E-text prepared by Al Haines
COURTNEY RYLEY COOPER
With Frontispiece by George W. Gage
[Frontispiece: Carbide pointing the way, he turned back, pushing the tram before him.]
Boston Little, Brown, and Company 1921 Copyright, 1921, by Little, Brown, and Company. All rights reserved Published May, 1921
G. F. C.
I'VE THREATENED YOU WITH A DEDICATION
FOR A LONG TIME AND HERE IT IS!
It was over. The rambling house, with its rickety, old-fashioned furniture—and its memories—was now deserted, except for Robert Fairchild, and he was deserted within it, wandering from room to room, staring at familiar objects with the unfamiliar gaze of one whose vision suddenly has been warned by the visitation of death and the sense of loneliness that it brings.
Loneliness, rather than grief, for it had been Robert Fairchild's promise that he would not suffer in heart for one who had longed to go into a peace for which he had waited, seemingly in vain. Year after year, Thornton Fairchild had sat in the big armchair by the windows, watching the days grow old and fade into night, studying sunset after sunset, voicing the vain hope that the gloaming might bring the twilight of his own existence,—a silent man except for this, rarely speaking of the past, never giving to the son who worked for him, cared for him, worshiped him, the slightest inkling of what might have happened in the dim days of the long ago to transform him into a beaten thing, longing for the final surcease. And when the end came, it found him in readiness, waiting in the big armchair by the windows. Even now, a book lay on the frayed carpeting of the old room, where it had fallen from relaxing fingers. Robert Fairchild picked it up, and with a sigh restored it to the grim, fumed oak case. His days of petty sacrifices that his father might while away the weary hours with reading were over.
Memories! They were all about him, in the grate with its blackened coals, the old-fashioned pictures on the walls, the almost gloomy rooms, the big chair by the window, and yet they told him nothing except that a white-haired, patient, lovable old man was gone,—a man whom he was wont to call "father." And in that going, the slow procedure of an unnatural existence had snapped for Robert Fairchild. As he roamed about in his loneliness, he wondered what he would do now, where he could go; to whom he could talk. He had worked since sixteen, and since sixteen there had been few times when he had not come home regularly each night, to wait upon the white-haired man in the big chair, to discern his wants instinctively, and to sit with him, often in silence, until the old onyx clock on the mantel had clanged eleven; it had been the same program, day, week, month and year. And now Robert Fairchild was as a person lost. The ordinary pleasures of youth had never been his; he could not turn to them with any sort of grace. The years of servitude to a beloved master had inculcated within him the feeling of self-impelled sacrifice; he had forgotten all thought of personal pleasures for their sake alone. The big chair by the window was vacant, and it created a void which Robert Fairchild could neither combat nor overcome.
What had been the past? Why the silence? Why the patient, yet impatient wait for death? The son did not know. In all his memories was only one faint picture, painted years before in babyhood: the return of his father from some place, he knew not where, a long conference with his mother behind closed doors, while he, in childlike curiosity, waited without, seeking in vain to catch some explanation. Then a sad-faced woman who cried at night when the house was still, who faded and who died. That was all. The picture carried no explanation.
And now Robert Fairchild stood on the threshold of something he almost feared to learn. Once, on a black, stormy night, they had sat together, father and son before the fire, silent for hours. Then the hand of the white-haired man had reached outward and rested for a moment on the young man's knee.
"I wrote something to you, Boy, a day or so ago," he had said. "That little illness I had prompted me to do it. I—I thought it was only fair to you. After I 'm gone, look in the safe. You 'll find the combination on a piece of paper hidden in a hole cut in that old European history in the bookcase. I have your promise, I know—that you 'll not do it until after I 'm gone."
Now Thornton Fairchild was gone. But a message had remained behind; one which the patient lips evidently had feared to utter during life. The heart of the son began to pound, slow and hard, as, with the memory of that conversation, he turned toward the bookcase and unlatched the paneled door. A moment more and the hollowed history had given up its trust, a bit of paper scratched with numbers. Robert Fairchild turned toward the stairs and the small room on the second floor which had served as his father's bedroom.
There he hesitated before the little iron safe in the corner, summoning the courage to unlock the doors of a dead man's past. At last he forced himself to his knees and to the numerals of the combination.
The safe had not been opened in years; that was evident from the creaking of the plungers as they fell, the gummy resistance of the knob as Fairchild turned it in accordance with the directions on the paper. Finally, a great wrench, and the bolt was drawn grudgingly back; a strong pull, and the safe opened.
A few old books; ledgers in sheepskin binding. Fairchild disregarded these for the more important things that might lie behind the little inner door of the cabinet. His hand went forward, and he noticed, in a hazy sort of way, that it was trembling. The door was unlocked; he drew it open and crouched a moment, staring, before he reached for the thinner of two envelopes which lay before him. A moment later he straightened and turned toward the light. A crinkling of paper, a quick-drawn sigh between clenched teeth; it was a letter; his strange, quiet, hunted-appearing father was talking to him through the medium of ink and paper, after death.
Closely written, hurriedly, as though to finish an irksome task in as short a space as possible, the missive was one of several pages,—pages which Robert Fairchild hesitated to read. The secret—and he knew full well that there was a secret—had been in the atmosphere about him ever since he could remember. Whether or not this was the solution of it, Robert Fairchild did not know, and the natural reticence with which he had always approached anything regarding his father's life gave him an instinctive fear, a sense of cringing retreat from anything that might now open the doors of mystery. But it was before him, waiting in his father's writing, and at last his gaze centered; he read:
Before I begin this letter to you I must ask that you take no action whatever until you have seen my attorney—he will be yours from now on. I have never mentioned him to you before; it was not necessary and would only have brought you curiosity which I could not have satisfied. But now, I am afraid, the doors must be unlocked. I am gone. You are young, you have been a faithful son and you are deserving of every good fortune that may possibly come to you. I am praying that the years have made a difference, and that Fortune may smile upon you as she frowned on me. Certainly, she can injure me no longer. My race is run; I am beyond earthly fortunes.
Therefore, when you have finished with this, take the deeds inclosed in the larger envelope and go to St. Louis. There, look up Henry F. Beamish, attorney-at-law, in the Princess Building. He will explain them to you.
Beyond this, I fear, there is little that can aid you. I cannot find the strength, now that I face it, to tell you what you may find if you follow the lure that the other envelope holds forth to you.
There is always the hope that Fortune may be kind to me at last, and smile upon my memory by never letting you know why I have been the sort of man you have known, and not the jovial, genial companion that a father should be. But there are certain things, my son, which defeat a man. It killed your mother—every day since her death I have been haunted by that fact; my prayer is that it may not kill you, spiritually, if not physically. Therefore is it not better that it remain behind a cloud until such time as Fortune may reveal it—and hope that such a time will never come? I think so—not for myself, for when you read this, I shall be gone; but for you, that you may not be handicapped by the knowledge of the thing which whitened my hair and aged me, long before my time.
If he lives, and I am sure he does, there is one who will hurry to your aid as soon as he knows you need him. Accept his counsels, laugh at his little eccentricities if you will, but follow his judgment implicitly. Above all, ask him no questions that he does not care to answer—there are things that he may not deem wise to tell. It is only fair that he be given the right to choose his disclosures.
There is little more to say. Beamish will attend to everything for you—if you care to go. Sell everything that is here; the house, the furniture, the belongings. It is my wish, and you will need the capital—if you go. The ledgers in the safe are only old accounts which would be so much Chinese to you now. Burn them. There is nothing else to be afraid of—I hope you will never find anything to fear. And if circumstances should arise to bring before you the story of that which has caused me so much darkness, I have nothing to say in self-extenuation. I made one mistake—that of fear—and in committing one error, I shouldered every blame. It makes little difference now. I am dead—and free.
My love to you, my son. I hope that wealth and happiness await you. Blood of my blood flows in your veins—and strange though it may sound to you—it is the blood of an adventurer. I can almost see you smile at that! An old man who sat by the window, staring out; afraid of every knock at the door—and yet an adventurer! But they say, once in the blood, it never dies. My wish is that you succeed where I failed—and God be with you!
For a long moment Robert Fairchild stood staring at the letter, his heart pounding with excitement, his hands grasping the foolscap paper as though with a desire to tear through the shield which the written words had formed about a mysterious past and disclose that which was so effectively hidden. So much had the letter told—and yet so little! Dark had been the hints of some mysterious, intangible thing, great enough in its horror and its far-reaching consequences to cause death for one who had known of it and a living panic for him who had perpetrated it. As for the man who stood now with the letter clenched before him, there was promise of wealth, and the threat of sorrow, the hope of happiness, yet the foreboding omen of discoveries which might ruin the life of the reader as the existence of the writer had been blasted,—until death had brought relief. Of all this had the letter told, but when Robert Fairchild read it again in the hope of something tangible, something that might give even a clue to the reason for it all, there was nothing. In that super-calmness which accompanies great agitation, Fairchild folded the paper, placed it in its envelope, then slipped it into an inside pocket. A few steps and he was before the safe once more and reaching for the second envelope.
