The Furnace of Gold
PHILIP VERRILL MIGHELS
THE PILLARS OF EDEN, BRUVVER JIM'S BABY, ETC
J. N. MARCHAND
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Publishers :: New York
Copyright, 1909, by
P. V. Mighels
Copyright, 1910, by
Desmond FitzGerald, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
I. PRINCE OR BANDIT II. INTO THE MOUNTAINS III. A RESCUE IV. CONGENIAL COMPANY V. VAN'S PARTNERS VI. THE BATTLE VII. AN EXCHANGE OF QUESTIONS VIII. A NIGHT'S EXPENSES IX. PROGRESS AND SALT X. THE LAUGHING WATER CLAIM XI. ALGY STIRS UP TROUBLE XII. BOSTWICK LOSES GROUND XIII. A COMBINATION OF FORCES XIV. MOVING A SHACK XV. HATCHING A PLOT XVI. INVOLVING BETH XVII. UNEXPECTED COMPLICATIONS XVIII. WHEREIN MATTERS THICKEN XIX. VAN AND BETH AND BOSTWICK XX. QUEENIE XXI. IN THE SHADOW OF THE ROPE XXII. TWO MEETINGS AFTER DARK XXIII. BETH'S DESPERATION XXIV. A BLIZZARD OF DUST XXV. A TIMELY DELIVERANCE XXVI. THE NIGHT IN THE DESERT XXVII. TALL STORIES XXVIII. WORK AND SONG XXIX. SUSPICIOUS ANSWERS XXX. BETH'S ONE EXPEDIENT XXXI. McCOPPET BUSIES HIS MIND XXXII. THE HARDSHIPS OF THE TRAIL XXXIII. THE CLOUDS OF TROUBLE GATHER XXXIV. THE TAKING OF THE CLAIM XXXV. THE MEETINGS OF TWO STRONG MEN XXXVI. VAN RUNS AMUCK XXXVII. THE PRIMITIVE LAW XXXVIII. BETH MAKES DEMANDS XXXIX. ALGY'S COOKING AND BETH'S DESPAIR XL. GLEN AND REVELATIONS XLI. SUVY PROVES HIS LOVE XLII. THE FURNACE OF GOLD XLIII. PREPARING THE NET FOR A DRAW XLIV. THE ENGINES OF CLIMAX XLV. THE LAST CIGARS XLVI. WASTED TIME XLVII. A TRIBUTE TO THE DESERT
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
He Proceeded to Pan from a Dozen Different Places in the Cove . . . . Frontispiece [missing from book]
His Hold Was Giving Way
The Angry Miner Lurching in Closer to Shoot [missing from book]
"Don't You Want to Give This Man a Chance?"
Beth Felt Her Heart Begin New Gymnastics [missing from book]
No Corpse Snatched from Its Grave Could Have Been More Helplessly Inert
"Yesh, He's Broke the Law"
Till the Mechanism Burst, He would Chase His Man Across the Desert [missing from book]
THE FURNACE OF GOLD
PRINCE OR BANDIT
Now Nevada, though robed in gray and white—the gray of sagebrush and the white of snowy summits—had never yet been accounted a nun when once again the early summer aroused the passions of her being and the wild peach burst into bloom.
It was out in Nauwish valley, at the desert-edge, where gold has been stored in the hungry-looking rock to lure man away from fairer pastures. There were mountains everywhere—huge, rugged mountains, erected in the igneous fury of world-making, long since calmed. Above them all the sky was almost incredibly blue—an intense ultramarine of extraordinary clearness and profundity.
At the southwest limit of the valley was the one human habitation established thereabout in many miles, a roadside station where a spring of water issued from the earth. Towards this, on the narrow, side-hill road, limped a dusty red automobile.
It contained three passengers, two women and a man. Of the women, one was a little German maid, rather pretty and demure, whose duty it was to enact the chaperone. The other, Beth Kent, straight from New York City, well—the wild peach was in bloom!
She was amazingly beautiful and winning. It seemed as if she and not the pink mountain blossoms must be responsible for all that haunting redolence in this landscape of passionless gray. Her brown eyes burned with glorious luminosity. Her color pulsed with health and the joyance of existence. Her red lips quivered with unuttered ecstacies that surged in the depths of her nature. Even the bright brown strands of her hair, escaping the prison of her cap, were catching the sunlight and flinging it off in the most engaging animation. She loved this new, unpeopled land—the mountains, the sky, the vastness of it all!
For a two-fold reason she had come from New York to Nevada. In the first place her young half-brother, Glenville Kent—all the kin she had remaining in the world—had been for a month at Goldite camp, where she was heading, and all that he wrote had inflamed her unusual love of adventure till she knew she must see it for herself. Moreover, he was none too well. She had come to visit and surprise him.
In the second place, her fiance, Searle Bostwick, he who was now at the wheel, had also been marooned, as it were, in this sagebrush land, by the golden allurements of fortune. Beth had simply made up her mind to come, and for two days past had been waiting, with her maid, at the pretty little town of Freemont, on the railroad, for Searle to appear in his modern ship of the desert and treat her to the one day's drive into Goldite, whither he also was bound.
The man now intent on the big machine and the sandy road was a noticeable figure, despite the dust upon his raiment. He was a tall, well-modeled man of thirty-five, with an air of distinction upon him, materially heightened by his deep-set, piercing gray eyes, his firm, bluish jaw, and the sprinkling of frost in his hair.
He wore no moustache. His upper lip, somewhat over long, bore that same bluish tint that a thick growth of beard, even when diligently shaved, imparted to his face. He was, indeed, a handsome being, in a somewhat stern, determined style.
He was irritated now by the prospect of labor at the station. Even should he find some willing male being whose assistance with the tire might be invoked, the task would still involve himself rather strenuously; and above all things he loathed rough usage of his hands. For three more miles he cursed the mechanism, then he halted the car at the station.
A shack that served as lodging-house, saloon, and dining-room, a shack for a stable, and a shack for a shed, together with a rough corral, comprised the entire group of buildings at the place. Six or eight fine cottonwoods and a number of twisted apple trees made the little place decidedly inviting. Behind these, rising almost sheer from the level yard, the mountains heaved upward grayly, their vast bulk broken, some hundred yards away, by a yawning rock canyon, steep and forbidding.
The station proprietor, who emerged from the door at sound of the halting machine, was a small, lank individual, as brown as an Indian and as wrinkled as a crocodile. The driver in the car addressed him shortly.
"I wonder if you can help me put on a tire?"
The lank little host regarded him quietly, then looked at the women and drew his hand across his mouth.
"Wal, I dunno," he answered. "I've set a tire and I've set a hen, but I wouldn't like to tell ye what was hatched."
The girl in the tonneau laughed in frank delight—a musical outburst that flattered the station host tremendously. The man at the wheel was already alighting.
"You'll do," he said. "My name is Bostwick. I'm on my way to Goldite, in a hurry. It won't take us long, but it wants two men on the job."
He had a way of thrusting his disagreeable tasks upon his fellow beings before they were prepared either to accept or refuse a proposition. He succeeded here so promptly that the girl in the car made no effort to restrain her amusement. She was radiantly smiling as she leaned above the wheel where the two men were presently at work.
In the midst of the toil a sound of whistling came upon the air. The girl in the auto looked up, alertly. It was the Toreador's song from Carmen that she heard, riotously rendered. A moment later the whistler appeared—and an exclamation all but escaped the girl's red, parted lips.
Mounted on a calico pony of strikingly irregular design, a horseman had halted at the bend of a trail that led to the rear of the station. He saw the girl and his whistling ceased.
From his looks he might have been a bandit or a prince. He was a roughly dressed, fearless-looking man of the hills, youthful, tall, and as carelessly graceful in the saddle as a fish in its natural clement.
The girl's brown eyes and his blue eyes met. She did not analyze the perfect symmetry or balance of his features; she only knew his hair and long moustache were tawny, that his face was bronzed, that his eyes were bold, frank depths of good humor and fire. He was splendid to look at—that she instantly conceded. And she looked at him steadily till a warm flush rose to the pink of her ears, when her glance fell, abashed, to the pistol that hung on his saddle, and so, by way of the hoofs of his pinto steed, to the wheel, straight down where she was leaning.
The station-keeper glanced up briefly.
"Hullo, Van," was all he said.
The horseman made no reply. He was still engaged in looking at the girl when Bostwick half rose, with a tool in hand, and scowled at him silently.
It was only a short exchange of glances that passed between the pair, nevertheless something akin to a challenge played in the momentary conflict, as if these men, hurled across the width of a continent to meet, had been molded by Fate for some antagonistic clash, the essence of which they felt thus soon with an utter strangeness between them.
Bostwick bent promptly to his labors with the tire. The girl in the tonneau stepped past her maid and opened the door on the further side of the car. Bostwick stood up at once.
"I wouldn't get out, Beth—I wouldn't get out," he said, a little impatiently. "We'll be ready to go in five minutes."
Nevertheless she alighted.
"Don't hurry on my account," she answered. "The day is getting warm."
The eyes of both Bostwick and the horseman followed her graceful figure as she passed the front of the car and proceeded towards the orchard. Above the medium height and superbly modeled, she appeared more beautiful now than before. She had not descended for a change of position, or even to inspect the place. As a matter of fact she was hoping to secure a profile view of the bold-looking horseman on the pony. Her opportunity soon arrived. He spoke to the station proprietor.
"Want to see you for a moment, Dave," and he rode a little off to a tree.
Dave ceased helping on the tire with marked alacrity and went to the horseman at once. The two engaged in an earnest conversation, somewhat of which obviously concerned the auto and its passengers, since the lank little host made several ill-concealed gestures in the car's direction and once turned to look at the girl.
She had halted by the orchard fence from which, as a post of vantage, she was apparently looking over all the place. Her brown eyes, however, swung repeatedly around to the calico pony and its rider.
