IF William Berenger had, in the first place, known anything about gold mining and gold miners, he would never have brought his daughter along with him when he joined the rush for Slosson's Gulch. What he knew about mining was connected almost entirely with the works on geology that he had read and mastered. As an amateur geologist he was a very well-informed man; certainly he made a greater picture of a successful man when he was out with a party of admiring friends, chipping fragments off bits of rock, here and there, and telling the story revealed there, than when he went downtown to his office where a sign on a clouded-glass door informed all who cared to look that William Berenger was a lawyer. But as time went on, very few cared to look at that sign. For when a case came the way of Mr. Berenger, he never allowed business to interfere with geology, and he never allowed fact to interfere with theory. Mr. Berenger held a confirmed theory that every man, in his heart of hearts, was perfectly honest, and nothing could wean him away from this belief. When he cross-examined a recalcitrant witness, it was in the fashion of a saddened uncle pleading with a misguided child to be charitable to the truth and his better self. The result was that no lawyer ever succeeded in making men and women feel more at home on the witness stand—which is exactly what a lawyer does not want, of course.
Obviously the proper attitude is that all of one's own witnesses are scholarly gentlemen, and all of the opposition's witnesses are scoundrels, liars, and thieves, if they can get a chance. But Mr. Berenger could not help treating the entire world, not only as though it were his equal, but even a little bit more. He could not so much as tip a waiter without asking the pardon of that gentleman in disguise.
When a jovial and heartless friend of Mr. Berenger suggested that he close a law office that was simply a useless item in rent, and apply some of his geological knowledge by joining the gold rush, Mr. Berenger took the matter instantly to heart. He called in his daughter to help him make up his mind, and she poked her walking stick at the potted geraniums in his library window and listened thoughtfully She put no faith in the ability of her father to be anything but the kindest of fathers and the worst of businessmen, but she was certain that nothing could be more disastrous than to keep on as they were doing. Knowing that the family fortune had diminished dangerously close to the vanishing point, she felt that, at least, this might be a cheap way of taking a summer's vacation in the Western mountains.
So William Berenger was encouraged to make up his pack as a prospector, and in that pack, of course, his geology books formed the greatest item. He would have thought it absurd to advance upon the practical problem of locating gold-bearing ore without equipping himself with references, page, and paragraph, for every one of his steps. His legal training forced him into this attitude. But, in due time, they dismounted from the train, bought two pack mules and a pair of riding horses, built up two towering miracles of packs, and advanced on the mountains like two children on another crusade.
When they came to Slosson's Gulch, they halted on the overhanging shoulder of a hill and looked down upon the long, narrow town of shacks and tents and lean-tos that straggled along both banks of the creek. Even at that distance, through the thin air, they could hear faintly the noise of the mining camp. While they waited in the rosy dusk of the day, they heard from different portions of the gulch three shots. It sounded to Louise Berenger like three signal guns, warning the newcomers away.
Her father was not dismayed. For a week he mixed in the wild crowd of the camp in the evenings, and spent his days with Louise in tramping along the hill slopes, where thousands of others had already wandered before him. They learned now what they could have read in the papers before they started—no more strikes were being made in Slosson's Gulch. The vein seemed to have been traced as far as it ran, and as for the throngs that still rushed to the mining camp, some were simply blind sheep like the Berengers, and others were the exploiters of the miners. That is always the case in such a town; there are 500 hangers-on for every 100 honest laborers. But there is always a wild, vague hope of fortune lingering about a new-found ledge of gold ore. Mr. Berenger still tramped the hills farther up and down the valley, from day to day, talked with the adventurers in the evening, and then burned his lantern beside his heavy tomes of geological lore.
One day Louise came to him, with her eyes glittering and her face on fire. "I don't think that this is a place for you, Father," she said, "and certainly it is not a place for me!"
"What in the world has happened?" asked William Berenger, looking up over his glasses.
"Nothing," said Louise, setting her teeth like a man about to strike or be struck.
She would say no more, but her father could gather that something disturbing had happened, and, since it was almost impossible for him to resist any suggestion, he agreed at once that they should give up the adventure. He only wanted a single day to try out a little theory that he had just found out.
That extra day was spent in roving far up the valley, leaving the noise of Slosson's Creek behind them. They turned the complete flank of the great mountain and marched up a narrow ravine that, in those days, bore no name whatever.
As the town dipped out of view behind them, the girl asked: "Do you think that there will ever be law and order in that town?"
"Law and order," said William Berenger. "My dear, wherever there are more than two civilized white men together, there is sure to be law and order!"
His daughter stared at him. "There have been five known killings since we arrived," she reminded him.
"The dregs of society! The dregs of society!" Mr. Berenger explained easily. "They have to be disposed of in one way or another. Drones must be thrown out of the hive, my dear child. Wine is not good until the lees have settled."
Louise sighed, helpless and hopeless. She murmured finally: "Metaphors are not arguments, Father, except in poems."
"And what could be more of a poem than this spot?" Mr. Berenger said, waving his hand toward a blue giant of a mountain in the distance, for a turn of the ravine had just brought them into view of its sparkling head and white shoulders. "And what could be more of a poem... a living, breathing poem... than the strong men who have gathered in Slosson's Gulch to hunt for fortune in the ribs of old Mother Earth herself?"
"Or... the earth failing them... in the first handy pocketbook," suggested Louise.
"Ah, child,"—her father sighed—"a rough face does not make a rough heart. You must learn to look beneath surfaces... of men and of mountains! Age brings a gentler insight."
She knew that it was foolish to argue. If she mentioned the fact that one sheriff and two deputy sheriffs had already disappeared from the ken of men in Slosson's Gulch, and that the same fate had been promised for the next upholders of the established law that dared to show their heads near the camp, she knew that William Berenger would have some handy explanation. To dispute the goodness of mankind with him was like condemning the faith of an ardent priest. He felt that his hands were soiled even by opposing such mundane theories.
They rested at noon on the upper waters of the little creek that ran through that nameless ravine. As the western shadows began to come kindly out across the slope, Mr. Berenger advanced to make his exploration. He had not worked for an hour before he paused to consult the pages of his book again.
Louise, weary of idleness, seized the pick and struck it into an eroded ledge of rock. It struck so fast that she could hardly work it out. A bit of rock stuck on the end of the steel when at last it was free. She broke that fragment off in her hand—and found that sparkling threads of gold were shining back at her through the mountain shadows.
Even her silence seemed to send an electric warning to her father. He came hastily and saw what she held. Together they attacked the ledge. In half an hour they had no doubt. It was a strike and a wonderfully rich one, if only this were not a surface color that would soon disappear. They hastily staked out the claim and put up monuments.
Then they sat down in the shadow and made their plans. To Louise, it seemed that the whole world had instantly become an enemy, wolfishly eager to snatch their prize out of their hands. But her father had no such fears. When they finally turned down the valley, he, with a rich lump of the ore in his pocket, was already building hospitals and universities, and bringing Rembrandts across the Atlantic.
At their little lean-to on the lower edge of the town, Louise stopped to prepare supper. Her father went on into Slosson's Gulch to file his claim.
She waited until the dark with no sign of him, and then she knew that it would be worse than foolish for her to go unescorted through the streets of the gulch.
In the morning she made her hunt—a frantic search. She made wild inquiries here and there; searched at the claim, everywhere, knowing in her heart that his body lay at the bottom of some abandoned prospector's hole, or perhaps, weighted down with rocks, it was being rolled slowly down the bed of the creek.
SHE went back to her little lean-to and sat down to think. The obvious thing was to find out first whether the claim had been filed in Slosson's Gulch, then to discover a man in whom she could place implicit confidence, and entrust him with working the claim on a partnership basis. But in whom could she place implicit confidence?
She counted her friends, one by one, upon the slender tips of her fingers—a dozen boys and men, all fine fellows, as far as she knew them. But who could tell what they would do when a temptation the size of this was placed in their hands?
With her eyes closed, she tried to weigh them, one by one. In every one, she felt that she had discovered a strain of weakness. Gold supplied an acid test. The men in the gulch were law-abiding like others, when they were at home, but here they became wild beasts!
She heard a clamor of voices and looked out on a group of half a dozen stalwarts, not thirty paces from the door of her own lean-to. They were breaking ground with a wild, jovial enthusiasm, as though they knew beforehand that gold must be there. She scanned those men one by one—a giant Negro, a tall, pale-eyed Scandinavian with a bared forearm as huge as another man's thigh, a gaunt Yankee, a red-faced German grinning with effort as he swung the double jack—all young. But, in addition, there was a middle-aged pair who looked enough alike to be brothers, men uselessly well dressed, with pale, savage faces, cursing their own flabby muscles loudly as they toiled. She felt that a cross-section of the gulch had been presented to her.
But she must find an honest man. That was the first requisite. If there were the slightest flaw in his integrity, he would not fail to rob her of her share. Might was right in Slosson's Gulch. In the second place, he must be brave and strong enough to withstand the dangers from others—from six, say, such as yonder group across the way.
Where was she to find such a man? She turned that problem slowly. Never for an instant did she think of flinching from the work. Not that the gold lured her on, but she felt that to abandon the claim would be to abandon her father himself and the one great thing that he had ever accomplished with those theories at which she had smiled so often. So she set her teeth and determined to struggle ahead with her search, feeling that the instant she weakened, tears would be stinging her eyes and dimming them. Loving her father too much to sit and weep for him, she decided to work out her sorrow, not sit and weep it away.
So thought Louise, saddling her horse straightway, and riding down through the gulch. At the claim office she found that her father had left no record of the holding. In despair she turned her horse toward the ravine.
Certainly she was neither a fool nor a sentimentalist, and, if every man she looked at on this day appeared more than half a villain to her, it was simply because each face that she saw was involuntarily contrasted with the image of William Berenger, half wise man, half saint, and perhaps a little of the fool, as well. But, as he was, he had spoiled her for other men.
She passed through the gulch without having made a choice, and rode out of it, filled with a disgust for the whole race of men. Down the valley she rode, with the alkali dust whipping up into her face and stinging her eyes, her jaws clenched, and fury in her heart.
If she had been a queen, she would have ordered her army into the field on this day—bound anywhere, so long as it were for destruction of other men. But she was not a queen; she was simply a twenty-year-old girl with nothing at her disposal but 135 pounds of wiry strength. And this was a man's country in which she was riding.
Passing out of the gulch, at last, she spurred her mustang unmercifully up the last long slope. Here she found herself in a hinterland of ragged lands, neither mountains nor plains, but chopped, wretched badlands, where the spring watercourses ripped and tore for a month or two; where the sun burned or the ice gathered through all the rest of the year. It was just such a place as suited the humor of Louise Berenger, at that moment.
The trail led upwards again, crossed a ridge, and dipped into a great, silent valley beyond. She paused here, for it was peace to the spirit and rest to the vision to let her eye plunge across to the white-topped mountains of the other side, and down the river that twisted and shone through the center. Nothing stirred; nothing lived here except trees, scant, hardy grasses, and a few cacti. There were no men, at least, and she thanked God for the absence of them.
But at the very moment of her thanksgiving, she had sight of a rider coming slowly down from the farther side. Louise bent a gloomy eye upon him. He was no more than a black silhouette, at that distance—even with this limpid mountain air to help the vision. Only, on the white forehead of his horse, the sun glinted now and again. The man was like the rest in the gulch, no doubt. Or, if he were decent enough before he went there, he would be defiled and brutalized like the rest in a day or two, for so she thought of all the men in the gulch.
The whole valley was poisoned for her by the presence of that one rider, and therefore she looked up toward the sky, and so, where the white ridges joined the blue, she made out a little column of smoke rising. It seemed very strange that a fire should be built on the snows themselves. Then she saw that it was no fire, but a rapidly traveling column. It dipped out of view and came into sight again much lower down the slope, traveling twice as fast.
She recognized it, now—the white flag of snow dust that flies at the stern of a slide. Too, she heard a faint rumbling. She guessed that it would be a mighty avalanche before it spent itself against some intervening rock ridge.
It came down with a constantly increasing front, a constantly heightening flag of smoke in its rear. As it gathered weight and speed, it crossed the white snows, leaving a wedge-shaped mark upon the opposite mountain. It was like a thinking thing, a great, blunt-headed snake, winding here and there to follow contours of the ground that she could not make out, at that distance. Then, twisting sharply to the left, she saw that it would spend itself in a thick belt of trees that stretched like a great shadow across the slope.
When it reached the trees she could not mark any abatement of its speed. No, it rushed on through them, and they went down like grass. A huge, raw gash was cut through that forest, and the slide that had entered the trees, as a child, came out as a giant, with a tossing, bristling front. The stripped trunks of pines were flung like javelins high into the air.
It was no longer a white forehead of snow but something like a wave of muddy water, except that she knew the darkness was not mud, but snow, boulders, pebbles, sand, the whole surface soil, and the trees themselves, roots and all, that had been gathered in the arms of the monster. A distant roaring reached her, like the clatter of 1,000 carts across a hollow bridge.
Still the creature gathered power and speed. It was fleeter than a locomotive, staggering down the track, with no train of cars to check its flight. So this heap of ruin lunged down the valley wall. A strong ridge of rocks lay in its way. She waited, breathless for the shock. Then she was aware, again, of the solitary horseman who journeyed down the valley straight in the path of the flying danger. It seemed as though the thundering avalanche behind him had robbed him of power to stir, as a snake fascinated a bird. Yet, he did move, although compared to the lightning flashes of fear that fled up and down her nerves, he seemed to be standing still. He moved at the same steady dog-trot of his horse, quietly down the broad ravine.
She looked up again. He had known, evidently, that the ridge of rocks above would check the course of the slide. Probably he was some wise old head among the mountaineers, skillful in these wild matters.
The cataract of rolling snow and rock and soil struck the rock ridge. It flung its head high into the air like water, one hundred feet aloft. Then it crashed down upon the mountainside beneath and rushed on, with all of its train leaping and flowing across the rocks behind—not over them, now, but through them! She saw ten-ton boulders wrenched off and brought leaping like devils with the rest of the wreckage.
