THE EVERLASTING WHISPER
A Tale of the California Wilderness.
By JACKSON GREGORY
To Maxwell E. Perkins
With The Author'S Grateful Recognition Of His Countless Sympathetic Criticisms And Suggestions
It was springtime in the California Sierra. Never were skies bluer, never did the golden sun-flood steep the endless forest lands in richer life-giving glory. Ridge after ridge the mountains swept on and fell away upon one side until in the vague distances they sank to the monotonous level of the Sacramento Valley; down there it was already summer, and fields were hot and brown. Ridge after ridge the mountains stretched on the other side, rising steadily, growing ever more august and mighty and rocky; on their crests across the blue gorges the snow was dazzling white and winter held stubbornly on at altitudes of seven thousand feet. Thus winter, springtime, and ripe, fruit-dropping summer coexisted, touching fingers across the seventy miles that lie between the icy top of the Sierra and the burning lowlands.
Here, in a region lifted a mile into the rare atmosphere, was a ridge all naked boulder and spire along its crest, its sides studded with pine and incense cedar. The afternoon sunlight streaked the big bronze tree trunks, making bright gay spots and patches of light, casting cool black shadows across the open spaces where the brown dead needles lay in thick carpets. It was early June, and thus far only had the springtime advanced in its vernal progress upward through the timbered solitudes. Some few small patches of snow still lingered on in spots sheltered from the sun, but now they were ebbing away in thin trickles. Down in a hollow at the base of the sunny slope was a round alpine lake no bigger than a pond in a city park. It was of the same deep, perfect blue as the sky, whose colour it seemed not to reflect but to absorb.
A tiny fragment of this same heavenly azure drifted downward among the trees like a bit of sky falling. A second bit of blue that had skimmed across the lake and was visible now only as it rose and winged across the contrasting coloured meadow rimming the pool was like a bit of the lake itself. Two bluebirds. They swerved before the meeting, their wings fluttered, they lighted on branches of the same tree and shyly eyed each other. Did a man need to have the still message of all the woods summed up in final emphasis, this it was: spring is here.
The man himself, as the birds had done before him, had the appearance of materializing spontaneously from some distilled essence of his environment. A moment ago the spaces between the wide-set cedar-trees were empty. Yet he had been there a long time. It was only because he had moved that he attracted attention even of the sharp-eyed forest folk who were returning to tree and thicket. As the bluebirds had been viewless when merged into the backgrounds of their own colour, so he, while sitting with his back against a tawny cedar, had been drawn into the entity of the wilderness to which, obviously, he belonged. Here he blended, harmonized, disappeared when he held motionless. The well-worn, tall, laced boots were of brown leather, much scuffed, one in colour with the soil dusting them. The khaki trousers gathered into the boot-tops, the soft flannel shirt, were the brown of the tree trunks; skin of hands and face and muscular throat were the bronze of ripe pine-cones and burnished pine-needles. And, in a landscape spotted with light and shadow, the head of black hair might have passed for a bit of such pitch-black shadow as a tuft of thick foliage casts upon the light-smitten ground.
Beyond this outward harmony there was something at once more intangible and yet more vital and positive that made the man a piece with the natural world about him. Perhaps it was that he had lived so many months of so many years in the open that he had grown to be true brother of the wild; that he had shed coat after coat of artificial veneer as he took on the layers of tan; that in doing so he shed from his mind many of the artificialities of the twentieth century and remembered ancient instincts. His deep chest knew the tricks of proper breathing; he would come to the top of a steep climb with unlaboured breath. He stood tall and stalwart, filled with vigorous strength in repose like the straight valiant cedars. His eyes were black and piercing, as keen as those of the hawk which, circling in the deeper sky, had seen him when he moved; he, too, had seen the hawk. All about him was a lustily masculine phase of the world, giant trees dominating giant slopes, rugged boulders upheaved, iron cliffs defying time and battling the years; he, like them, was virile, his sex clothing him magnificently. He had not shaved for three days and yet, instead of looking untidy, was but clothed in the greater vitality. While his eyes sped swiftly hither and thither, now busied with wide groupings, now catching small details, his face was impassive. In keeping both with his own magnificent physique and the rugged note of the forest, it was the face of a man who had defied and battled.
Beyond the lake a peak upthrust its rocky front into the sky. It frowned across the ridges, darkened by the shadows which its own irregularities cast athwart its massive features. But the sun, slowly as it rolled, sought out those shadows; they moved, crept to other hiding-places, and the golden light coaxed a subdued, soft gentleness across the massive boulders. This, too, the man saw.
He stood looking out across the ridges and so to the final bulwark against the sky still white with last December. He sought landmarks and measured distance, not in miles but in hours. Then he glanced briefly at the sun. But now, before starting on again, he turned from the more distant landscape and, remembering the immediate scene about him as he had viewed it last, drowsing in the Indian summer of last October, he noted everywhere the handiwork of young June. The eyes which had been keen and alert filled suddenly with a shining brightness.
The springtime, eternally youthful coquette, had come with a great outward display of timidity and shyness into the sternly solemn forest land of the high Sierra. To the last fine detail and exquisite touch was she, more here than elsewhere, softly, prettily, daintily feminine, her light heart idly set on wooing from its calm and abstracted aloofness this region of granite and lava, of rugged chasms and august ancient trees. She filled the air with fragrances, lightly shaken; she scattered bright fragile flowers to brighten the earth and clear bird-notes to sparkle through the air. Hesitant always in the seeming, she came with that shy step of hers to the feet of glooming precipices; under crests where the snow clung on she played at indifference, loitering with a new flower, knowing that little by little the thaw would answer her veiled efforts, that in the end the monarch of all the brooding mountain tops would discard the white mantle of aloofness and thrill to her embrace; knowing, too, that with each successive conquest made secure she would only laugh in that singing voice of hers and turn her back and pass on. On and on, over ridges and ranges, and so around the world.
The woods lay steeped in sunshine, enwrapped in characteristic quietude. There was no wind to ruffle the man's hair, no sound of a falling cone or of dead leaves crackling under a squirrel's foot. And yet the man had the air now of one listening, hearkening to the silence itself. For silence among the pines is not the dead void of desert lands, but a great hush like the finger-to-lip command in a sleeper's room, or the still message of a sea-shell held to the ear. The countless millions of cedar and pine needles seemed as motionless as the very mountains themselves, yet it was they who laid the gently audible command upon the balmy afternoon and whispered the great hush. That whisper the man heard, it seemed to him, less with his ears than with his soul.
He went back to the tree against which he had rested and picked up his hat and a small canvas roll. And yet again, with his hat in his hand, he stood motionless, his eyes lingering along the cliff tops across the little lake, his attitude that of a man listening to an invitation which he would like to accept but in the end meant to refuse. Already he had marked out the way he planned to go, and still the nearer peaks with the sunshine upon them called to him. One would have hazarded that they were familiar from oft-repeated visits, and that among his plans to the contrary a desire to climb them insisted. He glanced at the sun again, shook his head, and took the first step slantingly downward along the slope. But only once more to grow as still as the big trees about him. Slowly he drew back into the shadows to watch and not be seen.
For abruptly two figures had appeared upon the rocky head of the mountain across the lake. They had come up from the further side, and when he saw them first stood clear-cut against the sky. They might have been hunters since each carried a rifle. And yet the watcher's brows gathered in a frown and his eyes glinted angrily.
The two figures separated, one going along the crest of the ridge, the other climbing downward cautiously until he stood at the edge of the cliffs. He craned his body to look down as though seeking a way to the lake; he straightened and stared for a long time toward the snow tops of the more distant altitudes. The sun lay in pools all about him, and across the distance separating him and his companion from the man who watched them so intently, his gestures could be followed readily. He turned and must have said something to his companion, who leaped down from a boulder and came to his side. The second man towered over him, head and shoulder. This the eyes upon the other slope were quick to note; they cleared briefly as though with a new understanding, only to grow harder than before.
They talked together, and yet the only sound to carry across the lake and meadow was the rush of air through innumerable tree-tops. The blue water glinted softly under the westering sun; in the blue void of the sky the hawk wheeled, silent and graceful and watchful. The smaller man pointed, his arm outheld steadily. The other drew nearer, towering above him. He, too, pointed or seemed about to point. They stood so close together that the two figures merged. From a distance they looked like one man now.
It was with startling abruptness that the two figures were torn apart, each resolved again into an individual. One, the towering man, had drawn suddenly back; the other was falling. And yet the silence was unbroken. There was never a cry to echo through the gorges from a horror-clutched throat. The falling man plunged straight down a dozen feet, struck against a ragged rock, writhed free, fell again a few feet, and began to roll. There had been the flash of the sun on the rifle in his hand; he had clutched wildly at that as though it could save him. Now it flew from his grasp as he rolled over and over, plunging down the steep flank of the mountain.
The man who had watched from across the lake had not stirred. The big man on the cliffs came back slowly to the brink and crouched there, looking down, motionless so long that it was hard for the eye to be sure of him, to know if it were really a human being or a poised boulder squatting there. There came no call from below; the hawk wheeled and wheeled, lost interest, drifting away. In the little hollow where the lake glinted it was very still with the soft perfection of the first spring days.
The man on the cliff stood up, holding his rifle. He had done with looking down; now he pivoted slowly, looking off in all other directions. Presently he began climbing back up the few feet to the knife-like crest from which he had descended not five minutes ago. He paused there for hardly more than an instant and then went on, down the further side, out of sight.
The man who had seen all this from his own slope caught up his canvas roll again and hurried down toward the lake. For the first time he spoke aloud, saying:
"Swen Brodie. There's not another man in the mountains brute enough for that."
He hastened on, taking the shortest way, making nothing of the steepest slopes. He was going straight toward the nearer end of the lake, which he must skirt to come up the further mountain and to the man who had fallen; and, by the way, straight toward the peak, still bright in the sunlight, which he had wanted to revisit all along.