Yes, she agreed, the horseman was equal to the scene. He fitted it all, mountains, sky, the sense of wildness and freedom in the air. What was he, then? Undoubtedly a native—perhaps part Indian—perhaps——
There was something sinister, she was certain, in the glance he cast towards the car. He was armed. Could it be that he and the station man were road-agents, plotting some act of violence? They were certainly talking about the machine, or its owner, with exceptional earnestness of purpose.
Bostwick had finished with the tire.
"Come along, Beth, come along!" he called abruptly.
No sooner had she turned to walk to the car than the horseman rode up in her path. Her heart sank suddenly with misgivings. She halted as the unknown visitor addressed himself to Bostwick.
"May I speak to you a moment privately?"
Bostwick bristled with suspicions at once.
"I have nothing of a private nature to discuss with you," he answered. "If you have anything to say to me, please say it and be prompt."
The horseman changed color, but lost no whit of the native courtesy that seemed a part of his being.
"It isn't particularly private," he answered quietly. "I only wished to say I wouldn't rush off to Goldite this morning. I'd advise you to stay here and rest."
Bostwick, already irritated by delay, and impervious to any thought of a possible service in the horseman's attitude, grew more impatient and far more irritating.
"I haven't desired your advice," he answered sharply. "Be good enough to keep it to yourself." He advanced to the station owner, held out a bill, and added: "Here you are, my man, for your trouble."
"Heck!" said the lank little host. "I don't want your money."
Across the horseman's handsome visage passed a look that, to the girl, boded anything but peace. Bostwick's manner was an almost intolerable affront, in a land where affronts are resented. However, the stranger answered quietly, despite the fact that Bostwick nettled him to an extraordinary degree.
"I agree that the sooner you vamoose, the prompter the improvement in the landscape. But you're not going off to Goldite with these ladies in the car."
Matters might still have culminated differently had Bostwick even asked a civil "Why?" for Van was a generous and easy-going being.
Beth, in the road, felt her heart beat violently, with vague excitement and alarm. Bostwick glared, in sudden apprehension as to what the horseman had in mind.
"Is this a hold-up?" he demanded. "What do you mean?"
The rider dismounted, in a quick, active manner, and opened the door of the tonneau.
"You wouldn't have thanked me for advice," he replied; "you would hardly thank me more for information." He added to the maid in the car:
"Please alight, your friend is impatient to be starting." He nodded towards the owner of the auto.
The maid came down, demurely, casting but a glance at the tall, commanding figure by the wheel. He promptly lifted out a suitcase and three decidedly feminine-looking bags.
Bostwick by now was furious.
"It's an outrage!" he cried, "a dastardly outrage! You can see I am wholly unarmed! Do you mean to restrain these ladies here by force?"
The horseman slipped his arm through the reins of his pony's bridle, surveying Bostwick calmly.
"Do you mean to desert them if I do? I have not yet ordered you to leave."
"Ordered me to leave!" echoed the car owner fiercely. "I can neither be ordered to leave nor to stay! But I shall go—do you hear?—I shall go—and the ladies with me! If you mean to rob us, do so at once and have it over! My time is precious, if yours is not!"
Van smiled. "I might be tempted to rob a gentleman," he said, "but to deprive your passengers of your company would be a charity. Pray waste no more of your precious time if that is your only concern."
Beth had regained a shadow of her former composure. Her courage had never been absent. She was less alarmed than before and decidedly curious as to what this encounter might signify. She dared address the horseman.
"But—but surely—you seem—— You must have some excellent reason for—for acting so peculiarly."
He could not repress the brightness in his eyes as he met her half-appealing gaze.
"Reason, advice, and information would apparently be alike unwelcome to your chauffeur," he answered, doffing his hat. "He is eager to hasten on his way, therefore by all means let us bid him begone."
Bostwick grew rapidly wilder at each intimation of his social standing—a friend of the maid, and Beth's chauffeur! His impatience to proceed with all possible haste to Goldite was consuming. He had not intended that anything under the sun should delay him another single hour—not even Beth, should occasion arise to detain her. Even now he was far more concerned about himself and the business of his mission than he was for the women in his charge. He was much afraid, however, of the horseman's visible gun. He was not at all a person of courage, and the man before him presented such an unknown quantity that he found himself more or less helpless. At most he could merely attempt a bluff.
"You'll pay for this!" he cried somewhat shrilly, his face a black mask of anger. "I'll give you just half a minute to release these ladies and permit them to go with me in peace! If you refuse——"
The horseman interrupted.
"I said before you had not been ordered on your way, but now I've changed my mind. Don't talk any more—get into your car and hike!"
The gleam in his eye achieved two results: It cowed the last vestige of bravado in Bostwick's composition and ignited all the hatred of his nature. He hesitated for a moment, his lips parting sidewise as if for a speech of defiance which his moral courage refused to indorse. Then, not daring to refuse the horseman's command, he climbed aboard the car, the motor of which had never ceased its purring.
"You'll pay for this!" he repeated.
The girl, now pale again and tremendously disturbed, was regarding Bostwick with a new, cold light in her eyes—a light that verged upon contempt. She had never seen this lack of courageous spirit in the man before.
"But, Searle! You're not going—you're not really going, like this?"
It was the horseman who replied.
"You see, his time is precious. Also in his present state of mind he is certainly unfit company for—well, for Dave, here, a man who loves the pure white dove of peace." The station owner grinned. Van turned once more to the car owner, adding, placidly: "There, there, driver——"
Bostwick broke in vehemently.
"I refuse to abandon these ladies! Your conduct is not only that of a coward, it is——"
Van looked him over in mock astonishment.
"Say, Searle," he said, "don't you savvy you've lost your vote in this convention? I told you to do these ladies the kindness to sweeten the atmosphere with your absence. Now you hit the trail—and hit it quick!"
Bostwick looked helplessly at the girl.
"I am entirely unarmed," he said as before, though she knew there was a pistol in the car. "This ruffian——"
The horseman cut him short.
"So long, Searle. I trust you'll meet congenial company on the road, but I advise you even now to return the way you came."
Bostwick glared at him vindictively, but impotently. His jaw was set and hard. A cold fire glittered in his eyes. How selfishly eager he was to be started on his way not even the girl could have known. Moreover, some sort of plan for the horseman's speedy punishment had taken possession of his mind.
"Have courage, Beth," he said to the girl. "Have courage."
He speeded up his motor, dropped in his clutch, and the car slowly started on its way.
INTO THE MOUNTAINS
Beth stood perfectly still beside the road, watching the auto round the hill where it presently disappeared from view. The station owner picked up a sliver of wood and began to whittle industriously. The horseman remained with his bridle reins in hand, amusedly looking at his captive. The maid sat down upon the suitcase, dropped her skirt in a modest little manner, and cast her gaze upon the ground.
Beth was the first to speak.
"Well, Elsa, I hope you are comfortable."
"Yes, Miss, thank you," said the maid.
Thereupon Miss Kent turned to the horseman and laughed. Someway she could not feel alarmed, in the presence of this man of the hills, in whose eyes merry devils were dancing.
"Isn't this absurd?" she said.
"Searle must have been born absurd," replied the horseman, once more removing his hat. He waved it towards the station host imperiously. "Dave, present me to the lady." And as Dave floundered, hopelessly puzzled, he added: "Give me a knock-down, man, don't you savvy?"
Dave dropped his sliver, snatched off his hat, and rid himself of a quid of something strong—all in one convulsion of activity.
"'Scuse me," he apologized, approaching nearer. "Miss—Miss—Miss Laffin' Water, this is Van. His whole name's——"
"That's enough," Van interrupted. "I'm gratified to meet you, Senorita, I'm sure."
He extended his hand. Beth knew not what to do, wherefore she gave him her own.
"How do you do, Mr. Van?" she answered tremulously, and she drew her fingers back again at once. "If you don't mind," she added, "we really must continue on to Goldite as soon as possible." A fleeting look of doubt and alarm had swept all the mirth from her eyes. After all, even with this "introduction" what were these men's intentions? It was a grave affair to be halted thus—to be practically abducted—to be left with no protection, in the hands of roadside strangers, one, at least, of whom was certainly inclined to be lawless and outrageously bold.
The horseman regarded her seriously, as if with a certain divination of her worry. Someway, from the look in his eyes her confidence returned, she knew not why.
"Do you ride?" he asked her, "—you and your maid?"
"Why, yes—that is——" she addressed the maid on the suitcase. "Elsa, can you ride—on a horse?"
Elsa said: "Yes, Miss, if it is part of my duty."
Beth's composure increased. After all, it was a glorious day, the horseman was handsome, and she had wished for a little adventure—but not too much!
"What does it mean?" she asked of Van more boldly. "We were perfectly comfortable, riding in the car. If you really intend to permit us to go, why couldn't we have gone on as we were?"
Dave started to answer.
"You see, Miss——"
Van cut in abruptly.
"Never mind, Dave; this isn't your pie." To Beth he added: "If you've brought any particularly appropriate garments for riding, suppose you retire for preparations. Dave will tote the bags inside the house."
"You bet I will!" said Dave, who, as Elsa rose, took suitcase and all in one load.
Beth hesitated. The horseman had started already for the stable at the rear. How superbly straight was his figure! What a confident, impudent grace beset him as he moved! How could it be possible for such a man to be other than a gentleman—no matter where he was found? Some strange little thrill of excitement and love of adventure stirred in the girl's full veins. Resistance was useless. Come what might, she was helpless in the hands of this man—and he seemed a person to be trusted.
"Come, Elsa," she said, bravely deciding to face whatsoever might arise. "You may wear the second of my skirts."
Fifteen minutes later, therefore, she and her maid emerged from the shack attired in brown cloth, and kahki, respectively, her own skirt long and graceful, while Elsa's was shorter and divided. Aside or cross-saddle Beth was equally at home upon a horse—or always had been, in the parks.
Van and Dave now returned, leading two extra ponies from the stable. One was a bay, accoutered with a man's deep Mexican saddle, whereon was secured a coiled lasso; the other was a wiry little roan mare, with a somewhat decrepit but otherwise sound side-saddle tightly cinched upon her back.