The noise sounded nearer. It seemed as if thunder were roaring in the heavens just above her, or that the ground was being torn to pieces beneath her feet. It seemed to her that she felt a trembling of the great rock mountain shoulder on which she sat her horse, and the mustang itself cringed as though a whip was shaken in its eyes.
And the single rider? He still jogged his horse quietly down the slope, heading for the river.
THE heart of the girl stood still. Of all dreadful things in the world, there is nothing that so paralyzes all the mind of man as the sight of some inexplicable horror. But it was not inexplicable to her long; she decided that the man was deaf. That was undoubtedly the explanation. The thundering tumult behind him was as nothing to him, and he would not be disturbed until the very shadow of that towering river of destruction was above him. Then, one frightened upward glance, and he would be swallowed.
She turned to her mustang, and he whirled gladly about to escape the sight of this thing. But before she had ridden off the shoulder of the mountain, pity and hysteria made her check the horse and turn again.
Straight down the slope the avalanche was careening wildly. It struck and demolished a stout grove of trees.
Still the deaf man jogged his horse patiently downhill.
She snatched out her field glasses and trained them on the spot. What she saw was no old mountaineer, but a young one, riding a little atilt in his saddle, with most of his weight upon one leg, and his attention now occupied entirely by the serious business of—rolling a cigarette! His horse seemed to be nervous and twitching—yet held in check by his master's one hand.
It was perhaps better that the thing should be like this; far better that he should have no serious thought in his mind, and certainly no fear when the blow struck him. For it was now too late to flee, even if he were to be warned.
And warned he was, at that very instant, for she saw his head twist around over his shoulder. Her hands shook so that her vision was blurred a little. Finally she could see that he had turned toward the front again. The horse was not brought to a gallop. It still dog-trotted leisurely down the slope, and its rider was lighting his newly made smoke.
She lowered the glasses to look with her naked eye, as though what she had seen magnified, could not have been the truth. To her naked eye it seemed now as though the great front of the slide was already upon the doomed rider. She caught up the glasses again with a murmured word. One meager hope appeared for the fugitive. Just behind him, there was a deep swerve of the floor of the slope and it might be that this would turn the current of the slide. Stop it, it could not, but ward it into another direction perhaps it might.
The rider had barely ridden across this gully when the storm struck upon the other side. She saw the whole front of the landslide dip, the great head of the monster stagger, turn, and rush wildly off down this new channel.
The mustang, too frightened now to heed his rider, was striving violently to race away from destruction, but his rider merely sat upon his back, pulling strongly upon the reins, with danger showering all around him, for the great rocks that had been picked up by the avalanche were not so easily diverted to a new course as was the more liquid mass of the remainder. Mighty boulders were tossed straight ahead, bounding past the horseman with power and size enough to blot out a whole troop of cavalry, let alone a single man and horse.
The force of a miracle still surrounded this fellow. He rode through the storm unscathed, so far as she could see, until the whole length of the slide had twisted into the gully, which it was plowing deeper and deeper as it went.
It lurched on toward the bottomlands of the valley, pouring like water across them. Not so big as formerly, it reached the river and cleft it in two, with a white leaping of foam. From bank to bank the river's chasm was filled with hundreds of thousands of tons of detritus in which massive pine trunks bristled, no larger in proportion than bristles on the back of a boar. On the nearer side of the stream toward the girl, a huge overwash of the wreckage flowed far out across the land, lodging, at last, even against the foot of her own mountain.
The course of this cruel snake was ended. That its trail would be marked for 10,000 years in the vast rent that was gouged out of the valley slope, that the river was dammed completely, and much of its upper valley probably flooded, did not matter. All that was worth heeding—was that yonder lone rider had escaped from destruction.
She stared at him, aghast. He had ridden into her innermost thoughts. For she had heard of bravery before, but this utter contempt of life was a thing that she could not fathom.
He did not pause in his course to get down from his saddle and, upon his knees, give thanks to God for his deliverance. He simply dog-trotted the mustang along the course from which he had never turned since the beginning of this little tragedy a few minutes before.
He came to the wall of detritus across the river, and he sent the mustang across it, the wise brute working daintily, testing the tree trunks and the rocks before stepping upon them, and so making to the nearer shore again with no mishaps beyond a stagger or two.
The stranger was riding straight up the trail toward her. Louise Berenger waited on the trail, spellbound. He was a young man; she had seen that much in the glasses. But what else he might be, she had been too excited to observe, and now he was hidden under the steep face of the cliff. Presently she heard his whistle rising to her, a sweet, high-pitched whistle that seemed to flow from his lips as easily as the song of a bird. She liked that. He whistled not like a boy, but like a musician. She had never heard that song. But at least it was no cheap, foolish popular song. As he came closer, she heard him speaking to his horse.
"Steady, Rob, you old fool! If you got to have your lunch, jest you aim for the grass on the inside of the trail, will you? Because it makes my eyes ache a lot to be hung over the edge of nothing, like this."
Made his eyes ache! Louise Berenger, feeling rather weak and ridiculously happy, found herself chuckling softly. No matter what sort of a fellow he might turn out to be, in appearance she was at least certain that there was not his like in the whole world.
Then, taking her almost by surprise, he turned the next corner of the trail, and she found herself looking into a brown, handsome face and a pair of good-humored eyes equipped with a continual smile. She saw that he was a well-made man, tall, strong-shouldered. To give additional proof of his madness, he had been riding that twisting, desperate trail with his arms folded across his breast and his reins looped carelessly over the horn of the saddle, letting the horse pick his own way and take his own time.
For an example of what chances that meant, even now as the gelding sighted the stranger just before him, he flung up his head and leaped aside and backward, faltering on the very brink of the precipice, or so it seemed to Louise Berenger, who was too startled even to scream a warning.
But the stranger was not perturbed. "Rob," he asked, "is that manners, and to a lady?"
He took off his hat, and Louise saw that his forehead was even as lofty and nobly made as the forehead of her father had been.
"Ma'am," said the rider, "it's a lucky thing that we met here at this good passing place, ain't it?"
There was a good passing place on the level surface of the mountain shoulder from which she had turned her horse before, as she was fleeing from the sight of a dreadful catastrophe to the lone rider. But the present diameter of the trail seemed to her not more than wide enough for a single animal.
"If you'll rein back to the wide place and..." she began.
But it was apparent at once that he had not been sarcastic. He sent Rob straight on, along the terrible outer edge of the path.
"Wait!" cried the girl. "There's no sense in taking such a fearful chance on..."
She could not complete the sentence. Rob was already beside her, and, as Louise reined her own mustang closer in against the wall of the mountain, it seemed to her that the other swayed out over dizzy nothingness. Then Rob came back into the trail again.
"Will you stop one moment?" called the girl.
He turned instantly in the saddle. Rob paused and, planting his hoofs on the crumbling outer edge of the trail, strained far out toward a tuft of grass that sprouted from the face of a rock.
"Is there anything that I might be able to do for you?" asked the stranger.
"Only tell me this," said Louise Berenger. "Why did you take that last terrible chance in passing me on this trail?"
"Was it a chance?" said the other, leaning from his saddle and looking calmly down the side of the precipice. "Well, lady, I'll tell you how it is. The way this here life is arranged, there's nothing but chances, all the time. And if you ain't killed by the chance of falling off a mountain trail, maybe you'll be scared to death by the chance of a bad dream at night. So what's the use of bothering?"
OF all the things in life that Louise Berenger detested, there was nothing she loathed more than braggadocio. But this was something more than bragging, as she could very easily see. This man spoke as he felt, no more, no less. She was as delighted as she was amazed. And she said, laughing: "Will you please tell me your name?"
"I will"—he grinned—"if you'll tell me why you laugh."
"I laugh because I'm tickled," Louise Berenger said inelegantly, "and I want to know your name so that it'll help me to remember you."
"Thanks," said the brown man. "Would you want to know the whole name?"
"Why, I suppose so," she said.
"My name is Pedro Emmanuel Melendez," he said.
She could not help laughing again; the contrast between his totally Western-American personality and his pale-blue eyes—with his intensely Latin name quite unbalanced her self-control.
"I know." Pedro Emmanuel Melendez nodded, with his usual smile shining out of his eyes. "It sounds like it was out of a poem in some dago language, don't it? Don't sound like a real name, at all." He sat sidewise in the saddle, making himself at ease in much the same fashion as when he had been dog-trotting his horse away from the thundering pursuit of the landside.
"I've tried that name backwards and forwards," said Pedro Melendez. "I've tried calling myself... Pedro E. And I've wrote myself down plain... P. E. Melendez. But it all sounds queer. Even when I worked it up fancy into P. Emmanuel Melendez, it was no good. So, generally, the folks call me Pete, and let it go at that. But why I was hitched up to a name like that, I'll tell you the reason. I was brung up by an old gent that wore that moniker of Melendez. And would I switch from his name back to my own? No, lady. I would not, though that there name has cost me more trouble in the way of avoiding fights than any other one thing."
"Trouble in avoiding fights, exactly," said the girl. "And how many fights that you couldn't avoid?"
"The fact is," said Pedro Melendez, "that I'm very much of a peace-loving gent." She smiled, but he insisted: "No, that's the fact. I hate fighting. I just naturally loathe having to stand up and look into the eyes of a gent that is mad at me." He sighed and shook his head. "But I got to be getting on," he said. "This here hoss is needing a feed before long. Ain't you, Rob?"
Rob, at the sound of his name, flattened his ears and reached back to snap at the toe of Pete's right boot; a jab of the said boot made him swing back his head with a grunt.
"Are you going for the gulch?" asked the girl.
"Then I'll go along with you, if I may."
"There ain't anything that I'd like better."
The trail remained narrow for only a little time, and then it widened enough to allow them to ride side-by-side. She looked up out of her thoughts and found him watching her with a frank admiration and interest.
"You're in trouble about something," he suggested, and there was something so extremely frank and open in his tone that she could not help answering:
"Yes... about you, just now."
"And how come?" he queried.
"Why," said Louise Berenger, "I have a lot of cousins. I watched them grow up. I played with them, climbed trees with them, and knew them better than I knew any girls. I got to know boys fairly well, and by the look of you, Mister Melendez, I should say that when you were their age, if they had seen you coming, they would have doubled up their fists and said... 'Here's trouble coming!'"
"Well," he admitted, "you got a pretty accurate eye, at that. When I was a boy there was nothing but fighting for me." He sighed and shook his head, and then brought himself out of that dim haze of memory into the present again. "I was always whanging somebody and getting whanged, but, after a while, I growed up, and I lost all sorts of taste for fighting. No, ma'am," he said, repeating his thought with a soft emphasis to himself, "when I hear voices raised up loud and high, I just back up right away, and, when you draw a line, you can bet that I don't cross it!"
She studied him. Certainly he would never be guilty of false modesty. He meant what he said.
"No," he said, "about this fighting business... but I seem to be talking a lot about myself."
"It's a long way to camp," she said. "And I'm interested."
"So am I," Melendez said, with his unfailing grin, and, as they jaunted down the trail, side-by-side, he told her the story of his life with perfect simplicity, enjoying all that he remembered fully as much as any auditor could have done.
She, turning to watch him from time to time, or looking before her down the trail, heard the tale carry Melendez back to his boyhood. It was easy to summon up the picture of the handsome face of that other self in the old days. No wonder the old Mexican had chosen to adopt this striking youngster. The blue eyes of that other and younger Melendez gleamed out at her from the cool shadows beside a pool on the mountain slope beneath them. There was stamped on her mind forever pictures of Melendez in his story, and pictures of the mountains through which they were riding came home to Louise Berenger.
They had been troublesome times almost from the first, because old Melendez lost almost at once the prosperity that had induced him to adopt a son. He had taken Pedro wandering here and there, and wherever they made a new home there was, of course, a new set of boys to be fought.
"My eyes," he said reflectively, "were always either black or purple, when along would come another fight, and I would get whacked again. And so, you see, when I grew up to be man-sized, I was sort of in the habit of having trouble come my way. Trouble is like a pet dog. It gets used to you and keeps following you around at your heels. It was that way with me. The first time that I got into a serious mess was this." He pointed to a thin, white line that ran across his cheek. "That was Mexican style, with knives," he added. "And then this came, while I was still wearing bandages around my head." He touched a place on his left arm. "And a lucky thing for me that day"—Pedro Melendez sighed—"that it was the left arm that they drilled, and that I could keep right on shooting with my other hand. But after that, it was just the same thing over and over again. There was always some part of me patched with iodine that hadn't yet scrubbed off. I got knives through my right side, and down this here shoulder, and one of 'em jammed into my neck. I got bullets through both legs a couple of times, and one right through me, finally, that laid me up for nigh onto six months, while the doctor every day said... 'Maybe he will, and maybe he won't.' And the nurse, every time I looked up, had a tear in her eye. However, I pulled through, but I had a lot of time lying on the flat of my back and studying the ceiling and thinking back. By the time that I could walk, I was sure it was no use."
"That what was no use?" asked the girl.
"Why, struggling and fighting your way through," he said. "Not a bit of use at all. The way things is planned, that's the way that they'll turn out. The gent that sent the slug through the middle of me, what was he? Why, a hobo, a tramp, a no-account, yaller-livered hound that just had enough liquor in him to give him the courage to pull a gun. And there was me that had lived with weapons in my hands as long back as I could remember, and that went to bed feeling guilty if I hadn't had my hour or so of target practice that day. But when the pinch came, what happened? Why, the hobo had never hit a mark before in his whole life, I suppose. And me, my gun hung in the holster, and I just stood up and fell down again. Why didn't I die, after lying there for three hours before help come to me? I should've died. Everybody admitted that. But I didn't. Because in the place where things is wrote down, it wasn't issued for me to die on that day. And there you are! Staying awake and worrying don't help none. Planning and hoping and praying don't help, either. But the things that is fated for you, those are the things that'll be sure enough to come along. So what's the use of trying to make the bucking horse carry you? No, lady, the right thing is just to drift, and you'll land lucky or unlucky, just the way that everything was wrote down for you when you was born, or maybe before that."
