In a Hollow of the Hills
Part 1 out of 3
IN A HOLLOW OF THE HILLS
Bret Bret Harte
It was very dark, and the wind was increasing. The last gust had
been preceded by an ominous roaring down the whole mountain-side,
which continued for some time after the trees in the little valley
had lapsed into silence. The air was filled with a faint, cool,
sodden odor, as of stirred forest depths. In those intervals of
silence the darkness seemed to increase in proportion and grow
almost palpable. Yet out of this sightless and soundless void now
came the tinkle of a spur's rowels, the dry crackling of saddle
leathers, and the muffled plunge of a hoof in the thick carpet of
dust and desiccated leaves. Then a voice, which in spite of its
matter-of-fact reality the obscurity lent a certain mystery to,
"I can't make out anything! Where the devil have we got to,
anyway? It's as black as Tophet, here ahead!"
"Strike a light and make a flare with something," returned a second
voice. "Look where you're shoving to--now--keep your horse off,
There was more muffled plunging, a silence, the rustle of paper,
the quick spurt of a match, and then the uplifting of a flickering
flame. But it revealed only the heads and shoulders of three
horsemen, framed within a nebulous ring of light, that still left
their horses and even their lower figures in impenetrable shadow.
Then the flame leaped up and died out with a few zigzagging sparks
that were falling to the ground, when a third voice, that was low
but somewhat pleasant in its cadence, said:--
"Be careful where you throw that. You were careless last time.
With this wind and the leaves like tinder, you might send a furnace
blast through the woods."
"Then at least we'd see where we were."
Nevertheless, he moved his horse, whose trampling hoofs beat out
the last fallen spark. Complete darkness and silence again
followed. Presently the first speaker continued:--
"I reckon we'll have to wait here till the next squall clears away
the scud from the sky? Hello! What's that?"
Out of the obscurity before them appeared a faint light,--a dim but
perfectly defined square of radiance,--which, however, did not
appear to illuminate anything around it. Suddenly it disappeared.
"That's a house--it's a light in a window," said the second voice.
"House be d--d!" retorted the first speaker. "A house with a
window on Galloper's Ridge, fifteen miles from anywhere? You're
Nevertheless, from the muffled plunging and tinkling that followed,
they seemed to be moving in the direction where the light had
appeared. Then there was a pause.
"There's nothing but a rocky outcrop here, where a house couldn't
stand, and we're off the trail again," said the first speaker
"Stop!--there it is again!"
The same square of light appeared once more, but the horsemen had
evidently diverged in the darkness, for it seemed to be in a
different direction. But it was more distinct, and as they gazed a
shadow appeared upon its radiant surface--the profile of a human
face. Then the light suddenly went out, and the face vanished with
"It IS a window, and there was some one behind it," said the second
"It was a woman's face," said the pleasant voice.
"Whoever it is, just hail them, so that we can get our bearings.
Sing out! All together!"
The three voices rose in a prolonged shout, in which, however, the
distinguishing quality of the pleasant voice was sustained. But
there was no response from the darkness beyond. The shouting was
repeated after an interval with the same result: the silence and
obscurity remained unchanged.
"Let's get out of this," said the first speaker angrily; "house or
no house, man or woman, we're not wanted, and we'll make nothing
waltzing round here!"
"Hush!" said the second voice. "Sh-h! Listen."
The leaves of the nearest trees were trilling audibly. Then came a
sudden gust that swept the fronds of the taller ferns into their
faces, and laid the thin, lithe whips of alder over their horses'
flanks sharply. It was followed by the distant sea-like roaring of
"That's a little more like it!" said the first speaker joyfully.
"Another blow like that and we're all right. And look! there's a
lightenin' up over the trail we came by."
There was indeed a faint glow in that direction, like the first
suffusion of dawn, permitting the huge shoulder of the mountain
along whose flanks they had been journeying to be distinctly seen.
The sodden breath of the stirred forest depths was slightly tainted
with an acrid fume.
"That's the match you threw away two hours ago," said the pleasant
voice deliberately. "It's caught the dry brush in the trail round
"Anyhow, it's given us our bearings, boys," said the first speaker,
with satisfied accents. "We're all right now; and the wind's
lifting the sky ahead there. Forward now, all together, and let's
get out of this hell-hole while we can!"
It was so much lighter that the bulk of each horseman could be seen
as they moved forward together. But there was no thinning of the
obscurity on either side of them. Nevertheless the profile of the
horseman with the pleasant voice seemed to be occasionally turned
backward, and he suddenly checked his horse.
"There's the window again!" he said. "Look! There--it's gone
"Let it go and be d--d!" returned the leader. "Come on."
They spurred forward in silence. It was not long before the
wayside trees began to dimly show spaces between them, and the
ferns to give way to lower, thick-set shrubs, which in turn yielded
to a velvety moss, with long quiet intervals of netted and tangled
grasses. The regular fall of the horses' feet became a mere
rhythmic throbbing. Then suddenly a single hoof rang out sharply
on stone, and the first speaker reined in slightly.
"Thank the Lord we're on the ridge now! and the rest is easy. Tell
you what, though, boys, now we're all right, I don't mind saying
that I didn't take no stock in that blamed corpse light down there.
If there ever was a will-o'-the-wisp on a square up mountain, that
was one. It wasn't no window! Some of ye thought ye saw a face
"Yes, and a rather pretty one," said the pleasant voice
"That's the way they'd build that sort of thing, of course. It's
lucky ye had to satisfy yourself with looking. Gosh! I feel creepy
yet, thinking of it! What are ye looking back for now like Lot's
wife? Blamed if I don't think that face bewitched ye."
"I was only thinking about that fire you started," returned the
other quietly. "I don't see it now."
"Well--if you did?"
"I was wondering whether it could reach that hollow."
"I reckon that hollow could take care of any casual nat'rel fire
that came boomin' along, and go two better every time! Why, I
don't believe there was any fire; it was all a piece of that
infernal ignis fatuus phantasmagoriana that was played upon us down
With the laugh that followed they started forward again, relapsing
into the silence of tired men at the end of a long journey. Even
their few remarks were interjectional, or reminiscent of topics
whose freshness had been exhausted with the day. The gaining light
which seemed to come from the ground about them rather than from
the still, overcast sky above, defined their individuality more
distinctly. The man who had first spoken, and who seemed to be
their leader, wore the virgin unshaven beard, mustache, and flowing
hair of the Californian pioneer, and might have been the eldest;
the second speaker was close shaven, thin, and energetic; the
third, with the pleasant voice, in height, litheness, and
suppleness of figure appeared to be the youngest of the party. The
trail had now become a grayish streak along the level table-land
they were following, which also had the singular effect of
appearing lighter than the surrounding landscape, yet of plunging
into utter darkness on either side of its precipitous walls.
Nevertheless, at the end of an hour the leader rose in his stirrups
with a sigh of satisfaction.
"There's the light in Collinson's Mill! There's nothing gaudy and
spectacular about that, boys, eh? No, sir! it's a square, honest
beacon that a man can steer by. We'll be there in twenty minutes."
He was pointing into the darkness below the already descending
trail. Only a pioneer's eye could have detected the few pin-pricks
of light in the impenetrable distance, and it was a signal proof of
his leadership that the others accepted it without seeing it.
"It's just ten o'clock," he continued, holding a huge silver watch
to his eye; "we've wasted an hour on those blamed spooks yonder!"
"We weren't off the trail more than ten minutes, Uncle Dick,"
protested the pleasant voice.
"All right, my son; go down there if you like and fetch out your
Witch of Endor, but as for me, I'm going to throw myself the other
side of Collinson's lights. They're good enough for me, and a
blamed sight more stationary!"
The grade was very steep, but they took it, California fashion, at
a gallop, being genuinely good riders, and using their brains as
well as their spurs in the understanding of their horses, and of
certain natural laws, which the more artificial riders of
civilization are apt to overlook. Hence there was no hesitation or
indecision communicated to the nervous creatures they bestrode, who
swept over crumbling stones and slippery ledges with a momentum
that took away half their weight, and made a stumble or false step,
or indeed anything but an actual collision, almost impossible.
Closing together they avoided the latter, and holding each other
well up, became one irresistible wedge-shaped mass. At times they
yelled, not from consciousness nor bravado, but from the purely
animal instinct of warning and to combat the breathlessness of
their descent, until, reaching the level, they charged across the
gravelly bed of a vanished river, and pulled up at Collinson's
Mill. The mill itself had long since vanished with the river, but
the building that had once stood for it was used as a rude hostelry
for travelers, which, however, bore no legend or invitatory sign.
Those who wanted it, knew it; those who passed it by, gave it no
Collinson himself stood by the door, smoking a contemplative pipe.
As they rode up, he disengaged himself from the doorpost
listlessly, walked slowly towards them, said reflectively to the
leader, "I've been thinking with you that a vote for Thompson is a
vote thrown away," and prepared to lead the horses towards the
water tank. He had parted with them over twelve hours before, but
his air of simply renewing a recently interrupted conversation was
too common a circumstance to attract their notice. They knew, and
he knew, that no one else had passed that way since he had last
spoken; that the same sun had swung silently above him and the
unchanged landscape, and there had been no interruption nor
diversion to his monotonous thought. The wilderness annihilates
time and space with the grim pathos of patience.
Nevertheless he smiled. "Ye don't seem to have got through coming
down yet," he continued, as a few small boulders, loosened in their
rapid descent, came more deliberately rolling and plunging after
the travelers along the gravelly bottom. Then he turned away with
the horses, and, after they were watered, he reentered the house.
His guests had evidently not waited for his ministration. They had
already taken one or two bottles from the shelves behind a wide bar
and helped themselves, and, glasses in hand, were now satisfying
the more imminent cravings of hunger with biscuits from a barrel
and slices of smoked herring from a box. Their equally singular
host, accepting their conduct as not unusual, joined the circle
they had comfortably drawn round the fireplace, and meditatively
kicking a brand back at the fire, said, without looking at them:--
"Well!" returned the leader, leaning back in his chair after
carefully unloosing the buckle of his belt, but with his eyes also
on the fire,--"well! we've prospected every yard of outcrop along
the Divide, and there ain't the ghost of a silver indication
"Not a smell," added the close-shaven guest, without raising his
They all remained silent, looking at the fire, as if it were the
one thing they had taken into their confidence. Collinson also
addressed himself to the blaze as he said presently: "It allus
seemed to me that thar was something shiny about that ledge just
round the shoulder of the spur, over the long canyon."