"Our stable chamberlain has slipped a cog on the outfits for ladies recently," said Van apologetically, "but I reckon these will have to do."
Beth looked the two mounts over uncritically. They seemed to be equally matched, as to general characteristics, since neither appeared either strong or plump. She said:
"Shall we ride very far?"
"No, just a pleasant little jog," replied the horseman. "They call it forty miles to Goldite by the ridge, but it isn't an inch over thirty."
Thirty miles!—over the mountains!—with an unknown man and her maid! Beth suppressed a gasp of despair and astonishment, not to mention trepidation, by making an effort that verged upon the heroic.
"But we—we can never arrive in Goldite tonight!" she said. "We can't expect to, can we?"
"It takes more than that to kill these bronchos," Van cheerfully assured her. "I can only guarantee that the horses will make it—by sunset."
Beth flushed. He evidently entertained a very poor notion of her horsemanship. Her pride was aroused. She would show him something—at least that no horse could make this journey without her!
"Thank you," she said, and advancing to the roan she addressed herself to Dave. "Will you please help me up. Mr. Van may assist my maid."
Dave grinned and performed his offices as best he could, which was strongly, if not with grace. Van shook a threatening fist, behind his captive's back. He had meant to take this honor to himself.
Fairly tossing the greatly delighted little Elsa to the seat on the bay, he mounted his own sturdy animal and immediately started for the canyon below, leaving Beth and her maid to trail behind.
The girl's heart all but failed her. Whither were they going?—and towards what Fate? What could be the outcome of a journey like this, undertaken so blindly, with no chance for resistance? The horseman had stubbornly refused a reply to her question; he was calmly riding off before them now with the utmost indifference to her comfort. There was nothing to do but to follow, and resign herself to—the Lord alone knew what. The little roan mare, indeed, required no urging; she was tugging at the bit to be off. With one last look of helplessness at the station and Dave—who someway bore the hint of a fatherly air upon him—she charged her nerves with all possible resolution and rode on after her leader.
Elsa permitted her broncho to trudge at the tail of the column. She dared to cast one shy, disconcerting little glance at Dave—and he suddenly felt he would burst into flame and consume himself utterly to ashes.
The great canyon yawned prodigiously where its rock gates stood open to grant the party admission to the sanctum of the hills. Sheer granite walls, austere and frowning, rose in sculptured immensity on either side, but the trail under foot was scored between some scattered wild-peach shrubs, interspersed with occasional bright-green clumps of manzanita. The air was redolent of warmth and fragrance that might with fitness have advertised the presence in the hills of some glorified goddess of love—some lofty, invisible goddess, guarded by her mountain snows, yet still too languorous and voluptuous to pass without at least trailing on the summery air the breath that exhaled from her being. It was all a delight, despite vague alarms, and the promise ahead was inviting.
Van continued straight onward, with never so much as a turn of his head, to the horses in the rear. He seemed to have quite forgotten the two half-frightened women in his wake. Beth had ample opportunity for observing again the look of strength and grace upon him. However, she found her attention very much divided between tumultuous joyance in the mountain grandeur, bathed in the marvelously life-exciting air, and concern for the outcome of the day. If a faint suggestion of pique at the manner in which the horseman ignored her presence crept subconsciously into all her meditations, she did not confess it to herself.
Elsa's horrid little habit of accepting anything and everything with the most irresponsible complacency rendered the situation aggravating. It was so utterly impossible to discuss with such a being even such of the morning's developments as the relationship of mistress and maid might otherwise have permitted.
A mile beyond the mouth of the canyon the slight ascent was ended, the chasm widened, rough slopes succeeded the granite walls, and a charming little valley, emerald green and dotted with groups of quaking aspen trees, stretched far towards the wooded mountain barriers, looming hugely ahead. It was like a dainty lake of grass, abundantly supplied with little islands.
The sheer enchantment of it, bathed as it was in sun-gold, and sheltered by prodigious, snow-capped summits, so intensely white against the intensity of azure, aroused some mad new ecstacy in all Beth's being. She could almost have done something wild—she knew not what; and all the alarm subsided from her thoughts. As if in answer to her tumult of joy, Van spurred his pinto to a gallop. Instantly responding to her lift of the reins, Beth's roan went romping easily forward. The bay at the rear, with Elsa, followed rhythmically, pounding out a measure on the turf.
A comparatively short session of this more rapid locomotion sufficed for the transit of the cove—that is, of the wide-open portion. The trail then dived out of sight in a copse where pine trees were neighbors of the aspens. Van disappeared, though hardly more than fifty feet ahead. Through low-hanging boughs, that she needs must push aside, Beth followed blindly, now decidedly piqued by the wholly ungallant indifference to her fate of the horseman leading the way.
She caught but a glimpse of him, now and again, in the density of the growth. How strange it was to be following thus, meekly, helplessly, perforce with some sort of confidence, in the charge of this unknown mountain man, to—whatsoever he might elect! The utterly absurd part of it all was that it was pleasant!
At length they emerged from the shady halls of trees, to find themselves confronted by the wall of mountains. Already Van was riding up the slope, where larger pines, tall thickets of green chincopin, and ledges of rock compelled the trail to many devious windings. Once more the horseman was whistling his Toreador refrain. He did not look back at his charges. That he was watching them both, from the tail of his eye, was a fact that Beth felt—and resented.
The steepness of the trail increased. At times the meager pathway disappeared entirely. It lay upon rocks that gave no sign of the hoofs that had previously rung metallic clinks upon the granite. How the man in the lead discerned it here was a matter Beth could not comprehend. Some half-confessed meed of admiration, already astir in her nature for the horseman and his way, increased as he breasted the ascent. How thoroughly at home—how much a part of it all he appeared, as he rode upon his pony!
Two hours of steady climbing, with her mare oblique beneath her weight, and Beth felt an awe in her being. It was wonderful; it was almost terrible, the fathomless silence, the altitudes, this heretofore unexperienced intimacy with the mountains' very nakedness! It was strange altogether, and impressive, the vast unfolding of the world below, the frequency with which the pathway skirted some dark precipice—and the apparent unconcern of the man ahead, now so absolutely master. And still that soul-inviting exhilaration of the air aroused those ecstacies within her spirit that she had not known were there.
They were nearing the summit of the pass. It was still a thousand feet below the snow. To the left a mighty chasm trenched the adamant, its bottom lowered away to depths of mysterious blue. Its side, above which the three stout ponies picked their way, was a jagged set of terraces, over the brink of which the descents were perpendicular.
Rising as if to bar the way, the crowning terrace apparently ended the trail against all further advance. Here Van finally halted, dismounted, and waited for the advent of his charges.
Beth rode up uncertainly, her brown eyes closely scrutinizing his face. It appeared as if they had come to the end of everything—the place for leaping off into downward space.
"Let me see if the cinches are tight," said the horseman quietly, and he looked to the girth of her saddle.
It was found to be in a satisfactory condition. The girth on the bay he tightened, carelessly pushing Elsa's foot and the stirrup aside for the purpose.
His own horse now showed unmistakable signs of weariness. He had traveled some twenty odd miles to arrive at Dave's before undertaking this present bit of hardship. Since then Van had pushed him to the limit of his strength and speed, in the effort to reach Goldite with the smallest possible delay.
If a sober expression of sympathy came for a second in the horseman's steady eyes, as he glanced where his pony was standing, it quickly gave way to something more inscrutable as he looked up at Beth, in advancing once more to the fore.
"Both of you give them the reins," he instructed quietly. "Just drop them down. Let the bronchos pick the trail." He paused, then added, as if on second thought, "Shut your eyes if you find you're getting dizzy—don't look down."
Beth turned slightly pale, in anticipation of some ordeal, undoubtedly imminent, but the light in her eyes was one of splendid courage. She might feel they were all at the gate of something awful, but her nature rose to meet it. She said nothing; she simply obeyed directions and looked with new emotions on the somewhat drooping mare to whom her own safety was entrusted.
Van was once more in his saddle. He started, and the ponies behind resumed their faithful plodding at his heels.
A few rods ahead they encountered a change, and Beth could scarcely repress a gasp of surprise and apprehension. The trail was laid upon the merest granite shelf, above that terrible chasm. She was terrified, frankly. The man and pony in the lead were cut with startling sharpness against the gray of the rock—the calico coloring, the muscular intensity, the bending of the man to every motion—as they balanced with terrifying slenderness above the pit of death.
For a moment the girl thought nothing of herself and of how she too must pass that awful brink, for all her concern was focused on the man. Then she realized what she must do—was doing—as her roan mare followed on. She was almost upon it herself!
Her hand flew down to the reins to halt the pony, involuntarily. A wild thought of turning and fleeing away from this shelf of destruction launched itself upon her mind. It was folly—a thing impossible. There was nothing to do but go on. Shutting her eyes and holding her breath she felt the mare beneath her tremulously moving forward, smelling out the places of security whereon to rest her weight.
Elsa, sublimely unresponsive, alike to the grandeur or the danger of the place, rode as placidly here as in the valley.
They passed the first of the shelf-like brinks, traversed a safer contour of the wall, and were presently isolated upon the second bridge of granite, which was also the last, much longer than the first, but perhaps not so narrow or winding.
Van had perspired in nervous tension, as the two women rode above the chasm. Men had gone down here to oblivion. He was easier now, more careless of himself and horse, less alert for a looseness in the granite mass, as he turned in his saddle to look backward.
Suddenly, with a horrible sensation in his vitals, he felt his pony crumpling beneath him, even as he heard Beth sound a cry.
A second later he was going, helplessly, with the air-rush in his ears and the pony's quiver shivering up his spine. All bottomless space seemed to open where they dropped. He kicked loose the stirrups, even as the pony struck upon the first narrow terrace, ten feet down, and felt the helpless animal turned hoofs and belly upward by the blow.
He had thrust himself free—apart from the horse—but could not cling to the rotten ledge for more than half a second. Then down once more he was falling, as before, only a heart-beat later than the pinto.
Out of the lip of the next shelf below the pony's weight tore a jagged fragment. The animal's neck was broken, and he and the stone-mass plunged on downward together.