IT threw a keen light upon one thing, at least, and that was the manner in which he had jogged his horse down the valley in front of the avalanche behind him. Yet the thing seemed incredible.
She asked sharply: "Was that the reason that you didn't try to ride out of the path of the landslide?"
"The landslide?" he echoed with a puckered brow. Then he seemed to remember. "Why, yes. I seen that I might try to get to the high ground on one side of me or the other; but there wasn't much likelihood of arriving. The main thing was to hope that the slide would dodge me to one side or the other. What good was there in trying to guess which way it would dodge? Did you ever notice the way that smoke will follow you around a campfire when you try to get away from it?"
Although she had it from his own lips, it was still hard to believe. She could close her eyes, now, and see the rush of that giant down the slope, the leap of it as it lurched across the ridge of rocks; she could see it, chopping the river in two with foam, choking the valley with ruin.
Melendez was speaking again: "So when I got up and onto my feet, I quit trying. I put away my guns and I've never wore a shooting iron since, except when I went out hunting. The only knife I carry is one with a clasp lock on it that takes about ten seconds to get ready to use. No help at all when the danger is driving at your throat."
"But," cried Louise Berenger, "if they shot you down before when you were fighting in self-defense, what would they do when you had nothing to help yourself?"
"The fact is," he said, "that mostly you don't get into trouble when you ain't all ready for it. You look over the first hundred dogs that you meet. All of the yaller-hided mongrels that don't know nothing about laying hold and keeping hold, they ain't got the mark of a tooth to show on themselves. They live fat and happy and never have to do more than bark, now and then. But when you see a fine bull terrier, made for fighting, and trained for it, with the brains to know where to grab and the nerve to hold on when he's got his grip... why, you'll say that other dogs would be afraid to trouble him. It would seem that way, but the fact is that the fine bull terrier has got one ear all chewed off close to his head, the other ear pulled into shreds, he limps on a hind leg, goes light on a foreleg, and he's got a scar in his throat. He's so mottled with tooth marks all over that he looks plumb mangy. He's left a whole lot of dead dogs behind him, on his way, but does that make him any happier? Does that take the ache out of his bones or the limp out of his legs, or does it piece together his ears again? No, lady, it don't! So what's the good of the life that he's lived?"
"The glorious battles that the bull terrier has fought and won!" cried Louise Berenger.
"Aye"—Melendez sighed—"the ladies is always more bloodthirsty than the men. It's always that way with 'em. But the fact is, lady, that besides that one chewed-up bull terrier, there's others of the same breed in the world, and some one of them is just as glorious or even more glorious than the first one, and sooner or later the gloriouser one will get the other fellow by the throat and choke the dog-gone glory right out of him forever! And there you are."
"Well!" she exclaimed. "He will not be forgotten!"
Melendez looked patiently at her, not irritated, as she was, by the course of this argument, but with a smile behind his eyes. Then he pointed to a streak across the mountains. It wandered here and there, dipping from valley to valley, winding up the heights, like a great broad chalk mark, partly rubbed away by time. "Do you know what made that?" he asked.
"It's the old Indian trail, I suppose," said the girl, "and those are the white bones of the animals that died on the way."
"Yes," he said, "the bones of the animals that died along the way, including the men. Plenty of men! The big husky braves that rode south follering the Mexican moon, and the brave Mexicans that rode north again to get the Indians. Why, I dunno that I can name any of those gents that was out after glory along that trail. I dunno that I know even the names of any of their great chiefs. Do you?"
She saw the point and colored a little. Although she had no ready answer at hand to use against this argument, she felt that in some place it was wrong. Her helplessness turned into a greater heat of anger.
"Ah, well," she said at last, "every man has to live his life in his own way, I suppose. And, after all, we're not talking about dogs and Indians. We're speaking of the way a civilized man should lead his life."
"Sure," said Melendez, "but the kind of a life that most of us lead... why, you can use a dog's life to illustrate it pretty good. Not meaning you, lady. Only speaking for myself. I say that I've been bull terrier long enough. And now I find out if I let the other boys do all of the loud talking, why, they also do all of the loud shouting. Or nearly all of it," he added in qualification.
"Yes!" she exclaimed. "But now and then you'll admit that simply being quiet isn't enough. And then what do you do?"
"Then I take what's coming to me," he answered. "That's all. If a gent comes waltzing up and says I got to beg his pardon... why, I beg his pardon. And the fight blows away."
She grew crimson with shame and anger. "It's very hard to believe," she said coldly.
"I suppose it is," he admitted.
"And after you have taken... after you have..."
"After you have taken water like that, you mean to say?"
"What do other men think of you?"
"Think that I'm a hound, of course."
"Ah, and isn't that your answer?"
"No, their thinking don't hurt me none. Thinking of other gents don't put food in your mouth, or make you sleep better at night, or sew patches onto your old clothes."
"And if a bully tries to take something from you... your horse, say... this same Rob?" She waited in triumph, with a flashing eye.
"Yes," he admitted. "That's the sort of a thing that would make even a hound show his teeth, you'd say? But not me. I'll tell you that same thing happened to me, once. Gent claimed, after I had backed down and took water from him, that the horse I was riding was really his horse, and he went out to take it."
"And... and what did you do?"
"Why, I just begged the gents that was standing around to keep me from being robbed."
She could only gasp weakly. "And didn't they despise you for begging so?"
"Oh, sure they did," he said, "but they kept the other gent from taking my horse, and that was better than having to shoot it out with him, wasn't it?"
"How long did you stay in that town, after that?" she asked him suddenly.
"Matter of fact, I rode along that same afternoon."
"Ah," she said.
"Yes," he admitted frankly. "But then, I don't mind having to move along, pretty frequent. I aim to see a considerable sight of this here country. I been riding and roving a good many years, and still there's aplenty of it that I ain't touched yet."
"And as for the making of a home?" she said.
"Settling down, you mean?"
"Yes, or doesn't that appeal to you?"
"You are thinking me pretty black, ain't you?" he asked, nodding at her with smiling eyes. "Matter of fact, I want just what all the other folks want... a home and all of such. But you see, when the time comes along that it's meant for me to settle down, I'll get fixed and rotted down in the soil, and that'll happen whether I plan it or not. Planning don't do any good."
She stared at him, quite hopeless. Yet she had seen him, on this day, demonstrate such a thoroughgoing contempt for danger as she had never dreamed was in any man. Here was the vital flaw—something, she felt, that was even more contemptible than his courage had seemed glorious. It was a veritable philosophy of debased fatalism. There is nothing so despicable as meanness that is carefully thought out and justified in a man's heart of hearts. She tried him with one final test. "And suppose," she said, "that the bully, instead of trying to take your horse, tried to take you?"
He merely chuckled. "I've had to do the odd jobs and the cooking and the dishwashing around a camp for a week at a stretch," he admitted, and still there was no flush of shame on his face.
She turned white with disgust. "And if you are backed into a corner, with a gun under your nose?"
"Why," he said thoughtfully, "I'm glad to say that that has never happened yet. But if it did happen, I'm sort of afraid that I might lose my temper."
"I think you might... forget all of your careful thinking about the easiest way of living," she said. "And then what would you do?"
"Why, ma'am," said Melendez, "in a case like that, I'm afraid that I would kill the gent that held the gun."
"Even when you are out of practice as a fighter?" she asked rather scornfully.
"Yes," he said. "There is some that don't need much training to keep in shape for fighting, because they're natural-born killers."
"And are you one of those?" she asked, flushing.
"Yes, lady," he said, "that's exactly what I am."
A SILENCE, rather naturally, fell between the two as they came in sight of Slosson's Gulch. She was filled with wonder and disgust and doubt about him, and he—was aware that she was embarrassed. So he jogged Rob blithely down the road and whistled a thin, sweet tune as they went, with the dust cloud rising behind the hoofs of their horses and settling in a white powder on their backs and shoulders.
Once in Slosson's Gulch, they parted—with no questions asked. The girl rode straight on through the town, filled with questions, not only about her vanished father and the mine, but about this new man she had met. In one part, she felt, he must be false, for such anomalies could not exist within one nature. Either he was no such war-like man under restraint, as he would have led her to believe, or else he was, indeed, a rare case of a lion working within a shackle.
But Pedro Melendez sat his horse for a moment and watched her out of sight around the next corner of the street. There was a strange tug at the strings of his heart as he had the last glimpse of her. And this was a rather new emotion with him. Girls had been to him something like cards or music—to be thought of in a careless moment and never to be taken into the life of a man, as horses and other men must be.
He knew, as he watched this girl out of sight, that she would stand in his memory, shoulder to shoulder, with the best men that had come into his life. She had a man's frankness, a man's directness, and yet there was an undiminished femininity about her.
However, he was too much inured in his calm philosophy of living to let a sentimental sorrow master him. He put up his horse at the first livery stable, and then he went through the thronging street to seek amusement, walking with a leisurely step, ever willing to give other men the right of way. In this fashion he wandered through the town of Slosson's Gulch.
Louise Berenger had ridden straight out to her lean-to beyond the fringe of the town, and there she had found trouble enough. The shack had always been small, but now it seemed to her that it was shrunk amazingly. She drew nearer, and then she made sure that the entire wing that she and her father had used as a storeroom had been removed—utterly wiped out. When she dismounted and looked through the door into the place, she found that the goods that had been in the storeroom had been piled in rude disorder in the main section of the little shack that remained standing.
It was a bewildering thing. It occurred to her, with a leap of her heart, that her father might have returned and performed this work, for some reason that she could not understand. But lumber was at a costly premium in the gulch, and if Berenger needed timbers for the mine...
She banished the idea from her mind almost as soon as it had entered. If her father, after his strange disappearance, was still among the living and had become free to return, he would not have wasted such time as this in such work. His first great thought would have been to get to his daughter and let her know of his welfare.
So she thought, as she stared at the confused jumble of the pack goods that had been thrown in upon the floor of the shack—not simply thrown in, either. More than one package had been opened. It was not a systematic thievery, but the careless picking and choosing of people who were not really in need.
Stepping to the door of the lean-to again, she looked vaguely about her. The six men who had started working nearby, that same day, had apparently struck pay dirt, beyond all hope and expectation in such well-prospected quarters. They had thrown up a miserable little shack of a house to shelter them and their goods. She looked in wonder at their tiny house and then at them, slaving in their growing hole. Last of all, her eyes rested upon a shining, white Panama hat.
Such hats were not altogether common, and by the pleasant, flowing lines of this one, she recognized it well enough. It was a possession of Berenger himself. With a start of rage, she knew that yonder fellows had been the ones who had taken advantage of her absence to plunder her property.
Tears of blind, helpless rage started into her eyes. She started forward, recognized the very timbers in the stolen lean-to. She knew, somewhere between tears and laughter, the crooked marks of her own sawing, and some of the crumpled nails that she herself had tried in vain to hammer home.
Now she stood on the edge of the pit that the men were sinking. Whatever else they might be, they were great workers. They had ripped off the surface soil and they were driving their hole steadily deeper. Her feet were level with their chests as she stood there, staring down at them.
"It's the professor's daughter," said one, resting upon the handle of his pick, and panting and smiling as he glanced up to her. "What you want, honey?"
"You..." said the girl. Then her rage choked her, and she could only point.
"It's you, Bill," said one of the others.
He who wore the stolen hat raised his head. "Me?" he asked in much apparent surprise.
He was one of the two middle-aged men who she had noted before. At close range, she could read every sign of viciousness in his face—cunning in the eyes, cruelty in the straight-set mouth, and something ominous, too, in the unnatural pallor of his face.
"Me?" he repeated. "Have you come to see me, young lady?"
"I have come to tell you," she said, "that I know you are wearing a stolen hat."
He took it off and looked quietly down at it. "Stolen?" he said. "Who claims it, if you please?"
"It's my father's hat," she said, trembling with anger.
"Your pa's hat, eh? What's his name?"
"I don't see any William Berenger written on this hat," he said, smiling down at it.
"And our timber, that you tore from its place, and used to build your own shack," she went on.
"No names wrote upon any of the stuff that we've used," put in one of the others. "As for what you think, honey, thinking ain't much important in Slosson's Gulch. Not without guns to back it up. If your pa claims that stuff is stole from him, why don't he come and talk for himself? Eh?"
She looked from face to face hopelessly, seeing their spreading grins.
"Besides," put in one of them, "if your pa has made such a rich strike as they say, he ain't the man to worry about a little thing like a hat, is he?"
They knew of the find that her father had made the day before, then she wondered how much more they knew. Words broke from her lips savagely. "I promise you this," she cried. "The things that you've taken will be torn away from you, and I'll find friends to do it for me!"
"Friends?" said he who wore the stolen hat. "My dear girl, you must remember that no man has more than one friend in Slosson's Gulch, and the name of that friend is gold. Now, don't forget that!" And he heaved up his pick with a laugh to make another stroke.
"Ask Pedro Melendez if that is true!" she cried in answer. She regretted the words as soon as she had spoken them. But what other friend had she in camp, if her father was gone? Yet she had no right to name Melendez.
Bill's pick was frozen in place, poised above his shoulder. "Melendez is his name, then?" he asked. "A greaser, I suppose. Why, then, I'll have to look up this Melendez that's to do all the tearing away and restoring." And he fixed his steady, piercing eyes on her.
She was aware, then, suddenly, that he wore a revolver at each hip, even as he stood there in the hole, working. All the rest were armed, also. Suppose, indeed, that they were to start to find Melendez and take him to task?