Heavy and bulky was this, filled with tax receipts, with plats and blueprints and the reports of surveyors. Here was an assay slip, bearing figures and notations which Robert Fairchild could not understand. Here a receipt for money received, here a vari-colored map with lines and figures and conglomerate designs which Fairchild believed must relate in some manner to the location of a mining camp; all were aged and worn at the edges, giving evidence of having been carried, at some far time of the past, in a wallet. More receipts, more blueprints, then a legal document, sealed and stamped, and bearing the words:
County of Clear Creek, ) ss. State of Colorado. )
KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS: That on this day of our Lord, February 22, 1892, Thornton W. Fairchild, having presented the necessary affidavits and statements of assessments accomplished in accordance with—
On it trailed in endless legal phraseology, telling in muddled, attorney-like language, the fact that the law had been fulfilled in its requirements, and that the claim for which Thornton Fairchild had worked was rightfully his, forever. A longer statement full of figures, of diagrams and surveyor's calculations which Fairchild could neither decipher nor understand, gave the location, the town site and the property included within the granted rights. It was something for an attorney, such as Beamish, to interpret, and Fairchild reached for the age-yellowed envelope to return the papers to their resting place. But he checked his motion involuntarily and for a moment held the envelope before him, staring at it with wide eyes. Then, as though to free by the stronger light of the window the haunting thing which faced him, he rose and hurried across the room, to better light, only to find it had not been imagination; the words still were before him, a sentence written in faint, faded ink proclaiming the contents to be "Papers relating to the Blue Poppy Mine", and written across this a word in the bolder, harsher strokes of a man under stress of emotion, a word which held the eyes of Robert Fairchild fixed and staring, a word which spelled books of the past and evil threats of the future, the single, ominous word:
One works quickly when prodded by the pique of curiosity. And in spite of all that omens could foretell, in spite of the dull, gloomy life which had done its best to fashion a matter-of-fact brain for Robert Fairchild, one sentence in that letter had found an echo, had started a pulsating something within him that he never before had known:
"—It is the blood of an adventurer."
And it seemed that Robert Fairchild needed no more than the knowledge to feel the tingle of it; the old house suddenly became stuffy and prison-like as he wandered through it. Within his pocket were two envelopes filled with threats of the future, defying him to advance and fight it out,—whatever it might be. Again and again pounded through his head the fact that only a night of travel intervened between Indianapolis and St. Louis; within twelve hours he could be in the office of Henry Beamish. And then—
A hurried resolution. A hasty packing of a traveling bag and the cashing of a check at the cigar store down on the corner. A wakeful night while the train clattered along upon its journey. Then morning and walking of streets until office hours. At last:
"I 'm Robert Fairchild," he said, as he faced a white-haired, Cupid-faced man in the rather dingy offices of the Princess Building. A slow smile spread over the pudgy features of the genial appearing attorney, and he waved a fat hand toward the office's extra chair.
"Sit down, Son," came casually. "Need n't have announced yourself. I 'd have known you—just like your father, Boy. How is he?" Then his face suddenly sobered. "I 'm afraid your presence is the answer. Am I right?"
Fairchild nodded gravely. The old attorney slowly placed his fat hands together, peaking the fingers, and stared out of the window to the grimy roof and signboards of the next building.
"Perhaps it's better so," he said at last. "We had n't seen each other in ten years—not since I went up to Indianapolis to have my last talk with him. Did he get any cheerier before—he went?"
"Just the same, huh? Always waiting?"
"Afraid of every step on the veranda, of every knock at the door."
Again the attorney stared out of the window.
"I?" Fairchild leaned forward in his chair. "I don't understand."
"Are you afraid?"
The lawyer smiled.
"I don't know. Only—" and he leaned forward—"it's just as though I were living my younger days over this morning. It doesn't seem any time at all since your father was sitting just about where you are now, and gad, Boy, how much you look like he looked that morning! The same gray-blue, earnest eyes, the same dark hair, the same strong shoulders, and good, manly chin, the same build—and look of determination about him. The call of adventure was in his blood, and he sat there all enthusiastic, telling me what he intended doing and asking my advice—although he would n't have followed it if I had given it. Back home was a baby and the woman he loved, and out West was sudden wealth, waiting for the right man to come along and find it. Gad!" White-haired old Beamish chuckled with the memory of it. "He almost made me throw over the law business that morning and go out adventuring with him! Then four years later," the tone changed suddenly, "he came back."
"What then?" Fairchild was on the edge of his chair. But Beamish only spread his hands.
"Truthfully, Boy, I don't know. I have guessed—but I won't tell you what. All I know is that your father found what he was looking for and was on the point of achieving his every dream, when something happened. Then three men simply disappeared from the mining camp, announcing that they had failed and were going to hunt new diggings. That was all. One of them was your father—"
"But you said that he 'd found—"
"Silver, running twenty ounces to the ton on an eight-inch vein which gave evidences of being only the beginning of a bonanza! I know, because he had written me that, a month before."
"And he abandoned it?"
"He 'd forgotten what he had written when I saw him again. I did n't question him. I did n't want to—his face told me enough to guess that I would n't learn. He went home then, after giving me enough money to pay the taxes on the mine for the next twenty years, simply as his attorney and without divulging his whereabouts. I did it. Eight years or so later, I saw him in Indianapolis. He gave me more money—enough for eleven or twelve years—"
"And that was ten years ago?" Robert Fairchild's eyes were reminiscent. "I remember—I was only a kid. He sold off everything he had, except the house."
Henry Beamish walked to his safe and fumbled there a moment, to return at last with a few slips of paper.
"Here 's the answer," he said quietly, "the taxes are paid until 1922."
Robert Fairchild studied the receipts carefully—futilely. They told him nothing. The lawyer stood looking down upon him; at last he laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Boy," came quietly, "I know just about what you 're thinking. I 've spent a few hours at the same kind of a job myself, and I 've called old Henry Beamish more kinds of a fool than you can think of for not coming right out flat-footed and making Thornton tell me the whole story. But some way, when I 'd look into those eyes with the fire all dead and ashen within them, and see the lines of an old man in his young face, I—well, I guess I 'm too soft-hearted to make folks suffer. I just couldn't do it!"
"So you can tell me nothing?"
"I 'm afraid that's true—in one way. In another I 'm a fund of information. To-night you and I will go to Indianapolis and probate the will—it's simple enough; I 've had it in my safe for ten years. After that, you become the owner of the Blue Poppy mine, to do with as you choose."
The old lawyer chuckled.
"Don't ask my advice, Boy. I have n't any. Your father told me what to do if you decided to try your luck—and silver 's at $1.29. It means a lot of money for anybody who can produce pay ore—unless what he said about the mine pinching out was true."
Again the thrill of a new thing went through Robert Fairchild's veins, something he never had felt until twelve hours before; again the urge for strange places, new scenes, the fire of the hunt after the hidden wealth of silver-seamed hills. Somewhere it lay awaiting him; nor did he even know in what form. Robert Fairchild's life had been a plodding thing of books and accounts, of high desks which as yet had failed to stoop his shoulders, of stuffy offices which had been thwarted so far in their grip at his lung power; the long walk in the morning and the tired trudge homeward at night to save petty carfare for a silent man's pettier luxuries had looked after that. But the recoil had not exerted itself against an office-cramped brain, a dusty ledger-filled life that suddenly felt itself crying out for the free, open country, without hardly knowing what the term meant. Old Beamish caught the light in the eyes, the quick contraction of the hands, and smiled.
"You don't need to tell me, Son," he said slowly. "I can see the symptoms. You 've got the fever—You 're going to work that mine. Perhaps," and he shrugged his shoulders, "it's just as well. But there are certain things to remember."
"Ohadi is thirty-eight miles from Denver. That's your goal. Out there, they 'll tell you how the mine caved in, and how Thornton Fairchild, who had worked it, together with his two men, Harry Harkins, a Cornishman, and 'Sissie' Larsen, a Swede, left town late one night for Cripple Creek—and that they never came back. That's the story they 'll tell you. Agree with it. Tell them that Harkins, as far as you know, went back to Cornwall, and that you have heard vaguely that Larsen later followed the mining game farther out West."
"Is it the truth?"
"How do I know? It 's good enough—people should n't ask questions. Tell nothing more than that—and be careful of your friends. There is one man to watch—if he is still alive. They call him 'Squint' Rodaine, and he may or may not still be there. I don't know—I 'm only sure of the fact that your father hated him, fought him and feared him. The mine tunnel is two miles up Kentucky Gulch and one hundred yards to the right. A surveyor can lead you to the very spot. It's been abandoned now for thirty years. What you 'll find there is more than I can guess. But, Boy," and his hand clenched tight on Robert Fairchild's shoulder, "whatever you do, whatever you run into, whatever friends or enemies you find awaiting you, don't let that light die out of your eyes and don't pull in that chin! If you find a fight on your hands, whether it's man, beast or nature, sail into it! If you run into things that cut your very heart out to learn—beat 'em down and keep going! And win! There—that's all the advice I know. Meet me at the 11:10 train for Indianapolis. Good-by."
"Good-by—I 'll be there." Fairchild grasped the pudgy hand and left the office. For a moment afterward, old Henry Beamish stood thinking and looking out over the dingy roof adjacent. Then, somewhat absently, he pressed the ancient electric button for his more ancient stenographer.
"Call a messenger, please," he ordered when she entered, "I want to send a cablegram."
