have gone on to our mine. Now we'll go anywhere else."
"Well, I'll just be teetotally damned!" Stanley remarked with great fervor.
"Trickling into your thick skull, is it? Son, get a piece of charcoal. Now you make black marks on that white rock as I tell you, to hold down my statements so they don't flutter away with the wind. Ready? Number One: Our copper samples didn't reach the assayer—make a long black mark ... Therefore—make a short black mark ... Number Two: Either Old Pete's crazy theory is correct in every particular—a long black mark ... Or—now a short black mark ... Number Three: The assayer has thrown us down—a long black mark ... Number Four: Which would be just as bad—make a long black mark."
Stanley Mitchell looked hard at the long black mark; he looked out along the south to the low line of the Gavilan Hills; he looked at the red arc of sun peering suddenly over the Comobabi Range.
"Well—and so forth!" he said. "Here is a burn from the branding! And what are we going to do now?"
"Wash the dishes. You do it."
"You are a light-minded and frivolous old man," said Stan. "What are we going to do about our mine?"
"I've done told you. We—per you—are due to wash up the dishes. Do the next thing next. That's a pretty good rule. Meantime I will superintend and smoke and reflect."
"Do your reflecting out loud, can't you?" said Stan. His smooth forehead wrinkled and a sudden cleft appeared between his eyebrows, witness of an unaccustomed intentness of thought. "Say, Pete; this partnership of ours isn't on the level. You put in half the work and all the brains."
"'Sall right," said Pete Johnson. "You furnish the luck and personal pulchritude. That ain't all, either. I'm pickin' up some considerable education from you, learning how to pronounce words like that—pulchritude. I mispronounced dreadful, I reckon."
"I can tell you how to not mispronounce half as many words as you do now," said Stan.
"How's that?" said Pete, greatly interested.
"Only talk half so much."
"Fair enough, kid! It would work, too. That ain't all, either. If I talked less you'd talk more; and, talking more, you'd study out for yourself a lot of the things I tell you now, gettin' credit from you for much wisdom, just because I hold the floor. Go to it, boy! Tell us how the affairs of We, Us & Company size up to you at this juncture."
"Here goes," said Stan. "First, we don't want to let on that we've got anything at all on our minds—much less a rich mine. After a reasonable time we should make some casual mention of discontent that we've sent off rock to an assayer and not heard from it. Not to say a word would make our conspirators more suspicious; a careless mention of it might make them think our find wasn't such-a-much, after all. Say! I suppose it wouldn't do to pick up a collection of samples from the best mines round Cobre—and inquire round who to write to for some more, from Jerome and Cananea, maybe; and then, after talking them up a while, we could send one of these samples off to be assayed, just for curiosity—what?"
"Bear looking into," said Pete; "though I think they'd size it up as an attempt to throw 'em off the trail. Maybe we can smooth that idea out so we can do something with it. Proceed."
"Then we'll have to play up to that location you filed by hiking to the Gavilan and going through the motions of doing assessment work on that dinky little claim."
Feeling his way, Stan watched the older man's eyes. Pete nodded approval.
"But, Pete, aren't we taking a big chance that some one will find our claim? It isn't recorded, and our notice will run out unless we do some assessment work pretty quick. Suppose some one should stumble onto it?"
"Well, we've got to take the chance," said Pete. "And the chance of some one stumbling on our find by blind luck, like we did, isn't a drop in the bucket to the chance that we'll be followed if we try to slip away while these fellows are worked up with the fever. Seventy-five thousand round dollars to one canceled stamp that some one has his eye glued on us through a telescope right this very now! I wouldn't bet the postage stamp on it, at that odds. No, sir! Right now things shape up hotter than the seven low places in hell.
"If we go to the mine now—or soon—we'll never get back. After we show them the place—adios el mundo!"
"Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird," Mitchell quoted soberly. "So you think that after a while, when their enthusiasm dies down, we can give them the slip?"
"Sure! It's our only chance."
"Couldn't we make a get-away at night?"
"It is what they are hoping for. They'd follow our tracks. No, sir! We do nothing. We notice nothing, we suspect nothing, and we have nothing to hide."
"You want to remember that our location notice will be running out pretty soon."
"We'll have to risk it. Not so much of a risk, either. Cobre is the last outpost of civilization. South of here, in the whole strip from Comobabi to the Colorado River, there's not twenty men, all told, between here and the Mexican border—except yonder deluded wretches in the Gavilan; and none beyond the border for a hundred miles."