She turned away toward her shack, knowing that she must find Melendez, if she could, and warn him of the danger in which he stood because of her foolishness. But how could she find him in Slosson's Gulch? How could she go alone into the gambling halls where the men were crowded? There, alone, she could hope to locate him. To go to find one man in that town was like trying to locate one bee in a buzzing hive.
However, she was comforted by the knowledge that, even if she had brought Melendez into some danger, it could hardly be called an imminent one. If it would be hard for her to find him, it would be almost equally impossible for the others. So thought Louise Berenger, sitting moodily in front of her shack.
But all thought of Melendez passed suddenly from her mind. For she saw the sun flashing on the white Panama in the diggings across the way, and the shadow of her father crossed darkly across her mind and remained there.
For twenty-four hours he had been gone from her. Certainly nothing but death could have kept him away so long.
OF those gambling places in the town of Slosson's Gulch, there was one that justly held preeminence. That was the institution of Hans Grimm. There is something about gaming that proprietors usually wish to keep secret, not only because it is illegal, but chiefly because they know in their consciences that they are taking an unfair advantage of their business patrons, so that the other gaming halls in Slosson's Gulch were maintained with a usual air of forbidding privacy, so far as that could be supported. No matter how dense or how eager a crowd frequented the gaming tables, there was sure to be half a dozen forbidding figures scattered here and there—the official bouncers who guarded the place against riots. And besides, a little air of darkness and of mystery surrounded each of the halls—but not in Grimm's place.
Hans Grimm had risen to his present eminence from the gutters of Milwaukee. Starting life as a homeless street urchin, Hans had wandered far and wide, and gradually he had come to know human nature. He had been a trick bicycle rider in a circus for a time, and, when he came to Slosson's Gulch, it seemed as though he was opening a little circus of his own, instead of a gambling house.
First he put up a seven-foot wooden fence in a circle around an ample piece of land. It was a good, stout fence, and it was secured still more by having a ditch run around it and dirt heaped up almost to the top of the boards, all around. This made a wall that shut out every breath of wind, defying the heat of the torrid western sun almost as thoroughly as a massive adobe wall.
Inside of this circular enclosure, Hans Grimm sank lordly pine trees, with their branches lopped off close to the trunk. And over the tops of these huge posts, he stretched a great quantity of canvas that had once been, it was said, actually a part of a circus tent. At any rate, in this fashion he established for himself a great theater for operations.
He kept it all open and free. Around the outer edges of the circle, there were seats and benches and little tables where anyone was free to sit and cool himself from the hot sun of Slosson's Gulch. There would be no questions asked, and no one would ask them either to play at the tables or else to move on. Those little tables could be used, also, for little games of poker that had nothing to do with the profits of the house. Hans Grimm permitted this and never raised a hand to prevent it, although thousands of dollars were frittered away in this fashion, money that might legitimately have passed through his hands. He was contented to let smaller fish swim here and there as they pleased. But all was done so cheerfully, gaily, normally, and happily in the place of Hans Grimm that no man could sit long at the sides and look on.
This was like a circus, to be sure, but it was also a circus in which one need not remain in one's seat. When one saw some lucky fellow standing at dice, taking in chips by the handful, one could go stand by his side, try to fathom his system, and do a little betting one's self—nothing much—only a dollar or two, perhaps. But if one won, it was foolish to stop, and if one lost, it was ridiculous to stop before the tide of fortune changed. Bad luck cannot keep on forever! There was no fear of crooked devices in the gambling house of Hans Grimm; there was a sunny surety of honesty in his establishment.
So men found it easier to bet with Hans Grimm. They found it easier to bet high, also, which is the main point. So that, after all, Hans began to draw two-thirds of all the gaming business in Slosson's Gulch into his place. Yet there never seemed to be a tumult in Grimm's house. There was never a jam, a hustling of shoulders against shoulders, except when some exciting piece of play took place at one of the tables, and a throng of spectators gathered. There was never a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, never an annoying sense of guards and bouncers, here and there, to make one feel that one had entered either a prison or a den of thieves.
Now and again a man could be seen carrying a heavy satchel to one of the tables or taking it away again. A continual current of coin was flowing in at Grimm's in order that the winnings of the gamblers might be paid. When such a river of fortune was running away, who would be so foolish as to miss a chance to dip his hand into the golden stream? So thought the people of Slosson's Gulch, and so thought the six men who had commenced their digging so close to the lean-to of Berenger.
They had done enough work for one day. Now they drew straws to see who should seek relaxation in the gulch, and what two must remain to guard the claim. The Negro and the Dane were the unlucky ones who had to remain behind. The other four strode off down the valley, tired, but very happy, with the Panama on the head of Bill Legrain showing them the way like a beacon light. Although the others went eagerly, he went with the swiftness of a hawk to a familiar hunting field. The talents of Bill Legrain were many, but in no sphere was he so much at home as at the gaming table.
Ordinarily he did not waste his time in Hans Grimm's house. He had not much use for Grimm and for the methods that were in vogue there. There was no opening for the talents of an outsider. No matter what skill might be in the dexterous fingers of Bill, Mr. Grimm could not find a place for him in his scheme of things.
But Grimm was apt to say: "There ain't any real use in faking the machines. When a man wants to throw his money away in gambling, he's gonna do it, and he don't have to have any brakes working on the roulette wheel to help in the robbing of him."
This was the opinion of Hans Grimm, and, since he had made a tidy fortune in gambling houses, he was entitled to a viewpoint of his own. But Mr. Legrain leaned more to the old usages. He patronized the other places in Slosson's Gulch, where the proprietors were not averse to keeping a few "outside men" working from time to time and, like lions, allowing jackals to feast on the kills. However, on this day of days, there was too much happiness in the heart of Mr. Legrain. His pals and he had made a strike that might lead on to fortune for them all. When one is digging gold out of the bowels of the earth, one is also willing to risk one's affairs in new fields.
So Legrain led his fellows to the home of Hans Grimm. "We'll take a few thousand out of the pockets of the Dutchman tonight," said Legrain.
Stepping up to the table where poker dice were being rolled, he lost $500 in five bitter minutes. Then he came back and, with his eye, he challenged his friends to try their fortune at this table, also. They lost—with a ridiculous speed and surety.
"The dice ain't rolling for us tonight," said the Yankee as he came from the crowd and rejoined his companions.
"The dice ain't rolling? The dice is crooked!" said another.
"You're right," declared Legrain, white with passion. "It's a crooked game. Too good to use me, the Dutchman is. He keeps his hands clean, he tells me. And here he is running the dirtiest game in the town. I hate a hypocrite. And I'll get Hans Grimm for this. Because, by heaven, I hate a hypocrite!" His upper lip furled like the lip of a snarling wolf, and his eyes flashed to this side and to that, as though in search of a victim to be sacrificed to his bitter humor. Just at that moment, there was a little outbreak of applause from the cluster around a table at the upper end of the room.
"Somebody's winning there," said the Yankee. "Somebody's winning big, too, by the sound of things."
"Bah," said Legrain, "do you fall for that stuff, Jerry? They're just playing with some sucker, and they'll trim him, pretty soon, of everything that he ever could call his own. I know this kind of a dive. Crooked and got no heart in 'em. Clean you out in this kind of place, where they're always talking up how white they are, and how straight they keep their games. But it's a dirty dive, boys, and I'm going to let the town know the truth about it."
So said Legrain, with spite swelling poisonously in him, and, just as he finished his little speech, to which his friends listened with gravely nodding heads, there was a fresh clamor from the farther end of the room.
They could not resist the temptation. They crowded together with the other watchers around the roulette wheel. At the roulette table, usually so packed with players, there was now only a single man playing, smoking a cigarette, and placing his bets in heaps here and there about the board.
"A system, and a knock-out of a system, at that," murmured the crowd.
But this player of the "system" consulted no paper covered with figures, before he laid his bets. He staked and staked again with the utmost rapidity, and the intervals between the spinnings of the wheel were short, indeed.
He was a young fellow, very sun-browned, with pale blue eyes, and a scar across one cheek, like a thin, white line. And he took his gambling very lightly. Neither winning nor losing could change his smile. Even as Legrain and his companions looked on, they saw him stake $100 on the number nine, and they saw the croupier push out $3,500 to pay the winner!
$3,500 at a single stroke!
"Who is he?" asked Legrain enviously, as the noisy cheering died down.
"His name is Melendez... that's all I know," was the answer.
AN elbow sank in the ribs of Legrain. He turned and saw the lean face of the Yankee beside him.
"It's the girl's man," said the Yankee.
"I'm not deaf," said Legrain. "What if it is her man?"
"The one that's going to do the tearing to pieces," said the Yankee insistently. "You know what I mean!"
Legrain scowled. He knew well enough what the Yankee meant, and the same meaning was in the eagerly anticipatory faces of the rest of his friends. They expected action from their leader, and Legrain knew it.
But of all the men he had stood up to in a long and varied career of battle, he had never seen one that appealed to him less as an antagonist. He did not mind surly savagery in another man. He could handle the bitter natures well enough, because usually they were either too sluggish or too nervous. Nor did he object to taking his chances with fellows whose faces showed the animal cunning that was in them, because he would freely match cunning against cunning. He loved to encounter men who were running berserk in the madness of too much whiskey beneath the belt.
But, above all things, he avoided as most dangerous the smiling men, and yonder Melendez at the roulette table was decidedly the smiling type. Having put $3,000 of his winnings on the black—and lost—he merely chuckled. He placed another $1,000 on the same color. It was swept away in due course by the croupier. Still Melendez smiled. And the more he smiled, the more intensely Mr. Legrain was worried.
He looked back to the Yankee and the others, and he found that their eyes were still fixed expectantly upon him. What was he to do? Yonder Melendez had been formally announced by the girl as a prospective enemy; it was up to Legrain to nip his hostility in the bud. By just such exhibitions of his power had he been able to maintain his authority among his followers.
Yet the more he examined Mr. Melendez, the less he liked the affair. Whether it was the long-fingered, strong hand of this young man, the depth of his chest, or the wiry strength of his arms, there was nothing about him that promised an easy foe. Perhaps the worst of all was the fact that no weapon appeared on his person. In this crowd there was hardly a soul who did not wear his Colt in open view, as if to show that he was ready and prepared to defend himself and his rights. But Legrain felt that he knew enough about human nature in the West to be sure that, when no weapon showed, it was because the man who appeared so innocent of guns and gunpowder was in fact so deadly an expert that he knew how to conjure forth a Colt from beneath his coat as swiftly as another could yank his weapon out of a holster.
In places a little less rough than Slosson's Gulch, did not Mr. Legrain himself carry his weapons out of sight? So he felt for Melendez as one expert for another. Under that smile he told himself that there was the coolest set of nerves that had ever been furnished to a human being. Those long, strong fingers would snap out a revolver with the expedition of a cat pawing at a mouse.
Altogether the affair looked most unpromising to Legrain. Again and again the stranger lost, and still his good nature was a fort that was not in the slightest shaken. Finally he pushed back his chair and stood up, nodding to the crowd of sympathetic spectators.
"That's all, boys," he said. "I've had my licking!"
They gave him a hearty cheer of approval for the fine way in which he had taken his defeat after being so near to a great coup. He could easily have lingered, in order to collect their kindness and their respect, easily have remained to let fall remarks about other exploits of his that had turned out more favorably. Almost any man, Legrain felt, must have succumbed to some of these temptations to fix himself in the minds of so many spectators as a hero. For this, Legrain waited and watched. It would be a sign of a human failing, but still it would be a failing that would supply a bit of confidence to him.
Yet none of these things was done by Melendez. He made his way through the crowd, adroitly avoiding those who would have talked with him. Presently it would have been hard to tell where he had disappeared, had not Legrain followed all of his windings and known that the stranger was standing in the crowd that watched at another table. Although, if Legrain had not known, there were others at hand ready to keep him advised.
"He's yonder!" the Yankee said, pointing, with a leer of savage pleasure.
Legrain set his teeth. He knew that these fellows did not love him. They feared him and they respected his accuracy and speed with a gun as well as a certain daring and adroitness of mind that were his. But they had no fondness for him. They followed him, still, as the coyotes will follow the ranging lobo, expectant of cheap food after the hero of the range has made his kill. Now, no doubt, the Yankee and the rest would be fully as pleased to see their leader thoroughly beaten and crushed as they would be to see him defeat the gambler.
Backwards and forwards, Legrain balanced the matter. He was no sentimentalist but, after all, he liked to have his following, his audience, to wonder at his cleverness and his cruel boldness of maneuver. These were his men, and, if he did not down Melendez, their faith in him would be dreadfully shaken. He would be a lost leader in a very short time, no doubt.
Believing that, Legrain felt that there might be a very great danger in Melendez. He determined instantly to put the matter to the touch.
The instant that he had made up his mind, he determined to put his resolve into execution before too much thinking weakened it. He went straight across the room, with his followers drifting hungrily behind him. In his heart of hearts he scorned them utterly, and in his heart of hearts he admired his own courage immensely.
As he entered the little crowd at the farther table, there was an end of the gaming that had drawn their interest. All faces turned suddenly toward Legrain, and men shouldered past him. He was very glad of this. For, having made up his own mind in just such a moment of confusion as this was, he might be able to find his opportunity and take advantage of surprise to help him beat Melendez.
So he put himself in the way of the other, weaving through the crowd. As the tall, brown-faced youth came by him, Legrain drooped his shoulder and jarred heavily against his enemy.
With the same instant he spun about on toe and heel, his voice screeching a harsh challenge. "Curse you!" yelled Legrain, "do you own this place and everybody in it? Are we dirt for you to kick around in front of you!"
At the first sound of his voice, the brown-faced man spun around to face him with such instant speed, that Legrain looked for the sparkle of a gun in the hand of the other. His own Colt was out and leveled; he intended to shoot, and shoot to kill, the instant that he spotted a weapon in the grip of Melendez.