Two weeks later, Robert Fairchild sat in the smoking compartment of the Overland Limited, looking at the Rocky Mountains in the distance. In his pocket were a few hundred dollars; in the bank in Indianapolis a few thousand, representing the final proceeds of the sale of everything that had connected him with a rather dreary past. Out before him—
The train had left Limon Junction on its last, clattering, rushing leg of the journey across the plains, tearing on through a barren country of tumbleweed, of sagebrush, of prairie-dog villages and jagged arroyos toward the great, crumpled hills in the distance,—hills which meant everything to Robert Fairchild. Two weeks had created a metamorphosis in what had been a plodding, matter-of-fact man with dreams which did not extend beyond his ledgers and his gloomy home—but now a man leaning his head against the window of a rushing train, staring ahead toward the Rockies and the rainbow they held for him. Back to the place where his father had gone with dreams aglow was the son traveling now,—back into the rumpled mountains where the blue haze hung low and protecting as though over mysteries and treasures which awaited one man and one alone. Robert Fairchild momentarily had forgotten the foreboding omens which, like murky shadows, had been cast in his path by a beaten, will-broken father. He only knew that he was young, that he was strong, that he was free from the drudgery which had sought to claim him forever; he felt only the surge of excitement that can come with new surroundings, new country, new life. Out there before him, as the train rattled over culverts spanning the dry arroyos, or puffed gingerly up the grades toward the higher levels of the plains, were the hills, gray and brown in the foreground, blue as the blue sea farther on, then fringing into the sun-pinked radiance of the snowy range, forming the last barrier against a turquoise sky. It thrilled Fairchild, it caused his heart to tug and pull,—nor could he tell exactly why.
Still eighty miles away, the range was sharply outlined to Fairchild, from the ragged hump of Pikes Peak far to the south, on up to where the gradual lowering of the mighty upheaval slid away into Wyoming. Eighty miles, yet they were clear with the clearness that only altitudinous country can bring; alluring, fascinating, beckoning to him until his being rebelled against the comparative slowness of the train, and the minutes passed in a dragging, long-drawn-out sequence that was almost an agony to Robert Fairchild.
Hours! The hills came closer. Still closer; then, when it seemed that the train must plunge straight into them, they drew away again, as though through some optical illusion, and brooded in the background, as the long, transcontinental train began to bang over the frogs and switches as it made its entrance into Denver. Fairchild went through the long chute and to a ticket window of the Union Station.
"When can I get a train for Ohadi?"
The ticket seller smiled. "You can't get one."
"But the map shows that a railroad runs there—"
"Ran there, you mean," chaffed the clerk.
"The best you can do is get to Forks Creek and walk the rest of the way. That's a narrow-gauge line, and Clear Creek 's been on a rampage. It took out about two hundred feet of trestle, and there won't be a train into Ohadi for a week."
The disappointment on Fairchild's face was more than apparent, almost boyish in its depression. The ticket seller leaned closer to the wicket.
"Stranger out here?"
"Very much of one."
"In a hurry to get to Ohadi?"
"Then you can go uptown and hire a taxi—they 've got big cars for mountain work and there are good roads all the way. It 'll cost fifteen or twenty dollars. Or—"
Fairchild smiled. "Give me the other system if you 've got one. I 'm not terribly long on cash—for taxis."
"Certainly. I was just going to tell you about it. No use spending that money if you 've got a little pep, and it is n't a matter of life or death. Go up to the Central Loop—anybody can direct you—and catch a street car for Golden. That eats up fifteen miles and leaves just twenty-three miles more. Then ask somebody to point out the road over Mount Lookout. Machines go along there every few minutes—no trouble at all to catch a ride. You 'll be in Ohadi in no time."
Fairchild obeyed the instructions, and in the baggage room rechecked his trunk to follow him, lightening his traveling bag at the same time until it carried only necessities. A luncheon, then the street car. Three quarters of an hour later, he began the five-mile trudge up the broad, smooth, carefully groomed automobile highway which masters Mount Lookout. A rumbling sound behind him, then as he stepped to one side, a grimy truck driver leaned out to shout as he passed:
"Want a lift? Hop on! Can't stop—too much grade."
A running leap, and Fairchild seated himself on the tailboard of the truck, swinging his legs and looking out over the fading plains as the truck roared and clattered upward along the twisting mountain road.
Higher, higher, while the truck labored along the grade, and while the buildings in Golden below shrank smaller and smaller. The reservoir lake in the center of the town, a broad expanse of water only a short time before, began to take on the appearance of some great, blue-white diamond glistening in the sun. Gradually a stream outlined itself in living topography upon a map which seemed as large as the world itself. Denver, fifteen miles away, came into view, its streets showing like seams in a well-sewn garment, the sun, even at this distance, striking a sheen from the golden dome of the capitol building. Higher! The chortling truck gasped at the curves and tugged on the straightaway, but Robert Fairchild had ceased to hear. His every attention was centered on the tremendous stage unfolded before him, the vast stretches of the plains rolling away beneath, even into Kansas and Wyoming and Nebraska, hundreds of miles away, plains where once the buffalo had roamed in great, shaggy herds, where once the emigrant trains had made their slow, rocking progress into a Land of Heart's Desire; and he began to understand something of the vastness of life, the great scope of ambition; new things to a man whose world, until two weeks before, had been the four chalky walls of an office.
Cool breezes from pine-fringed gulches brushed his cheek and smoothed away the burning touch of a glaring sun; the truck turned into the hairpin curves of the steep ascent, giving him a glimpse of deep valleys, green from the touch of flowing streams, of great clefts with their vari-hued splotches of granite, and on beyond, mound after mound of pine-clothed hills, fringing the peaks of eternal snow, far away. The blood suddenly grew hot in Fairchild's veins; he whistled, he repressed a wild, spasmodic desire to shout. The spirit that had been the spirit of the determined men of the emigrant trains was his now; he remembered that he was traveling slowly toward a fight—against whom, or what, he knew not—but he welcomed it just the same. The exaltation of rarefied atmosphere was in his brain; dingy offices were gone forever. He was free; and for the first time in his life, he appreciated the meaning of the word.
Upward, still upward! The town below became merely a checkerboard thing, the lake a dot of gleaming silver, the stream a scintillating ribbon stretching off into the foothills. A turn, and they skirted a tremendous valley, its slopes falling away in sheer descents from the roadway. A darkened, moist stretch of road, fringed by pines, then a jogging journey over rolling table-land. At last came a voice from the driver's seat, and Fairchild turned like a man suddenly awakened.
"Turn off up here at Genesee Mountain. Which way do you go?"
"Trying to get to Ohadi." Fairchild shouted it above the roar of the engine. The driver waved a hand forward.
"Keep to the main road. Drop off when I make the turn. You 'll pick up another ride soon. Plenty of chances."
"Thanks for the lift."
"Aw, forget it."
The truck wheeled from the main road and chugged away, leaving Fairchild afoot, making as much progress as possible toward his goal until good fortune should bring a swifter means of locomotion. A half-mile he walked, studying the constant changes of the scenery before him, the slopes and rises, the smooth valleys and jagged crags above, the clouds as they drifted low upon the higher peaks, shielding them from view for a moment, then disappearing. Then suddenly he wheeled. Behind him sounded the swift droning of a motor, cut-out open, as it rushed forward along the road,—and the noise told a story of speed.
Far at the brow of a steep hill it appeared, seeming to hang in space for an instant before leaping downward. Rushing, plunging, once skidding dangerously at a small curve, it made the descent, bumped over a bridge, was lost for a second in the pines, then sped toward him, a big touring car, with a small, resolute figure clinging to the wheel. The quarter of a mile changed to a furlong, the furlong to a hundred yards,—then, with a report like a revolver shot, the machine suddenly slewed in drunken fashion far to one side of the road, hung dangerously over the steep cliff an instant, righted itself, swayed forward and stopped, barely twenty-five yards away. Staring, Robert Fairchild saw that a small, trim figure had leaped forth and was waving excitedly to him, and he ran forward.
His first glance had proclaimed it a boy; the second had told a different story. A girl—dressed in far different fashion from Robert Fairchild's limited specifications of feminine garb—she caused him to gasp in surprise, then to stop and stare. Again she waved a hand and stamped a foot excitedly; a vehement little thing in a snug, whipcord riding habit and a checkered cap pulled tight over closely braided hair, she awaited him with all the impatience of impetuous womanhood.
"For goodness' sake, come here!" she called, as he still stood gaping. "I 'll give you five dollars. Hurry!"
Fairchild managed to voice the fact that he would be willing to help without remuneration, as he hurried forward, still staring at her, a vibrant little thing with dark-brown wisps of hair which had been blown from beneath her cap straying about equally dark-brown, snapping eyes and caressing the corners of tightly pressed, momentarily impatient lips. Only a second she hesitated, then dived for the tonneau, jerking with all her strength at the heavy seat cushion, as he stepped to the running board beside her.
"Can't get this dinged thing up!" she panted. "Always sticks when you 're in a hurry. That's it! Jerk it. Thanks! Here!" She reached forward and a small, sun-tanned hand grasped a greasy jack, "Slide under the back axle and put this jack in place, will you? And rush it! I 've got to change a tire in nothing flat! Hurry!"
Fairchild, almost before he knew it, found himself under the rear of the car, fussing with a refractory lifting jack and trying to keep his eyes from the view of trimly clad, brown-shod little feet, as they pattered about at the side of the car, hurried to the running board, then stopped as wrenches and a hammer clattered to the ground. Then one shoe was raised, to press tight against a wheel; metal touched metal, a feminine gasp sounded as strength was exerted in vain, then eddying dust as the foot stamped, accompanied by an exasperated ejaculation.
"Ding these old lugs! They 're rusted! Got that jack in place yet?"
"Yes! I'm raising the car now."
"Oh, please hurry." There was pleading in the tone now. "Please!"
The car creaked upward. Out came Fairchild, brushing the dust from his clothes. But already the girl was pressing the lug wrench into his hands.
