THE MAN FROM THE BITTER ROOTS
Author of "The Fighting Shepherdess," "The Lady Doc," etc.
Frontispiece by Gayle Hoskins
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with J. B. Lippincott Company
Copyright, 1915, by Street & Smith Copyright, 1915, by J. B. Lippincott Company Published October, 1915
Printed By J. B. Lippincott Company at the Washington Square Press Philadelphia, U. S. A.
To MY GOOD FRIEND MRS. LOUIS HOWE THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED WITH ALL GRATITUDE AND AFFECTION
I. Before He Grew Up 11 II. "Pardners" 20 III. The Game Butchers 32 IV. Self-Defence 39 V. The Jack-Pot 54 VI. The Returned Hero 73 VII. Sprudell Goes East 78 VIII. Uncle Bill Finds News in the "Try-Bune" 89 IX. The Yellow-Leg 103 X. "Capital Takes Holt" 119 XI. The Ghost at the Banquet 128 XII. Thorns—and a Few Roses 140 XIII. "Off His Range" 147 XIV. His Only Asset 157 XV. Millions! 169 XVI. "Slim's Sister" 182 XVII. A Practical Man 202 XVIII. Prophets of Evil 214 XIX. At the Big Mallard 221 XX. "The Forlorn Hope" 231 XXI. Toy 237 XXII. The General Manager 244 XXIII. "Good Enough" 252 XXIV. The Midnight Visitor 260 XXV. The Clean-Up 269 XXVI. Failure 288 XXVII. Uncle Bill Is Ostracized 301 XXVIII. "Annie's Boy" 314
THE MAN FROM THE BITTER ROOTS
BEFORE HE GREW UP.
The little white "digger," galloping with the stiff, short-legged jumps of the broken-down cow pony, stopped short as the boy riding him pulled sharply on the reins, and after looking hard at something which lay in a bare spot in the grass, slid from its fat back.
He picked up the rock which had attracted his eye, and turned it over and over in his hand. His pockets bulged with colored pebbles and odd-looking stones he had found in washouts and ravines. There was no great variety on the Iowa prairie, and he thought he knew them all, but he had never seen a rock like this.
He crossed his bare, tanned legs, and sat down to examine it more closely, while the lazy cow pony immediately went to sleep. The stone was heavy and black, with a pitted surface as polished as though some one had laboriously rubbed it smooth. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Involuntarily he looked up at the sky. Perhaps God had thrown it down to surprise him—to make him wonder. He smiled a little. God was a very real person to Bruce Burt. He had a notion that He kept close watch upon his movements through a large crack somewhere in the sky.
Yes, God must have tossed it down, for how else could a rock so different from every other rock be lying there as though it had just dropped? He wished he had not so long to wait before he could show it to his mother. He was tempted to say he saw it fall, but she might ask him "Honest Injun?" and he decided not. However, if God made crawfish go into their holes backward just to make boys laugh, and grasshoppers chew tobacco, why wouldn't He——
The sound of prairie grass swishing about the legs of a galloping horse made him jump, startled, to his feet and thrust the strange rock into the front of his shirt. His father reined in, and demanded angrily:
"What you here for? Why didn't you do as I told you?"
"I—I forgot. I got off to look at a funny rock. See, papa!" His black eye sparkled as he took it from his shirt front and held it up eagerly.
His father did not look at it.
"Get on your horse!" he said harshly. "I can't trust you to do anything. We're late as it is, and women don't like people coming in on 'em at meal-time without warning." He kicked his horse in the ribs, and galloped off.
The abashed look in the boy's face changed to sullenness. He jumped on his pony and followed his father, but shortly he lowered his black lashes, and the tears slipped down his cheeks.
Why had he shown that rock, anyhow? he asked himself in chagrin. He might have known that his father wouldn't look at it, that he didn't look at anything or care about anything but horses and cattle. Certainly his father did not care about him. He could not remember when the stern man had given him a pat on the head, or a good-night kiss. The thought of his father kissing anybody startled him. It seemed to him that his father seldom spoke to him except to reprimand or ridicule him, and the latter was by far the worse.
His eyes were still red when he sat down at the table, but the discovery that there was chicken helped assuage his injured feelings, and when the farmer's wife deliberately speared the gizzard from the platter and laid it on his plate the world looked almost bright. How did she know that he liked gizzard, he wondered? The look of gratitude he shyly flashed her brought a smile to her tired face. There were mashed potatoes, too, and gravy, pickled peaches, and he thought he smelled a lemon pie. He wondered if they had these things all the time. If it wasn't for his mother he believed he'd like to live with Mrs. Mosher, and golly! wasn't he hungry! He hoped they wouldn't stop to talk, so he'd dare begin.
He tried to regard his mother's frequent admonitions concerning "manners"—that one about stirring up your potatoes as though you were mixing mortar, and biting into one big slab of bread. He did his best, but his cheek protruded with half a pickled peach when he heard his father say:
"I sent Bruce on ahead to tell you that we'd be here, but he didn't mind me. I found him out there on the prairie, looking at a rock."
All eyes turned smilingly upon the boy, and he reddened to the roots of his hair, while the half peach in his cheek felt suddenly like a whole one.
"It was a funny kind of rock," he mumbled in self-defence when he could speak.
"The rock doesn't have to be very funny to make you forget what you're told to do," his father said curtly, and added to the others: "His mother can't keep pockets in his clothes for the rocks he packs around in them, and they're piled all over the house. He wants her to send away and get him a book about rocks."
"Perhaps he'll be one of these rock-sharps when he gets big," suggested Mr. Mosher humorously. "Wouldn't it be kinda nice to have a perfesser in the family—with long hair and goggles? I come acrost one once that hunted bugs. He called a chinch bug a Rhyparochromus, but he saddled his horse without a blanket and put bakin' powder in the sour-dough."
In the same way that the farmer's wife knew that boys liked gizzards, she knew that Bruce was writhing under the attention and the ridicule.
"He'll be a cattleman like his dad," and she smiled upon him.
His father shook his head.
"No, he doesn't take hold right. Why, even when I was his age I could tell a stray in the bunch as far as I could see it, and he don't know the milk cow when she gets outside of the barn. I tell his mother I'm goin' to work him over again with a trace strap——"
The sensitive boy could bear no more. He gave one regretful glance at his heaping plate, a shamed look at Mrs. Mosher, then sprang to his feet and faced his father.
"I won't learn cattle, and you can't make me!" he cried, with blazing eyes. "And you won't work me over with a trace strap! You've licked me all I'll stand. I'll go away! I'll run away, and I won't come home till I'm white as a darned sheep!"
"Bruce!" His father reached for his collar, but the boy was gone. His chair tipped over, and his precious rock dropped from his shirt front and bounced on the floor. It was a precious rock, too, a fragment of meteorite, one which fell perhaps in the shower of meteoric stones in Iowa in '79.
"He's the touchiest child I ever saw," said Burt apologetically, "and stubborn as a mule; but you'd better set his plate away. I guess the gentleman will return, since he's twenty-five miles from home."
The farmer's wife called after the boy from the doorway, but he did not stop. Hatless, with his head thrown back and his fists clenched tight against his sides, he ran with all his might, his bare feet kicking up the soft, deep dust. There was something pathetic to her in the lonely little figure vanishing down the long, straight road. She wished it had not happened.
"It isn't right to tease a child," she said, going back to her seat.
"Well, there's no sense in his acting like that," Burt answered. "I've tried to thrash some of that stubbornness out of him, but his will is hard to break."
"I don't believe in so much whipping," the woman defended. "Traits that children are punished for sometimes are the makin' of them when they're grown. I think that's why grandparents are usually easier with their grandchildren than they were with their own—because they've lived long enough to see the faults they whipped their children for grow into virtues. Bruce's stubbornness may be perseverance when he's a man, and to my way of thinking too much pride is far better than too little."
"Pride or no pride, he'll do as I say," Burt answered, with an obstinacy of tone which made the farmer's wife comment mentally that it was not difficult to see from whom the boy had inherited that trait.
But it was the only one, since, save in coloring and features, they were totally dissimilar, and Burt seemed to have no understanding of his passionate, warm-hearted, imaginative son. Perhaps, unknown to himself, he harbored a secret resentment that Bruce had not been the little girl whose picture had been as fixed and clear in his mind before Bruce came as though she were already an actuality. She was to have had flaxen hair, with blue ribbons in it, and teeth like tiny, sharp pearls. She was to have come dancing to meet him on her toes, and to have snuggled contentedly on his lap when he returned from long rides on the range. Boys were all right, but he had a vague notion that they belonged to their mothers. Bruce was distinctly "his mother's boy," and this was tacitly understood. It was to her he went with his hurts for caresses, and with his confidences for sympathy and understanding.
Now there was nothing in Bruce's mind but to get to his mother. While his breath lasted and he burned with outraged pride and humiliation, the boy ran, his thought a confused jumble of mortification that Mrs. Mosher should know that he got "lickings," of regret for the gizzard and mashed potatoes and lemon pie, of wonder as to what his mother would say when he came home in the middle of the night and told her that he had walked all the way alone.
He dropped to a trot, and then to a walk, for it was hot, and even a hurt and angry boy cannot run forever. The tears dried to grimy streaks on his cheeks, and the sun blistered his face and neck, while he discovered that stretches of stony road were mighty hard on the soles of the feet. But he walked on purposefully, with no thought of going back, thinking of the comforting arms and shoulder that awaited him at the other end. After all, nobody took any interest in rocks, except mother; nobody cared about the things he really liked, except mother.
Toward the end of the afternoon his footsteps lagged, and sunset found him resting by the roadside. He was so hungry! He felt so little, so alone, and the coming darkness brought disturbing thoughts of coyotes and prairie wolves, of robbers and ghosts that the hired man said he had seen when he had stayed out too late o' nights.