But there was no weapon there, and, having the drop upon the stranger, Legrain, vastly reenforced in spirit, poured out the rest of his insulting speech. It was as though a bomb had exploded. A sudden rush on all sides jammed the crowd back, leaving a gaping hole in the center, where Legrain and his opponent stood face to face.
He did not regard the others, however. It was well to have so much attention, of course, and from such men. It would make him a known and feared man in the camp. But it was Melendez in whom he was interested, and he found that for the first time in his life he was standing before a man who did not change color when a gun was pointed at his heart.
It was a staggering discovery to Legrain, opening possibilities in human nature such as he had never dreamed of before. But he made sure that the eye of Melendez was as clear, as bright, and as open as ever, and that the form of Melendez did not shrink back one jot from him. He heard the younger man saying in the most calm of voices:
"Why, partner, what's eating you? You don't mean me, do you?"
"Don't I mean you?" said Legrain. "But I do, you swine. You tried to kick me out of your way just now and you..." He hardly knew to what conclusion he could bring this affair, but he stepped boldly forward. Certainly the nerve of this young fellow must have some snapping point.
Melendez did not so much as budge. He merely shrugged his shoulders and stood now at arm's length, looking quietly into the face of the other.
It was a dreadful thing to Legrain. It blasted away all his confidence in himself. The knees of his spirit, so to speak, were bowed almost to the earth. And he knew that he would have to do something desperate to maintain himself.
Just at that critical instant a strong voice called: "Put up your gat, Legrain! Are you trying to do a murder in here?"
Legrain wrote the sound of that voice down in his memory and swore that, if he lived through this trial, he would never forget the speaker as a most deadly enemy, to be brought to account for such an unseasonable remark.
If there had been only one voice behind the suggestion, Legrain would never have listened. He would have been deaf, indeed, to half a dozen such remarks. But now there was a roar from 100 strong men, calling upon him to restore his gun to its holster and to put the fight back upon even terms. But did he dare to do it?
WITH an eye most quiet and yet most calculating, as of one who reads an interesting book, Melendez was looking his antagonist up and down. It seemed to Legrain's evil heart that the younger man was glancing over a tale more than twice told. Standing so boldly and so steadily, it seemed as though Melendez was simply waiting for the instant when that leveled revolver was put away before he snatched out his own gun and fired from the hip. Or, perhaps, he would simply rely upon the power of his long, strong right arm. That clenched fist promised to go through another's body almost like a leaden bullet. Mr. Legrain vowed that he would almost as soon be shot outright as struck by such a man, with such a heft of shoulder behind the punch.
He balanced the question in his mind and found the scales just even, until another universal roar from the crowd advised him to put up his gun at once. There was no denying those voices. He had heard it roaring before, on sundry occasions. Once he had been glad enough to have the walls of a jail, and the guns of a sheriff, between him and just such a roaring crowd. Now Legrain decided that obey he must, dangerous though he felt it to be, when he was in arm's reach of this man.
He dropped the Colt suddenly into his holster—although as his right hand came a little clear of the holster, it hung there quivering above the grip, ready to snatch out the weapon again with one convulsive movement of wrist and fingertips.
Yet as fast as he knew he could make his move—and with the stranger's handicap in having to extract a gun from beneath his coat—the cold certainty arose in Mr. Legrain that his was a losing cause, that, at the command of this youngster, there was such blinding speed that his own cunning would avail him nothing.
So he waited, tensed. The whole crowd waited, also, pressing back on either side so as to leave a narrow channel open through which bullets might be free to fly.
But bullets did not fly. There was no swift reaching forward of the right hand of Mr. Melendez. Neither did one of his hands flip up under his coat to make the draw. He remained as he had been before, with his arms hanging patiently by his side.
Legrain snarled, although he could hardly believe the thing as it snapped into his own frantic mind: "You're yaller!"
Even that crowning insult, although it wrung a groan of expectancy from the crowd, could not force the hand of Melendez. His smile did not waver. His pale-blue, thoughtful eyes continued to gaze at his foe.
"You yaller skunk!" screamed Legrain. "It's a mask that you're wearing, and, inside, you're shaking in your boots!" As he spoke, he reached out swiftly and struck the other lightly across the mouth with his open hand.
Striking with his left, his right hand was free to make his draw, and he snatched his Colt out, ready to split the heart of young Melendez and send his spirit on a distant journey. But Melendez did not stir to defend himself.
Another universal voice rose from the crowd, but this time it was one of purest disgust. "Leave him be, Legrain. There ain't any fight left in him."
"Leave him be?" repeated Legrain. "No, curse him, I ain't gonna leave him be. Not when I'm kicked around by a yellow dog that wants to bully people that he hasn't the nerve to stand up to in a fair fight... knife them in the back." He struck out savagely as he spoke. The other stepped lightly back, and Legrain floundered as he missed. He dropped his revolver into his holster, furiously greedy for the work by this time; his hunger was razor-edged.
Now he heard Melendez saying—although in a voice not trembling with fear: "Fellows, I'm not a fighting man. Will you take him off?"
There was a veritable gasp of disgust.
"No," shouted someone fiercely, "let him take what's coming to him... the cur!"
Sweet, sweet music to the ears of big Mr. Legrain. He laughed through his set teeth as he strode upon Melendez.
"And you're the hero, are you?" he panted. "You're the one that's going to tear six of us to pieces if the girl asks you to?"
For the first time a tremor was struck through the body of Melendez. "Girl?" he echoed faintly.
"Aye, and I wish that she was here to see what I'm going to do to you!" snarled Legrain. "I only wish for that. Because I'm going to break you up, Melendez! I'm going to..."
He had broken through the calm of Mr. Melendez at last. The color indeed ebbed from the brown cheeks, and the lips of Melendez were suddenly pinched.
"Did she tell you that I'd tear half a dozen of you to pieces for her?"
"Yes!" Legrain grinned. "And so..."
He struck again, and this time the other did not leap back; an arm of steel rose and turned the blow of Legrain. He found himself staring, scant inches away, into glittering, terrible eyes.
"Back up, Legrain!" said the younger man. "I've been holding myself hard, but now I tell you that if you so much as stir a hand, I'll kill you, man. Do you hear me?"
"Hear you? You rat, will you still try bluff? Go for your gun. I give you your last chance before I salt you away, Melendez!"
"Gun? The devil with a gun. I don't need a gun for trash like you." And he surged forward.
Legrain should have killed him, perhaps. His own Colt was already in his hand as he sensed the change in this odd enemy. But, strangely enough, he could not tip up the muzzle of the weapon as fast as the left hand of the brown man darted out and gripped his gun wrist.
The gun roared, but it merely plumped a .45 bullet deep in the hard-packed dirt floor of Hans Grimm's gaming house. The next instant a clenched fist, as hard as a rock, clipped the chin of Legrain. He felt his knees buckle under him, his head jerked back under the impact. But when he strove to tear his gun free, it seemed to him that his right wrist was encircled with four bands of biting fire. He saw the second blow coming and strove to lurch inside of it, but it went home, and Legrain fell limply upon the ground, face down.
Even then there was enough fighting instinct in him to make him reach for the gun that had fallen from his fingers. A hard heel stamped down on his hand, and he screeched with pain.
The Colt was scooped into the hand of Melendez. "Get up, Legrain!" he ordered. "Get up, do you hear me?"
A bullet knocked the white Panama from the head of the gambler. And suddenly he had the strength to rise to his feet.
"Now get out!" commanded the tyrant. "And get fast, Legrain. If I lay eyes on you again in this camp, I'm going to wring your neck. Move!"
Legrain did not have to be told again. Indeed, he would almost rather have faced a dozen guns than look for an instant into the changed face of Melendez. He lunged forward unsteadily, took a sudden strength from his very panic, and raced blindly for the entrance. Melendez turned back upon the stunned crowd, and his face was not pleasant.
"You, there!" rang his voice. "You in the black hat with the two guns. You wanted the fight to go on. And it's started. D'you wear those guns for ornament, you fat-faced swine? Step out and let's see what you're made of. He don't step. He backs up. He ain't so set on fights when he has to take a hand in 'em. Boys, I've gone for years without a gun or a knife. I've lived like a lamb. But now a gun has been shoved into my hand, and I'm aching to use it."
He turned closely around to face the circle, and the circle widened before him. There was a slow movement toward the door. Following them, he clipped his words, each with a ring like a falling coin.
"Or a knife, if you like. If there's any talented greaser in this lot, let him step out and talk turkey. Or if you don't like that, bare hands. I tell you, I need action and I'm gonna have action. Or else I'm gonna have room! Why, you look like men... you stand like men, and you talk like men... but you ain't men. You're all hollow. Did you hear me talk? I need action or I need room. I need lots of room! I need this whole place to myself! Move!"
They moved. Most shameful to relate, all those brave and hardened men, good warriors most of them, felt the craven spirit of the crowd master them. They started more swiftly for the door. They turned their backs. The blindness of panic that instant seized upon them. They lurched forward with shouts.
The gun roared from the hand of Melendez and blew a neat little eyelet through the top of the canvas roof of the house, but it seemed to every man in that crowd that the bullet had whistled a fraction of an inch from his ear, and so they stormed, screeching, for the door. They fought and clawed and wrestled their way out. The weaker went down with groans; the stronger stamped upon them and pushed on for the safety of the open.
In a moment the great, round room was empty, except for a few prostrate forms by the entrance, crawling feebly toward the street.
But Melendez had sunk down in a chair and buried his face in his hands.
THE house of Hans Grimm had become as silent as a cave. All the noise was removed to the street. Only Melendez remained at the table with his head in his hands. Coming toward him now was the last survivor of the crowd, a broad, rosy-faced man, whose cheeks seemed all the pinker because they contrasted with the tuft of white hair at either temple.
When the noise of the man's soft footfall came closer, Melendez looked up with a fierce snarl and reached for the gun that he had taken from big Legrain. But although that gun was pointed at Hans, the muzzle presently wavered and declined again.
Hans Grimm sat down in an opposite chair. "Are you smoking, mine friend?" he asked. "No," said Melendez.
"Are you drinking?" asked Hans, waving an inviting hand toward the bar.
Melendez, following the gesture, shook his head with a shudder. "No." He groaned. "I ain't drinking! Not any more. For three years or so I've been able to do as I please, take life easy, never worry, and have one drink or ten, just as I pleased, but that time is ended. My vacation is plumb over."
He sighed as he said it, and Hans Grimm nodded.
"Very well," said Hans, "I understand this all pretty good."
The glance of Melendez fastened itself more intently upon the other. "Who might you be?"
"I'm Hans Grimm."
"Ah, you run this joint."
"I've busted up your games for today," said Melendez.
"It was a good show," Hans Grimm said. "I don't mind it, if I have to pay. You don't get something for nothing."
"Not even at a gaming table?" asked Melendez. "No," said Hans Grimm. "Not even if you win?"
"If you win," Hans Grimm said, "you make other people think that they beat the game. They think that the luck is running. So they start playing big. But there ain't any such thing as luck in this world."
"Nothing like luck?" exclaimed the younger man. "Why, Grimm, luck is all that there is."
"There is no luck," Grimm repeated, shaking his head with such a perfect conviction that he could afford to smile.
"Not even at cards?"
"No, you can work all the chances out with mathematics. Not very hard. There is no such thing as luck. She's a ghost, but most people chase her. They come here most of all to find her. There is no luck in the world, Melendez. Only brains."
It was a philosophy that tore to shreds the innermost convictions of Melendez, and he fought against accepting it.
"What was it but luck," he said, "that kept Legrain from backing me out of this here place and making me look as yaller as a rag?"
"Two things," Hans Grimm explained, counting them off on the pudgy tips of his fingers. "First place... you are a fighting man..."
"That don't go," interrupted Melendez. "I tell you, old-timer, that for three years I been making it a rule to take water rather than have to fight. And only the bad luck of Legrain..."
"First place," Grimm insisted mildly, "you are a fighting man. You held yourself in for a long time, but sooner or later you had to break out. If you keep a fire under a stopped-up boiler long enough, it will bust. It has to bust. Same way with you."
"All right," said Melendez, "I won't argue."
"Second place," continued the proprietor of the gambling house, "Legrain, like a fool, didn't stop where he should have stopped. He spoke about the girl."
"Ah?" grunted Melendez. "How could you hear that?"
"Because I was close," said the other. "I'm always as close as I can get when there is trouble here. Besides, I have very sharp ears. I tell you, mine friend, when the other players hear nothing, I hear the groans of the people who lose around my tables."
Melendez stared at him as at some enchanter.
"And so I heard what he said," finished Grimm. "This is not a place to speak of women... not to a man like you. Legrain was a fool, and therefore he had a fool's reward. He should have left Miss Berenger out of it."
"Now curse my eyes," said Melendez, "how did you guess at her name?" He frowned with wonder.
"It was not hard to guess," Hans Grimm said, still smiling.
"Ain't there more than one woman in camp?"
"There are others. But there is only one that would make you fight."
Melendez drummed upon the edge of the table. "You're smart, Grimm. Dog-gone me if you ain't among the smartest that I ever seen."
"Not smart," said Grimm. "It is only simple... like adding numbers. You put together the little things that you know, and they add up to some big thing that you didn't guess that you knew."
"All right," said Melendez. "I ain't gonna argue. You know a bit too much for me. You know enough, old-timer, to make me ask you for your advice. What'll I do now?"
"Take your horse and ride out of Slosson's Gulch as fast as you can. That is exactly what you ought to do."
"Humph!" exclaimed Melendez. "You mind telling me why?"
"I can tell you why. It is to get away from the danger here. You have shamed a great many people today. When a man has been shamed, he is always dangerous."
"It's a fact," admitted Melendez.
"So what you should do is to ride away as fast as you can go. That is what you should do, but what you won't."
"Hey, Grimm, what makes you so sure that I won't?"
"That is still simple. I add up the figures. They tell me that you will not go."
"Old son," Melendez said, leaning forward and scowling with the intensity of his conviction and determination, "I'll tell you that you're wrong. I'm gonna go right out from here and saddle up my hoss and ride right out of Slosson's Gulch."