"Don't mind that dirt," came her exclamation. "I 'll—I 'll give you some extra money to get your suit cleaned. Loosen those lugs, while I get the spare tire off the back. And for goodness' sake, please hurry!"
Astonishment had taken away speech for Fairchild. He could only wonder—and obey. Swiftly he twirled the wrench while lug after lug fell to the ground, and while the girl, struggling with a tire seemingly almost as big as herself, trundled the spare into position to await the transfer. As for Fairchild, he was in the midst of a task which he had seen performed far more times than he had done it himself. He strove to remove the blown-out shoe with the cap still screwed on the valve stem; he fussed and swore under his breath, and panted, while behind him a girl in whipcord riding habit and close-pulled cap fidgeted first on one tan-clad foot, then on the other, anxiously watching the road behind her and calling constantly for speed.
At last the job was finished, the girl fastening the useless shoe behind the machine while Fairchild tightened the last of the lugs. Then as he straightened, a small figure shot to his side, took the wrench from his hand and sent it, with the other tools, clattering into the tonneau. A tiny hand went into a pocket, something that crinkled was shoved into the man's grasp, and while he stood there gasping, she leaped to the driver's seat, slammed the door, spun the starter until it whined, and with open cutout roaring again, was off and away, rocking down the mountain side, around a curve and out of sight—while Fairchild merely stood there, staring wonderingly at a ten-dollar bill!
A noise from the rear, growing louder, and the amazed man turned to see a second machine, filled with men, careening toward him. Fifty feet away the brakes creaked, and the big automobile came to a skidding, dust-throwing stop. A sun-browned man in a Stetson hat, metal badge gleaming from beneath his coat, leaned forth.
"Which way did he go?"
"He?" Robert Fairchild stared.
"Yeh. Did n't a man just pass here in an automobile? Where'd he go—straight on the main road or off on the circuit trail?"
"It—it was n't a man."
"Not a man?" The four occupants of the machine stared at him. "Don't try to bull us that it was a woman."
"Oh, no—no—of course not." Fairchild had found his senses. "But it was n't a man. It—it was a boy, just about fifteen years old."
"Oh, yes—" Fairchild was swimming in deep water now. "I got a good look at him. He—he took that road off to the left."
It was the opposite one to which the hurrying fugitive in whipcord had taken. There was doubt in the interrogator's eyes.
"Sure of that?" he queried. "I 'm the sheriff of Arapahoe County. That's an auto bandit ahead of us. We—"
"Well, I would n't swear to it. There was another machine ahead, and I lost 'em both for a second down there by the turn. I did n't see the other again, but I did get a glimpse of one off on that side road. It looked like the car that passed me. That's all I know."
"Probably him, all right." The voice came from the tonneau. "Maybe he figured to give us the slip and get back to Denver. You did n't notice the license number?" This to Fairchild. That bewildered person shook his head.
"No. Did n't you?"
"Could n't—covered with dust when we first took the trail and never got close enough afterward. But it was the same car—that's almost a cinch."
"Let's go!" The sheriff was pressing a foot on the accelerator. Down the hill went the car, to skid, then to make a short turn on to the road which led away from the scent, leaving behind a man standing in the middle of the road, staring at a ten-dollar bill,—and wondering why he had lied!
Wonderment which got nowhere. The sheriff's car returned before Fairchild reached the bottom of the grade, and again stopped to survey the scene of defeat, while Fairchild once more told his story, deleting items which, to him, appeared unnecessary for consumption by officers of the law. Carefully the sheriff surveyed the winding road before him and scratched his head.
"Don't guess it would have made much difference which way he went," came ruefully at last, "I never saw a fellow turn loose with so much speed on a mountain road. We never could have caught him!"
"Dangerous character?" Fairchild hardly knew why he asked the question. The sheriff smiled grimly.
"If it was the fellow we were after, he was plenty dangerous. We were trailing him on word from Denver—described the car and said he 'd pulled a daylight hold-up on a pay-wagon for the Smelter Company—so when the car went through Golden, we took up the trail a couple of blocks behind. He kept the same speed for a little while until one of my deputies got a little anxious and took a shot at a tire. Man, how he turned on the juice! I thought that thing was a jack rabbit the way it went up the hill! We never had a chance after that!"
"And you 're sure it was the same person?"
The sheriff toyed with the gear shift.
"You never can be sure about nothing in this business," came finally. "But there 's this to think about: if that fellow was n't guilty of something, why did he run?"
"It might have been a kid in a stolen machine," came from the back seat.
"If it was, we 've got to wait until we get a report on it. I guess it's us back to the office."
The automobile went its way then, and Fairchild his, still wondering; the sheriff's question, with a different gender, recurring again and again:
"If she was n't guilty of something, why did she run?"
And why had she? More, why had she been willing to give ten dollars in payment for the mere changing of a tire? And why had she not offered some explanation of it all? It was a problem which almost wiped out for Robert Fairchild the zest of the new life into which he was going, the great gamble he was about to take. And so thoroughly did it engross him that it was not until a truck had come to a full stop behind him, and a driver mingled a shout with the tooting of his horn, that he turned to allow its passage.
"Did n't hear you, old man," he apologized. "Could you give a fellow a lift?"
"Guess so." It was friendly, even though a bit disgruntled; "hop on."
And Fairchild hopped, once more to sit on the tailboard, swinging his legs, but this time his eyes saw the ever-changing scenery without noticing it. In spite of himself, Fairchild found himself constantly staring at a vision of a pretty girl in a riding habit, with dark-brown hair straying about equally dark-brown eyes, almost frenzied in her efforts to change a tire in time to elude a pursuing sheriff. Some way, it all did n't blend. Pretty girls, no doubt, could commit infractions of the law just as easily as ones less gifted with good looks. Yet if this particular pretty girl had held up a pay wagon, why did n't the telephoned notice from Denver state the fact, instead of referring to her as a man? And if she had n't committed some sort of depredation against the law, why on earth was she willing to part with ten dollars, merely to save a few moments in changing a tire and thus elude a sheriff? If there had been nothing wrong, could not a moment of explanation have satisfied any one of the fact? Anyway, were n't the officers looking for a man instead of for a woman? And yet:
"If she was n't guilty of something, why did she run?"
It was too much for any one, and Fairchild knew it. Yet he clung grimly to the mystery as the truck clattered on, mile after mile, while the broad road led along the sides of the hills, finally to dip downward and run beside the bubbling Clear Creek,—clear no longer in the memory of the oldest inhabitant; but soiled by the silica from ore deposits that, churned and rechurned, gave to the stream a whitish, almost milk-like character, as it twisted in and out of the tortuous canon on its turbulent journey to the sea. But Fairchild failed to notice either that or the fact that ancient, age-whitened water wheels had begun to appear here and there, where gulch miners, seekers after gold in the silt of the creek's bed, had abandoned them years before; that now and then upon the hills showed the gaunt scars of mine openings,—reminders of dreams of a day long past; or even the more important fact that in the distance, softened by the mellowing rays of a dying sun, a small town gradually was coming into view. A mile more, then the truck stopped with a jerk.
"Where you bound for, pardner?"
Fairchild turned absently, then grinned in embarrassment.
"That's it, straight ahead. I turn off here. Stranger?"
Fairchild shrugged his shoulders and nodded noncommittally. The truck driver toyed with his wheel.
"Just thought I 'd ask. Plenty of work around here for single and double jackers. Things are beginning to look up a bit—at least in silver. Gold mines ain't doing much yet—but there 's a good deal happening with the white stuff."
"Thanks. Do you know a good place to stop?"
"Yeh. Mother Howard's Boarding House. Everybody goes there, sooner or later. You 'll see it on the left-hand side of the street before you get to the main block. Good old girl; knows how to treat anybody in the mining game from operators on down. She was here when mining was mining!"
Which was enough recommendation for Mother Howard. Fairchild lifted his bag from the rear of the vehicle, waved a farewell to the driver and started into the village. And then—for once—the vision of the girl departed, momentarily, to give place to other thoughts, other pictures, of a day long gone.
The sun was slanting low, throwing deep shadows from the hills into the little valley with its chattering, milk-white stream, softening the scars of the mountains with their great refuse dumps; reminders of hopes of twenty years before and as bare of vegetation as in the days when the pick and gad and drill of the prospector tore the rock loose from its hiding place under the surface of the ground. Nature, in the mountainous country, resents any outrage against her dignity; the scars never heal; the mine dumps of a score of years ago remain the same, without a single shrub or weed or blade of grass growing in the big heaps of rocky refuse to shield them.
But now it was all softened and aglow with sunset. The deep red buildings of the Argonaut tunnel—a great, criss-crossing hole through the hills that once connected with more than thirty mines and their feverish activities—were denuded of their rust and lack of repair. The steam from the air-compressing engine, furnishing the necessary motive power for the drills that still worked in the hills, curled upward in billowy, rainbow-like coloring. The scrub pines of the almost barren mountains took on a fluffier, softer tone; the jutting rocks melted away into their own shadows, it was a picture of peace and of memories.
And it had been here that Thornton Fairchild, back in the nineties, had dreamed his dreams and fought his fight. It had been here—somewhere in one of the innumerable canons that led away from the little town on every side—that Thornton Fairchild had followed the direction of "float ore" to its resting place, to pursue the vagrant vein through the hills, to find it at last, to gloat over it in his letters to Beamish and then to—what?