Much of the descent of the long slope was taken at a run, on ploughing heels. He crossed the springy meadow at a jog-trot. But the climb to the fallen man was another matter. The sun was appreciably lower, the shadows already made dusky tangles among the trees, when the man carrying the canvas roll came at last under the cliffs. From out these shadows, before his keen eyes found the man they sought, he heard a voice calling faintly:
"That you, Brodie?"
"No. Brodie's gone."
The voice, though very weak, sharpened perceptibly:
"You, who are you?"
"What difference does it make?—if you need help."
"Who said I wanted help? Not Brodie!"
"No. Not Brodie."
He dropped his roll and began working his way through the bushes. Presently he came to a spot from which he could see a figure propped up against a tree. There was a rifle across the man's knees, gripped in both hands. And yet surely the rifle had been whirled out of his hands in his fall. Then he was not hurt badly, after all, since he had managed to work his way back up to it.
"Oh! It's you, is it, King?" The man against the tree did not seem overjoyed; there was a sullen note in his voice.
King came on, breaking his way through the brush.
"Hello," he said, a little taken aback. "It's you, is it? I thought it would be——" But he did not say who. He came on and stood over the man on the ground, stooping for an instant to peer close into his face. "Hurt much?" he asked.
The answer was a long time coming. The face was bloodlessly grey. From it a pair of close-set, shallow brown eyes looked shiftily. A tongue ran back and forth between the colourless lips.
"It's my leg," he said. "I don't know if it's broke. And I'm sort of bunged up." He looked up sharply. "Oh, I'll be all right," he grunted, "and don't you fool yourself."
The man began to tremble; the hands on his gun shook so that the weapon veered and wavered uncertainly.
"Yes, rot his soul." He began to curse, at first softly, then with a strained voice rising into a storm of windy incoherence. Suddenly he broke off, eyeing King with suspicion upon the surface of his shallow eyes. "What are you after?"
"I didn't know how badly you were hurt. I came to see if I could lend you a hand."
"You know I don't mean that. What are you after, here in the mountains?" His voice was surly with truculence.
King grew angry and burst out bluntly:
"The devil take you, Andy Parker. I wanted to help you. If you don't take my interference kindly, I'll be on my way."
He turned to be off. Why the man was not already dead from that fall he did not know. But if the fellow was able to shift for himself, it suited King well enough. He had business of his own and no desire to step to one side or another to deal with Swen Brodie or Andy Parker, or with any man who trailed his luck with such as these. But now Parker called to him, and in an altered voice, a whine running through the words.
"Hold on, King. I'm hung up here for the night, anyhow. And I ain't got a bite of grub, and already I'm burning up with thirst. Get me a drink, will you?"
Without answer, King went to his canvas roll, and Parker, thinking himself deserted, began to plead noisily. On his knees King opened his roll, got out a cup, and began to search for water. Above him there were patches of snow; he found where a trickle of clear cold water ran in a narrow rivulet, and presently returned to the injured man with a brimming cup. Parker drank thirstily, demanded more, and sank back with a long sigh.
"The thing's unlucky, you know, King," he said queerly.
"Is it?" said King coolly. It was like him not to pretend that he did not know to what Andy Parker's thoughts had flown.
Parker nodded, pursing his lips, and kept on nodding like a broken automatic toy. At the end he jerked his head up and muttered:
"There's been the devil's luck on it for more'n sixty years and maybe a thousand years before that! Oh, you know! Look how it went with those old-timers. The last one of the Seven got it. Look how it happens with old man Loony Honeycutt, clucking and chuckling and stepping up and down in his shadow all the time; gone nuts from just smelling of it! Look what happens to me, all stove up here." He paused and then spat out venomously: "Oh, it'll get Swen Brodie and it'll get you, too, Mark King. You'll see."
"Another drink before I go?" demanded King.
Parker put his fingers to his scalp and examined them for traces of blood.
"I got a terrible headache," he said. "Aching and singing and sort of dizzy."
King went for more water, this time filling his one cook-pot. When he returned Parker was trying to stand. He had drawn himself up, holding to the tree with both shaking hands, putting his weight gingerly on one leg. Suddenly his weak hands gave way, he swayed and fell. King, standing over him, thought at first he was dead, so white and still was he. But Parker had only fainted.
The sun sank lower; the shadows down about the lake shores thickened and began to run, more and more swiftly, up the surrounding slopes. The tall peaks caught the last of the fading light, and like so many watch-towers blazed across the wilderness. Upward, about their bases, surged the flooding shadows like a dark tide rising swiftly; the light on the tallest spire winked and went out; and all of a sudden the rush of air through the pine tops strengthened and a growing murmur like the voice of a distant surf made it seem that one could hear the flood of the night sweeping through gorge and canon and inundating the world. And, despite all that Mark King could do, the sunset glow had gone and the first big star was shining before Andy Parker stirred.
His first call was for water. Then he complained of a terrible pain in his vitals, a pain that stabbed him through from chest to abdomen. Thereafter he was never coherent again, though for the most part he babbled like a noisy brook. He spoke of Swen Brodie and old Loony Honeycutt and Gus Ingle all in one breath, and King knew that Gus Ingle was sixty years dead; he dwelt hectically on the "luck of the unlucky Seven." And when, far on in the night, he at length grew silent and King went to peer into his face by the light of his camp-fire, Andy Parker was dead.
* * * * *
Mark King made the grave in the dawn. In his roll, the handle slipped out so that it might lie snug against the steel head, was a short miner's pick. A little below where Parker lay in his last wide-eyed vigil under the stars, King found a fairly level space free of rock and carpeted in young grass. Here with a pine-tree to mark head and foot, he worked at the shallow grave. He put his own blanket down, laid the quiet figure gently upon it, bringing the ends over to cover him. He marked the spot with a pile of rocks; he blazed the two trees. It was all that he could do; far more than Andy Parker would have done for him or for any other man.
The sun was rising when, he made his way to the top of the ridge and came to stand where he had seen Parker and Swen Brodie side by side. He clambered on until he came to the very crest over which Swen Brodie had disappeared. Just where had Brodie gone? He wondered. The answer came before the question could have been put into words. Though it was full day across the heights where King stood, it would be an hour and longer before the sun got down into the canons and meadows. He saw the flare of a camp-fire shining bright through the dark of a low-lying flat two miles or more from his vantage-point. Brodie would be cooking his breakfast now.
After that King did not again climb up where his body would stand out against the sky which was filling so brightly with the new morning. He moved along the ridge steadily and swiftly like a man with a definite objective who did not care to be spied on. In twenty minutes, after many a hazardous passage along a steep bare surface, he came to a spot where the knife edge of the ridge was broken down and blunted into a fairly level space a hundred yards across. Here was an accumulation of soil worn down from the granite above, and here, an odd, isolated tuft of scrawny verdure, grew a small grove of trees, stunted pine and scraggling brush.
Toward the far end of this upland flat was the disintegrating ruin of a cabin. The walls had disappeared long ago, save for two or three rotting logs, but a small rectangle of slightly raised ground indicated how they had extended. Even the rock chimney had fallen away, but something of the fireplace, black with burning, stood where labouring hands had placed it more than half a century before.
Here he made his own breakfast from what was ready cooked in his pack, dispensing with the fire, which would inevitably tell Brodie of his presence. For Brodie, callously brutish as he was, must be something less than human not to turn his chill blue Icelandic eyes toward the spot where he had abandoned his fallen companion.
King's first interest was centred on the ground underfoot. He went back and forth and about the ruin of the cabin several times seeking any sign that would tell him if Brodie and Andy Parker had been here before him. But there were no tracks in the softer soil, no trodden-down grass. It was very likely that no foot had come here since King's own last October. A look of satisfaction shone for an instant in his eyes. Then, done with this keen examination, they went with curious eagerness to the more distant landscape. He passed through the storm-broken trees and to the far rim of the flat, where he stood a long time staring frowningly at one after another of the spires and ridges lifted against the sky, probing into the mystery of the night still slumbering in the ravines. Now his look had to do, in intent concentration, with a slope not five hundred yards off; now with a blue-and-white summit toward which a man might toil all day and all night before reaching.
He might have been the figure of the "Explorer," grim and hard and determined; silent and solitary in a land of silence and solitude, brooding over a region where "the trails run out and stop." Something urged, something called, and his blood responded. About him rose the voice of the endless leagues of pines in a hushed utterance which might have been the whisper:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges— Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"
He made sure that he had left no sign of his visit here, not so much as a fallen crust of bread, caught up his pack and found the familiar way down the cliffs, striking off toward the higher mountains and the high pass through which he would travel to-night.
To have followed the pace which he set that day would have broken the heart of any but a seasoned mountaineer. No man in these mountains could have so much as kept him in sight, saving alone Swen Brodie, and he was left far back yonder, miles on the other, lower, side of the ridge. By mid-forenoon King had outstripped the springtime and was among snow patches which grew in frequency and extent; at noon he built his little fire on a snow crust. He crossed a raging tributary of the American, travelling upward along the rock-bound, spray-wet gorge a full mile before he came to the possible precarious ford. At six o'clock he made a second fire in a bleak windy pass, surrounded by a glimmering ghostly waste. Trees were stiff with frost; the wind whistled and jeered through them and about sharp crags, filling the crisp air with eerie, shuddersome music. He set his coffee to boil while meditating that down in the Sacramento Valley, which one could glimpse from here by day, it was stifling hot, like midsummer. He rested by his fire with his canvas drawn up about his shoulders, smoked his pipe, remade his pack, and went on. He counted on the moon presently and a bed at a slightly lower altitude among the trees; to-night Andy Parker was sleeping in his army blanket.
He crunched along over the snow crust which rarely failed him, and though the daylight passed swiftly, the dead-white surface seemed to hold an absorbed radiance and shed it softly. By the time he got down to the timber-line again the moon was up. He left the country of Five Lakes well to his left, ignoring the invitation of the trail beyond down the tall walls of Squaw Creek canon. He went straight down the long pitch of the mountain, heading tenaciously toward the tiny lakelet which, so far as he knew, had been nameless until his old friend Ben Gaynor had built a summer home there two years ago and had christened the pond among the trees. Lake Gloria! Mark King liked the appellation little enough, telling himself with thorough-going unreason that there was a silly name to fit to perfection a silly girl, but altogether out of place to tie on to an unspoiled Sierra lake. Ben would have done a better job in naming it Lake Vanity. Or Self-Regard. King could think of a score of designations more to the point. For though he had never so much as set his eyes on either Gloria or her mother, he had his own opinion of both of them. Nor did he in the least realize that that opinion was based rather less on actual knowledge than moulded by his own peculiar form of jealousy, that jealousy which one time-tried friend feels when the other allows love of women to occupy a higher place than friendship.