"It is certainly one big lonesome needle-in-the-haystack proposition—and no one has any idea where our find is, not within three days' ride. But what puzzles me is this: If Zurich really got wise to our copper, he'd know at once that it was a big thing, if there was any amount of it. Then why didn't he keep it private and confidential? Why tip it off to the G.P.? I have always understood that in robbery and murder, one is assisted only by intimate friends. What is the large idea?"
"That, I take it," laughed Pete, "is, in some part, an acknowledgment that it doesn't take many like you and me to make a dozen. You've made one or two breaks and got away with 'em, the last year or two, that has got 'em guessing; and I'm well and loudly known myself. There is a wise old saying that it's no use sending a boy to mill. They figure on that, likely; they wanted to be safe and sanitary. They sized it up that to dispatch only two or three men to adjust such an affair with us would be in no way respectful or segacious.
"Also, in a gang of crooks like that, every one is always pullin' for his buddy. That accounts for part of the crowd—prudence and a far-reaching spirit of brotherly love. For the rest, when the first ten or six made packs and started, they was worked up and oozing excitement at every pore. Then some of the old prospectors got a hunch there was something doing; so they just naturally up stakes and tagged along. Always doing that, old miner is. That's what makes the rushes and stampedes you hear about."
"Then we're to do nothing just now but to shun mind-readers, write no letters, and not talk in our sleep?"
"Just so," agreed Pete. "If my saddle could talk, I'd burn it. That's our best lay. We'll tire 'em out. The most weariest thing in the world is to hunt for a man that isn't there; the next worst is to watch a man that has nothing to conceal. And our little old million-dollar-a-rod hill is the unlikeliest place to look for a mine I ever did see. Just plain dirt and sand. No indications; just a plain freak. I'd sooner take a chance in the pasture lot behind pa's red barn—any one would. We covered up all the scratchin' we did and the wind has done the rest. Here—you was to do the talkin'. Go on."
"What we really need," declared Mitchell, "is an army—enough absolutely trustworthy and reliable men to overmatch any interference."
"The largest number of honest men that was ever got together in one bunch," said Pete, "was just an even eleven. Judas Iscariot was the twelfth. That's the record. For that reason I've always stuck it out that we ought to have only ten men on a jury, instead of twelve. It seems more modest, somehow. But suppose we found ten honest men somewheres. It might be done. I know where there's two right here in Arizona, and I've got my suspicions of a third—honest about portable property, that is. With cattle, and the like, they don't have any hard-and-fast rule; just consider each case on its individual merits. How the case of automobiles would strike them elder ethics is one dubious problem. Standing still, or bein' towed, so it might be considered as a wagon, a car would be safe enough; but proceedin' from hither to yon under its own power—I dunno. I'll make a note of it. Well, you get the right idea for the first thing. Honest men wanted; no questions asked. And then what?"
"You've said it, kid! We could quitclaim that hill for a million cash to-morrow—"
"If we had any claim to quit," interrupted Stanley; "and if we could drag capital out here and rub its nose in our hill."
"That's the word I was feelin' for—capital. It's capital we want, Stanley—not money. I could get a little money myself down at Tucson. Them two honest men of mine live there. We used to steal cattle together down on the Concho—the sheriff and Jose Benavides and me. I aim to feed 'em a slice of my share, anyway—but what they could put in wouldn't be a drop in the bucket. We want to go after capital. There's where you come in. Got any rich friends back East?"
"My cousin, Oscar Mitchell, is well-to-do, but hardly what you would call rich, in this connection," he said. "But he is in touch with some of the really big men. We could hardly find a better agent to interest capital."
"Will he take the first steps on your bare word—without even a sample or an assayer's report?"
"Certainly. Why not?"
"Back you go, then. Here's where you come in. I had this in mind," declared Johnson, "when I first throwed in with you. I knew we could find the mine and you'd be needed for bait to attract capital. I rustled a little expense money at Tucson. Say, I didn't tell you about that. Listen!"
He recited at length his joyous financial adventures in Tucson.
"But won't your man Marsh tell Zurich about your unruly behavior?" said Stan at the finish.
"I think not. He's got too much to lose. I put the fear of God in his heart for fair. I couldn't afford to have him put Zurich on his guard. It won't do to underestimate Zurich. The man's a crook; but he's got brains. He hasn't overlooked a bet since he came here. Zurich is Cobre—or mighty near it. He's in on all the good things. Big share in the big mines, little share in the little ones. He's got all the water supply grabbed and is makin' a fortune from that alone. He runs the store, the post-office, and the stage line. He's got the freight contracts and the beef contracts. He's got brains. Only one weak point about him—he'll underestimate us. We got brains too. Zurich knows that, but he don't quite believe it. That's our chance."