A sudden cramping caught the son's heart, and it pounded with something akin to fear. The old foreboding of his father's letter had come upon him, the mysterious thread of that elusive, intangible Thing, great enough to break the will and resistance of a strong man and turn him into a weakling—silent, white-haired—sitting by a window, waiting for death. What had it been? Why had it come upon his father? How could it be fought? All so suddenly, Robert Fairchild had realized that he was in the country of the invisible enemy, there to struggle against it without the slightest knowledge of what it was or how it could be combated. His forehead felt suddenly damp and cold. He brushed away the beady perspiration with a gesture almost of anger, then with a look of relief, turned in at a small white gate toward a big, rambling building which proclaimed itself, by the sign on the door, to be Mother Howard's Boarding House.
A moment of waiting, then he faced a gray-haired, kindly faced woman, who stared at him with wide-open eyes as she stood, hands on hips, before him.
"Don't you tell me I don't know you!" she burst forth at last.
"I 'm afraid you don't."
"Don't I?" Mother Howard cocked her head. "If you ain't a Fairchild, I 'll never feed another miner corned beef and cabbage as long as I live. Ain't you now?" she persisted, "ain't you a Fairchild?"
The man laughed in spite of himself. "You guessed it."
"You 're Thornton Fairchild's boy!" She had reached out for his handbag, and then, bustling about him, drew him into the big "parlor" with its old-fashioned, plush-covered chairs, its picture album, its glass-covered statuary on the old, onyx mantel. "Did n't I know you the minute I saw you? Land, you're the picture of your dad! Sakes alive, how is he?"
There was a moment of silence. Fairchild found himself suddenly halting and boyish as he stood before her.
"He 's—he 's gone, Mrs. Howard."
"Dead?" She put up both hands. "It don't seem possible. And me remembering him looking just like you, full of life and strong and—"
"Our pictures of him are a good deal different. I—I guess you knew him when everything was all right for him. Things were different after he got home again."
Mother Howard looked quickly about her, then with a swift motion closed the door.
"Son," she asked in a low voice, "did n't he ever get over it?"
"It?" Fairchild felt that he stood on the threshold of discoveries. "What do you mean?"
"Didn't he ever tell you anything, Son?"
"Well, there was n't any need to." But Mother Howard's sudden embarrassment, her change of color, told Fairchild it was n't the truth. "He just had a little bad luck out here, that was all. His—his mine pinched out just when he thought he 'd struck it rich—or something like that."
"Are you sure that is the truth?"
For a second they faced each other, Robert Fairchild serious and intent, Mother Howard looking at him with eyes defiant, yet compassionate. Suddenly they twinkled, the lips broke from their straight line into a smile, and a kindly old hand reached out to take him by the arm.
"Don't you stand there and try to tell Mother Howard she don't know what she 's talking about!" came in tones of mock severity. "Hear me? Now, you get up them steps and wash up for dinner. Take the first room on the right. It's a nice, cheery place. And get that dust and grime off of you. The dinner bell will ring in about fifteen minutes, and they 's always a rush for the food. So hurry!"
In his room, Fairchild tried not to think. His brain was becoming too crammed with queries, with strange happenings and with the aggravating mysticisms of the life into which his father's death had thrown him to permit clearness of vision. Even in Mother Howard, he had not been able to escape it; she told all too plainly, both by her actions and her words, that she knew something of the mystery of the past,—and had falsified to keep the knowledge from him.
It was too galling for thought. Robert Fairchild hastily made his toilet, then answered the ringing of the dinner bell, to be introduced to strong-shouldered men who gathered about the long tables; Cornishmen, who talked an "h-less" language, ruddy-faced Americans, and a sprinkling of English, all of whom conversed about things which were to Fairchild as so much Greek,—of "levels" and "stopes" and "winzes", of "skips" and "manways" and "raises", which meant nothing to the man who yet must master them all, if he were to follow his ambition. Some ate with their knives, meeting the food halfway from their plates; some acted and spoke in a manner revealing a college education and the poise that it gives. But all were as one, all talking together; the operator no more enthusiastic than the man whose sole recompense was the five dollars a day he received for drilling powder holes; all happy, all optimistic, all engrossed in the hopes and dreams that only mining can give. And among them Mother Howard moved, getting the latest gossip from each, giving her views on every problem and incidentally seeing that the plates were filled to the satisfaction of even the hungriest.
As for Robert Fairchild, he spoke but seldom, except to acknowledge the introductions as Mother Howard made him known to each of his table mates. But it was not aloofness; it was the fact that these men were talking of things which Fairchild longed to know, but failed, for the moment, to master. From the first, the newcomer had liked the men about him, liked the ruggedness, the mingling of culture with the lack of it, liked the enthusiasm, the muscle and brawn, liked them all,—all but two.
Instinctively, from the first mention of his name, he felt they were watching him, two men who sat far in the rear of the big dining room, older than the other occupants, far less inviting in appearance. One was small, though chunky in build, with sandy hair and eyebrows; with weak, filmy blue eyes over which the lids blinked constantly. The other, black-haired with streaks of gray, powerful in his build, and with a walrus-like mustache drooping over hard lips, was the sort of antithesis naturally to be found in the company of the smaller, sandy complexioned man. Who they were, what they were, Fairchild did not know, except from the general attributes which told that they too followed the great gamble of mining. But one thing was certain; they watched him throughout the meal; they talked about him in low tones and ceased when Mother Howard came near; they seemed to recognize in him some one who brought both curiosity and innate enmity to the surface. And more; long before the rest had finished their meal, they rose and left the room, intent, apparently, upon some important mission.
After that, Fairchild ate with less of a relish. In his mind was the certainty that these two men knew him—or at least knew about him—and that they did not relish his presence. Nor were his suspicions long in being fulfilled. Hardly had he reached the hall, when the beckoning eyes of Mother Howard signaled to him. Instinctively he waited for the other diners to pass him, then looked eagerly toward Mother Howard as she once more approached.
"I don't know what you 're doing here," came shortly, "but I want to."
Fairchild straightened. "There is n't much to tell you," he answered quietly. "My father left me the Blue Poppy mine in his will. I 'm here to work it."
"Know anything about mining?"
"Not a thing."
"Or the people you 're liable to have to buck up against?"
"Then, Son," and Mother Howard laid a kindly hand on his arm, "whatever you do, keep your plans to yourself and don't talk too much. And what's more, if you happen to get into communication with Blindeye Bozeman and Taylor Bill, lie your head off. Maybe you saw 'em, a sandy-haired fellow and a big man with a black mustache, sitting at the back of the room?" Fairchild nodded. "Well, stay away from them. They belong to 'Squint' Rodaine. Know him?"
She shot the question sharply. Again Fairchild nodded.
"I 've heard the name. Who is he?"
A voice called to Mother Howard from the dining room. She turned away, then leaned close to Robert Fairchild. "He 's a miner, and he 's always been a miner. Right now, he 's mixed up with some of the biggest people in town. He 's always been a man to be afraid of—and he was your father's worst enemy!"
Then, leaving Fairchild staring after her, she moved on to her duties in the kitchen.
Impatiently Fairchild awaited Mother Howard's return, and when at last she came forth from the kitchen, he drew her into the old parlor, shadowy now in the gathering dusk, and closed the doors.
"Mrs. Howard," he began, "I—"
"Mother Howard," she corrected. "I ain't used to being called much else."
"Mother, then—although I 'm not very accustomed to using the title. My own mother died—shortly after my father came back from out here."
She walked to his side then and put a hand on his shoulders. For a moment it seemed that her lips were struggling to repress something which strove to pass them, something locked behind them for years. Then the old face, dim in the half light, calmed.
"What do you want to know, Son?"
"But there is n't much I can tell."
He caught her hand.
"There is! I know there is. I—"
"Son—all I can do is to make matters worse. If I knew anything that would help you—if I could give you any light on anything, Old Mother Howard would do it! Lord, did n't I help out your father when he needed it the worst way? Did n't I—"
"But tell me what you know!" There was pleading in Fairchild's voice. "Can't you understand what it all means to me? Anything—I 'm at sea, Mother Howard! I 'm lost—you 've hinted to me about enemies, my father hinted to me about them—but that's all. Is n't it fair that I should know as much as possible if they still exist, and I 'm to make any kind of a fight against them?"
"You 're right, Son. But I 'm as much in the dark as you. In those days, if you were a friend to a person, you didn't ask questions. All that I ever knew was that your father came to this boarding house when he was a young man, the very first day that he ever struck Ohadi. He did n't have much money, but he was enthusiastic—and it was n't long before he 'd told me about his wife and baby back in Indianapolis and how he 'd like to win out for their sake. As for me—well, they always called me Mother Howard, even when I was a young thing, sort of setting my cap for every good-looking young man that came along. I guess that's why I never caught one of 'em—I always insisted on darning their socks and looking after all their troubles for 'em instead of going out buggy-riding with some other fellow and making 'em jealous." She sighed ever so slightly, then chuckled. "But that ain't getting to the point, though, is it?"
"If you could tell me about my father—"
"I 'm going to—all I know. Things were a lot different out here then from what they were later. Silver was wealth to anybody that could find it; every month, the Secretary of the Treasury was required by law to buy three or four million ounces for coining purposes, and it meant a lot of money for us all. Everywhere around the hills and gulches you could see prospectors, with their gads and little picks, fooling around like life did n't mean anything in the world to 'em, except to grub around in those rocks. That was the idea, you see, to fool around until they 'd found a bit of ore or float, as they called it, and then follow it up the gorge until they came to rock or indications that 'd give 'em reason to think that the vein was around there somewhere. Then they 'd start to make their tunnel—to drift in on the vein. I 'm telling you all this, so you 'll understand."