He made his camp at eight o'clock in a sheltered spot among the firs. He built a fire, made a mat of boughs, wrapped himself up in his canvas, and went promptly to sleep. He awoke cold, got his blood running by stamping about, put on fresh fuel and went to sleep again, his feet toward the blaze. Half a dozen times he was up during the night; before dawn he had his coffee boiling; before the sun was up he was well on his way again, driving the cramped chill out of him by walking vigorously. And at nine o'clock that morning he stood on the bench of a timbered slope whence, looking downward through the trees, he got his first glimpse of Lake Gloria and of the rambling log house which Ben Gaynor had been prevailed on to build here in the wild, a dozen miles from the Lake Tahoe road.
He noted, as he came nearer, swinging along down the slope and seeing the little valley with its green meadow and azure lake, how Ben had had a log dam thrown across the pond's lower end, backing up the water and making it widen out; he saw a couple of graceful canoes resting tranquilly on their own reflections; a pretty bathing-house already green with lusty hop-vines. Ben Gaynor had been spending money, a good deal of money. And no one knew better than Mark King that Ben had been close-hauled these latter years. He shrugged, telling himself to pull up short, and not find fault with his friend, or what his friend did, or with those whom his friend loved.
An hour later he came to the grove of sugar-pines back of the house. Here he paused a moment, though he was all eagerness for his meeting with Gaynor. He had seen a number of persons coming out of the house, a dozen or more, pouring out brightly, as gay as butterflies, men and women. Their laughter floated out to him through the still sunny morning, the deeper notes of men, a cluster of rippling notes from a girl. He wanted to see Gaynor, not a lot of Gaynor's San Francisco guests. No, not Gaynor's; rather the friends of Gaynor's womenfolk. It was King's hope that they were going down toward the lake; thus he would avoid meeting them. He'd come in at the back, have his talk with Ben, and be on his way without the bore of shaking a lot of flabby hands and listening to a lot of gushing exclamations.
He stood very still where he was, unseen as he leaned against a light-and-shadow-dappled pine. A girl broke away from the knot of summer-clad figures, ran a few steps down the path toward the lake, poised gracefully, executed a stagy little pose with head back and arms outflung as though in an ecstasy of delight that the world was so fair. She was a bright spot of colour with her pink dress and white shoes and stockings, and lacy parasol and brown hair, and for a little his eyes went after her quite as they would have followed the flight of a brilliant bird. Then, as in sheer youth, as one who during a night of refreshing sleep has been steeped body and soul in the elixir that is youth's own, she yielded her young body up to an extravagant dance, whirling away as light as thistledown across the meadow. Hands clapped after her; voices, men's voices, filled her ears with a clamour of praise as extravagant as her own dancing; the guests went trooping gaily after her. King seized his chance and went swiftly toward the house. As he went he noted that the girl alone was watching him; she was facing him, while the others had turned their backs upon the house. She had abandoned her dance and was standing very still, obviously interested in the rough-clad, booted figure which had seemed so abruptly to materialize from the forest land.
Ben Gaynor had seen him through a window and met him at the door. Their hands met in the way of old friendship, gripping hard. Further, Ben beat the dust out of his shoulders with a hard-falling open palm as he led the way inside.
"My wife has been saying for years that you're a myth," said Gaynor, the gleam in his eyes as youthful as it had ever been; "that you are no more flesh and blood than the unicorn or the dodo bird. To-day I'll show her. They were up half the night dancing and fussing around; she will be down in two shakes, though."
"In the meantime we can talk," said King. "I've got something to tell you, Ben."
Gaynor led the way through a room where were piano and victrola and from the floor of which the rugs were still rolled; through a dining-room and into what was at once a small library and Gaynor's study; King noted that even a telephone had found its way hither. A chair pulled forward, a box of cigars offered, and the two friends took stock in each other's eyes of what the last year had done for each.
"You look more fit than ever, Mark—and younger."
King wanted to say the same thing of his friend, but the words did not come. Gaynor was by far the older man, King's senior by a score of years, and obviously had begun to feel the burden of the latter greying days. Or of cares flocking along with them; they generally come together. His were seriously accepted responsibilities, where Mark gathered unto himself fresh hopes and eager joys; the responsibilities which come in the wake of wife and daughter; a home to be maintained in the city, the necessity to adapt himself, even if stiffly, to unfamiliar conditions. This big log house itself, it seemed to King, was carried on the back of old Ben.
They had been friends together since King could remember, since Ben had big-brothered him, carried him on his back, taught him to swim and shoot. Then one year while King was off at school his friend took unto himself a wife. This with no permission from Mark King; not even after a conference with him; in fact, to his utter bewilderment. King did not so much as know of the event until Gaynor, after a month of honeymooning, remembered to drop him a brief note. The bald fact jarred; King was hurt and grew angry and resentful with all of that unreason of a boy. He went off to Alaska without a word to Gaynor.
With the passage of time the friends had again grown intimate, had been partners in more than one deal, and the youthful relationship had been cemented by the years. But it had happened, seemingly purely through chance, although King knew better, that he had never met Gaynor's wife or daughter. When Gloria was little, Mrs. Gaynor had been impressed by the desirability of a city environment, had urged the larger schools, music teachers, proper young companions, and a host of somewhat vague advantages. Hence a large part of the year Gaynor kept bachelor's quarters in his own little lumber town in the mountains where his business interests held him and where his wife and daughter came during a few weeks in the summer to visit him. At such periods King always managed to be away. This year the wife and daughter, drawn by the new summer home, had come early in the season, and King's business was urgent. Besides, he had told himself a dozen times, there really existed no sane reason in the world why he should avoid Ben Gaynor's family as though they were leprous.
... What King said in answer to his friend's approval was by way of a bantering:
"Miracles do happen! Here's Ben Gaynor playing he's a bird of paradise. Or emulating Beau Brummel. Which is it, Ben? And whence the fine idea?"
Gaynor, with a strange sort of smile, King thought, half sheepish and the other half tender, cast a downward glance along the encasement of the outer man. Silk shirt, a very pure white; bright tie, very new; white flannels, very spick and span; silken hose and low white ties. This garb for Ben Gaynor the lumberman, who felt not entirely at his ease, hence the sheepish grin; a fond father decked out by his daughter as King well guessed; hence that gleam of tenderness.
"Gloria's doings," he chuckled. "Sent ahead from San Francisco with explicit commands. I guess I'd wear a monkey-jacket if she said so, Mark." But none the less his eyes, as they appraised the rough garb of his guest, were envious. "I can breathe better, just the same, in boots like yours," he concluded. He stretched his long arms high above his head. "I wish I could get out into the woods for a spell with you, Mark."
And he did not know, did not in the least suspect, that he was failing the minutest iota in his loyalty to Gloria and her mother. He was thinking only of their guests, whom he could not quite consider his own.
"The very thing," said King eagerly. "That's just what I want."
But Gaynor shook his head and his thin, aristocratic face was briefly overcast, and for an instant shadows crept into his eyes.
"No can do, Mark," he said quietly. "Not this time. I've got both hands full and then some."
King leaned forward in his chair, his hand gripping Gaynor's knee.
"Ben, it's there. I've always known it, always been willing to bet my last dollar. Now I'd gamble my life on it."
Gaynor's mouth tightened and his eyes flashed.
"Between you and me, Mark," he said in a voice which dropped confidentially, "I'd like mighty well to have my share right now. I've gone in pretty deep here of late, a little over my head, it begins to look. I've branched out where I would have better played my own game and been content with things as they were going. I——" But he broke off suddenly; he was close to the edge of disloyalty now. "What makes you so sure?" he asked.
"I came up this time from Georgetown. You remember the old trail, up by Gerle's, Red Cliff and Hell Hole, leaving French Meadows and Heaven's Gate and Mount Mildred 'way off to the left. I had it all pretty much my own way until I came to Lookout Ridge. And who do you suppose I found poking around there?"
"Not old Loony Honeycutt!" cried Gaynor. Then he laughed at himself for allowing an association of ideas to lead to so absurd a thought. "Of course not Honeycutt; I saw him last week, as you wanted me to, and he is cabin-bound down in Coloma as usual. Can't drag his wicked old feet out of his yard. Who, then, Mark?"
"Swen Brodie then. And Andy Parker."
Gaynor frowned, impressed as King had been before him.
"But," he objected as he pondered, "he might have been there for some other reason. Brodie, I mean. Remember that the ancient and time-honoured pastimes of the Kentucky mountains have come into vogue in the West. Everybody knows, and that includes even the government agents in San Francisco, that there is a lot of moonshine being made in out-of-the-way places of the California mountains. There's a job for Swen Brodie and his crowd. There's talk of it, Mark."
"Maybe," King admitted. "But Brodie was looking for something, and not revenue men, at that. He and Parker were up on the cliffs not a quarter-mile from the old cabin. They stood close together, right at the edge. Parker fell. Brodie looked down, turned on his heel and went off, smoking his stinking pipe, most likely. I buried Parker the next morning."
"Poor devil," said Gaynor. Then his brows shot up and he demanded:
"You mean Brodie did for him? Shoved him over?"
"That's exactly what I mean. But I can't tie it to Brodie, not so that he couldn't shake himself free of it. Parker didn't say so in so many words; I saw the whole thing from the mountain across the lake, too far to swear to anything like that. But this I can swear to: Brodie was in there for the same thing we've been after for ten years. And what is more, it's open and shut that he was of a mind to play whole-hog and pushed Andy Parker over to simplify matters. In my mind, even though I can't hope to ram that down a jury."