"Just what will you ask my cousin to do? And when shall I go?"
"Day before to-morrow. You hike back to Cobre and hit the road for all points East, I'll go over to the Gavilan to be counted—take this dynamite and stuff, and make a bluff at workin', keeping my ears open and my mouth not. Pledge cousin to come see when we wire for him—as soon as we get possession. If he finds the sight satisfactory, we'll organize a company, you and me keepin' control. We'll give 'em forty per cent for a million cash in the treasury. I want nine percent for my Tucson friends, who'll put up a little preliminary cash and help us with the first fightin', if any. Make your dicker on that basis; take no less. If your cousin can't swing it, we'll go elsewhere.
"Tell him our proposition would be a gracious gift at two millions, undeveloped; but we're not selling. Tell him there'll be a million needed for development before there'll be a dollar of return. There's no water; just enough to do assessment work on, and that to be hauled twenty-five miles from those little rock tanks at Cabeza Prieta. Deep drillin' may get water—I hope so. But that will take time and money. There'll have to be a seventy-five-mile spur of railroad built, anyway, leaving the main line somewhere about Mohawk: we'd just as well count on hauling water from the Gila the first year. Them tanks will about run a ten-man gang a month after each rain, countin' in the team that does the hauling.
"Tell him one claim, six hundred feet by fifteen hundred, will pretty near cover our hill; but we'll stake two for margin. We don't want any more; but we'll have to locate a town site or something, to be sure of our right of way for our railroad. Every foot of these hills will be staked out by some one, eventually. If any of these outside claims turns out to be any good, so much the better. But there can't be the usual rush very well—'cause there ain't enough water. We'll have to locate the tanks and keep a guard there; we'll have to pull off a franchise for our little jerkwater railroad.
"We got to build a wagon road to Mohawk, set six-horse teams to hauling water, and other teams to hauling water to stations along the road for the teams that haul water for us. All this at once; it's going to be some complicated.
"That's the lay: Development work; appropriation for honest men in the first camp; another for lawyers; patentin' three claims; haul water seventy-five miles, no road, and part of that through sand; minin' machinery; build a railroad; smelter, maybe—if some one would kindly find coal.
"We want a minimum of five hundred thousand; as much more for accidents. Where does this cousin of yours live? In Abingdon?"
"In Vesper—seven miles from Abingdon. He's a lawyer."
"Is he all right?"
"Why, yes—I guess so. When I was a boy I thought he was a wonderful chap—rather made a hero of him."
"When you was a boy?" echoed Johnson; a quizzical twinkle assisted the query.
"Oh, well—when he was a boy."
"He's older than you, then?"
"Nearly twice as old. My father was the youngest son of an old-fashioned family, and I was his youngest. Uncle Roy—Oscar's father—was dad's oldest brother, and Oscar was a first and only."
Pete shook his head.
"I'm sorry about that, too. I'd be better pleased if he was round your age. No offense to you, Stan; but I'd name no places to your cousin if I were you. When we get legal possession let him come out and see for himself—leadin' a capitalist, if possible."
"Oscar's all right, I guess," protested Stan.
"But you can't do more than guess? Name him no names, then. I wish he was younger," said Peter with a melancholy expression. "The world has a foolish old saying: 'The good die young.' That's all wrong, Stanley. It isn't true. The young die good!"
Something Dewing, owner of Cobre's Emporium of Chance, sat in his room in the Admiral Dewey Hotel. It was a large and pleasant room, refitted and over-furnished by Mr. Dewing at the expense of his fellow townsmen, grateful or otherwise. It is well to mention here that, upon the tongues of the scurrile, "Something," as a praise-name and over-name for Mr. Dewing, suffered a sea change to "Surething"—Surething Dewing; just as the Admiral Dewey Hotel was less favorably known as "Stagger Inn."
Mr. Dewing's eye rested dreamily upon the picture, much praised of connoisseurs, framed by his window—the sharp encircling contours of Cobre Mountain; the wedge of tawny desert beyond Farewell Gap. Rousing himself from such contemplation, he broke a silence, sour and unduly prolonged.