Fairchild was listening eagerly. A moment's pause and the old lodging-house keeper went on.
"Your father was one of these men. 'Squint' Rodaine was another—they called him that because at some time in his life he 'd tried to shoot faster than the other fellow—and did n't do it. The bullet hit right between his eyes, but it must have had poor powder behind it—all it did was to cut through the skin and go straight up his forehead. When the wound healed, the scar drew his eyes close together, like a Chinaman's. You never see Squint's eyes more than half open.
"And he's crooked, just like his eyes—" Mother Howard's voice bore a touch of resentment. "I never liked him from the minute I first saw him, and I liked him less afterward. Then I got next to his game.
"Your father had been prospecting just like everybody else. He 'd come on float up Kentucky Gulch and was trying to follow it to the vein. Squint saw him—and what's more, he saw that float. It looked good to Squint—and late that night, I heard him and his two drinking partners, Blindeye Bozeman and Taylor Bill—they just reverse his name for the sound of it—talking in Blindeye's room. I 'm a woman—" Mother Howard chuckled—"so I just leaned my head against the door and listened. Then I flew downstairs to wait for your father when he came in from sitting up half the night to get an assay on that float. And you bet I told him—folks can't do sneaking things around me and get away with it, and it was n't more 'n five minutes after he 'd got home that your father knew what was going on—how Squint and them two others was figuring on jumping his claim before he could file on it and all that.
"Well, there was a big Cornishman here that I was kind of sweet on—and I guess I always will be. He 's been gone now though, ever since your father left. I got him and asked him to help. And Harry was just the kind of a fellow that would do it. Out in the dead of night they went and staked out your father's claim—Harry was to get twenty-five per cent—and early the next morning your dad was waiting to file on it, while Harry was waiting for them three. And what a fight it must have been—that Harry was a wildcat in those younger days." She laughed, then her voice grew serious. "But all had its effect. Rodaine did n't jump that claim, and a few of us around here filed dummy claims enough in the vicinity to keep him off of getting too close—but there was one way we couldn't stop him. He had power, and he 's always had it—and he 's got it now. A lot of awful strange things happened to your father after that—charges were filed against him for things he never did. Men jumped on him in the dark, then went to the district attorney's office and accused him of making the attack. And the funny part was that the district attorney's office always believed them—and not him. Once they had him just at the edge of the penitentiary, but I—I happened to know a few things that—well, he did n't go." Again Mother Howard chuckled, only to grow serious once more. "Those days were a bit wild in Ohadi—everybody was crazy with the gold or silver fever; out of their head most of the time. Men who went to work for your father and Harry disappeared, or got hurt accidentally in the mine or just quit through the bad name it was getting. Once Harry, coming down from the tunnel at night, stepped on a little bridge that always before had been as secure and safe as the hills themselves. It fell with him—they went down together thirty feet, and there was nothing but Nature to blame for it, in spite of what we three thought. Then, at last, they got a fellow who was willing to work for them in spite of what Rodaine's crowd—and it consisted of everybody in power—hinted about your father's bad reputation back East and—"
"My father never harmed a soul in his life!" Fairchild's voice was hot, resentful. Mother Howard went on:
"I know he did n't, Son. I 'm only telling the story. Miners are superstitious as a general rule, and they 're childish at believing things. It all worked in your father's case—with the exception of Harry and 'Sissie' Larsen, a Swede with a high voice, just about like mine. That's why they gave him the name. Your father offered him wages and a ten per cent. bonus. He went to work. A few months later they got into good ore. That paid fairly well, even if it was irregular. It looked like the bad luck was over at last. Then—"
Mother Howard hesitated at the brink of the very nubbin of it all, to Robert Fairchild. A long moment followed, in which he repressed a desire to seize her and wrest it from her, and at last—
"It was about dusk one night," she went on. "Harry came in and took me with him into this very room. He kissed me and told me that he must go away. He asked me if I would go with him—without knowing why. And, Son, I trusted him, I would have done anything for him—but I was n't as old then as I am now. I refused—and to this day, I don't know why. It—it was just woman, I guess. Then he asked me if I would help him. I said I would.
"He did n't tell me much; except that he had been uptown spreading the word that the ore had pinched out and that the hanging rock had caved in and that he and 'Sissie' and your father were through, that they were beaten and were going away that night. But—and Harry waited a long time before he told me this—'Sissie' was not going with them.
"'I'm putting a lot in your hands,' he told me, 'but you 've got to help us. "Sissie" won't be there—and I can't tell you why. The town must think that he is. Your voice is just like "Sissie's." You 've got to help us out of town.'
"And I promised. Late that night, the three of us drove up the main street, your father on one side of the seat. Harry on the other, and me, dressed in some of Sissie's clothes, half hidden between them. I was singing; that was Sissie's habit,—to get roaring drunk and blow off steam by yodelling song after song as he rolled along. Our voices were about the same; nobody dreamed that I was any one else but the Swede—my head was tipped forward, so they couldn't see my features. And we went our way with the miners standing on the curb waving to us, and not one of them knowing that the person who sat between your father and Harry was any one except Larsen. We drove outside town and stopped. Then we said good-by, and I put on an old dress that I had brought with me and sneaked back home. Nobody knew the difference."
"You know as much as I do, Son."
"But did n't they tell you?"
"They told me nothing and I asked 'em nothing. They were my friends and they needed help. I gave it to them—that's all I know and that's all I 've wanted to know."
"You never saw Larsen again?"
"I never saw any of them. That was the end."
"He 's still here. You 'll hear from him—plenty soon. I could see that, the minute Blindeye Bozeman and Taylor Bill began taking your measure. You noticed they left the table before the meal was over? It was to tell Rodaine."
"Then he'll fight me too?"
Mother Howard laughed,—and her voice was harsh.
"Rodaine's a rattlesnake. His son 's a rattlesnake. His wife 's crazy—Old Crazy Laura. He drove her that way. She lives by herself, in an old house on the Georgeville road. And she 'd kill for him, even if he does beat her when she goes to his house and begs him to take her back. That's the kind of a crowd it is. You can figure it out for yourself. She goes around at night, gathering herbs in graveyards; she thinks she 's a witch. The old man mutters to himself and hates any one who doesn't do everything he asks,—and just about everybody does it, simply through fear. And just to put a good finish on it all, the young 'un moves in the best society in town and spends most of his time trying to argue the former district judge's daughter into marrying him. So there you are. That's all Mother Howard knows, Son."
She reached for the door and then, turning, patted Fairchild on the shoulder.
"Boy," came quietly, "you 've got a broad back and a good head. Rodaine beat your father—don't let him beat you. And always remember one thing: Old Mother Howard 's played the game before, and she 'll play it with you—against anybody. Good night. Go to bed—dark streets are n't exactly the place for you."
Robert Fairchild obeyed the instructions, a victim of many a conjecture, many an attempt at reasoning as he sought sleep that was far away. Again and again there rose before him the vision of two men in an open buggy, with a singing, apparently maudlin person between them whom Ohadi believed to be an effeminate-voiced Swede; in reality, only a woman. And why had they adopted the expedient? Why had not Larsen been with them in reality? Fairchild avoided the obvious conclusion and turned to other thoughts, to Rodaine with his squint eyes, to Crazy Laura, gathering herbs at midnight in the shadowy, stone-sentineled stretches of graveyards, while the son, perhaps, danced at some function of Ohadi's society and made love in the rest periods. It was all grotesque; it was fantastic, almost laughable,—had it not concerned him! For Rodaine had been his father's enemy, and Mother Howard had told him enough to assure him that Rodaine did not forget. The crazed woman of the graveyards was Squint's lunatic wife, ready to kill, if necessary, for a husband who beat her. And the young Rodaine was his son, blood of his blood; that was enough. It was hours before Fairchild found sleep, and even then it was a thing of troubled visions.
Streaming sun awakened him, and he hurried to the dining room to find himself the last lodger at the tables. He ate a rather hasty meal, made more so by an impatient waitress, then with the necessary papers in his pocket, Fairchild started toward the courthouse and the legal procedure which must be undergone before he made his first trip to the mine.
A block or two, and then Fairchild suddenly halted. Crossing the street at an angle just before him was a young woman whose features, whose mannerisms he recognized. The whipcord riding habit had given place now to a tailored suit which deprived her of the boyishness that had been so apparent on their first meeting. The cap had disappeared before a close-fitting, vari-colored turban. But the straying brown hair still was there, the brown eyes, the piquant little nose and the prettily formed lips. Fairchild's heart thumped,—nor did he stop to consider why. A quickening of his pace, and he met her just as she stepped to the curbing.
"I 'm so glad of this opportunity," he exclaimed happily. "I want to return that money to you. I—I was so fussed yesterday I did n't realize—"
"Aren't you mistaken?" She had looked at him with a slight smile. Fairchild did not catch the inflection.
"Oh, no. I 'm the man, you know, who helped you change that tire on the Denver road yesterday."
"Pardon me." This time one brown eye had wavered ever so slightly, indicating some one behind Fairchild. "But I was n't on the Denver road yesterday, and if you 'll excuse me for saying it, I don't remember ever having seen you before."