"How do you know what Brodie and Parker were after?"
"Andy Parker. He was sullen and tight-mouthed for the most part until delirium got him. Then he babbled by the hour. And all his talk was of Gus Ingle and the devil's luck of the unlucky Seven, with every now and then a word for Loony Honeycutt and Swen Brodie."
"If there is such a thing as devil's luck," said Gaynor with a sober look to his face, "this thing seems plastered thick with it."
King grunted his derision.
"We'll take a chance, Ben," he said. "And, after all, one man's bane is another man's bread, you know. Now I've told you my tale, let's have yours. You saw Honeycutt; could you get anything out of him?"
"Only this, that you are dead right about his knowing or thinking that he knows. He is feebler than he was last fall, a great deal feebler both in body and mind. All day he sits on his steps in the sun and peers through his bleary eyes across the mountains, and chuckles to himself like an old hen. 'Oh, I know what you're after,' he cackles at me, shrewd enough to hit the nail square, too, Mark. 'And,' he rambles on, 'you've come to the right man. But am I goin' to blab now, havin' kept a shut mouth all these years?' And then he goes on, his rheumy-red eyes blinking, to proclaim that he is feeling a whole lot stronger these days, that he is getting his second wind, so to speak; that come mid-spring he'll be as frisky as a colt, and that then he means to have what is his own! And that is as close as he ever comes to saying anything. About this one thing, I mean. He'll chatter like a magpie about anything else, even his own youthful evil deeds. He seems to know somehow that no longer has the law any interest in his old carcass, and begins to brag a bit of the wild days up and down the forks of the American and of his own share in it all; half lies and the other half blood-dripping truth, I'd swear. It makes a man shiver to listen to the old cut-throat."
"He can't live a thousand years," mused King. "He is eighty now, if he's a day."
"Eighty-four by his own estimate. But when it's a question of that, he sits there and sucks at his toothless old gums and giggles that it's the first hundred years that are the hardest to get through with and he's gettin' away with 'em."
"He knows something, Ben."
"So do we, or think we do. So does Brodie, it would seem. Does old Honeycutt know any more than the rest of us?"
"We are all young men compared with Loony Honeycutt, all Johnny-come-lately youngsters. Gus Ingle and his crowd, as near as we can figure, came to grief in the winter of 1853. By old Honeycutt's own count he would have been a wild young devil of seventeen then. And remember he was one of the roaring crowd that made the country what it was after '49. He knows where the old cabin was on Lookout; he swears he knows who built it in that same winter of '53. And——"
"And," cut in Gaynor, "if you believe the murderous old rascal, he knows with sly, intimate knowledge how and why the man in the lone cabin was killed. All in that same winter of '53!"
King pricked up his ears.
"I didn't know that. What does he say?"
"He talks on most subjects pretty much at random. He knows that the sheriff only laughs at him, since who would want to snatch the old derelict away from his mountains after all these years and try to fix a crime of more than half a century ago on him? But as the law laughs and at least pretends to disbelieve, his pride is hurt. So he has grown into the way of wild boasting. You ought to hear him talk about the affair at Murderer's Bar! It makes a man shiver to stand there in the sunshine and hear him. And, with the rest of his drivelling braggadocio, to hear him tell it, hinting broadly it was a boy of seventeen who, carrying nothing but an axe, did for the poor devil in the cabin."
"And I, for one, believe him! What is more, I am dead certain—call it a hunch, if you like—that if he had had the use of his legs all these years, he'd have gone straight as a string where we are trying to get." He began to pace up and down, frowning. "Brodie has been hanging around him lately, hasn't he?"
"Yes. Brodie and Steve Jarrold and Andy Parker and the rest of Brodie's worthless crowd of illicit booze-runners. They hang out in the old McQuarry shack, cheek by jowl with Honeycutt. I saw them, thick as flies, while I was there last week. Brodie, it seems, has even been cooking the old man's meals for him."
"There you are!" burst out King. "What more do you want? Imagine Swen Brodie turning over his hand for anybody on earth if there isn't something in it all for Swen Brodie. And I'll go bond he's giving Honeycutt the best, most nourishing meals that have come his way since his mother suckled him—Swen Brodie bound on keeping him alive until he gets what he's after. When he'd kick old Honeycutt in the side and leave him to die like a dog with a broken back."
"Well," demanded Gaynor, "what's to be done? With all his jabberings, Honeycutt is sly and furtive and is obsessed with the idea that there is one thing he won't tell."
"Will you go and see him one more time?"
"What's the good, Mark? If he does know, he gets lockjaw at the first word. I've tried——"
"There's one thing we haven't tried. Old Honeycutt is as greedy a miser as ever gloated over a pile of hoardings. We'll get a thousand dollars—five thousand, if necessary—in hard gold coin, if we have to rob the mint for it. You'll spread it on the table in his kitchen. You'll let it chink and you'll let some of it drop and roll. If that won't buy the knowledge we want——But it will!"
"I've known the time when five thousand wasn't as much money as it is right now, Mark——"
"I've got it, if I scrape deep. And I'll dig down to the bottom."
"And if we draw a blank?"
But there was a step at the door, the knob was turning. Mark King turned, utterly unconscious of the quick stiffening of his body as he awaited the introduction to Ben's wife.
At first, King was taken aback by Mrs. Ben's youthfulness. Or look of youth, as he understood presently. He knew that she was within a few years of Ben's age, and yet certainly she showed no signs of it to his eyes, which, though keen enough, were, after a male fashion, unsophisticated. She was a very pretty woman, petite, alert, and decidedly winsome. He understood in a flash why Ben should have been attracted to her; how she had held him to her own policies all these years, largely because they were hers. She was dressed daintily; her glossy brown hair was becomingly arranged about the bright, smiling face. She chose to be very gracious to her husband's life-long friend, giving him a small, plump hand in a welcoming grip, establishing him in an instant, by some sleight of femininity which King did not plumb, as a hearthside intimate most affectionately regarded. His first two impressions of her, arriving almost but not quite simultaneously, were of youthful prettiness and cleverness.
She slipped to a place on the arm of Gaynor's chair, her hand, whose well-kept beauty caught and held King's eyes for a moment, toying with her husband's greying hair.
"She loves old Ben," thought King. "That's right."
Mrs. Ben Gaynor was what is known as a born hostess very charming. Hostess to her husband, of whom she saw somewhat less each year than of a number of other friends. She had always the exactly proper meed of intimacy to offer each guest in accordance with the position he had come to occupy, or which she meant him to occupy, in her household. Akin to her in instinct were those distinguished ladies of the colourful past of whom romantic history has it that in the salons of their doting lords and masters they gave direction, together with impetus or retardation, to muddy political currents. Clever women.
Not that cleverness necessarily connotes heartlessness. She adored Ben; you could see that in her quick dark eyes, which were always animated with expression. If she was not more at his side, the matter was simply explained; she adored their daughter Gloria no less, and probably somewhat more, and Gloria needed her. Surely Gaynor's needs, those of a grown man, were less than those of a young girl whose budding youth must be perfected in flower. And if Mrs. Ben was indefatigable in keeping herself young while Ben quietly accepted the gathering years, it was with no thought of coquetting with other men, but only that she might remain an older sister to her daughter, maintain the closer contact, and see that Gloria made the most of life. Any small misstep which she herself had made in life her daughter must be saved from making; all of her unsatisfied yearnings must be fulfilled for Gloria. She constituted herself cup-bearer, wine-taster and handmaiden for their daughter. If it were necessary to engrave another fine line in old Ben's forehead in order to add a softer tint to Gloria's rose petals, she was sincerely sorry for Ben, but the desirable rose tints were selected with none the less steady hand.
Ben Gaynor's eyes followed his wife pridefully when, at the end of fifteen pleasant, sunny minutes, she left them, and then went swiftly to his friend's face, seeking approbation. And he found it. King had risen as she went out, holding himself with a hint of stiffness, as was his unconscious way when infrequently in the presence of women; now he turned to Ben with an odd smile.
"Pretty tardy date to congratulate you, old man," he said with a laugh. "Don't believe I ever remembered it before, did I?"
Ben glowed and rubbed his long hands together in rich contentment.
"She's a wonder, Mark," he said heartily.
Mark nodded an emphatic approval. Words, which Ben perhaps looked for, he did not add. Everything had been said in the one word "congratulate."
"Sprang from good old pioneer stock, too, Mark," said Gaynor. "Wouldn't think now, to look at her, that she was born at Gold Run in a family as rugged as yours and mine, would you? With precious few advantages until she was a girl grown, look at what she has made of herself! While you and I and the likes of us have been content to stay pretty much in the rough, she hasn't. There's not a more accomplished, cultured little woman this or the other side Boston, even if she did hail from Gold Run. And as for Gloria, all her doing; why," and he chuckled, "she hasn't the slightest idea, I suppose, that she ever had a grandfather who sweated and went about in shirt-sleeves and chewed tobacco and swore!"
"Have to go all the way back to a grandfather?" laughed King.
"Look at me!" challenged Gaynor, thrusting into notice his immaculate attire. He chuckled. "One must live down his disgraceful past for his daughter, you know."
From without came a gust of shouts and laughter from the Gaynor guests skylarking along the lake shore.
"Come," said Ben. "You'll have to meet the crowd, Mark. And I want you to see my little girl; I've told her so many yarns about you that she's dying of curiosity."
King, though he would have preferred to tramp ten miles over rough trails, gleaning small joy from meeting strangers not of his sort who would never be anything but strangers to him, accepted the inevitable without demur and followed his host. He would shake hands, say a dozen stupid words, and escape for a good long talk with Ben. Then, before the lunch-hour, he would be off.
Gaynor led the way toward a side door, passing through a hallway and a wide sun-room. Thus they came abreast of a wide stairway leading to the second storey. Down the glistening treads, making her entrance like the heroine in a play, just at the proper instant, in answer to her cue, came Gloria.
"Gloria," called Gaynor.
"Papa," said Miss Gloria, "I wanted——Oh! You are not alone!"
