The Wrong Trail
VICTORIA TYRRELL, seeking to brace herself against the mighty wind, swayed on her skis. Up here, so close to timberline, there was nothing to break the force of the blizzard, and the hope that had kept her going for the last hour had vanished with nightfall. If only she and Eric had reached this bare height earlier, they might have had an identifying view of the surrounding landscape. As it was, even the outlines of Eric's dark figure ahead of her were becoming indistinct. She spurred herself to new effort. Whatever happened, she must not lose sight of Eric.
Was it only a few hours ago that she and Eric had been members of that gay crowd of college students, headed for a week-end of skiing and winter fun in the remote mountain valley where the Ski Club cabins lay? They had left their cars at the end of a canyon road, eaten lunch at the resort located there, strapped on their skis, and set merrily forth on the twelve-mile ski trip ahead.
The trail had been a little-used one, blazed here and there on some big spruce or pine. None of them had been over it since last fall, and then only Eric and Hosmer Leeds. Those two had packed in supplies in anticipation of just such an outing as this. Now it was late March, the height of the skiing season in this section of Colorado's mountains, where the big snows held off until well after Christmas.
There had been ten of them in the original party: Dr. Weldon and his wife, the chaperons; five students, of whom Vic was the only girl, from the State College of Mines, and three girls from the University of Colorado. One of the latter was Vic's sister, Imogene.
Since Vic and Eric were experienced skiers they had insisted upon being the trail breakers. It would be fun, they had said, to forge on ahead of the others, open the cabins, kindle the fires and have them burning lustily when the rest of the party arrived. It was fun, too, at first, even after the storm had begun. The snowfall had been gentle then, giving no warning that it was to increase beyond all natural expectations. When it did, the falling snow soon had become so thick as to obscure outstanding landmarks. Even the smooth, narrow ski tracks were obliterated almost as fast as they were made, and Vic and Eric were now so far ahead that their trail-breaking was of little use to the others. But a fresh blaze on a tree trunk, appearing every now and then well above all possible height of drifting snow, assured the couple they were following a trail. It was some time since there had first come into Vic's mind the sharp query, "What trail?"
Ahead of her, Eric paused. Vic paused, too. She must run no risk of letting their long skis become entangled. Eric was turning his head. Above the rising swells of wind his voice reached her in a shout, "We're lost, you know."
She nodded in irritation. As if she had not known for as long as he that they were lost! Silly to waste one's strength and breath talking about it. She was grateful to him, though, for his casualness. That was the way to take it. He thrust out his hand in a gesture toward a lonely, stunted tree, one of those twisted, doubled-over, wind-battling trees that hold their staunch solitary vigil on the edge of timberline. Had Eric found another of the small, freshly hewn blazes? Well, it was time he did. It had been a long way since the last one. She nodded understandingly, not sure that he could see her.
What they both meant was that after all they were on a trail of some sort, even though all other evidence of the fact was lacking. There was nothing to do but keep on. She was glad Eric credited her with enough sense to know without being told that turning back at this time of day, facing into that howling wind and blinding snow, trying to find their way down through those night-blackened aisles of evergreen forest, was out of the question. She did not even want to think about it. She did not want to think about anything. She needed to center every bit of remaining strength upon following Eric, keeping up with him, not letting him know how nearly spent she was.
She had done enough thinking long ago when she had first begun to realize that she and Eric had somewhere made a false turn. In the mounting storm they had lost the true trail, and now it would be hopeless for them to try to relocate it by turning back. Too much danger of going over a cliff, down into only goodness knew what – a hidden canyon, a mountain valley, a boulder-strewn stream. Her first and greatest worry had been that the others might follow them. Time had brought relief from that fear. Someone in the main party must have had more mountain sense than she and Eric, and had either recognized and kept to the right trail, or had had judgment enough to turn back before the storm had become too fierce and daylight too far gone.
Her relief was chiefly on account of her sister, Imogene. Imogene was not physically strong, and she was no athlete. This was the first time she had ever attempted a long ski trip. Vic had persuaded her to come. She had wanted Imogene to see those fine cabins, nestled in that remote mountain park below long, snow-packed slopes that were ideal ski courses. The main party would be all right in those cabins, well built mountain homes as they were said to be, if only it had reached them in time. Perhaps it had. Hosmer Leeds had been up there with Eric last fall. To her surprise she found herself, in her worry about Imogene, putting her faith in Hosmer's sturdy, hard strength. She had resented his being in the party before, although as a protegé of Dr. Weldon he was naturally included. It was not only his age, nearly thirty, nor even his taciturnity and seriousness that she resented in him. It was that critical aloofness he always seemed to feel toward youthful light-heartedness. Such a person was sure to dampen the fun of an outing.
She was past resenting him now, though. She was past everything but keeping up, and very nearly past that. She swayed again, groggily. Eric must have seen her, for he was by her side. He caught her arm, kept her from a ski-entangling fall. His support aroused her enough to realize that they had reached an open, fairly level stretch where they could travel side by side – a bit of tableland on a mountain side above timberline. The wind was worse here, as it would inevitably be so near a bare mountain top. Yet there was protection, too, of a sort, in the broad massive height towering so close above them. Moreover, the snow underfoot was not so heavily clogging. That was because in many places the wind swept the surface snow off as fast as it fell, and also because of the swiftly freezing cold.
Eric's voice at her ear came through the thick helmet she wore. "An old mine of some sort. Wonder what one." Eric's fur-gloved hand was motioning toward a clump of buildings nestled on a stretch of slope just below the mountain's broad summit.
Vic did not have to see clearly to know what Eric was indicating, for crumbling old buildings, with gaunt, un-painted, wooden frames stood out in big splotches here and there from under heavy frostings of snow. Judging from the tall, upstanding one in the center, which undoubtedly had once housed a big hoist, this had been a mine of considerable size. But where had the men who had worked it lived? There was no evidence anywhere about of an abandoned mining camp, turned ghost town, as so many such settlements had done in the Rocky Mountains. There was nothing but decayed buildings with roofs and sides hopelessly caved in. Except for the dumps. There were several of these, conspicuously large, their hill-like shapes extending well down the slope under thick snow blanketing. Vic shivered forlornly, then mustered a gleam of disillusioned humor. "The end of the trail," she murmured. "And shelter – in the lea of a mine dump only."
But Eric had detected something she had not. He was guiding her to a covered shack that stood some distance from the mine buildings, under a protecting bit of cliff. The shack's door, they found, was not locked but frosted shut. Eric's athletic shoulder forced it open. Taking off a ski, he used it to scrape away enough of the drift blocking the entrance to thrust Vic upward over the remaining mound. With one hand he held her braced against the inner door jamb, while with the other, he loosened the buckles of her ski straps. She moved off her skis with stiff, fumbling steps. She could not see an inch. It was darker in here than in the snow-whitened night outside. And it was colder, bitterly so, a stale kind of cold. There was a peculiar odor, too, as of frozen mustiness and rancid cooking fumes. She was almost sorry when Eric closed the door behind them, shutting out some of the noise of the clean wind.
"Shelter, anyway," he was saying. "Stay right where you are until I see if I can find some kind of a light." He struck a match.
She could see his gloved hand shielding the feeble blaze, and knew he was fearing waste from a meager supply. But the blaze held long enough to guide him to a wall shelf and a partially burned candle stuck to a saucer. With the match's last flicker he managed to light what must have been a charred wick.
"Keep shaking yourself, Vic. Stamp your feet. I'll have our bearings in a minute." He was investigating the lower end of the room, carrying the candle. Her eyes followed the narrow sphere of illumination from its flame. There was not much to see: an open cupboard on one wall, containing a few dishes and cooking utensils, and some cans and cartons that probably meant food; a small, old-fashioned, fat-bellied stove with a flat, stove-lift top; two stiff old wooden chairs, and a big wooden box, bottom up, evidently an improvised table. That was all, at this end, anyway. The other end of the rather long room was still too dark for its contents to be visible. The place was bare, but what made it pitiful was the evidence it bore of recent human habitation. Some one seemed actually to have been trying to make a home of this forlorn shack, for the place was clean and tidy. The floor, heavily frosted windows, shelves and meager furniture were free of traces of dust, old cobwebs, and waste such as long emptiness and neglect would have made inevitable.
Eric was examining the stove. The stove pipe contained a section of bright new tin that stood out in startling contrast to the rusted surfaces of old tin and iron. Within the fire box were a few dead ashes, not yet entirely cold.
"We'll have a fire in a minute, Vic. The stove's sound, stands firm on its legs."
"More than I can say of myself at present." She grinned.
Eric flashed her an appreciative smile. She was grateful for it. She needed it to combat the feeling of dread that was clamping down upon her in this freezing dimness. She began swinging her arms about her body as much to defy her mood as to keep circulation going. With what did Eric expect to build a fire, she wondered. The big open box behind the stove was empty of dry wood except for sawdust and a few splinters. There was the furniture, of course. That was dry and could be broken up. Eric was lifting the candle high for a longer illumination.
Vic's glance followed his. "Over there," she cried jubilantly. "In that back corner. Behind the high headboard of that bed. Wood. But in too big chunks. They need splitting. But there's an axe." Her spirits soared. As soon as they got a fire going, she'd investigate the food in the open cupboard. One can looked like coffee!
Eric was handing her the lighted candle. "Can you hold it, Vic? Don't let it go out. I have to see to split a few pieces. We'll have a fire in a minute."
Her fingers, still numb within her heavy gloves, closed on the saucer edge with clumsy caution. She followed Eric down the room, lighting him toward the woodpile and the extended axe handle. She saw him stop suddenly as if spellbound, then stoop, and she stepped around him, close to his side.
There on the floor lay a woman, clad in woolen pajamas of dark gray, on her feet a pair of man's thick woolen socks of the same color. In the flash of heightened alertness that comes with sudden shock, Vic noted other things. The woman was not old, probably not as old as she looked with her rather heavy features so pinched and blue with cold. She was as blonde as Vic herself but with a completely different blondness. Vic was slender and willowy of build. This woman was sturdy, even thickset. Her abundant light hair had not the soft, thick waviness of Vic's, but was straight and rather lusterless. She lay in a nearly natural posture just beyond the axe handle, as if she had stooped to pick the handle up and fallen there asleep.
Vic was stooping too by this time, beside Eric, seeking to give him all the light she could. Presently he spoke. "She isn't dead. Chilled through and through, though. Seems impossible she isn't frozen stiff. We must have arrived in the very nick of time. Get that old chair, Vic. Put the candle on it. Then help me lift her to the bed. I hope there's plenty of bedding."
"There're blankets. Three pairs of them. Good ones and thick. But the top ones are awfully cold. Get a fire going. We'll move the bed near the stove and get a hot drink ready."
Neither Vic nor Eric ever forgot the next hour. Neither ever cared to talk much about it afterward. The miseries of cold and fatigue seemed to drop from their own bodies. They worked ceaselessly, centering every effort upon restoring life in the unconscious woman. From time to time they exchanged low-voiced comments. These were chiefly brief speculations upon the strange situation.
There was no sign nor symptom of foul play. Clearly this was a case of lonely living; of illness in circumstances that had afforded little or no chance of succor. In stupor or delirium the woman must have allowed the fire to die out. Upon regaining consciousness she must have dragged herself from the bed to replenish it, found there was no split wood left, and collapsed at her first move to obtain some. How long had she lain there in this bitter cold? Certainly only a very short while or she would have been frozen stiff. As it was, the deadly work of freezing had only just begun.
Who was she? What was she doing here alone? Above all, at this time of year? She must be somebody not well acquainted with the habits of Colorado spring weather. This God-forsaken shack was plainly undesirable as a habitation. The miners who had once dug and hoisted ore from the mine must themselves have travelled back and forth daily to living quarters elsewhere. And the ore they had brought to the surface must have been packed for crushing to some distant mill.
Such were the comments and thoughts that passed back and forth between Eric and Vic as they worked. They fired the little stove to such a roaring heat that its round, rusted sides glowed red among the shadows of the candlelit room. They found two more candles in the cupboard, but were treasuring them. They had discovered, too, in that cupboard, cartons of crackers and rusks, and cans of soup, milk, meat, and coffee.
They moved the single bed with its mattress and high headboard as near to the stove as they dared. They wrapped the woman close in the blankets that Vic had heated, one by one. Over them they spread all the clothes they found hanging from the few hooks on the end wall. The chief of these garments was a heavy woolen cloak. They had scooped snow from the drift at the door into the little teakettle on the stove top. It came to a quick boiling. Among the few clean cooking utensils was a coffee pot. Vic piled the coffee into it and brewed it strong. They had no other stimulant. Then with a tin teaspoon she let a few drops of the brown liquid drip between the partly open lips of the unconscious woman. A struggle followed, exhausting and distressing. Then the coffee trickled out at the corner of the woman's mouth. She could not swallow. Meanwhile the outside wind howled and rattled through the shack's thin walls.
Vic glanced toward Eric in despair. "If only we knew better what we should do." Never could she remember feeling so incompetent, so helplessly ignorant. She had sought to massage and chafe warmth back into the woman's chilling flesh. No use. Maybe they had made a mistake in handling her at all. Maybe they had taken from her strength she did not have. Nevertheless the woman still breathed; there was just enough evidence for Vic to feel sure of that. "If only we could get in touch with a doctor," she murmured anew.
Eric turned from piling the box behind the stove full of split wood lengths, and moved toward his discarded skis. "I'm going to try it, Vic. Make an effort to reach one, anyway. There's enough wood to last you for a good while. It's tough, leaving you alone. I hate to do it. But—"
Her protest was all on his account. "Oh, no. You mustn't. All alone. In this storm."
Even as she spoke there was a finality about Eric's movements that told Vic her protests were useless. On the stove top the canned soup she had thawed was simmering to a boil. She poured it into a white crockery cup mottled brown with old cracks, and carried it to Eric.
"Drink this," she commanded. "All of it."
He obeyed, reassuring her between sips. He really thought the storm was moderating a little. He would be going down grade for the most part, not up as they had come. If he found he could not possibly make it, he'd turn back. He made no mention of thick, dark growths of tall evergreens, of intervening gully breaks off trail, often with precipice-like sides. He returned the empty cup to her, accepted a package of food she had gleaned from the cupboard and opened the door a crack. Before he could slip through as he had intended, the wind tore the handle from his hand, flinging the door wide open with a force that shook the shack. Hastily Eric strove to pull it shut.
Vic had stepped back close to the bed, and as the sudden wind spent itself and lapsed into rest, other sounds were heard. A few long, struggling breaths, a short, sharp gasp. Then again came silence, far more significant than any that had preceded it. Vic stood a moment, taut with understanding.
She looked up toward the door and spoke quietly. "You needn't go, Eric. Risking your life can't do her any good now."
A Rescuer Vanishes
TOGETHER they did what had to be done. They moved the bed back into the corner and covered the prostrate form. They went back to the stove and hovered as close to it as they dared, drinking the rest of the coffee, munching rusks, eating the raisins and sweet chocolate they had carried in their own pockets. Then Eric placed the two straight chairs together and motioned Vic toward them.
"Lie down, Vic. Get what rest you can."
"How about you?"
"I'll keep the fire going. After a while we'll change places."
Vic obeyed, stretching herself out as well as she could on the cramping length of two chair seats. She was grateful Eric made no move to bring her one of the blankets from the bed. She would rather have frozen than used one. She was not really cold now; she had on her warm ski outfit.
She would not have believed she could have slept in such circumstances. But she must have. The last glimpse she had of Eric, he was perched behind the stove on the rim of the wood box, elbows on knees, chin supported upon the palm of his hands. He was still there when she reopened her eyes, looking as if he had not moved. But he had, for the fire was burning lustily. Later she was to learn that he had done more than replenish the fire; he had been searching the shack. Probably his movements in reseating himself had awakened her. Or was it something else? A noise from outside? Eric's head lifted, too. Then he was on his feet moving toward the door. In another minute she was following him. "Was it a shout?"
"Sounded like it. Listen."
Suddenly she noticed other things. "Why, the storm's stopped. The air's clear. It's moonlight."
Eric nodded, holding his listening pose. "Wind and snow quit a half hour ago. I couldn't bear to waken you. There it is again. Listen!"
This time there was no uncertainty about the shout. Eric opened the door and answered. Somewhat later two more figures in ski togs were clumping into the cabin; Dr. Weldon and Hosmer Leeds. Never would Vic have believed she could have been so glad to see Hosmer.