The leader ejaculated a short laugh. "Shiny, eh? shiny! Ye think
THAT a sign? Why, you might as well reckon that because Key's
head, over thar, is gray and silvery that he's got sabe and
experience." As he spoke he looked towards the man with a pleasant
voice. The fire shining full upon him revealed the singular fact
that while his face was still young, and his mustache quite dark,
his hair was perfectly gray. The object of this attention, far
from being disconcerted by the comparison, added with a smile:--
"Or that he had any silver in his pocket."
Another lapse of silence followed. The wind tore round the house
and rumbled in the short, adobe chimney.
"No, gentlemen," said the leader reflectively, "this sort o' thing
is played out. I don't take no more stock in that cock-and-bull
story about the lost Mexican mine. I don't catch on to that
Sunday-school yarn about the pious, scientific sharp who collected
leaves and vegetables all over the Divide, all the while he
scientifically knew that the range was solid silver, only he
wouldn't soil his fingers with God-forsaken lucre. I ain't saying
anything agin that fine-spun theory that Key believes in about
volcanic upheavals that set up on end argentiferous rock, but I
simply say that I don't see it--with the naked eye. And I reckon
it's about time, boys, as the game's up, that we handed in our
checks, and left the board."
There was another silence around the fire, another whirl and
turmoil without. There was no attempt to combat the opinions of
their leader; possibly the same sense of disappointed hopes was
felt by all, only they preferred to let the man of greater
experience voice it. He went on:--
"We've had our little game, boys, ever since we left Rawlin's a
week ago; we've had our ups and downs; we've been starved and
parched, snowed up and half drowned, shot at by road-agents and
horse-thieves, kicked by mules and played with by grizzlies. We've
had a heap o' fun, boys, for our money, but I reckon the picnic is
about over. So we'll shake hands to-morrow all round and call it
square, and go on our ways separately."
"And what do you think you'll do, Uncle Dick?" said his close-
shaven companion listlessly.
"I'll make tracks for a square meal, a bed that a man can
comfortably take off his boots and die in, and some violet-scented
soap. Civilization's good enough for me! I even reckon I wouldn't
mind 'the sound of the church-going bell' ef there was a theatre
handy, as there likely would be. But the wilderness is played
"You'll be back to it again in six months, Uncle Dick," retorted
the other quickly.
Uncle Dick did not reply. It was a peculiarity of the party that
in their isolated companionship they had already exhausted
discussion and argument. A silence followed, in which they all
looked at the fire as if it was its turn to make a suggestion.
"Collinson," said the pleasant voice abruptly, "who lives in the
hollow this side of the Divide, about two miles from the first spur
above the big canyon?"
"Are you sure?"
"Sartin! Thar ain't no one but me betwixt Bald Top and Skinner's--
"Of course, YOU'D know if any one had come there lately?" persisted
the pleasant voice.
"I reckon. It ain't a week ago that I tramped the whole distance
that you fellers just rode over."
"There ain't," said the leader deliberately, "any enchanted castle
or cabin that goes waltzing round the road with revolving windows
and fairy princesses looking out of 'em?"
But Collinson, recognizing this as purely irrelevant humor, with
possibly a trap or pitfall in it, moved away from the fireplace
without a word, and retired to the adjoining kitchen to prepare
supper. Presently he reappeared.
"The pork bar'l's empty, boys, so I'll hev to fix ye up with jerked
beef, potatoes, and flapjacks. Ye see, thar ain't anybody ben over
from Skinner's store for a week."
"All right; only hurry up!" said Uncle Dick cheerfully, settling
himself back in his chair, "I reckon to turn in as soon as I've
rastled with your hash, for I've got to turn out agin and be off at
They were all very quiet again,--so quiet that they could not help
noticing that the sound of Collinson's preparations for their
supper had ceased too. Uncle Dick arose softly and walked to the
kitchen door. Collinson was sitting before a small kitchen stove,
with a fork in his hand, gazing abstractedly before him. At the
sound of his guest's footsteps he started, and the noise of
preparation recommenced. Uncle Dick returned to his chair by the
fire. Leaning towards the chair of the close-shaven man, he said
in a lower voice:--
"He was off agin!"
"Thinkin' of that wife of his."
"What about his wife?" asked Key, lowering his voice also.
The three men's heads were close together.
"When Collinson fixed up this mill he sent for his wife in the
States," said Uncle Dick, in a half whisper, "waited a year for
her, hanging round and boarding every emigrant wagon that came
through the Pass. She didn't come--only the news that she was
dead." He paused and nudged his chair still closer--the heads were
almost touching. "They say, over in the Bar"--his voice had sunk
to a complete whisper--"that it was a lie! That she ran away with
the man that was fetchin' her out. Three thousand miles and three
weeks with another man upsets some women. But HE knows nothing
about it, only he sometimes kinder goes off looney-like, thinking
of her." He stopped, the heads separated; Collinson had appeared
at the doorway, his melancholy patience apparently unchanged.
"Grub's on, gentlemen; sit by and eat."
The humble meal was dispatched with zest and silence. A few
interjectional remarks about the uncertainties of prospecting only
accented the other pauses. In ten minutes they were out again by
the fireplace with their lit pipes. As there were only three
chairs, Collinson stood beside the chimney.
"Collinson," said Uncle Dick, after the usual pause, taking his
pipe from his lips, "as we've got to get up and get at sun-up, we
might as well tell you now that we're dead broke. We've been
living for the last few weeks on Preble Key's loose change--and
that's gone. You'll have to let this little account and damage
Collinson's brow slightly contracted, without, however, altering
his general expression of resigned patience.
"I'm sorry for you, boys," he said slowly, "and" (diffidently)
"kinder sorry for myself, too. You see, I reckoned on goin' over
to Skinner's to-morrow, to fill up the pork bar'l and vote for
Mesick and the wagon-road. But Skinner can't let me have anything
more until I've paid suthin' on account, as he calls it."
"D'ye mean to say thar's any mountain man as low flung and mean as
that?" said Uncle Dick indignantly.
"But it isn't HIS fault," said Collinson gently; "you see, they
won't send him goods from Sacramento if he don't pay up, and he
CAN'T if I DON'T. Sabe?"
"Ah! that's another thing. They ARE mean--in Sacramento," said
Uncle Dick, somewhat mollified.
The other guests murmured an assent to this general proposition.
Suddenly Uncle Dick's face brightened.
"Look here! I know Skinner, and I'll stop there-- No, blank it
all! I can't, for it's off my route! Well, then, we'll fix it this
way. Key will go there and tell Skinner that I say that I'LL send
the money to that Sacramento hound. That'll fix it!"
Collinson's brow cleared; the solution of the difficulty seemed to
satisfy everybody, and the close-shaven man smiled.
"And I'll secure it," he said, "and give Collinson a sight draft on
myself at San Francisco."
"What's that for?" said Collinson, with a sudden suffusion on each
"In case of accident."
"Wot accident?" persisted Collinson, with a dark look of suspicion
on his usually placid face.
"In case we should forget it," said the close-shaven man, with a
"And do you suppose that if you boys went and forgot it that I'd
have anything to do with your d--d paper?" said Collinson, a murky
cloud coming into his eyes.
"Why, that's only business, Colly," interposed Uncle Dick quickly;
"that's all Jim Parker means; he's a business man, don't you see.
Suppose we got killed! You've that draft to show."
"Show who?" growled Collinson.
"Why,--hang it!--our friends, our heirs, our relations--to get your
money, hesitated Uncle Dick.
"And do you kalkilate," said Collinson, with deeply laboring
breath, "that if you got killed, that I'd be coming on your folks
for the worth of the d--d truck I giv ye? Go 'way! Lemme git out
o' this. You're makin' me tired." He stalked to the door, lit his
pipe, and began to walk up and down the gravelly river-bed. Uncle
Dick followed him. From time to time the two other guests heard
the sounds of alternate protest and explanation as they passed and
repassed the windows. Preble Key smiled, Parker shrugged his
"He'll be thinkin' you've begrudged him your grub if you don't--
that's the way with these business men," said Uncle Dick's voice in
one of these intervals. Presently they reentered the house, Uncle
Dick saying casually to Parker, "You can leave that draft on the
bar when you're ready to go to-morrow;" and the incident was
presumed to have ended. But Collinson did not glance in the
direction of Parker for the rest of the evening; and, indeed,
standing with his back to the chimney, more than once fell into
that stolid abstraction which was supposed to be the contemplation
of his absent wife.
From this silence, which became infectious, the three guests were
suddenly aroused by a furious clattering down the steep descent of
the mountain, along the trail they had just ridden! It came near,
increasing in sound, until it even seemed to scatter the fine
gravel of the river-bed against the sides of the house, and then
passed in a gust of wind that shook the roof and roared in the
chimney. With one common impulse the three travelers rose and went
to the door. They opened it to a blackness that seemed to stand as
another and an iron door before them, but to nothing else.
"Somebody went by then," said Uncle Dick, turning to Collinson.
"Didn't you hear it?"
"Nary," said Collinson patiently, without moving from the chimney.
"What in God's name was it, then?"
"Only some of them boulders you loosed coming down. It's touch and
go with them for days after. When I first came here I used to
start up and rush out into the road--like as you would--yellin' and
screechin' after folks that never was there and never went by.
Then it got kinder monotonous, and I'd lie still and let 'em slide.
Why, one night I'd a'sworn that some one pulled up with a yell and
shook the door. But I sort of allowed to myself that whatever it
was, it wasn't wantin' to eat, drink, sleep, or it would come in,
and I hadn't any call to interfere. And in the mornin' I found a
rock as big as that box, lying chock-a-block agin the door. Then I
knowed I was right."
Preble Key remained looking from the door.
"There's a glow in the sky over Big Canyon," he said, with a
meaning glance at Uncle Dick.
"Saw it an hour ago," said Collinson. "It must be the woods afire
just round the bend above the canyon. Whoever goes to Skinner's
had better give it a wide berth."
Key turned towards Collinson as if to speak, but apparently changed
his mind, and presently joined his companions, who were already
rolling themselves in their blankets, in a series of wooden bunks
or berths, ranged as in a ship's cabin, around the walls of a
resinous, sawdusty apartment that had been the measuring room of
the mill. Collinson disappeared,--no one knew or seemed to care
where,--and, in less than ten minutes from the time that they had
returned from the door, the hush of sleep and rest seemed to
possess the whole house. There was no light but that of the fire
in the front room, which threw flickering and gigantic shadows on
the walls of the three empty chairs before it. An hour later it
seemed as if one of the chairs were occupied, and a grotesque
profile of Collinson's slumbering--or meditating--face and figure
was projected grimly on the rafters as though it were the hovering
guardian spirit of the house. But even that passed presently and
faded out, and the beleaguering darkness that had encompassed the
house all the evening began to slowly creep in through every chink
and cranny of the rambling, ill-jointed structure, until it at last
obliterated even the faint embers on the hearth. The cool
fragrance of the woodland depths crept in with it until the steep
of human warmth, the reek of human clothing, and the lingering
odors of stale human victual were swept away in that incorruptible
and omnipotent breath. An hour later--and the wilderness had
repossessed itself of all.