Instinctively King frowned. "Now, why did she say that?" he asked within himself. For she had seen him coming to the house. Straight-dealing himself, circuitous ways, even in trifles, awoke his distrust.
"Come here, my dear," said Ben. "Mark, this is my little girl. Gloria, you know all about this wild man. He is Mark King."
"Indeed, yes!" cried Gloria. She came smiling down the stairway, a fluffy pink puffball floating fairy-wise. Her two hands were out, ingenuously, pretty little pink-nailed hands which had done little in this world beyond adorn charmingly the extremities of two soft round arms. For an instant King felt the genial current within him frozen as he stiffened to meet the girl he had watched in the extravagant dance down to the lake.
Then, getting his first near view of her, his eyes widened. He had never seen anything just like her; with that he began realizing dully that he was straying into strange pastures. He took her two hands because there was nothing else to do, feeling just a trifle awkward in the unaccustomed act. He looked down into Gloria's face, which was lifted so artlessly up to his. Hers were the softest, tenderest grey eyes he had ever looked into. He had the uneasy fear that his hard rough hands were rasping the fine soft skin of hers. Yet there was a warm pleasurable thrill in the contact. Gloria was very much alive and warm-bodied and beautiful. She was like those flowers which King knew so well, fragrant dainty blossoms which lift their little faces from the highest of the old mountains into the rarest of skies, growths seeming to partake of some celestial perfection; hardy, though they clothed themselves in an outward seeming of fragile delicacy. Physically—he emphasized the word and barricaded himself behind it as though he were on the defence against her!—she came nearer perfection than he had thought a girl could come, and nowhere did he find a conflicting detail from the tendril of sunny brown hair touching the curve of the sweet young face to the little feet in their clicking high-heeled shoes. Thus from the beginning he thought of her in superlatives. And thus did Gloria, like the springtime coquetting with an aloof and silent wilderness, make her bright entry into Mark King's life.
"I have been acting-up like a Comanche Indian outside," laughed Gloria. It was she who withdrew her hands; King started inwardly, wondering how long he had been holding them, how long he would have held them if she had not been so serenely mistress of the moment. "My hair was all tumbling down and I had to run upstairs to fight it back where it belongs. Isn't a girl's hair a terrible affliction, Mr. King? One of these days, when papa's back is turned, I'm going to cut it off short, like a boy's."
An explanation of her presence in the house while her guests were still in the yard; why explain so trifling a matter? A suggestion that she retained that lustrous crown of hair just to please her papa, whereas one who had not been told might have been mistaken in his belief that this should be one of her greatest prides. Two little fibs for Miss Gloria; yet, certainly, very small fibs which hurt no one.
Gloria's eyes, despite their soft tenderness, were every whit as quick as Mark King's when they were, as now, intrigued. Of course both she and King had heard countless references, one of the other, from Ben Gaynor, but neither had been greatly interested. King had known that there was a baby girl, long ago; that fact had been impressed on him with such rare eloquence that it had created a mental picture which, until now, had been vivid and like an indelible drawing; he had known, had he ever paused for reflection, which he had not, that a baby would not stay such during a period of eighteen years. She had heard a thousand tales of "my good friend, Mark." Mark, thus, had been in her mind a man of her father's age, and about such a young girl's romantic ideas do not flock. But from the first glimpse of the booted figure among the trees she had sensed other things. King would have blushed had he known how picturesque he bulked in her eyes; how now, while she smiled at him so ingenuously, she was doing his thorough-going masculinity full tribute; how the ruggedness of him, the very scent of the resinous pines he bore along with him, the clear manlike look of his eyes and the warm dusky tan of face and hands—even the effect of the careless, worn boots and the muscular throat showing through an open shirt-collar—put a delicious little shiver of excitement into her.
Miss Gloria had a pretty way of commanding, half beseeching and yet altogether tyrannical. King, having agreed to stay to luncheon, was in the bathroom off Gaynor's room, shaving. Gloria had caught her father and dragged him off into a corner. "Oh, papa, he is simply magnificent! Why didn't you tell me? Why, he isn't a bit old and——" And she made him repaint for her the high lights of an episode of Mark King making a name for himself and a fortune at the same time in the Klondike country. She danced away, singing, to her abandoned friends, who were returning to the house. "It's the Mark King, my dears!" she told them triumphantly, not unconscious of the depressing result of her disclosures upon a couple of boys of the college age who adored openly and with frequent lapses from glorious hope to bleak despair. "The man who made history in the Klondike. The man who fought his way alone across fifteen hundred miles of snow and ice and won—oh—I don't know what kind of a fight. Against all kinds of odds. The very Mark King! He's papa's best friend, you know."
"Let him be your dad's friend, then," said the young fellow with the pampered pompadour, his eyes showing a glint of sullen jealousy. "That's no reason——"
"Why, Archie!" cried Gloria. "You are making yourself just horrid. You don't want to make me sorry I ever invited you here, do you?" And a brief half-hour ago Archie had flattered himself that Gloria's dancing had been chiefly for him.
They were all of Gloria's "set" with one noteworthy exception. Him she called "Mr. Gratton" while the others were Archie and Teddy and Georgia and Evelyn and Connie. It was to this "Mr. Gratton" that she turned, having made a piquant face at the dejected college youth.
"You will like him immensely, I know," she said, while the ears of poor Archie reddened even as he was being led away by the not very pretty but extremely comforting Georgia. "He's a real man, every inch of him." ["Every inch a King!" she thought quickly, unashamed of the pun.] "A big man who does big things in a big way," she ran on, indicating that she, too, after that brief meeting had been lured into superlatives.
"Mr. Gratton," smiled urbanely. For his own part he might have been called every inch a concrete expression of suavity. He was clad in the conventional city-dweller's "outdoor rig." Shining puttees lying bravely about the shape of his leg; brown outing breeches, creased, laced at their abbreviated ends; shirt of the sport effect; a shrewd-eyed man of thirty-five with ambitions, a chalky complexion, and a very weak mouth with full red lips.
"Miss Gloria," he whispered as he managed to have her all to himself a moment, "you'll make me jealous."
She was used to him saying stupid things. Yet she laughed and seemed pleased. Gratton egotistically supposed her thought was of him; King would have been amazed to know that she was already watching the house for his coming. And he would have been no end amazed and bristling with defence had he glimpsed the astonishing fact that Gloria already fully and clearly meant to parade him before her summer friends as her latest and most virile admirer. Gratton's heavy-lidded pale eyes trailed over her speculatively.
That forenoon King shook hands with Archie, Teddy, Gratton, and the rest, made his formal bows to Gloria's girl friends, and felt relief when the inept banalities languished and he was free to draw apart. Gratton, with slender finger to his shadowy moustache, bore down upon him. King did not like this suave individual; he had the habit of judging a man by first impressions and sticking stubbornly to his snap judgment until circumstance showed him to be in error. He liked neither the way Gratton walked nor talked; he had no love for the cut of his eye; now he resented being approached when there was no call for it. Never was there a more friendly man anywhere than Mark King when he found a soul-brother; never a more aloof at times like this one.
"I have been tremendously interested," Gratton led off ingratiatingly, "in the things I have heard of you, Mr. King. By George, men like you live the real life."
The wild fancy came booming upon King to kick him over the verandah railing.
"Think so?" he said coolly, wondering despite himself what "things" Gratton had heard of him. And from whom? His spirit groaned within him at the thought that old Ben Gaynor had been lured into paths along which he should come to hobnob with men like Gratton. He was sorry that he had promised to stay to lunch. His thoughts all of a sudden were restive, flying off to Swen Brodie, to Loony Honeycutt, to what he must get done without too much delay. Gratton startled him by speaking, bringing his thoughts back from across the ridges to the sunny verandah overlooking Lake Gloria.
Gratton was nobody's fool, save his own, and both marked and resented King's attitude. His heavy lids had a fluttering way at times during which his prominent eyes seemed to flicker.
"What's the chance with Gus Ingle's 'Secret' this year, Mr. King?" he demanded silkily.
King wheeled on him.
"What do you know about it?" he said sharply. "And who has been talking to you?"
Gratton laughed, looked wise and amused, and strolled away.
At luncheon Mrs. Gaynor placed her guests at table out on the porch, conscious of her daughter's watchful eye. When all were seated, Mark King found himself with Miss Gloria at his right and an unusually plain and unattractive girl named Georgia on his left. Everybody talked, King alone contenting himself with brevities. Over dessert he found himself drifting into tete-a-tete with Miss Gloria. They pushed back their chairs; he found himself still drifting, this time physically and still with Gloria as they two strolled out through the grove at the back of the log house. There was a splendid pool there, boulder-surrounded; a thoroughly romantic sort of spot in Gloria Gaynor's fancies, a most charming background for springtime loitering. The gush and babble of the bright water tumbling in, rushing out, filled the air singingly. Gloria wanted to ask Mr. King about a certain little bird which she had seen here, a little fellow who might have been the embodiment of the stream's joy; she knew from her father that King was an intimate friend of wild things and could tell her all about it. They sat in Gloria's favourite nook, very silent, now and then with a whisper from Gloria, awaiting the coming of the bird.
"But, my darling daughter," gasped Mrs. Gaynor, "you don't in the least understand what you are about!"
"But, my darling mother," mimicked Miss Gloria, light of tone but with all of the calm assurance of her years, "I do know exactly what I am about! I always do. And anyway," with a Frenchy little shrug which she had adopted and adapted last season, "I am going."
"But," exclaimed her mother, already routed, as was inevitable, and now looking toward the essential considerations, "what in the world will every one say? And think?"
In the tall mirror before her Gloria regarded her boots and riding-breeches critically. Then her little hat and the blue flannel short. Too mannish? Never, with Gloria in them, an expression in very charming curves of triumphant girlhood.
"What in the world was Mark King thinking of?" demanded her mother.
"What do you suppose?" said Gloria tranquilly "He would have been very rude if he hadn't been thinking of your little daughter. Besides, he had very little to do with the matter."