The professor was noisily exuberant. "Here they are! I was right, you see, Leeds." He turned toward Eric. "When we didn't find you at the cabins, and you still failed to show up, I guessed what had become of you. Years ago I knew this country pretty well – all its mines and prospects, pretty generally abandoned of late years, of course. As a young fellow I'd tramped over almost every foot of it with a pack on my back. With your father, Vic. Prospecting, of course. Finding stuff, too. But not often what the world wanted in those days – gold, silver, lead. Interesting rocks, just the same. Full of strange ores for the most part, ones the world of that day usually pronounced worthless. Now it knows better. Some of those ores held metals we possess so little of today and need so badly that we call them strategic—" Relief was making the little professor irritatingly loquacious as well as noisy.
The noise his companion made was of movement, not words. Hosmer's unstrapped skis had clattered to the floor; his step shook the frail shack; threat to the stability of the place seemed to lurk in his stooped height and tough, hard-muscled body, in the set of his powerful shoulders, even in the expression of his face. It was over-serious, as usual, and unyielding, as if his existence was always one of uncompromising fight.
Suddenly Dr. Weldon's loquacity ceased. He had awakened to the realization that although there was no mistaking the eagerness of Eric's and Vic's welcome, there was a subdued quality about it. Eric answered the teacher's look of inquiry with a motion of his head toward the bed in the corner and a few brief words of explanation. All moved toward the bed, Dr. Weldon in the lead, Hosmer Leeds towering above the others at the rear. Queries, replies, explanations flowed back and forth quietly. Not all of these were about the dead woman. Vic was too eager to learn of other things.
"You reached Wild Basin and the ski cabins all right?"
"Yes. Thanks to Leeds here."
"And Imogene? How did she make it?"
"All right. With Leeds' help. Worn out, of course. All the girls were pretty exhausted the last few miles."
"And only closed cold cabins to receive you."
"Pretty good refuge at that." The teacher chose not to enlarge upon the ski party's arrival at cabins filled with the damp cold of long disuse, instead of the anticipated warmth of crackling fires and the boiling hot tea and soup Eric and Vic were to have had in readiness. He told merely of a hasty fire-making, a hastier preparation of a hot drink, and of swift turning into bunks made up with blankets still full of dank cold. Over all that wearied activity, of course, there had undoubtedly hung the mystery of the lost trail breakers. But Dr. Weldon hastened to reassure.
"Imogene was sound asleep when Leeds and I left the cabins." He did not add that he had given the girl a mild sleeping potion to quiet her mind and soothe her fears.
"Then she wasn't really alarmed about Eric and me?" Vic found that hard to believe.
"Oh, she was confident Leeds and I would find you. You see, I'd figured out you'd lost our trail where it branches off from a long-ago route up Hurricane – a mountain almost forgotten by the world, of course, since the playing out of old Tobin's mine."
"And you two went all the way back to where it branches and then up here on that awful trail we followed – (new blazed, though; that's what's so queer about it – what misled us) – all just since midnight? It's only two o'clock now, isn't it?"
"No, we didn't go back. We skied up the Basin, over an intervening ridge and valley, then up a fairly easy mountain slope. There was plenty of snow everywhere, and before long, clear moonlight. Not hard going so long as one kept his sense of direction. Leeds can always be relied on for that." He moved toward the stove to accept a cup of the coffee Eric was pouring for the newcomers. Hosmer Leeds was already drinking his. "And you've found nothing that could identify the woman?" the little professor queried as he bent his head to sip the welcome drink.
"I searched the whole shack thoroughly while Vic slept," Eric answered. "The only thing I came across that could tell us anything was this. I didn't open it. I felt I didn't have the right. I found it in a handbag hanging under a woolen dress and sweater on one of those clothes hooks on the end wall." Eric reached into one of his own pockets as he spoke and drew out a long white envelope that he handed Dr. Weldon.
The light of the candle flickered out in a last splutter of grease. Eric promptly stuck another candle into the blob before it could harden and put a match to the white tip of wick. But meanwhile the light in the room was even dimmer than it had been, making it impossible for Vic to see whether or not the envelope was stamped and addressed. Not that it really mattered; she could ask Eric about it later. Only it was just one more of the little things that Hosmer Leeds would know something about before she did. He was standing close enough to the little doctor to have seen the envelope.
Putting the letter in one of his pockets, the professor was remarking, "You were right not to open it, Stuart. We'll turn it over just as it is to the authorities. We must report the finding of this woman to them at once. The town nearest here must be Chandler. It lies on the other side of this mountain – a thriving little place even though miles from a railroad. Once, a quarter of a century ago, when the mine here was a real producer, there was an ore wagon road leading down there to the mills, I'm sure. Something of that old road must still be left; enough, anyway, to serve as a partial guide even under this snow. Are you equal to the trip, Eric?" Without waiting for an answer he turned toward the girl. "As for you, Vic, the sooner you reach the ski cabin the better. Stuart should be eyewitness enough about all this to satisfy the authorities, at least for the present. With Leeds' help you can make the ski cabins in better time than we did getting here. It's not really far. And going back is nearly all down grade."
How typically wordy a school teacher was, no matter what the occasion, Vic thought with a touch of humor, while aloud she was saying, "Of course I can make it. I don't need any help, either."
It was not a grateful speech after what Hosmer Leeds had just done for her and Eric. Plainly he did not like it. Or was it rather that he did not like being shoved out of the critical business of the situation and allotted the care of a girl of whom he never had approved? Ever since her first meeting with Hosmer Leeds she had felt in him a silent scorn of a girl who had had the effrontery to choose a profession that, from any sensible point of view, belonged exclusively to men. Of course, though, justice told her, his present reluctance might be entirely humanitarian. Physically he seemed far more fit for the additional ski trip to Chandler than Dr. Weldon. Not that Vic feared for the quick-moving little doctor; nerve force, if not bodily strength, would carry him through. "And it's stolidity that gives Hosmer so much endurance." She knew the thought was dishonest. There was no stolidity in Hosmer Leeds' mental powers as she was altogether too well aware. He was her chief scholastic rival in college classes, and, unlike her, he was making his outstanding record against the odds of full self-support and inadequate school preparation.
All four emerged from the shack together, leaving the fire well banked inside. The men closed the door tight against any possible prowler; all buckled on their skis. Then they separated to go their separate ways, two by two.
Vic and Hosmer made the ski cabins in less time than Dr. Weldon had predicted. Pride and will power made Vic accomplish the trip without faltering. She scarcely spoke. All her effort was centered upon keeping up with the tireless figure in front of her. She kept her gaze upon the finely shaped head and sturdy, sweater-clad neck below it. The man himself, moving along so unfalteringly, seemed to her like a smoothly operating piece of high-powered machinery. Yet there were moments when she was dimly aware of qualities within the man that were not at all mechanical. Now and then in his backward inquiring glances toward her, she glimpsed touches of reluctant admiration for her gameness. At other times she sensed in him an absentmindedness, as if his thoughts were not on the present situation at all.
They found Mrs. Weldon awaiting them at the larger of the two ski cabins with hot soup in readiness. They partook of it gratefully. Then with matter-of-fact Scotch motherliness the older woman hurried Vic to her awaiting bed, and sent Hosmer to the smaller cabin, where the men of the party bunked.
That was the last Vic knew until noon of the following day. She met the other members of the skiing party as they trooped in to the luncheon table from their athletic morning in the clear, cold out-of-doors, cheeks glowing, spirits full of laughter. To her amazement she discovered they knew nothing of the previous night's experiences beyond the facts that she and Eric had been found, that Hosmer and Vic had returned, and that Dr. Weldon and Eric had gone on to Chandler on some matter of business.
"It was your story to tell, dear," Mrs. Weldon explained.
"But Hosmer?" Such reticence seemed too much even for that taciturn individual.
Shrugs were the first response, more eloquent of critical indifference than the words that followed. "Haven't seen him. He and his skis had vanished again by the time the rest of us opened our eyes at daybreak. True French leave this time. Didn't leave any word of why, when, or where."
"We should worry."
"If that's the way he likes to behave, let him."
A glance at Mrs. Weldon, seated at the head of the table, showed no shadow of uneasiness concerning Hosmer. Her face remained serene. Vic yielded to the clamor about her and told her story, although without much detail. She did not even mention Eric's discovery of a letter. The reason for her reserve was not so much her wanting to shield herself from a too poignant reliving of her experience, as it was that the way the group received the news of the finding of the dying woman shocked and repelled her. Thoughtless rather than shallow, her hearers seemed not to grasp the fact that she was telling of a true experience through which she and Eric had actually lived. The solemnity and pity of what they had met in the shack probed only slightly into their consciousness. Instead they seized upon her tale as they would upon any fantastic mystery yarn, manufactured by some writer's imagination for the relaxation of tired readers.
"How perfectly thrilling! A mystery story like that right in our own midst."
"Two mysteries! Don't forget Leeds' French leave."
"Do you suppose they're connected?"
"Wouldn't it be exciting if they were!"
"What utter nonsense!" It was the first time Imogene had spoken. Unlike the others, she was languid and quiet. A brunette with large dark eyes, she was as tall as Vic, but larger. Her bearing had poise and a gentle dignity; but there was, too, something just a little soft about her bigness. Yesterday's fatigue still clung to her, and she had taken cold. Nevertheless her words now were both spirited and emphatic.
Nobody heeded them. Sleuthing interest had grown too rampant. The meal over, all the young people except Imogene and Vic set out on a trip up Hurricane to search out clues. They returned in the late afternoon with nothing to report but anticlimax. "Ski tracks and foot prints – going every which way and all mixed up – everywhere around that old shack and mine and mountain top. All Chandler must have been up there ahead of us. Doubt if any of them got inside the shack, though. The law, I guess, had seen to that."
"Had locked it up as tight as a drum. Had even covered the windows from inside. We didn't dare break in."
"We'll just have to wait for Dr. Weldon and Stuart to learn anything."
All seemed to have forgotten Hosmer Leeds. However, as they were seating themselves around the supper table, the three absent men returned together. They had no explanation to offer as to where and when they had met. That Hosmer should make no mention of the matter was not surprising. But that even talkative little Professor Weldon was not only silent but also adroitly elusive on the subject was much more surprising. And most surprising of all to Vic was that Hosmer actually sought her out for an aside just as she was about to carry a heaping dish of beans from the stove to the table. "Have you made any mention of the letter Eric found to anybody, Vic?"
"No," she responded curtly to his very evident relief.
"Then please don't. Dr. Weldon told me to ask you not to say anything about it to anybody until he tells you you may." He turned away as if response on her part was unnecessary.
Vic's immediate reaction was resentful inner query. Why was it Hosmer who had been directed to tell her? Why not Eric, or "Dad" Weldon himself? Was it because "Dad" realized that she was not likely to burst out with a "Why not?" to Hosmer as she would have to him or to Eric? Or was it because Hosmer had been the one skeptical of her ability to keep silent? She would certainly prove to him how entirely mistaken any such attitude in regard to her could be. She slipped into her place at table to listen to what Dr. Weldon had to report. It, too, proved an anticlimax. His tale was both meager and commonplace.
He and Eric had put the entire situation into the hands of the sheriff and the district attorney at Chandler. There had been an inquest of a sort, but it had brought nothing new to light. The matter would have to undergo thorough investigation, of course. Still, the authorities at Chandler expected no startling result – merely some explanation, pathetic enough, doubtless, but in no way exciting. "Just another case of extreme poverty, probably. A woman too proud to beg or accept relief – or, more likely, ineligible for it. She had probably heard of shelter of a sort to be found in abandoned mining towns – our Western ghost towns, you know, are famous everywhere – and had set out with a few supplies in search of one. All she had succeeded in reaching was that remote, desolate shack, even more hopelessly out of the world than she had anticipated."
No one openly refuted Dr. Weldon's confidently uttered explanation except Vic, who commented, "A little queer, just the same, her having those warm clothes, and all those good blankets. Must have made quite a pack for a woman to carry in."
As the others nodded eager assent, Eric hastened to remark, "Maybe she, too, took the wrong trail just as Vic and I did. Got trapped like us by a storm and couldn't get out again. It's no secret from the outside world, you know, that these ski cabins are in here and that they've been leased lately and put into repair. It's not unlikely the woman too, was heading for them, suspecting they were stocked, and meaning to find a way to break into them for home quarters and a refuge."
Again it was Vic who rekindled at least a candle-sized flame of mystery. She deliberately refused to meet a forbidding look she knew Hosmer was casting toward her, and blurted out, "But where did she get all that wood? She never cut it. And it wasn't so old. Looked to me a lot like the kind we've got stored in the cabins' woodshed. Lengths of aspen and cedar."
It was Eric's face, more mobile than Hosmer's, that reflected relief when one of the other boys, instead of following up Vic's lead, turned toward Hosmer to demand exasperatedly, "Now, Leeds, let's have it. Where've you been all day? After shaking the dust – or more accurately, the snow – of our society off your feet?"
"Just taking a daytime look. Worked once with miners who years ago mucked for old Tobin, the fanatic who owned and developed the Hurricane. They were always spinning yarns about how nobody could make the old fellow quit working that mine after all the paying veins had pinched out. They said he sank in it every penny of the fortune it had once brought him."
"You certainly weren't up there this afternoon when the rest of us went up for our look," one of the girls retorted.
Hosmer was unperturbed. "Oh, I'd wandered on. Interesting country in these hills. Abandoned mines everywhere, you know. Worth investigating, too. For strategics. The steel alloys America's got to have to become the real arsenal of democracy."
"Find anything?" Vic's tone was sharp. Hosmer's indifferent tone did not fool her, and she was frightened. "He's after my summer job," she thought. For Dr. Weldon was to spend his summer investigating old Colorado mines, carrying on a search for the very metal content once so heartily detested in their ores. Tungsten had been mined in neighboring hills. Who knew but traces of other strategics – antimony, beryllium, possibly mercury and chrome and feldspar and mica, and, far less likely, nickel – were there to be discovered. Dr. Weldon would need an assistant, probably a graduate of this year's class. What was more fitting than that his assistant be his ward, Victoria Tyrrell, daughter of the mining engineer who had been his closest friend? For years the two men had made a hobby of searching for those very metals now called strategics because of their scarcity at a time of vital need.
Vic brought her mind back to the situation at hand with a shrug of self-disgust, telling herself, "You're a horrid, suspicious cat, Victoria Tyrrell. All just because Hosmer Leeds threatens to beat you on your scholarship record."
The next day Vic forgot every feeling she had ever had toward Hosmer Leeds except gratitude. For Imogene could never have made the homeward ski trip without him. Her cold was worse. The girl was genuinely sick.
Before two more days had passed, every other experience of the ski trip passed into relative insignificance for Vic. With the relief born of indifference she learned someone had managed to make it unnecessary for her to appear as a witness of the death of the woman in the shack. All such matters had become of small importance to Victoria Tyrrell. Her thought and emotion was centered on Imogene, her only close living relative, who lay in the hospital fighting for her life against pneumonia.
For more than a week Vic was never far from her sister's bedside. Even college was forgotten. Then Imogene safely passed the crisis. As soon as her sister began to show steady daily improvement, Vic went back to classes and hard work. She had more than enough to do to maintain her scholastic record and be ready for graduation the middle of May.
A Pretext or a Job
COMMENCEMENT at the Colorado College of Mines in the year 1941 was held on the campus, within sight of the mountains which store so much of Colorado's known and hidden mineral wealth. The weather was perfect. It was one of Colorado's blue and gold days.
The exercises were over. The improvised, flower-bedecked platform in the center of the athletic field was deserted. The long procession was moving toward the lower end of the field. Now it was the double line of black-robed and somber-toned graduates who were in the lead. Behind them followed the faculty members, moving sedately, yet badly out of step. The gold of their mortarboard tassels glittered in the sunlight, while from the hoods and sleeves of their heavy robes flashed velvet bands of every conceivable color and shade, indicating local rank and collegiate training. There was just one woman in the entire length of the procession, Victoria Tyrrell.
As the marching strains of the college orchestra ceased, she stepped out of line and moved hurriedly away. She wanted to gain a few minutes of solitude and to escape congratulations. Too used to such fine mornings to be consciously aware of this one, she was even less conscious of the way her own person reflected the day's peculiar quality. Yet in the carriage of her blonde head, in the decisiveness of her step, there was something akin to the distinct clarity of outline the rarefied air gave to the objects of Colorado's foothill landscape. Her eyes, looking out through the overhanging black tassel of her mortarboard, were as deeply blue as the cloudless sky overhead, and they shone now with a light not unlike that of the yellow sunshine itself. Only the light in Vic's eyes had no glare. Its warmth was that of the human spirit. She wanted to be by herself for a while to live in the afterglow of her personal response to the commencement address.
Its title had been: War, Rearmament and the Mining Engineer. Its theme had been a ringing challenge that had stirred the girl to the depths. Her country needed mining engineers today as it had never needed them before. With all her heart she longed to serve. Yet even in its need, the country did not seem to want her. She was a woman.