Key, the lightest sleeper, awoke early,--so early that the dawn
announced itself only in two dim squares of light that seemed to
grow out of the darkness at the end of the room where the windows
looked out upon the valley. This reminded him of his woodland
vision of the night before, and he lay and watched them until they
brightened and began to outline the figures of his still sleeping
companions. But there were faint stirrings elsewhere,--the soft
brushing of a squirrel across the shingled roof, the tiny flutter
of invisible wings in the rafters, the "peep" and "squeak" of baby
life below the floor. And then he fell into a deeper sleep, and
awoke only when it was broad day.
The sun was shining upon the empty bunks; his companions were
already up and gone. They had separated as they had come
together,--with the light-hearted irresponsibility of animals,--
without regret, and scarcely reminiscence; bearing, with cheerful
philosophy and the hopefulness of a future unfettered by their
past, the final disappointment of their quest. If they ever met
again, they would laugh and remember; if they did not, they would
forget without a sigh. He hurriedly dressed himself, and went
outside to dip his face and hands in the bucket that stood beside
the door; but the clear air, the dazzling sunshine, and the
unexpected prospect half intoxicated him.
The abandoned mill stretched beside him in all the pathos of its
premature decay. The ribs of the water-wheel appeared amid a
tangle of shrubs and driftwood, and were twined with long grasses
and straggling vines; mounds of sawdust and heaps of "brush" had
taken upon themselves a velvety moss where the trickling slime of
the vanished river lost itself in sluggish pools, discolored with
the dyes of redwood. But on the other side of the rocky ledge
dropped the whole length of the valley, alternately bathed in
sunshine or hidden in drifts of white and clinging smoke. The
upper end of the long canyon, and the crests of the ridge above
him, were lost in this fleecy cloud, which at times seemed to
overflow the summits and fall in slow leaps like lazy cataracts
down the mountain-side. Only the range before the ledge was clear;
there the green pines seemed to swell onward and upward in long
mounting billows, until at last they broke against the sky.
In the keen stimulus of the hour and the air Key felt the
mountaineer's longing for action, and scarcely noticed that
Collinson had pathetically brought out his pork barrel to scrape
together a few remnants for his last meal. It was not until he had
finished his coffee, and Collinson had brought up his horse, that a
slight sense of shame at his own and his comrades' selfishness
embarrassed his parting with his patient host. He himself was
going to Skinner's to plead for him; he knew that Parker had left
the draft,--he had seen it lying in the bar,--but a new sense of
delicacy kept him from alluding to it now. It was better to leave
Collinson with his own peculiar ideas of the responsibilities of
hospitality unchanged. Key shook his hand warmly, and galloped up
the rocky slope. But when he had finally reached the higher level,
and fancied he could even now see the dust raised by his departing
comrades on their two diverging paths, although he knew that they
had already gone their different ways,--perhaps never to meet
again,--his thoughts and his eyes reverted only to the ruined mill
below him and its lonely occupant.
He could see him quite distinctly in that clear air, still standing
before his door. And then he appeared to make a parting gesture
with his hand, and something like snow fluttered in the air above
his head. It was only the torn fragments of Parker's draft, which
this homely gentleman of the Sierras, standing beside his empty
pork barrel, had scattered to the four winds.
Key's attention was presently directed to something more important
to his present purpose. The keen wind which he had faced in
mounting the grade had changed, and was now blowing at his back.
His experience of forest fires had already taught him that this was
too often only the cold air rushing in to fill the vacuum made by
the conflagration, and it needed not his sensation of an acrid
smarting in his eyes, and an unaccountable dryness in the air which
he was now facing, to convince him that the fire was approaching
him. It had evidently traveled faster than he had expected, or had
diverged from its course. He was disappointed, not because it
would oblige him to take another route to Skinner's, as Collinson
had suggested, but for a very different reason. Ever since his
vision of the preceding night, he had resolved to revisit the
hollow and discover the mystery. He had kept his purpose a
secret,--partly because he wished to avoid the jesting remarks of
his companions, but particularly because he wished to go alone,
from a very singular impression that although they had witnessed
the incident he had really seen more than they did. To this was
also added the haunting fear he had felt during the night that this
mysterious habitation and its occupants were in the track of the
conflagration. He had not dared to dwell upon it openly on account
of Uncle Dick's evident responsibility for the origin of the fire;
he appeased his conscience with the reflection that the inmates of
the dwelling no doubt had ample warning in time to escape. But
still, he and his companions ought to have stopped to help them,
and then--but here he paused, conscious of another reason he could
scarcely voice then, or even now. Preble Key had not passed the
age of romance, but like other romancists he thought he had evaded
it by treating it practically.
Meantime he had reached the fork where the trail diverged to the
right, and he must take that direction if he wished to make a
detour of the burning woods to reach Skinner's. His momentary
indecision communicated itself to his horse, who halted. Recalled
to himself, he looked down mechanically, when his attention was
attracted by an unfamiliar object lying in the dust of the trail.
It was a small slipper--so small that at first he thought it must
have belonged to some child. He dismounted and picked it up. It
was worn and shaped to the foot. It could not have lain there
long, for it was not filled nor discolored by the wind-blown dust
of the trail, as all other adjacent objects were. If it had been
dropped by a passing traveler, that traveler must have passed
Collinson's, going or coming, within the last twelve hours. It was
scarcely possible that the shoe could have dropped from the foot
without the wearer's knowing it, and it must have been dropped in
an urgent flight, or it would have been recovered. Thus
practically Key treated his romance. And having done so, he
instantly wheeled his horse and plunged into the road in the
direction of the fire.
But he was surprised after twenty minutes' riding to find that the
course of the fire had evidently changed. It was growing clearer
before him; the dry heat seemed to come more from the right, in the
direction of the detour he should have taken to Skinner's. This
seemed almost providential, and in keeping with his practical
treatment of his romance, as was also the fact that in all
probability the fire had not yet visited the little hollow which he
intended to explore. He knew he was nearing it now; the locality
had been strongly impressed upon him even in the darkness of the
previous evening. He had passed the rocky ledge; his horse's hoofs
no longer rang out clearly; slowly and perceptibly they grew
deadened in the springy mosses, and were finally lost in the netted
grasses and tangled vines that indicated the vicinity of the
densely wooded hollow. Here were already some of the wider spaced
vanguards of that wood; but here, too, a peculiar circumstance
struck him. He was already descending the slight declivity; but
the distance, instead of deepening in leafy shadow, was actually
growing lighter. Here were the outskirting sentinels of the wood--
but the wood itself was gone! He spurred his horse through the
tall arch between the opened columns, and pulled up in amazement.
The wood, indeed, was gone, and the whole hollow filled with the
already black and dead stumps of the utterly consumed forest! More
than that, from the indications before him, the catastrophe must
have almost immediately followed his retreat from the hollow on the
preceding night. It was evident that the fire had leaped the
intervening shoulder of the spur in one of the unaccountable, but
by no means rare, phenomena of this kind of disaster. The circling
heights around were yet untouched; only the hollow, and the ledge
of rock against which they had blundered with their horses when
they were seeking the mysterious window in last evening's darkness,
were calcined and destroyed. He dismounted and climbed the ledge,
still warm from the spent fire. A large mass of grayish outcrop
had evidently been the focus of the furnace blast of heat which
must have raged for hours in this spot. He was skirting its
crumbling debris when he started suddenly at a discovery which made
everything else fade into utter insignificance. Before him, in a
slight depression formed by a fault or lapse in the upheaved
strata, lay the charred and incinerated remains of a dwelling-house
leveled to the earth! Originally half hidden by a natural abattis
of growing myrtle and ceanothus which covered this counter-scarp of
rock towards the trail, it must have stood within a hundred feet of
them during their halt!
Even in its utter and complete obliteration by the furious furnace
blast that had swept across it, there was still to be seen an
unmistakable ground plan and outline of a four-roomed house. While
everything that was combustible had succumbed to that intense heat,
there was still enough half-fused and warped metal, fractured iron
plate, and twisted and broken bars to indicate the kitchen and tool
shed. Very little had, evidently, been taken away; the house and
its contents were consumed where they stood. With a feeling of
horror and desperation Key at last ventured to disturb two or three
of the blackened heaps that lay before him. But they were only
vestiges of clothing, bedding, and crockery--there was no human
trace that he could detect. Nor was there any suggestion of the
original condition and quality of the house, except its size:
whether the ordinary unsightly cabin of frontier "partners," or
some sylvan cottage--there was nothing left but the usual ignoble
and unsavory ruins of burnt-out human habitation.
And yet its very existence was a mystery. It had been unknown at
Collinson's, its nearest neighbor, and it was presumable that it
was equally unknown at Skinner's. Neither he nor his companions
had detected it in their first journey by day through the hollow,
and only the tell-tale window at night had been a hint of what was
even then so successfully concealed that they could not discover it
when they had blundered against its rock foundation. For concealed
it certainly was, and intentionally so. But for what purpose?
He gave his romance full play for a few minutes with this question.
Some recluse, preferring the absolute simplicity of nature, or
perhaps wearied with the artificialities of society, had secluded
himself here with the company of his only daughter. Proficient as
a pathfinder, he had easily discovered some other way of
provisioning his house from the settlements than by the ordinary
trails past Collinson's or Skinner's, which would have betrayed his
vicinity. But recluses are not usually accompanied by young
daughters, whose relations with the world, not being as
antagonistic, would make them uncertain companions. Why not a
wife? His presumption of the extreme youth of the face he had seen
at the window was after all only based upon the slipper he had
found. And if a wife, whose absolute acceptance of such confined
seclusion might be equally uncertain, why not somebody else's wife?
Here was a reason for concealment, and the end of an episode, not
unknown even in the wilderness. And here was the work of the
Nemesis who had overtaken them in their guilty contentment! The
story, even to its moral, was complete. And yet it did not
entirely satisfy him, so superior is the absolutely unknown to the
most elaborate theory.
His attention had been once or twice drawn towards the crumbling
wall of outcrop, which during the conflagration must have felt the
full force of the fiery blast that had swept through the hollow and
spent its fury upon it. It bore evidence of the intense heat in
cracked fissures and the crumbling debris that lay at its feet.