There was a little light in her eyes which took away the sting of the denial, a light which seemed to urge caution, and at the same time to tell Fairchild that she trusted him to do his part as a gentleman in a thing she wished forgotten. More fussed than ever, he drew back and bent low in apology, while she passed on. Half a block away, a young man rounded a corner and, seeing her, hastened to join her. She extended her hand; they chatted a moment, then strolled up the street together. Fairchild watched blankly, then turned at a chuckle just behind him emanating from the bearded lips of an old miner, loafing on the stone coping in front of a small store.
"Pick the wrong filly, pardner?" came the query. Fairchild managed to smile.
"Guess so." Then he lied quickly. "I thought she was a girl from Denver."
"Her?" The old miner stretched. "Nope. That's Anita Richmond, old Judge Richmond's daughter. Guess she must have been expecting that young fellow—or she would n't have cut you off so short. She ain't usually that way."
"Her fiance?" Fairchild asked the question with misgiving. The miner finished his stretch and added a yawn to it. Then he looked appraisingly up the street toward the retreating figures. "Well, some say he is and some say he ain't. Guess it mostly depends on the girl, and she ain't telling yet."
"And the man—who is he?"
"Him? Oh, he 's Maurice Rodaine. Son of a pretty famous character around here, old Squint Rodaine. Owns the Silver Queen property up the hill. Ever hear of him?"
The eyes of Robert Fairchild narrowed, and a desire to fight—a longing to grapple with Squint Rodaine and all that belonged to him—surged into his heart. But his voice, when he spoke, was slow and suppressed.
"Squint Rodaine? Yes, I think I have. The name sounds rather familiar."
Then, deliberately, he started up the street, following at a distance the man and the girl who walked before him.
There was no specific reason why Robert Fairchild should follow Maurice Rodaine and the young woman who had been described to him as the daughter of Judge Richmond, whoever he might be. And Fairchild sought for none—within two weeks he had been transformed from a plodding, methodical person into a creature of impulses, and more and more, as time went on, he was allowing himself to be governed by the snap judgment of his brain rather than by the carefully exacting mind of a systematic machine, such as he had been for the greater part of his adult life. All that he cared to know was that resentment was in his heart,—resentment that the family of Rodaine should be connected in some way with the piquant, mysterious little person he had helped out of a predicament on the Denver road the day before. And, to his chagrin, the very fact that there was a connection added a more sinister note to the escapade of the exploded tire and the pursuing sheriff; as he walked along, his gaze far ahead, Fairchild found himself wondering whether there could be more than mere coincidence in it all, whether she was a part of the Rodaine schemes and the Rodaine trickery, whether—
But he ceased his wondering to turn sharply into a near-by drug store, there absently to give an order at the soda fountain and stand watching the pair who had stopped just in front of him on the corner. She was the same girl; there could be no doubt of that, and he raged inwardly as she chatted and chaffed with the man who looked down upon her with a smiling air of proprietorship which instilled instant rebellion in Fairchild's heart. Nor did he know the reason for that, either.
After a moment they parted, and Fairchild gulped at his fountain drink. She had hesitated, then with a quick decision turned straight into the drug store.
"Buy a ticket, Mr. McCauley?" she asked of the man behind the counter. "I 've sold twenty already, this morning. Only five more, and my work 's over."
"Going to be pretty much of a crowd, is n't there?" The druggist was fishing in his pocket for money. Fairchild, dallying with his drink now, glanced sharply toward the door and went back to his refreshment. She was standing directly in the entrance, fingering the five remaining tickets.
"Oh, everybody in town. Please take the five, won't you? Then I 'll be through."
"I 'll be darned if I will, 'Nita!" McCauley backed against a shelf case in mock self-defense. "Every time you 've got anything you want to get rid of, you come in here and shove it off on me. I 'll be gosh gim-swiggled if I will. There 's only four in my family and four 's all I 'm going to take. Fork 'em over—I 've got a prescription to fill." He tossed four silver dollars on the showcase and took the tickets. The girl demurred.
"But how about the fifth one? I 've got to sell that too—"
"Well, sell it to him!" And Fairchild, looking into the soda-fountain mirror, saw himself indicated as the druggist started toward the prescription case. "I ain't going to let myself get stuck for another solitary, single one!"
There was a moment of awkward silence as Fairchild gazed intently into his soda glass, then with a feeling of queer excitement, set it on the marble counter and turned. Anita Richmond had accepted the druggist's challenge. She was approaching—in a stranger-like manner—a ticket of some sort held before her.
"Pardon me," she began, "but would you care to buy a ticket?"
"To—to what?" It was all Fairchild could think of to say.
"To the Old Timers' Dance. It's a sort of municipal thing, gotten up by the bureau of mines—to celebrate the return of silver mining."
"But—but I 'm afraid I 'm not much on dancing."
"You don't have to be. Nobody 'll dance much—except the old-fashioned affairs. You see, everybody 's supposed to represent people of the days when things were booming around here. There 'll be a fiddle orchestra, and a dance caller and everything like that, and a bar—but of course there 'll only be imitation liquor. But," she added with quick emphasis, "there 'll be a lot of things really real—real keno and roulette and everything like that, and everybody in the costume of thirty or forty years ago. Don't you want to buy a ticket? It's the last one I 've got!" she added prettily. But Robert Fairchild had been listening with his eyes, rather than his ears. Jerkily he came to the realization that the girl had ceased speaking.
"When's it to be?"
"A week from to-morrow night. Are you going to be here that long?"
She realized the slip of her tongue and colored slightly. Fairchild, recovered now, reached into a pocket and carefully fingered the bills there. Then, with a quick motion, as he drew them forth, he covered a ten-dollar bill with a one-dollar note and thrust them forward.
"Yes, I 'll take the ticket."
She handed it to him, thanked him, and reached for the money. As it passed into her hand, a corner of the ten-dollar bill revealed itself, and she hastily thrust it toward him as though to return money paid by mistake. Just as quickly, she realized his purpose and withdrew her hand.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, almost in a whisper, "I understand." She flushed and stood a second hesitant, flustered, her big eyes almost childish as they looked up into his. "You—you must think I 'm a cad!" Then she whirled and left the store, and a slight smile came to the lips of Robert Fairchild as he watched her hurrying across the street. He had won a tiny victory, at least.
Not until she had rounded a corner and disappeared did Fairchild leave his point of vantage. Then, with a new enthusiasm, a greater desire than ever to win out in the fight which had brought him to Ohadi, he hurried to the courthouse and the various technicalities which must be coped with before he could really call the Blue Poppy mine his own.
It was easier than he thought. A few signatures, and he was free to wander through town to where idlers had pointed out Kentucky gulch and to begin the steep ascent up the narrow road on a tour of prospecting that would precede the more legal and more safe system of a surveyor.
The ascent was almost sheer in places, for in Kentucky gulch the hills huddled close to the little town and rose in precipitous inclines almost before the city limits had been reached. Beside the road a small stream chattered, milk-white from the silica deposits of the mines, like the waters of Clear Creek, which it was hastening to join. Along the gullies were the scars of prospect holes, staring like dark, blind eyes out upon the gorge;—reminders of the lost hopes of a day gone by. Here and there lay some discarded piece of mining machinery, rust-eaten and battered now, washed down inch by inch from the higher hill where it had been abandoned when the demonetization of silver struck, like a rapier, into the hearts of grubbing men, years before. It was a canon of decay, yet of life, for as he trudged along, the roar of great motors came to Fairchild's ears; and a moment later he stepped aside to allow the passage of ore-laden automobile trucks, loaded until the springs had flattened and until the engines howled with their compression as they sought to hold back their burdens on the steep grade. And it was as he stood there, watching the big vehicles travel down the mountain side, that Fairchild caught a glimpse of a human figure which suddenly darted behind a clump of scrub pine and skirted far to one side, taking advantage of every covering. A new beat came into Fairchild's heart. He took to the road again, plodding upward apparently without a thought of his pursuer, stopping to stare at the bleak prospect holes, or to admire the pink-white beauties of the snowy range in the far distance, seemingly a man entirely bereft of suspicion. A quarter of a mile he went, a half. Once, as the road turned beside a great rock, he sought its shelter and looked back. The figure still was following, running carefully now along the bank of the stream in an effort to gain as much ground as possible before the return of the road to open territory should bring the necessity of caution again.
A mile more, then, again in the shelter of rocks, he swerved and sought a hiding place, watching anxiously from his concealment for evidences of discovery. There were none. The shadower came on, displaying more and more caution as he approached the rocks, glancing hurriedly about him as he moved swiftly from cover to cover. Closer—closer—then Fairchild repressed a gasp. The man was old, almost white-haired, with hard, knotted hands which seemed to stand out from his wrists; thin and wiry with the resiliency that outdoor, hardened muscles often give to age, and with a face that held Fairchild almost hypnotized. It was like a hawk's; hook-beaked, colorless, toneless in all expressions save that of a malicious tenacity; the eyes were slanted until they resembled those of some fantastic Chinese image, while just above the curving nose a blue-white scar ran straight up the forehead,—Squint Rodaine!
So he was on the trail already! Fairchild watched him pass, sneak around the corner of the rocks, and stand a moment in apparent bewilderment as he surveyed the ground before him. A mumbling curse and he went on, his cautious gait discarded, walking briskly along the rutty, boulder-strewn road toward a gaping hole in the hill, hardly a furlong away. There he surveyed the ground carefully, bent and stared hard at the earth, apparently for a trace of footprints, and finding none, turned slowly and looked intently all about him. Carefully he approached the mouth of the tunnel and stared within. Then he straightened, and with another glance about him, hurried off up a gulch leading away from the road, into the hills. Fairchild lay and watched him until he was out of sight, and he knew instinctively that a surveyor would only cover beaten territory now. Squint Rodaine, he felt sure, had pointed out to him the Blue Poppy mine.