To be sure, the position as Dr. Weldon's assistant was not yet filled. She would not give up hope until it was. If only Dr. Weldon would talk to her about it. He knew how badly she wanted it, and why. She felt it was a sort of legacy belonging to her as her father's daughter. Never had she wanted it more than now with the words of the commencement address so deeply chiming in her heart, her mind mulled over some of them.
Nearly all the materials essential for armament for America's defense and for aid to the battling democracies of the world depended upon the work of the mining engineer. And nowhere more so than in this very state of Colorado, so richly endowed with mineral resources still far from fully developed.
Why had such resources been neglected for so many years? Because mining for many of the state's minerals, especially where the ore was low grade, had not paid in competition with the low wages and low cost production of foreign countries. Now these foreign sources were cut off. No longer could the United States import tungsten from China, mercury from Spain, chrome from Turkey, manganese and tin from the East Indies, and so on through the list of the chief strategic metals. Yet these minerals America must have. Some for explosives; others for alloys for steel. It was the alloys that gave flexibility, strength, hardness, endurance, and lightness to the steel used in machine tools, tanks, vehicles, instruments, machines and weapons of warfare.
The great hope today for the securing of some of these desperately needed alloys lay right here, in the great western mountain ranges and in the vast arid lands that lay between. "We need new discoveries of workable deposits, whether they be large or small. We need old mines reopened and reworked for new output. We need all we can get from individual prospectors and single miners working surface deposits for small returns. We need the reworking of old dumps for once abandoned ores. We need new milling processes installed to extract the last bit of valuable content from low grade ores."
Small wonder Vic glowed at such mention, and at the thought of Dr. Weldon's leadership in such work. At the same time her heart was heavy with the fear of frustration. The realization that she was handicapped because she was a woman had been forced home to her during recent weeks, in a way that made her need of the job under Dr. Weldon a little desperate. She knew now that no mine wanted a girl as shift boss, chute engineer, mine surveyor, hoist operator, or safety engineer, or in any other active capacity for which her fellow classmates were rapidly being hired. A girl in charge of men, tough, hardened "muckers," and other mine laborers? It was simply not to be considered. She had been told so often enough to crush anybody's hopes. Nevertheless her spirit was still unyielding. Just let "Dad" Weldon take her on, and she would show them.
She had to own that for a long time now he had given her no word of encouragement. On the other hand, there had been frequent mention of Imogene's need of a long, restful summer in the healing out-of-doors with Vic as caretaker and companion. But that could be managed, Vic felt sure, in connection with the work of her desired job. Far more disturbing to her peace of mind had been the little professor's repeated suggestion that a girl with Vic's training could be sure of a good secretarial position in some mining engineer's or mining company's office, whenever she was ready for it. At each mention Vic had replied with a decisive, "Not for me. I want a real job." In the end, she knew, she might have to submit, and soon. Imogene's illness had been expensive, nearly exhausting what remained of the girls' funds.
"Hi there, Vic! Why the speed? Throw on the brakes for a second, can't you?"
Eric! Her mood softened. She paused and turned, awaiting him with a smile. How awkward an athletic young man was in an academic robe. The folds of the one Eric wore flapped and wound around his long legs with about as much grace as they would have on a scarecrow in a wind. He pulled at them impatiently as they hampered his speed. Why hadn't he taken the thing off? Was it because he had followed her so soon he had not had time? Gratitude warmed her. It was like his quick thoughtfulness to have noticed how alone she was, the only one among all the graduates, except, of course, Hosmer Leeds, who had almost no relatives to see her graduate. Friends, nice as they were, did not count like relatives at a time like this. And she had no relatives except Imogene, who had gone directly home with Mrs. Weldon at the end of the exercises. The sisters – and, she supposed with disdain, the inevitable Hosmer Leeds – were to be luncheon guests at the Weldon home.
"So chesty over being the honor graduate you have to scoot away from old friends? Come on back with me this minute and meet my mother and dad."
Vic knew why Eric's father and mother wanted to meet her. Because of the discovery she had shared with Eric on the fateful skiing trip last spring. And she shrank from talking about it even with the people who had shared it. The mystery was still unsolved and the failure of the authorities to solve it and their apparent cessation of interest in it seemed inexcusable to Vic. She believed them indifferent just because the dead woman was some forlorn and unimportant person.
Eric, ignoring her hesitation, had in his easy way taken her consent for granted, and with one hand enclosing hers, was leading her in retreat, talking as they went. "Mother and Dad want to see what such a brainy girl looks like. You beat their wonderful son, you know. That's hard on them. You mustn't expect them to forgive you right away. Still, when they see what a darn good-looking bit of femininity you are, they'll understand how little your brains really matter."
"Oh, Eric, you're such a goose." She laughed, yet winced inwardly. For it was just because she was "a piece of femininity" that nobody wanted her for a "real job."
She never minded Eric's references to her scholarship. All these four years he had been one of her two closest rivals on that score. Had he worked as hard as she he could easily have beaten her. But Eric had not worked, at least not as she had, nor Hosmer Leeds. Eric was so many other things besides a student: an athlete; a flier; president of the student body. And he was so bright and quick he got all his lessons without having to work hard. Probably that was why he took her success so genially. She believed he was the only man in their class who had not resented her presence among them. Outwardly they were all polite enough, even Hosmer, back of whose aloofness she always felt she could read contempt. That was why she had had to beat him. Well, she had done it. They had both found that out with finality a half hour ago. She was not thinking about that now, though. She was realizing how different Eric's mood was from hers.
"Eric," she accused, "you've heard from those civil service examinations. You've got the job you wanted." Her thought added, "and you hate to tell me because I haven't."
"Sure have." Attempted nonchalance could not hide his gratification. "United States Bureau of Mines. Working with the Geological Survey in their search for the strategic metals. Investigations of deposits and prospects."
"I'm awfully glad."
His dark gray eyes, intelligent and honest, met her blue ones in a direct probing that softened into relief when he read the complete sincerity there. Touched by it, he went on, "Just as a cub, of course. Mostly writing up reports. They wouldn't give full responsibility for conducting investigations and developing mines to a young greenhorn like me." He stopped short, suddenly realizing his clumsiness. Vic had hoped that report writing on the spot might be a job considered suitable for a girl. He hastened to propitiate. "It means I'll have to do an awful lot of travelling, you know. In wild country. Completely unsettled. Without all conveniences or ordinary comforts."
She smiled at his effort and managed to keep envy out of her voice as she commented, "And see all that is going on in this Western United States in the search for strategic metals." She could be game about the situation, but she would not let him think he could fool her about his opportunities. "Small wonder you're bubbling over."
"My new job's not all that's making me soar. I've got a graduating present. From Dad. Give you three guesses."
"I need a clue."
"All right. I'm going home in it this afternoon."
"A new car."
"Better than that," Eric prodded.
"But what could be better? Unless it really is—" It seemed too daring a statement to finish.
He nodded into the eager face under its wealth of softly waving, very blonde hair. "You've guessed it."
"Oh, Eric!" She sighed as if at the inadequacy of words. "An airplane – all your own. Is it the kind you wanted? A Luscombe?"
"You bet it is. Equipped, too, with instruments. Dad couldn't really afford all that expense. But he salved his conscience, and mine, too, by thinking perhaps they'd come in handy on my new job. Don't wonder, do you, that my big feet are finding it hard to stay down on the ground?"
All the while, back of his chatter, her keenness had been detecting a sympathetic uneasiness. He had something else to tell her that was not good news. He had sought her out because he knew she would rather hear it from him than from anybody else, and to give her time to steel herself against too clear betrayal of her disappointment to others. Her smile, half roguish, half bitter, challenged him.
"All right, Eric. Let's have it. My chin's out." When he still hesitated, she added. "Never mind. I can guess. Hosmer Leeds has got the job of being 'Dad' Weldon's assistant this summer."
Eric's look of relief was so great that it was funny. Vic was glad. There was salvation for her at the moment in having something to laugh at. But Eric did not laugh. He knew how she had wanted that job, knew how she had hoped that because the work involved would lie largely in the mountains, she might be able to combine it, at least in part, with taking care of her convalescent sister. And Eric would understand, far too well to suit her pride, how this last bit of news was draining the triumph from a recent experience of hers on the commencement platform.
The college president had checked her progress in the line of graduates which was filing past him. He had held back a moment the square of parchment that was her diploma, and announced that this girl, the only woman student in the entire college of mines, who was taking a degree both as a geological and a metallurgical engineer, was the honor student of this year's graduating class.
Her thoughts returned to Eric, beside her. He was saying, "The appointment's only for the summer. Hos has got to make decidedly good at it to make it permanent. And you couldn't have done much with it this summer, anyway, because of Imogene. Nobody knows that better than Dr. Weldon, your legal guardian."
Vic was ashamed to need comfort. Pride conquered her disappointment and she was able to say, "It's natural enough 'Dad' Weldon should prefer Hosmer, whose knowledge of mines was gained through all sorts of tough experiences, long before he was old enough to have been allowed to do such hard work. He knows hard-boiled men, too, and how to deal with them." Even to Eric she was determined not to show how deeply hurt she was by Dr. Weldon's apparent defection toward the ward who had always been his favorite because she "was so like her father." Hosmer Leeds was not Dr. Weldon's ward, but he was his protegé. The teacher had discovered the promising young man, who had never known opportunity, working in a bleak molybdenum mine. Dr. Weldon had secured permission for Hosmer to enter college with little grade school and no secondary school training on the condition he could remain as long as he maintained his scholarship standing.
Meanwhile, understanding Eric had been saving his final card. "Perhaps the little Doc has something else for you, Vic. You see, he sent me after you. Said to tell you he wanted to see you in his office as soon as you could get there."
Vic's face lighted with hope. Perhaps Dr. Weldon was going to need more than one assistant.
The message made Vic's visit with Eric's parents necessarily brief. But she liked his tall, dignified father, and his pretty, gracious mother.
"You're like them both," she remarked to Eric later, adding to herself, "the very nicest part of both." To her surprise Eric had remained her companion even after she had parted from his parents. He was still with her when she reached Dr. Weldon's door.
But she entered the well known office alone. Sun poured through the long windows looking out upon the landscape. Down the room's center stretched the specimen cases. Under their immaculate glass tops lay samples of every kind of ore known in the Rocky Mountain regions, all neatly classified and labeled.
The dark head of the dapper little professor looked up from the desk in the far corner with a quick, alert movement. Nodding a bright welcome to the girl, he motioned her to a nearby chair. Vic was inwardly bracing herself. It was never easy to resist this bright-mannered, fatherly little man. But she had done it more than once before. He had never approved of her taking a course in mining engineering, yet he had never failed to help her through all her four college years.
"Vic, I sent for you to come here because I wanted to tell you something privately. I've succeeded in getting permission for you and Imogene to occupy the big Ski Club cabin in Wild Basin all summer, rent free, with the privilege of using its equipment and what you need of its stored supplies. Exceedingly fortunate, as I look at it. There could not be a more restful, healthful spot for Imogene, or a more economical arrangement for you both."
Plainly he expected eager, prompt acceptance instead of Vic's dismayed, "Oh, no, I couldn't. Not up there."
"Why not?" He was far too practical of mind to understand or approve what had prompted Vic's impulsive outburst. "Imogene touchy about the place?"
"Oh, no. Not Imogene. She'd like it. Just the quiet haven she wants for the writing she plans. You know, children's stories about early Western history – the things she's been specializing in at the university."
"Then it's you who objects. Celtic pride, I suppose. You think the offer is charity. Well, it isn't. I want you there – individual you, I mean – for a purpose. You see, at last I'm offering you 'a real job'." Amusement lighted his dark eyes at the use of her well-worn phrase. "It has one drawback. It won't pay anything in money. The work, though, isn't hard. It's just being in that locality and keeping your eyes open. Riding around through the neighboring hills; or, better still, hiking in them. You can prospect a little now and then if you happen to feel like it. But what I chiefly want is for you to visit old prospects, and abandoned mine sites. Keep your eye a little on the life going on around the reopened mines. Report to me privately everything you happen to see or run across. Let's say you're after local color, to help Imogene with her story writing. That's where her interests will come in pretty conveniently. But what you will really be doing is keeping your eye out for everybody indulging in the same kind of pastimes you are. And never failing," he grew surprisingly serious, "to report all such persons to me. And noting exactly, too, everything they are doing – with the kind of exactness only a trained mining engineer would be likely to use. You see, it's the kind of job that can be best handled by a woman, especially one idling the summer away, caring for a convalescent sister."
He read her bewilderment, proceeded to answer the surmise written on her face. "You've guessed it. Your job may come to have some connection with your experiences up that way last spring – with the dying woman in the Hurricane shack. That possibility, however, you must not hint at to a single soul, not even to my wife or to Imogene. It's strictly between you and me. That's why I sent for you to come here." Again the warning seriousness was in his tones. He continued more conversationally, "You girls will be safe enough up there. Nothing more is likely to happen that will invite investigation. And you won't be too lonely. Get the other cabin ready for visitors; they'll happen along after a while, especially Mrs. Weldon and me. High Hope – the ghost town up in the mountains opposite Hurricane – has come back to life so vigorously that it again has a post-office. Its tungsten mines are humming once more. And prospectors are again flocking all over the neighboring hills. That's why I want you up there, watching and reporting. You won't turn me down about this, will you, Vic lass?" He used his Scotch wife's nickname for the girl.
Her eyes had widened and grown dark, their expression still negative, even skeptical. "You mean – you want me to watch the neighboring prospecting for strategic metals – and perhaps amuse myself by doing a little prospecting on my own?" The real meaning back of her words was unspoken: "Instead of 'a real job' you're offering me this makeshift – a mere pretext?"
"It's certainly work that should interest your father's daughter." It was just the right suggestion. The man arose, lifted academic hat and robe from a neighboring chair, threw the robe across his arm, and turned back to face the tall girl who had also arisen. He was, she knew, awaiting her definite reply.
"All right. We'll go." She saw no chance for anything but acceptance. "Somehow I'll manage to do enough work up there to pay for our use of the cabin."
Dr. Weldon, ignoring the reluctance in her tone, said: "Good girl! I knew I could count on you. For good work, too, wherever I put you. And now to lunch. Mrs. Weldon won't like the way we've been keeping her waiting."
Outside the office door Vic found an impatient Eric. While Dr. Weldon locked his office door with his back turned toward the young couple, Eric stepped close enough to the girl to dart a hasty whisper into her ear. "You're going up to the ski cabins?" Then, at her quick nod of affirmation, he added a heartfelt, "Fine." Turning, he sprinted down the hall with his long legged stride, throwing back over his shoulder, "So long. I'll be seeing you." Only his lips formed the next words for her to read, "Sooner maybe than you think."
What on earth did Eric mean by behaving that way? Was it Dr. Weldon's presence that sent him hurrying away? He must have known something of what the teacher had wanted her for before she had entered that office. Could it be that he did not care to have Dr. Weldon realize he knew it, or rather, how well he understood what it really meant? Perhaps, after all, her new job was not largely a pretext, but more of "a real" one than it seemed. She would have been more ready to believe so had she been a person better suited to it. What the queer job needed was not only a mining engineer, but one who had the qualities of a detective: subtlety, tact, secretiveness. And both Dr. Weldon and Eric knew well that she was by temperament direct and straightforward to a fault.
Nevertheless, determination was crystallizing within her. Since this job was the one summer opportunity open to her, she would accept it at face value. Absurd though the prospect seemed, somehow she would manage to make out of it as much of a contribution to present day war needs as Eric did of his job. Or, her thought added with far fiercer intentness, as Hosmer Leeds. Accomplishing it would mean that her long rivalry with Hosmer Leeds was not yet over. To her amazement she was glad. For there was challenge in that rivalry. And challenge was just what she needed now.
The Pigeon in Wild Basin
THE last climb had been steep. The bay mare Imogene Tyrrell rode came to a stubborn stop, her fat sides heaving. The rocking gait of the pack horses behind her also came to a halt, while Vic's gaunt, tall angular mount spurted ahead to pause by the bay mare's side. All rested for several minutes, the horses with lowered heads, the girls relaxed in their saddles. One more long slope to traverse and they would be in Wild Basin, the big mountain valley where they were to spend the summer. They had a fine view of it from this point. That they, too, might be equally visible from much of the Basin itself did not occur to them.
The valley stretched below them for miles, between up-rolling mountain sides. So primeval was it in appearance it seemed never to have been occupied by man, although history had it that its first wealthy and eccentric woman owner had wasted big sums on fruitless efforts to develop a gold mine. Her heirs rarely visited the place, however, and tax payments had finally ceased. Now a small part of the valley belonged by lease to the Ski Club. The greater part of it was again public land. Vic viewed it with a long sigh of satisfaction. "It won't be as lovely as this for long. Once get a road into this country – even a good trail – and tourists will flock in and spoil it."