Key picked up some of the still warm fragments, and was not
surprised that they easily broke in a gritty, grayish powder in his
hands. In spite of his preoccupation with the human interest, the
instinct of the prospector was still strong upon him, and he almost
mechanically put some of the pieces in his pockets. Then after
another careful survey of the locality for any further record of
its vanished tenants, he returned to his horse. Here he took from
his saddle-bags, half listlessly, a precious phial encased in wood,
and, opening it, poured into another thick glass vessel part of a
smoking fluid; he then crumbled some of the calcined fragments into
the glass, and watched the ebullition that followed with mechanical
gravity. When it had almost ceased he drained off the contents
into another glass, which he set down, and then proceeded to pour
some water from his drinking-flask into the ordinary tin cup which
formed part of his culinary traveling-kit. Into this he put three
or four pinches of salt from his provision store. Then dipping his
fingers into the salt and water, he allowed a drop to fall into the
glass. A white cloud instantly gathered in the colorless fluid,
and then fell in a fine film to the bottom of the glass. Key's
eyes concentrated suddenly, the listless look left his face. His
fingers trembled lightly as he again let the salt water fall into
the solution, with exactly the same result! Again and again he
repeated it, until the bottom of the glass was quite gray with the
fallen precipitate. And his own face grew as gray.
His hand trembled no longer as he carefully poured off the solution
so as not to disturb the precipitate at the bottom. Then he drew
out his knife, scooped a little of the gray sediment upon its
point, and emptying his tin cup, turned it upside down upon his
knee, placed the sediment upon it, and began to spread it over the
dull surface of its bottom with his knife. He had intended to rub
it briskly with his knife blade. But in the very action of
spreading it, the first stroke of his knife left upon the sediment
and the cup the luminous streak of burnished silver!
He stood up and drew a long breath to still the beatings of his
heart. Then he rapidly re-climbed the rock, and passed over the
ruins again, this time plunging hurriedly through, and kicking
aside the charred heaps without a thought of what they had
contained. Key was not an unfeeling man, he was not an unrefined
one: he was a gentleman by instinct, and had an intuitive sympathy
for others; but in that instant his whole mind was concentrated
upon the calcined outcrop! And his first impulse was to see if it
bore any evidence of previous examination, prospecting, or working
by its suddenly evicted neighbors and owners. There was none: they
had evidently not known it. Nor was there any reason to suppose
that they would ever return to their hidden home, now devastated
and laid bare to the open sunlight and open trail. They were
already far away; their guilty personal secret would keep them from
revisiting it. An immense feeling of relief came over the soul of
this moral romancer; a momentary recognition of the Most High in
this perfect poetical retribution. He ran back quickly to his
saddle-bags, drew out one or two carefully written, formal notices
of preemption and claim, which he and his former companions had
carried in their brief partnership, erased their signatures and
left only his own name, with another grateful sense of Divine
interference, as he thought of them speeding far away in the
distance, and returned to the ruins. With unconscious irony, he
selected a charred post from the embers, stuck it in the ground a
few feet from the debris of outcrop, and finally affixed his
"Notice." Then, with a conscientiousness born possibly of his new
religious convictions, he dislodged with his pickaxe enough of the
brittle outcrop to constitute that presumption of "actual work"
upon the claim which was legally required for its maintenance, and
returned to his horse. In replacing his things in his saddle-bags
he came upon the slipper, and for an instant so complete was his
preoccupation in his later discovery, that he was about to throw it
away as useless impedimenta, until it occurred to him, albeit
vaguely, that it might be of service to him in its connection with
that discovery, in the way of refuting possible false claimants.
He was not aware of any faithlessness to his momentary romance, any
more than he was conscious of any disloyalty to his old companions,
in his gratification that his good fortune had come to him alone.
This singular selection was a common experience of prospecting.
And there was something about the magnitude of his discovery that
seemed to point to an individual achievement. He had made a rough
calculation of the richness of the lode from the quantity of
precipitate in his rude experiment; he had estimated its length,
breadth, and thickness from his slight knowledge of geology and the
theories then ripe; and the yield would be colossal! Of course, he
would require capital to work it, he would have to "let in" others
to his scheme and his prosperity; but the control of it would
always be HIS OWN.
Then he suddenly started as he had never in his life before started
at the foot of man! For there was a footfall in the charred brush;
and not twenty yards from him stood Collinson, who had just
dismounted from a mule. The blood rushed to Key's pale face.
"Prospectin' agin?" said the proprietor of the mill, with his weary
"No," said Key quickly, "only straightening my pack." The blood
deepened in his cheek at his instinctive lie. Had he carefully
thought it out before, he would have welcomed Collinson, and told
him all. But now a quick, uneasy suspicion flashed upon him.
Perhaps his late host had lied, and knew of the existence of the
hidden house. Perhaps--he had spoken of some "silvery rock" the
night before--he even knew something of the lode itself. He turned
upon him with an aggressive face. But Collinson's next words
dissipated the thought.
"I'm glad I found ye, anyhow," he said. "Ye see, arter you left, I
saw ye turn off the trail and make for the burning woods instead o'
goin' round. I sez to myself, 'That fellow is making straight for
Skinner's. He's sorter worried about me and that empty pork
bar'l,'--I hadn't oughter spoke that away afore you boys, anyhow,--
'and he's takin' risks to help me.' So I reckoned I'd throw my leg
over Jenny here, and look arter ye--and go over to Skinner's
"Certainly," said Key with cheerful alacrity, and the one thought
of getting Collinson away; "we'll go together, and we'll see that
that pork barrel is filled!" He glowed quite honestly with this
sudden idea of remembering Collinson through his good fortune.
"Let's get on quickly, for we may find the fire between us on the
outer trail." He hastily mounted his horse.
"Then you didn't take this as a short cut," said Collinson, with
dull perseverance in his idea. "Why not? It looks all clear
"Yes," said Key hurriedly, "but it's been only a leap of the fire,
it's still raging round the bend. We must go back to the cross-
trail." His face was still flushing with his very equivocating,
and his anxiety to get his companion away. Only a few steps
further might bring Collinson before the ruins and the "Notice,"
and that discovery must not be made by him until Key's plans were
perfected. A sudden aversion to the man he had a moment before
wished to reward began to take possession of him. "Come on," he
added almost roughly.
But to his surprise, Collinson yielded with his usual grim
patience, and even a slight look of sympathy with his friend's
annoyance. "I reckon you're right, and mebbee you're in a hurry to
get to Skinner's all along o' MY business, I oughtn't hev told you
boys what I did." As they rode rapidly away he took occasion to
add, when Key had reined in slightly, with a feeling of relief at
being out of the hollow, "I was thinkin', too, of what you'd asked
about any one livin' here unbeknownst to me."
"Well," said Key, with a new nervousness.
"Well; I only had an idea o' proposin' that you and me just took a
look around that holler whar you thought you saw suthin'!" said
"Nonsense," said Key hurriedly. "We really saw nothing--it was all
a fancy; and Uncle Dick was joking me because I said I thought I
saw a woman's face," he added with a forced laugh.
Collinson glanced at him, half sadly. "Oh! You were only funnin',
then. I oughter guessed that. I oughter have knowed it from Uncle
Dick's talk!" They rode for some moments in silence; Key
preoccupied and feverish, and eager only to reach Skinner's.
Skinner was not only postmaster but "registrar" of the district,
and the new discoverer did not feel entirely safe until he had put
his formal notification and claims "on record." This was no
publication of his actual secret, nor any indication of success,
but was only a record that would in all probability remain
unnoticed and unchallenged amidst the many other hopeful dreams of
sanguine prospectors. But he was suddenly startled from his
"Ye said ye war straightenin' up yer pack just now," said Collinson
"Yes!" said Key almost angrily, "and I was."
"Ye didn't stop to straighten it up down at the forks of the trail,
"I may have," said Key nervously. "But why?"
"Ye won't mind my axin' ye another question, will ye? Ye ain't
carryin' round with ye no woman's shoe?"
Key felt the blood drop from his cheeks. "What do you mean?" he
stammered, scarcely daring to lift his conscious eyelids to his
companion's glance. But when he did so he was amazed to find that
Collinson's face was almost as much disturbed as his own.
"I know it ain't the square thing to ask ye, but this is how it
is," said Collinson hesitatingly. "Ye see just down by the fork of
the trail where you came I picked up a woman's shoe. It sorter got
me! For I sez to myself, 'Thar ain't no one bin by my shanty,
comin' or goin', for weeks but you boys, and that shoe, from the
looks of it, ain't bin there as many hours.' I knew there wasn't
any wimin hereabouts. I reckoned it couldn't hev bin dropped by
Uncle Dick or that other man, for you would have seen it on the
road. So I allowed it might have bin YOU. And yer it is." He
slowly drew from his pocket--what Key was fully prepared to see--
the mate of the slipper Key had in his saddle-bags! The fair
fugitive had evidently lost them both.
But Key was better prepared now (perhaps this kind of dissimulation
is progressive), and quickly alive to the necessity of throwing
Collinson off this unexpected scent. And his companion's own
suggestion was right to his hand, and, as it seemed, again quite
providential! He laughed, with a quick color, which, however,
appeared to help his lie, as he replied half hysterically, "You're
right, old man, I own up, it's mine! It's d--d silly, I know--but
then, we're all fools where women are concerned--and I wouldn't
have lost that slipper for a mint of money."
He held out his hand gayly, but Collinson retained the slipper
while he gravely examined it.
"You wouldn't mind telling me where you mought hev got that?" he
"Of course I should mind," said Key with a well-affected mingling
of mirth and indignation. "What are you thinking of, you old
rascal? What do you take me for?"
But Collinson did not laugh. "You wouldn't mind givin' me the size
and shape and general heft of her as wore that shoe?"
"Most decidedly I should do nothing of the kind!" said Key half
impatiently. "Enough, that it was given to me by a very pretty
girl. There! that's all you will know."
"GIVEN to you?" said Collinson, lifting his eyes.
"Yes," returned Key sharply.
Collinson handed him the slipper gravely. "I only asked you," he
said slowly, but with a certain quiet dignity which Key had never
before seen in his face, "because thar was suthin' about the size,
and shape, and fillin' out o' that shoe that kinder reminded me of
some 'un; but that some 'un--her as mought hev stood up in that
shoe--ain't o' that kind as would ever stand in the shoes of her as
YOU know at all." The rebuke, if such were intended, lay quite as
much in the utter ignoring of Key's airy gallantry and levity as in
any conscious slur upon the fair fame of his invented Dulcinea.
Yet Key oddly felt a strong inclination to resent the aspersion as
well as Collinson's gratuitous morality; and with a mean
recollection of Uncle Dick's last evening's scandalous gossip, he
said sarcastically, "And, of course, that some one YOU were
thinking of was your lawful wife."
"It war!" said Collinson gravely.
Perhaps it was something in Collinson's manner, or his own
preoccupation, but he did not pursue the subject, and the
conversation lagged. They were nearing, too, the outer edge of the
present conflagration, and the smoke, lying low in the unburnt
woods, or creeping like an actual exhalation of the soil, blinded
them so that at times they lost the trail completely. At other
times, from the intense heat, it seemed as if they were momentarily
impinging upon the burning area, or were being caught in a closing
circle. It was remarkable that with his sudden accession of
fortune Key seemed to lose his usual frank and careless
fearlessness, and impatiently questioned his companion's woodcraft.
There were intervals when he regretted his haste to reach Skinner's
by this shorter cut, and began to bitterly attribute it to his
desire to serve Collinson. Ah, yes! it would be fine indeed, if
just as he were about to clutch the prize he should be sacrificed
through the ignorance and stupidity of this heavy-handed moralist
at his side! But it was not until, through that moralist's
guidance, they climbed a steep acclivity to a second ridge, and
were comparatively safe, that he began to feel ashamed of his surly
silence or surlier interruptions. And Collinson, either through
his unconquerable patience, or possibly in a fit of his usual
uxorious abstraction, appeared to take no notice of it.
A sloping table-land of weather-beaten boulders now effectually
separated them from the fire on the lower ridge. They presently
began to descend on the further side of the crest, and at last
dropped upon a wagon-road, and the first track of wheels that Key
had seen for a fortnight. Rude as it was, it seemed to him the
highway to fortune, for he knew that it passed Skinner's and then
joined the great stage-road to Marysville,--now his ultimate
destination. A few rods further on they came in view of Skinner's,
lying like a dingy forgotten winter snowdrift on the mountain
It contained a post-office, tavern, blacksmith's shop, "general
store," and express-office, scarcely a dozen buildings in all, but
all differing from Collinson's Mill in some vague suggestion of
vitality, as if the daily regular pulse of civilization still beat,
albeit languidly, in that remote extremity. There was anticipation
and accomplishment twice a day; and as Key and Collinson rode up to
the express-office, the express-wagon was standing before the door
ready to start to meet the stagecoach at the cross-roads three
miles away. This again seemed a special providence to Key. He had
a brief official communication with Skinner as registrar, and duly
recorded his claim; he had a hasty and confidential aside with
Skinner as general storekeeper, and such was the unconscious
magnetism developed by this embryo millionaire that Skinner
extended the necessary credit to Collinson on Key's word alone.
That done, he rejoined Collinson in high spirits with the news,
adding cheerfully, "And I dare say, if you want any further
advances Skinner will give them to you on Parker's draft."
"You mean that bit o' paper that chap left," said Collinson
"I tore it up."
"You tore it up?" ejaculated Key.
"You hear me? Yes!" said Collinson.
Key stared at him. Surely it was again providential that he had
not intrusted his secret to this utterly ignorant and prejudiced
man! The slight twinges of conscience that his lie about the
slippers had caused him disappeared at once. He could not have
trusted him even in that; it would have been like this stupid
fanatic to have prevented Key's preemption of that claim, until he,
Collinson, had satisfied himself of the whereabouts of the missing
proprietor. Was he quite sure that Collinson would not revisit the
spot when he had gone? But he was ready for the emergency.
He had intended to leave his horse with Skinner as security for
Collinson's provisions, but Skinner's liberality had made this
unnecessary, and he now offered it to Collinson to use and keep for
him until called for. This would enable his companion to "pack"
his goods on the mule, and oblige him to return to the mill by the
wagon-road and "outside trail," as more commodious for the two
"Ye ain't afeared o' the road agents?" suggested a bystander; "they
just swarm on galloper's Ridge, and they 'held up' the down stage
only last week."
"They're not so lively since the deputy-sheriff's got a new idea
about them, and has been lying low in the brush near Bald Top,"
returned Skinner. "Anyhow, they don't stop teams nor 'packs'
unless there's a chance of their getting some fancy horseflesh by
it; and I reckon thar ain't much to tempt them thar," he added,
with a satirical side glance at his customer's cattle. But Key was
already standing in the express-wagon, giving a farewell shake to
his patient companion's hand, and this ingenuous pleasantry passed
unnoticed. Nevertheless, as the express-wagon rolled away, his
active fancy began to consider this new danger that might threaten
the hidden wealth of his claim. But he reflected that for a time,
at least, only the crude ore would be taken out and shipped to
Marysville in a shape that offered no profit to the highwaymen.
Had it been a gold mine!--but here again was the interposition of
A week later Preble Key returned to Skinner's with a foreman and
ten men, and an unlimited credit to draw upon at Marysville!
Expeditions of this kind created no surprise at Skinner's. Parties
had before this entered the wilderness gayly, none knew where or
what for; the sedate and silent woods had kept their secret while
there; they had evaporated, none knew when or where--often, alas!
with an unpaid account at Skinner's. Consequently, there was
nothing in Key's party to challenge curiosity. In another week a
rambling, one-storied shed of pine logs occupied the site of the
mysterious ruins, and contained the party; in two weeks excavations
had been made, and the whole face of the outcrop was exposed; in
three weeks every vestige of former tenancy which the fire had not
consumed was trampled out by the alien feet of these toilers of the
"Sylvan Silver Hollow Company." None of Key's former companions
would have recognized the hollow in its blackened leveling and
rocky foundation; even Collinson would not have remembered this
stripped and splintered rock, with its heaps of fresh debris, as
the place where he had overtaken Key. And Key himself had
forgotten, in his triumph, everything but the chance experiment
that had led to his success.
Perhaps it was well, therefore, that one night, when the darkness
had mercifully fallen upon this scene of sylvan desolation, and its
still more incongruous and unsavory human restoration, and the low
murmur of the pines occasionally swelled up from the unscathed
mountain-side, a loud shout and the trampling of horses' feet awoke
the dwellers in the shanty. Springing to their feet, they
hurriedly seized their weapons and rushed out, only to be
confronted by a dark, motionless ring of horsemen, two flaming
torches of pine knots, and a low but distinct voice of authority.
In their excitement, half-awakened suspicion, and confusion, they
were affected by its note of calm preparation and conscious power.
"Drop those guns--hold up your hands! We've got every man of you
Key was no coward; the men, though flustered, were not cravens: but
they obeyed. "Trot out your leader! Let him stand out there,
clear, beside that torch!"
One of the gleaming pine knots disengaged itself from the dark
circle and moved to the centre, as Preble Key, cool and confident,
stepped beside it.
"That will do," said the immutable voice. "Now, we want Jack
Riggs, Sydney Jack, French Pete, and One-eyed Charley."
A vivid reminiscence of the former night scene in the hollow--of
his own and his companions voices raised in the darkness--flashed
across Key. With an instinctive premonition that this invasion had
something to do with the former tenant, he said calmly:--
"Who wants them?"
"The State of California," said the voice.
"The State of California must look further," returned Key in his
old pleasant voice; "there are no such names among my party."
"Who are you?"
"The manager of the 'Sylvan Silver Hollow Company,' and these are
There was a hurried movement, and the sound of whispering in the
hitherto dark and silent circle, and then the voice rose again:
"You have the papers to prove that?"
"Yes, in the cabin. And you?"
"I've a warrant to the sheriff of Sierra."
There was a pause, and the voice went on less confidently:--
"How long have you been here?"
"Three weeks. I came here the day of the fire and took up this
"There was no other house here?"
"There were ruins,--you can see them still. It may have been a
The voice disengaged itself from the vague background and came
"It was a den of thieves. It was the hiding-place of Jack Riggs
and his gang of road agents. I've been hunting this spot for three
weeks. And now the whole thing's up!"
There was a laugh from Key's men, but it was checked as the owner
of the voice slowly ranged up beside the burning torch and they saw
his face. It was dark and set with the defeat of a brave man.
"Won't you come in and take something?" said Key kindly.
"No. It's enough fool work for me to have routed ye out already.
But I suppose it's all in my d--d day's work! Good-night! Forward
The two torches danced forwards, with the trailing off of vague
shadows in dim procession; there was a clatter over the rocks and
they were gone. Then, as Preble Key gazed after them, he felt that
with them had passed the only shadow that lay upon his great
fortune; and with the last tenant of the hollow a proscribed outlaw
and fugitive, he was henceforth forever safe in his claim and his
discovery. And yet, oddly enough, at that moment, as he turned
away, for the first time in three weeks there passed before his
fancy with a stirring of reproach a vision of the face that he had
seen at the window.
Of the great discovery in Sylvan Silver Hollow it would seem that
Collinson as yet knew nothing. In spite of Key's fears that he
might stray there on his return from Skinner's, he did not, nor did
he afterwards revisit the locality. Neither the news of the
registry of the claim nor the arrival of Key's workmen ever reached
him. The few travelers who passed his mill came from the valley to
cross the Divide on their way to Skinner's, and returned by the
longer but easier detour of the stage-road over Galloper's Ridge.
He had no chance to participate in the prosperity that flowed from
the opening of the mine, which plentifully besprinkled Skinner's
settlement; he was too far away to profit even by the chance custom
of Key's Sabbath wandering workmen. His isolation from
civilization (for those who came to him from the valley were rude
Western emigrants like himself) remained undisturbed. The return
of the prospecting party to his humble hospitality that night had
been an exceptional case; in his characteristic simplicity he did
not dream that it was because they had nowhere else to go in their
penniless condition. It was an incident to be pleasantly
remembered, but whose nonrecurrence did not disturb his infinite
patience. His pork barrel and flour sack had been replenished for
other travelers; his own wants were few.
It was a day or two after the midnight visit of the sheriff to
Silver Hollow that Key galloped down the steep grade to
Collinson's. He was amused, albeit, in his new importance, a
little aggrieved also, to find that Collinson had as usual
confounded his descent with that of the generally detached boulder,
and that he was obliged to add his voice to the general uproar.
This brought Collinson to his door.
"I've had your hoss hobbled out among the chickweed and clover in
the green pasture back o' the mill, and he's picked up that much
that he's lookin' fat and sassy," he said quietly, beginning to
mechanically unstrap Key's bridle, even while his guest was in the
act of dismounting. "His back's quite healed up."
Key could not restrain a shrug of impatience. It was three weeks
since they had met,--three weeks crammed with excitement, energy,
achievement, and fortune to Key; and yet this place and this man
were as stupidly unchanged as when he had left them. A momentary
fancy that this was the reality, that he himself was only awakening
from some delusive dream, came over him. But Collinson's next
words were practical.
"I reckoned that maybe you'd write from Marysville to Skinner to
send for the hoss, and forward him to ye, for I never kalkilated
you'd come back."
It was quite plain from this that Collinson had heard nothing. But
it was also awkward, as Key would now have to tell the whole story,
and reveal the fact that he had been really experimenting when
Collinson overtook him in the hollow. He evaded this by post-
dating his discovery of the richness of the ore until he had
reached Marysville. But he found some difficulty in recounting his
good fortune: he was naturally no boaster, he had no desire to
impress Collinson with his penetration, nor the undaunted energy he
had displayed in getting up his company and opening the mine, so
that he was actually embarrassed by his own understatement; and
under the grave, patient eyes of his companion, told his story at
best lamely. Collinson's face betrayed neither profound interest
nor the slightest resentment. When Key had ended his awkward
recital, Collinson said slowly:--
"Then Uncle Dick and that other Parker feller ain't got no show in
this yer find."
"No," said Key quickly. "Don't you remember we broke up our
partnership that morning and went off our own ways. You don't
suppose," he added with a forced half-laugh, "that if Uncle Dick or
Parker had struck a lead after they left me, they'd have put me in
"Wouldn't they?" asked Collinson gravely.
"Of course not." He laughed a little more naturally, but presently
added, with an uneasy smile, "What makes you think they would?"
"Nuthin'!" said Collinson promptly.
Nevertheless, when they were seated before the fire, with glasses
in their hands, Collinson returned patiently to the subject:
"You wuz saying they went their way, and you went yours. But your
way was back on the old way that you'd all gone together."
But Key felt himself on firmer ground here, and answered
deliberately and truthfully, "Yes, but I only went back to the
hollow to satisfy myself if there really was any house there, and
if there was, to warn the occupants of the approaching fire."
"And there was a house there," said Collinson thoughtfully.
"Only the ruins." He stopped and flushed quickly, for he
remembered that he had denied its existence at their former
meeting. "That is," he went on hurriedly, "I found out from the
sheriff, you know, that there had been a house there. But," he
added, reverting to his stronger position, "my going back there was
an accident, and my picking up the outcrop was an accident, and had
no more to do with our partnership prospecting than you had. In
fact," he said, with a reassuring laugh, "you'd have had a better
right to share in my claim, coming there as you did at that moment,
than they. Why, if I'd have known what the thing was worth, I
might have put you in--only it wanted capital and some experience."
He was glad that he had pitched upon that excuse (it had only just
occurred to him), and glanced affably at Collinson. But that
gentleman said soberly:--
"No, you wouldn't nuther."
"Why not?" said Key half angrily.
Collinson paused. After a moment he said, "'Cos I wouldn't hev
took anything outer thet place."
Key felt relieved. From what he knew of Collinson's vagaries he
believed him. He was wise in not admitting him to his confidences
at the beginning; he might have thought it his duty to tell others.
"I'm not so particular," he returned laughingly, "but the silver in
that hole was never touched, nor I dare say even imagined by mortal
man before. However, there is something else about the hollow that
I want to tell you. You remember the slipper that you picked up?"
"Well, I lied to you about that; I never dropped it. On the
contrary, I had picked up the mate of it very near where you found
yours, and I wanted to know to whom it belonged. For I don't mind
telling you now, Collinson, that I believe there WAS a woman in
that house, and the same woman whose face I saw at the window. You
remember how the boys joked me about it--well, perhaps I didn't
care that you should laugh at me too, but I've had a sore
conscience over my lie, for I remembered that you seemed to have
some interest in the matter too, and I thought that maybe I might
have thrown you off the scent. It seemed to me that if you had any
idea who it was, we might now talk the matter over and compare
notes. I think you said--at least, I gathered the idea from a
remark of yours," he added hastily, as he remembered that the
suggestion was his own, and a satirical one--"that it reminded you
of your wife's slipper. Of course, as your wife is dead, that
would offer no clue, and can only be a chance resemblance, unless"--
"Have you got 'em yet?"
"Yes, both." He took them from the pocket of his riding-jacket.
As Collinson received them, his face took upon itself an even
graver expression. "It's mighty cur'ous," he said reflectively,
"but looking at the two of 'em the likeness is more fetchin'. Ye
see, my wife had a STRAIGHT foot, and never wore reg'lar rights and
lefts like other women, but kinder changed about; ye see, these
shoes is reg'lar rights and lefts, but never was worn as sich!"
"There may be other women as peculiar," suggested Key.
"There MUST be," said Collinson quietly.
For an instant Key was touched with the manly security of the
reply, for, remembering Uncle Dick's scandal, it had occurred to
him that the unknown tenant of the robbers' den might be
Collinson's wife. He was glad to be relieved on that point, and
went on more confidently:--
"So, you see, this woman was undoubtedly in that house on the night
of the fire. She escaped, and in a mighty hurry too, for she had
not time to change her slippers for shoes; she escaped on
horseback, for that is how she lost them. Now what was she doing
there with those rascals, for the face I saw looked as innocent as
"Seemed to ye sort o' contrairy, jist as I reckoned my wife's foot
would have looked in a slipper that you said was GIV to ye,"
suggested Collinson pointedly, but with no implication of reproach
in his voice.
"Yes," said Key impatiently.
"I've read yarns afore now about them Eyetalian brigands stealin'
women," said Collinson reflectively, "but that ain't California
road-agent style. Great Scott! if one even so much as spoke to a
woman, they'd have been wiped outer the State long ago. No! the
woman as WAS there came there to STAY!"
As Key's face did not seem to express either assent or satisfaction
at this last statement, Collinson, after a glance at it, went on
with a somewhat gentler gravity: "I see wot's troublin' YOU, Mr.
Key; you've bin thinkin' that mebbee that poor woman might hev bin
the better for a bit o' that fortin' that you discovered under the
very spot where them slippers of hers had often trod. You're
thinkin' that mebbee it might hev turned her and those men from
their evil ways."
Mr. Key had been thinking nothing of the kind, but for some obscure
reason the skeptical jeer that had risen to his lips remained
unsaid. He rose impatiently. "Well, there seems to be no chance
of discovering anything now; the house is burnt, the gang
dispersed, and she has probably gone with them." He paused, and
then laid three or four large gold pieces on the table. "It's for
that old bill of our party, Collinson," he said. "I'll settle and
collect from each. Some time when you come over to the mine, and I
hope you'll give us a call, you can bring the horse. Meanwhile you
can use him; you'll find he's a little quicker than the mule. How
is business?" he added, with a perfunctory glance around the vacant
room and dusty bar.
"Thar ain't much passin' this way," said Collinson with equal
carelessness, as he gathered up the money, "'cept those boys from
the valley, and they're most always strapped when they come here."
Key smiled as he observed that Collinson offered him no receipt,
and, moreover, as he remembered that he had only Collinson's word
for the destruction of Parker's draft. But he merely glanced at
his unconscious host, and said nothing. After a pause he returned
in a lighter tone: "I suppose you are rather out of the world here.
Indeed, I had an idea at first of buying out your mill, Collinson,
and putting in steam power to get out timber for our new buildings,
but you see you are so far away from the wagon-road, that we
couldn't haul the timber away. That was the trouble, or I'd have
made you a fair offer."
"I don't reckon to ever sell the mill," said Collinson simply.
Then observing the look of suspicion in his companion's face, he
added gravely, "You see, I rigged up the whole thing when I
expected my wife out from the States, and I calkilate to keep it in
memory of her."
Key slightly lifted his brows. "But you never told us, by the way,
HOW you ever came to put up a mill here with such an uncertain
"It wasn't onsartin when I came here, Mr. Key; it was a full-fed
stream straight from them snow peaks. It was the earthquake did
"The earthquake!" repeated Key.
"Yes. Ef the earthquake kin heave up that silver-bearing rock that
you told us about the first day you kem here, and that you found
t'other day, it could play roots with a mere mill-stream, I
"But the convulsion I spoke of happened ages on ages ago, when this
whole mountain range was being fashioned," said Key with a laugh.
"Well, this yer earthquake was ten years ago, just after I came. I
reckon I oughter remember it. It was a queer sort o' day in the
fall, dry and hot as if thar might hev bin a fire in the woods,
only thar wasn't no wind. Not a breath of air anywhar. The leaves
of them alders hung straight as a plumb-line. Except for that thar
stream and that thar wheel, nuthin' moved. Thar wasn't a bird on
the wing over that canyon; thar wasn't a squirrel skirmishin' in
the hull wood; even the lizards in the rocks stiffened like stone
Chinese idols. It kept gettin' quieter and quieter, ontil I walked
out on that ledge and felt as if I'd have to give a yell just to
hear my own voice. Thar was a thin veil over everything, and
betwixt and between everything, and the sun was rooted in the
middle of it as if it couldn't move neither. Everythin' seemed to
be waitin', waitin', waitin'. Then all of a suddin suthin' seemed
to give somewhar! Suthin' fetched away with a queer sort of
rumblin', as if the peg had slipped outer creation. I looked up
and kalkilated to see half a dozen of them boulders come, lickity
switch, down the grade. But, darn my skin, if one of 'em stirred!
and yet while I was looking, the whole face o' that bluff bowed
over softly, as if saying 'Good-by,' and got clean away somewhar
before I knowed it. Why, you see that pile agin the side o' the
canyon! Well, a thousand feet under that there's trees, three
hundred feet high, still upright and standin'. You know how them
pines over on that far mountain-side always seem to be climbin' up,
up, up, over each other's heads to the very top? Well, Mr. Key, I
SAW 'EM climbin'! And when I pulled myself together and got back
to the mill, everything was quiet; and, by G--d, so was the mill-
wheel, and there wasn't two inches of water in the river!"
"And what did you think of it?" said Key, interested in spite of
"I thought, Mr. Key-- No! I mustn't say I thought, for I knowed
it. I knowed that suthin' had happened to my wife!"
Key did not smile, but even felt a faint superstitious thrill as he
gazed at him. After a pause Collinson resumed: "I heard a month
after that she had died about that time o' yaller fever in Texas
with the party she was comin' with. Her folks wrote that they died
like flies, and wuz all buried together, unbeknownst and
promiscuous, and thar wasn't no remains. She slipped away from me
like that bluff over that canyon, and that was the end of it."
"But she might have escaped," said Key quickly, forgetting himself
in his eagerness.