Ravines, with their still, eloquent darkness, are fearsome places for imaginative boys to pass alone. Hobgoblins—the very name sent chills up and down Bruce's spine—would be most apt to lurk in some such place, waiting, waiting to jump on his back! He broke and ran.
The stars came out, and a late moon found him trudging still. He limped and his sturdy shoulders sagged. He was tired, and, oh, so sleepy, but the prolonged howl of a wolf, coming from somewhere a long way off, kept him from dropping to the ground. Who would have believed that twenty-five miles was such a distance? He stopped short, and how hard his heart pumped blood! Stock-still and listening, he heard the clatter of hoofs coming down the road ahead of him. Who would be out this time of night but robbers? He looked about him; there was no place on the flat prairie to hide except a particularly dark ravine some little way back which had taken all his courage to go through without running.
Between robbers and hobgoblins there seemed small choice, but he chose robbers. With his fists clenched and the cold sweat on his forehead, he waited by the roadside for the dark rider, who was coming like the wind.
"Hello!" The puffing horse was pulled sharply to a standstill.
"Oh, Wess!" His determination to die without a sound ended in a broken cry of gladness, and he wrapped an arm around the hired man's leg to hold him.
"Bruce! What you doin' here?"
"They plagued me. I'm going home."
"You keep on goin', boy. I'm after you and your father." There was something queer in the hired man's voice—something that frightened him. "Your mother's taken awful sick. Don't waste no time; it's four miles yet; you hustle!" The big horse jumped into the air and was gone.
It was not so much what the hired man said that scared him so, but the way he said it. Bruce had never known him not to laugh and joke, or seen him run his horse like that.
"Oh, mamma, mamma!" he panted as he stumbled on, wishing that he could fly.
When he dragged himself into the room, she was lying on her bed, raised high among the pillows. Her eyes were closed, and the face which was so beautiful to him looked heavy with the strange stupor in which she lay.
"Mamma, I'm here! Mamma, I've come!" He flung himself upon the soft, warm shoulder, but it was still, and the comforting arms lay limp upon the counterpane.
"Mamma, what's the matter? Say something! Look at me!" he cried. But the gray eyes that always beamed upon him with such glad welcome did not open, and the parted lips were unresponsive to his own. There was no movement of her chest to tell him that she even breathed.
A fearful chill struck to his heart. What if she was dying—dead! Other boys' mothers sometimes died, he knew, but his mother—his mother! He tugged gently at one long, silken braid of hair that lay in his grimy hand like a golden rope, calling her in a voice that shook with fright.
The cry penetrated her dulled senses. It brought her back from the borderland of that far country into which she had almost slipped. Slowly, painfully, with the last faint remnant of her will power, she tried to speak—to answer that beloved, boyish voice.
"My—little boy——" The words came thickly, and her lips did not seem to move.
But it was her voice; she had spoken; she was not dead! He hugged her hard in wild ecstasy and relief.
"I'm glad—you came. I—can't stay—long. I've had—such hopes—for you—little boy. I've dreamed—such dreams—for you—I wanted to see—them all come true. If I can—I'll help you—from—the other side. There's so much—more I want to say—if only—I had known—— Oh, Bruce—my—li—ttle boy——" Her voice ended in a breath, and stopped.
"Looks like you'd say somethin' about them pancakes instead of settin' there shovelin'."
"Haven't I told you regular every morning for six months that they was great pancakes? Couldn't you let me off for once?"
The two partners glared at each other across the clumsy table of hewn pine. They looked like two wild men, as black eyes flashed anger, even hate, into black eyes. Their hair was long and uneven, their features disguised by black beards of many weeks' growth. Their miners' boots were but ludicrous remnants tied on with buckskin thongs. Their clothes hung in rags, and they ate with the animal-like haste and carelessness of those who live alone.
The smaller of the two men rose abruptly, and, with a vicious kick at the box upon which he had been sitting, landed it halfway across the room. His cheeks and nose were pallid above his beard, his thin nostrils dilated, and his hand shook as he reached for his rifle in the gun rack made of deer horns nailed above the kitchen door. He was slender and wiry of build, quick and nervous in his movements, yet they were almost noiseless, and he walked with the padded soft-footedness of the preying animal.
Bruce Burt lounged to the cabin door and looked after "Slim" Naudain as he went to the river. Then he stepped outside, stooping to avoid striking his head. He leaned his broad shoulder against the door jamb and watched "Slim" bail the leaky boat and untie it from the willows. While he filled and lighted his pipe, Bruce's eyes followed his partner as he seated himself upon the rotten thwart and shoved into the river with home-made oars that were little more than paddles. The river caught him with the strength of a hundred eager hands, and whirled him, paddling like a madman, broadside to the current. It bore him swiftly to the roaring white rapids some fifty yards below, and the fire died in Bruce's pipe as, breathless, he watched the bobbing boat.
"Slim'll cross in that water-coffin once too often," he muttered, and Bruce himself was the best boatman the length of the dangerous river.
There were times when he felt that he almost hated Slim Naudain, and this was one of them, yet fine lines of anxiety drew about his eyes as he watched the first lolling tongue of the rapids reach for the tiny boat. If it filled, Slim was gone, for no human being could swim in the roaring, white stretch where the great, green river reared, curled back, and broke into iridescent foam. The boat went out of sight, rose, bobbed for an instant on a crest, then disappeared.
Bruce said finally, in relief:
"He's made it again."
He watched Slim make a noose in the painter, throw it over a bowlder, wipe the water from his rifle with his shirt sleeve, and start to scramble up the steep mountainside.
"The runt of something good—that feller," Bruce added, with somber eyes. "I ought to pull out of here. It's no use, we can't hit it off any more."
He closed the cabin door against thieving pack rats, and went down to the river, where his old-fashioned California rocker stood at the water's edge. He started to work, still thinking of Slim.
Invariably he injected the same comment into his speculations regarding his partner: "The runt of something good." It was the "something good" in Slim, the ear-marks of good breeding, and the peculiar fascination of blue blood run riot, which had first attracted him in Meadows, the mountain town one hundred and fifty miles above. This prospecting trip had been Bruce's own proposal, and he tried to remember this when the friction was greatest.
Slim, however, had jumped at his suggestion that they build a barge and work the small sand bars along the river which were enriched with fine gold from some mysterious source above by each high water. They were to labor together and share and share alike. This was understood between them before they left Meadows, but the plan did not work out because Slim failed to do his part. Save for an occasional day of desultory work, he spent his time in the mountains, killing game for which they had no use, trapping animals whose pelts were worthless during the summer months. He seemed to kill for the pleasure he found in killing. Protests from Bruce were useless, and this wanton slaughter added day by day to the dislike he felt for his partner, to the resentment which now was ever smoldering in his heart.
Bruce wondered often at his own self-control. He carried scars of knife and bullet which bore mute testimony to the fact that with his childhood he had not outgrown his quick and violent temper. In mining camps, from Mexico to the Stikine and Alaska in the North, he was known as a "scrapper," with any weapon of his opponent's choice.
Perhaps it was because he could have throttled Slim with his thumb and finger, have shaken the life out of him with one hand, that Bruce forbore; perhaps it was because he saw in Slim's erratic, surly moods a something not quite normal, a something which made him sometimes wonder if his partner was well balanced. At any rate, he bore his shirking, his insults, and his deliberate selfishness with a patience that would have made his old companions stare.
The bar of sand and gravel upon which their cabin stood, and where Bruce now was working, was half a mile in width and a mile and a half or so in length. He had followed a pay streak into the bank, timbering the tunnel as he went, and he wheeled his dirt from this tunnel to his rocker in a crude wheelbarrow of his own make.
He filled his gold pan from the wheelbarrow, and dumped it into the grizzly, taking from each pan the brightest-colored pebble he could find to place on the pile with others so that when the day's work was done he could tell how many pans he had washed and so form some idea as to how the dirt was running per cubic yard.
His dipper was a ten-pound lard can with a handle ingeniously attached, and as he dipped water from the river into the grizzly, the steady, mechanical motion of the rocker and dipper had the regularity of a machine. If he touched the dirt with so much as his finger tips he washed them carefully over the grizzly lest some tiny particle be lost. Bruce was as good a rocker as a Chinaman, and than that there is no higher praise.
When the black sand began to coat the Brussels-carpet apron, Bruce stooped over the rocker frequently and looked at the shining yellow specks.
"She's looking fine to-day! She's running five dollars to the cubic yard if she's running a cent!" he ejaculated each time that he straightened up after an inspection of the sand, and the fire of hope and enthusiasm, which is close to the surface in every true miner and prospector, shone in his eyes. Sometimes he frowned at the rocker and expressed his disapproval aloud, for years in isolated places had given him the habit of loneliness, and he talked often to himself. "It hasn't got slope enough, and I knew it when I was making it. I don't believe I'm saving more than seventy per cent. I'll tell you, hombre, grade is everything with this fine gold and heavy sand."
While he rocked he lifted his eyes and searched the sides of the mountains across the river. It seemed a trifle less lonely if occasionally he caught a glimpse of Slim, no bigger than an insect, crawling over the rocks and around the peaks. Yet each time that he saw him Bruce's heavy black eyebrows came together in a troubled frown, for the sight reminded him of the increasing frequency of their quarrels.
"If he hadn't soldiered," he muttered as he saw Slim climbing out of a gulch, "he could have had a good little grub-stake for winter. Winter's going to come quick, the way the willows are turning black. Let it come. I've got to pull out, anyhow, as things are going. But"—his eyes kindled as he looked at the high bank into which his tunnel ran—"I certainly am getting into great dirt."