"Not this summer, though." A note of defensive belligerence sounded in Imogene's gentle voice. "This summer it's ours, for you and me to glory in alone."
The last time the girls had viewed the scene it had been almost completely white with snow. Now its aspect was different. A thin, silvery stream zigzagged crazily down the center of the long wide stretch of park. On both sides of it spread the valley, carpeted in grasses of soft pastel green, patterned with small flowers of every color. "And as level as a floor," Vic whispered to herself. "A natural mountain airport."
The spring green of the valley, the darker hues of the evergreen forests on some of the lower slopes, the dazzling blue of the overhead sky, were all made more marked by the clear, dry air and the contrast in coloring formed by huge snowbanks still stretching firmly back into the more sheltered breaks. The timber was largely yellow pine and silver spruce. Often it grew against a visible background of soil amid huge outjuttings of solid granite rock. Above the timber the mountains towered to broken, heavily-snow-crested summits thirteen and fourteen thousand feet above sea level, so brilliantly scintillating that the eyes of the girls could not rest on them for long. Instead they searched out, part way down the valley and well to one side, the insignificant blots that meant the cabins of their summer home.
"Vic, look!" Imogene cried suddenly. "Back of the cabins. On that upgoing slope. Isn't there something moving up it? Looks almost like a man on horseback."
"Couldn't be in this hidden place. Probably just a tree swaying in a wind. Let's get going again, Gene. You first, with a good head start. Pinto Bean will insist on taking long wide tacks on the steep slope down. And Ichabod will want to try to take it straight. I'll have my hands full managing both him and the pack horses."
Imogene obeyed. Vic seized the moments of delay she had secured to study the mark Imogene had sighted. It certainly was no tree; its movement was too steadily upward. Imogene had been right. It was a human figure on horseback. When it had disappeared around a turn, Vic rode on after Imogene. She made no mention of her conviction even after the girls had reached their cabin and had begun unpacking and getting settled for the summer.
Shortly before supper was ready to be put on the table, Vic picked up a small pail and announced: "I'm going back to that wonderful spring – the one near the old mine, that never freezes. It'll probably have to be cleaned out, though, before we can use the water." Her real purpose was to accomplish a little reconnoitering before it was too dark and before she wrote her first report to "Dad" Weldon as she had promised to do tonight. She returned to the cabin, full of suppressed excitement only slightly caused by the pailful of clear, cold water she carried. Aloud she said, "That spring could scarcely be cleaner. Not a leaf or a twig in it. Wonder if some animal could have kept it that clean."
"Mr. Bruin, perhaps. He called on me while you were gone."
Imogene's quiet comment brought its prompt affect. "A bear? While you were here alone? Imogene Tyrrell, you've simply got to learn to shoot." Vic herself was a good marksman, but she frequently would have to leave Imogene alone if she were to carry out her secret summer mission. Already that mission had become more convincing and exciting.
"What good would that do in a game preserve? I was safe enough on the screened porch. Besides, he wasn't a grizzly. Just a nice friendly blackie, and not very large at that."
"So that was what was the matter with the horses. Even down at the spring I could hear the commotion they were making in the corral where we'd turned them."
"Maybe they helped to scare him off. He had climbed up on that big boulder about twenty-five feet beyond the cabin. His little eyes were taking me in, here on the porch, as if I were some sort of curious unfamiliar specimen."
"Thought I'd imitate the horses. Make enough noise to scare him away. Went back into the kitchen after a dish-pan and a big spoon to beat it with. Picked up a stone I saw lying on a shelf instead – an ore specimen, probably. I went back to the porch door and tossed the rock through it at Blackie. Not hard, you know, just sort of casually. Didn't want to make him ugly. He didn't seem to mind. Slumped down off his haunches and ambled clumsily away. Then I grew afraid you'd meet him. He might have a den back there somewhere, maybe in the tunnel mouth of the old mine. Remember how some of the boys thought they'd like to explore it last spring when we were here, but couldn't because it was so choked with snow? It would be fairly well melted out now, though, on that southern exposure." Imogene finished with a giggle. "Just as well the boys couldn't explore. Might have waked old Blackie up!"
Vic changed the subject too quickly for tact. She well knew the tunnel mouth was no bear den. She had just explored as much of it as she could see. What she had discovered there had convinced her that her summer spying job was bona fide. No bear had stored a strong suitcase in an obscure dry shelf-like niche to one side of the first dark turn in that tunnel. She would never have discovered it herself if her professional interest had not led her to inspect the rock walls of the tunnel by means of the small flashlight she had brought. She took time for only a hasty look within the suitcase. That was enough to reveal a jumbled lot of articles very evidently hastily thrust in; chiefly men's clothing – socks, shirts, underwear, a pair of shoes. The suitcase had not been there long. There was little encrusted dirt upon it, and not a trace of mildew. She had returned it to the niche, determined to keep an eye upon it during succeeding days, and to write "Dad" Weldon all about it.
Not to speak of such things to Imogene was going to be harder than she had anticipated. The sisters had never had secrets from each other. Now she must keep Imogene not only uninformed but unsuspecting. She tried hard to cover her own abstraction at supper with natural chatter. She was relieved when the meal was over. She arose to announce, "Gene, let's leave the dishes, and go outside to collect some stones before dark. We'll make little piles of them just inside the porch door. Then, next time your friend Blackie decides to call on you, you'll have ammunition ready."
They were soon searching for stones small enough to be hurled effectively, yet large enough to impress a small bear. Vic reached for a gray one lying in the shadows of the steps. No, it was too large. She would have abandoned it if she hadn't accidentally touched it. To her surprise the touch revealed not a hard surface, but a delicately soft one – feathers. It was a bird. She ran the fingers of both hands under the delicate body and picked the little thing up tenderly. A dead weight of perhaps a pound, it showed neither resistance nor fear, but just enough flutter to indicate life.
"Imogene," she called to her sister, who was depositing stones within the porch door. "I've found a bird, either hurt or very tame. A pigeon, I think. Go in and light a lamp, will you, so we can see what's the matter with it? Its wings seem all right." The wing butts had rested within the palms of her hands during her careful lifting. "Maybe one of its legs–"
Nestling the bird against her body, she began feeling along its legs. On the front of the right leg her hand encountered a small lump she could move from side to side with her fingers. Her finger tips became entangled in a very fine and loosening string. She pulled them free. The string unwound and dangled, but she did not lose her grip on the tiny lump. It was about the size of a capsule and felt like one. In another moment she was secreting it deep within a trousers pocket.
Questions began running through her mind. What could it mean, finding this domesticated bird in so wild a place? She had, of course, heard of homing pigeons which carried messages of small compass and great import. Could this bird be such a one? Not likely in this remote spot, unless it had wandered far astray. She had heard, too, that homing pigeons usually wore leg bands of identification. This one had none. Was that because somebody did not want it to be identified? Where could it have come from? More important, where was it supposed to have been going?
"There doesn't seem to be a thing really wrong with it," Imogene was saying. "It's just worn out, so exhausted it doesn't mind our handling it. It must have been flying and flying and flying – probably because it was lost. Look at the silk string on its leg. It doesn't seem strong enough to hold even a little bird. Yet somebody must have been cruel enough to have tied it up somewhere; then it must have got out. I'll fix a bed or nest in a box in the kitchen. Perhaps, too, it can eat. I'll open a carton of cracked wheat." Imogene disappeared, leaving Vic guiltily glad of her sister's assumption about the string. She mustn't give Imogene the slightest hint of having found the capsule.
Imogene went to bed early as she was supposed to do. Vic had her promised letter to Dr. Weldon to write.
"Don't tell him about the bear, Vic," Imogene's drowsy voice called from her porch bed. "It might make him think it wasn't safe for us to be here alone. You can write a good enough letter just about the pigeon."
She certainly could, Vic agreed, with an inner smile – about the pigeon and about some other things as well. Not until the regular rise and fall of Imogene's breath indicated sleep did Vic open the capsule. When she did, she drew from it a bit of tightly rolled, very thin paper, so small it was difficult to handle. She forced her fingers to unroll it painstakingly, and bent to read the minute writing upon it. It was no code. Yet the message it bore made no sense to her. "Place 3. Usual time. 5-31. 6-4."
What could it mean? Imaginings of every sort circled around her mind. The figures might indicate dates. In that case, 5-31 would mean the last day of May. If only she knew what "Place 3" was, she would haunt the spot for the entire twenty-four hours of May the thirty-first. Maybe then she could learn something. Hopeless, as things were. Nothing to do but write "Dad" Weldon all about everything. It was only a few hours since her arrival in Wild Basin, and already she had plenty to report.
Writing steadied her excitement. She told what she had to tell in the order of its happening, beginning with Imogene's first glimpse of the vanishing horseman. Before she came to the discovery of the suitcase, she inserted the other details of discovery that she had successfully kept hidden from Imogene. "There was fresh horse manure in the little corral near the cabins when I turned our horses into it. So from then on I kept on the outlook for footprints. Of course, the gravelly soil of this country is a poor place to find them. But in the mud around the cleaned-out spring there were plenty. A lot of them were those of a broad foot with short toes – the bear's, of course. They covered over and mixed up the others a lot. Still, some of those others were pretty clear. I'm sure it was not imagination that made me confident they were those of a man and a horse. A few of the man's seemed to lead in the direction of the tunnel mouth of Greenhorns' Folly. So I ventured into the old mine for a little way; luckily I had a small flash I'd brought with me."
After completing her account of having found the suitcase, she launched into the story of the pigeon. Inside the letter she finally sealed lay the tiny capsule and the bit of paper she had taken from it. Next she took out the maps Dr. Weldon had made for her of the surrounding country, spread them out on the living room table, and proceeded to study them. She felt sure at last that the next morning she and Ichabod could find their way up the practically trail-less ten or twelve miles to Bum's Gulch. The old mining town of High Hope which boasted the nearest post-office, was located at the head of that gulch.
It was late when Vic went to bed; later still before she slept. Her mind was busy seeking to figure out the meaning of the pigeon's message, and all the deductions and implications that might lie in the events of the day. How many of them were in any way connected with her experiences in the Hurricane shack last spring? And how should she go about finding out? It was a queer job for her to have – like that of a sleuth in a mystery story. There was no denying the excitement of it, nor its appeal to intelligent alertness and effort. Even so, she was not at all sure she liked it. She had never cared greatly for mystery stories. She much preferred those of realistic human interest. Yet here she was with a mystery solution entrusted to her as a summer job. Entrusted – yes, that was the right word. She had accepted it. She must not fail in her trust. And like any commendable job, conscientiously and energetically undertaken, it was already asserting a fascinating interest.
Gradually, however, from her porch bed, the events of the day began to seem of less and less real value. What genuinely mattered, after all, was this glorious mountain night. She lay with eyes wide open to the silvery mystic beauty of clear starlight over a wild mountain basin. What a perfect place for one's bed was a screened, uncurtained porch with such an outlook. To waste time in sleep here seemed almost a sacrilege. How much more then did it seem a sacrilege to let one's mind dwell upon and work over clues and ugly suspicions. The recollection of them fell away from her until, soothed by the beauty of this mountain land she loved, she fell asleep.
She slept much later than she had intended. She awoke to find Imogene already up. This was not surprising considering how Imogene felt about mountain sunrises. But the news with which Imogene greeted her sister when Vic entered the cabin kitchen was more startling. "The pigeon's gone, Vic. It seemed completely all right again this morning and wanted to fly. Of course, this cabin was no place for it. So I let it out. It circled around uncertainly for a few minutes, then all of a sudden it flew off as if it knew exactly where it wanted to go."
"And where was that?"
"As far as I could tell, in the direction of the mountain where you and Eric found that shack last spring. You know, the high one they call Hurricane. Yet the last glimpse I caught of the bird, it didn't seem headed quite as far up the Basin as Hurricane Mountain."
THE mail stage was in. Vic had no time to spare if she were to scribble a second note to "Dad" Weldon for the outgoing mail to contain. She led Ichabod into the narrow alley next to the unpainted post-office building, threw the reins over his head, and left him. Already the crowd of roughly-clad miners who had been lining the narrow street was surging through the open post-office doors. Vic slid through them to a shelf at the side of the long room, and hastily scribbled her note:
Here in High Hope, just arrived. Followed your marked route. Had no trouble at all, although found no real trail until I had entered Bum's Gulch. Noted the following: Even in those first unfrequented hills rising back of the cabins in Wild Basin, there were traces of recent travel. Not a single obstruction forced me to detour the whole way here: not a fallen tree, or catapulted boulder, or a really blocking slide. Here and there in a patch of sandy soil was a hoof-print; would have to be recent in this land of frequent mountain showers. On the narrow ledges skirting timber, occasional brush and low branches looked freshly snapped or broken, as if a passing heavy body had come inconveniently close.
Now for a day in High Hope to report on next. The old ghost town has come alive. It's fascinating, crude and crowded. Trails, shacks, and houses overflowing with people. Tents and trailers dot the neighboring hills. But the grand old mountains still shut it in, while all the surrounding air throbs and hums with raucous grinding and strident rattle of working mines and mills. I love it! More later.
In a tearing hurry,
She slipped both her letters through the chute below the closed post-office window, listened to make sure they were picked up and stamped, then moved back into the milling crowd which was awaiting the distribution of the mail. Since there would be no incoming mail for her and Imogene as soon as this, she threaded her way through to the door.
If eyes and hushed voices followed her as she passed, they did not disconcert her. Any newcomer in such a place must expect such things. It did not occur to her that as a newcomer she was out of the ordinary. Most newcomers were men. The women among them were miners' wives, hard-working women who kept themselves unobtrusively in the background. Occasional women of another stamp came too. But Vic, on sight, was plainly a different type from either. A tall, slender girl, as blonde and blue-eyed as any ingenue, yet dressed like a man, in high boots and corduroy trousers, flannel shirt and soft felt hat. All her cloth garments were dark blue in color and strikingly becoming, and she moved through the crowd with the self-reliant unselfconsciousness of a man going about his own private business affairs.
Soon she was entering another unpainted building. Its long flat front held a wide door surmounted by a white board, slightly askew. Letters on the board in black paint bore the words, Mountain Home. Vic entered a large room filling up with men – miners who would soon go underground for the three until eleven o'clock shift in one of Bum's Gulch's three working mines. The mines were running three full shifts of a twenty-four-hour day. Some of the men stood idly about, talking. Others were busy washing at the side of the room, where a lengthy trough filled with a row of tin wash basins stretched along part of the wall. A large pail of water, provided with a dipper, stood at each end of the trough. As each man finished washing, he would return a bar of besmudged soap to the ledge at the back of the sink, and carry his filled basin to the front door. There, with unerring aim, he would throw its dirty soapy contents over the heads of passersby in the direction of the gulch stream beyond. Then he would return his basin to the trough and join a knot of talkers. Good-natured banter flew back and forth among all the occupants of the room, the buxom, black-haired proprietress behind the board counter desk at the rear contributing her full share.
To Vic there was both familiarity and nostalgia in the scene. As a little girl she had often accompanied her father to such places. But for the last four years, ever since his death, she had lived far too much, she felt, in a college atmosphere, not enough in the world of actual doing and living. Even the college students' frequent inspection visits to mines smacked too much of the classroom and the academic viewpoint. She was glad to be through with all that. Here in this crude, remote, reawakening mining camp actual living was going on, real work of a kind all the democratic world desperately needed. She longed for a larger share in it than promised to be hers.
"May I get dinner here?" she was inquiring presently of the proprietress.
"Sure can. That's what we're here for." The woman welcomed the girl with a dark-eyed scrutiny that was a mixture of appraising shrewdness, good-natured friendliness, and curiosity. She swirled a big book around on the board counter, stuck a pen in a neighboring ink bottle, and handed it to Vic. "Being a woman myself, I'm glad to see another happen along."
"Are you the only one here?"
"Except for my girl and my niece. In the hotel, that is. They wait table. I sure keep my eye on 'em. A lot better than my niece's mother does. She's the postmistress and too busy keeping tab on everything else going on in this gulch to pay attention to her own girl. It ain't becoming of me to say so, her being my sister, but it's that man she's got I blame it on. He runs the private express into the gulch. Office, two doors down." The industry of the proprietress's tongue did not keep her eyes from following the pen in Vic's hand as it wrote, "Victoria Jane Tyrrell, Wild Basin, Colorado." After all, Wild Basin was the only address she had now. There had been no permanent home for either her or Imogene during the last four years when each had been a student in a different college town.