"Four o'clock, and all's ill! Johnson is not the man to be cheated out of a fortune without putting up a fight. Young Mitchell himself is neither fool nor weakling. He can shoot, too. We have had no news. Therefore—a conclusion that will not have escaped your sagacity—something has gone amiss with our little expeditionary force in the Gavilan. Johnson is quite the Paladin; but he could hardly exterminate such a bunch as that. It is my firm conviction that we are now, on this pleasant afternoon, double-crossed in a good and workmanlike manner.
"The Johnson-Mitchell firm is now Johnson, Mitchell & Company, our late friends, or the survivors, being the Company."
These remarks were addressed to the elder of Mr. Dewing's two table mates. But it was Eric Anderson, tall and lean and lowering, who made answer.
"You may set your uneasy mind at rest, Mr. Something. Suspectin' treachery comes natural to you—being what you are."
This was the third man, Mayer Zurich. He sprang up, speaking sharply; a tall, straight man, broad-shouldered, well proportioned, with a handsome, sparkling, high-colored face. "Eric, you grow more insolent every day. Cut it out!"
Mr. Dewing, evenly enough, shifted his thoughtful gaze upon tall Eric, seemingly without resentment for the outburst.
"Well, wasn't he insultin' the boys then?" demanded Eric.
"I guess you're right, there," Mayer Zurich admitted. "I was not at all in favor of taking so many of them in on this proposition; but I'm not afraid of them doin' me dirt, now they're in. I don't see why the three of us couldn't have kept this to ourselves—but Something had to blab it out! Why he should do that, and then distrust the very men he chose for so munificent a sharing of a confidence better withheld—that is quite beyond my understanding. Dewing, you would never have clapped an eye on that nugget if I had suspected in you so unswerving a loyalty to the gang. I confess I was disappointed in you—and I count you my right-hand man."
The speech of the educated man, in Mr. Zurich, was overlaid with colloquialism and strange idiom, made a second tongue by long familiarity.
"Your left-hand man!" Dewing made the correction with great composure. "You come to me to help you, because, though you claim all the discredit for your left-handed activities, I furnish a good half of the brains. And I blabbed—as you so elegantly phrased it—because I am far too intelligent to bite a bulldog for a bone. Our friends in the Gavilan pride themselves on their nerve. They are fighting men, if you please—very fearless and gallant. That suits me. I am no gentleman. Quite the contrary. I am very intelligent, as afore-said. It was the part of prudence—"
"That is a very good word—prudence." The interpolation came from tall Eric.
"A very good word," assented the gambler, unmoved. "It was the part of prudence to let our valiant friends and servants pull these chestnuts from the fire, as aforetime. To become the corpse of a copper king is a prospect that holds no attractions for me."
"But why—why on earth—did you insist on employing men you now distrust? you bewilder me, Dewing," declared Zurich. "What's the idea—to swindle yourself?"
"You will do me the justice to remember," observed Dewing with a thin-lipped smile, "that I urged upon you, repeatedly and most strongly, as a desirable preliminary to our operations, to remove Mr. Peter Johnson from this unsatisfactory world without any formal declaration of war."
"I won't do it!" declared Zurich bluntly. "And—damn you—you shan't do it! He's a dangerous old bow-legged person, and I wish he was farther. And I must admit that I am myself most undesirous for any personal bickering with him. To hear Jim Scarboro relate it, old Pete is one wiz with a six-gun. All the same, I'll not let him be shot from ambush. He's too good for that. I draw the line there. I'm not exactly afraid of the little old wasp, either, when it comes down to cases; but I have great respect for him. I'll never agree to meet him on a tight rope over Niagara and make him turn back; and if I have any trouble with him he's got to bring it to me. You have no monopoly of prudence."
"There it is, you see!" Something Dewing spread out his fine hands. "You made no allowance for my loyalty and I made none for your scruples. As a result, Mr. Johnson has established a stalemate, held a parley, and bought off our warriors. They've been taken in on the copper find, on some small sharing, while we, in quite another sense of the word, are simply taken in. Such," observed Mr. Dewing philosophically, "is the result of inopportune virtues."
"Bosh! I told you all along," said Anderson heavily, "that there's no mineral in the Gavilan. I've been over every foot of it—and I'm a miner. We get no news because no man makes haste to announce his folly. You'll see!"
"Creede and Cripple Creek had been prospected over and over again before they struck it there," objected Zurich.