It was obvious that the sand bar where he was placering had once been the river bed, but when the mighty stream, in the course of centuries, cut into the mountain opposite it changed the channel, leaving bed rock and bowlders, which eventually were covered by sand and gravel deposited by the spring floods. In this deposit there was enough flour-gold to enable any good placer miner to make days' wages by rocking the rich streaks along the bars and banks.
This particular sand bar rose from a depth of five feet near the water's edge to a height of two hundred feet or more against the mountain at the back. There was enough of it carrying fine gold to inflame the imagination of the most conservative and set the least speculative to calculating. A dozen times a day Bruce looked at it and said to himself:
"If only there was some way of getting water on it!"
For many miles on that side of the river there was no mountain stream to flume, no possibility of bringing it, even from a long distance, through a ditch, so the slow and laborious process he was employing seemed the only method of recovering the gold that was but an infinitesimal proportion of what he believed the big bar contained.
While he worked, the sun came up warm, and then grew dim with a kind of haze.
"A storm's brewing," he told himself. "The first big snow is long overdue, so we'll get it right when it comes."
His friends, the kingfishers, who had lived all summer in a hole at the top of the bank, had long since gone, and the camp-robbers, who scolded him incessantly, sat silent in the tall pine trees near the cabin. He noticed that the eagle that nested in an inaccessible peak across the river swooped for home and stayed there. The redsides and the bull trout in the river would no longer bite, and he remembered now that the coyote who denned among the rocks well up the mountain had howled last night as if possessed: all signs of storm and winter.
By noon a penetrating chill had crept into the air, and Bruce looked oftener across the river.
"It's just like him to stay out and sleep under a rock all night with a storm coming," he told himself uneasily.
This would be no new thing for Slim in one of his ugly moods, and ordinarily it did not matter, for he kept his pockets well filled with strips of jerked elk and venison, while in the rags of his heavy flannel shirt he seemed as impervious to cold as he was to heat.
Chancing to glance over his shoulder and raise his eyes to the side of the mountain, which was separated from the one at the back of the bar by a canyon, a smile of pleasure suddenly lighted Bruce's dark face, and he stopped rocking.
"Old Felix and his family!" he chuckled. Whimsically he raised both arms aloft in a gesture of welcome. "Ha—they see me!"
The band of mountain sheep picking their way down the rough side stopped short and looked.
"It's all of a month since they've been down for salt." Then his face fell. "By George, we're shy on salt!"
He turned to his rocker, and the sheep started down again, with Old Felix in the lead, and behind him two yearlings, two ewes, and the spring lamb.
Their visits were events in Bruce's uneventful life. He felt as flattered by their confidence as one feels by the preference of a child. His liking for animals amounted to a passion, and he had been absurdly elated the first time he had enticed them to the salt, which he had placed on a flat rock not far from the cabin door. For the first few visits their soft black eyes, with their amber rims, had followed him timorously, and they were ready to run at any unusual movement. Then, one afternoon, they unexpectedly lay down in the soft dirt which banked the cabin, and he was so pleased that he chuckled softly to himself all the time they stayed.
Now he laid down his dipper, and started toward the house.
"I'll just take a look, anyhow, and see how much there is."
He eyed uncertainly the small bag of table salt which he took from the soap-box cupboard nailed to the wall.
"There isn't much of it, that's a fact. I guess they'll have to wait." He slammed the door of the improvised cupboard hard upon its leather hinges made of a boot-top, and turned away.
"Aw, dog-gone it!" he cried, stopping short. "I haven't got the heart to disappoint the poor little devils." He turned back and took the salt.
The sheep were just coming out of the canyon between the mountains when Bruce stepped through the cabin door. Old Felix stopped and stood like a statue—Old Felix, the Methuselah of the Bitter Roots, who wore the most magnificent pair of horns that ever grew on a mountain sheep. Solid and perfect they were, all of nineteen and three-quarters inches at the base and tapering to needle points. Of incredible weight and size, he carried them as lightly on his powerful neck as though they were but the shells of horns. Now, as he stood with his tremulous nozzle outstretched, sniffing, cautious, wily, old patriarch that he was, he made a picture which, often as Bruce had seen it, thrilled him through and through. Behind Old Felix were the frisking lamb and the mild-eyed ewes. They would not come any closer, but they did not run.
"It wouldn't have lasted but a few days longer anyhow," Bruce murmured half apologetically as he divided the salt and spread it on the rock. He added: "I suppose Slim will be sore."
He returned to his work at the river, and the sheep licked the rock bare; then they lay down in leisurely fashion beside the cabin, their narrow jaws wagging ludicrously, their eyelids drooping sleepily, secure in their feeling that all was well.
Bruce had thrust a cold biscuit in the pocket of his shirt, and this he crumbled for the little bush birds that twittered and chirped in the thicket of rosebushes which had pushed up through the rocks near the sand bank.
They perked their heads and looked at him inquiringly when it was gone.
"My Gawd, fellers," he demanded humorously, "don't you ever get filled up?"
As he rocked he watched the water ouzel teetering on a rock in the river, joyously shaking from its back the spray which deluged it at intervals. Bruce observed.
"I'd rather you'd be doing that than me, with the water as cold as it is and," with a glance at the fast-clouding sky, "getting colder every minute."
The sheep sensed the approaching storm, and started up the gulch to their place of shelter under a protecting rim rock close to the peak.
When they were no longer there to watch and think about, Bruce's thoughts rambled from one subject to another, as do the minds of lonely persons.
While the water and sand were flowing evenly over the apron he fell to wishing he had a potato. How long had it been—he threw back his head to calculate—how many weeks since he had looked a potato in the eye? Ha!—not a bad joke at that. He wished he might have said that aloud to some one. He never joked with Slim any more.
He frowned a little as he bent over the grizzly and crushed a small lump between his thumb and finger. He wandered if there was clay coming into the pay streak. Clay gathered up the "colors" it touched like so much quicksilver. Dog-gone, if it wasn't one thing it was another. If the tunnel wasn't caving in, he struck a bowlder, and if there wasn't a bowlder there was——
"Bang! bang! Bang! bang!" Then a fusillade of shots. Bruce straightened up in astonishment and stared at the mountainside.
"Boom! boom!" The shots were muffled. They were shooting in the canyon. Who was it? What was it? Suddenly he understood. The sheep! His sheep! They were killing Old Felix and the rest! Magnificent Old Felix—the placid ewes—the frisking lamb! What a bombardment! That wasn't sport; 'twas slaughter!
His dark skin reddened, and his eyes blazed in excitement. He flung the dipper from him and started toward the cabin on a run. They were killing tame sheep—sheep that he had taught to lose their fear of man. Then his footsteps slackened and he felt half sick as he remembered that the big-game season was open and he had no legal right to interfere.
Bruce had not seen a human face save Slim's since the end of May, and it now was late in October, but he had no desire to meet the hunters and hear them boast of their achievement. Heavy-hearted, he wondered which ones they got.
The hunters must have come over the old trail of the Sheep-eater Indians—the one which wound along the backbone of the ridge. Rough going, that. They were camped up there, and they must have a big pack outfit, he reasoned, to get so far from supplies at this season of the year.
He tried to work again, but found himself upset.
"Dog-gone," he said finally. "I'll slip up the canyon and see what they've done. They may have left a wounded sheep for the cougars to finish—if they did I can pack it down."
Bruce climbed for an hour or more up the bowlder-choked canyon before his experienced eye saw signs of the hunters in two furrows where a pair of heels had plowed down a bank of dirt. The canyon, as he knew, ended abruptly in a perpendicular wall, and he soon saw that the frightened sheep must have run headlong into the trap. He found the prints of their tiny, flying hoofs, the indentations where the sharp points had dug deep as they leaped. Empty shells, more shells—they must have been bum shots—and then a drop of blood upon a rock. The drops came thicker, a stream of blood, and then the slaughter pen. They had been shot down against the wall without a single chance for their lives. The entire band, save Old Felix, had been exterminated. Their limp and still-bleeding carcasses, riddled and torn by soft-nosed bullets, lay among the rocks. Wanton slaughter it was, without even the excuse of the necessity of meat, since only a yearling's hind quarters were gone. Not even the plea of killing for trophies could be offered, since the heads of the ewes were valueless.
Bruce straightened the neck of a ewe as she lay with her head doubled under her. It hurt him to see her so. He looked into her dull, glazed eyes which had been so soft and bright as they had followed him at work a little more than an hour before. He ran his hand over a sheep's white "blanket," now red with blood, and stood staring down into the innocent face of the diminutive lamb.
Then he raised his eyes in the direction in which he fancied the hunters had gone. They shone black and vindictive through the mist of tears which blinded him as he cried in a shaking voice:
"You butchers! You game hogs! I hope you starve and freeze back there in the hills, as you deserve!"
A snow cloud, drab, thick, sagging ominously, moved slowly from the northeast, and on a jutting point, sharply outlined against the sky, motionless as the rock beneath him, stood Old Felix, splendid, solitary, looking off across the sea of peaks in which he was alone.
"THE GAME BUTCHERS"
"Ain't this an awful world!" By this observation Uncle Bill Griswold, standing on a narrow shelf of rock, with the sheep's hind quarters on his back, meant merely to convey the opinion that there was a great deal of it.
The panting sportsman did not answer. T. Victor Sprudell was looking for some place to put his toe.
"There's a hundred square miles over there that I reckon there never was a white man's foot on, and they say that the West has been went over with a fine-tooth comb. Wouldn't it make you laugh?"
Mr. Sprudell looked far from laughter as, by placing a foot directly in front of the other, he advanced a few inches at a time until he reached the side of his guide. It was an awful world, and the swift glance he had of it as he raised his eyes from the toes of his boots and looked off across the ocean of peaks gave him the feeling that he was about to fall over the edge of it. His pink, cherubic face turned saffron, and he shrank back against the wall. He had been in perilous places before, but this was the worst yet.