The woman swung the register about again to study Vic's signature. The curiosity in her lively black eyes deepened into a gleam of recognition. Then suddenly her manner assumed a new dignity. "How do you do, Mr. Diehl," she said primly, directing the words over Vic's head. Close enough behind the girl to permit the overhearing of all exchange of talk between the two women had appeared another guest, a man awaiting attention with a courteous impatience. With the proprietress curiosity came first. "You ain't the Miss Victoria Tyrrell who was with the skiing party in Wild Basin last spring, are you? The one, I mean, who got lost in a blizzard, and landed up on Hurricane Mountain where there was an old shack with a dying woman in it?"
"Yes, I'm that girl."
"You don't say." The proprietress was plainly gratified. It was as if her Mountain Home had won a new distinction by Vic's presence. "And you never learned no more about her? Who she was? Nor why she was up there? Nor nothing?"
"No. The authorities seem to have come to the conclusion the case can't be solved. They haven't been able to find out anything about the woman."
"Poor thing," the black-eyed woman murmured with genuine feeling. "Ain't it a pity there has to be so many poor creatures like that in this here world?" Reluctantly she returned to her duties, addressing the waiting man. "Miss Tyrrell, this here is Mr. Diehl. He comes here quite frequent." Presently she was adding, "You two come right this way."
The situation was slightly embarrassing. Each guest hesitated a moment. Then man and girl exchanged amused glances and obeyed, following the woman into the dining room. She seated them at a small corner table. Again the man and girl exchanged glances that this time ended in a laugh, easing the situation into pleasantness. Mr. Diehl neither looked nor moved like a Westerner, and his few words of greeting had been marked by an Eastern accent. Yet, to Vic's relief, he evidently knew how to accept Western raw-town crudity. The more lady-like of the two waitresses was already placing heaped dishes of food upon the table in unceremonious confusion: corned beef, boiled cabbage, baked beans, canned tomatoes, home made bread, prune pie, and coffee with canned milk.
Promptly Vic's table companion made order out of the confusion, and began serving the girl with a flattering and polished ease. He smiled pleasantly meanwhile, revealing fine teeth.
Vic studied him. Somehow that smile of his did not seem to rise to his eyes. These were light brown behind long dark lashes. Their glance was scrutinizing, their expression neutral, even cold, she thought.
"So you can't quite make me out?" His voice was agreeable in timbre.
Vic blushed. Had she been staring at him impolitely? "You're no Westerner," she acknowledged. "Even your clothes aren't Western."
"They're as Western as yours." The edge in the retort put Vic on the defensive.
"Oh, no, they aren't. Except in type. Mine are ready-made, durable but inexpensive. Yours are costly – tailor-made."
"Since you have such a discerning eye you'll have to admit I'm not exactly the build to find ready-mades to fit."
There was truth in the statement. He was a powerfully built man, too fleshy to be really good-looking in spite of his light grace of manner and movement. Only an expert tailor handling expensive materials could make that figure appear so perfectly groomed in clothes of any type.
"Let me explain myself," he continued. "I'm a buyer of strategic metals, both ore and concentrates. I have recently been transferred from the East by a metal company which has opened a San Francisco office out of which I work. So you see, I'm a Westerner, all right, but a newly transplanted one."
"And you think you can find what you want in this crude town? Its output is relatively small, you know."
"My special field happens to be the small-producing mines, the oncoming prospects. I have to get into camps like this ahead of my competitors. We're after every chance to get hold of any quantity, however small, of tungsten, mercury, chrome, nickel, tin, mica – any of the strategics we can run across. A region like this is fascinating to me."
Not much of a job after all, Vic thought, for so impressive appearing a person. Aloud she was saying, "It's fascinating to me, too. I'm a mining engineer. Just graduated from college. But without a job."
"Were you prospecting on the trip the proprietress spoke to you about at the desk? I couldn't help overhearing her remarks, you know."
Vic's first brief replies to the query were, before she realized it, being followed by an adroit, courteous questioning that had something compelling in it. She found herself responding with a fullness of detail she would not have believed herself capable of giving to a stranger. It was the intensity of the man's listening that swayed her, the way those neutral eyes of his became alive with real interest. Back of his listening she sensed even a controlled emotional sympathy of response that surprised her. She had not judged him to be that type at all. By the time the meal was over, she wondered if there was any detail of the harrowing Hurricane experience she had not told him. Except about the letter Eric had found, of course. Yet their talk had not really lingered long over the Hurricane episode; they had spoken of many inconsequential things as well.
At first Mr. Diehl had partaken of the food with a heartiness suggested by his figure. But as they talked his appetite seemed to dwindle. He was the first to finish, and arose to excuse himself.
Vic was glad to see him go. Even indoors, sustained conversation was not easy against the background noises of a busy mining camp: the cheerful steady hum and throb of underground machinery; the jerky rattling of the rising and descending hoists; the grinding clamor of the ore-crushing mills. Moreover, she needed the remainder of the day to herself to take in all she could for her report to "Dad" Weldon.
She set forth on foot, undaunted by the roughness and grade of narrow trails, or by steep slopes with no trails at all. The town of High Hope was located in the upper reaches of Bum's Gulch. On the nearby slopes and in the closely neighboring valley breaks two mills and three thriving mines were located: the Big Boy, the Tin Cup, and the Dutchman's Hole. Originally these had been worked for the modest gold and silver content of their ores. Now their value lay in the far greater amount of their tungsten. Vic saw little of these mines. So great was the fear of sabotage these days that she was even barred from too near approach, let alone a visit to underground levels.
She turned her attention to taking in what she could of outlying prospects. After all, that was what Dr. Weldon chiefly wanted. They were easy to locate, dotting the landscape everywhere in the out-reaching hills. Most of them proved to be little more than shallow exploratory tunnels or shafts, where single individuals or groups of two or three men dug and toiled. These she could approach without spoken rebuff. Sometimes she met glances of resentment. Sometimes, brief words of greeting. For the most part she was ignored.
Although she was careful to hold herself from intrusion, her mounting interest showed in her eager face and bright eyes. The whole surrounding scene thrilled her, even though she knew that much of the hard work being done by these men would prove fruitless. Her collegiate training had taught her the great advantage of scientifically trained prospecting such as big mining companies carried on with their skilled geologists and metallurgists. It was the romantic part of her heritage that rejoiced in today's activity in High Hope's outlying hills.
Once again there had come to this Western land the day of the individual prospector, of the value of small workings of small deposits. The old, rugged individual had returned to his own. Only today, the men toiling on these mountain sides, with prospector fever burning fiercely in their veins, were for the most part considerably younger than the grizzled, taciturn old-timers of romantic Western story. Most of them, too, had reached the scene in battered old cars or jallopies parked now in nearby available niches. Only here and there was a burro to be seen. Nevertheless, all these men were romantics; that was why she liked them.
She had spied a big gray burro grazing near the mouth of a little draw leading off from Bum's Gulch some distance below High Hope's townsite. The burro lifted its head as she approached, revealing a peculiarly shaped white marking on its face. She passed it, wandering on into the draw. It was a beautiful mountain pocket, as yet marred by only two small attempts at mines. She paused at the first one. A sturdy young giant of a boy, scarcely out of his teens, was evidently working there alone. She had first glimpsed his head showing above a small discovery shaft out of which he was climbing by means of a side ladder. Round-faced and surprisingly rosy-cheeked for a dweller in this dry, sunscorched West, he was also surprisingly clean. He could not have been working underground for long today. Now he was hauling up a series of three or four ore buckets improvised from discarded carbide cans. They were rigged up with wire bale on an old hoisting cable that worked by means of a small hand winch or windlass, erected across the opening of the shaft.
"Any luck?" Vic inquired pleasantly.
"Some. A lot more before long, too, I'm certain." He answered with a smile of friendly simplicity, emptied the contents of his buckets on a modest dump nearby, then leaned back against the dump in a relaxed position as if glad to delay activity for sociability. But he straightened again almost immediately for sudden renewed effort.
A voice from somewhere behind Vic was intruding. "Well, Miss Tyrrell, still inspecting this country? What have we here? Anything to interest a metal buyer? Tungsten, especially?"
"Not much as yet, sir. One of these days, though." The boy turned his round, guileless face toward the speaker as if in welcome of another interested stranger.
Vic strolled away, farther into the draw, annoyed at the interruption. Her first favorable impression of Mr. Diehl was undergoing a change. "It's entirely unintentional on his part, of course, but I hate to be tagged." She was now following a trail around a big knoll that seemed to lead up to the other prospect in the draw. It was a tunnel prospect this time, again being worked by a single miner. He was much older than the boy she had just left. When she first glimpsed him, he was idle, standing some distance below his tunnel entrance at a point where he was shielded from the view of the prospect farther down the draw by a high spread of juniper bushes. His pose was one of intense scrutiny, directed over the head of the approaching girl upon the scene she had just left. He seemed unaware of Vic's approach at first; then the crunch of her boots upon the gravel trail startled him. The result was a shift in manner to questioning surprise and expectancy. Vic was near enough now to size the man up as an Irishman, gnarled, sunburned and as grizzled as any typical prospector, except that his hair and beard were neatly trimmed and clean. Bright blue eyes, set amid masses of fine wrinkles, squinted down at her unflinchingly from under a battered hat brim. He let her come within a few feet of him before he greeted her with a query, uttered in a whisper. "Would you be tellin' me yer name, ma'am?"
"Victoria Tyrrell." She smiled.
Gratification spread all over the seamed, weather-beaten face. "I knew it! The name's right! Blood kin, ain't ye, to John Tyrrell, the minin' engineer who used to be travellin' frequent in these parts?"
"His daughter, I am proud to say."
"And right ye are in that pride, ma'am. A true man he was, God rest his soul."
"How could you know I was related to him?"
"By the looks o' ye. Not that he was iver the pretty sight fer old eyes that you be, ma'am. But it's that blonde hair of yourn, and that quick, easy way ye've got o' movin' over these rough hills. 'Tis loike 'im to the life."
Nothing could have pleased Vic more. In a few minutes the two were friends. Of the man's trustworthiness she felt no doubt. Not only had he known her father, but he knew Dr. Weldon, too. "You'll be tellin' the little Doc fer me, will ye, when next ye're seein' 'im, as 'twas old Tim O'Rourke ye was runnin' into up this here way. That it's prospectin' he still is, even tho' the old j'ints o' 'im is gettin' stiff fer stiddy underground workin'."
"I certainly shall."
"Would you be carin' to see my prospect, ma'am?" he invited presently. " 'Tis but a short tunnel as yet, and timbered but part way. But 'twould please me to take you as far as 'tis safe. There's a lode I've hopes of."
Vic accepted readily, following the miner into a low, narrow drift tunnel perhaps one hundred feet long. Each held a candle high to light the way, but the feeble rays did not penetrate far into the damp, shadow-hung darkness. Vic awaited the pointing out of the vein and a typical account of a prospector's optimistic hopes and dreams. It did not come. Instead, about fifty feet from the entrance, the miner paused. "Talk travels far in this high altitude when the air's right, and a bit o' quiet comes along to favor it. I heard ye speakin' a bit ago wi' that young Percy Slack."
"So that's his name – the nice, simple boy working the other prospect."
"Simple he may seem, ma'am. But 'tis sure a tight tongue he can be kapin' in his head about anythin' he don't care to be tellin'. Not a hint will he be givin' to me, his fayther's old friend o' long standin', as to where in these here hills his fayther will be locatin' 'imself anew fer his solitary living."
That Peter Slack was not a man to be hiding himself away from his own boy, Tim O'Rourke was sure. He was equally sure that Peter Slack would not intentionally hide himself away from his old friend. So one of these days Tim intended to locate the other man. How?
"By borrowin' the gray donkey wi' the white on the face o' 'im. Unbeknownst to young Perc. That donkey's anither old friend o' Pete's. Strike is the name. Ye must 'a been ameetin' 'im a while back at the mouth o' the draw." Tim was confident that once he could get possession of Strike and give the donkey his head, the little beast would take the miner to wherever their mutual friend, Peter Slack, happened to be living.
Vic wished it was light enough for her to read the miner's face; there was a note of bitterness in his tone to which she did not quite know how to reply. Tim solved her difficulty by his own irrelevant comment. "I seen you knew the fellow who just joined up wi' Percy."
"Just that he's a strategic metal buyer named Frederick Diehl." She told of their meeting as Tim relighted her candle with his. Hers had flickered out in the stale, heavy air. They turned back in the direction of the entrance, Tim O'Rourke having evidently forgotten all about his mine. He had become loquacity itself in an account of his friend, Peter Slack. Not only did he keep it up all the way back, but he made their return progress a slow affair. Thinking over his account later, Vic was surprised at how much he had managed to impart while covering so short a distance.
Peter Slack's story, typically Western and yet unique, was interesting enough to hold anybody's attention. Like Tim O'Rourke, he had been an old-time miner in these parts. The two men had been friends, often working side by side; at first in the mines, later as mill men. Peter had been an intelligent worker. He had had little formal education, but despite that was a well-read man with a natural taste for books and good literature, and "that honest he was forever cheatin' 'imself to make shure he was playin' square by the ither fellow." But Pete had one great failing that he had striven desperately to conquer – an insatiable craving for liquor. Mastering his craving in a mining camp proved impossible. So when the veins pinched out all over this district or the ore became too refractory for profitable working, Peter Slack decided to stay on living in High Hope, even though it soon became a ghost town. For the better part of a quarter of a century he had been High Hope's only citizen, "livin' alone and kapin' straight in these grand old hills until such livin' come to seem to 'im the only sort he was wantin'. He placered a little fer what money he needed, and he kept house neat in one o' the shacks, and he had books and the wild creatures and the clouds an' the silence o' the hills fer his friends and his neighbors."
He had had a wife who had never completely abandoned him. At times when weather conditions were favorable for making the hard trip in, she would come to visit him, bringing clothes and food and books, "an' stayin' long enough to tidy 'im up neat what wi' washin' and house cleanin' an' mendin'." Occasionally in later years, she would bring their little son, Percy, with her. But not often. Mostly she left him in town going to school; the trip in was "pretty tough fer a kid." Two years or so ago she had died suddenly. But it was only this spring that Percy, now grown, had arrived to prospect for himself in Bum's Gulch on an old claim of his father's, near Tim's. Not long after Percy arrived, his father left for good. Probably the stirrings of new life in High Hope had aroused Peter Slack's fear of succumbing to his old failing. Anyway, he had completely vanished from Bum's Gulch.
"It's a shure bet he's hunted himself up some mighty pretty spot in these here glorious mountains, an' set up his lone housekapin' again. He'd got so he couldn't stand no ither kind o' livin'. An' he knew well a mining-camp's no place fer a man who can't control his hankerin' fer liquor. The curse o' drink – so he told me oncet – come on 'im first when he was a soldier in the regular army, before he ever become a mining man atall. 'Twas mostly helpin' wi' the trainin' o' pigeons he was doin' in the army. He shure thought a lot o' them little birds. He was forever tellin' me yarns about 'em. 'Tis my notion 'twas thim he missed more'n folks, livin' alone up here."
They stepped at last out through the tunnel mouth into the sweet, clean, outer air. Vic welcomed great lungfuls of it before telling her new friend good-by.
"Ye'll be comin' to see me agin, ma'am, I'm hopin'. And shure, whin ye do, ye might well be bringin' one o' yer good men friends along."
Could it be there was warning back of the cordiality in the last statement? Vic found herself wondering as she trudged up and down rough slopes on her way back to the town. The raucous noises of the camp, the clink of shovels and picks on adjacent stony hillsides formed an accompaniment to the milling of her thoughts. Every now and then she paused, as she had all afternoon, to pick up a piece of float or to clip a specimen of rock from an outcrop.
Daylight was fading by the time she entered High Hope's brief span of street. She turned into the narrow space where faithful Ichabod still stood as he had been left. A voice, accosting her from behind, startled her.
"Certainly an interesting country for a mining engineer, isn't it, Miss Tyrrell?"
Mr. Diehl again! It was the third time today he had come up behind her. Nothing could have been more courteous than the way he gave her a helping hand into the saddle and turned over Ichabod's reins to her. Yet she could not keep her thanks and her farewell from being a trifle curt. She was weary of the man's Eastern polish. Give her, she thought, the often abrupt but unstudied honest chivalry of the West. "Though it's the way he keeps turning up wherever I happen to be that really nettles me. Almost as if he were spying on me." Suddenly she laughed. "I've got the spy phobia, I guess. Just because I'm supposed to be doing a little spying myself."