"Silver and gold!" retorted Eric scornfully. "This is copper. Copper advertises. No, sir! I'll tell you what's happened. There's been no battle, and no treachery, and no mine found. We've been trapped. That Gavilan location was a fake, stuck up to draw our fire. We've tipped our hand. Mr. Johnson can now examine the plans of mice or men that your combined sagacities have so obligingly placed face upward before him, and decide his policies at his leisure. If I were in his shoes, this is what I would be at: I'd tell my wondrous tale to big money. And then I would employ very many stranger men accustomed to arms; and when I went after that mine, I would place under guard any reasonable and obliging travelers I met, and establish a graveyard for the headstrong. And that's what Johnson will do. He'll go to the Coast for capital, at the same time sendin' young Stanley back to his native East on the same errand."
"You may be right," said Zurich, somewhat staggered. "If you are, their find must be a second Verde or Cananea, or they would never have taken a precaution so extraordinary as a false location. What on earth can have happened to rouse their suspicions to that extent?"
"Man, I wonder at you!" said tall Eric. "You put trust in your brains, your money, and your standing to hold you unstained by all your left-handed business. You expect no man to take heed of you, when the reek of it smells to high heaven. Well, you deceive yourself the more. These things get about; and they are none so unobserving a people, south of the Gila, where 't is fair life or death to them to note betweenwhiles all manner of small things—the set of a pack, the tongue of a buckle, the cleat of a mine ladder. And your persecution of young Stanley, now. Was you expectin' that to go unremarked? 'T is that has made Peter Johnson shy of all bait. 'T was a sorry business from the first—hazing that boy; I take shame to have hand in it. And for every thousand of that dirty money we now stand to lose a million."
"'T was a piker's game," sneered Dewing. "Not worth the trouble and risk. We had about three thousand from Zurich to split between us; little enough. Of course Zurich kept his share, the lion's share."
"You got the middleman's chunk, at any rate," retorted Zurich.
"I did the middleman's work," said the gambler tranquilly. "Now, gentlemen, we have not been agreeing very well of late. Eric, in particular, has been far from flattering in his estimates of my social and civic value. We are agreed on that? Very well. I may have mentioned my intelligence? And that I rate it highly? Yes? Very well, then. I shall now demonstrate that my self-appraisal was justified by admitting that my judgment on this occasion was at fault. Eric's theories as to our delayed news from our expedition are sound; they work out; they prove themselves. The same is true of his very direct and lucid statement as to the nature and cause of the difficulties which now beset us. I now make the direct appeal to you, Eric: As a candid man or mouse, what would you do next?"
Tall Eric bent his brows darkly at the gambler.
"If you mean that I fear the man Johnson at all, why do you not use tongue and lips to say that same? I am not greatly chafed by an open enemy, but I am no great hand to sit down under a mock."
"It was your own word—the mice," said Dewing. "But this time you take me wrongly. I meant no mockery. I ask you, in good faith, for your opinion. What ought to be done to retrieve the false step?"
"Could we find this treasure-trove by a painstaking search of the hills?" asked Zurich doubtfully. "It's a biggish country."
"Man," said Eric, "I've prospected out there for fifteen years and I've scarce made a beginning. If we're to find Johnson's strike before Johnson makes a path to it, we have a month, at most. Find it, says you? Sure, we might find it. But if we do it will be by blind fool-hog luck and not by painstakin' search. Do you search, if you like. My word would be to try negotiations. Make a compromise with Johnson. And if your prudence does not like the errand, I will even take it upon myself."
"What is there to compromise? We have nothing to contribute."
"We have safety to sell," said Eric. "Seek out the man and state the case baldly: 'Sir, we have protection to sell, without which your knowledge is worthless, or near it. Protection from ourselves and all others. Make treaty with us; allot to us, jointly, some share, which you shall name yourself, and we will deal justly by you. So shall you avoid delay. You may avoid some risk. Quien sabe? If you refuse we shall truly endeavor to be interestin'; and you may get nothing.' That's what I would say."
"A share, to be named by Johnson and then be divided between ten? Well, I guess not!" declared Zurich. "To begin with, we'll find a way to stop Kid Mitchell from any Eastern trip. Capital is shy; I'm not much afraid of what Johnson can do. But this boy has the inside track."
"With my usual astuteness," remarked Something Dewing, "I had divined as much. And there is another string to our bow if we make a complete failure of this mine business—as would seem to be promised by the Gavilan fiasco. When such goodly sums are expended to procure the downfall of Kid Mitchell—an event as yet unexpectedly delayed—there's money in it somewhere. Big money! I know it. And I mean to touch some of it. My unknown benefactor shall have my every assistance to attain his hellish purpose—hellish purpose, I believe, is the phrase proper to the complexion of this affair. Then, to use the words of the impulsive Hotspur, slightly altered to suit the occasion, I'll creep upon him while he lies asleep, and in his ear I'll whisper—Snooks!"