"And, what is more, there was a moon. Remember that, mamma." She tied the big scarlet silk handkerchief about her throat and turned to be kissed. Mrs. Gaynor looked distressed; there were actually tears trying to invade her troubled eyes, and her hands were nervous.
"But you will be gone all day!"
"Oh, mamma!" Gloria began to grow impatient. "What if I am? Mr. King is a gentleman, isn't he? He isn't going to eat me, is he? Why do you make such a fuss over it all? Do you want to spoil everything for me?"
"You know I don't! But——"
"We've had nothing but 'buts' since I told you. I should have left you a note and slipped out." She bestowed upon the worried face a pecking little kiss and tiptoed to the door.
"Wait, Gloria! What shall I tell every one? They're your guests, after all——"
"Tell them I asked to be excused for the day. Beyond that you are rather good at smoothing out things. I'll trust you."
"But—I mean and—and Mr. Gratton?"
"Oh, tell him to go to the devil!" cried Gloria. "It will do him no end of good." And while Mrs. Gaynor stared after her she closed the door softly and went tiptoeing downstairs and out into the brightening dawn, where Mark King awaited her with the horses.
From behind a window-curtain Gloria's mother watched the girl tripping away through the meadow to the stable, set back among the trees. King was leading the saddled horses to meet her; Gloria gave him her gauntleted hand in a greeting the degree of friendliness of which was gauged by the clever eyes at the window; friendliness already arrived at a stage of intimacy. King lifted Gloria into her saddle; Gloria's little laugh had in it a flutter of excitement as her cavalier's strength took her by delighted surprise and off her feet. They rode away through the thinning shadows. Mrs. Gaynor, despite the earliness of the hour, went straight to her husband, awoke him mercilessly, and told him everything.
"Oh," he said when she had done and he had turned over for another hour or so of sleep, "that's all right. Mark told me about it last night."
"And you didn't say a word to me!"
"Forgot," said Ben. "But don't worry. Mark'll take care of her."
She left him to his innocent slumbers and began dressing. Already she was busied with planning just what to say and how to say it; Gloria knew, she thought with some complacency, that her mother could be depended upon in any situation demanding the delicate touch. She would be about, cool and smiling, when the first guest appeared; it would be supposed that she and Gloria and Mr. King had been quite a merry trio as the morning adventure was being arranged. That first guest stirring would be Mr. Gratton on hand to pounce on Gloria and get her out of the house for a run down to the lake, a dash in a canoe, or a brief stroll across the meadow before the breakfast-gong. Instead of Gloria's terse message for him, she had quite an elaborate and laughing tale to tell. After all, Gloria usually did know what she was about, and if Mr. Gratton meant all that he looked—Mrs. Gaynor had cast up a rough draft of everything she would say that morning before she opened the door to go downstairs. And for reasons very clear to her and which she had no doubt would be viewed with equal clarity by Gloria after this "escapade" of hers was done with, she meant to be very tactful indeed with Mr. Gratton.
* * * * *
Never had Mark King known pleasanter companionship than Gloria Gaynor afforded this bright morning. They passed up the trail, over the first ridge, dropped down into a tiny wild little valley, and had the world all alone to themselves. Only now was the sun up, and there in the mountains, blazing forth cheerily, it seemed to shine for them alone. When they rode side by side Gloria chatted brightly, athrill with animation, vivid with her rioting youth. When the narrow trail demanded and she rode ahead, bright little snatches of lilting song or broken exclamations floated back to the man whose eyes shone with his enjoyment of her. On every hand this was all a bright new world to her; she had never run wild in the hills as her mother had done through her girlhood; she had never been particularly interested in all of this sprawling ruggedness. Now she had a hundred eager questions; she saw the shining splendour of the solitudes through King's eyes; she turned to him with full confidence for the name of a flower, the habit of a bird, even though the latter, unseen among the trees, had only announced himself by a half-dozen enraptured notes.
Yesterday, surrendering her volatile self to a very natural and quite innocent feminine instinct, Gloria had fully determined to parade Mark King before her envious friends as very much her own property. It was merely a bit of the game, the old, old game at which she, being richly favoured by nature, was as skilful as a girl of eighteen or nineteen could possibly be. In the eternal skirmish she was an enterprising young savage with many scalps dangling from her triumphant belt. The petted pompadour of poor Archie, the curly locks of Teddy, the stiff black brush of Mr. Gratton were to have an added fellow in King's trophy. Then she had caught a word between her father and his friend; had heard Honeycutt mentioned and a ride to Coloma, and on the break of the instant had determined with a young will which invariably went unthwarted, that high adventure was beckoning her. A ride on horseback through the mountains with a man who had stirred her more than a little, who filled her romantic fancies with picturesque glamour, who was on a quest of which she knew ten times more than he had any idea she knew. And that quest itself! Pure golden glamour everywhere.
Hence, some few minutes afterward, in a cosy nook of the verandah while the others danced, the moon and Gloria were serenely victorious. King, once assured that the long ride was not too hard for her, saw no slightest reason for objecting to her coming; he did not think of all of that which would mean so much to Ben's wife—the conventions and what would people say. Conventions do not thrive in such regions as the high Sierra. Ben, to whom King mentioned the thing, looked at it quite as did his friend. Gloria would be in good hands and ought to have a corking good time; he wished he could get away to go along. So King telephoned to San Francisco, arranged to have three thousand dollars—in cash—sent immediately to him at Coloma, and to-day fancied himself strictly attending to business with an undivided mind.
"I know now where the original Garden of Eden was!" Gloria, turning to look back at him as he came on through a delightful flowery upland meadow, sat her horse gracefully upon a slight hillock, herself and her restless mount bathed in sunshine, her cheeks warm with the flush upon them, her lips red with coursing life, her eyes dancing. "It's perfectly lovely. It's pure heavenly!"
King nodded and smiled. He was not given to many words, grown taciturn as are mountaineers inevitably, trained in long habit to approve in silence of that which pleased him most. So, while Gloria's eager tongue tripped along as busily as the brooks they forded, he was for the most part silent. An extended arm to point out a big snow-plant, blood-red against a little heap of snow, was as eloquent as the spoken word. Thus he indicated much that might have passed unnoticed by Gloria, keenly enjoying her lively admiration.
To-day he chose always the easier trails, since with the good horses under them they had ample time to come to Loony Honeycutt's place well before midday. Also they stopped frequently, King making an excuse of showing her points of interest; the tiny valley where one could be sure of a glimpse of a brown bear, the grazing-lands of mountain deer, the pass into the cliff-bound hiding-place of the picturesque highwaymen of an earlier day whence they drove stolen horses into Nevada, where they secreted other horses stolen in Nevada and to be disposed of down in the Sacramento Valley. There lasted until this very day the ruins of their rock house, snuggled into the mountains under their lookout-point.
"It would be fun," said Gloria, the spell of the wilderness mysteries upon her, her eyes half wistful and altogether serious, "to be lost out here. Just to get far, far away from people and ever so close to the big old mountains. Wouldn't it?" And a few minutes later she drew in her horse and cried out softly: "Listen!" She herself was listening breathlessly. "It sounds like the ocean ever so far off. Or—or like shouting voices a million miles away. Or like the mountains themselves whispering. It is hard to believe, isn't it? that it is just the wind in the pines."
Another time, while, under the pretext of letting their horses blow, King had suggested a short halt to give the girl a chance to rest, she said with abruptness:
"What do you think of Mr. Gratton?"
Already she knew Mark King well enough to realize that he would either refuse to answer or would speak his mind without beating about the bush.
"I don't like him," said King.
Gloria looked thoughtful.
"Neither do I," she said. "Not up here in the mountains. And down in San Francisco I thought him rather splendid. What is more, if we were whisked back to San Francisco this minute, I'd probably think him fine again."
She appeared interested in the consideration, and when they rode on was silent, obviously turning the matter over and over in mind.
* * * * *
To-day were three mysteries tremblingly close to revealing themselves one to another: the great green mystery of the woodlands; the mystery of a man clothed in his masculinity as in an outer garment; the tender mystery of a young girl athrill with romance, effervescent with youth, her own thoughts half veiled from herself, her instincts alive and urgent, and often all in confusion. How could a man like Mark King quite understand a girl like Gloria? How could a girl like Gloria, with all of her surety of her own decisions, understand a man like King? Each glimpsed that day much of the other's true character, and yet all the while the mainsprings were just out of sight, unguessed, undreamed of.
At Gloria's age, if one be a girl and very pretty and made much of by adoring parents and a host of boys and men, the world is an extremely nice place inhabited exclusively by individuals pressing forward to do her reverence. She is beautiful, she is vivacious, filled with delight; she is a sparkling fountainhead of joy. She is so superabundantly supplied with eager happiness that she radiates happiness. If she thinks a very great deal of herself, so for that matter does every other individual in the world; it is merely that with all of her sophistication she remains much more naive than she would ever believe; she is a coquette because she is female; she is pleased with herself and with the high excuse that every one else is pleased with her. Hence she demands adoration as a right. If she rides on a street-car she fully expects that the conductor will regard her admiringly and that the motorman will turn his head after her. She doesn't expect to marry either of these gentlemen; she does not particularly require their flattering attentions.... Gloria did not expect to marry Archie or Teddy or Mr. Gratton; she had no thought of being any one's wife; that term, after all, at Gloria's age, is a drab and humdrum thing. She did not dream of Mark King as a possible husband; another unromantic title. She merely hungered for male admiration. It was the wine of life, the breath in her nostrils. As it happens to be to some countless millions of other girls.... All of which is so clearly a pretty nearly universal condition that it would seem that if Mark King had had his wits about him he must have realized it. And yet had he glimpsed that which should have been so obvious he would have been startled, somewhat shocked, and would have grieved over his friend's empty-headed daughter, holding her unmaidenly—when she was but dallying with dreams which mean so much to all maidens.