Vic's report to Dr. Weldon of her day in High Hope went with the next batch of out-going mail, a few days later. Imogene had ridden up to the post-office with Vic that morning. Both girls received letters in the mail the stage brought in. One glance at an envelope Imogene was scanning told Vic she had seen that handwriting before on Hosmer Leeds' college papers. There was a vigor in it that was unmistakable. When Imogene failed to refer to the letter either then or later, Vic was troubled. Yet there was relief, too, in Imogene's silence. For if Imogene was receiving mail she did not care to talk about, she would not be so outspokenly curious as to why Vic should be writing so often to "Dad" Weldon.
They did not linger in High Hope, and shortly after their return to the cabin, Imogene went to bed for her prescribed nap. Vic seized the opportunity to wander out back of the main cabin to Greenhorns' Folly. She had been awaiting this chance to make a more thorough examination of the suitcase in the tunnel. But she never made the examination. The suitcase had vanished.
A Hurricane Visit
"I'LL go over to the other cabin by myself, then." At Imogene's words, Vic brought the letter she was writing to a close, and arose from the living room table. "Oh, no, you won't."
Every now and then Imogene's gentle persistence would win out over Vic's strong leadership. Three times that morning Vic had waived aside Imogene's suggestion they prepare the other cabin for occupants at once. Why Imogene should be in such haste about the matter, Vic could not understand. The likelihood of really needing to use the place at all this summer was remote. There was plenty of spare room in their own far more luxurious cabin for visitors, such as the Weldons, when they appeared. Nevertheless she conceded now, "You win. I'll go at it right off. On one condition though. You stay over here. The work there's too hard for you. The way I go at things like that always wears you out trying to keep up with me even when you're feeling fine. As for now—Promise?"
"It seems so selfish."
Vic softened. "No, it isn't, Gene. You work on your story. Get yourself in shape for a real visit to High Hope next trip. You said you had to get better mine background than you have here at Greenhorns' Folly. High Hope will give you what you want."
"I'd rather get it up on Hurricane."
For a moment Vic hesitated. But she had to go up there sooner or later. "All right." There were seldom any half measures about Vic's surrenders. "Some day next week."
Armed with pail, mop, brooms and scouring powder Vic crossed over to the smaller cabin. Like its companion building, it was a substantial structure that had recently undergone thorough repair. Originally it had been a bunk-house for the few men employed at Greenhorns' Folly in its long-ago days of hectic hope and futile activity. They were dishonest miners for the most part – so the story went – accepting high wages from the romantically gullible and wealthy woman who owned the worthless prospect, feeding her with false hopes to prolong their own profitable opportunity.
Vic pushed open the door and went in, expecting dust, cobwebs and mustiness. She stopped short, suddenly thankful she had banned Imogene's coming. "It's as orderly and clean as the Hurricane shack was the night Eric and I stumbled into it last spring," she thought in amazement. "Airing it out won't hurt it, though." She threw open windows and door, and began a combination surface dusting and investigation. The result was the addition of several paragraphs to the letter she had written to "Dad" Weldon that morning:
"I'll list what I found, leaving you to figure out how much of all this dates back to last spring's skiing party:
1. The pair of blankets on top in the big chest had been put there in such a hurry there had been little attempt at any even folding.
2. When I took the blankets out and shook them, a man's handkerchief fell out. It was an expensive one of very fine linen with a beautifully embroidered blue D in the corner. Nobody in the skiing party had a name beginning with D. Nor was any one of them dude enough to be using a handkerchief like that on a college skiing party.
3. The teakettle on the little stove was full to the top with water. If left that way last spring in the bitter cold, what kept it from freezing after we left?
4. In one corner built against the wall was a crude, high, bench-like affair that looked to me like an improvised assay table. (I may use it myself later on.) Was it there last spring? I don't remember seeing it. There were sprinklings of powdered rock on it and some suggestive-looking stains, mostly blue and yellow. On a nearby wall shelf was a row of small rocks, plainly ore samples. Nobody in the skiing party collected ore samples or attempted any assay as far as I know. Except, maybe, Hosmer Leeds on the day he took French leave. If he picked up those pieces of rock as float or drift and brought them back here, he must have had to dig pretty far under snow to get them. Some of them were still crusted with rather new-looking mud. You might ask him, too, if he knows anything about the little stone pestle and mortar left on a back shelf in the closet and the test tubes and bottles behind them. There was enough left in two glass-stoppered bottles to furnish me with convincing sniffs as to what had been in them: alcohol, and strong hydrochloric acid. I could find no lamp, candle, blowpipe or other evidence of amateur or field assay outfit, though.
I shoved the bar down tight in closing the cabin after I left. And so trustworthily secretive is your spying ward, that she has not let out one cheep about any of this to innocent Imogene. It's mean of me, too, because some of it would furnish such grand details and clues for the mining mystery story she is trying so hard to concoct. What a pity you and I don't write mysteries! Still, it's a lot more fun to be living them.
Your devoted foster daughter and equally devoted reporter,
Victoria Jane Tyrrell.
On the day Vic took her letter to High Hope to mail, she also took several Imogene had given her, neatly collected within a rubber band. When Vic dropped them one by one into the mail chute at the post-office, her eye caught the name on the letter that had been in the middle of Imogene's slender pack. Hosmer Leeds! The sight of that name in Imogene's handwriting made Vic miserable. During succeeding days she wondered if the letter had anything to do with the way Imogene kept offering excuses to delay the trip up Hurricane. "Hadn't we better wait until we have a man to go with us up into that desolate country?"
"No. I didn't come up here to wait around for a man to do anything. I'm going tomorrow whether you do or not." Presently she added, "What man are you waiting for, anyway? 'Dad' Weldon or – Hosmer Leeds?"
Imogene's blush was telltale. "I'm not waiting for any special person. But 'Dad' Weldon isn't the only man with a summer job around here."
The unhappiness into which this speech plunged Vic made her sharp-tongued. "One of the things I hoped for most in this place was escape from Hosmer Leeds, the way I could never get it at college or at the Weldons'."
This time Imogene's only response was a flash of resentment in her big brown eyes. Vic was instantly repentant. Being horrid to Imogene would only heighten her own misery. Besides, she had gained her ends. Imogene made no further objection to going to Hurricane the following day. They made a leisurely all-day outing of the trip.
The Basin in its early summer bloom was an ideal place in which to linger. They ate their lunch in a small valley below the final, broad steep grade that led eventually to the rocky summit of Hurricane. Not until the last luncheon crumbs had been scattered to the chipmunks, picket-pins and scolding bluejays did the girls make a move to travel on. They talked little as they went. Imogene's mood was one of absorbed story planning. Vic was occupied with speculative matters of her own. Between them lay that deeply affectionate sense of companionship that had long been the most perfect relationship of their lives. Today Vic vowed she would not let any intrusive fear mar it.
It was a perfect Colorado day. Even the rocky stretches of Hurricane's summit were flooded with sunshine. The heavy snow of its crest and the deep banks still embedded in the hollows seemed to shrink visibly under the sun's fierceness. Slow rivulets ran out from them down through all available grooves to find an eager welcome in great patches of toughly-entangled, prickly scrub growth, such as springs up above timberline wherever there is semblance of moisture and soil. The horses, mountain wise, avoided all such patches without guidance, choosing their own footing with sure instinct. Long-legged, gaunt, white Ichabod kept well in the lead as usual. Behind him, Pinto Bean tacked widely across the rough slopes in the little mare's customary independence of spirit. Thus it was Vic who first came within sight of the refuge shack, and of the stark, crumbling skeletons of old mine buildings on a wide stretch of shoulder well under Hurricane's summit.
Vic brought Ichabod to a halt to await Imogene's tardy appearance, and scanned the old scene with interest. No thick snowfall and blinding blizzard marred the outlines now. They stood bare, distinct and bleak in the glaring sunlight. It was none of the old objects, however, that drew Vic's first attention. Instead, it was a tall, heavy man, prowling around the old mine shaft, dumps, and outlying wrecks of buildings. His back was toward her. Plainly he was unaware of her approach. He expected no one, probably, in a spot so unlikely to attract visitors. The noise of the wind circling around the summit as well as the noise he himself was causing by pulling away timbers obstructing whatever inspection he was making, would have drowned out the sounds of Ichabod's feet thudding up the difficult grade and clicking against interfering stones.
Now, at rest, Ichabod gave his head a vigorous shake to clear his nostrils of dust, and let forth a loud wheezy sneeze. The man whirled about in the direction of the sound. Over his face spread a look of such black anger that Vic gasped. But it was gone so quickly that in another instant Vic could not feel sure it had ever been there. In its place had spread the genial smile Vic had seen on that face before. Frederick Diehl lifted his expensive felt hat in greeting and moved toward her with his easy assurance.
Vic was off Ichabod's back before he reached her. "So we meet again. You seem to be making a long stay in our small producing area. Especially for these days of such urgent need for your special wares."
If the man resented the speech he did not show it. "And you?" The query was all friendly interest.
"My sister's specialties are story writing and Colorado history. She combines them. Likes old stage sets like this for background. So we're up here after realistic details." She waved behind her toward Bean and Imogene, just coming into sight over a rise. "She thinks this is the spot to find what she wants because of the mystery I ran into up here last spring. My mystery, though, is not at all satisfactory as story material because it has never had a solution. And you?" He needn't think he was going to evade an explanation of his being here.
He showed no desire to do so. "Like your sister, I, too, visit old mine sites. But for a reason in line with these 'days of desperate need.' Renewed possibilities of abandoned mines."
Vic laughed. She liked the way he "had given it back to her" without any touch of rancor, and there was no denying the plausibility of his explanation. She wondered, just the same, what right he had here. All this had been state property now for years, once open to sale through delinquent tax payment, but like all such mining properties of late, withdrawn from public sale lists. She was pleased to see the mud on his shoes and to note the rust-colored stain on his hands. Perhaps after all he wasn't the complete dude his usual immaculate grooming indicated.
"How did you get up here?" she asked.
"Hiked, as you Westerners say. From Chandler. None too easy on a rather fleshy Easterner's wind, either." His breathing was still wheezy. "And all for nothing except, of course, this incidental pleasure of meeting you. No hope in this old mine. Its last levels are too far down, and all its levels and tunnels completely flooded. Even if any of the ore left in it was worth excavating, the job would demand a prohibitively expensive pumping set-up."
It was on the tip of Vic's quick tongue to query, "How do you know?" Imogene's arrival checked the utterance.
It was promptly evident that Frederick Diehl meant to make the most of "this incidental pleasure." He entered sympathetically into Imogene's search for local color, and not only remained with the girls on their round of inspection, but actually took the lead in it, managing its direction adroitly. It was some little time before they approached close to the great dumps. Even then their inspection of them was brief and soon diverted. Nevertheless, two or three details of which she made no mention did not escape Vic's observant eye. Back of one of the dumps lay a shovel and pick so brightly new they bore no discernible trace of rust or decay. In one of the dumps, too, a shallow hole suspiciously like the first effort at a newly dug pit could be seen near the bottom. A clear view of it was cut off by a conglomerate heap of old broken-down machinery.
Vic kept herself as much in the background as Frederick Diehl would allow her to do, largely because of Imogene's attitude. Unlike Vic, she was highly appreciative of the man's interest in her hobby. In her quiet way she was as pleasantly affable as the buyer himself. Vic knew why, she told herself bitterly. Because of a remark Frederick Diehl had addressed to Vic earlier. "Miss Tyrrell, I've a new friend – a fellow graduate of yours, so he told me, from the Colorado College of Mines. We hope to meet frequently, as he is travelling about among the mining sections of your state much as I am. His name is Hosmer Leeds."
Was she never to escape rivalry with Hosmer Leeds? Vic asked herself bitterly. The effect the mere mention of his name had had on Imogene was enough to mar this day that had started out so perfectly. It made Vic relinquish her leadership without protest, and wait impatiently for the trip to end. She was glad when at last she could say, "Haven't you got all you wanted, Imogene?"
Imogene was in no hurry to leave. She was hovering around the refuge shack, and startled her sister by saying, "I'd like to have the strength of mind to break into it." Small wonder. Its firmly locked door, its closed windows entirely covered with heavy brown wrapping paper, would have heightened the curiosity of a far less interested person.
"Just the way I feel, Miss Tyrrell," the metal buyer agreed with a laugh. "I'd even help you do it, if it weren't for your rigid state laws against trespassing. I'm told they're being pretty drastically enforced around old mining properties these days." He took several bars of sweet chocolate from his pocket. "How about finding a comfortable spot to rest in for a few minutes? While we munch our refreshments, our historian here might give this transplanted Easterner an account of this particular old mine's history."
No use trying to frustrate Imogene's compliance with a request like that, Vic knew. Prior to their coming up into this country for the summer, Imogene had searched old historical records for all the information she could find about the Hurricane. She launched into the story eagerly.
"You see, the Hurricane mine never had but one owner, the prospector who first discovered it. He began to mine it on a small scale, enlarging operations as fast as the mine earnings allowed. This owner, Hiram Tobin, had more than his share of the usual mine owner's visionariness. With him that visionariness became fanaticism. The Hurricane made him a rich man. Then, after a time, its paying veins completely pinched out. But he would not accept the fact. He refused to stop full operation of what by that time was a good-sized mine, and kept right on working it, certain it would again make him even richer. Of course the inevitable result was that instead it completely ate up all the wealth it had once brought him. You must have already heard that much of the story."
Frederick Diehl merely nodded.
As Imogene continued the story, Vic studied the face of the man who was listening. She had to acknowledge that he appeared genuinely interested. Now and then she even glimpsed a trace of the same emotional sympathy she had detected at their first meeting in the High Hope Mountain Home, when she had told him about the spring tragedy. Now Vic attributed this sympathy to Imogene's narrative skill, which was clearly evident in the vivid picture Imogene was painting of old Hiram Tobin and his fate, of how in the end his confidence in his mine had become an unbalanced obsession. Even after the mine had lost him everything it had once brought him, his faith had never wavered. Penniless at last, he had gone East, confident of raising enough money to continue operations. But he had never been able to get it, and before very long – so the story went – he had died there, in abject poverty. Yet he had never lost faith in the mine's potential riches.
In fact, so firm was his faith that he had imbued his wife with it. When dying, he had exacted a promise from her never to give up the mine, but to carry on his efforts to finance its reopening. She had struggled hard to fulfill her promise. For a number of years she had managed to keep title to the property. "The report is that she scrubbed floors in New York office buildings at night to do it," Imogene said. "But how she managed it even so, when she had both herself and her little girl to keep, nobody can see. Probably she wore herself completely out and died. No one really knows. She was far too proud to write to any of her old friends back here. After a few years, you see, the tax money no longer came. The title lapsed, and nobody has ever appeared since who thought it worth paying the tax arrears to gain ownership." Imogene was silent for a moment, then added, "I often think of their baby girl, wondering what could have become of her. Nobody seems to have the least idea."
Vic, still watching the buyer, felt suddenly guilty. There was no mistaking now the unconscious warmth that had come into those too complaisant light brown eyes. Frederick Diehl was genuinely moved by Imogene's story. Vic sought to excuse her former feeling toward him. "It was because of that handkerchief I found with the D on it. As if lots of people didn't have names beginning with D," she told herself. Realizing how rude she had been by the way she had eliminated herself from most of the day's conversation, she inserted now, casually, "A mine located on this bleak mountain must have cost plenty to operate. All that transportation back and forth, not only of the mine workers and all the supplies but also of every bit of its ore. It all had to be packed, you see, down to the mills in Chandler for crushing."
The comment had an unexpected effect upon Imogene. "That reminds me," she said, "of an item I'd completely forgotten. It wasn't in any of the accepted accounts of the old Hurricane mine I ran across, so it may not be at all authentic. I found it in a moldy old notebook in the historical library. It had evidently been a miner's diary, written mostly in pencil and almost faded or rubbed out. But here and there a few lines were fairly clear. A few of them spoke of some attempt of 'old Tobin's,' as a last desperate move, at building and operating some kind of mill nearer the mine. From what I could make out, the mill seems to have been very short-lived, and located in a mountain pocket over a trail almost impossible to keep clear. There were a few dim illegible words that seemed to be something about a hope 'old Tobin' had of the worthless and refractory ore he was still getting."
Frederick Diehl was on his feet again by the time Imogene ceased speaking. Vic's sharpened glance had gone straight to his face at his first hint of movement. Immediately her own feeling toward the man veered once more with such swiftness and violence, it made her dizzy. For one fleeting instant, she was sure, she had caught in his expression a return flash of the same black anger she had detected on her arrival. This time, too, it was gone almost as quickly as it came. The man was listening courteously to Imogene's ensuing comment, "I'd surely like to find that old millsite. Probably by this time it's a crumbling ruin, but it would make stunning story material."