"You don't know where he lives," said Zurich.
"Ah, but you do! I beg your pardon, Zurich—perhaps in my thoughtlessness I have wounded you. I used the wrong pronoun. I did not mean to say 'I'—much less 'you'—in reference to who should hollo 'Halves!' to our sleeping benefactor. 'We' was the word I should have used."
Zurich regarded Mr. Dewing in darkling silence; and that gentleman, in no way daunted, continued gayly:
"I see that the same idea has shadowed itself to you. You must consider us—Eric and I—equals in that enterprise, friend Mayer. Three good friends together. I begin to fear we have sadly underestimated Eric—you and I. By our own admission—and his—he is a better fighting man than either of us. You wouldn't want to displease him."
"I think you go about it in an ill way to remedy a mistake, Dewing," said Zurich. "Don't let's be silly enough to fall out over one chance gone wrong. We've got all we can attend to right now, without such a folly as that. Don't mind him, Eric. Tell me, rather, what we are going to do about this troublesome Johnson? Violence is out of the question: we need him to show us where he found that copper. Besides, it isn't safe to kill old Pete, and it never has been safe to kill old Pete. As for the Kid, I'll do what I have been urged to do this long time by the personage who takes so kindly an interest in his fortunes—I'll railroad him off to jail, at least till we get that mine or until it is, beyond question, lost to us. It isn't wise to let him go East; he might get hold of unlimited money. If he did, forewarned as he is now, Johnson would fix it so we shouldn't have a look-in. You turn this over and let me know your ideas."
"And that reminds me," said Dewing with smooth insolence, equally maddening to both hearers, "that Eric's ideas have been notably justified of late; whereas your ideas—and mine—have been stupid blunders from first to last. You see me at a stand, friend Mayer, doubtful if it were not the part of wisdom to transfer my obedience to Eric hereafter."
"For every word of that, Johnson would pay you a gold piece, and have a rare bargain of it." Zurich's voice was hard; his eye was hard. "Is this a time for quarreling among ourselves? There may be millions at stake, for all we know, and you would set us at loggerheads in a fit of spleen, like a little peevish boy. I'm ashamed of you! Get your horse and ride off the sulks. If you feel spiteful, take it out on Johnson. Get yourself a pack outfit and go find his mine."
"I'm no prospector," said the gambler disdainfully.
"No. I will tell you what you are." Tall Eric rose and towered above Dewing at the window; the sun streamed on his bright hair, "You are a crack-brained fool to tempt my hands to your throat! You will do it once too often yet. You a prospector? You never saw the day you had the makin's of a prospector in you."
"Let other men do the work and take the risk while I take the gain, and it's little I care for your opinion," rejoined Dewing. "And you would do well to keep your hands from my throat when my hand is in my coat pocket—as is the case at this present instant."
"This thing has gone far enough," said Zurich. "Anderson, come back and sit down. Dewing, go and fork that horse of yours and ride the black devil out of your heart."
"I have a thing to say, first," said Eric. "Dewing, you sought to begowk me by setting me up against Zurich—or perhaps you really thought to use me against him. Well, you won't! When we want the information about the man that has been harryin' young Mitchell, Zurich will tell us. We know too much about Zurich for him to deny us our askings. But, for your mock at me, I want you both to know two things: The first is, I desire no headship for myself; the second is this—I take Zurich's orders because I think he has the best head, as a usual thing; and I follow those orders exactly so far as I please, and no step more. I am mean and worthless because I choose to be and not at all because Mayer Zurich led me astray. Got that, now?"
"If you're quite through," said Dewing, "I'll take that ride."
The door closed behind him.
"Disappointed! Had his mouth fixed for a million or so, and didn't get it; couldn't stand the gaff; made him ugly," said Zurich slowly. "And when Dewing is ugly he is unbearable; absolutely the limit."
"Isn't he?" agreed Eric in disgust. "Enough to make a man turn honest."
Stanley Mitchell topped the last rise in Morning Gate Pass in the late afternoon. Cobre Basin spread deep and wide before him, ruddy in the low sun; Cobre town and mines, on his left, loomed dim and misshapen in the long dark shadows of the hills.