But he did not follow the direction given by his pursuer. Squint Rodaine was in the hills. Squint Rodaine might return, and the consciousness of caution bade that Fairchild not be there when he came back. Hurriedly he descended the rocks once more to turn toward town and toward Mother Howard's boarding house. He wanted to tell her what he had seen and to obtain her help and counsel.
Quickly he made the return trip, crossing the little bridge over the turbulent Clear Creek and heading toward the boarding house. Half a block away he halted, as a woman on the veranda of the big, squarely built "hotel" pointed him out, and the great figure of a man shot through the gate, shouting, and hurried toward him.
A tremendous creature he was, with red face and black hair which seemed to scramble in all directions at once, and with a mustache which appeared to scamper in even more directions than his hair. Fairchild was a large man; suddenly he felt himself puny and inconsequential as the mastodonic thing before him swooped forward, spread wide the big arms and then caught him tight in them, causing the breath to puff over his lips like the exhaust of a bellows.
A release, then Fairchild felt himself lifted and set down again. He pulled hard at his breath.
"What's the matter with you?" he exclaimed testily. "You 've made a mistake!"
"I 'm blimed if I 'ave!" bellowed a tornado-like voice. "Blime! You look just like 'im!"
"But you 're mistaken, old man!"
Fairchild was vaguely aware that the spray-like mustache was working like a dust-broom, that snappy blue eyes were beaming upon him, that the big red nose was growing redder, while a tremendous paw had seized his own hand and was doing its best to crush it.
"Blimed if I 'ave!" came again. "You're your Dad's own boy! You look just like 'im! Don't you know me?"
He stepped back then and stood grinning, his long, heavily muscled arms hanging low at his sides, his mustache trying vainly to stick out in more directions than ever. Fairchild rubbed a hand across his eyes.
"You 've got me!" came at last. "I—"
"You don't know me? 'Onest now, don't you? I 'm Arry! Don't you know now? 'Arry from Cornwall!"
It came to Fairchild then,—the sentence in his father's letter regarding some one who would hurry to his aid when he needed him, the references of Beamish, and the allusion of Mother Howard to a faithful friend. He forgot the pain as the tremendous Cornishman banged him on the back, he forgot the surprise of it all; he only knew that he was laughing and welcoming a big man old enough in age to be his father, yet young enough in spirit to want to come back and finish a fight he had seen begun, and strong enough in physique to stand it. Again the heavy voice boomed:
"You know me now, eh?"
"You bet! You 're Harry Harkins!"
"'Arkins it is! I came just as soon as I got the cablegram!"
"Yeh." Harry pawed at his wonderful mustache. "From Mr. Beamish, you know. 'E sent it. Said you 'd started out 'ere all alone. And I could n't stand by and let you do that. So 'ere I am!"
"But the expense, the long trip across the ocean, the—"
"'Ere I am!" said Harry again. "Ain't that enough?"
They had reached the veranda now, to stand talking for a moment, then to go within, where Mother Howard awaited, eyes glowing, in the parlor. Harry flung out both arms.
"And I still love you!" he boomed, as he caught the gray-haired, laughing woman in his arms. "Even if you did run me off and would n't go back to Cornwall!"
Red-faced, she pushed him away and slapped his cheek playfully; it was like the tap of a light breeze against granite. Then Harry turned.
"'Ave you looked at the mine?"
The question brought back to Fairchild the happenings of the morning and the memory of the man who had trailed him. He told his story, while Mother Howard listened, her arms crossed, her head bobbing, and while Harry, his big grin still on his lips, took in the details with avidity. Then for a moment a monstrous hand scrambled vaguely about in the region of the Cornishman's face, grasping a hair of that radiating mustache now and then and pulling hard at it, at last to drop,—and the grin faded.
"Le 's go up there," he said quietly.
This time the trip to Kentucky gulch was made by skirting town; soon they were on the rough, narrow roadway leading into the mountains. Both were silent for the most part, and the expression on Harry's face told that he was living again the days of the past, days when men were making those pock-marks in the hills, when the prospector and his pack jack could be seen on every trail, and when float ore in a gulley meant riches waiting somewhere above. A long time they walked, at last to stop in the shelter of the rocks where Fairchild had shadowed his pursuer, and to glance carefully ahead. No one was in sight. Harry jabbed out a big finger.
"That's it," he announced, "straight a'ead!"
They went on, Fairchild with a gripping at his throat that would not down. This had been the hope of his father—and here his father had met—what? He swerved quickly and stopped, facing the bigger man.
"Harry," came sharply, "I know that I may be violating an unspoken promise to my father. But I simply can't stand it any longer. What happened here?"
"We were mining—for silver."
"I don't mean that—there was some sort of tragedy."
Harry chuckled,—in concealment, Fairchild thought, of something he did not want to tell him.
"I should think so! The timbers gave way and the mine caved in!"
"Not that! My father ran away from this town. You and Mother Howard helped him. You didn't come back. Neither did my father. Eventually it killed him."
"So?" Harry looked seriously and studiously at the young man. "'E did n't write me of'en."
"He did n't need to write you. You were here with him—when it happened."
"No—" Harry shook his head. "I was in town."
"But you knew—"
"What's Mother Howard told you?"
"A lot—and nothing."
"I don't know any more than she does."
"Friends did n't ask questions in those days," came quietly. "I might 'ave guessed if I 'd wanted to—but I did n't want to."
"But if you had?"
Harry looked at him with quiet, blue eyes.
"What would you guess?"
Slowly Robert Fairchild's gaze went to the ground. There was only one possible conjecture: Sissie Larsen had been impersonated by a woman. Sissie Larsen had never been seen again in Ohadi.
"I—I would hate to put it into words," came finally. Harry slapped him on the shoulder.
"Then don't. It was nearly thirty years ago. Let sleeping dogs lie. Take a look around before we go into the tunnel."
They reconnoitered, first on one side, then on the other. No one was in sight. Harry bent to the ground, and finding a pitchy pine knot, lighted it. They started cautiously within, blinking against the darkness.
A detour and they avoided an ore car, rusty and half filled, standing on the little track, now sagging on moldy ties. A moment more of walking and Harry took the lead.
"It's only a step to the shaft now," he cautioned. "Easy—easy—look out for that 'anging wall—" he held the pitch torch against the roof of the tunnel and displayed a loose, jagged section of rock, dripping with seepage from the hills above. "Just a step now—'ere it is."
The outlines of a rusty "hoist", with its cable leading down into a slanting hole in the rock, showed dimly before them,—a massive, chunky, deserted thing in the shadows. About it were clustered drills that were eaten by age and the dampness of the seepage; farther on a "skip", or shaft-car, lay on its side, half buried in mud and muck from the walls of the tunnel. Here, too, the timbers were rotting; one after another, they had cracked and caved beneath the weight of the earth above, giving the tunnel an eerie aspect, uninviting, dangerous. Harry peered ahead.
"It ain't as bad as it looks," came after a moment's survey. "It's only right 'ere at the beginning that it's caved. But that does n't do us much good."
"Why not?" Fairchild was staring with him, on toward the darkness of the farther recesses. "If it is n't caved in farther back, we ought to be able to repair this spot."
But Harry shook his head.
"We did n't go into the vein 'ere," he explained. "We figured we 'ad to 'ave a shaft anyway, sooner or later. You can't do under'and stoping in a mine—go down on a vein, you know. You 've always got to go up—you can't get the metal out if you don't. That's why we dug this shaft—and now look at it!"
He drew the flickering torch to the edge of the shaft and held it there, staring downward. Fairchild beside him. Twenty feet below there came the glistening reflection of the flaring flame. Water! Fairchild glanced toward his partner.
"I don't know anything about it," he said at last. "But I should think that would mean trouble."
"Plenty!" agreed Harry lugubriously. "That shaft's two 'unnerd feet deep and there 's a drift running off it for a couple o' 'unnerd feet more before it 'its the vein. Four 'unnerd feet of water. 'Ow much money 'ave you got?"
"About twenty-five hundred dollars."
Harry reached for his waving mustache, his haven in time of storm. Thoughtfully he pulled at it, staring meanwhile downward. Then he grunted.
"And I ain't got more 'n five 'unnerd. It ain't enough. We 'll need to repair this 'oist and put the skip in order. We 'll need to build new track and do a lot of things. Three thousand dollars ain't enough."
"But we 'll have to get that water out of there before we can do anything." Fairchild interposed. "If we can't get at the vein up here, we 'll have to get at it from below. And how 're we going to do that without unwatering that shaft?"
Again Harry pulled at his mustache.
"That's just what 'Arry 's thinking about," came his answer finally. "Le 's go back to town. I don't like to stand around this place and just look at water in a 'ole."
They turned for the mouth of the tunnel, sliding along in the greasy muck, the torch extinguished now. A moment of watchfulness from the cover of the darkness, then Harry pointed. On the opposite hill, the figure of a man had been outlined for just a second. Then he had faded. And with the disappearance of the watcher, Harry nudged his partner in the ribs and went forth into the brighter light. An hour more and they were back in town. Harry reached for his mustache again.
"Go on down to Mother 'Oward's," he commanded. "I 've got to wander around and say 'owdy to what's left of the fellows that was 'ere when I was. It's been twenty years since I 've been away, you know," he added, "and the shaft can wait."