But Collinson only shook his head. "Then she'd have been here," he
Key moved towards the door still abstractedly, held out his hand,
shook that of his companion warmly, and then, saddling his horse
himself, departed. A sense of disappointment--in which a vague
dissatisfaction with himself was mingled--was all that had come of
his interview. He took himself severely to task for following his
romantic quest so far. It was unworthy of the president of the
Sylvan Silver Hollow Company, and he was not quite sure but that
his confidences with Collinson might have imperiled even the
interests of the company. To atone for this momentary aberration,
and correct his dismal fancies, he resolved to attend to some
business at Skinner's before returning, and branched off on a long
detour that would intersect the traveled stage-road. But here a
singular incident overtook him. As he wheeled into the turnpike,
he heard the trampling hoof-beats and jingling harness of the
oncoming coach behind him. He had barely time to draw up against
the bank before the six galloping horses and swinging vehicle swept
heavily by. He had a quick impression of the heat and steam of
sweating horse-hide, the reek of varnish and leather, and the
momentary vision of a female face silhouetted against the glass
window of the coach! But even in that flash of perception he
recognized the profile that he had seen at the window of the
He halted for an instant dazed and bewildered in the dust of the
departing wheels. Then, as the bulk of the vehicle reappeared,
already narrowing in the distance, without a second thought he
dashed after it. His disappointment, his self-criticism, his
practical resolutions were forgotten. He had but one idea now--the
vision was providential! The clue to the mystery was before him--
he MUST follow it!
Yet he had sense enough to realize that the coach would not stop to
take up a passenger between stations, and that the next station was
the one three miles below Skinner's. It would not be difficult to
reach this by a cut-off in time, and although the vehicle had
appeared to be crowded, he could no doubt obtain a seat on top.
His eager curiosity, however, led him to put spurs to his horse,
and range up alongside of the coach as if passing it, while he
examined the stranger more closely. Her face was bent listlessly
over a book; there was unmistakably the same profile that he had
seen, but the full face was different in outline and expression. A
strange sense of disappointment that was almost a revulsion of
feeling came over him; he lingered, he glanced again; she was
certainly a very pretty woman: there was the beautifully rounded
chin, the short straight nose, and delicately curved upper lip,
that he had seen in the profile,--and yet--yet it was not the same
face he had dreamt of. With an odd, provoking sense of
disillusion, he swept ahead of the coach, and again slackened his
speed to let it pass. This time the fair unknown raised her long
lashes and gazed suddenly at this persistent horseman at her side,
and an odd expression, it seemed to him almost a glance of
recognition and expectation, came into her dark, languid eyes. The
pupils concentrated upon him with a singular significance, that was
almost, he even thought, a reply to his glance, and yet it was as
utterly unintelligible. A moment later, however, it was explained.
He had fallen slightly behind in a new confusion of hesitation,
wonder, and embarrassment, when from a wooded trail to the right,
another horseman suddenly swept into the road before him. He was a
powerfully built man, mounted on a thoroughbred horse of a quality
far superior to the ordinary roadster. Without looking at Key he
easily ranged up beside the coach as if to pass it, but Key, with a
sudden resolution, put spurs to his own horse and ranged also
abreast of him, in time to see his fair unknown start at the
apparition of this second horseman and unmistakably convey some
signal to him,--a signal that to Key's fancy now betrayed some
warning of himself. He was the more convinced as the stranger,
after continuing a few paces ahead of the coach, allowed it to pass
him at a curve of the road, and slackened his pace to permit Key to
do the same. Instinctively conscious that the stranger's object
was to scrutinize or identify him, he determined to take the
initiative, and fixed his eyes upon him as they approached. But
the stranger, who wore a loose brown linen duster over clothes that
appeared to be superior in fashion and material, also had part of
his face and head draped by a white silk handkerchief worn under
his hat, ostensibly to keep the sun and dust from his head and
neck,--and had the advantage of him. He only caught the flash of a
pair of steel-gray eyes, as the newcomer, apparently having
satisfied himself, gave rein to his spirited steed and easily
repassed the coach, disappearing in a cloud of dust before it. But
Key had by this time reached the "cut-off," which the stranger, if
he intended to follow the coach, either disdained or was ignorant
of, and he urged his horse to its utmost speed. Even with the
stranger's advantages it would be a close race to the station.
Nevertheless, as he dashed on, he was by no means insensible to the
somewhat quixotic nature of his undertaking. If he was right in
his suspicion that a signal had been given by the lady to the
stranger, it was exceedingly probable that he had discovered not
only the fair inmate of the robbers' den, but one of the gang
itself, or at least a confederate and ally. Yet far from deterring
him, in that ingenious sophistry with which he was apt to treat his
romance, he now looked upon his adventure as a practical pursuit in
the interests of law and justice. It was true that it was said
that the band of road agents had been dispersed; it was a fact that
there had been no spoliation of coach or teams for three weeks; but
none of the depredators had ever been caught, and their booty,
which was considerable, was known to be still intact. It was to
the interest of the mine, his partners, and his workmen that this
clue to a danger which threatened the locality should be followed
to the end. As to the lady, in spite of the disappointment that
still rankled in his breast, he could be magnanimous! She might be
the paramour of the strange horseman, she might be only escaping
from some hateful companionship by his aid. And yet one thing
puzzled him: she was evidently not acquainted with the personality
of the active gang, for she had, without doubt, at first mistaken
HIM for one of them, and after recognizing her real accomplice had
communicated her mistake to him.
It was a great relief to him when the rough and tangled "cut-off"
at last broadened and lightened into the turnpike road again, and
he beheld, scarcely a quarter of a mile before him, the dust cloud
that overhung the coach as it drew up at the lonely wayside
station. He was in time, for he knew that the horses were changed
there; but a sudden fear that the fair unknown might alight, or
take some other conveyance, made him still spur his jaded steed
forward. As he neared the station he glanced eagerly around for
the other horseman, but he was nowhere to be seen. He had
evidently either abandoned the chase or ridden ahead.
It seemed equally a part of what he believed was a providential
intercession, that on arriving at the station he found there was a
vacant seat inside the coach. It was diagonally opposite that
occupied by the lady, and he was thus enabled to study her face as
it was bent over her book, whose pages, however, she scarcely
turned. After her first casual glance of curiosity at the new
passenger, she seemed to take no more notice of him, and Key began
to wonder if he had not mistaken her previous interrogating look.
Nor was it his only disturbing query; he was conscious of the same
disappointment now that he could examine her face more attentively,
as in his first cursory glance. She was certainly handsome; if
there was no longer the freshness of youth, there was still the
indefinable charm of the woman of thirty, and with it the delicate
curves of matured muliebrity and repose. There were lines,
particularly around the mouth and fringed eyelids, that were
deepened as by pain; and the chin, even in its rounded fullness,
had the angle of determination. From what was visible, below the
brown linen duster that she wore, she appeared to be tastefully
although not richly dressed.
As the coach at last drove away from the station, a grizzled,
farmer-looking man seated beside her uttered a sigh of relief, so
palpable as to attract the general attention. Turning to his fair
neighbor with a smile of uncouth but good-humored apology, he said
"You'll excuse me, miss! I don't know ezactly how YOU'RE feelin',--
for judging from your looks and gin'ral gait, you're a stranger in
these parts,--but ez for ME, I don't mind sayin' that I never feel
ezactly safe from these yer road agents and stage robbers ontil
arter we pass Skinner's station. All along thet Galloper's Ridge
it's jest tech and go like; the woods is swarmin' with 'em. But
once past Skinner's, you're all right. They never dare go below
that. So ef you don't mind, miss, for it's bein' in your presence,
I'll jest pull off my butes and ease my feet for a spell."
Neither the inconsequence of this singular request, nor the smile
it evoked on the faces of the other passengers, seemed to disturb
the lady's abstraction. Scarcely lifting her eyes from her book,
she bowed a grave assent.
"You see, miss," he continued, "and you gents," he added, taking
the whole coach into his confidence, "I've got over forty ounces of
clean gold dust in them butes, between the upper and lower sole,--
and it's mighty tight packing for my feet. Ye kin heft it," he
said, as he removed one boot and held it up before them. "I put
the dust there for safety--kalkilatin' that while these road gentry
allus goes for a man's pockets and his body belt, they never thinks
of his butes, or haven't time to go through 'em." He looked around
him with a smile of self-satisfaction.
The murmur of admiring comment was, however, broken by a burly-
bearded miner who sat in the middle seat. "Thet's pretty fair, as
far as it goes," he said smilingly, "but I reckon it wouldn't go
far ef you started to run. I've got a simpler game than that,
gentlemen, and ez we're all friends here, and the danger's over, I
don't mind tellin' ye. The first thing these yer road agents do,
after they've covered the driver with their shot guns, is to make
the passengers get out and hold up their hands. That, ma'am,"--
explanatorily to the lady, who betrayed only a languid interest,--
"is to keep 'em from drawing their revolvers. A revolver is the
last thing a road agent wants, either in a man's hand or in his
holster. So I sez to myself, 'Ef a six-shooter ain't of no
account, wet's the use of carryin' it?' So I just put my shooting-
iron in my valise when I travel, and fill my holster with my gold
dust, so! It's a deuced sight heavier than a revolver, but they
don't feel its weight, and don't keer to come nigh it. And I've
been 'held up' twice on t'other side of the Divide this year, and I
passed free every time!"
The applause that followed this revelation and the exhibition of
the holster not only threw the farmer's exploits into the shade,
but seemed to excite an emulation among the passengers. Other
methods of securing their property were freely discussed; but the
excitement culminated in the leaning forward of a passenger who
had, up to that moment, maintained a reserve almost equal to the
fair unknown. His dress and general appearance were those of a
professional man; his voice and manner corroborated the
"I don't think, gentlemen," he began with a pleasant smile, "that
any man of us here would like to be called a coward; but in
fighting with an enemy who never attacks, or even appears, except
with a deliberately prepared advantage on his side, it is my
opinion that a man is not only justified in avoiding an unequal
encounter with him, but in circumventing by every means the object
of his attack. You have all been frank in telling your methods. I
will be equally so in telling mine, even if I have perhaps to
confess to a little more than you have; for I have not only availed
myself of a well-known rule of the robbers who infest these
mountains, to exempt all women and children from their spoliation,--
a rule which, of course, they perfectly understand gives them a
sentimental consideration with all Californians,--but I have, I
confess, also availed myself of the innocent kindness of one of
that charming and justly exempted sex." He paused and bowed
courteously to the fair unknown. "When I entered this coach I had
with me a bulky parcel which was manifestly too large for my
pockets, yet as evidently too small and too valuable to be
intrusted to the ordinary luggage. Seeing my difficulty, our
charming companion opposite, out of the very kindness and innocence
of her heart, offered to make a place for it in her satchel, which
was not full. I accepted the offer joyfully. When I state to you,
gentlemen, that that package contained valuable government bonds to
a considerable amount, I do so, not to claim your praise for any
originality of my own, but to make this public avowal to our fair
fellow passenger for securing to me this most perfect security and
immunity from the road agent that has been yet recorded."