"There might be somethin' good over yonder if 'twas looked into right," went on Uncle Bill easily, as he stood with the ball of his feet hanging over a precipice, staring speculatively. "But it'll be like to stay there for a while, with these young bucks doin' all their prospectin' around some sheet-iron stove. There's nobody around the camps these days that ain't afraid of work, of gittin' lost, of sleepin' out of their beds of nights. Prospectin' in underbrush and down timber is no cinch, but it never stopped me when I was a young feller around sixty or sixty-five." A dry, clicking sound as Sprudell swallowed made the old man look around. "Hey—what's the matter? Aire you dizzy?"
Dizzy! Sprudell felt he was going to die. If his shaking knees should suddenly give way beneath him he could see, by craning his neck slightly, the exact spot where he was going to land. His chest, plump and high like a woman's, rose and fell quickly with his hard breathing, and the barrel of his rifle where he clasped it was damp with nervous perspiration. His small mouth, with its full, red lips shaped like the traditional cupid's bow, was colorless, and there was abject terror in his infantile blue eyes. Yet superficially, T. Victor Sprudell was a brave figure—picturesque as the drawing for a gunpowder "ad," a man of fifty, yet excellently well preserved.
A plaid cap with a visor fore and aft matched his roomy knickerbockers, and canvas leggings encased his rounded calves. His hob-nailed shoes were the latest thing in "field boots," and his hunting coat was a credit to the sporting house that had turned it out. His cartridge belt was new and squeaky, and he had the last patents in waterproof match safes and skinning knives. That goneness at his stomach, and the strange sensations up and down his spine, seemed incongruous in such valorous trappings. But he had them unmistakably, and they kept him cringing close against the wall as though he had been glued.
It was not entirely the thought of standing there that paralyzed him; it was the thought of going on. If accidentally he should step on a rolling rock what a gap there would be in the social, financial, and political life of Bartlesville, Indiana! It was at this point in his vision of the things that might happen to him that he had gulped.
"Don't look down; look up; look acrost," Uncle Bill advised. "You're liable to bounce off this hill if you don't take care. Hello," he said to himself, staring at the river which lay like a great, green snake at the base of the mountains, "must be some feller down there placerin'. That's a new cabin, and there's a rocker—looks like."
"Gold?" Sprudell's eyes became a shade less infantile.
"Gold a-plenty; but it takes a lard can full to make a cent and there's no way to get water on the ground."
Uncle Bill stood conjecturing as to who it might be, as though it were of importance that he should know before he left. Interest in his neighbor and his neighbor's business is a strong characteristic of the miner and prospector in these, our United States, and Uncle Bill Griswold in this respect was no exception. It troubled him for hours that he could not guess who was placering below.
"Looks like it's gittin' ready for a storm," he said finally. "We'd better sift along. Foller clost to me and keep a-comin', for we don't want to get caught out 'way off from camp. We've stayed too long in the mountains for that matter, with the little grub that's left. We'll pull out to-morrow."
"Which way you going?" Sprudell asked plaintively.
"We gotta work our way around this mountain to that ridge." Uncle Bill shifted the meat to the other shoulder, and travelled along the steep side with the sure-footed swiftness of a venerable mountain goat.
Sprudell shut his trembling lips together and followed as best he could. He was paying high, he felt, for the privilege of entertaining the Bartlesville Commercial Club with stories of his prowess. He doubted if he would get over the nervous strain in months, for, after all, Sprudell was fifty, and such experiences told. Never—never, he said to himself when a rolling rock started by his feet bounded from point to point to remind him how easily he could do the same, never would he take such chances again! It wasn't worth it. His life was too valuable. Inwardly he was furious that Uncle Bill should have brought him by such a way. His heart turned over and lay down with a flop when he saw that person stop and heard him say:
"Here's kind of a bad place; you'd better let me take your gun."
Kind of a bad place! When he'd been frisking on the edge of eternity.
Uncle Bill waited near a bank of slide rock that extended from the mountain top to a third of the way down the side, after which it went off sheer.
"'Tain't no picnic, crossin' slide rock, but I reckon if I kin make it with a gun and half a sheep on my back you can make it empty-handed. Step easy, and don't start it slippin' or you'll slide to kingdom come. Watch me!"
Sprudell watched with all his eyes. The little old man, who boasted that he weighed only one hundred and thirty with his winter tallow on, skimmed the surface like a water spider, scarcely jarring loose a rock. Sprudell knew that he could never get across like that. Fear would make him heavy-footed if nothing else.
"Hurry up!" the old man shouted impatiently. "We've no time to lose. Dark's goin' to ketch us sure as shootin', and it's blowin' up plumb cold."
Sprudell nerved himself and started, stepping as gingerly as he could; but in spite of his best efforts his feet came down like pile drivers, disturbing rocks each time he moved.
Griswold watched him anxiously, and finally called:
"You're makin' more fuss than a cow elk! Step easy er you're goin' to start the whole darn works. Onct it gits to movin', half that bank'll go."
Sprudell was nearly a third of the way across when the shale began to move, slowly at first, with a gentle rattle, then faster. He gave a shout of terror and floundered, panic-stricken, where he stood.
The old man danced in frenzy:
"Job in your heels and run like hell!"
But the mass had started, and was moving faster. Sprudell's feet went from under him, and he collapsed in a limp heap. Then he turned over and scrabbled madly with hands and feet for something that would hold. Everything loosened at his touch and joined the sliding bank of shale. He could as easily have stopped his progress down a steep slate roof.
"Oh, Lord! There goes my dude!" Uncle Bill wrung his hands and swore.
Sprudell felt faint, nauseated, and his neck seemed unable to hold his heavy head. He laid his cheek on the cold shale, and, with his arms and legs outstretched like a giant starfish, he weakly slid. His body, moving slower than the mass, acted as a kind of wedge, his head serving as a separator to divide the moving bank. He was conscious, too, of a curious sensation in his spine—a feeling as though some invisible power were pulling backward, backward until it hurt. He wanted to scream, to hear his own voice once more, but his vocal cords would not respond; he could not make a sound.
Griswold was shouting something; it did not matter what. He heard it faintly above the clatter of the rocks. He must be close to the edge now—Bartlesville—the Commercial Club—Abe Cone—and then Mr. Sprudell hit something with a bump! He had a sensation as of a hatpin—many hatpins—penetrating his tender flesh, but that was nothing compared to the fact that he had stopped, while the slide of shale was rushing by. He was not dead! but he was too astonished and relieved to immediately wonder why.
Then he weakly raised his head and looked cautiously over his shoulder lest the slightest movement start him travelling again. What miracle had saved his life? The answer was before him. When he came down the slide in the fortunate attitude of a clothespin, the Fates, who had other plans for him, it seemed, steered him for a small tree of the stout mountain mahogany, which has a way of pushing up in most surprising places.
"Don't move!" called Griswold. "I'll come and get ye!"
Unnecessary admonition. Although Sprudell was impaled on the thick, sharp thorns like a naturalist's captive butterfly, he scarcely breathed, much less attempted to get up.
"Bill, I was near the gates," said Sprudell solemnly when Griswold, at no small risk to himself, had snaked him back to solid ground. "Fortuna audaces juvat!"
"If that's Siwash for 'close squeak,' it were; and," with an anxious glance at the ominous sky, "'tain't over."
When Bruce came out of the canyon, where he had a wider view of the sky, he saw that wicked-looking clouds were piling thick upon one another in the northeast, and he wondered whether the month was the first of November or late October, as Slim insisted. They had lost track somehow, and of the day of the week they had not the faintest notion.
There was always the first big snowstorm to be counted on in the Bitter Root Mountains, after which it sometimes cleared and was open weather for weeks. But this was when it came early in September; the snow that fell now would in all probability lie until spring.
At any rate, there was wood to be cut, enough to last out a week's storm. But, first, Bruce told himself, he must clean up the rocker, else he would lose nearly the entire proceeds of his day's work. The gold was so light that much of it floated and went off with the water when the sand was wet again, after it had once dried upon the apron.
Bruce placed a gold pan at the end of the rocker, and, with a clean scrubbing brush, carefully worked the sand over the Brussels-carpet apron, pouring water into the grizzly the while.
"That trip up the canyon cost me half a day's wages," he thought as he saw the thin yellow scum floating on the top of the pan.
Sitting on his heel by the river's edge, where he had made a quiet pool by building a breakwater of pebbles, he agitated and swirled the sand in the gold pan until only a small quantity remained, and while he watched carefully lest some of the precious specks and flakes which followed in a thick, yellow string behind the sand slip around the corners and over the edge, he also cast frequent glances at the peaks that became each moment more densely enveloped in the clouds.
"When she cuts loose she's going to be a twister," and he added grimly, as instinctively his eyes sought the saddleback or pass over which the ancient trail of the Sheep-eater Indians ran: "Those game hogs better pull their freight if they count on going out as they came in."
His fingers were numb when he stood up and shook the cold river water from them, turning now to look across for a sight of Slim.
"I've cut his share of wood all summer, so I guess there's no use quitting now. Turning pancakes is about the hardest work he's done since we landed on the bar. Oh, well"—he raised one big shoulder in a shrug of resignation—"we'll split this partnership when we get out of here. By rights I ought to dig out now."
The chips flew as he swung the ax with blows that tested the tough oak handle. Bruce Burt was a giant in his strength, and as unconscious of the greatness of it as a bear. He could not remember that he had ever fully tried it. He never had lifted a weight when he had not known that, if necessary, he could lift a little more. His physique had fulfilled the promise of his sturdy youth, and he was as little aware that it, too, was remarkable as he was of the fact that men and women turned in admiration to look again at his dark, unsmiling face upon the rare occasions when he had walked the streets of the towns.