Awguan, top horse and foreman of Stanley's mount, swung pitapat down the winding pass at a brisk fox trot. The gallop, as a road gait, is frowned upon in the cow countries as immature and wasteful of equine energy.
He passed Loder's Folly, high above the trail—gray, windowless, and forlorn; the trail dipped into the cool shadows, twisted through the mazy deeps of Wait-a-Bit Canon, clambered zigzag back to the sunlit slope, and curved round the hillsides to join, in long levels, the wood roads on the northern slopes.
As he turned into the level, Stanley's musings were broken in upon by a sudden prodigious clatter. Looking up, he became aware of a terror, rolling portentous down the flinty ridge upon him; a whirlwind streak of billowed dust, shod with sparks, tipped by a hurtling color yet unknown to man; and from the whirlwind issued grievous words.
Awguan leaped forward.
Bounding over boulders or from them, flashing through catclaw and ocatillo, the appearance swooped and fell, the blend disjoined and shaped to semblance of a very small red pony bearing a very small blue boy. The pony's small red head was quite innocent of bridle; the bit was against his red breast, held there by small hands desperate on the reins; the torn headstall flapped rakishly about the red legs. Making the curve at sickening speed, balanced over everlasting nothingness for a moment of breathless equipoise, they took the trail.
Awguan thundered after. Stanley bent over, pelted by flying pebbles and fragments of idle words.
Small chance to overhaul the prodigy on that ribbed and splintered hill; Awguan held the sidelong trail at the red pony's heels. They dipped to cross an arroyo; Stan lifted his head and shouted:
"Fall off in the sand!"
"Damnfido!" wailed the blue boy.
Sand flashed in rainbow arches against Awguan's brown face—he shut his eyes against it; they turned up the hill beyond. A little space ahead showed free of bush or boulder. Awguan took the hillside below the trail, lowered his head, laid his ears back, and bunched his mighty muscles. He drew alongside; leaning far over, heel to cantle, Stan threw his arm about the small red neck, and dragged the red pony to a choking stand. The small blue boy slipped to earth, twisted the soft bridle rein once and again to a miraculous double half-hitch about the red pony's jaw, and tightened it with a jerk.
"I've got him!" shrieked the blue boy.
The red pony turned mild bright eyes upon brown Awguan, and twitched red velvet ears to express surprise, and wrinkled a polite nose.
"Hello! I hadn't noticed you before. Fine day, isn't it?" said the ears.
Awguan rolled his wicked eye and snorted. The blue boy shrilled a comment of surprising particulars—a hatless boy in denim. Stanley turned his head at a clatter of hoofs; Something Dewing, on the trail from town, galloped to join them.
"That was a creditable arrest you made, Mitchell," he said, drawing rein. "I saw it all from the top of Mule Hill. And I certainly thought our Little Boy Blue was going to take the Big Trip. He'll make a hand!"
The gambler's eyes, unguarded and sincere for once, flashed quizzical admiration at Little Boy Blue, who, concurrently with the above speech, quavered forth his lurid personal opinions of the red pony. He was a lean, large-eyed person, apparently of some nine or ten years—which left his vocabulary unaccounted for; his face was smeared and bleeding, scratched by catclaw; his apparel much betattered by the same reason.
He now checked a flood of biographical detail concerning the red pony long enough to fling a remark their way:
"Ain't no Boy Blue—damn your soul! Name's Robteeleecarr!"
Dewing and Mitchell exchanged glances.
"What's that? What did he say?"
"He means to inform you," said Dewing, "that his name is Robert E. Lee Carr." His glance swept appraisingly up the farther hill, and he chuckled: "Old Israel Putnam would be green with envy if he had seen that ride. Some boy!"
"He must be a new one to Cobre; I've never seen him before."
"Been here a week or ten days, and he's a notorious character already. So is Nan-na."
"Nan-na, I gather, being the pony?"
"Exactly. Little Apache devil, that horse is. Robert's dad, one Jackson Carr, is going to try freighting. He's camped over the ridge at Hospital Springs, letting his horses feed up and get some meat on their bones. Here! Robert E. Lee, drop that club or I'll put the dingbats on you instanter! Don't you pound that pony! I saw you yesterday racing the streets with the throat-latch of your bridle unbuckled. Serves you right!"
Robert E. Lee reluctantly abandoned the sotol stalk he had been breaking to a length suitable for admonitory purposes.
"All right! But I'll fix him yet—see if I don't! He's got to pack me back up that hill after my hat. Gimme a knife, so's I can cut a saddle string and mend this bridle." These remarks are expurgated.