"You may start, but you ain't going to finish."
"Will a bullet stop me? Is that what you mean?"
"Not a bullet. They are not ready to shoot, just yet. But you will not leave."
"Will you be reasonable?" asked Melendez. "Tell me what makes you guess that."
"It is not guessing. I never guess. Either I know, or else I don't know. There is nothing mysterious. When Legrain mentioned the girl, I didn't know who it was until I saw you begin to fight. But after I saw you fight, I knew that you would have to see her again before very long. You are thinking more about her, right now, than you are about leaving Slosson's Gulch."
Melendez stood up. "Old-timer," he said, "you're smart. You're terrible smart. I see that. But this time, you're wrong. I'm thinking about her, sure. But, also, I'm gonna think still more about leaving. I'm saying good bye, Grimm!"
"Good!" said the other. "I like to see a man fight against himself. If you can get away from here, you will have a chance to live a happy life again."
"Why, meaning that you could go back to drifting... no fighting... taking things easy... never worrying. That was what made you very happy, Melendez."
"Aye," said the younger man, "you seem to know me pretty well! And if I stay here?"
"You'd have to be on your guard every moment of the day and of the night. You'd have to have your head turned to look over your shoulder, never knowing when a bullet would come at you from behind. You'd have to sleep light and wake early. And it would be work. Hard work, Melendez. You don't like work very well, I think?"
"Are you still smiling?" Melendez asked gloomily.
"Meaning," said young Melendez, "that you think that I ought to stay here?"
"Well?" said the other.
"And get a bullet in my back, as you say?"
"Perhaps a bullet in your back... if you ever dare to grow sleepy."
"And tell me this, old-timer... what's to be gained for me if I do stay here? What's to be gained, outside of a fair-sized chance of dying with my boots on?"
"Why," Hans Grimm said, "I suppose that there are things to be gained, too. There is one thing always gained by hard work and hard fighting."
"Eh? Hard fighting? Ain't that the thing that preachers all howl against?"
"Fighting? Why, Melendez, if men wouldn't fight for what they thought was right, this wouldn't be a world. It'd be a dog kennel. As for what's gained by work and fighting... why, Melendez, it teaches a fellow how to be a man."
"I ain't a man, then?" snapped Melendez, his muscles tensing along his arm.
The eyes of Hans Grimm lost their kindness. All of the gentle good humor faded from them and left them wonderfully cold and dead.
"No, Melendez," he said. "You are only an overgrown boy. But after you come through this fire, you'll either be a man... or dead."
IT is proverbial that prophets are not regarded when they cry aloud in the street. Yet one would rather expect to find a prophet in the street than the proprietor of a gambling hall.
When young Melendez came out into the air, he merely shrugged his shoulders and drew one breath of pure air, scenting the pine-laden wind that came down the valley—mixed with the fragrance of frying bacon, not far away. He breathed of this and he said to himself that Hans Grimm was a very clever fellow, no doubt, but that he, Melendez, could not waste time thinking of such nonsense.
If he were to arrive at manhood, he would try to accomplish it in some other place than this mining town, unless he could find a bulletproof suit to wear while he had to remain here. Only one thing was real—and that was the danger in which he stood.
When he started down the street, men drew aside to let him pass, and their faces turned to stone as he went by. It seemed as if every soul in the gulch had been driven out of the gambling hall by him that same day, and hated him most cordially for it. As he went by them, he could feel the sting of their glances of anger following him and resting coldly in the small of his back. With every step that he made, he knew that he would never regard the advice of Mr. Grimm for an instant. No matter what else was to be found here, at the end of the rainbow would be death.
He went straight to the stable, where he had put up Rob, saddled him, paid the bill, bought some crushed barley to take along with him, and started straight out of Slosson's Gulch. In his pocket there was the revolver that he had taken from Legrain. There were still three bullets in it, and, if he could once get free of the town without having to use up those remaining cartridges, he swore that he would throw the weapon into the nearest nook and go on again, with his hands washed clean of the dreadful temptation to battle.
He chose byways and alleys. Most of all, he wished to avoid a glance at the face of the girl, by any chance. Yet he could not help wondering at the strange cleverness with which Grimm had penetrated his secret. Indeed, he himself had not really known how deeply the girl was lodged in his heart. Certainly she had not been overkind to him. But she had been something utterly new—a sort of food to which he was not accustomed. He felt that, even by thinking of it, he could come to need her more than he needed the breath of life in his nostrils.
So, hedging about the long, narrow town by the alleys and the byways, he passed half a dozen lean-tos. He gave Rob the spur and let him speed down the road. He rushed past the first lean-to and the second. But glancing at the third, he saw Louise Berenger swinging an axe to subdue a refractory stump that she was converting into firewood. Instinctively he leaned a little over the pommel of the saddle and drove the spurs home again. And at that instant she lifted her head and looked down the road.
He told himself that it would be the act of a guilty hound to slink out of her sight in this hasty fashion. So he sat back in the saddle and drew rein. The horse came to such a swift, sliding halt that he felt the cloud of dust that he had raised overtake him and beat, like the hot, soft wing of a moth, against the back of his neck.
She rested the axe on the stump and stared at him, so what could he do but ride up?
"You're not in trouble, I hope?" asked Louise Berenger.
"You seemed in a hurry to leave," she said gravely. "And I thought..."
She stopped sharply, and he rescued her from embarrassment by saying, with his smile: "Why, you thought that perhaps I'd slipped out from under a fight again?"
She looked down, her face rather flushed. Then she said: "I think that I was rude to you, as we were riding in. I didn't mean to be. Only... I didn't understand."
"I knew it." He nodded. "It sounded bad, too. Only... would you mind telling me... do you approve of fighting?"
"I?" she asked, as one who would like to dodge a question. "No, I don't think so... only... why, I can't imagine turning one's back on trouble." She added in haste: "But I'm not giving advice! I'm only... why, you understand your own affairs much better than I can. But I should think that your heart would burn in you, sometimes."
"Sometimes it does," said Melendez. "Sometimes it burns in me, right enough. And... look here, are you keeping house?"
"Might I ask," he said grimly, "who would've invited you to come up here to a camp like this?"
She smiled faintly "We didn't guess what the place was, my father or I. Because Father is a good deal of a dreamer, you see... such a dreamer that he's disappeared completely. He has been gone over twenty-four hours. He may have found a book and sat down to it. He's that kind." She kept up her smile, but it was obviously a hollow effort.
"He's disappeared?" echoed Melendez, opening his eyes.
But she hastened to change the subject. "I have something to apologize for," she said. "That is, perhaps I don't need to mention it if you are really leaving the gulch?"
"I was figuring on leaving it, but, just lately, I've changed my mind," he said firmly. He thought of Hans Grimm. The very devil was in that fellow; he had seen the future so clearly. But a man's work, certainly, was opening before him. If he should stay here to take up some of the burden of this girl, there would be enough to fill his hands.
Her father gone for over twenty-four hours! He thought of Slosson's Gulch and all that was in it. Not that he had had a chance to see a very great deal, but he had been in other mining centers before, and he knew what was to be expected from them. When strange things happened, one could be justified, generally, in putting the very worst possible construction upon it.
As to Mr. Berenger, Pete had not the least doubt that the man lay somewhere dead, that he would never return to his daughter, no matter how long she waited here, keeping the shack awaiting his coining.
"You have changed your mind?" the girl repeated rather ruefully.
"Yes," he said, growing firmer and firmer in his decision. "I'm staying in Slosson's Gulch."
"Then," she replied, "I have to tell you. You see that little lean-to down the way... where that pit is opening?"
"Yes," he answered.
"I had trouble with the men there... six of them... very rough fellows... and one of them a gambler named Legrain who is a real desperado, I've heard since. In the midst of an argument with them... when they seemed to taunt me with being a woman and alone... why, I'm dreadfully ashamed to admit it... but I used your name." She was flaming. And she could not go on.
"It's all right," he said soothingly. "There ain't any need of you worrying about it."
"No, you don't understand," she insisted. "I used your name to threaten them."
"Yes, and, as a matter of fact, I want you to know... that these men are dreadfully dangerous! I don't have foolish frights about people... but when I remember all their faces, I have to beg you to forgive me for getting you into such danger with... only your name just slipped into my mind. I was reaching out to find something to strike them with. I do hope that you understand and pardon me."
"Hush, hush, hush," he said, raising his hand as though he was putting a child at rest. "Now there ain't anything in all of this to bother you at all. There ain't a measly thing, Miss Berenger. As a matter of fact, I'll tell you that I've met up with Legrain already, and that him and me have settled things up fine. Really friendly."
"Ah, you knew him, then?"
"Why"—he dodged—"I met him right after I got into town, and so there's nothing, you see, for you to worry about."
She sighed a little, and then laughed a little. "It is very good to hear you say it," she said. "And then, if that's true, I'm tremendously glad that you're to stay a while in Slosson's Gulch." She did not give a reason, but her eyes misted a little as she looked toward the deepening evening that was settling over the mountains.
"Yes," he said, "I think that I'll stay." He reached for the axe and took it from her hand. And thinking of Hans, he wondered if the gambler could be right? Could this be arrived at by mere calculation? Was it not the purest chance that he should have blundered into sight of her as he was fleeing from the town? He whirled the axe. At one powerful and dexterous blow he cleaved the root in twain, at which she had been drudging helplessly.
SEATED on a rock before the lean-to, he heard the story of the coming to Slosson's Gulch and the disappearance of her father.
"But," said Melendez, "what was his idea in taking the chunk of gold quartz along with him when he went to file his claim? Did he want to raise money to work the mine?"
"No," said the girl. "But he took it... simply because it pleased him, I suppose."
Melendez stared helplessly at her.
"Was it wrong?" she asked.
"No, not wrong, but sort of childish. I'd as soon show raw meat to starved wolves as pay dirt to this gang in Slosson's Gulch." He became silent, turning the idea in his mind. "The people in the gulch know that your father made a pretty rich strike. He must have showed the ore to everyone he met." He paused again, frowning.
But she said: "I think I've guessed it. Someone saw the ore and found a way of taking it... and disposing of my father! You need not be afraid of telling me that."
He looked straight into her face and saw that she did not flinch. "In a town like this," he admitted gravely, "when a man disappears, it always means that there's a chance the worst sort of a thing may have happened. But you can't be sure. They'd do murder for the sake of getting a rich claim. But they wouldn't do a murder for the sake of a piece of rock with some streaks of gold in it. When does the claim office say that he filed his holding?"
"He never reached there."
He started. "Very well." Melendez nodded. "Tonight, I start on through the town and find out what I can about where he was last seen. Are you afraid to stay here alone?"
"No," she answered. "I have a rifle and I know how to shoot."
He looked up and down the ravine. It was growing dim and the yellow faces of campfires showed here and there; the scent of wood smoke came through the windless air.
"If there is any sign of trouble," he said, "while I'm away, the thing for you to do is not to trust to weapons. In a pinch, you holler as loud as you can. There is hounds in this place, but there is a pretty large and liberal sprinkling of real white men, too. They'd come through any sort of a storm if they heard a woman calling for 'em. But leave the rifle be. You understand?"
"There is three or four camps within earshot of you. Remember that and you can feel safe. As for Legrain and his gang, they're rough, but I don't think that they'll bother you... not after the understanding that I've had with 'em. You can rest easy about that."
"I feel like a child," she admitted, "since you have taken charge of everything. It is all in your hands, now. And..."
He stopped her, as a tremor crept into her voice. "Here is a crew that means some sort of mischief... and who to?" he murmured.
Up the road came a compact throng of men. As they neared the shack, they increased their pace. Then they gathered in a loosely flung semicircle in front of the place. Louise Berenger stood bolt upright and clutched at the shoulder of her companion.
"What does it mean?"
As though to answer that question, a voice from the crowd called: "Melendez, come away from the girl and step out here to talk for yourself!"
Then she saw that there were naked weapons in every hand in that crowd, not revolvers only, but terrible, broad-mouthed shotguns and repeating rifles, all carried in positions from which they could be swiftly slung into action.
"You won't go?" whispered the girl.
But she felt the arm beneath her hand turn into quivering iron, and like iron was the voice that answered her: "I'll just have a few words with 'em."
He stepped from her and stood before them.
"Melendez," said the spokesman—who nevertheless, as she saw, did not step out in advance of the rest—"we've decided that the gulch has had about enough of you. You slide out tonight and you keep going. You hear us talk?"
He made a pause, and in that silence the head of Melendez turned slowly from side to side. He seemed to be studying them with a grave intentness.
"Gents," he said, "are you all errand boys for Legrain?"
It brought a snarl from them. "We've had enough of gunfighters and wild men in these parts," said the spokesman hotly. "This here town has decided to settle down and we're the vigilance committee that's been appointed to take care of law and order. We're beginning on you, Melendez. You talk turkey or you hang, do you hear?"
"Sure," said Melendez, "I hear what you got to say. I hear it all fine."
He spoke so mildly, that the spokesman of the crew now boldly advanced. "You could herd some of the boys out of Grimm's place," he said, "and you could mop up the floor with Legrain, but we're different from them..."
"One minute," broke in Melendez. "It seems to me that I remember how you dived for the door and got stuck there. You was one of the first to run, if I remember right."
The spokesman obviously winced. Half of his strength was stolen from him by this unlucky remembrance. "You lie," he said weakly. "Now let's hear what you intend to do about leaving, Melendez? And let's hear quick!"
Melendez took another step forward. "I'll tell you all about it," he said gently. "I was aiming to get out of this town right quick, because I was afraid that there might be some men in it. Now I see that I was wrong. There ain't any men in it. There's only swine! As for the lot of you, why, sons, I laugh at you. Except that you raise a dust right in front of me. And I'd rather have you raising a dust farther up the road... back toward town... you understand? Now break and scatter!"