He was as splendid a specimen of his kind as Old Felix, as primitive nearly, and as shy. His tastes had led him into the wilderness, and he had followed the gold strikes and the rumors of gold strikes from Sonora, in Old Mexico, to the Siberian coast, on Behring Sea, in search of a new Klondike. He had lived hard, endured much in the adventurous life of which he seldom talked. His few intimates had been men like himself—the miners and prospectors who built their cabins in the fastnesses with Hope their one companion, to eat and sleep and work with. He was self-educated and well informed along such lines as his tastes led him. He read voraciously all that pertained to Nature, to her rocks and minerals, and he knew the habits of wild animals as he knew his own. Of the people and that vague place they called "the outside," he knew little or nothing.
He had acquaintances and he had enemies in the mining camps which necessity compelled him to visit at long intervals for the purchase of supplies. Agreeable and ingratiating storekeepers who sold him groceries, picks, shovels, powder, drills, at fifty per cent. profit, neat, smooth-shaven gamblers, bartenders, who welcomed him with boisterous camaraderie, tired and respectable women who "run" boarding houses, painted, highly-perfumed ladies of the dance hall, enigmatic Chinamen, all were types with which he was familiar. But he called none of them "friend." Their tastes, their interests, their standards of conduct were different from his own. They had nothing in common, yet he could not have explained exactly why. He told himself vaguely that he did not "cotton" to them, and thought the fault was with himself.
Bruce was twenty-seven, and his mother was still his ideal of womanhood. He doubted if there were another like her in all the world. Certainly he never had seen one who in the least approached her. He remembered her vividly, the grave, gray, comprehending eyes, the long braids of hair which lay like thick new hempen rope upon the white counterpane.
His lack of a substantial education—a college education—was a sore spot with him which did not become less sore with time. If she had lived he was sure it would have been different. With his mother to intercede for him he knew that he would have had it. After her death his father grew more taciturn, more impatient, more bent on preparing him to follow in his footsteps, regardless of his inclinations. The "lickings" became more frequent, for he seemed only to see his mistakes and childish faults.
The culmination had come when he had asked to be allowed to leave the country school where he rode daily, and attend the better one in the nearest village, which necessitated boarding. After nerving himself for days to ask permission, he had been refused flatly.
"What do you think I'm made of—money?" his father had demanded. "You'll stay where you are until you've learned to read, and write, and figure: then you'll help me with the cattle. Next thing you'll be wantin' to play a flute or the piano."
He thought of his father always with hardness and unforgiveness, for he realized now, as he had not at the time he ran away from home, what the thousands of acres, the great herd of sleek cattle, meant—the fortune that they represented.
"He could have so well afforded it," Bruce often mused bitterly. "And it's all I would have asked of him. I didn't come into the world because I wanted to come, and he owed it to me—my chance!"
The flakes of snow which fell at first and clung tenaciously to Bruce's dark-blue flannel shirt were soft and wet, so much so that they were almost drops of rain, but soon they hardened and bounced and rattled as they began to fall faster.
As he threw an armful of wood behind the sheet-iron camp stove, Bruce gave a disparaging poke at a pan of yeast bread set to rise.
"Slim and I will have to take this dough to bed with us to keep it warm if it turns much colder. Everything's going to freeze up stiff as a snake. Never remember it as cold as this the first storm. Well, I'll get a pail of water, then let her come." He added uneasily: "I wish Slim would get in."
His simple preparations were soon complete, and when he closed the heavy door of whip-sawed lumber it was necessary to light the small kerosene lamp, although the dollar watch ticking on its nail said the hour was but four-thirty.
He eyed a pile of soiled dishes in disgust, then set a lard bucket of water to heat.
"Two days' gatherings! After I've eaten four meals off the same plate it begins to go against me. Slim would scrape the grub off with a stick and eat for a year without washing a dish. Seems like the better raised some fellers are the dirtier they are when they're out like this. Guess I'll wash me a shirt or two while I'm holed up. Now where did I put my dishrag?"
His work and his huge masculinity looked ludicrously incongruous as he bent over the low table and scraped at the tin plates with his thumb nail or squinted into the lard buckets, of which there seemed an endless array.
The lard bucket is to the prospector what baling wire is to the freighter on the plains, and Bruce, from long experience, knew its every use. A lard bucket was his coffee-pot, his stewing kettle, his sour-dough can. He made mulligan in one lard bucket and boiled beans in another. The outside cover made a good soap dish, and the inside cover answered well enough for a mirror when he shaved.
He wrung out his dishcloth now and hung it on a nail, then eyed the bed in the end of the cabin disapprovingly.
"That's a tough-looking bunk for white men to sleep in! Wonder how 'twould seem if 'twas made?"
While he shook and straightened the blankets, and smote the bear-grass pillows with his fists, he told himself that he would cut some fresh pine boughs to soften it a little as soon as the weather cleared.
"I'm a tidy little housewife," he said sardonically as he tucked away the blankets at the edge. "I've had enough inside work to do since I took in a star boarder to be first-class help around some lady's home." A dead tree crashed outside. "Wow! Listen to that wind! Sounds like a bunch of squaws wailing; maybe it's a war party lost in the Nez Perce Spirit Land. Wish Slim would come." He walked to the door and listened, but he could hear nothing save the howling of the wind.
He was poking aimlessly at the bread dough with his finger, wondering if it ever meant to rise, wondering if his partner would come home in a better humor, wondering if he should tell him about the salt, when Slim burst in with a swirl of snow and wind which extinguished the tiny lamp. In the glimpse Bruce had of his face he saw that it was scowling and ugly.
Slim placed his rifle on the deer-horn gun rack without speaking and stamped the mud and snow from his feet in the middle of the freshly swept floor.
"I was kind of worried about you," Bruce said, endeavoring to speak naturally. "I'm glad you got in."
"Don't know what you'd worry about me for," was the snarling answer. "I'm as well able to take care of myself as you are."
"It's a bad night for anybody to be roaming around the hills." Bruce was adjusting the lamp chimney and putting it back on the shelf, but he noticed that Slim's face was working as it did in his rages, and he sighed; they were in for another row.
"You think you're so almighty wise; I don't need you to tell me when it's fit to be out."
Bruce did not answer, but his black eyes began to shine. Slim noticed it with seeming satisfaction, and went on:
"I saw them pet sheep of yourn comin' down. Did you give 'em salt?"
"Yes, Slim, I did. I suppose I shouldn't have done it, but the poor little devils——"
"And I'm to go without! Who the —— do you think you are to give away my salt?"
"Your salt——" Bruce began savagely, then stopped. "Look here, Slim!" His deep voice had an appealing note. "It wasn't right when there was so little, I'll admit that, but what's the use of being so onery? I wouldn't have made a fuss if you had done the same thing. Let's try and get along peaceable the few days we'll be cooped up in here, and when the storm lets up I'll pull out. I should have gone before. But I don't want to wrangle and quarrel with you, Slim; honest I don't."
"You bet you don't!" Slim answered, with ugly significance.
Bruce's strong, brown fingers tightened as he leaned against the window casement with folded arms. His silence seemed to madden Slim.
"You bet you don't!" he reiterated, and added in shrill venom: "I might 'a' knowd how 'twould be when I throwed in with a mucker like you."
"Careful, Slim—go slow!" Bruce's eyes were blazing now between their narrowed lids, but he did not move. His voice was a whisper.
"That's what I said! I'll bet your father toted mortar for a plasterer and your mother washed for a dance hall!"
Slim's taunting, devilish face, corpse-like in its pallor above his black beard, was all Bruce saw as he sprang for his throat. He backed him against the door and held him there.
"You miserable dog—I ought to kill you!" The words came from between his set teeth. He drew back his hand and slapped him first on the right cheek, then on the left. He flung Slim from him the length of the cabin, where he struck against the bunk.
Slim got to his feet and rushed headlong toward the door. Bruce thought he meant to snatch his rifle from the rack, and was ready, but he tore at the fastening and ran outside. Bruce watched the blackness swallow him, and wondered where he meant to go, what he meant to do on such a night. He was not left long in doubt.
He heard Slim coming back, running, cursing vilely as he came. The shaft of yellow light which shot into the darkness fell upon the gleaming blade of the ax that he bore uplifted in his hand.
The answer was a scream that was not human. Slim was a madman! Bruce saw it clearly now. Insanity blazed in his black eyes. There was no mistaking the look; Slim was violently, murderously insane!
"I'm goin' to get you!" His scream was like a woman's screech. "I've meant to get you all along, and I'm goin' to do it now!"
"Drop it, Slim! Drop that ax!"
But Slim came on.
Instinctively Bruce reached for the heavy, old-fashioned revolver hanging on its nail.
Slim half turned his body to get a longer, harder swing, aiming as deliberately for Bruce's head as though he meant to split a stick of wood.
Bruce saw one desperate chance and took it. He could not bring himself to stop Slim with a gun. He flung it from him. Swift and sure he swooped and caught Slim by the ankles in the instant that he paused. Exerting his great strength, he hurled him over his shoulder, ax and all, where he fell hard, in a heap, in the corner, between the bunk and wall. The sharp blade of the ax cut the carotid artery.
Bruce turned to see a spurt of blood. Slim rolled over on his back, and it gushed like a crimson fountain. Bruce knelt beside him, trying frantically to bring together the severed ends, to stop somehow the ghastly flow that was draining the madman's veins.