He mended the bridle; he loosened the cinches and set the saddle back. Stan, dismounting, made a discovery.
"I've lost a spur. Thought something felt funny. Noticed yesterday that the strap was loose." He straightened up from a contemplation of his boot heel; with a sudden thought, he searched the inner pocket of his coat. "And that isn't all. By George, I've lost my pocketbook, and a lot of money in it! But it can't be far; I've lost it somewhere on my boy chase. Come on, Dewing; help me hunt for it."
They left the boy at his mending and took the back track. Before they had gone a dozen yards Dewing saw the lost spur, far down the hill, lodged under a prickly pear. Stanley, searching intently for his pocketbook, did not see the spur. And Dewing said nothing; he lowered his eyelids to veil a sudden evil thought, and when he raised them again his eyes, which for a little had been clear of all save boyish mischief, were once more tense and hard.
Robert E. Lee Carr clattered gayly by them and pushed up the hill to recover his hat. The two men rode on slowly; a brown pocketbook upon a brown hillside is not easy to find. But they found it at last, just where Stanley had launched his pursuit of the hatless horseman. It had been jostled from his pocket in the first wild rush. Stanley retrieved it with a sigh of relief.
"Are you sure you had your spur here?" asked Dewing. "Maybe you lost it before and didn't notice it."
"Oh, never mind the spur," said Stan. "I'm satisfied to get my money. Let's wait for Little Boy Blue and we'll all go in together."
"Want to try a little game to-night?" suggested Dewing. "I could use that money of yours. It seems a likely bunch—if it's all money. Pretty plump wallet, I call it."
"No more for me," laughed Stanley. "You behold in me a reformed character."
"Stick to that, boy," said Dewing. "Gambling is bad business."
It grew on to dusk when Robert E. Lee Carr rejoined them; it was pitch dark when they came to the Carr camp-fire at Hospital Springs, close beside the trail; when they reached Cobre, supper-time was over.
At the Mountain House Stanley ordered a special supper cooked for him, with real potatoes and cow milk. Dewing refused a drink, pleading his profession; and Stanley left his fat wallet in the Mountain House safe.
"Well, I'll say good-night now," said Dewing. "See you after supper?"
"Oh, I'll side you a ways yet. Goin' up to the shack to unsaddle. Always like to have my horse eat before I do. And you'll not see me after supper—not unless you are up at the post-office. I'm done with cards."
"I'd like to have a little chin with you to-morrow," said Dewing. "Not about cards. Business. I'm sick of cards, myself. I'll never be able to live 'em down—especially with this pleasing nickname of mine. I want to talk trade. About your ranch: you've still got your wells and water-holes? I was thinking of buying them of you and going in for the straight and narrow. I might even stock up and throw in with you—but you wouldn't want a partner from the wrong side of the table? Well, I don't blame you—but say, Stan, on the level, it's a funny old world, isn't it?"
"I'm going to take the stage to-morrow. See you when I come back. I'll sell. I'm reformed about cattle, too," said Stan.
At the ball ground he bade Dewing good-night. The latter rode on to his own hostelry at the other end of town. Civilization patronized the Admiral Dewey as nearest the railroad; mountain men favored the Mountain House as being nearest to grass.
Stanley turned up a side street to the one-roomed adobe house on the edge of town that served as city headquarters for himself and Johnson. He unsaddled in the little corral; he brought a feed of corn for brown Awguan; he brought currycomb and brush and made glossy Awguan's sleek sides, turning him loose at last, with a friendly slap, to seek pasture on Cobre Hills. Then he returned to the Mountain House for the delayed supper.
Meantime Mr. Something Dewing held a hurried consultation with Mr. Mayer Zurich; and forthwith took horse again for Morning Gate Pass, slipping by dark streets from the town, turning aside to pass Hospital Springs. Where the arrest of the red pony had been effected, Dewing dismounted; below the trail, a dozen yards away, he fished Mr. Stanley Mitchell's spur from under a prickly pear; and returned in haste to Cobre.
After his supper Stanley strolled into Zurich's—The New York Store.
Unknown to him, at that hour brown Awguan was being driven back to his little home corral, resaddled—with Stanley's saddle—and led away into the dark.
Stanley exchanged greetings with the half-dozen customers who lingered at the counters, and demanded his mail. Zurich handed out two fat letters with the postmark of Abingdon, New York. While Stanley read them, Zurich called across the store to a purchaser of cigars and tobacco: