Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.
Fast money, easy money, jumping in your band,
Earn it and burn it, spend to beat the band,
Broke today, rich tomorrow, speculation mad,
Money makes the mare go! A ride's all you had.
Slow money, steady money, climbing out the ground,
Reap it and keep it; hard cash is seldom found
Sweat today, rest tomorrow, plan a year —
They'll call you a rich man when you lie dead.
MITCHELL had not the slightest intention of getting involved in any fracas when he went aboard the Tropic Bird at St. Louis, but this did not prevent him taking precautions as usual. He knew the Missouri. He was St. Louis agent for a dozen mercantile firms. He was going upstream this trip to deliver twenty thousand dollars in cash to Josiah Clegg of the Western Land Company at Council Bluffs, and for no other purpose.
The last thing he wanted or expected was to get mixed up in anyone else's war.
When he came aboard, he noticed the Larkins—a glorious, happy couple. Abbey Larkin was radiantly alive; such a woman, he thought, as he himself might have married but for fate. Joe Larkin, her husband, was a handsome fellow, gay and debonair and superbly confident in himself and his destiny. Someone said they had come into money and were heading west in search of fortune—a golden couple whose skies were bright.
Tom Mitchell was a smallish man, carelessly dressed, wearing a Missouri slouch hat. He had a brown face, twinkling eyes, and a boyishly ingenuous air which was deceptive. He knew his way around, but he was none of your brawling rivermen. His ambition was not to cut a figure at the bar or in the gambling room, but to attend to business and get ahead in the world, which he was doing in a quiet way. His small size was his chief handicap in such a crowd as this, for in the 1850's, brawn and brag counted for a lot.
It was late in summer and the Missouri was running at low water. This meant that instead of making Kansas City in two days, a week or more might be needed, and proportionately farther on upstream. So Tom Mitchell settled down for a long trip. He had a stateroom to himself, which was a rare thing, and after depositing his money with the ship's clerk for safekeeping he settled down to make himself comfortable. The Tropic Bird was filled to capacity with a hundred-odd passengers, the majority all a-fever with the land rush.
The "great river of the Massorites," as La Hontan had named it, otherwise the Big Muddy, was lined with cities clear to the head of navigation—nearly all of them on paper. Money was plentiful with interest rates five per cent a month, and speculation ran riot. City lots that sold for fifty dollars one month, sold for a thousand the next. The great western gold-rush had cooled off, turning into a mad stampede to fill up the middle borders, grab land, and develop mighty cities against the coming railroads.
The first day out, Mitchell found himself at the same dining-table with the Larkins, along with a couple of brisk, quick-talking promoters, a shrewd fellow who was a tinhorn gambler, and a missionary bound with his wife for the Indian country. It was a crazy assortment, as people went.
To Mitchell it became evident that Larkin was not deaf to the magical talk of the land promoters. Moved by quick compassion for the radiant Abbey, he voiced a brief warning against these schemes. Instantly the two speculators turned on him indignantly.
"Do you insinuate, sir, that such projects are a swindle?"
"No, gentlemen; they're no swindle," replied Mitchell. "But along the Kansas line alone of this river there are fourteen such boom cities, each one destined to be the metropolis of the west. You and other promoters believe implicitly in them. People of all sorts get rich by speculation in their lots. Yet I say again, they'll break the hearts of many an investor. They're a great danger to this new country of ours."
"How so?" demanded one of the promoters.
"Because they inculcate the doctrine of easy money. Fantastic sums change hands every day. People get rich overnight and go broke overnight. This is a boom that can't last."
"But you admit people do get rich at the game!" said Larkin.
"For a moment, yes. If investors can afford to lose their money, all very well; if not, they should stay out of land speculation."
Having thus said his say, Mitchell left the table. There was a moment of warm comment on the part of the two promoters. Into this broke the tinhorn gambler, a shrewd-eyed, smooth-talking man, who surveyed the speculators with a twinkle.
"Gents, don't forget one thing," he said. "Our friend Mitchell is a quiet little cuss, ain't he? Well, river talk says when you run up against a small man, look out! He aims to prove himself better'n the big man, and usually he is. Never monkey with a small man!"
This was wisdom; the two promoters lapsed into thoughtful silence.
Although a new and first class luxury boat, the Tropic Bird justified Mitchell's worst fears, for the low water presented dangers that made the upriver trip interminable. Sandbanks and shoals occurred in the most unexpected places; snags and submerged trees, the particular peril of the Missouri, showed up by the hundred. A leadsman was perched in the bow at all times, speed was slowed, the steamer ran aground a dozen times a day.
Landings were frequent, passengers being set ashore anywhere by the simple method of running a gangway to the bank. Cottonwood fuel was taken aboard in like manner. Boats bound downstream paused to exchange comments on the channel, which never remained alike a week at a time; to the pilots, such information was vital.
Running aground was no joke. The huge derrick-spars on either side the bow were then let down and driven into the mud at an angle, pointing upstream; ropes from the capstans were attached, passengers all tailed on, and the great stern-paddles thrashed, backing up the water under the steamboat, which was thus lifted over the shoal as though on stilts. Often all passengers landed and cut across the sharp bends afoot while the steamer made her cautious way around.
IN the five days before reaching Kansas City, Mitchell saw quite a little of the pleasant couple. Larkin was no drinker; he was a volatile, zestful man of strong enthusiasms who took an eager delight in everything around him. He was going into the trading business at Fort Randall, up in the Yankton country. His sobriety, in a day when whiskey flowed like water and was even served at breakfast, strongly commended him to Tom Mitchell.
As for Mrs. Larkin, Mitchell became her devoted slave.
"I do hope you'll use your influence with Steve," she said, the day they reached Kansas City. "What you said the first day out, about investing, has stuck in his mind; only I'm so afraid he'll get carried away and do something rash! He's the best of men; but we simply can't afford to take any chances with what we have."
"Steve's all right," Mitchell replied. "But I can't harp on the subject. You're the one to use influence, Madame. Keep him from listening to these land sharks, and I'll put in my word whenever I get a chance, sure."
They came in under the abrupt bluffs of Kansas City to the broad sloping landing, where the muddy "Grade" was cut through the bluff to allow vehicles to reach the budding city above. Here amid tumultuous confusion freight and passengers went ashore and more came aboard for the upper country. The Larkins and Mitchell hired a carriage and went for a tour of the city, which was far past the paper stage, being in a neck-and-neck race with St. Joseph for the commercial riches of the west.
"Sure is a wolf-pack coming aboard here," observed Mitchell, as they came back down the Grade to the landing. "Every land promoter from upriver, looks like!"
"And you say they're not swindlers?" queried Larkin.
"Lord, no! They'll buy their own city lots with every cent they can scrape up, and won't sell at ten times the figure. They believe in their own prospects, if nobody else does; but their land companies are mostly a fraud. That's not like Josiah Clegg, up at Council Bluffs. He's bought nine hundred acres, there and across the river where they're talking about a new city named Omaha; no speculation, no land companies, no promoters."
"Why, then?" demanded Mrs. Larkin.
"Flat country up there, mostly. Clegg believes in its future—not as a moneymaker but as part of our country. Hard to explain in a minute—and here we are back again."
Barely in time, too, for the steamer was getting aboard the last of her freight, anxious to make up for lost time. Ten minutes later she cast off.
Long though the river road was, going far up to Fort Benton, it was the one mode of communication with civilization, and the passengers could not get away from the feel of the vast western wilderness they were skirting. Consequently, steamer, friendships grew rapidly into intimacy, and Mitchell found the Larkins confiding in him, the more so as at Kansas City the passenger list had changed for the worst. An influx of promoters and rough characters bound for the jumping off places had come aboard; revolvers and bowie knives were worn on all sides, and fights were not infrequent.
The unexpected inheritance, the child left in school at St. Louis, the chance to buy into a trading business at Fort Randall—Mitchell learned all of it. What he liked was their way of taking a desperate gamble, for it was that, with a smile. They were plunging to their last cent, against family advice, against everything. Larkin had the money in his pocket for the final payment on their new venture.
"From what I hear of that country, you can't lose," said Mitchell. "It's a hard country, with lots of Injuns, but it's opening up fast. Look at our crowd aboard here; we've got forty or fifty settlers along. They're pouring in by the thousand, overland. That's a rich prairie country upriver, the richest there is. Ioway and Nebraska can't be beat."
"Glad to hear you talk that way," said Larkin. "I've heard it's not much good."
Mitchell met the clear, dancing eyes of Mrs. Larkin, and smiled.
"It ain't romantic, maybe," he said. "Injuns getting chased out, buffalo getting run out, no gold diggings, no mountains—just good honest rich land. It means hard work, but look what'll be there fifty years from now! No paper cities, but real ones. A man can step in now, use his muscle, and build himself home and farm and independence. Or go in like you folks for trading."
"Why don't you do that yourself?" asked Abbey Larkin. "What's your ambition, Mr. Mitchell?"
He reddened slightly. "To be a big, husky bruiser," he said, and laughed. "Can't make my body over, though, so I'm just plodding ahead and saving up money to buy into Clegg's business as a partner. Hello—stuck again!"
The steamer rocked, careened slightly, slid gently to a stop on a sandbar, and let off steam as the paddles thrashed vainly.
Two days later, the trouble began.
In common with a score of huskier passengers, Mitchell had put in a solid four hours with the "dead man"—a heavy log buried ashore in the treeless earth, from which a hawser ran to a windlass that heaved the steamer ahead foot by foot across a mud bank. Tuckered out, he came back and changed into clean clothes, got a drink at the bar, and passing through the ladies' cabin ran into Abbey Larkin. She beckoned him to a chair beside her.
"I want to show you something! Look at it! I promised not to let a soul see it, but you can be trusted. Joe borrowed it from a man he met. I'll let you in on the secret."
"Of what?" said he, dropping into the chair.
"Harper City!" said she, unrolling a cylinder of paper. "Here's the first printed view of it."
"What?" exclaimed Mitchell. "You, of all people—why, you wanted me to keep your husband from getting interested in any of these schemes—"
"Oh, but this is different!" she broke in. "This isn't any speculation—here, see for yourself! This is really wonderful!"
Harper stared at the plan, which was lithographed in colors. It showed the layout of Harper City along the river bank, below the suspension bridge, which brought in the Lake Superior & Harper Railroad.
The St. Louis & San Francisco countered it at the immense Union Depot well back from the elaborate steamboat landing.
The hotels, the Merchants' Exchange, the Opera House, the elaborate park system, the courthouse and churches, formed a magnificent prospect. The Harper City University campus covered six entire blocks.
"Joe is thinking about buying just one lot close to the university," went on Abbey Larkin. "Later we can build a house there—"
Mitchell caught sight of one of the pilots passing, magnificent in whiskers and beaver hat and gold watch chain. He beckoned him, and introduced Mrs. Larkin.
"Now, Mr. Sage, you're pretty well acquainted upriver," he said. "I wish you'd tell Mrs. Larkin, as a favor to me, which part of Harper City is best for a home site. Here's a plan of the city."
He spread out the gaudy lithograph. The pilot chuckled and put his finger on a spot near the steamboat landing.
"Right here, ma'am. That's where the stump is."
"The stump?" Abbey Larkin was mystified. The pilot gave Mitchell a wink.
"Yes'm. I was there three weeks ago on the down trip. Used to be a tree here, but they had cut it down to help build the log shack. They got a shack and a tent and an Injun canoe, and the rest of the city is just swamp. Respects, ma'am. Glad to've met you."
He passed on. Abbey Larkin was white to the lips.
"Mr. Mitchell!" she broke out. "Do you mean to say that this—this—"
"If I had told you it wasn't so, you might not have believed me," said Mitchell. "Yes, it's a grand paper city, all right; I'm surprised they've got as much as a log cabin there."
She started up. "I must find Joe. Please, help me! They don't allow ladies in some parts of the boat—oh, we must find him, stop him!"
It was Mitchell who found him ten minutes later, in the bar. Joe Larkin was holding a gaudily printed certificate of title on which the ink was not yet dry, and listening to two brisk gentlemen who talked fast and smoothly. He looked up at Mitchell eagerly.
"Oh! Here, Mitchell—here's a chance for investment!" he exclaimed. "Look, I've just bought twenty lots—these gentlemen will let you in at the same price! Harper City isn't like the others. It's really got everything—"
"Even to a suspension bridge," said Mitchell. "Larkin, you've been swindled. Gents, suppose you hand back his money."
The pair sprang up, indignant. A circle formed around. Mitchell waited until the two voluble promoters had exhausted themselves, then nodded.
"All right. I don't aim to see Mrs. Larkin lose her money, no matter how legal your game may be. Which one took your cash, Larkin?"
The bewildered and uncertain Larkin indicated the taller of the pair. Mitchell turned to him, calmly.
"Sir, will you return. Mr. Larkin's money?
"I will not, you fool!" replied the promoter, towering over Mitchell. "And you can't make me."
"Then I can put a bullet into you," said Mitchell.
His sleeve twitched; into his hand shot a derringer, and he lifted it, cocking it as he did so—all in a split second.
The two barrels of that derringer took forty-calibre balls; it looked as big as a buffalo-gun. There was a frantic scattering. Men ducked, plunged under chairs and tables. If a man drew a gun in such a crowd he meant to use it—and Mitchell's air boded the firmest of intention. The promoter flung up his hands.
"All right, all right!" he quavered.
"Wait!" intervened Larkin. "Mr. Mitchell, I don't want my money back! I bought these city lots and I want to keep them!"
For Mitchell that was a sorry moment. He had made a fool of himself—rather Larkin had made a fool of him before all hands. He swallowed hard, darted one furious glance at Larkin, then shrugged and put away his derringer and turned.
"I guess that lets me out, gentlemen. Sorry," he said, and departed amid a roar of relief and laughter.
He did not want to see the Larkins again—ever. He sought his cabin and stayed there or on the upper deck. The incredible folly of Larkin and his own humiliation left him angered and morose; that was what one got, he reflected, for trying to help out others. Let Larkin be plucked, and be damned to him!
Next morning he was chewing a cigar by himself on the Texas deck, when Sage, the pilot, whom he knew slightly, came off duty and paused beside him.
"Hello, Mr. Mitchell. I heard about it; blasted nonsense, all of it! That lady you introduced me to—she's the man's wife, eh? She was in tears last night, I hear."
"None of my business," said Mitchell. The pilot clapped him on the shoulder.
"No, but it never hurts a man to extend a helping hand. That's what I'm doing now."
"What d'ye mean?"
"I've heard talk. You're said to be carrying gold—a lot of it. Some of those aboard might be interested; we've a pretty tough crowd this trip. Keep your eyes open."
"Thanks. But the clerk has my valuables in the safe."
"That won't prevent a knife in the dark. Who'd know you don't sleep with your money? Besides, those promoters you had a run-in with aren't the usual type. They're plain swindlers of the worst sort."
Mitchell grunted. "Damn it! I should have shut Larkin up, taken his money bade, and given it to his wife. He knocked me off center by his fool holler." "You did all right," said the pilot approvingly. "And mind my tip."
"I shall, thanks."
MRS. LARKIN sought him out during the day and he put in a tough half-hour. Her husband had invested more than they could afford in Harper City lots; she was mortified by his treatment of Mitchell; so was he, too late.
"Never mind; I'm none the worse off," Mitchell told her. "He's an honest man and acted according to his lights. It never pays to blame anyone after the horse is stolen, Mrs. Larkin—next time, keep an eye on the barn."
So, with a laugh, he turned it off and sauntered away, making light of the whole matter. Larkin, who was still in mind to keep the lots, thanked him and spoke awkwardly of his own action, when next they met. Mitchell made no comment, and so the matter ended.
Struggling upriver toward St. Joseph, they made slow headway as the water grew lower. Boats bound downriver had trouble enough, but the upstream passage was periled by the snags ordinarily well covered. These consisted of entire trees whose bases were fixed in the river mud and whose tips pointed downstream with the current. If the thin hull of a steamboat was pierced, she was out of luck.
The Tropic Bird made Leavenworth, then St. Joseph, and drew out again for the long upstream reach. Here was wilderness for sure, and the crowd aboard was a hard lot in general. It was the night after they left St. Joe that Larkin was robbed; knocked on the head and looted. Mitchell heard of it next morning and went to see him. Larkin was in bed, bandaged.
"No. I never saw a soul," he said miserably. He had lost everything. Probably he would have been dropped overboard, had not some of the crew happened along just then.
"How much was the loss?" Mitchell asked Abbey Larkin.
"The worst was our reserves—two thousand in gold, in a money-belt," she said, dread and anxiety in her eyes. She was radiant no more.
"What sort of a belt?"
"Soft leather, stamped with Joe's name in gold. Do you think there's any chance of our getting the money back?"
"None, I'm mighty sorry to say," he replied. "The robbers are aboard, sure; they may be anyone, but they'd take the gold and throw the belt overboard, I expect. That is, if they have any brains."
"If they had any brains they wouldn't be robbers," she rejoined, but Mitchell paid little heed to her words and got away as quickly as possible. There was nothing he could do.
The robbery created little comment. Robbery or murder was too common to be noticed. If a drunk got plundered and dropped overboard, no one was the wiser or cared a whit. Tom Mitchell, however, looked to his hidden derringers and kept his eye peeled; anyone reputed to be traveling with money had best watch his step.
"If they had any brains they wouldn't be robbers." Those words recurred to him once or twice, but he assigned little importance to them. Any blind search for the criminals was worse than futile in such a crowd as this: He was thankful that his trip would soon be ended at Council Bluffs, for they were now making better time in this straight stretch of the river.
That evening the moon came up full and round, a huge reddish ball trembling upon the eastern horizon and gradually changing to burnished silver. A Negro string band was twanging away and the cabin was filled with dancers. They were just below the junction with the Platte and the Tropic Bird was keeping close in to the Iowa shore; with a clean, open channel ahead she was driving upstream at her full ten knots.
Mitchell left the uproarious scene and mounted to the hurricane deck aft. This broad and open expanse was deserted, and he soon learned why; smoke and ash and cinders from the two tall stacks forward swept across it ceaselessly. He pulled his hat over his eyes and walked to the stern rail, above the mighty paddle-box.
There was less smoke here. Moonlight magic turned the muddy waters to molten silver, and astern ran the churning, tumbling wake from the paddles—an endless repetition of movement that had an almost hypnotic effect on the eye. He chewed at his cigar, enjoying the clarity of the scene under the rising moon; the dark line of the shore, the play of the water, almost as bright as in daylight, the far expanse of the bottom-lands stretching away on the Nebraska shore.
Here, he thought, lay destiny for himself and many another who had no faith in easy money and quick returns. Those dark shores would reward the plow in their own way; slowly, certainly not in a moment but across the years in gradual upbuilding.
"Corn-land, stretching over the horizon," he reflected. "There's the greatest gold mine of all; not for today or tomorrow, but for the future, all through life! There's the secret this country of ours holds for those who can see aright. A future not founded upon the love of money, but upon faith in destiny, upon slow construction and building, upon work and sweat and hard labor! Aye, these black fields and prairies may yet feed half the earth—and fools rush past them in search of gold! And other fools babble in fevered dreams of speculation—"
From the corner of his eye he caught a movement, and glanced around. The noise of the thrashing paddles drowning out their footsteps, two men were approaching him, and a third sauntered along close behind. Mitchell recognized the two as the same promoters of Harper City with whom he had dealt on behalf of Larkin.
"Good evening, sir, good evening," said one of the two, amiably. "I trust, Mr. Mitchell, that there is no animosity between us?"
"No hard feelin's on my part, if that's your meaning," said Mitchell.
"Splendid! Do you realize, sir, that we are shortly about to pass Harper City? We hoped the captain would stop there, but he is in haste to get on upstream. Allow me to point out the spot to you—"
They came to the rail, beside Mitchell, peering at the passing shores. He suspected nothing—until, with a sudden spine-prickle, he realized that the third man was behind him. The sense of acute peril rushed upon him; in this remote spot, alone, he would be an easy victim. These two rascals, then, were the ones who had robbed poor Larkin—
He darted a glance over his shoulder. The third man, behind him, was in the very act of swinging a stout cudgel. There was no time to think, to act, to evade. The two promoters were holding him occupied while the other knocked him in the head—
Mitchell simply dropped, like an india-rubber doll. He let himself go; but his arms enveloped the legs of the two promoters. They lost balance and toppled over on him. The blow meant for Mitchell crunched down on one of them; a wild cry, a wilder oath, a torrent of curses burst forth as all three went to the deck together.
Even before he hit the deck Mitchell was squirming sideways to get clear. He knew what would happen, and he was dead right. As he got clear, rolled over, and came to one knee, he saw the third rascal almost on top of him, club raised to finish him. But the spring of the derringer up his right cuff was released, the little weapon was sliding into his hand.
He lifted it and shot point-blank.
Knocked backward by the ball, the rascal threw out both arms and fell, going back against the rail as he dropped. That was all Mitchell saw. One of the others was up and leaping on him bodily. The other was following. He could not even fire again, when he was knocked prostrate and found them both on top of him, bowie knives out and flashing in the moonlight. He caught one of them by the throat, desperately, but was lost and knew it.
Then happened something strange and terrible. Mitchell felt the deck rising under him, shoving at him. The whole front part of the steamer was rising. It rose—and then suddenly halted in mid-career, sending the three living men and the dead man sliding along the deck.
There was a frightful splintering. The entire ship shuddered and heaved and cracked, drowning the sound of human screams that pierced the moonlight. Mitchell and his assailants came erect, enmity forgotten before the face of disaster—and what disaster!
From the forward hurricane deck protruded a good thirty feet of pine tree. The Tropic Bird has run full on one of those infernal snags so dreaded by the rivermen. It had penetrated her hull, pierced through the deck and staterooms, and coming out at the hurricane deck left the entire steamer impaled like a wretched fly upon a pin.
Something white billowed from forward—steam. The cupola of the pilothouse flew into the air; a tremendous detonation burst forth, knocking Mitchell flat. The boilers had let go. The moonlight showed one horrible glimpse of bodies tossing high and far—one was later found a quarter-mile away.
Mitchell, striking the deck, was deafened by that blast. His two assailants, who stood erect, caught it full force. One of them went through the iron rail, smashing it. The other man had the clothes blown from him; Mitchell saw him naked in the moonlight, and almost in the same instant saw him knocked overboard by the invisible hand.
The whole front portion of the ship, from the engine-room forward, was a mass of twisted wreckage—through which pierced the pine tree like a gigantic spear, now upholding its victim from sinking, for the exploding boilers had torn the steamer almost in two. Mitchell, his eardrums burst by that concussion, did not hear the panicked shrieks and screams that welled up from below him.
Conscious that he was alive, his one thought was the danger of fire. There was none, perhaps thanks to the explosion that ripped away everything forward. But now, pouring up from below, rushing figures began to flood on the hurricane deck. The stern of the steamer, although pinned to the snag, was going under water, inspiring new panic in the survivors of the blast. They came pouring up, clad and unclad, in a blind frenzy.
Mitchell woke up. There were no boats, of course; steamers carried none. But the Iowa shore was close. He flung himself into the mob, begging, pointing to the shore, shouting; he was brushed aside, knocked over, sent rolling down the inclined deck. By this time he knew he was deaf, and curiously enough it steadied him. The deck canted more and more. Men and women alike, out of their heads, were jumping wildly into the water, clutching at fragments of wreckage, fighting one another, screaming for help. But these shores had no settlers to bring any aid; this was wilderness.
The hapless wreck sagged, turned a little upon its giant spike, then dipped over sideways and hung shivering, as water poured into the cabins below. Chairs, furniture, wreckage went bobbing away; survivors clung to anything in sight. Mitchell, like the others, though the boat was going. He doffed coat and boots, picked a clear space of water, and dove from the rail.
HE came up in moonlight and struck out for shore. It was absurdly close, tragically close, although the stream ran swiftly here. As he swam, a stateroom door bore down upon him; a woman was lying on it as a raft, a man with bandaged head clung to it. Mitchell recognized the man; Larkin! A shout burst from him.
He swam to the door and looked up into the face of Abbey Larkin, stamped with horror and panic. Larkin comprehended his words and gestures and helped turn the float shoreward. After a bit they made the shallows; home down by the current, they were well below the scene of the wreck. All three went floundering up the dry bank and dropped in utter exhaustion amid the cottonwood saplings there. They were dripping but alive.
When Mitchell came to himself some hours had passed; the moon was high and white. He sat up and looked around. Mrs. Larkin lay at one side, Joe had his arm around her; both were asleep; the warm summer air had dried their garments.
Mitchell rose quietly and stepped away. Clothes—food—matches or fire-bag! He must see what could be had. They were somewhere below Council Bluffs; no help might come for days unless another steamer happened along.
THE silver water was all clear; not a soul was in sight. Across, in the Nebraska bottom lands, rose the yellow flicker of a distant fire. Some of the survivors must have reached there; the majority, living or dead, had been swept downstream. Going to the water's edge, Mitchell looked upriver.