A gun was in his hands as he said this—a gun poised and leveled at their heads. And in reply there was a quick flashing of weapons all around the circle.
It seemed to the girl that if any man in that crowd had had the courage to fire a shot, no matter how blindly, the rest would instantly have turned loose a flood of bullets that would have swept Melendez to an instant death. But no bullet was fired. The guns that were half raised, wavered down again. Two or three men in the front side-stepped and pressed back. Those in the rear gladly turned with them. The remaining front rank felt that it was being deserted under the cold eye and the steady gun of this man-slayer.
They turned, also. A little panic broke out in them, as well. Some weaker nature shouted with sudden fear and bolted to the right. Others followed—some scattered straight down the road. Others fled to the left-hand field.
Presently there was nothing left as a token of their coming except a stinging scent of alkali dust that trailed through the smoky air.
It seemed to the girl the sheerest sort of a miracle. Yet she did not wonder that they had fled. Even from the back of Melendez, as he stood threatening the others, she had felt, as it were, the shooting of lightnings.
He whirled about on his heel. "I'm gonna ride to the ravine," he said gruffly. "I'll take a look at the spot where you say that your father spotted the vein. If there's people on that claim, now, you can lay to it that your father is a dead man. If there's nobody on it, you can lay to it that somewhere in Slosson's Gulch they're trying to squeeze the information out of him as to where that claim of his might be, and where he got his ore sample. Good night, Miss Berenger."
Very brutal talk, it seemed. But when he started up the road, on Rob, she followed him wistfully with her eyes. He was gone, taking her worries with him. For, although reason told her that he was only one man, and that this was a trouble too great for one man to solve, still she could not resist a blind belief that all would be well. As steel is sure, such was his surety. She could not believe that he would fail.
She cooked her own supper and then waited, until a voice called to her loudly through the night: "Melendez is gone, and, if he comes back, you can tell him that he's coming back to trouble!"
She could not see through the blanketing darkness more than a dim form in the roadway, but she thought that she recognized the voice of the man who had worn the hat of her father, and been called Bill. That was Legrain, then. And what did Legrain know? Her very blood went cold.
Another hour went past, and then the sharp ringing of the galloping hoofs of a horse approached down the valley. They paused before the shack, and she heard the low, steady voice of Melendez saying: "No one is on the claim. I got down and looked. Why, even by match light I could see that the stuff is richer than all telling. No wonder your father disappeared, if he showed such stuff around this town. But keep your heart up. This here thing will turn out well."
He hardly waited for a word of answer, but was gone again. Listening to the strong, steady sound of the galloping as it died away, toward the gulch, her hopes arose and happiness came back to her.
HE went first of all straight to old Hans Grimm and found that gentleman not in his gaming house, but outside of it, in his own shack, seated at the doorway, with his long pipe between his teeth, smoking with a calm enjoyment. The tuft of gray hair at either temple made him seem, in the starlit night, like a horned satyr at the mouth of its cave.
"Well, Melendez," he said, "I'm glad to say that you took my advice."
"It was luck, after all," insisted Melendez. "I seen her just as I started out of town... just as I was streaking out of town, as a matter of fact. I saw her and I stopped and so I'm still here. I've come back to you for a little advice."
"Thanks," Hans Grimm said. "Some folks come back to me for coin. But none of them ever come back to me for advice. Now, what do you want?"
"Someone in this town has grabbed old man Berenger. He's disappeared for over a day."
"I heard that he was gone."
"And what I want to know is... who might have taken him?"
"I dunno that I can tell you that."
"You might put me on the right road to finding out about it, however."
"Berenger is gone, eh?" murmured the other, shaking his head. "Why should they have nabbed him?"
"He had a quartz sample so rich that it would have broken your heart to see it. They must have spotted it and got him before he could file his claim."
"For what are they holding him?" asked Hans Grimm.
"To put him in torment," Melendez said. "Then they'll get out of him where he made his find. That's simple, isn't it, Hans?"
"Aye, and after he's told him?"
"Then finish him off and put him where he'll tell no tales afterwards. Of course, that's it."
Hans Grimm stood up from his chair with a grunt of violence. "I understand," he said. He walked back and forth, his head bowed in thought. "Do you know the man without legs that begs in front of the general store... Higgins's General Store?"
"Yes, I've seen him."
"He has a camera eye. He never forgets faces. He's likely to have noticed your man. Can you describe him?"
"His daughter gave me a photograph."
"Go find that beggar. He's a mean devil, but, if you can make him talk, he might turn the trick for you."
Melendez turned and hurried up the street. He walked very closely to one edge of the sidewalk, and, as he passed each gap and crossroad, he kept his eyes alert for either side. It was well that he did so, perhaps. A block from the store, two shadows slipped softly up behind him. When he turned, they skulked to either side of him and disappeared in the rollicking crowd of miners. But he knew that they had had their eyes on him. How many others were waiting for a chance at him, he could only guess. And bullets through the back counted as much as bullets fired face to face.
At Higgins's store there was no sign of the beggar without legs. He went inside to make inquiries. Higgins himself sat on a box at one end of the counter with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun in his hands—a little red-faced cockney with a determined eye.
Melendez's words brought an impatient scowl to Higgins's face. While the little cockney answered, his eyes wandered over the crowd in his store, reading faces, guessing at danger. His till would never be captured by thieves, unless his body were first salted away with lead.
"You go up first road on the left. Find Jack's shack at the top of it... straightway."
Jack was the beggar, and Melendez waited for no more. He found a little covert, composed of scraps of timbers, canvas, and a mound of dirt. The beggar sat in the doorway of this cave, and Melendez put a dollar in his hand.
The dying embers of the beggar's cook fire threw enough light to let the taller man read the expression of universal bitterness with which the deformed creature looked at him.
"Jack," he said gently, "have you seen this face?" He laid the photograph before the other.
"Maybe I have and maybe I ain't," snapped the cripple.
"I'm only asking you," said Melendez.
The other tilted his face once more. The dust of the street had not been wiped from it. "You're Melendez. You fight your own fights," he growled.
It was plain to Melendez that the other knew something. So he sat down on his heels and thereby brought his face to a level with Jack's.
"Do you really know me, Jack?" he said.
"I know you enough," said Jack.
"Then you know that when I talk business, I mean it. That dollar was only a promise. There's more behind it." He held out a $5 note. To his genuine astonishment, Jack dragged out the dollar that had already been given to him and threw it into the lap of Melendez.
"Now I'm clear of you," he said. "So get out. I've done enough talking for today!"
"Listen to me," said Melendez, "the day before yesterday... it was probably along in the late afternoon, Berenger... this is his photograph... came into Slosson's Gulch. He had pay dirt in his pocket. He had a chunk of it. Jack, he's disappeared, and I want to know if you saw him walking with anybody. Did he go by you?"
"The whole town goes by me," said Jack. "How can I remember everybody?"
"Because you're one man in ten thousand, or more," Melendez said calmly. "That's why I've come here. You can tell me what nobody else is apt to. Did you see Berenger walking with anyone?"
The lips of Jack parted to something that was almost a smile under this flattery, but they set again at once, and he shook his head. "I've done a day's work," he said. "And I'm tired. I ain't talking, Melendez. I don't want no part of your game, whatever it is."
The hand of Melendez darted out like the striking head of a snake and fixed upon one of the bulky wrists of the cripple. His other hand laid the blunt nose of his Colt under the chin of the little man. "Jack," he said, "you ain't more than half an inch from Hades. Will you change your mind about talking?"
In all his life—and he had been in strange places and among rough men—he had never seen an expression of such concentrated venom as that which appeared on the face of Jack. A cat, cornered by a dog, spits back at it with just such poisonous and devilish rage.
"They'll run you out of town for this!" he gasped.
"You've heard me," Melendez said. "Now do you talk?"
Still Jack hesitated, his eyes burning into the face of the other, but at length he snarled: "Get to Judge's shanty. Hun and Sam Myron was with this dude. And I hope you're cursed forever!"
"Where's Judge's shanty?"
"Up Leonard Creek on the left side. The second shanty. I hope that he gets you... and he will get you, greaser!"
There was so much respect for this bit of deformity in Melendez, that, when he stood up, he backed away from the little man to a distance, then turned and hurried away. As he went, he heard a shrill whistle break behind him, a whistle that was swiftly repeated. Unless he was very generously mistaken, that was a signal from the cripple to friends. When they came to him, they would learn that Judge was apt to fall into trouble quickly, unless help were sent.
So Melendez dropped into the saddle on Rob and sent the good gelding flying out of town and down the valley. He was directed quickly enough to the creek. It wound down out of a rough ravine, joining Slosson's Creek with a white rushing of waters that sounded, at a distance, like a waterfall. So up the left-hand side of the creek he galloped the horse. He passed the first shanty. The second was removed a little distance between two hills.
Rob, he left in a little grove of poplars in the hollow. Then he went on, on foot, working his way carefully through the shrubbery. When he came nearer, he could see the silhouette of a big man sitting with his back against a tree, twenty yards in front of the shack. Beside this watcher there was the glimmer of steel that made Melendez know that the sentry kept a rifle nearby.
Working still closer, he finally lay behind a rock and stretched out at full length. Then he saw a second man seated at the door of the shanty, taking the cool of the evening, with a pipe between his teeth.
"All right, Judge," said a voice from inside. "He's come to."
"You and Bert try your hands with him," said Judge. "I'm tired of manhandling the old fool!"
THIS was proof enough to Melendez that he had not followed a false trail. Yonder in the house was old Berenger, beyond any doubt, but how was he to get the man out? Here were two armed men watching outside the house, and two more within it. Fellows engaged in such work as theirs would be sure to fight desperately. He thought of this as he lay behind his rock and he decided at last on a plan that was as simple as it was bold. Here and there across the clearing in front of the shack were fallen logs and standing rocks. He began to work softly around them, creeping from one to the other, until he came silently up beside the door of the lean-to, and the man who sat there.
At the last moment, it seemed that some premonition of evil stirred in Judge. He stood up suddenly and made a step straight toward Melendez, where he lay behind a jagged boulder. It was the very vaguest of instincts that moved in him, however, for when Melendez rose like a shadow from behind the rock, Judge was frozen in his place, unable to lift the rifle that he carried under his arm. He saw the glimmering revolver in the hand of the stranger and he knew that it was pointed at his heart.
At the same instant, there was a groan from within the house that wrung the heart of Melendez with horror. Melendez beckoned, and Judge stepped still nearer.
"Walk straight ahead," whispered Melendez. "March for the trees, yonder, and make no noise. And walk soft, Judge!"
Judge, without a word, stepped gently ahead and made for the trees. There, in the heavy shadow, he paused. The nose of a revolver was prodded into the small of his back.
"Have you brought me out here to murder me, stranger?" whined Judge.
"Hand back the butt of that rifle," said Melendez.
It was done, and Melendez received it with his free hand. He weighed it, sighing with satisfaction. There were fifteen shots in the chamber of this gun, and a rifle is a hundred times better than a revolver for work by a dim light, where a bead must be drawn with care. He shoved the revolver back into the pocket from which he had drawn it. The rifle he carried in the cup of his right arm, with a finger upon the trigger.
So, with the muzzle of that gun still pressed against the back of Judge, he went through his clothes with his other hand. There was a Colt and a long knife. This completed the arms of the miner.
"Now," said Melendez smoothly, "we can talk business. Turn around."
Judge turned obediently.
"Ordinarily," said Melendez, "you'd think that this here was a time to start killing. But it ain't that for me, old son. You need killing terrible bad, the four of you, but I want something out of you. I make a dicker with you, Judge. You turn old Berenger over to me, and I let you go."
"Most likely you dunno what I mean?" Melendez said sarcastically.
Judge was silent. At length he muttered: "You have the low-down on me, stranger. But I would like to say something. The old fool would never've got himself hurt, if he'd talked up right off, the way that I told him to."
"He wouldn't squeal?" Melendez asked.
"He looked as soft and as foolish as a woman," complained Judge, "but when you come to bear down on him, he was like iron. Seems like he'd rather die than talk."
"All right," said Melendez, "tonight I ain't saying what you should get for this little job of yours. I'm just saying... turn this here Berenger over to me and do it quick."
"There ain't any way," Judge said, "without calling in the other boys. And if I do that, there'll be a flock of trouble. The whole three of them is fighting fools."
"You think of a way," said Melendez. "By the way, I might tell you that, if the worse comes to the worst, I'd finish you off right here, and then start on the rest of them... unless you can work out a scheme for getting him out to me. I ain't soft-hearted, Judge. Not a bit!"
"Look here," growled Judge, "if you want your share of this stuff, we're pretty willing to let you come in on equals."
"You are, eh?"
"Yes, or if you want more, why, we'll give you two shares. Does that sound good to you?"
"It won't do," Melendez said. "You cursed set of leeches!" The last words were torn from him involuntarily as a stifled cry of agony broke from the house.
"Who are you?" panted Judge.
"My name is Melendez."
"Now, Judge, if I hear another yap from poor old Berenger, I'm going to kill you, man, and then start in on the others."
Judge waited to hear no more. He turned hastily and called in a loud voice: "Hey, boys!"
An instant of pause, and then a sharp answer: "Now what the devil do you want?"
"I got a new idea. Come along out here and bring the old goat with you!"
"For why, Judge?"
"I tell you, don't you start asking questions. Just bring him along. Pretty quick, will you?"
"Well, we'll make a try. He's a dead weight, though."
Presently Melendez saw, by the starlight, two men issuing from the cabin, one carrying the head and the other the feet of a limp burden. Blind rage overwhelmed Melendez.
"Hello!" sang out the voice of the first look-out beneath his tree—half lost in the distance. "What's up now?"
"Tell him to stay where he is!" commanded Melendez.
"You stay put, Jerry," answered Judge. "You stay right where you are. That's where we need you most. We're gonna finish this job."