Van half way fell through a stubborn bush—that clung with the mysterious persistency of life to a handful of soil in a crevice—and his strong hands closed upon its branches.
He was halted with a jolt. The pony hurtled loosely, grotesquely down the abyss, bounding from impacts with the terraces, and was presently lost to mortal sight in the dust and debris he carried below for a shroud. Sounds of his striking—dull, leaden sounds, tremendous in the all-pervading silence—came clearly up to the top. Then Van found his feet could be rested on the shelf, and he let himself relax to ease his arms.
Beth had uttered that one cry only, as man and horse careened above the pit. She now sat dumbly staring where the two had disappeared. Nothing could she see of Van or his pony. A chill of horror attacked her, there in the blaze of the sun. It was not, even then, so much of herself and Elsa she was thinking—two helpless women, lost in this place of terrible silence; she was smitten by the fate of their guide.
Van, for his part, looked about as best he might, observing his situation comprehensively. He was safe for the moment. The ledge whereon he was bearing a portion of his weight was narrow and crumbling with old disintegration. The shrub to which he clung was as tough as wire cable, and had once been stoutly rooted in the crevice. Now, however, its hold had been weakened by the heavy strain upon it, and yet he must continue to trust a part of his weight to its branches. There was nothing, positively nothing, by which he could hope to climb to the trail up above.
He deliberately rested and fostered his breath, not a trifle of which had been jolted in violence from his body. Presently he raised his voice and called out, as cheerfully as possible:
"Ship ahoy! Hullo—Miss Laughing Water!"
For a moment there was no response. Beth was to utterly overcome to speak. She hardly dared believe it was his call she heard, issuing up from the tomb. She feared that her hope, her frantic imagination, her wish to have it so, had conjured up a voice that had no genuine existence. Her lips moved, but made no audible sound. She trembled violently. Van called again, with more of his natural power.
"Hullo! Hullo! Miss Beth—are you up there on the trail?"
"Oh, yes! Oh! what shall I do?" cried Beth in a sudden outburst of relief and pent-up emotions. "Tell me what to do!"
Van knew she was rather near at hand. The bridge and trail were certainly no more than twenty-five feet above his head. He could make her hear with little effort.
"Brace up and keep your nerve," he instructed. "We're O.K. up to date. Just ride ahead till you come to the flat. Let Elsa hold your mare. Can you hear me plainly?"
"Oh! yes—yes—then what next?" replied the worried girl.
Van resumed calmly: "You'll find a rawhide rope on Elsa's saddle. Come back with that, on foot. Then I'll tell you what to do. Don't try to hurry; take your time, and don't worry." After a moment, as he got no reply, he added: "Have you started?"
Beth had not budged her mare, for terror of what she must do. She was fortifying all her resolution. She answered with genuine bravery:
"Yes—I—I'll do what you say."
She took up the reins. Her pale face was set, but she did not close her eyes to cross the dizzying brink. The mare went forward—and Elsa's bay resumed his patient tagging, up to and past the fateful place where a part of the shelf-edge, having been dislodged, had let Van's pony fall.
For ten age-long minutes Van waited on his ledge, feeling the treacherous, rotted stuff break silently away beneath his feet. The shrub, too, was showing an earthy bit of root as it slowly but certainly relinquished its hold on the substance which the crevice had divided. The man could almost have calculated how many seconds the shelf and the shrub could sustain their living burden.
Then Beth returned. She had left her maid with the horses; she held the lasso in her hand. To creep on foot along the granite bridge was taxing the utmost of her courage. She could not ascertain precisely where it was that the horseman was waiting below. She was guided only by the broken ledge, where pony and all had disappeared. Therefore, she called to him weakly.
"Mr. Van—Mr. Van—where are you?"
Van's heart turned over in his breast.
"Just below that split boulder in the trail," he answered cheerily. "Go to that."
A silence succeeded, then he heard, in tremulous accents:
"I'm here—but how am I going to tie the rope?"
Van answered distinctly, for much depended on precision.
"Uncoil it first. On one end there's an eye that runs the loop. Open the loop to a pretty good size and slip it over the smaller portion of the boulder. Then push it well down in the crevice, and pull it tight."
He knew that the rope was far too short to loop the larger rock and reach his hands. He waited while he thought she might be working—as indeed she was—and presently added: "Got that done?"
"Yes," she called. "Yes—but are you sure——"
His hold was giving way. He answered crisply:
"Now drop me the end. Don't wait!"
Beth had forgotten all danger to herself. She had ceased to tremble. She paid out the rope with commendable promptness.
"Does it reach?" she cried. "Can you get it?"
He could not. Though sufficiently long it was ten feet away, on his right. His seconds were growing fearfully precious.
"Just shift it over, more towards Elsa," he called, still calmly. "Move it about ten feet."
It began to approach him jerkily. It halted, then once more it moved. The shrub in his grasp gave out an inch, and was coming from its anchorage. Then his fist was closed on the rope.
"All right!" he called. "Let go—and stand aside!"
"But—oh, if the rock shouldn't hold!" cried the girl. "Are you sure it won't pull over?"
He was not at all certain of the boulder. This explained his directions, "stand aside!" If it came—it must not involve the girl. There was nothing for him but to trust to its weight against his own. He was strong. He began to come up, bracing a foot against the crumbling wall, winding the rope around one of his legs—or his leg around the rope, and resting whensoever he could.
Beth stood there, nearly as tense as the rope. Her brown eyes were fixed on the bedded boulder; her face was more gray than its bulk.
At the edge, where the lasso impinged upon the granite, small particles were breaking and falling ominously. Scarcely daring to breathe, as she felt how the man was toiling up from the maw of the chasm, Beth could not bear to look where he must come—if come he ever should.
It seemed an eternity of waiting. At last, when new misgivings had seized upon her heart, she heard his labored breathing. Even then she did not turn. She feared to watch his efforts; she feared to break the spell. A minute later she heard his even voice.
"It's a wonderful view—from down below."
The glad, eager light in her eyes, which his eyes met from the brink, put strength in both his arms. He came up to safety in an outburst of vigor that was nothing short of magnificent.
"Oh!" said the girl, and she leaned against the wall in a sudden need for support.
"I really had no intention of—deserting like that," panted Van, with a smile that was just a trifle forced. "But it's so much easier to—drop into a habit than it—ever is to get out."
She made no reply, but remained where she was, weakly leaning against the wall and slowly regaining the strength she had lost at the moment of beholding him safe. She was not the fainting kind, but she was human—womanly human.
Van began immediately to release and re-coil the rope.
"Too bad to throw away a pony like that," he resumed regretfully. "I always intended, if he died a Christian death, to have his hide tanned for a rug."
He was saying anything, no matter what, to dissipate the reactionary collapse into which he feared the girl was falling.
"Now then," he added, when the rope was well in hand, "we've wasted all the time we can spare on a second-rate vaudeville performance. Come along."
He started ahead as he had before, with that show of utter unconcern towards the girl that was absolutely new to her experience. Her eyes were wide with appeal as she watched him striding up the trail. For herself she wanted nothing; but her womanly nature craved some trifling sign, some word of assurance that the man was uninjured—really safe again and whole—after that terrible plunge. But this from the horseman was impossible. He had not even thanked her for the rescue.
"You horrid, handsome wretch!" she murmured vexedly, stimulated to renewed activity by her resentment; then she followed along the narrow way.
They came to the flat, beyond the wall, where Elsa sat keeping the horses. The maid looked the horseman over quite calmly, inquiring:
"What for dit you did it—go down there?"
"Just for ducks," said Van. He halted for Beth's approach, put her up on the roan, and once more strode off in the trail ahead with a promptness that was certainly amazing.
There was no understanding such a person. Beth gave it up. The whole affair was inexplicable—his attitude towards Searle at the station, his abduction of herself and the maid, and this trailing of the pair of them across these terrible places, for no apparent reason in the world.
Her mare followed on in the tracks of the muscular figure, over whom, for a moment, she had almost wished to yearn. His escape from death had been so slender—and he would not even rest!
The flat was, in reality, the hog's back or ridge of a lofty spur of the mountains. Except for the vast bluish canyons and gorges far below, the view was somewhat restricted here, since towering summits, in a conclave of peaks, arose to right and left.
After a time, as they swung around on the trend of the ridge, they came abreast a mighty gap in the mountains to the left, and there, far down, lay a valley as flattened by perspective as the unruffled surface of a lake.
Here Van presently halted, peering down and searching the vast gray floor with the keenest attention. He went on further, and halted again, Beth meanwhile watching his face with increasing curiosity.
At the third of his stops she gazed no more on the panorama of immensity, but rather gazed at him.
"What is it you expect to see?" she inquired at last. "Goldite isn't down there, is it?"
"I'm rather expecting—if I haven't miscalculated on the time—— There he is now," he answered, still staring afar off down upon the valley. He raised his arm and extended a finger to point towards the north-most limit of the level stretch of land. "Do you see that small, dark object in the road? That's a road, that slender yellow streak that you can follow."
Beth obeyed directions and thereby discerned, with remarkable clearness, the moving object, far away below. She did not in the least suspect its nature.
"Why, yes—what is it?" she asked with languid interest, having expected something more significant. "Is it some small animal?"
"Yes," responded Van. "It's Searle."
Beth was instantly all attention.
"Not Mr. Bostwick, in his car?"
Van continued to study the gray of the world-wide map.
"I rather wonder——" he mused, and there he halted, presently adding, "He's climbing a hill. You might not think so, looking down from here, but it's steep and sandy, for a car."
She was watching eagerly.
"And he's no further along towards Goldite than this?"
"He's had some tough old going," answered Van. "He's in luck to——" then to himself, as he continued to scan the scene for something he did not apparently find. "By Jupe! I'd have sworn Matt Barger——" He broke off abruptly, adding in a spirit of fairness, "Searle is getting right up to the ridge all right. Good boy! He must have a powerful motor under the—There! By George! I knew it! I knew it! Got him! right there in the gravel!"