But Gloria did not say to him: "Mark King, I am determined that you shall adore me, pretty face, pretty figure, pretty ways and all." Nor yet to herself did she put things so baldly. She did, however, yield herself luxuriously to the springtime, the romance of the hour, the appeal of her latest cavalier, and preen herself like a mating bird. King saw, admired, and in his own fashion played his own part. It was not clear to him that there had been a new pleasure in his own strength when he had lifted her into her saddle, and yet her little breathless laugh had rung musically in his ears. Had a man arisen to announce, jibingly, that Mark King was "showing off" before a girl like a boy of ten, though within bounds, he would have called the man a liar and forthwith have kicked him out of the landscape ... They rode on, side by side, each content with seeing only that which lay on the surface—both of his companion and of himself. In a word, they were living life naturally, without demanding of the great theatrical manager to know exactly what parts they were to play in the human comedy. Externals sufficed just now; the fragrant still forests, the pulse-stirring sunshine, the warm, fruitful earth below and the blue sky above.
From the first he called her Gloria quite naturally; to her he was Mr. King. But the "Mark" slipped out before they came into sight of the roofs of picturesque Coloma.
"You are sure you won't be gone more than an hour?" Gloria asked.
Never, it seemed to her, had she seen a lonelier-looking place than old Coloma drowsing on the fringe of the wilderness. The street into which they had ridden was deserted save for a couple of dogs making each other's acquaintance suspiciously. Why was it more lonesome here than it had been back there in the mountains? she wondered.
"Less than an hour," he assured her. "What business I have can be done in fifteen minutes if it can be done at all. But, in the meantime, what will you do?"
"Oh," said Gloria, "I'll just poke around. It will be fun to see what kind of people live here."
He put the horses in the stable, watered and fed them himself, and came back to her outside the front double doors. She had dropped down on a box in the sun; he thought that there was a little droop to her shoulders. And small wonder, he admitted, with a tardy sense of guilt. All these hours in the saddle——
"Tired much?" he asked solicitously.
The shoulders straightened like a soldier's; she jumped up and whirled smilingly.
"Not a bit tired," she told him brightly.
"That's good. But I could get a room for you at the hotel; you could lie down and rest a couple of hours——"
Gloria would not hear to it; if she did want to lie down she'd go out under one of the trees and rest there. She trudged along with him to the post-office; she watched as Mark called for and got a registered parcel. Further, she marked that the postmaster appeared curious about the package so heavily insured until over Mark's shoulder he caught a glimpse of her, and that thereafter, craning his neck as they went out, he evidenced a greater interest in her than in a bundle insured for three thousand dollars. She was smiling brightly when Mark King hurried off to his meeting with old Loony Honeycutt.
Honeycutt's shanty, ancient, twisted, warped, and ugly like himself, stood well apart from the flock of houses, as though, like himself even in this, it were suspicious and meant to keep its own business to itself. Only one other building had approached it in neighbourly fashion, and this originally had been Honeycutt's barn. Now it had a couple of crazy windows cut crookedly into its sides and a stovepipe thrust up, also crookedly, through the shake roof, and was known as the McQuarry place. Here one might count on finding Swen Brodie at such times as he favoured Coloma with his hulking presence; here foregathered his hangers-on. An idle crowd for the most part, save when the devil found mischief for them to do, they might be expected to be represented by one or two of their number loafing about headquarters, and King realized that his visit to Loony Honeycutt was not likely to pass unnoticed. What he had not counted on was finding Swen Brodie himself before him in Honeycutt's shanty.
King, seeing no one, walked through the weeds to Honeycutt's door. The door was closed, the windows down—dirty windows, every corner of every pane with its dirty cobweb trap and skeletons of flies. As he lifted his foot to the first of the three front steps he heard voices. Nor would any man who had once listened to the deep, sullen bass of Swen Brodie have forgotten or have failed now in quick recognition. Brodie's mouth, when he spoke, dripped the vilest of vocabularies that had ever been known in these mountains, very much as old Honeycutt's toothless mouth, ever screwed up in rotary chewing and sucking movements, drooled tobacco juice upon his unclean shirt. Brodie at moments when he desired to be utterly inoffensive could not purge his utterance of oaths; he was one of those men who could not remark that it was a fine morning without first damning the thing, qualifying it with an epithet of vileness, and turning it out of his big, loose mouth sullied with syllables which do not get themselves into print.
What King heard, as though Brodie had held his speech for the moment and hurled it like a challenge to the man he did not know had come, was, when stripped of its cargo of verbal filth:
"You old fool, you're dying right now. It's for me or Mark King to get it, and it ain't going to be King."
Honeycutt all the time was whining like a feeble spirit in pain, his utterances like the final dwindlings of a mean-spirited dog. King had never heard him whine like that; Honeycutt was more given to chucklings and clackings of defiance and derision. Perhaps Brodie as the ultimate argument had manhandled him. King threw open the door.
There stood old Honeycutt, tremblingly upheld upon his sawed-off broom-handle. Beyond him, facing the door, was Swen Brodie, his immense body towering over Honeycutt's spindling one, his bestial face hideous in its contortions as at once he gloated and threatened. In Brodie's hands, which were twice the size of an ordinary man's, was a little wooden box, to which Honeycutt's rheumy eyes were glued with frantic despair. Evidently the box had only now been taken from its hiding-place under a loose board in the floor; the board lay tossed to one side, and Brodie's legs straddled the opening.
Honeycutt did not know immediately that any one had entered; either his old ears had not heard, or his excited mind was concentrated so excludingly on Brodie that he had no thought of aught else. Brodie, however, turned his small, restless eyes, that were like two shiny bright-blue buttons, upon the intruder. His great mouth stood open showing his teeth. On that lower, deformed, undershot jaw of Swen Brodie were those monstrous teeth which were his pride, a misshapen double row which he kept clean while his body went unwashed, and between which the man could bend a nail.
Swen Brodie was the biggest man who had ever come to the mountains, men said, unless that honour went to one of the Seven who more than a half-century ago had perished with Gus Ingle. And even so Brodie kept the honour in his own blood, boasting that Ingle's giant companion, the worst of a bad lot, was his own father's father. The elder Brodie had come from Iceland, had lived with a squaw, had sired the first "Swen" Brodie. And this last scion of a house of outlawry and depravity, the Blue Devil, as many called him, stood six or eight clear inches above Mark King, who was well above six feet. Whatever pride was in him went first to his teeth, next to his enormous stature; he denied that his father had been so big a man; he flew into a towering rage at the suggestion; he cursed his father's memory as a fabric of lies. His head was all face, flattening off an inch above the hairless brows; his face was all enormous, double-toothed mouth.
Slowly the big mouth closed. The shiny blue eyes narrowed and glinted; the coarse face reddened. Brodie's throat corded, the Adam's apple moved repeatedly up and down as he swallowed inarticulately. This old Honeycutt saw. He jerked about and quick lights sprang up in his despairing eyes. He began to sputter but Brodie's loud voice had come back to him and drowned out the old man's shrillings. Brodie ripped out a string of oaths, demanding:
"Who told you to come in? You—you——"
"He was aiming to kill me," cried old Honeycutt, dragging and pulling at King's sleeve. "He was for doin' for me—like that!"
He pointed to the floor. There lay a heavy iron poker bent double.
"He done it. Brodie done it. He was for doin' me——"
"You old fool, I'll do you yet," growled Brodie. "And you, King, what are you after?"
Always truculent, to-day Brodie was plainly spoiling for trouble. King had stepped in at a moment when Brodie was in no mood to brook any interruption or interference.
"I came for a word with Honeycutt, not with you," King flashed back at him. "And from the look of things Honeycutt is thanking his stars that I did come."
"If you mean anything by that," shouted Brodie threateningly, "put a name to it."
"If it's a fight you want," said King sharply, "I'm ready to take you on, any time, and without a lot of palaver."
Old Honeycutt began sidling off toward the back door, neither of his two visitors noticing him now as their eyes clashed.
"What I come for I'm going to have," announced Brodie. "It's mine, anyhow, more than any other man's; I could prove it by law if I gave the snap of a finger for what the law deals out, hit or miss. Was there a King with Gus Ingle's crowd? Or a Honeycutt? No, but there was a Brodie! And I'm his heir, by thunder. It's mine more'n any man's."
King laughed at him.
"Since when have you been studying law, Brodie? Since you got back this last trip, figuring you might have a word with the sheriff?"
"Sheriff? What do you mean, sheriff?"
"I happened to see you and Andy Parker standing together on the cliffs. I saw Andy go overboard. What is more, I had a talk with him before I buried him."
Again Brodie's big mouth dropped open; his little blue eyes rounded, and he put one hand at his throat nervously.
"Andy's a liar; always a liar," he said thickly. But he seemed annoyed. Then his face cleared, and he too laughed, derision in his tone. "Anyway, he's dead and can't lie no more, and your word against mine ain't more'n an even break. So if your nosing sheriff gets gay with me I'll twist his cursed neck for him."
"Suit yourself. I've told you already I came for a talk with Honeycutt and not with you."
"Then you'll wait until I'm done with him," roared Brodie, all of his first baffled rage sweeping back through his blood. "And now you'll clear out!"
King stooped forward just a little, gathering himself and ready as he saw Brodie crouch for a spring. It was just then that both remembered old Honeycutt. For the old man, tottering in the opening of the rear door, was muttering in a wicked sort of glee:
"Up with them hands of your'n, Swen Brodie. High up an' right quick, or I'll blow your ugly head off'n your shoulders!"
In his trembling hands was a double-barrelled shotgun, sawed off and doubtless loaded to the muzzle with buckshot. Though the thing wavered considerably, its end was not six feet from Brodie's head, and both hammers were back, while the ancient nervous fingers were playing as with palsy about the triggers. King expected the discharge each second.
Brodie whirled and drew back, his face turning grey.
"Put it down, you old fool; put it down!" he cried raspingly. "I'll go."
The old man cackled in his delight.
"I'll put nothin' down," he announced triumphantly. "You set down that box."
Hastily Brodie put it on the table. He drew further away, backing toward the front door.
"Git!" cried old Honeycutt.
They could hear the air rushing back into Brodie's lungs as he came to the door and his fear left him.
"I'll be back, Honeycutt, don't you fear," he growled savagely. "As for you, King, you and me ain't done. I'll get you where there's no old fool to butt in, and I'll break every bone in your body."