But he did not know how, his fingers were clumsy, and Slim would not lie still. He threshed about like a dying animal, trying to rise and stagger around the room. Finally his chest heaved, and his contracted leg dropped with a thud. Bruce stared at the awful pallor of Slim's face, then he got up and washed his hands.
He looked at the watch ticking steadily through it all; it was barely a quarter to five. He spread his slicker on the bunk and laid Slim on it and tried to wash the blood from the floor and the logs of the cabin wall, but it left a stain. He changed his shirt—murderers always changed their shirts and burned them.
Slim was dead; he wouldn't have to get supper for Slim—ever again. And he had killed him! Mechanically he poked his finger into the dough. It was rising. He could work it out pretty soon. Slim was dead; he need not get supper for Slim; he kept looking at him to see if he had moved. How sinister, how "onery" Slim looked even in death. He closed his mouth and drew the corner of a blanket over the cruel, narrow face. How still it seemed after the commotion and Slim's maniacal screams!
He had joined the army of men who have killed their partners. What trifles bring on quarrels in the hills; what mountains molehills become when men are alone in the wilderness! That cook in the Buffalo Hump who tried to knife him because he stubbed his toe against the coffee-pot, and "Packsaddle Pete," who meant to brain him when they differed over throwing the diamond hitch; and now Slim was dead because he had given a handful of salt to the mountain sheep.
It did not seem to matter that Slim had said he meant to kill him, anyhow, or that the way in which his malignant eyes had followed his every movement took on new significance in the light of what had happened. He blamed himself. He should have quit long ago. He should have seen that Slim's ill-balanced mind needed only a trifle to shove it over the edge. It had never seemed so still in the cabin even when Slim was gone as it did now. Mechanically he set about getting supper, making as much noise as he could.
But he was unable to eat after it was on the table before him. He drank his coffee and stared at the bacon and cold biscuit a while, then washed the dishes again. Slim seemed to be getting farther and farther away.
The storm outside had become a blizzard. Old Mother Westwind took to her heels and the Boss of the Arctic raged. It occurred to Bruce that it would be hard to bury Slim if the ground froze, and that reminded him that perhaps Slim had "folks" who ought to know.
Bruce filled the stove, and shoved his bread in the oven; then he pulled Slim's war bag from under the bunk and dumped the contents on the table, hoping with all his heart that he would not find an address. He could not imagine how his should find the words in which to tell them that he had killed Slim.
There were neckties, samples of ore, a pair of silk suspenders, and a miner's candlestick, one silk sock, a weasel skin, a copy of "The Gadfly," and a box of quinine pills. No papers, no letters, not a single clew to his identity. Bruce felt relief. Wait—what was this? He took the bag by the corners, and a photographer's mailing case fell out. It was addressed to Slim in Silver City, New Mexico, in a childish, unformed hand.
He took out the picture and found himself smiling into the eyes that smiled up into his. He knew intuitively that it was Slim's sister, yet the resemblance was the faintest, and there was not a trace of his meanness in her look.
He had been right in his conjecture, Slim was "the runt of something good." There was no mistaking the refinement and good breeding in the girl's sweet face.
Slim had known better, yet nearly always he had talked in the language of the uneducated Westerner, in the jargon of yeggmen, and the vernacular of the professional tramps with whom he had hoboed over the West—a "gay cat," as he was pleased to call himself, when boasting of the "toughness" of his life. He had affected uncleanliness, uncouthness; but in spite of his efforts the glimmer of the "something good" of which he was the runt had shown through.
Slim had had specific knowledge of a world which Bruce knew only by hearsay; and when it had suited his purpose, as when Bruce had first met him in Meadows, he had talked correctly, even brilliantly, and he had had an undeniable charm of manner for men and women alike. But, once well started down the river, he had thrown off all restraint, ignoring completely the silent code which exists between partners in the hills.
Such fellows were well named "black sheep," Bruce thought, as he looked at the picture.
A letter had been wrapped around the photograph, with an address and a date line twelve years old. The letter read:
DEAR BROTHER: We have just heard that you were working in a mine down there and so I thought I would write and tell you that I hope you are well and make a lot of money. I hope you do and come home because we are awful poor and mother says if I don't marry well she don't know what we will do because there are mortgages on everything and we don't keep horses any more and only one servant which is pretty hard for mother. The girl is sassy sometimes but mother can't let her go because she can't pay her yet. Please, Freddie, come home and help us. Everything dreadful has happened to us since father died. Mother will forgive you for being bad and so do I although it was not nice to see our names and pictures in the papers all the time. Write to me, Freddie, as soon as you get this. Your loving sister,
P. S.—I am thirteen to-day and this is my picture. I wish I could go West too, but don't mention this when you write.
Bruce wondered if Slim had answered. He would wager his buckskin bag of dust that he had not. The marvel was that he had even kept the letter. He looked again at the date line—twelve years—the mortgages had long since been foreclosed, if it had depended upon Slim to pay them—and she was twenty-five. He wondered if she'd "married well."
Slim was a failure; he stood for nothing in the world of achievement; for all the difference that his going made, he might never have been born. Then a thought as startling as the tangible appearance of some ironic, grinning imp flashed to his mind. Who was he, Bruce Burt, to criticise his partner, Slim? What more had he accomplished? How much more difference would his own death make in anybody's life? His mother's labored words came back with painful distinctness: "I've had such hopes for you, my little boy. I've dreamed such dreams for you—I wanted to see them all come true." An inarticulate sound came from him that was both pain and self-disgust. He was close to twenty-eight—almost thirty—and he'd spent the precious years "just bumming round." Nothing to show for them but a little gold dust and the clothes he wore. He wondered if his mother knew.
Her wedding ring was still in a faded velvet case that he kept among his treasures. He never had seen a woman who had suggested ever so faintly the thought that he should like to place it on her finger. There had been women, of a kind—"Peroxide Louise," in Meadows, with her bovine coquetry and loud-mouthed vivacity, yapping scandal up and down the town, the transplanted product of a city's slums, not even loyal to the man who had tried to raise her to his level.
Bruce never had considered marrying; the thought of it for himself always made him smile. But why couldn't he—the thought now came gradually, and grew—why shouldn't he assume the responsibilities Slim shirked if conditions were the same and help was still needed? In expiation, perhaps, he could halfway make amends.
He'd write and mail the letter in Ore City as soon as he could snowshoe out. He'd express them half the dust and tell them that 'twas Slim's. He'd——"OO—oo—ough!" he shivered—he'd forgotten to stoke the fire. Oh, well, a soogan would do him well enough.
He pulled a quilt from under Slim and wrapped it about his own shoulders. Then he sat down again by the fireless stove and laid his head on his folded arms upon the rough pine table. The still body on the bunk grew stark while he slept, the swift-running river froze from shore to shore, the snow piled in drifts, obliterating trails and blocking passes, weighting the pines to the breaking point, while the intense cold struck the chill of death into the balls of feathers huddled for shelter under the flat branches of the spruces.
As Uncle Bill Griswold came breathless from the raging whiteness outside with an armful of bark and wood, the two long icicles hanging from the ends of his mustache made him look like an industrious walrus. He drew the fuel beside the tiny, sheet-iron camp stove, and tied fast the flap of the canvas tent.
"We're in a jack-pot, all right."
He delivered the commonplace pronunciamento in a tone which would have conveyed much to a mountain man. To Mr. Sprudell it meant only that he might expect further annoyance. He demanded querulously:
"Did you find my shirt?"
Uncle Bill rolled his eyes with a droll grimace of despair toward the mound of blankets in the corner whence came the muffled voice. The innocence of a dude was almost pitiful. He answered dryly:
"I wouldn't swear to it—I wouldn't go so far as to make my affadavvy to it, but I think I seen your shirt wavin' from a p'int a rock about seventy mile to the south'ard—over t'ward the Thunder Mountain country."
"Gone"—mournfully—"where the woodbine twineth."
"And my trousers?"
"Where the wangdoodle mourneth fer his lost love. Blowed off. I got your union suit out'n the top of a pine tree. You've no more pants than a rabbit, feller. Everything went when the guy-ropes busted—I warned you to sleep in your clothes."
"But what'll I do?" Sprudell quavered.
"Nothin'." His tone was as dry as punk. "You kin jest as well die in them pink pajammers as anything else."
"Huh?" excitedly. The mound began to heave.
"I say we're in for it. There's a feel in the air like what the Injuns call 'The White Death.' It hurt my lungs like I was breathin' darnin' needles when I cut this wood. The drifts is ten feet high and gittin' higher." Laconically: "The horses have quit us; we're afoot."
"Is that so? Well, we've got to get out of here—I refuse to put in another such night. Lie still!" he commanded ferociously. "You're letting in a lot of cold air. Quit rampin' round!" From which it may be gathered that Mr. Sprudell, for purposes of warmth and protection, was sleeping with the Chinese cook.
"Three in a bed is crowded," Uncle Bill admitted, with a grin. "To-night you might try settin' up."
A head of tousled white hair appeared above the edge of the blankets, then a pair of gleaming eyes. "I propose to get out of here to-day," Mr. Sprudell announced, with hauteur.
"Indeed?" inquired Uncle Bill calmly. "Where do you aim to go?"
"I'm going back to Ore City—on foot, if need be—I'll walk!"
Uncle Bill explained patiently:
"The trail's wiped out, the pass is drifted full of snow, and the cold's a fright. You'd be lost inside of fifteen yards. That's loco talk."
"I'm going to get up." There was offended dignity in Mr. Sprudell's tone.
"You can't," said the old man shortly. "You ain't got no pants, and your shoes is full of snow. I doubts if you has socks till I takes a stick and digs around where your tepee was."
"Tsch! Tsch!" Mr. Sprudell's tongue clicked against his teeth in the extreme of exasperation at Uncle Bill. By some process of reasoning he blamed him for their present plight.