The girl looked suddenly upon him, wholly unable to comprehend the sharp exclamations he was making.
"What has got him? What do you mean?" she demanded in vague alarm. "I don't see what you——"
"That's Matt every time—I thought so," he resumed, as he stepped a little closer to the girl. "Don't you see them?—those lively little specks, swarming all around the machine?"
Beth bent her gaze on the drama, far below—a play in which she knew but one of the characters, and nothing of the meaning of the scene.
"I see—yes—something like a lot of tiny ants—or something. What are they?—not robbers?—not men?"
"Part men, part hyenas," he told her quietly. "It's a lot of State convicts, escaped from their prison, two days free—and desperate."
She was suddenly very pale. Her eyes were blazing.
"Convicts! Out of prison?"
"A good long way out," he told her watching, "and clever enough to hike for the mines, with the camps all full of strangers. They learn to be good mixers, when they're trying to escape."
Beth gazed at him searchingly.
"You—knew they were out—and waiting on the road?"
"Everyone knew they were out—and I certainly thought big Matt would do precisely what you see he has done."
"Matt?" she echoed.
"The leader," he explained, "a clever brute as ever worried a sheriff."
She was not in the least interested in the personality of the convict thus described. Her mind had flown to another aspect of the case—the case involving herself.
"And this was why you wouldn't let us go in the auto?" she said. "You expected this?"
He looked at her quickly.
"Searle wouldn't take my advice, you know." His eyes were once more merry. "What could I do?"
"But Mr. Bostwick wouldn't have gone if you had told him!" she said. "Oh, I'm surprised you'd do it—let him go and be captured like that!" She was looking down upon the silent drama intently as she added: "I don't see why you ever did it!"
He was still amused.
"Oh, I thought perhaps Searle deserved it."
She blazed a little.
"You told him you hoped he'd meet congenial company on the road. You didn't mean——"
"Guilty as charged in the indictment. I guess I did."
"Oh! I wouldn't have thought——" she started, then she shivered in horror, reflecting swiftly on the fate that might have befallen herself and Elsa had they too been captured with Searle. It was all explained at last—the horseman's earnest talk with Dave, his quiet but grim refusal to permit herself and Elsa to remain with the car, and the hazardous ride he had since dared compel them to take at such peril to his life! And now, his persistent advance on foot, when perhaps he was painfully injured! He had done then such a service as she could never in her life forget. His treatment of Searle had perhaps, even as he said, been deserved. Nevertheless, Searle was much to her, very much, indeed—or had been—up to this morning—and she was worried.
"What do you think they will do?" she added in a spirit of contrition that came at once upon her. "They must be terrible men!"
"They won't do much but take his money and clothes, and maybe beg for a ride," said Van reassuringly. "They'll see he isn't fit to kill."
Beth glanced at him briefly, inquiringly. What a baffling light it was that played in the depths of his eyes! What manner of being was he, after all? She could not tell. And yet she felt she could trust him—she certainly knew not why. Despite his ways of raillery she felt he was serious, true as steel, and big in heart and nature.
"I mustn't forget to thank you," she murmured. "I mean for sparing us—all that. I do thank you, most sincerely, for——"
"Never mind that," he interrupted. "We're going to be late to lunch."
He turned once more to the trail and started off, in his active manner, together with a thorough indifference as to what became of Bostwick.
Beth, with a feeling that something ought yet to be done for Searle, down in the valley with the convicts, cast one helpless glance at the scene of the hold-up, then perforce urged her pony forward.
Van halted no more. He led the way doggedly onward, over the rises, through great silent forests, past crystal springs, and down dark, somber ravines. At a quarter of one he emerged from a gorge upon the level acre of a tiny cove, still high in the mountains fastnesses. Here he let out a whoop like an Indian, its echo filling all the place.
An answering call came clearly from somewhere near at hand. Beth felt a sudden alarm to know there were human beings near. What sort they were was a matter entirely of conjecture. Then presently she discovered a number of small, rude buildings, and a fair-sized cabin, planted next the hill. The door of the latter was open. A tall man appeared in the frame.
"This," said Van, who had waited for the girl to ride once more to his side, "is the Monte Cristo mine—the worst false alarm that ever disfigured the map."
The Monte Cristo mining property comprised a tunnel in the hill, a glory hole, a little toy quartz-mill—five stamps strong—the bunk-house, kitchen, blacksmith-shop, stable, corral, and four human beings. These latter were a Chinese cook named Algy, a Piute Indian half-breed called Cayuse, and two rare souls—Napoleon G. Blink and "Gettysburg"—miners, and boastful old worthies, long partnered and beloved by Van.
Just at present the tunnel was empty, the glory-hole was deserted, and the quartz-mill was silent. The mine had proved a failure. Van had expended many thousands of dollars and ten months of time to demonstrate the facts; and now, in possession of much new experience, an indomitable spirit, two tired partners, and a brand-new claim, he was facing his fate, as heretofore, with a wonderful boyish cheer.
Not all this knowledge was vouchsafed to Beth when she and her maid were presently put in possession of the place. With the utmost gravity Van introduced her by old Dave's appellation, Miss Laughing Water. The maid he merely called Elsa. His explanation as to whence they hailed, whither they were bound, why he had taken them in charge, and how he had lost the pinto pony, was notable chiefly for its brevity. He and his charges were hungry and somewhat pressed for time, he announced, and he therefore urged Algy to haste.
Dinner had been promptly served at twelve. Algy was therefore in despair—for Algy was proud of his art. He still had good red beans, most excellent coffee, corn-fed bacon, the best of bread and butter, a hunger-inspiring stew of lamb, white potatoes, fine apple sauce, and superlative gingerbread on hand in great abundance, however, but in spite of it all he spluttered.
"What's mallah you, Van?" he demanded several times. "Wha' for no tell me blingee ladies? How you s'plose I gettee dinner? Sominagot, you come like this, that velly superstich."
He would readily have laid down his very life for Van, but he laid a good dinner instead. During its preparation Beth and her maid sat down on a bench beside the bunk-house, in the presence of Cayuse, Napoleon, and Gettysburg, while Van led the horses to the stable for refreshment, and Algy talked to himself in pigeon English.
It was an odd situation for the girl from New. York, but she found herself amused. Both Napoleon and Gettysburg had been cast for amusing roles, which they did not always fill. Neither, as might be supposed from his name, had ever even smelled the faintest suggestion of things military. Napoleon had once been a sailor, or, to be more accurate, a river boatman. He was fat, short, red-headed, red-necked, red-nosed, and red-eyed. His hands were freckled, his arms were hairy. He turned his head to one side like a bird—and promptly fell in love with demure little Elsa.
Gettysburg was as thin as Napoleon was fat. He had a straggling gray beard, a very bald pate, high cheek bones, and a glass eye. This eye he turned towards the maid, perhaps because it was steady. He also had a nervous way of drawing one hand down his face till he lowered his jaw prodigiously, after which, like the handle of a knocker, it would fall back to place with quite a thump. He did this twice as he stared at Beth, and then he remarked:
"Quite a hike yit, down to Goldite."
"I suppose it is," said Beth in her interesting way. "How far is it, really, from here?"
"'Bout twenty miles of straight ahead, and two miles of straight up, and three of straight down—if a feller could go straight," said Gettysburg gravely, "but he can't."
Beth looked very much concerned. She had hoped they were almost there, and no more hills to climb or descend. She felt convinced they had ridden over twenty miles already, and the horseman had assured her it was thirty at the most, from the station so far behind the mountains.
"But—Mr. Van can't walk so far as that," she said. "I'm sure I don't see what——"
She was interrupted by the reappearance of Van himself.
"Isn't there a horse on the place?" he asked his partners collectively. "What have you done with the sorrel?"
Gettysburg arose. "Loaned him to A. C., yistiddy," said he. "But the outlaw's on the job."
"Not Vesuvius?" Van replied incredulously. "You don't mean to say he's turned up again unslaughtered?"
"Cayuse here roped him, up to Cedar flat," imparted Gettysburg. "Cornered him there in natural corral and fetched him home fer fun."
Napoleon added: "But Cayuse ain't been on board, you bet. He likes something more old-fashioned than Suvy. Split my bowsprit, I wouldn't tow no horse into port which I was afraid to board. When I was bustin' bronchos I liked 'em to be bad."
"Yes," agreed Gettysburg, "so bad they couldn't stand up."
A bright glitter came for a moment in Van's blue eyes.
"If Suvy's the only equine paradox on the place, he and I have got to argue things out this afternoon," he said, "but I'll have my dinner first."
Beth was listening intently, puzzled to know precisely what the talk implied. She was vaguely suspicious that Van, for the purpose of escorting her on, would find himself obliged to wage some manner of war with a horse of which the Indian was afraid.
Further discussion of the topic was interrupted now by the cook, who appeared to announce his dinner served. Beth and her maid were, therefore, directed by Van to a table set for two, while he, with Napoleon and Gettysburg for company, repaired to a place in the kitchen.
Beth was hungry. She ate with all the relish of a mountaineer. Algy, moreover, was a kitchen magician in the art of transforming culinary commonplaces into viands of toothsome delight. Elsa became speechlessly busy. Despite her wishes in the matter, Beth could hear the men talking beyond.
"So them convicts has hiked over this way already," said the voice of Gettysburg distinctly. "We heard from A. C. about the prison break, but he wasn't on to which ones they was."
"One is Matt Barger," Van informed them. "He's the only one I know."
"Matt Barger! Not your Matt Barger?" demanded Gettysburg sharply.
Van nodded. "Mine when I had him."
Gettysburg arose excitedly.
"He ain't come hunting fer you as quick as this?" he inquired uneasily. "That ain't what's fetched him over to the desert?"
"Haven't asked him," answered Van. "He promised to look me up if ever he got out alive."
"Look you up!" Gettysburg was obviously over-wrought by the mere intelligence that Barger was at liberty. "You know what he'll do! You know him, boy! You know he'll keep his word. You can't go foolin' around alone. You've got to be——"
"Pass the beans," Van interrupted. He added more quietly: "Sit down, Gett, and shut the front door of your face."