Ah! The wreck of the steamer still hung there in plain sight; impaled on the tree, she had not gone down after all. His heart leaped; he might reach her, get all that was needed, perhaps collect other survivors! He started away on the thought, hastening his way along the bank. He had not far to go—an eighth of a mile at most.
In that short space he came upon many a corpse bobbing along the shore, but none alive. Twice he shouted, but had no response. He realized from the moon's height that much time must have passed while the three of them lay in the sand. As he neared the wreck, he saw that it was all dark; hanging on the tree, the afterpart sagged low in the water, but was apparently here to stay and would go no farther. And it was deserted. How many had died there of blind panic who might now be alive had they kept their heads!
The full horror of the thing had passed from him; it revived for a moment when, upon the shore he stepped over a man's leg blown from its body. He shivered and went on. He was almost opposite the wreck when he stopped to stare at a lettered signboard in the moonlight. The large letters faced the river. They read: HARPER CITY.
An ironic laugh broke from him as he glanced along the empty, desolate shores. So this was the city site—where there was only a cabin, a tent and an Injun canoe! No cabin in sight along here,' either. It must be somewhere upstream. He went on a little farther and was halted by swamp. Good enough; he could make it from here, in spite of the current.
Without hesitation he stepped into the water and headed for the wreck. He was a fair swimmer. As he approached it was clear that no one remained aboard the hulk; not a light showed, although several lifeless forms littered the inclined hurricane deck. This, thanks to the sag of the hulk, was level with the water at the stern, and Mitchell made for it as the easiest way of getting aboard.
He was nearly there when he became aware of something up forward, tied to the wreckage. It looked like a boat or canoe. He paid no heed now, for all his effort was concentrated on making the wreck. He came in at the stern, grasped the nearly submerged rail, and hauled himself up on the sloping deck—that same deck where he had so nearly been burked and robbed.
As he lay panting and recovering from his efforts, a sudden laugh broke from him. Something lay against the rail, not a dozen feet away; he recognized it and dragged himself to it. Sure enough! The cudgel, a stout little club, that had so nearly been used upon him! The man he shot must have dropped it, and here it had lain all this while.
He picked it up, came to his feet, and started up the deck. Then he remembered that boat or canoe, and went to look.
As the water eddied through the stern cabins, the hanging wreck groaned dismally, but Mitchell heard nothing. His bare feet made no sound on the sloping deck. From the pilot house aft all was intact including the grand staircase; Mitchell headed over to the starboard rail for a closer look at that boat. To his astonishment, it was a canoe—an Indian canoe and a large one. It was made fast to the wreckage and a single paddle lay in it.
A stump, a cabin, a tent and an Injun canoe—
The pilot's words came back to him. Had this canoe been the one at Harper City—had the sole occupant there pad-died out to the wreck? Then he must be still aboard. Mitchell turned back toward the grand staircase, cursing his inability to hear anything. He passed a corpse, then another—then stopped in horrified realization.
Here lay a man naked to the waist, face up in the moonlight, dead. It was one of the steamer's officers; Mitchell recognized his face. But his eyes gripped on something else in plain sight. A pool of blood had run down the canted deck from the body; and the blood had come from two knife stabs in the chest. Not long ago either; the blood was not yet dry.
What it meant was clear enough. This man had been stabbed long after the crash and panic. Mitchell went on to the staircase, keenly alert; down below he saw a glow of light. Noiseless, he descended the wide stairs. He still held the hardwood club; he gripped it tightly and more tightly. He did not hear the murmur of voices below—
The door of the clerk's cabin had been blown away when the boilers let go; the clerk himself lay dead against one wall. A hurricane lantern stood on the floor. Beside it was a blanket outspread, and on the blanket lay a heap of wallets, watches, trinkets of all sorts plundered from the staterooms.
Against the far wall stood the steamer's safe and before it stood two men. One was a whiskered squawman, incredibly filthy, with evil glinting eyes in an evil face; the other was naked except for a blanket that enveloped him. Mitchell, staring from the shadows, recognized him at once. He was the tall promoter who had been stripped and blown overboard by the explosion.
"We'll have to blow off the front of the blasted thing," said the promoter, examining the safe. "Not so easy done. We can try powder—where's your powder-horn?"