"I'll be ready, Brodie," said King. He watched the great hulking figure as it went out; two hundred and fifty pounds of brawn there, every ounce of it packed with power and the cunning of brutish battle. If he ever fought Swen Brodie, just man to man, with only the weapons nature gave them, what would the end be?
But Brodie was gone, his shadow withdrawn from the doorstep, and he had his business with Honeycutt. He left the door wide open so that no one might come suddenly upon them and turned to the old man.
"Put your gun down, Honeycutt," he said quietly. "I want to talk with you."
"I got the big stiff on the run!" mumbled the old man. "He cain't come an' bulldoze me. Not me, he cain't. No, nor if Swen Brodie cain't git the best of me, no other man can," he added meaningly, glaring at King.
"There's that box on the table," said King. "Maybe you'll want to put it away before he makes you another visit."
Honeycutt hastily set his gun down, leaning it against the wall with both hammers still back, and shambled to the table. He caught the box up and hugged it to his thin old breast, breathing hard.
"If there's money in it——" said King, knowing well that the old miser had money secreted somewhere.
"Who said there was money? Who said so?"
He went to his tumbled bunk in a corner, sat down on it, thrusting the box out of sight under the untidy heap of dirty bedding.
"I ain't talkin'," he said. He glanced at his gun. "You git, too."
King felt that he could not have selected a more inopportune moment for his visit, and already began to fear that he would have no success to-day. But it began to look as though it were a question of now or never; Brodie would return despite the shotgun, and Brodie might now be looked to for rough-shod methods. So, in face of the bristling hostility, he was set in his determination to see the thing through to one end or another. To catch an interest which he knew was always readily awakened, he said:
"Brodie and Parker were on Lookout Ridge day before yesterday. Brodie shoved Parker over. At Lookout Ridge, Honeycutt." He stressed the words significantly while keenly watching for the gleam of interest in the faded eyes. It came; Honeycutt jerked his head up.
"I wish I'd of shot him," he wailed. "I wish to God I'd of blowed his ugly head off."
"It might have saved trouble," admitted King coolly. "Also, it might have been the job to hang you, Honeycutt. Better leave well enough alone. But listen to me: Brodie told you, and he meant it, that it was going to be Brodie or King who got away with this deal."
"He lied! Like you lie!" Here was Honeycutt probed in his tenderest spot. "It'll be me! Me, I tell you. I'm the only man that knows, I'm the only man that's got the right—"
"Brodie spoke of right. No one has a right more than any other man. It's treasure-trove, Honeycutt; it's the man's who can find it and bring it in."
"That'll be me. You'll see. Think I'm old, do you?" He spoke jeeringly and clenched a pair of palsied fists. "I'm feelin' right peart this spring; by summer I'll be strong as a young feller again."
"By summer will be too late. Don't I tell you that already Brodie has gone as far as Lookout Ridge? That means he's getting hot on the trail of it, doesn't it? As hot as I am."
"Then what are you comin' pesterin' me for? If you know where it is?"
"I don't know." Honeycutt cackled and rubbed his hands at the admission. "But I'm going to find out. So, probably, is Brodie. Now, look here, Honeycutt; I haven't come to browbeat you as Brodie did. I am for making you a straight business proposition. If you know anything, I stand ready to buy your knowledge. In cold, hard cash."
"No man ain't got the money—not enough—not any Morgan or Rock'feller——"
King began opening the parcel he had brought from the post-office. As he cut the heavy cord with his pocket-knife Honeycutt looked on curiously. King stepped to the table, standing so that out of the corners of his eyes he commanded both doors, and stripped off the wrapping-paper.
"Look sharp, Honeycutt," he commanded. "Here's money enough to last you as long as you live. All yours if you can tell me what I want to know."
A golden twenty-dollar coin rolled free, shone with its virgin newness and lay on the table-top, gleaming its lure into the covetous old eyes. Another followed it and another. King regretted that there were not more, that the parcel contained banknotes for the most part. He began counting it out.
"There's one thousand dollars. Right in that pile," he said. "One thousand dollars."
"One thousand dollars. An' some of it gold. New-lookin', ain't it, Mark? Let me have the feel of one of them twenties."
King tossed it; it fell upon the bedding, and Honeycutt's fingers dived after it and held it tight. He began rubbing it, caressing it.
King went on counting.
"One more thousand in this pile," he said. "That's two thousand, Honeycutt!"
"Two thousand," repeated Honeycutt, nodding. He was sucking at his lips, his mouth puckered, his cheeks sunken in. He got up and shambled on his cane close to the table, leaning against it, thrusting his peering eyes down.
King counted out the last crisp note.
"Three thousand dollars." He stepped back a pace.
"Three thousand dollars! That's a might of money, Mark. Three thousand dollars all on my table." His thin voice was a hushed whisper now. "I never seen that much money, not all at once and spread out."
"It's likely that you'll never see that much again. Unless you and I do business."
Honeycutt did not answer, perhaps had not heard. His emaciated arms were uplifted; he had let his cane go, supporting himself by leaning hard against the table; his arms curved inward, his fingers were like claws, standing apart. Slowly the hands descended; the fingers began gathering the few gold pieces, stacking them, lingering with each separate one, smoothing at it. Gold spoke directly and eloquently to what stood for a soul in Loony Honeycutt; banknotes had a voice which he understood but which could never move him, thrill him, lift him to ecstatic heights, as pure musical, beautiful gold could.
"It's a sight of money, Mark," he whispered "It's a sight of money."
King held his silence. His whole argument was on the table.
* * * * *
Only now and then did King catch a glimpse of Honeycutt's eyes, for the most part hidden by his lowered lids and bent head. At such times, though he had counted on having to do with cupidity, he was startled by the look he saw Here was the expression of the one emotion which dwelt on in the withered, time-beaten body; here was love in one of its ten thousand forms. Love that is burning desire, that quenches all other spark of the spirit, that is boundless; love of a hideously grotesque and deformed sort; love defiled, twisted, misshapen as though Eros had become an ugly, malformed, leering monstrosity. That love which is the expression of the last degree of selfish greed, since it demands all and gives nothing; that love which is like a rank weed, choking tenderer growths; or more like a poisonous snake. Now it dominated the old man utterly; the world beyond the rectangular top of the table did not exist; now its elixir poured through his arteries so that for the first time in months there came pinkish spots upon the withered cheeks, showing through the scattering soiled grey hairs of his beard.
... Suddenly King went to the door, standing in the sunshine, filling his lungs with the outside air. The sight of the gloating miser sickened him. More than that. It sickened his fancies so that for a minute he asked himself what he and Brodie were doing! The lure of gold. The thing had hypnotized him; he wished that he were out in the mountains riding among the pines and cedars; listening to the voice of the wilderness. It was clean out there. Listening to Gloria's happy voice. Living in tune with the springtime, thinking a man's thoughts, dreaming a man's dreams, doing a man's work. And all for something other than just gold at the end of it.
But the emotion, like a vertigo, passed as swiftly as it had come. For he knew within himself that never had that twisted travesty of love stirred within him; that though he had travelled on many a golden trail it was clean-heartedly; that it was the game itself that counted ever with him and no such poisonous emotions as grew within the wretched breast of Loony Honeycutt. And these golden trails, though inevitably they brought him trail fellows like Honeycutt, like Swen Brodie, were none the less paths in which a man's feet might tread without shame and in which the mire might be left to one side.
He turned back to the room. Honeycutt was near the bunk, groping for his shotgun. He started guiltily, veiled his eyes, and returned empty-handed to the table.
"If it was all in gold, now," said Honeycutt hurriedly.
King made no reference to Honeycutt's murderous intent.
"That paper is the same thing as gold," he said. "The government backs it up."
"I know, I know. But what's a gove'ment? They go busted, don't they, sometimes? Same as folks? Gold don't go busted. There ain't nothin' else like gold. You can tie to it. It won't burn on you an' it won't rust." He shook his head stubbornly. "There ain't nothin' like gold. If that was all in twenty-dollar gold pieces, now——"
"I'll get a car here," said King. "We'll drive down to Auburn and take a train to San Francisco. And there I'll undertake to get you the whole thing in gold. Three thousand dollars. That is one hundred and fifty twenty-dollar pieces."
But old Honeycutt, sucking and mouthing, shook his head.
"I couldn't leave here, an' you know it. I—I got things here," he said with a look of great cunning, "I wouldn't go away from. Not if horses was pullin' me."
"You can bring those things along——"
Honeycutt cried out sharply at that.
"You know I wouldn't durst! With the world full of robbers that would be after me like hounds runnin' down a rabbit. I won't go; you cain't make me. No man cain't."
King's patience deserted him.
"I am not going to make you do anything. Further, I am not going to put in any more time on you. I have offered to pay you three thousand dollars for what you know—and there is the very strong likelihood that you don't know a bit more than I do——"
"Don't know!" shrieked Honeycutt. "Wasn't I a boy grown when the dyin', delerious man stumbled in on the camp? Didn't I hear him talk an' didn't I see what he had in his fist? Wasn't I settin' right side by side with Gus Ingle when that happened? Wouldn't I of been one to go, if it hadn't of been that I had a big knife-cut in my side you could of shoved a cat in—give to me by a slant-eyed cuss name of Baldy Winch. Didn't I watch 'em go, the whole seven of 'em, Baldy Winch, rot him, jeerin' at me an' me swearin' I'd get him yet, him an' Gus Ingle an' Preacher Ellson an' the first Brodie an' Jimmy Kelp an' Manny Howard an' the Italian? Wasn't I there?" He was almost incoherent.
"Were you?" said King. "And Baldy Winch, the one who knifed you——?"
The sucking old mouth emitted a dry chuckle.
"An' didn't I keep my promise? That very winter after Baldy was the only man to git back. With my side just healin' didn't I make my way through the snow out to where he was——"
"His cabin on Lookout?"
"With an axe I got there! An' him havin' a gun an' pistol an' knife. Phoo! What good did it do him? An' didn't I square with him by takin' what I wanted?"