With his eyes riveted on the lady's face, Key saw a faint color
rise to her otherwise impassive face, which might have been called
out by the enthusiastic praise that followed the lawyer's
confession. But he was painfully conscious of what now seemed to
him a monstrous situation! Here was, he believed, the actual
accomplice of the road agents calmly receiving the complacent and
puerile confessions of the men who were seeking to outwit them.
Could he, in ordinary justice to them, to himself, or the mission
he conceived he was pursuing, refrain from exposing her, or warning
them privately? But was he certain? Was a vague remembrance of a
profile momentarily seen--and, as he must even now admit,
inconsistent with the full face he was gazing at--sufficient for
such an accusation? More than that, was the protection she had
apparently afforded the lawyer consistent with the function of an
"Then if the danger's over," said the lady gently, reaching down to
draw her satchel from under the seat, "I suppose I may return it to
"By no means! Don't trouble yourself! Pray allow me to still
remain your debtor,--at least as far as the next station," said the
The lady uttered a languid sigh, sank back in her seat, and calmly
settled herself to the perusal of her book. Key felt his cheeks
beginning to burn with the embarrassment and shame of his evident
misconception. And here he was on his way to Marysville, to follow
a woman for whom he felt he no longer cared, and for whose pursuit
he had no longer the excuse of justice.
"Then I understand that you have twice seen these road agents,"
said the professional man, turning to the miner. "Of course, you
could be able to identify them?"
"Nary a man! You see they're all masked, and only one of 'em ever
"The leader or chief?"
"No, the orator."
"The orator?" repeated the professional man in amazement.
"Well, you see, I call him the orator, for he's mighty glib with
his tongue, and reels off all he has to say like as if he had it by
heart. He's mighty rough on you, too, sometimes, for all his high-
toned style. Ef he thinks a man is hidin' anything he jest scalps
him with his tongue, and blamed if I don't think he likes the
chance of doin' it. He's got a regular set speech, and he's bound
to go through it all, even if he makes everything wait, and runs
the risk of capture. Yet he ain't the chief,--and even I've heard
folks say ain't got any responsibility if he is took, for he don't
tech anybody or anybody's money, and couldn't be prosecuted. I
reckon he's some sort of a broken-down lawyer--d'ye see?"
"Not much of a lawyer, I imagine," said the professional man,
smiling, "for he'll find himself quite mistaken as to his share of
responsibility. But it's a rather clever way of concealing the
identity of the real leader."
"It's the smartest gang that was ever started in the Sierras. They
fooled the sheriff of Sierra the other day. They gave him a sort
of idea that they had a kind of hidin'-place in the woods whar they
met and kept their booty, and, by jinks! he goes down thar with his
hull posse,--just spilin' for a fight,--and only lights upon a gang
of innocent greenhorns, who were boring for silver on the very spot
where he allowed the robbers had their den! He ain't held up his
Key cast a quick glance at the lady to see the effect of this
revelation. But her face--if the same profile he had seen at the
window--betrayed neither concern nor curiosity. He let his eyes
drop to the smart boot that peeped from below her gown, and the
thought of his trying to identify it with the slipper he had picked
up seemed to him as ridiculous as his other misconceptions. He
sank back gloomily in his seat; by degrees the fatigue and
excitement of the day began to mercifully benumb his senses;
twilight had fallen and the talk had ceased. The lady had allowed
her book to drop in her lap as the darkness gathered, and had
closed her eyes; he closed his own, and slipped away presently into
a dream, in which he saw the profile again as he had seen it in the
darkness of the hollow, only that this time it changed to a full
face, unlike the lady's or any one he had ever seen. Then the
window seemed to open with a rattle, and he again felt the cool
odors of the forest; but he awoke to find that the lady had only
opened her window for a breath of fresh air. It was nearly eight
o' clock; it would be an hour yet before the coach stopped at the
next station for supper; the passengers were drowsily nodding; he
closed his eyes and fell into a deeper sleep, from which he awoke
with a start.
The coach had stopped!
"It can't be Three Pines yet," said a passenger's voice, in which
the laziness of sleep still lingered, "or else we've snoozed over
five mile. I don't see no lights; wot are we stoppin' for?" The
other passengers struggled to an upright position. One nearest the
window opened it; its place was instantly occupied by the double
muzzle of a shot-gun! No one moved. In the awestricken silence
the voice of the driver rose in drawling protestation.
"It ain't no business o' mine, but it sorter strikes me that you
chaps are a-playin' it just a little too fine this time! It ain't
three miles from Three Pine Station and forty men. Of course,
that's your lookout,--not mine!"
The audacity of the thing had evidently struck even the usually
taciturn and phlegmatic driver into his first expostulation on
"Your thoughtful consideration does you great credit," said a voice
from the darkness, "and shall be properly presented to our manager;
but at the same time we wish it understood that we do not hesitate
to take any risks in strict attention to our business and our
clients. In the mean time you will expedite matters, and give your
passengers a chance to get an early tea at Three Pines, by handing
down that treasure-box and mail-pouch. Be careful in handling that
blunderbuss you keep beside it; the last time it unfortunately went
off, and I regret to say slightly wounded one of your passengers.
Accidents of this kind, interfering, as they do, with the harmony
and pleasure of our chance meetings, cannot be too highly
"By gosh!" ejaculated an outside passenger in an audible whisper.
"Thank you, sir," said the voice quietly; "but as I overlooked you,
I will trouble you now to descend with the others."
The voice moved nearer; and, by the light of a flaming bull's-eye
cast upon the coach, it could be seen to come from a stout, medium-
sized man with a black mask, which, however, showed half of a
smooth, beardless face, and an affable yet satirical mouth. The
speaker cleared his throat with the slight preparatory cough of the
practiced orator, and, approaching the window, to Key's intense
surprise, actually began in the identical professional and
rhetorical style previously indicated by the miner.
"Circumstances over which we have no control, gentlemen, compel us
to oblige you to alight, stand in a row on one side, and hold up
your hands. You will find the attitude not unpleasant after your
cramped position in the coach, while the change from its confined
air to the wholesome night-breeze of the Sierras cannot but prove
salutary and refreshing. It will also enable us to relieve you of
such so-called valuables and treasures in the way of gold dust and
coin, which I regret to say too often are misapplied in careless
hands, and which the teachings of the highest morality distinctly
denominate as the root of all evil! I need not inform you,
gentlemen, as business men, that promptitude and celerity of
compliance will insure dispatch, and shorten an interview which has
been sometimes needlessly, and, I regret to say, painfully
He drew back deliberately with the same monotonous precision of
habit, and disclosed the muzzles of his confederates' weapons still
leveled at the passengers. In spite of their astonishment,
indignation, and discomfiture, his practiced effrontery and
deliberate display appeared in some way to touch their humorous
sense, and one or two smiled hysterically, as they rose and
hesitatingly filed out of the vehicle. It is possible, however,
that the leveled shot-guns contributed more or less directly to
Two masks began to search the passengers under the combined focus
of the bull's-eyes, the shining gun-barrels, and a running but
still carefully prepared commentary from the spokesman. "It is to
be regretted that business men, instead of intrusting their
property to the custody of the regularly constituted express agent,
still continue to secrete it on their persons; a custom that,
without enhancing its security, is not only an injustice to the
express company, but a great detriment to dispatch. We also wish
to point out that while we do not as a rule interfere with the
possession of articles of ordinary personal use or adornment, such
as simple jewelry or watches, we reserve our right to restrict by
confiscation the vulgarity and unmanliness of diamonds and enormous
The act of spoliation was apparently complete, yet it was evident
that the orator was restraining himself for a more effective
climax. Clearing his throat again and stepping before the
impatient but still mystified file of passengers, he reviewed them
gravely. Then in a perfectly pitched tone of mingled pain and
apology, he said slowly:--
"It would seem that, from no wish of our own, we are obliged on
this present occasion to suspend one or two of our usual rules. We
are not in the habit of interfering with the wearing apparel of our
esteemed clients; but in the interests of ordinary humanity we are
obliged to remove the boots of the gentleman on the extreme left,
which evidently give him great pain and impede his locomotion. We
also seldom deviate from our rule of obliging our clients to hold
up their hands during this examination; but we gladly make an
exception in favor of the gentleman next to him, and permit him to
hand us the altogether too heavily weighted holster which presses
upon his hip. Gentlemen," said the orator, slightly raising his
voice, with a deprecating gesture, "you need not be alarmed! The
indignant movement of our friend, just now, was not to draw his
revolver,--for it isn't there!" He paused while his companions
speedily removed the farmer's boots and the miner's holster, and
with a still more apologetic air approached the coach, where only
the lady remained erect and rigid in her corner. "And now," he
said with simulated hesitation, "we come to the last and to us the
most painful suspension of our rules. On these very rare
occasions, when we have been honored with the presence of the fair
sex, it has been our invariable custom not only to leave them in
the undisturbed possession of their property, but even of their
privacy as well. It is with deep regret that on this occasion we
are obliged to make an exception. For in the present instance, the
lady, out of the gentleness of her heart and the politeness of her
sex, has burdened herself not only with the weight but the
responsibility of a package forced upon her by one of the
passengers. We feel, and we believe, gentlemen, that most of you
will agree with us, that so scandalous and unmanly an attempt to
evade our rules and violate the sanctity of the lady's immunity
will never be permitted. For your own sake, madam, we are
compelled to ask you for the satchel under your seat. It will be
returned to you when the package is removed."
"One moment," said the professional man indignantly, "there is a
man here whom you have spared,--a man who lately joined us. Is
that man," pointing to the astonished Key, "one of your
"That man," returned the spokesman with a laugh, "is the owner of
the Sylvan Hollow Mine. We have spared him because we owe him some
consideration for having been turned out of his house at the dead
of night while the sheriff of Sierra was seeking us." He stopped,
and then in an entirely different voice, and in a totally changed
manner, said roughly, "Tumble in there, all of you, quick! And
you, sir" (to Key),--"I'd advise you to ride outside. Now, driver,
raise so much as a rein or a whiplash until you hear the signal--
and by God! you'll know what next." He stepped back, and seemed to
be instantly swallowed up in the darkness; but the light of a
solitary bull's-eye--the holder himself invisible--still showed the
muzzles of the guns covering the driver. There was a momentary
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