Napoleon was eating, to "keep Van company." He pushed away his plate.
"Just our luck if these here derelicts was to foul us, skipper and crew," he observed ruefully. "Just our luck."
Gettysburg sat down, adding: "Why can't you wait, Van, wait till the whole kit and boodle of us can move to the bran'-new claim?"
Van finished half a cup of coffee.
"I told you I should continue on without delay. The horses will probably come to-night for all of you to follow me to-morrow."
"Then why don't you wait and go with us?" repeated Gettysburg. "We'll git there by noon, and you ain't got nuthin' to ride."
The horseman answered: "Suvy's the prettiest gaited thing you ever saw—when he gaits."
"Holy toads!" said the older man apprehensively, "you ain't sure-a-goin' to tackle the outlaw today?"
"I've always felt we'd come to it soon or late," was Van's reply. "And I've got to have a horse this afternoon. We can't kill each other but once."
"Supposen he stoves in your pilot-house," said Napoleon. "What shall we do about the claim, and all this cargo, and everything?"
"The claim? Work it, man, work it," Van responded. "What's a mining claim for but to furnish good hard work for a couple of old ring-tailed galoots who've shirked it all their lives?"
"Work it, yep, but what on?" asked Gettysburg. "We're as broke as a hatched-out egg."
"Haven't you worked on shinbones and heavenly hopes before?" inquired the busy leader of the partnership. "And that reminds me, Algy, what about you?" he added to the Chinese cook. "We can't afford a tippe-bob-royal chef of your dimensions after this. I guess you'll have to poison somebody else."
"What's mallah you, Van?" Algy demanded aggressively. "You makee me velly sick. You get velly lich I cook your glub. You go bloke, I cook alle same. Sominagot, I b'long go with you all time. You no got good luck I never want the money, you savvy? You go hell—go anywhere—I go same place—that's all. You talkee big fool, that velly superstich." He looked at Van fiercely to disguise a great alarm, a fear that he might, after all, be dismissed in the break-up impending.
Van shrugged his shoulders.
"Sentenced for life. All right, Algy, if your cooking kills us off, at least, as the brave young husband remarked, it will all be in the family."
Algy still looked as fierce as one of his heathen idols.
"You t'ink velly smart," he said, still concealing his feelings. "Lats!" and with that he went out to chop some wood.
"Batten me into the pantry!" said Napoleon. "I'll bet old Algy'd board the outlaw himself, fer you, Van, squall and all."
"That horse ain't human," Gettysburg exploded anew. "Van, you can't ride no such Fourth-of-July procession!"
"Shut up!" murmured Van, with a gesture towards the room where Beth and her maid were dining. He added aloud: "The chances are we'll find he's a cheap Sunday-school picnic. Napoleon, you and Cayuse go out and prepare his mind for work."
"Aye, aye," said Napoleon rising to go, "but I wish we had some soothin' syrup, skipper."
He and the Indian were heard to depart, by Beth, sitting back in her chair. She was greatly alarmed by all she had heard of vengeful convicts and the vicious horse, and could eat no more for nervous dread.
"That horse has killed his man, and you know it," said Gettysburg in a whisper that the girl distinctly overhead. "Boy, boy, let the Injun ride him first."
"There, there, ease off," Van answered quietly. "You keep the women entertained about the mill while Suvy and I are debating."
He gulped down a last drink of coffee, silenced the miner's further remonstrances, and departed by way of the kitchen door.
Beth arose hurriedly and hastened forth, intent upon immediate prevention, if possible, of any further ordeals undertaken in behalf of herself. She was thoroughly frightened. A prescience of something ominous impending seemed to grip her very heart. She glanced about, helplessly, unfamiliar with the place. Van was nowhere in sight. She started to run around the cabin when Gettysburg appeared in her path.
"Well, well," said he nervously, "now who'd a-thought you'd finished eatin'?"
"Oh please," she said, "please go tell Mr. Van I'd rather he wouldn't attempt to ride any horse again to-day. Will you please go tell him that?"
"You bet your patent leathers!" said Gettysburg. "You just go over and globe-trot the quartz-mill while I'm gone, and we'll fix things right in a shake."
He strode off in haste. Beth watched him go. She made no move towards the quartz-mill, which Gettysburg had indicated, over on the slope.
She soon grew restive, awaiting his return. Elsa came out and sat down. The old miner failed to reappear.
At length, unable to endure any longer her feeling of alarm and suspense, Beth resolutely followed where Gettysburg had gone, and soon came in sight of the stable and high corral. Then her heart struck a blow of excitement in her breast, and her knees began to weaken beneath her.
Too late to interfere in the struggle about to be enacted, the girl stood rigidly beside a great red pine tree, fixing her gaze upon Van, on whose heels, as he walked, jingled a glinting pair of spurs.
From the small corral he was leading forth as handsome an animal as Beth had ever seen, already saddled, bridled—and blindfolded. The horse was a chestnut, magnificently sculptured and muscled. He was of medium size, and as trim and hard as a nail. His coat fairly glistened in the sun.
Despite his beauty there was something about him that betokened menace. It was not altogether that the men all stood away—all save Van—nor yet that the need for a blindfold argued danger in his composition. There was something acutely disquieting in the backward folding of his ears, the quiver of his sinews, the reluctant manner of his stepping.
Beth did not and could not know that an "outlaw" is a horse so utterly abandoned to ways of broncho crime and equine deviltry that no man is able to break him—that having conquered man after man, perhaps even with fatal results to his riders, he has become absolutely depraved and impossible of submission. She only knew that her heart was beating rapidly, painfully, that her breath came in gasps, that her whole nervous system was involved in some manner of anguish. She saw the Chinese cook run past to witness the game, but all her faculties were focused on the man and horse—both sinister, tense, and grim.
Van had not turned in Beth's direction. He was wholly unaware of her presence. He halted when the horse was well out towards the center of the open, and the outlaw braced awkwardly, as if to receive an attack.
With the bridle reins held in his hand at the pommel of the saddle, Van stood for a moment by the chestnut's side, then, with incredible celerity of movement, suddenly placed his foot in the stirrup and was up and well seated before the blinded pony could have moved.
Nothing happened. No one made a sound. No one, apparently, save Beth, had expected anything to happen. She felt a rush of relief—that came prematurely.
Van now leaned forward, as the horse remained stiffly braced, and slipping the blindfold from the pony's eyes, sat back in the saddle alertly.
Even then the chestnut did not move. He had gone through this ordeal many times before. He had often been mounted—but not for long at a time. He had even been exhausted by a stubborn "broncho buster"—some hardy human burr who could ride a crazy comet—but always he had won in the end. In a word he had earned his sobriquet, which in broncho-land is never lightly bestowed.
Van was not in the least deceived. However, he was eager for the conflict to begin. He had no time to waste. He snatched off his hat, let out a wild, shrill yell, dug with his spurs and struck the animal a resounding slap on the flank, that, like a fulminate, suddenly detonated the pent-up explosives in the beast.
He "lit into" bucking of astounding violence with the quickness of dynamite.
It was terrific. For a moment Beth saw nothing but a mad grotesquerie of horse and man, almost ludicrously unnatural, and crazed with eccentric motion.
The horse shot up in the air like a loose, distorted piece of statuary, blown from its pedestal by some gigantic disturbance. He appeared to buckle in his mid-air leap like a bended thing of metal, then dropped to the earth, stiff-legged as an iron image, to bound up again with mad and furious gyrations that seemed to the girl to twist both horse and rider into one live mass of incongruity,
He struck like a ruin, falling from the sky, went up again with demon-like activity, once more descended—once more hurtled wildly aloft—and repeated this maneuver with a swiftness utterly bewildering.
Had some diabolical wind, together with a huge, volcanic force, taken insane possession of the animal, to fire him skyward, whirl him about, thrash him down viciously and fling him up again, time after time, he could not have churned with greater violence.
He never came down in the same place twice, but he always came down stiff-legged. The jolt was sickening. All about, in a narrow, earth-cut circle he bucked, beginning to grunt and warm to his work and hence to increase the deviltry and malice of his actions.
Van had yelled but that once. He saw nothing, knew nothing, save a dizzy world, abruptly gone crazy about him.
To Beth it seemed as if the horror would never have an end. One glimpse she had of Van's white face, but nothing could it tell of his strength or the lack thereof. She felt she must look and look till he was killed. There could be no other issue, she was sure. And for herself there could be no escape from the awful fascination of the merciless brute, inflicting this torture on the man.
It did end, however, rather unexpectedly—that particular phase of the conflict. The horse grew weary of the effort, made in vain, to dislodge the stubborn torment on his back. He changed the program with the deadliest of all a broncho's tricks.
Pausing for the briefest part of a second, while Van must certainly have been reeling with hideous motion and jolt, the chestnut quickly reared on high, to drop himself clean over backwards. It was thus that once he had crushed the life from a rider.
"Oh!" screamed Both, and she sank beside the tree.
The men all yelled. They were furious and afraid.
With hoofs wildly flaying the air, while he loomed tall and unreal in such an attitude, the broncho hung for a moment in mid-poise, then dropped over sheer—as if to be shattered into fragments.
But a mass of the bronze-like group was detached, and fell to one side, on its thigh. It was Van. He had seen what was coming in time.
Instantly up, as the brute rolled quickly to arise, he leaped in the saddle, the horn of which had snapped, and he and the chestnut came erect together, as if miraculously the equestrian group had been restored.
"Yi! Yi!" he yelled, like the madman he was—mad with the heat of the fight—and he dug in his spurs with vicious might.
Back to it wildly, with fury increased, the broncho leaped responsively.
Here, there, all the field over, the demon thrashed, catapulting incredibly. He tried new tricks, invented new volcanics of motion, developed new whirlwinds of violence.
Once more, then, as he had on the first occasion, the beast reared up and fell backward to the earth. Once more Van dropped away from his bulk and caught him before he could rise. This time, however, he did not immediately mount—and the men went running to his side.