"In the canoe," said the squawman. "I'll dump my plunder in and fetch it." "Move sharp, then. We'll have to manage this before daylight."
Had Mitchell heard the words they would have warned him; but he heard nothing. He was astonished when the squawman turned and began to gather up the blanket of loot, only to drop it and whip out a long knife.
"Hey! Somebody's out here—come on!" The promoter swung around. Both of them went leaping for the white thing in the shadows. Mitchell had no escape; he wanted none. The work of these ghouls had maddened him. And besides, Clegg's money was in that safe—
A small man, a cripple, and a-hungry lawyer; the most dangerous of all men!
The squawman's moccasins slipped in the puddle of water Mitchell had left. He slid sideways, cursing. The promoter was at his elbow and Mitchell's club struck him access the head; he staggered but lunged forward with the knife in his hand. Mitchell swerved from the steel and brought down his cudgel across the bare arm. The promoter screamed as the bones snapped. His blanket fell off. Mitchell swung and struck him under the ear and he went to the deck in a white huddle.
But there was the squawman, deadly as an Indian, slithering forward, grappling, his knife thrusting and slashing. Mitchell felt the blade bite, as he was borne backward in that deadly grip. The two men struck the deck together; with a convulsive effort, Mitchell broke away and rolled clear, desperately hanging on to the club. He got to one knee.
Like a striking rattlesnake, the squawman came up from the deck and at him. The club lashed out and stopped the rush with a crack squarely in the face. The deadly blade lunged blindly, fiercely. Tom Mitchell' struck again. The squawman pitched down; but in falling, his free hand touched Mitchell's foot. Like a flash, he gripped the ankle, and with the other hand drove the knife home through the foot into deck.
In agony and fury, Mitchell crushed his skull with a terrific blow. But he was pinned to the deck. He had to reach down, grip the knife-haft, and pull the long steel clear. The effort left him sick and weak; blood gushed from the wound, and from a slash in his arm.
He hobbled into the clerk's cabin and got the light, brought it back, ripped a piece from the shirt of the dead squawman, and tied up his hurt foot. The light fell upon the body of the senseless promoter. Mitchell stopped short, looking. About his waist the man wore a money-belt of soft leather. Wondering, Mitchell held the light closer; yes, a name was stamped in gold—the name of J. S. Larkin!
A sudden laugh broke from him.
Down the riverbank, Larkin wakened to the moonlight; someone was calling his name. He came to his feet, awkwardly. It was hard to find himself, to realize where he was. Again his name was called, and he made reply, and stumbled toward the water. A canoe was there, with a lantern in it, and a man at the paddle.
"Mitchell!" cried Larkin in recognition.
"You'll have to lend a hand here," exclaimed Mitchell. "Lost my hearing when the boilers blew up. Can you hear me all right?"
Larkin gestured assent and pulled in the canoe.
"I got grub here," said Mitchell, "and clothes and a light for a fire and blankets—and more. Give me your hand, I'll have to get a good bandage put on my foot. Hurt it."
Joe Larkin helped him from the canoe, took the lantern and a string of sulphur matches from him—then froze, staring down at the money-belt that Mitchell extended. He took it, held it up, weighed the heavy belt in his hand, and broke into hot words.
"Where'd ye get it? Oh, good lord! Sure it's mine—there's my name—never thought to see it again! I got to tell Abbey about this—hey, wake up! Abbey! Listen here—"
He went rushing away, bawling out excited words. Mitchell, standing on his one good foot, looked out at the silver river and nodded.
"Might's well wake her up—she'll have to tie up my foot," he said. "I reckon we'll pull through after all. It's been damned tough, but we'll pull through. She was sure right about those robbers—if they'd had any brains they'd not have been robbers! Glad I left that rascally promoter tied up; he's safe enough. So's Clegg's money—ain't it a funny thing, now? With so many people dead and gone, all Larkin can think about is his darned gold being safe—"
He looked at Larkin, who was excitedly helping Abbey up and showing her the belt. He let down his hurt foot. The touch of the mud felt good; he thrust it down deeper, and the mud closed around it. The pain lessened; relief surged within him.
"Ioway mud; sure feels fine!" he muttered, and then a laugh broke from him. "Wait till I show Larkin this here Harper City! I reckon he can have it all now and nobody to object—"
Chuckling at the thought, he went hobbling away toward the others.
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.