"You never will," Vic laughed, still watching the buyer. "Such a trail would be completely impassable by now. Covered with tough, spiny scrub growth, it would be an entangled, snagging barricade – as effective as the steel jaws of a bear trap to anybody who tried to penetrate it." She could see that her words brought relief to Frederick Diehl. His black look wasn't all anger, she thought. Part of it was fear.
Soon the girls were on their horses, bidding their late companion good-by. As soon as they had ridden out of earshot, Vic remarked, "He must be glad to see us go. We certainly spoiled his plans for this afternoon."
"And you weren't nice, Vic. Whatever was the matter with you? You scarcely talked at all, and some of the few remarks you did make, sounded almost curt."
"Did they? He didn't appear to notice."
"Oh, but he did. Only he was too much of a gentleman to show it."
"I wonder." Imogene's comment was disconcerting. It meant, Vic realized, that she would have to guard against showing her feelings too plainly.
"Yet the chief thing the matter with me today wasn't Frederick Diehl at all," Vic told herself. "It was just plain jealousy, one of the most disgusting traits in the whole wide world. I'm jealous of Hosmer Leeds because I'm forever running into rivalry with him. College, the Weldons, the summer work I so wanted – all that was bad enough. But it was nothing compared to this last. For now it's Imogene, the grandest person in my whole life, who has always been my own special property to love and to have love me. I'd be a little jealous, I suppose, of anybody she showed she liked too well. But Hosmer Leeds! Of all people! Because Frederick Diehl liked Hosmer, right off Imogene had to like Frederick Diehl. And I don't like either of them. That leaves me out all the way round. It's – it's just more than I can bear."
Suddenly her chin went up. "And now it's self-pity that's the matter with me. As if jealousy weren't contemptible enough! It's high time I took my thoughts off myself and got them back on my job." She succeeded so well she reached a new decision, induced by recollection of the shadowy expressions that twice that afternoon had flitted over Frederick Diehl's face. "I'm going to chop my way in to the deserted millsite Imogene spoke of, no matter how tough the going is. I'll ferret out some old-timer in Chandler who may have some notion of where the trail lies that used to lead into it. For I've got a sudden hunch that locating that millsite may be part of my summer job."
Into the Discard
VIC and Imogene approached their cabin in the late twilight. To their surprise figures arose from within the screened porch, and came outside to await the girls.
"Company! The Weldons!" Vic exclaimed joyfully. Then, on a long stretch of very level land some distance to the other side of the cabin, nearer the ski slopes, she spied a third figure. Powerfully built, slightly stoop-shouldered, he was bent over as if in close inspection of the land he paced. He, too, caught the sound of the loping horses. He turned and came forward, moving with the slightly heavy awkwardness that is the inevitable imprint of too hard physical work in too early boyhood. But it did not rob him of a certain magnetic attractiveness that even Vic could not deny, much as recognition of him as Hosmer Leeds was blunting her first eagerness of welcome.
There was no blunting of it with Imogene. A flush mounted into her dark cheeks, and her eyes glowed. Vic, swinging off Ichabod's back, threw her sister a discerning glance. She was expecting him, then. That letter she got. Her hurry about the other cabin. The conviction made it difficult for Vic to greet Hosmer cordially. Not that he noticed. His eyes were upon Imogene only, as he reached for the bridle reins of both horses to lead them toward supper and the corral. However taciturn he might be about his own personal affairs, his liking for Imogene spoke through his self-contained manner with a candor Vic considered lacking in proper social reserve.
Fierce sisterly protectiveness arose in the younger girl. No fellow like Hosmer Leeds was worthy of Imogene.
It would just never work out, either, Vic told herself. Later, when she found that she was to lose even this small summer job of hers to Hosmer, anger strengthened her feelings.
Dr. Weldon led up to it slowly. He and Vic were seated in a corner of the porch, out of earshot of the others. After an exchange of pleasantries, Vic launched into an account of all her trips outside the Basin.
It was today's still unreported experiences on Hurricane about which she had the most to say. With characteristic candor she even included Imogene's comments about Vic's own attitude toward Frederick Diehl, and the buyer's reaction to it. She sensed at once that "Dad" Weldon was both displeased and troubled by this. She murmured apologetically, "I'm afraid I'm not naturally the right person for detective or spy work."
Dr. Weldon welcomed the remark. "Then suppose you forget it for a while. Just enjoy yourself with the other women here in the Basin. Leeds and I will be travelling about in this section now for some time to come, using the cabins as headquarters. So all we'll need from you is that you keep your eyes open here at home while we're gone."
Vic was instantly rebellious. "Oh, no. I can't agree to that. It's altogether too tame. Besides, I've got to chop my way in to that old millsite."
"Absolutely nothing doing, my dear." The veto was decisive. "Leeds and I did not get up here a moment too soon, that's plain. It's high time a girl like you was out of all this. From now on I don't want you even to ride outside of the Basin and its immediate boundaries alone. As for your trying to locate and chop your way into some unknown millsite – it's simply not to be thought of."
"Too lonely. And altogether too difficult. It would take hours and hours of the hardest kind of chopping. Besides, the footing is insecure and might break through under you. You know perfectly well what that would mean. Letting you down into a mass of dense, thorned, tangled growth, untouched for a quarter of a century. No better place in the world to become hopelessly trapped. Even wild animals do occasionally. A girl like you simply couldn't accomplish the job – a tough one even for a fellow like Leeds, with all his tried and developed physical strength and his life-long knowledge of Colorado mountains."
The girl was stung to an impulsive outburst. "So you're to hand over to Hosmer, too, even my pretext of a summer job?"
She received no verbal answer, merely a half apologetic and wholly affectionate smile. She could see it now because of the lighted lamp within the cabin as they passed a window. For Dr. Weldon had arisen to end the interview. Together they were moving along the porch to join the others at the farther end.
Vic took small part in the rest of the evening's sociability. She sat apart, absorbed in nursing her wounds. "It's as if he had chucked me under the chin before tucking me into bed," she fumed. The attitude was altogether too suggestive of the one she had long felt in Hosmer Leeds toward her ambitions as a mining engineer. There was no denying strength of character in Hosmer Leeds; even "Dad" Weldon was being influenced by him. "And yet I told 'Dad' that Hosmer had struck up a friendship with that Frederick Diehl, and that I had come to dislike Diehl so much – although all I've really got against him is that his name begins with D – that I can't help being suspicious of anybody who could be friends with him." She strove to rise above her grievances, but the situation was altogether too complex for any satisfactory explanation she could think of. During succeeding days it became evident that neither was she going to receive any satisfactory explanation of it from anybody else.
Vic was far too proud and too humiliated to mention the old millsite again to anyone. Not for worlds would she show a trace of curiosity as to whether Dr. Weldon or Hosmer intended to carry out her idea of finding a way in to it. Whatever those two men were doing, it was soon plain they were completely absorbed by it. The very first night they had established their sleeping quarters in the second cabin, even though the main cabin had two unoccupied bedrooms. "That's so they can talk and plan all by themselves without any of the women getting the least inkling of what they're up to. Of course, though," Vic's straightforward honesty forced her to confess even through her resentment, "locating mineral deposits of possible value isn't a matter anybody discusses until facts are plain and rights secure."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Weldon had settled down with Imogene to almost complete domesticity within the main cabin. Vic's feelings about Mrs. Weldon's presence were mixed. If Dr. Weldon had brought his wife up here because, in his fussy, fatherly fashion, he had come to the conclusion that two girls should not be living alone in this Basin, Vic was vexed. She could handle a gun as well as Mrs. Weldon, had competed more than favorably with the men students at college in rifle and pistol practice, even with Eric and Hosmer. On the other hand, Mrs. Weldon's presence meant a welcome relief from household duties, and from uneasiness at leaving Imogene too much alone. Imogene had always been Mrs. Weldon's favorite of the sisters, just as Vic had been her husband's. Already the woman and the older girl were happily planning varied meals from the canned and compact stores. During their rest hours the older woman read aloud to Imogene on the screened porch. Vic was often too restless to make the welcome third she might have been. Her thoughts were too much upon the possible occupations of the men, about which neither Mrs. Weldon nor Imogene showed more than casual curiosity.
"Here I am," Vic kept telling herself, "entirely free at last to follow my own pursuits, and – thanks to Hosmer Leeds – with no pursuits to follow. As if I hadn't owed him grudge enough before." Not the least of Vic's present grievances was Mrs. Weldon's obvious sympathy toward the attraction between Hosmer and Imogene. "It's what's making her and Gene so extra chummy."
The situation left Vic without a confidant. Never in her life had she felt so shut out – so unwanted. "Tossed completely into the discard," she thought, wishing, "If only Eric were here." But even if he had been, she could not have violated her early pledge of secrecy to confide in him. There were times when the urge to go against Dr. Weldon's veto on the millsite trip was almost too strong to resist. Every natural instinct rebelled against the failure to carry through an effort she had undertaken – except, of course, the most important instinct of them all, that of her personal honor. Dr. Weldon trusted her. She and Imogene were up here at his favor. She owed him obedience.
The only one of his graduation day suggestions she had not yet acted upon was that she prospect a little. She had never taken it seriously, nor did she believe he had. They both understood too well how the day and methods of the lone prospector were practically a thing of the past, except for a little placering or surface digging for insignificant results. Yet the smallest contribution to the strategic metal needs of today was worth while. Lone prospectors were again appearing, in many a hidden valley and on many an obscure slope of this Western land. "But not in this Basin where I have to stay." The place had been pronounced hopeless too many times by experts.
"Just the same, I might as well try. At least it will keep me busy. I've got to have good hard work of some kind to keep me healthy-minded. If I don't, I'll become simply disgusting with self pity. And in spite of Greenhorns' Folly, and all the thick timber at this end of the Basin, and the way big mining companies' professionals scorn it, there are plenty of rock outcroppings around this valley – enough to keep me busy at a pretense of prospecting as long as I'm not wanted for anything else."
Characteristically, she acted upon her decision without delay, riding off each morning on her unpromising quest, armed with the tools of her trade. The others saw her, of course, but such queries as they put were perfunctory, and easily evaded. It did not ease the soreness of her spirit to realize that they were all relieved to see her occupied. "If only I could spring a real surprise upon them," she thought in defiant pride. It was Hosmer who most aroused this feeling. He and Dr. Weldon were home in the Basin for short stays only, frequently being away for days at a time. Yet occasionally, when Vic would ride home to the cabin at dusk, she would see Hosmer at work with rake or heavy shovel on the long stretch of beautifully level land below the cabin. "Just getting exercise," he would explain. "I'm in the saddle so much, I need it."
"Queer you always take it in the same place and in the same way," she commented once. Hosmer made no reply.
Vic's cure of activity began to work almost at once. And before very long, to her own surprise, she found herself becoming as absorbed in what she was doing and as uncommunicative about it, as were the men about their affairs. She was actually developing a real case of prospector fever. And with it came a return of her usual buoyancy of spirits. She grew truly glad "Dad" Weldon showed so little desire for reports on her present activities. She was resolved he would not get any. Any reports she made would go to Eric only, and by mail. Ore samples of any possible promise, too, would go to Eric for assay; not to any office in this region. Dr. Weldon's attitude justified such action on her part. Any doubts she had on this score vanished when he and Hosmer scarcely so much as noticed the assay table in their own cabin, when they returned after one of their absences. She had not only managed to equip it while they were gone, she had made use of it, too, the night before, and not entirely without results. Perhaps their disregard was due to absorption in the guest they had brought with them. Their guest noticed the assay table, all right, and was keenly interested. Of that Vic was instantly sure.
The night this happened Vic was in the bedroom opening off the sleeping porch, washing away the grime of her own day's toil. Her ear caught the hurried approach of Imogene's usually deliberate footsteps. The older girl entered the room without ceremony and thrust into her sister's wet hands a little pile of clean towels and pillow cases.
"Here, Vic, run over to the other cabin with these right off, will you? The men are coming back. They're almost here, too. And they're not alone; there's another man—"
But Vic was out of hearing. She had grabbed her sister's offering. "You darling," she had breathed as she sped out the cabin door. So Imogene knew she "was up to something" that she was keeping secret from them all; knew that she had left things in the other cabin she might not care to have a stranger see. Sensitively loyal Imogene, never attempting intrusion into Vic's carefully kept silences, yet sympathetically trustworthy even where she did not understand. Did anyone ever have a sister like her?
Vic might have reached the cabin before the others had it not been that the long house coat she was wearing kept reducing her speed. As it was, she and the three men arrived at the cabin almost simultaneously. She did not care if "Dad" Weldon and Hosmer did see her assay equipment. She would not have left it there if she had. They knew she was prospecting – merely had too little faith in her efforts to show any real interest.
About the third man her feeling was entirely different. As soon as she had spied him, she had recognized him – Frederick Diehl. This was what had come of his friendship with Hosmer. Unreasonable, of course, that his appearance should make her so indignant. Just the same, it did. Especially when, as the men flung open the cabin door to throw in the baggage packs before leading the horses to the corral, she saw the visitor's eyes dart first of all to the assay table built against the wall in the corner, with its array of lamps and bottles on top. She greeted him, adding with a laughing toss of her head in the direction of the table, "You look at it as if it might be something you had seen before. Only with different equipment." She could not resist the triumph of letting him know that for once she had caught him off guard.
Her reaction was a swift sense of shock. Not because of the effect of her words upon Frederick Diehl, but upon Hosmer Leeds. This was so surprising that she did not even hear the buyer's adroit response to her challenge. Behind Frederick Diehl's back, Hosmer's gray-blue eyes were blazing at her in scornful, emphatic warning. Why? Plainly because he disapproved of her impulsive tongue. His glance was a command to leave before that tongue transgressed again. To her own amazement, she obeyed at once, although anger surged within her. As if any high-spirited girl would not resent a command unaccompanied by explanation! But that was Hosmer Leeds for you. It was all a part of his contempt of a woman mining engineer. Apparently nothing a woman engineer did was worth attention, be it prospecting, assaying, or anything else. As she moved away from the cabin door, Dr. Weldon appeared behind her, holding out a batch of mail.
"Here, Vic. This belongs over in the other cabin." Getting the mail was another job the men had taken over.
Vic accepted the bundle eagerly, shuffling through it as she walked on. Magazines, newspapers, a number of letters. Yes, it was there, the one with the handwriting she sought, and it was deliciously fat. She secreted it in a pocket until she had delivered the other mail to the cabin, and slipped into more suitable clothes. Then she carried her letter to a picturesque nook behind the cabin for private and uninterrupted perusal. In the anticipation of that reading her resentment of a few minutes before had vanished. "You weathercock, Victoria Tyrrell," she chided herself. "Small wonder Hosmer Leeds feels contempt at your feminine instability, the way a favorable wind can make your feelings veer completely around."
She read her letter through twice. The first time her reaction was one of disappointment. Not a single word did Eric have to say about her prospecting, although she had written him a full account of what she was doing and where. "It's because he has no more faith in it than any of the others. He doesn't want to hurt my feelings by saying so. So he writes a lot about his own experiences to distract me." There was no denying that his own affairs were interesting.
The first part of his letter told of his latest gift from his father, a beautiful young dog, a Great Dane, pure black in color. He had named him Blackout, and was training him for a guard or watch dog. The last part of the letter was about Eric's recent flying experiences in his new plane, the Mountain Gull. Twice he had been forced down by bad weather. Both times he had met another plane similarly downed. Even toward the two eagerly welcoming officials of the little airport – a mechanic and a radio man – the pilot of the second plane had been unresponsive. He had been in such a hurry to take off again that he had even disregarded their weather warnings. "Seemed to have it in for me, too, just because I happened to land there where he did. Didn't even let on he recognized me the second time we met."
So Eric had another mystery, this time one all his own. She let her imagination play about it for a while. In the fun of doing so, the last traces of her recent silly resentments faded. She no longer cared if Hosmer had brought Frederick Diehl down into their beautiful private Basin as a guest.
The effect of Eric's letter was to make her gay and friendly at the supper table toward both Hosmer and Frederick Diehl. It was the latter who most appreciated her mood. Together they made the meal a pleasant one. Presently Mrs. Weldon inquired slyly, with her knowing and yet sympathetic smile, "You must have got a letter, Vic."
"I did. From Eric. An awfully interesting one." She had made up her mind not to show the same foolish and unnecessary reserve about her correspondence as Imogene. "He has a grand new dog. And he's having all kinds of experiences, flying his plane, landing at queer airports; some of them so out of the world and lonely, they're myster—"
"I had one from him, too." The words were a swiftly blocking interruption that cut Vic's utterance short. Coming from the usually restrained Hosmer, they startled her to silence, especially as they were accompanied by the same kind of glance he had given her in the men's cabin. This time it aroused no anger in her. It left her puzzled. All the more so when Hosmer followed his first words with a statement she saw was intended as a false corroboration of hers. "A metallurgical research laboratory certainly would be interesting enough these times to be exciting."