"I'm hungry!" he snapped, in a voice which implied that the fact was a matter of moment.
"So am I," said Uncle Bill; "I'm holler to my toes."
"I presume"—in cold sarcasm—"there's no reason why we shouldn't breakfast, since it's after ten."
"None at all," Uncle Bill answered easily, "except we're out of grub."
"I explained that to you four days ago, but you said you'd got to get a sheep. I thought I could eat snowballs as long as you could. But I didn't look for such a storm as this."
"There's nothing?" demanded Sprudell, aghast.
"Oh, yes, there's somethin'," grimly. "I kin take the ax and break up a couple of them doughnuts and bile the coffee grounds again. To-night we'll gorge ourselves on a can of froze tomatoes, though I hates to eat so hearty and go right to bed. There's a pint of beans, too, that by cookin' steady in this altitude ought to be done by spring. We'd 'a' had that sheep meat, only it blowed out of the tree last night and somethin' drug it off. Here's your doughnut."
Mr. Sprudell snatched eagerly at it and retired under the covers, where a loud scrunching told of his efforts to masticate the frozen tidbit.
"Can you eat a little somethin', Toy? Is your rheumatiz a-hurtin' pretty bad?"
"Hiyu lumatiz," a faint voice answered, "plitty bad."
The look of gravity on the man's face deepened as he stood rubbing his hands over the red-hot stove, which gave out little or no heat in the intense cold.
The long hours of that day dragged somehow, and the next. When the third day dawned, the tent was buried nearly to the ridgepole under snow. Outside, the storm was roaring with unabated fury, and Uncle Bill's emergency supply of wood was almost gone. He crept from under the blankets and boiled some water, making a few tasteless pancakes with a teacupful of flour.
Sprudell sat up suddenly and said, with savage energy:
"Look here—I'll give you a thousand dollars to get me out of this!"
Uncle Bill looked at him curiously. A thousand dollars! Wasn't that like a dude? Dudes thought money could do anything, buy anything.
Uncle Bill would rather have had a sack of flour just then than all the money Sprudell owned.
"Your check's no more good than a bunch of dried leaves. It's endurance that's countin' from now on. We're up against it right, I tell you, with Toy down sick and all."
"Toy?" Was that why Griswold would not leave? "What's Toy got to do with it?" he demanded.
It was the old man's turn to stare.
"What's Toy got to do with it?" He looked intently at Sprudell's small round eyes—hard as agate—at his selfish, Cupid's mouth. "You don't think I'd quit him, do you, when he's sick—leave him here to die alone?" Griswold flopped a pancake in the skillet and added, in a somewhat milder voice: "I've no special love for Chinks, but I've known Toy since '79. He wouldn't pull out and leave me if I was down."
"But what about me?" Sprudell demanded furiously.
"You'll have to take your chances along with us. It may let up in a day or two, and then again it mayn't. Anyway, the game goes; we stop eatin' altogether before to-morry night."
"You got me into this fix! And what am I paying you five dollars a day for, except to get me out and do as you are told?"
"I got you into this fix? I did?" The stove lids danced with the vigor with which Uncle Bill banged down the frying pan. The mild old man was stirred at last. "I sure like your nerve! And, say, when you talk to me, jest try and remember that I don't wear brass buttons and a uniform." His blue eyes blazed. "It's your infernal meanness that's to blame, and nothin' else. I warned you—I told you half a dozen times that you wasn't gittin' grub enough to come into the hills this time of year. But you was so afraid of havin' six bits' worth left over that you wouldn't listen to what I said. I don't like you anyhow. You're the kind of galoot that ought never to git out of sight of a railroad. Now, blast you—you starve!"
Incredible as the sensation was, Sprudell felt small. He had to remind himself repeatedly who he was before he quite got back his poise, and no suitable retort came to him, for his guide had told the truth. But the thought that blanched his pink face until it was only a shade less white than his thick, white hair was that he, T. Victor Sprudell, president of the Bartlesville Tool Works, of Bartlesville, Indiana, was going to starve! To freeze! To die in the pitiless hills like any penniless prospector! His check-book was as useless as a bent weapon in his hand, and his importance in the world counted for no more than that of the Chinaman, by his side. Mr. Sprudell lay down again, weak from an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
Sprudell had not realized it before; but now he knew that always in the back of his head there had been a picture of an imposing cortege, blocks long, following a wreath-covered coffin in which he reposed. And later, an afternoon extra in which his demise was featured and his delicate, unostentatious charities described—not that he could think of any, but he presumed that that was the usual thing.
But this—this miserable finality! Unconsciously Sprudell groaned. To die bravely in the sight of a crowd was sublime; but to perish alone, unnoted, side by side with the Chinese cook and chiefly for want of trousers in which to escape, was ignominious. He snatched his cold feet from the middle of the cook's back.
Another wretched day passed, the event of which was the uncovering of Sprudell's fine field boots in a drift outside. That night he did not close his eyes. His nervousness became panic, and his panic like unto hysteria. He ached with cold and his cramped position, and he was now getting in earnest the gnawing pangs of hunger. What was a Chinaman's life compared to his? There were millions like him left—and there was only one Sprudell! In the faint, gray light of the fourth day, Griswold felt him crawling out.
Griswold watched him while he kneaded the hard leather of his boots to soften it, and listened to the chattering of his teeth while he went through the Chinaman's war bag for an extra pair of socks.
"The sizes in them Levi Strauss' allus run too small," Uncle Bill observed suddenly, after Sprudell had squeezed into Toy's one pair of overalls.
"There's no sense in us all staying here to starve," said Sprudell defiantly, as though he had been accused. "I'm going to Ore City before I get too weak to start."
"I won't stop you if you're set on goin'; but, as I told you once, you'll be lost in fifteen yards. There's just one chance I see, Sprudell, and I'll take it if you'll say you'll stay with Toy. I'll try to get down to that cabin on the river. The feller may be there, and again he may have gone for grub. I won't say that I can make it, but I'll do my best."
Sprudell said stubbornly:
"I won't be left behind! It's every man for himself now."
The old man replied, with equal obstinacy:
"Then you'll start alone." He added grimly: "I reckon you've never wallered snow neck deep."
For the first time the Chinaman stirred, and raising himself painfully to his elbow, turned to Uncle Bill.
"You go, I think."
Griswold shook his head.
"That 'every-man-for-himself' talk aint the law we know, Toy."
The Chinaman reiterated, in monotone:
"You go, I think."
"You heard what I said."
"You take my watch, give him Chiny Charley. He savvy my grandson, the little Sun Loon. Tell Chiny Charley he write the bank in Spokane for send money to Chiny to pay on lice lanch. Tell Chiny Charley—he savvy all. I stay here. You come back—all light. You no come back—all light. I no care. You go now." He lay down. The matter was quite settled in Toy's mind.
While Sprudell stamped around trying to get feeling into his numb feet and making his preparations to leave, Uncle Bill lay still. He knew that Toy was sincere in urging him to go, and finally he said:
"I'll take you at your word, Toy; I'll make the break. If there's nobody in the cabin, I don't believe I'll have the strength to waller back alone; but if there is, we'll get some grub together and come as soon as we can start. I'll do my best."
The glimmer of a smile lighted old Toy's broad, Mongolian face when Griswold was ready to go, and he laid his chiefest treasure in Griswold's hand.
"For the little Sun Loon." His oblique, black eyes softened with affectionate pride. "Plitty fine kid, Bill, hiyu wawa."
"For the little Sun Loon," repeated Uncle Bill gravely. "And hang on as long as you can." Then he shook hands with Toy and divided the matches.
The old Chinaman turned his face to the wall of the tent and lay quite still as the two went out and tied the flap securely behind them.
It did not take Sprudell long to realize that Uncle Bill was correct in his assertion that he would have been lost alone in fifteen yards. He would have been lost in less than that, or as soon as the full force of the howling storm had struck him and the wind-driven snow shut out the tent. He had not gone far before he wished that he had done as Uncle Bill had told him and wrapped his feet in "Californy socks." The strips of gunny sacking which he had refused because they looked bunglesome he could see now were an immense protection against cold and wet. Sprudell almost admitted, as he felt the dampness beginning to penetrate his waterproof field boots, that there might still be some things he could learn.
He gasped like a person taking a long, hard dive into icy water when they plunged into the swirling world which shut out the tent they had called home. And the wind that took his breath had a curious, piercing quality that hurt, as Uncle Bill had said, like breathing darning needles. "The White Death!" Literally it was that. Panting and quickly exhausted, as he "wallered snow to his neck," T. Victor Sprudell began seriously to doubt if he could make it.
"Aire you comin'?" There was no sympathy, only impatience, in the call which kept coming back with increasing frequency, and Sprudell was longing mightily for sympathy. He had a quaint conceit concerning his toes, not being able to rid himself of the notion that when he removed his socks they would rattle in the ends like bits of broken glass; and soon he was so cold that he felt a mild wonder as to how his heart could go on pumping congealed blood through the auricles and ventricles. It had annoyed him at first when chunks of snow dropped from overhanging branches and lodged between his neck and collar, to trickle down his spine; but shortly he ceased to notice so small a matter. In the start, when he had inadvertently slipped off a buried log and found himself entangled in a network of down timber, he had struggled frantically to get out, but now he experienced not even a glimmer of surprise when he stepped off the edge of something into nothing. He merely floundered like a fallen stage horse to get back, without excitement or any sense of irritation. After three exhausting hours or so of fighting snow, his frenzy lest he lose sight of Uncle Bill gave place to apathy. When he fell, he even lay there—resting.
Generally he responded to Griswold's call; if the effort was too great, he did not answer, knowing the old man would come back. That he came back swearing made no difference, so long as he came back. He had learned that Griswold would not leave him.