"Fer God's sake, boy, let me kill the brute!" cried Gettysburg taking up a club.
"I'll shoot him! I'll shoot him! I'll shoot him!" said Napoleon wildly, but without any weapon in his hands.
Beth beheld and heard it all. She was once more standing rigidly by her tree, unable to move or speak. She wished to run to Van as the men had run, but not to slay the broncho—only to beg the horseman not to mount again.
She saw him push the men away and stand like the broncho's guard. His face was streaked with blood—his blood—jolted alike from his mouth and nose by the shocks to which he had been subjected.
"Let the horse alone!" he commanded roughly. "Good stuff in this broncho—somewhere. Get me a bottle of water, right away—a big one—get it full."
His partners started at once to raise objections. The Indian stood by stolidly looking on.
"You can't go no further. Van, you can't——" started Gettysburg.
"Sominagot! Una ma, hong oy! Una ca see fut!" said the Chinese-cook, swearing vehemently in the language likeliest to count, and he ran at once towards the kitchen.
Van was replacing the blindfold on the broncho's eyes. The animal was panting, sweating, quivering in every muscle. His ears went backward and forward rapidly. The blindfold shut out a wild, unreasoning challenge and defiance that burned like a torch in his eyes.
Algy came running with a big bottle, filled and corked.
"Fer God's sake, leave me kill him!" Gettysburg was repeating automatically. "Van, if you ain't got no respect fer yourself, ain't you got none left fer us old doggone cusses?"
"Give me the bottle, Algy," Van replied. "You're the only game sport on the ranch."
Still he did not discover Beth. His attentions were engrossed by the horse. He was dizzy, dazed, but a dogged master still of his forces. Up he mounted to the saddle again, the bottle held firmly in his grasp.
"Slip off the blinder," he said to his friends, and Algy it was who obeyed.
"Damn you, now you buck!" cried Van wildly, and his heels ignited the volcano.
For five solid minutes the broncho redoubled his scheme of demoniac fury. Then he poised, let out a shrill scream of challenge, and abruptly raised to repeat the backward fall.
Up, up he went, an ungainly sight, and then—the heavens split in twain.
He was only well lifted from the earth when, with a thunderous, terrible blow, Van crashed the bottle downward, fairly between his ears, and burst it on his skull.
The weapon was shattered with a frightening thud. Red pieces of glass and streaming water poured in a cataract down across the broncho's eyes as if very doom itself had suddenly cracked. A cataclysm could not have been more horrible. An indescribable fright and awe overwhelmed the brutish mind as with a cloud of lead.
Down swiftly he dropped to his proper position, perhaps with a fear that his crown was gaping open from impact with the sky. He was stunned by the blow upon his brain, and weakened in every fiber. He started to run, in terror of the thing, and the being still solid in the saddle. Wildly he went around the cove, in the panic of utter defeat.
The men began to cheer, their voices choked and hoarse. Van rode now as fate might ride the very devil. He spurred the horse to furious, exhausting speed, guiding him wildly around the mountain theater. Again and again they circled the grassy arena, till foam and lather whitened the broncho's flank, chest, and mouth, and his nostril burned red as living flame.
When at last the animal, weary and undone, would have sobered down to a trot or walk, Van forced him anew to crazy speed. At least five miles he drove him thus, till the broncho's sides, like the rider's face, were red with blood mingled with sweat.
Beth, at the climax, had gone down suddenly, leaning against the tree. She had not fainted, but was far too weak to stand. Her eyes only moved. She watched the two, that seemed welded into one, go racing madly against fatigue.
At last she beheld the look of the conquered—the utter surrender of the broken and subdued—gleam dully from the wilted pony's eyes. She pitied the animal she had feared and hated but a few brief moments before. She began to think that the man was perhaps the brute, after all, to ride the exhausted creature thus without a sign of mercy.
She rose to her feet as the two came at last to a halt, master and servant, conquered and conqueror, man and quivering beast.
Then Van got down, and her heart, that had pitied the horse, welled with deeper feeling for the rider. She had never in her life seen a face so drawn, so utterly haggard beneath a mask of red as that presented by the horseman.
Van nearly fell, but would not fall, and instead stood trembling, his arm by natural inclination now circling the neck of the pony.
"Well, Suvy," he said not ungently, "we gave each other hell. Hereafter we're going to be friends."
Beth heard him. She also saw the chestnut turn and regard the man with a look of appeal and dumb questioning in his eyes that choked her—with joy and compassion together. She someway knew that this man and horse would be comrades while they lived.
Half an hour afterward as she, Van, and Elsa rode forward as before, she saw the man in affection pat the broncho on the neck. And the horse pricked his ears in a newfound gladness in service and friendship that his nature could not yet comprehend.
AN EXCHANGE OF QUESTIONS
Youth is elastic, and Van was young. An hour of quiet riding restored him astoundingly. He bore no signs of fatigue that Beth could detect upon his face. Once more, as he had in the morning, he was riding ahead in the trail, apparently all but oblivious of the two anxious women in his charge.
They had wound far downward through a canyon, and now at length were emerging on a sagebrush slope that lowered to the valley. Van halted for Beth to ride to his side, and onward they continued together.
"I suppose you have friends to whom you are going in Goldite," he said, "—or at least there's someone you know."
"Yes," she answered, "my brother."
Van looked at her in his quizzical way, observing:
"I don't believe I know him."
Her glance was almost one of laughter.
"Why, how can you tell? You don't even know his name." She paused, then added quietly: "It's Glenmore Kent." She felt he had a right to know not only her brother's name, but also her own, if only for what he had done. "You might, of course, know him after all," she concluded. "He has quite a number of acquaintances."
"Kent," said Van. To himself it was "Beth Kent" he was saying. "No, guess not. No such luck, but I hope you'll find him in the camp."
"Do you think I may not?" She was just a trifle startled by the possibility.
He was grave for once.
"Men come and go in a mining town, where everyone's unduly excited. If he isn't on deck, then have you no one else? Have you any alternative plan?"
"Why, no," she confessed, her alarm increasing, "not unless Mr. Bostwick has arrived and arranged our accommodations."
"I wouldn't count on Searle," drawled Van significantly. "He may have to walk."
"Not across the awful desert?"
"If he goes around he'll be longer."
"Why—but——" she gasped, "there is nothing to eat—no water—there isn't anything on the desert, is there?—anywhere?"
He was looking intently into the deep brown depths of her eyes as he answered:
"There's so little to eat that the chipmunks have to fetch in their lunches."
Beth continued to gaze upon him. If she noted the lights of laughter lying soberly subdued in his eyes, she also discerned something more, that affected her oddly. Despite the horseman's treatment of her escort—a treatment she confessed he had partially deserved—and despite the lightness of his speeches, she felt certain of the depth of his nature, convinced of the genuine earnestness of his purposes—the honesty and worth of his friendship.
She knew she was tremendously indebted for all he had done and was doing, but aside from all that, in her heart of hearts she admired bravery, courage, and a dash of boldness more than anything else in the world. She was not yet certain, however, whether the man at her side was brave or merely reckless, courageous, or indifferent to danger, bold or merely audacious. She knew nothing about him whatsoever, nothing except he must be tired, lame, and bruised from exertions undertaken in her behalf. It had been a long, long day. She felt as if they had known each other always—and had always been friends.
Her mind went back to the morning as if to an era of the past. The thought of the convicts who had captured Bostwick aroused new apprehensions in her breast, though not for the man with the car. Someway Searle seemed strangely far away and dimmed in her regard. She was thinking of what she had overheard, back there at the Monte Cristo mine.
"This has been a trying day," she said, apparently ignoring Van's last observation. "You have taken a great deal of trouble for—for us—and we appreciate it fully."
Van said gravely: "Taking trouble is the only fun I have."
"You laugh at everything," she answered, "but isn't it really a serious thing—a menace to everyone—having those convicts out of prison?"
"It isn't going to be a knitting-bee, rounding them up," Van admitted. "And meantime they're going to be exacting of everyone they meet."
She looked at him half seriously, but altogether brightly.
"And what if they chance to meet you?"
"Oh, we'd exchange courtesies, I reckon."
She had no intention of confessing how much she had overheard, but she was tremendously interested—almost fearful for the man's safety, she hardly dared ask herself why. She approached her subject artfully.
"Do you know them, then?"
"Well, yes, the leader—slightly," he answered. "I sent him up for murder, stealing cattle, and robbing sluices. He was too annoying to have around."
"Oh! Then won't he feel ugly, resentful?" she inquired earnestly. "Won't he try to hunt you up—and pay you back?"
Van regarded her calmly.
"He told me to expect my pay—if ever he escaped—and he's doubtless got his check-book along."
"Colt—forty-four," Van drawled by way of explanation.
She turned a trifle pale.
"He'd shoot you on sight?"
"If he sighted me first."
Her breath came hard. She realized that the quiet-seeming horseman at her side would kill a fellow-being—this convict, at least—as readily as he might destroy a snake.
"How long ago did you put him in jail?" she inquired.
"Four years ago this summer."
"Have you always lived here—out West?"
"I've lived every day I've been here," he answered evasively. "Do I look like a native?"
She laughed. "Oh, I don't know. We came here straight from New York, a week ago, Elsa and I. Mr. Bostwick joined us two days later. I really know nothing of the country at all."
"New York," he said, and relapsed into silent meditation. How far away seemed old New Amsterdam! How long seemed the brief six years since he had started forth with his youthful health, his strength, determination, boyish dreams, and small inheritance to build up a fortune in the West! What a mixture of sunshine and failure it had been! What glittering hopes had lured him hither and yon in the mountains, where each great gateway of adventure had charged its heavy toll!
He had lost practically all of his money; he had gained his all of manhood. He had suffered privation and hardship; he had known the vast comfort of friends—true friends, as certain as the very heart in his breast to serve him to the end.
Like a panoramic dream he beheld a swift procession of mine-and-cattle scenes troop past for swift review. He lived again whole months of nights spent out alone beneath the sky, with the snow and the wind hurled down upon him from a merciless firmament of bleakness. Once more he stumbled blindly forward in the desert—he and Gettysburg—perishing for water, giving up their liquid souls to the horribly naked and insatiate sun. Again he toiled in the shaft of a mine till his back felt like a crackly thing of glass with each aching fissure going deeper.
Once more the gold goddess beckoned with her smile, and fortune was there, almost in reach—the fortune that he and his partners had sought so doggedly, so patiently—the fortune for which they had starved and delved and suffered—only to see it vanish in the air as the sunshine will vanish from a peak.
Old hopes, like ghosts, went skulking by, vain charlatans, ashamed. But friendships stood about in every scene—bright presences that cast a roseate glow on all the tribulations of his life. And it seemed as if a failure here was half a failure only, after all. It had not robbed him either of his youth, his strength, or a certain boyish credulity and trust in all his kind. He still believed he should win his golden goal, and he loved the land that had tried him.
His last, his biggest venture, the Monte Cristo mine was, however, gone—everything sold to meet the company debts. Nevertheless, he had once more purchased a claim, with all but his very last dollar in the world, and he and his partners would soon be on the ground, assaulting the stubborn adamant with powder, pick, and drill, in the fever of the miner's ceaseless dream.
To-day, as he rode beside the girl, he wondered at it all—why he had labored so persistently. The faint, far-off shadow of a sweetheart, long since left behind, failed to supply him a motive. She had grown impatient, listened to a suitor more tangible than Van's absent self, and so, blamelessly, had faded from his scheme of hopes, leaving no more than a fragrance in his thoughts, with certainly no bitterness or anger.
"Old New York," he repeated, at the end of his reverie, and meeting once more the steady brown eyes of the girl with whom the fates had thrown him, he fetched up promptly with the present.
"How long has your brother been out here in Goldite?"
"About a month," she answered. "He's been in the West for nearly a year, and wrote Mr. Bostwick to come."
"Mr. Bostwick is doubtless a very particular friend of your family."
"Why, yes, he's my—— That is, he was—he always has been a very particular friend—for several years," she faltered suddenly turning red. "We haven't any family, Glen and I—and he's my half brother only—but we're just like chums—-and that was why I wanted to come. I expect to surprise him. He doesn't know I'm here."
Van was silent and she presently added:
"I hope you and Glen will be friends. I know how much he'll wish to thank you."
He looked at her gravely.
"I hope he won't. It's up to me to thank him."
They had come to a road at the level of the valley—a desert valley, treeless, grassless, gray, and desolate. The sun was rapidly nearing the rim of the mountains, as if to escape pursuit of a monstrous bank of clouds.
Van spurred his chestnut to a gallop, and the horses bearing the women responded with no further need of urging.
A NIGHT'S EXPENSES
From Karrish to Goldite by the road was twenty-seven miles. There were fifteen mile of bottles by the way—all of them empty. A blind man with a nose for glass could have smelled out the trail unerringly across that desert stretch. Karrish was the nearest town for a very great distance around.
Over the road innumerable caravans were passing. Everything was rushing to Goldite. There were horsemen, hurried persons on foot, men in carriages and autos, twenty-horse freight teams, and men on tiny burros. Nearly all were shedding bottles as they went. A waterless land is not necessarily devoid of all manner of moisture.
A dozen of the slowly laboring freight outfits were passed by Van and his two companions. What engines of toil they represented! The ten pairs of sweating, straining animals seemed almost like some giant caterpillar, harnessed to a burden on wheels. They always dragged three wagons, two of which were huge gray hulks, incredibly heavy with giant-powder, canned goods, bottled goods, picks, shovels, bedding, hay, great mining machinery, and house-hold articles. These wagons were hitched entrain. The third wagon, termed a "trailer," was small and loaded merely with provisions for the teamster and the team. The whole thing, from end to end, beat up a stifling cloud of dust.
The sun went down while Beth, Van, and Elsa were still five miles from their goal. They rode as rapidly as possible. The horses, however, were jaded, and the way was slightly up grade. The twilight was brief. It descended abruptly from the western bank of clouds, by now as thick and dark as mud. Afar off shone the first faint light of the gold-camp to which the three were riding. This glimmering ray was two miles out from the center of town. Goldite was spread in a circle four miles wide, and the most of it was isolated tents.
The darkness shut down like a pall. A vivid, vicious bolt of lightning—a fiery serpent, overcharged with might—struck down upon the mountain tops, pouring liquid flame upon the rocks. A sweeping gust of wind came raging down upon the town, hurling dust and gravel on the travelers.
Van rode ahead like a spirit of the storm. He knew the need for haste. Beth simply let her pony go. She was cramped and far too wearied for effort.
They were galloping now past the outskirts of the camp, the many scattered tents of the men who were living on their claims. All the world was a land of claims, staked off with tall white posts, like ghosts in the vanishing light. Ahead, a multitude of lights had suddenly broken on the travelers' vision, like a nearby constellation of stars.
They rode into all of it, blazing lights, eager crowds upon the streets, noise of atrocious music from the brilliant saloons, and rush of wind and dust, not a minute too soon. They had barely alighted and surrendered their horses to a friend of Van's when the rain from the hilltops swooped upon the camp in a fury that seemed like an elemental threat to sweep all the place, with its follies, hopes, and woes, its excitements, lawlessness, and struggles, from the face of the barren desert world.
Beth and her maid were lame and numb. Van could only hustle them inside a grocery-and-hardware store to save them from a drenching. The store was separated from a gambling-hall saloon by the flimsiest board partition. Odors of alcohol, confusion of voices, and calls of a gamester came unimpeded to the women's senses, together with some mighty bad singing, accompanied lustily by strains and groans pounded from a ghastly piano.
"Sit down," said Van, inverting a tub at the feet of the wondering women. "I'll see if I can rustle up your brother."
He went out in the rain, dived impartially into the first of the crowded saloons, was somewhat hilariously greeted by a score of convivial fellows, found no one who knew of young Glen Kent, and proceeded on to the next.
The horseman was well and favorably known in all directions. He was eagerly cornered wheresoever he appeared by a lot of fellows who were friends to little purpose, in an actual test. However, he clung to his mission with commendable tenacity of purpose, and kept upon his way. Thus he discovered at length, when he visited the bank—an institution that rarely closed before ten o'clock in the evening—that Kent had been gone for the past two weeks, no one knew where, but somewhere out south, with a party.
There was nothing to do after that but to look for fit apartments for the gently reared girl and her maid. Hunting a needle in the ocean would have been a somewhat similar task. Van went at once at the business, with his customary spirit. He was presently informed there was nothing resembling a room or a bed to be had in all the place. A hundred men would walk the streets or sleep in chairs that night. The one apartment suitable for two lone women to occupy had been secured the previous day by "Plunger" Trask, an Eastern young man who would bet that grass was not green.
Van searched for Trask and found him "cashing in" a lot of assorted chips, representing his winnings at a faro game at which he had been "bucking."
"Hello, there, Van," he said familiarly as the horseman touched him on the shoulder. "Come and have a drink."
"My teeth are floating now from drink," said Van, "but I'll take something else if you say so. I want your apartments for the night."
"Say, wire me!" answered the plunger. "That's the cutest little bunch of nerve I ever saw off the Bowery! How much money have you got in your clothes?"
"About forty-five dollars," said Van. "Is it good?"
"Not as a price, but O.K. in a flip," said Trask, with an itch for schemes of chance. "I'll throw you the dice, my room against your forty-five—and the devil take your luck if you win!"
Van agreed. They borrowed a box of dice, threw three times apiece—and the horseman paid over his money.
"There you are, old man," said the plunger cheerfully. "Satisfied, I hope."
"Not quite," said Van. "I'll owe you forty-five more and throw you again."
"Right ho!" responded Trask. "Go as far as you like."
They shook again. Van lost as before. He borrowed again, undiscouraged. For the third time they cast the little cubes of uncertainty and this time Van actually won. The room was his to dispose of as he pleased. It had cost him ninety dollars for the night.
In his pocket he had cautiously retained a little money—seven and one-half dollars, to be accurate. He returned to Beth, informed her of all he had discovered concerning her brother, took herself and Elsa to dine in the camp's one presentable restaurant, paid nearly seven dollars for the meal, and gave what remained to the waiter.
Then Beth, who had never in her life been so utterly exhausted, resigned herself to Elsa's care, bade Van good-night, and left him standing in the rain before the door, gallant, and smiling to the end.
PROGRESS AND SALT
Goldite, by the light of day, presented a wonderful spectacle. It was a mining camp positively crystallizing into being before the very eyes of all beholders. It was nearly all tents and canvas structures—a heterogeneous mixture of incompleteness and modernity to which the telegraph wires had already been strung from the outside world. It had no fair supply of water, but it did have a newspaper, issued once a week.
A dozen new buildings, flimsy, cheap affairs, were growing like toadstools, day and night. Several brick buildings, and shacks of mud, were rising side by side. Everywhere the scene was one of crowds, activity, and hurry. Thousands of men were in the one straight street, a roughly dressed, excited throng, gold-bitten, eager, and open-handed. Hundreds of mules and horses, a few bewildered cows, herds of great wagons, buggies, heaps of household goods, and trunks, with fortifications of baled hay and grain, were crowded into two great corrals, where dusty teamsters hastened hotly about, amidst heaps of dusty harness, sacks of precious ore and the feed troughs for the beasts.
Beth had slept profoundly, despite the all-night plague of noises, penetrating vividly through the shell-like walls of the house. She was out with Elsa at an early hour, amazingly refreshed and absorbingly interested in all she heard and saw. The sky was clear, but a chill wind blew down from the mountains, flapping canvas walls in all directions.
The building wherein the women had rested was a wooden lodging house, set barely back from the one business street of the camp. Next door was a small, squat domicile constructed of bottles and mud. The bottles were laid in the "mortar" with their ends protruding. Near by, at the rear of a prosperous saloon, was a pyramid of empty bottles, fully ten feet high—enough to build a little church.