"That's spoke right," Jerry said complacently. "Finish the old fool, if he won't talk. I'm tired of this dirty job. He ain't got the only gold in the valley!"
"He's a heavy old goat," said one of the bearers, as they came nearer.
There was a faint groan and then: "I can walk, if you wish..."
It made the heart of Melendez stand still. It seemed to him that he recognized something of the voice of Louise Berenger in these weary but courageous tones.
"You stay put," said one of the bearers harshly. "Now what's the game, Judge... and who the devil is that?"
As he spoke, he dropped the weight he was carrying. His companion did the same, and they found themselves looking at the long, steady barrel of a rifle held with the butt snuggled comfortably into the deep shoulder of Melendez.
"Are you double-crossing us, Judge?" cried one.
"It ain't me," the Judge moaned. "This here is Melendez. He got the drop on me, and now he has it on you."
"You face around," Melendez ordered calmly. "I would like to drill the lot of you, and I got more than half a mind to do it. But if you'll face around and march straight back toward that shack and go inside of it, I ain't going to harm you. You hear me?"
They showed that they heard by turning solemnly around. Judge joined them, and the three slunk slowly across the clearing, walking as though they feared the rocks would crumple beneath their feet. They entered the door of the shack.
Then the voice of Jerry sounded from beneath his tree: "Now what the devil is this song and dance, partners?"
There was no answer for Jerry until the last man had entered the lean-to. Then there was a loud yell of rage: "It's Melendez, Jerry! Cut across behind him. We'll come back down his trail. The hound has got Berenger!"
There was a wild yell of rage from Jerry, the outpost. Immediately afterwards, the worthy Bert leaped from the door of the shack, rifle in hand, to follow the trail of his enemy. He received a bullet through both his hips that toppled him back into the house, screeching in agony.
For just such a sortie, Melendez had been waiting. Now he drew the father of Louise to his feet. The older man staggered with weakness, like one just out of a sick bed. And he whispered: "Who are you? God bless you, my lad! You have taken me out of Hades."
"Walk steady," said Melendez. "You can rest some weight on my shoulder, but leave my arms free. We have to go slow... but we'll try to go sure."
They had not taken half a dozen steps when Melendez paused and left his companion leaning against the great trunk of a tree. He himself side-stepped softly through the brush, and presently, by a dim shaft of starlight that struggled down through a break in the trees, he saw what he had expected—the form of a man creeping along on hands and knees, shoving a rifle before him.
A bullet would have ended him quickly, but a devilish fury rose in Melendez at the sight of the other. He leaped like a tiger and struck down with knees and fists. A shriek of despair and fear rose beneath him. The fellow writhed about and lay face upwards, striking a knife at the throat of Melendez. The knife hand, however, was seized by the wrist, and, straight into the upturned face, Melendez smashed the butt of the rifle, once, twice, and again.
The screaming ceased. The man lay inert. Melendez rose to his feet and raced back to Berenger.
NEITHER of the unwounded pair in the shack had attempted to leave it, yet. But by the noise they made, Melendez guessed that they were breaking through the flimsy wall of the side farthest from him and his rifle. Then they would hurry out and skulk down his trail—carefully, oh, very carefully—after the things that had happened to Jerry and Bert. For all the world he would not have been in the shoes of Judge, who had indirectly brought all these disasters upon them.
He went on with Berenger. The older man was weak, very weak; he walked with one hand clutching the shoulder of Melendez's coat. His head was thrown back, his teeth were set, and his lips grinned in the agony of his effort. What the four devils had done to their victim, Melendez would not even guess, but he longed to turn back and crush the remaining two—Judge in particular! Surely there was no justice under heaven if that consummate villain were allowed to carry his life away freely. But he had other things to think about than mere vengeance.
Up the valley he could hear the drumming of hoofs, as horses galloped hotly toward them.
Perhaps they were coming in response to the noises of shooting that they had heard, or to the sounds of screaming. Yet men around Slosson's Gulch had heard shots and screams before, and they were more apt to remain all the closer beside their own campfires when they heard such sounds.
It was no riding of open-hearted preservers of the peace. On the contrary, these must be friends of Judge who had been sent to help him in time of danger by the cripple. They had not taken long to get ready and ride. Surely Melendez had come fast, and he had not remained long seconds in front of the shack. Yet the rescue was nearly here—rushing up from the trail, turning straight toward the lean-to of Judge and his companions.
At the same instant Berenger crumpled up like a loosely hinged thing, across the arm with which Melendez turned to catch him. There was no time to ask questions and to offer sympathy. He merely slung the older man across his shoulder like a sack of wheat and ran with all his might through the trees, toward those poplars where he had left Rob. If only the rescue party did not spot the gelding in the shadows of the poplars.
They did not seem to be waiting, or approaching, with any caution. They came in a single, storming volley—half a dozen hard riders, it seemed to Melendez, as they crashed through the underbrush and hurtled up the hillside.
Above them, frantic voices were screaming: "Go back! Block the down trail! Melendez is clear!"
The jangle of the screeching voices and the sound of their own pounding horses kept them from understanding. They rode on, and Melendez offered a gasping thanks to God and gained the side of Rob. There he had to pause again. He pried the teeth of Berenger apart and poured a stiff dram of moonshine whiskey, 100-proof, down his throat. It brought the older man back to his senses, coughing and spluttering.
Melendez swung his helpless man into the saddle, mounted behind, and urged Rob into a gallop. He was a stout horse, built not so much for speed as for the patient bearing of burdens, but this double load was too much to expect anything more than a cart horse at a walk. He ran stoutly, but his forehoofs rose high and struck hard, his quarters sagging a little at every stride. Moreover, fast as he might go, at his gallop, it was nothing compared with the rush of the avengers who would soon be at his heels.
Presently Melendez saw them coming—the six who had newly arrived from Slosson's Gulch, together with Judge and his remaining companion from the shack. He could thank the kind heavens now for the night that was covering him, for otherwise their bullets would be humming about him. They gained fast; they gained with a terrible speed. He saw that he could not keep away from them for another half mile.
Perhaps he could have kept them back a little by using his rifle, had he been alone, but he could not handle the sagging body of old Berenger and his own, at the same time, so he saw that one part of the game was surely lost.
Straight ahead of them hung a wall of shadow, where the sides of the gulch drew close together. Through this narrowed mouth, the waters of the creek went crashing onward toward Slosson's Valley. The throat consisted of the white waters of the creek, and just ten feet of trail in a ledge at the foot of the next slope. In the black mouth of the narrows, Melendez called to Rob to stop. Then he quickly dismounted.
Straight behind him came eight black shapes, streaking through the night. Melendez dropped upon one knee, drew a true bead, and fired. The rider pitched silently, headlong, from the saddle. His companions swirled, screeching to one side or the other, breaking for shelter from before that deadly rifle.
If heaven would only send that horse with the empty saddle straight on through the narrows, where Melendez could catch it, and then whirl on again with redoubled speed for Slosson's Gulch. But the horse feared the crouched figures in the darkness. It wheeled about, also, and went up the hillside with jack-rabbit jumps.
Melendez saw what remained to him to do.
If he mounted again behind Berenger and tried to make Slosson's Gulch, he would be hopelessly lost. Both of them would go down. He stood at the shoulder of the horse and tied the legs of Berenger hard with the dangling saddle straps.
"Do you hear me, Berenger?"
"I hear you," said a weak voice.
"I've got you tied on. You can't fall off. Now ride straight ahead. There ain't any chance of missing the trail. It runs straight down the valley to Slosson's Gulch. All that you got to do is to keep flogging the horse along. Do you understand that?"
"I understand," whispered the other.
"When you get there, ask for Hans Grimm. Do you know his place?"
"You don't?" Melendez groaned. "Well, ask for Hans Grimm. Everybody else knows him. Tell Hans that I'm up here. He'll send help."
"I can't leave you, lad..." began Berenger.
"Do you know better than me what to do? Ride on, and ride fast! Now, get out!"
He stood back and slapped the gelding. The protest of Berenger was torn off short at his lips by the lurch of Rob as he fled down the road. There remained to Melendez only the dark of the night, with the cold, distant faces of the stars, and the departing rattle of the hoofs of the mare.
That sound raised a fury in the seven men who were still here to press the attack.
The eighth lay flat on his face in the deep dust of the trail, and he would never again ride in any hunt. But the others swarmed toward the narrow pass, shooting from behind every covert. It seemed as though the torrent of their bullets must surely sweep Melendez away and aside and let them through. But Melendez lay in the angle between two rocks. Partly the darkness sheltered him, and partly the stones were his shields. However he had his chance to strike back at them almost at once, for on the hillside above him and to the left, he saw the silhouette of a rider dimly against the stars. He fired quickly and heard a yell of pain, and then a steady stream of cursing as the rider scuttled back toward safety.
After that, they could know that Berenger had galloped on toward safety. Their whole effort was not to reclaim him but to exact a sweet revenge upon the head of Melendez. For that purpose they pressed steadily up toward the pass.
Now and again he saw the flash of red fire that indicated that a rifle was speaking to him. But he was contented to lie quietly, only firing now and again, as he shifted from his central little fort. For the distance was saving him.
In the meantime, he saw a film of silver descending over the upper portion of the valley. It brightened rapidly. The rocks stood out in white and black. The brightness of the creek that foamed beside him became a flashing thing, and every moment the light increased. The moon had risen, and in a very brief time the watchers who were crowding toward him were sure to spot him. How long would it be, then, before they were able to strike at him with a sharply angled shot?
He looked about him, but he could see no better way of fortifying himself. When he attempted to break for a loftier stone, whose sheer side might shelter him from a bullet from above more entirely, his break was greeted with three rifle shots, and he shrank back to cover. A moment later, a bullet splashed from the rock on his right side and thin splinters of liquid lead drove like needles into his flesh.
They had him almost at their mercy, now. They could swarm above him at a safe height, and eventually, by the brightening light of the moon, they would be able to shoot with almost as much surety as under the light of the sun.
He had no hope to advance or to retreat. There was only the chance, very remote, that old Berenger could send help to him in time.
THE people of Slosson's Gulch ran toward the limp figure that feebly hung on to his horse. They cut the leather straps and placed old Berenger on the pavement. Water was thrown down his throat, and, in the meantime, strange discoveries were being made.
Someone shouted: "What's happened to this old man's feet? Has the fool been walking on fire?"
And another snarled: "His back! Did you see his back?"
"It's Berenger. It's old Berenger that they say made the great strike. Will he live?"
"He's dead now! Look at his glassy eyes!"
For the eyes of Berenger had indeed opened and rolled up, and they stared above him with no expression and with no feeling.
"Try his pulse."
"There ain't no pulse, and his hand's dead cold already!"
"Listen to his heart, will you?"
"Aye, now I hear something. Stand back, half a million of you, and let's see if he can get some air. No, he's had enough to drink."
The lips of Berenger parted and whispered: "Hans Grimm."
"He wants Grimm. Go get Hans. Get him quick. Here's a dying confession, or something. Somebody gimme a blanket to slide under him. This gent is about to die, boys!"
They made the bed for Berenger down on the sidewalk and stood about half brutally curious and half genuinely moved. Someone had gone to find Louise Berenger and tell her that she was sadly needed.
And then came Hans Grimm. He came in haste with men about him and he dropped to his knees beside the form of Berenger.
"Are you Grimm?"
"Yes. Where's Melendez?"
"Up the valley. Men..." Berenger quietly whispered, and closed his eyes.
He had fainted away, but the wits of Hans Grimm were applied where the voice of Berenger had ended. He was told how this man had come to town, tied on the back of the mare that stood panting nearby. He recognized that horse as belonging to Melendez. He made up his own mind about the rest of it. Melendez had sent Berenger on ahead in this desperate plight; Melendez himself must be either dead or in sore straits somewhere in the rear. And Grimm's influence made itself felt. The men were suddenly ashamed of their treatment of Melendez; they were incensed by the suffering the old man had undergone.
A score of men tumbled into saddles and followed Hans Grimm as the gambler rushed up the valley. They were hardly clear of Slosson's Gulch when they could hear the dim crackling of rifles in the distance.
Like a good general, Hans Grimm headed for the point of heaviest firing, and so he turned up the valley of the creek with his men riding hard behind him, their guns ready As they approached the narrows of the pass, they could see the flame spurting from the mouths of the guns.
It ended suddenly as they came near, and then, as they drew rein in the throat of the pass, they could hear the departing roar of hoofs up the valley.
At the angle between two stones they found Melendez, his rifle still at his shoulder and five bullets through his body. But there was still life in the body of Judge, found not a dozen paces away up the hillside.
They brought them both back to Slosson's Gulch and they brought, also, Bert and Jerry, who were found at the shack. The others of the party were gone, except for the unknown dead man who lay, facedown, in the trail. Him they buried beneath the neighboring rocks.
Then the citizens of Slosson's Gulch who were in the vigilance committee were given free rein to handle the prisoners. Judge and Bert and Jerry were driven out of town. Then the people of the gulch sat down to learn what was happening to the two men who lay in one room of the house of Hans Grimm, with Louise Berenger ministering to them.
For a week the doctor could not return a sure answer, but after that the reports were all favorable. As the doctor said, each of them had too much to live for to allow himself to die at this moment. As for Melendez, there was the girl waiting. As for Berenger, there was the mine that hired men were opening for him now—finding the vein widening and deepening every moment, pouring forth riches.
The most frequent visitor to the sick man was, of course, Hans Grimm. And when the brain of Melendez had cleared, Grimm sat by his bed and asked one day:
"Can you see it now, partner? All adds up... fact to fact... and no chance in it at all. A man came out here to dig gold with a book, and no guns. Had to have a gunman to help. So his daughter goes out and collects the right fellow. Meaning you. Now what chance was there in all of that? Nothing but logic!"
"Hans," the sick man said, grinning, "I'm tired of arguing. Besides, I can afford to change my mind."
And he looked between him and the door, where Louise Berenger was waiting, and smiling patiently toward him.