When he stumbled into a drift and settled back in the snow, it felt exactly like his favorite leather chair by the fire-place in the Bartlesville Commercial Club. He had the same cozy sensation of contentment. He could almost feel the crackling fire warming his knees and shins, and it required no great stretch of the imagination to believe that by simply extending his hand he could grasp a glass of whisky and seltzer on the wide arm-rest.
"What's the matter? Aire you down ag'in?"
How different the suave deference of his friends Abe Cone and Y. Fred Smart to the rude tone and manner of this irascible guide! Mr. Sprudell fancied that by way of reply he smiled a tolerant smile, but as a matter of fact the expression of his white, set face did not change.
"Great cats! Have I got to go back and git that dude?" The intervening feet looked like miles to the tired old man.
Wiry and seasoned as he was, he was nearly exhausted by the extra steps he had taken and the effort he had put forth to coax and bully, somehow to drag Sprudell along. The situation was desperate. The bitter cold grew worse as night came on. He knew that they had worked their way down toward the river, but how far down? Was the deep canyon he had tried to follow the right one? Somewhere he had lost the "squaw ax," and dry wood was inaccessible under snow. If it were not for Sprudell, he knew that he could still plod on.
His deep breath of exhaustion was a groan as he floundered back and shook the inert figure with all his might.
"Git up!" he shouted. "You must keep movin'! Do you want to lay right down and die?"
"Lemme be!" The words came thickly, and Sprudell did not lift his eyes.
"He's goin' to freeze on me sure!" Uncle Bill tried to lift him, to carry him, to drag him somehow—a dead weight—farther down the canyon.
It was hopeless. He let him fall and yelled. Again and again he yelled into the empty world about him. Not so much that he expected an answer as to give vent to his despair. There was not a chance in a million that the miner in the cabin would hear him, even if he were there. But he kept on yelling, whooping, yodling with all his might.
His heart leaped, and he stopped in the midst of a breath. He listened, with his mouth wide open. Surely he heard an answering cry! Faint it was—far off—as though it came through thicknesses of blankets—but it was a cry! A human voice!
He was not mistaken. From somewhere in the white world of desolation, the answer came again:
Uncle Bill was not much given to religious allusions except as a matter of emphasis, but he told himself that that far-off cry of reassurance sounded like the voice of God.
"Help!" he called desperately, sunk to his armpits in the snow. "Help! Come quick!"
Night was so near that it had just about closed down when Bruce came fighting his way up the canyon through the drifts to Griswold's side. They wasted no time in words, but between them dragged and carried the unresisting sportsman to the cabin.
The lethargy which had been so nearly fatal was without sensation, but after an hour or so of work his saviors had the satisfaction of hearing him begin to groan with the pain of returning circulation.
"Git up and stomp around!" Uncle Bill advised, when Sprudell could stand. "But," sharply, as he stumbled, "look where you're goin'—that's a corp' over there."
The admonition revived Sprudell as applications of snow and ice water had not done. He looked in wide-mouthed inquiry at Bruce.
Bruce's somber eyes darkened as he explained briefly:
"We had a fuss, and he went crazy. He tried to get me with the ax."
There was no need to warn Sprudell again to "look where he was goin'," as he existed from that moment with his gaze alternating between the gruesome bundle and the gloomy face of his black-browed host. Incredulity and suspicion shone plainly in his eyes. Sprudell's imagination was a winged thing, and now it spread its startled pinions. Penned up with a murderer—what a tale to tell in Bartlesville, if by chance he returned alive! The fellow had him at his mercy, and what, after all, did he know of Uncle Bill? Even fairly honest men sometimes took desperate chances for so fat a purse as his.
Sprudell saw to it that neither of them got behind him as they moved about the room.
Casting surreptitious glances at the bookshelf, where he looked to see the life of Jesse James, he was astonished and somewhat reassured to discover a title like "Fossil Fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of the British Isles." It was unlikely, he reasoned, that a man who voluntarily read, for instance, "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States," would split his skull when his back was turned. Yet they smacked of affectation to Sprudell, who associated good reading with good clothes.
"These are your books—you read them?" There was skepticism, a covert sneer in Sprudell's tone.
"I'd hardly pack them into a place like this if I didn't," Bruce answered curtly.
"I suppose not," he hastened to admit, and added, patronizingly; "Who is this fellow Agassiz?"
Bruce turned as sharply as if he had attacked a personal friend. The famous, many-sided scientist was his hero, occupying a pedestal that no other celebrity approached. Sprudell had touched him on a tender spot.
"That 'fellow Agassiz,'" he answered in cold mimicry, "was one of the greatest men who ever lived. Where do you stop when you're home that you never heard of Alexander Agassiz? I'd rather have been Alexander Agassiz than the richest man in America—than any king. He was a great scientist, a great mining engineer, a successful business man. He developed and put the Calumet and Hecla on a paying basis. He made the University Museum in Cambridge what it is. He knew more about sea urchins and coral reefs than men who specialize, and they were only side issues with him. I met him once when I was a kid, in Old Mexico; he talked to me a little, and it was the honor of my life. I'd rather walk behind and pack his suitcase like a porter than ride with the president of the road!"
"Is that so?" Sprudell murmured, temporarily abashed.
"Great cats!" ejaculated Uncle Bill, with bulging eyes. "My head would git a hot-box if I knowed jest half of that."
When Sprudell stretched his stiff muscles and turned his head upon the bear-grass pillow at daybreak, Bruce was writing a letter on the corner of the table and Uncle Bill was stowing away provisions in a small canvas sack. He gathered, from the signs of preparation, that the miner was going to try and find the Chinaman. Outside, the wind was still sweeping the stinging snow before it like powder-driven shot. What a fool he was to attempt it—to risk his life—and for what?
It was with immeasurable satisfaction that Sprudell told himself that but for his initiative they would have been there yet. These fellows needed a leader, a strong man—the ignorant always did. His eyes caught the suggestive outlines of the blanket on the floor, and, with a start, he remembered what was under it. They had no sensibilities, these Westerners—they lacked fineness; certainly no one would suspect from the matter-of-factness of their manner that they were rooming with a corpse. For himself, he doubted if he could even eat.
"Oh, you awake?" Uncle Bill glanced at him casually.
"My feet hurt."
Uncle Bill ignored his plaintive tone.
"They're good and froze. They'll itch like forty thousand fleabites atter while—like as not you'll haf to have them took off. Lay still and don't clutter up the cabin till Burt gits gone. I'll cook you somethin' bimeby."
Sprudell writhed under the indifferent familiarity of his tone. He wished old Griswold had a wife and ten small children and was on the pay roll of the Bartlesville Tool Works some hard winter. He'd——Sprudell's resentment found an outlet in devising a variety of situations conducive to the disciplining of Uncle Bill.
Bruce finished his letter and re-read it, revising a little here and there. He looked at Sprudell while he folded it reflectively, as though he were weighing something pro and con.
Sprudell was conscious that he was being measured, and, egotist though he was, he was equally aware that Bruce's observations still left him in some doubt.
Bruce walked to the window undecidedly, and then seemed finally to make up his mind.
"I'm going to ask you to do me a favor, stranger, but only in case I don't come back. I intend to, but"—he glanced instinctively out of the window—"it's no sure thing I will.
"My partner has a mother and a sister—here's the address, though it's twelve years old. If anything happens to me, I want you to promise that you'll hunt them up. Give them this old letter and the picture and this letter, here, of mine. This is half the gold dust—our season's work." He placed a heavy canvas sample sack in Sprudell's hand. "Say that Slim sent it; that although they might not think it because he did not write, that just the same he thought an awful lot of them.
"I've told them in my letter about the placer here—it's theirs, the whole of it, if I don't come back. See that it's recorded; women don't understand about such things. And be sure the assessment work's kept up. In the letter, there, I've given them my figures as to how the samples run. Some day there'll be found a way to work it on a big scale, and it'll pay them to hold on. That's all, I guess." He looked deep into Sprudell's eyes. "You'll do it?"
"As soon as I get out."
"I'd just about come back and haunt you if you lied."
There were no heroics when he left them; he simply fastened on his pack and went.
"Don't try to hunt me if I stay too long," was all he said to Uncle Bill at parting. "If there's any way of getting there, I can make it just as well alone."
It was disappointing to Sprudell—nothing like the Western plays at tragic moments; no long handshakes and heart-breaking speeches of farewell from the "rough diamonds."
"S' long," said Uncle Bill.
He polished a place on the window-pane with his elbow and watched Burt's struggle with the cold and wind and snow begin.
"Pure grit, that feller," when, working like a snowplow, Bruce had disappeared. "He's man all through." The old voice trembled. "Say!" He turned ferociously. "Git up and eat!"
Uncle Bill grew older, grayer, grimmer in the days of waiting, days which he spent principally moving between window and door, watching, listening, saying to himself monotonously: It can't storm forever; some time it's got to stop.
But in this he seemed mistaken, for the snow fell with only brief cessation, and in such intervals the curious fog hung over the silent mountains with the malignant persistency of an evil spirit.
He scraped the snow away from beside the cabin, and Sprudell helped him bury Slim. Then, against the day of their going, he fashioned crude snow-shoes of material he found about the cabin and built a rough hand sled.
"If only 'twould thaw a little, and come a crust, he'd stand a whole lot better show of gittin' down." Uncle Bill scanned the sky regularly for a break somewhere each noon.
"Lord, yes, if it only would!" Sprudell always answered fretfully. "There are business reasons why I ought to be at home."
The day came when the old man calculated that even with the utmost economy Bruce must have been two days without food. He looked pinched and shrivelled as he stared vacantly at the mouth of the canyon into which Bruce had disappeared.