Fortunately, Vic was quick of wit and action. She hoped she was keeping her facial expression as well under control as she did her tongue, whose natural utterance would have been, "But Eric isn't working in a research laboratory." Hosmer knew that as well as she. It must be that he did not want her to talk about Eric's experiences before – Frederick Diehl? Yet that was queer. For his own attitude toward his guest was an open geniality such as Vic had never before seen Hosmer show toward anyone. It certainly could not be "Dad" Weldon whom Hosmer did not want to have learn of Eric's experiences. Could it possibly be Mrs. Weldon, or Imogene? No, there was no reason for such an attitude.
Vic was still puzzling over the matter when, the meal over, she carried the table scraps out to bury in the garbage pit. This lay in the bottom of a small ravine some yards behind the cabin. There Hosmer overtook her. He stooped to lift the big flat stone that served as pit cover, saying in a low tone as he did so, "Vic, if I were you, I wouldn't tell anybody about those airport experiences of Eric's."
Vic stared at him. How on earth did Hosmer know what it was she had been about to tell, when he himself had not let her get so far as even to mention it? "Why not?" she asked sharply. "Eric didn't say to keep them secret."
"No. But he will. As soon as he understands."
She was too puzzled to be resentful. Besides, although Hosmer had spoken with his usual brevity, his manner had held toward her something of real brotherliness. A flame of suspicion spurted up in her for a moment to singe her pleasure at this change in him. "Is he trying to wheedle me into telling only him?" she thought. The flame died down almost instantly. For Hosmer had already begun to tell her the contents of his own letter from Eric that had come in the same mail as hers. It was plain he was doing this as a return for the secrecy he was asking. Vic liked the honesty and fairness of it, even in the face of the chagrin the telling evoked. For Eric had told Hosmer all he had told her, and more. He had added still another airport incident, one on the Pacific coast from which the clippers took off for the Orient. Eric believed he had once again glimpsed the same plane and pilot he had met twice before. He was unable to get near enough to be certain. Two federal officers were talking to the pilot. Other federal men appeared to be busy inspecting the more distant and segregated clipper.
"All right, Hosmer," Vic agreed when he ceased speaking. "I'll be the perfect 'oyster' and keep all my precious pearls of information shut tight within the shell."
"You won't be sorry," Hosmer returned gratefully.
"Only," the girl's impulsive honesty broke forth, "I'd be a lot happier keeping my promise if it weren't for the thick friendship you've struck up lately with Frederick Diehl. No matter how hard I try to be nice to him, there's always something about him that rubs me the wrong way."
Hosmer's only answer was a long look. It seemed to say a lot of things that Vic could not quite make out. Could one of them possibly be a request for understanding – an explanation of something that was in no way explained?
Hosmer parted from her with one of those rare and surprisingly illuminating smiles that once in a blue moon lighted up his over-stern and rugged face. Vic had seen them before, directed at Imogene. This was the first one she could remember receiving herself. It pleased her enough to make her acknowledge, "After all, Hosmer was right in persuading 'Dad' Weldon to take the sleuth job away from me. I never was suited to it. And now I no longer care. I've got a better job all my own. And every bit as secret, at least until I've got something worth telling. If ever I do, the day will come when all the others will learn that, in spite of my being such an outspoken person, I can keep a secret as well as any of them."
But the next morning brought her new bewilderment about Hosmer's behavior. Once more she was at the garbage pit, hidden from view by the depth of the ravine. She heard footsteps and the voices of Hosmer and Frederick Diehl somewhere in the back yard between cabin and woodshed. "As thick as thieves," she thought, and sat down on a stump to await their passing. "I've had all I can stand of either of them for the time being." Soon she was overhearing some of their words. Mr. Diehl was insisting upon entering the woodshed with Hosmer, to help in splitting and carrying up to the house the generous supply of wood the men always left in readiness for the women's use during their absences. Hosmer quietly but decisively refused the offer. Instead, in his capacity as host, he was insisting Mr. Diehl spend the time taking a pleasure ride around part of the Basin. Hosmer even caught the buyer's horse, helped with the saddling and bridling, and proceeded with his guest to the front of the main cabin. There he watched the buyer mount and started him off on his trip in a definitely indicated direction.
Vic was worried. It was just the direction she had feared it would be. She was out of the ravine before this, strolling unobserved around the cabin, well in the wake of the men. She ventured near enough to overhear Hosmer say, "You won't have time to go far. Don't leave the Basin floor."
The words brought the girl some relief. "If Mr. Diehl obeys that order, it's all right," she thought, "even if he is going in my direction." It was the trail she and Ichabod were taking daily now. Did Hosmer know that? He had seen her take it more than once when he had been at home in the Basin. Could that be why he wanted Frederick Diehl to take it? Or was it because the long level stretch where Hosmer himself was wont to take his "exercise" lay the other way? One thing was certain; Hosmer had not wanted Mr. Diehl with him in the woodshed.
This fact struck Vic anew after the men had gone. Walking out to the corral after Ichabod, and passing the woodshed, she noticed that the padlock on the door looked fastened. She stopped to try it. The door was securely locked, though she had never known it to be before. Imogene must have seen her. She appeared bringing the padlock key. "Hosmer left it with me," she explained. "He said to tell you, Vic, to look in the back corner off the far end of the entrance aisle. You know, in the empty space we've made by using so much of the quick burning cedar. He said there was something there that might interest you. He said he found it hidden behind a lot of logs he happened to move."
"What is it?"
Imogene laughed. "I don't know. I was going in to satisfy my own curiosity. We'll go together." A little later it was Imogene who was repeating, "What is it?"
Vic was bending over, examining the object – no easy task in such light as the shed's one high, dusty window afforded. Soon she was saying, "It's a hand-operating, small stone crusher. An awful old timer – of pioneer vintage. Must date back to Greenhorn's Folly days." She was testing its operation. "It works," she exclaimed in amazement. "You'd think it would be rusted and falling to pieces."
"Maybe somebody oiled it."
"Not that I know of. I don't see when he could have found time."
The find elated Vic. She might have use for it. When she turned Ichabod up the Basin in the direction Frederick Diehl had previously taken, she was still pondering her new problem, the conundrum that was Hosmer Leeds. She was not so absorbed, however, as to fail to note with relief that the hoof prints of the horse the buyer had ridden did not seem to have gone as far as she had feared they might.
A Lone Prospector
"VICTORIA TYRRELL, you should have been a man."
"I quite agree with you." Vic laughed as she pushed confining combs into her hair. She had to have it out of the way for the work she was doing.
Imogene continued to lament. "That glorious hair of yours – that every girl envies you on sight. And the way you treat it! And your hands lately – as rough and chapped as a ditch digger's. As for your finger nails, they're terrible."
"Sorry. But it can't be helped." Vic snatched up her old felt hat and pulled it down vigorously over the tucked-away hair. Excitement and the energetic drive of her spirit made her impatient. She paused, however, before she hurried from the cabin, to kiss the troubled frown on Imogene's forehead. "Please don't worry, honey. I'll reform later. Primp as much as you want me to. Just now, I haven't time."
She could hear Imogene's long-drawn sigh as she sped through the open doorway, knew her sister was following her to the screened porch door to watch her spring into the saddle. She turned, waved, and called a farewell, her voice as gay as her spirit was eager.
"Imogene is such a darling," she acknowledged to herself, guilty at the joy she felt at this escape into the glory of the mountain air and the high wide solitude of the big mountain basin. "And she rests better with me gone, alone with Mrs. Weldon's quiet steadiness. I bubble over with so much energy I wear poor Gene out. Just now, holding everything in the way I have to, I'm worse than usual. If it weren't for writing all about it to Eric, I'd burst." Ichabod's loping made her laugh ripple out into the wind. Her thoughts swung along in harmony to his pounding hoofs.
"A month or so ago I was sulking because my unappreciated efforts had been thrown into the discard. My professional pride was hurt at being shut out from the activities that were keeping 'Dad' Weldon and Hosmer so absorbed. I certainly managed to turn the tables on them in the matter of becoming absorbed. And nothing could suit me better than having them out from under my feet – for days this time, I hope." On leaving the cabin that morning the two men had told Mrs. Weldon not to expect them until they appeared, and not to worry no matter how long they might be gone. "Now if I can only turn the tables on them, too, in the relative importance of what I'm absorbed in—"
She checked her soaring thoughts through sheer will power, suddenly disgusted at the optimism of her mood. "Prospector fever – that's what you've got, Victoria Tyrrell – as bad a case as I've ever known. You're deliberately letting yourself indulge in the delirium of a lot of fantastic dreams."
More than once trained experts had reported slim hope of discovering valuable deposits in this Basin. The only possibility lay in the higher, barer ridges of the High Hope region. And even there the ore would be low grade, with little promise of profitable working. As for slopes heavily timbered with yellow pine, such as furnished much of the Basin's boundaries at this upper end, they had always been considered hopeless searching grounds for prospectors of any kind. Yet Vic had been stubborn enough to start exploring them, eye ever on the alert for surface showings. Small wonder her Basin companions showed so little interest in her activities.
"Dad" Weldon's attitude had even become amusing. A subtle appreciation often penetrated his kindly, absent-minded fatherliness toward her, as if he were silently grateful to the girl for keeping herself out of his and Hosmer's way these days. It was as if he attributed to her a tactful understanding she did not possess. Nothing could have added more strength to her desire to prove she did have professional worth than the way those two men were treating her. But it must be conclusive proof. She would make no attempt to impress them unless and until she had such proof.
"Today, and then tonight," she told herself, "and I'll know whether to ask Eric for a full assay." For today she meant to do real sampling; she would cut all she needed from the vein she had been trenching. Although the Federal Bureau of Mines did no assaying, Eric could have it done for her in the Nevada state assay office. To have it done in a Colorado office would, she feared, mean too much risk to her secret. As for her own recent amateur efforts, they were too crude and meager for reliability.
She reached a point in the upper Basin where she was no longer visible from the cabin because of a bend. Without guidance, Ichabod turned toward the timber boundary slopes and picked his way up one of them in a barely discernible trail of his own recent making. Steadily and dextrously he wound his way upward through the trees. It was as if he understood his own part and had pride in it. And well he might. "For I really owe it all to you, Ichabod," Vic whispered in his ear.
It had been Ichabod who had brought Vic success in her search for float, the first act in any prospector's procedure. It had happened, too, in a place where she herself would not have dreamed of searching. Near the end of a long, discouraging day, after a long succession of just such days, she had turned Ichabod up into the timber of a slope, hoping to find a short cut into a small valley behind it. A little stream wound through the valley that it might pay to pan. Panning was a preliminary step for many a prospector, even though the metal he sought was not gold. What Vic hoped to discover was some trace of tungsten. The stream itself was fed from the melting snows of towering Hurricane, located high above and to one side.
The slope that the girl and horse sought to maneuver was one of a long ridge which intervened between the Basin and old Hurricane itself. It shut off from the Basin all view of the lower part of the bare, partly broken slope up which Hosmer Leeds and "Dad" Weldon had come to Vic's and Eric's rescue on the fateful night the previous spring. The short-cut climb through the timber had proved so difficult that both horse and rider had been worn out by the time they reached the section of the slope where the timber was beginning to thin. Vic had dismounted and thrown the reins over Ichabod's head so that they both might have a breathing spell. Vic had relaxed on the ground while Ichabod had begun a scanty grazing amid boulders and scattered crystallized rock. Presently his shoe hit a stone not far from Vic and, just as it was struck by a ray from the setting sun, turned it over to reveal a smoothly surfaced underside. Vic had jumped to her feet, picked up the stone and examined it closely. It was a promising looking piece of what miners call float, a bit of mineral or vein matter that has been broken off by frost or other agent of erosion from an outcrop. Vic had promptly abandoned her intention of panning in the valley beyond. Instead she had ridden homeward, telling herself, "If only the men don't show up tonight, I'll finish getting my assay outfit into shape and run a test on this piece of float. If it shows up as good as it looks to the eye, I'll start a thorough search for the outcrop tomorrow."
The assay had not proved just what she had hoped. It had, however, indicated the presence of antimony. Although not in as great demand as some of the others, antimony was one of the much needed strategics. On the third day following, she located the outcrop. It lay a little higher up and farther over in Hurricane's direction than the spot where she had picked up the piece of float, but its location had been made easy by two rather puzzling features. Instead of protruding from surrounding surface levels, it lay in a slight depression, running for considerable length. And the sprinkling of stunted evergreens about it looked like second growth. Whether made by man or nature, the long depression was old work. Time and the weather had effaced every trace of freshness about it. The low surrounding stumps were blackened with decay, and the depression itself was deeply imbedded with nature's debris. Vic's first effort had been to clean this out. There had followed for her days of arduous toil beyond anything of which she would once have believed herself capable. Her reward lay in the mounting hope that daily became more promising.
All this while neither Mrs. Weldon nor Imogene took much spoken notice of Vic's obvious weariness. This was so unlike motherly Mrs. Weldon that Vic was as puzzled by it as she was relieved. If the other women's silence was the result of pride at the girl's own failure to confide in them, Vic could well understand it. Was it not just what she felt toward the men?
One thing was clear. Whatever was making Imogene so sensitively silent, it in no way affected her unselfish sweetness toward her sister. "She's even helping me to guard what she doesn't know herself, bless her," Vic told herself often in affectionate gratitude. For many a night after the discovery of the outcrop, Vic returned to the cabin, stiff, sore, and so weary in every muscle that the slightest movement was painful. Yet cost what it would, the effort of such movement must be covered up, especially when the men were at home. It was Imogene who helped Vic to hide her misery. She waited on the younger girl, anticipated her need for action wherever she could, with an innocent gentleness that made Vic want to hug her and tell her what a perfect darling she was.
"There's something equally grand about Ichabod and Imogene," Vic told herself now with amusement, but with complete sincerity. Not once had Imogene so much as mentioned the shovel, picks, rock hammer and other tools with which her sister had set forth on so many mornings. And no horse but Ichabod would have submitted to a rider so burdened without a leap or cavort of disapproval. Nor would he have taken so submissively the first, short-cut, weaving trip through scratchy timber that had led to all Vic's present buoyant hopes. Now Ichabod's rider no longer carried tools with her. She left them behind at the end of each day's work.
She was delighted at the eagerness of her own spirit this morning. "I don't stiffen up and ache so dreadfully all over nearly as badly as I did those first days," she told herself. "I'll soon be as tough-muscled as Hosmer. Move with as little suppleness as he does, too, I suppose." Then her eyes brightened with amusement. "Probably that's one of the reasons I'm so appealing lately to Imogene's sympathies."
Ichabod was taking the slope without guidance, knowing his destination to be a stretch of high, weathered slope among stunted and scattered yellow pines. "'Dad' Weldon can never again tell me I can't grub out scrub growth." Vic grinned as she reached the spot. "A little more of the kind of work I've been doing lately around here, and no overgrown trail into an abandoned mill is going to stump me. One of these days, too, I'm going to prove it. As soon as I'm through with my present job, that is."
Ichabod was soon hobbled and grazing. Vic unearthed her tools from under a big rock in the cave where she had been keeping them. Some burrowing animal had been a help to her. How did he feel about the recent intrusion into his home quarters? She carried the tools over near her prospect site, took off their oilcloth covering, and selected the pick and rock hammer she would need.
But before she set to work she looked about for some pieces of ore she had cut the last thing yesterday afternoon. They were such a small beginning of what she needed that she had left the rock samples lying on the ground near the trench. Now they were nowhere to be seen. They had vanished in the night. It was not so surprising, considering the heavy shower that had fallen around midnight. That had been heavy enough, she noted, to efface all her own surrounding foot prints. Striking this incline in a swift flood, it had undoubtedly washed her few pieces of ore down the slope into the thick timber below. "Float," she thought, "like the first piece Ichabod kicked over. I hope nobody finds them."
The thought worried her. She had not yet legally recorded her claim. To do so would mean a trip to the recorder's office in the county seat. And to take the trip would mean violating her promise to "Dad" Weldon not to ride outside the Basin alone. "But I've got to do it, dishonorable as it is, and much as I despise untrustworthy people." It was the decision against which she had been steeling herself for days, and yet she felt it would be foolhardy to delay filing any longer. Still another obstacle lay in the fact that taking the trip on horseback would mean she would have to be gone from the Basin overnight, and that could not be done without some plausible explanation to Mrs. Weldon and Imogene.
She had long since staked out her claim, of course. She would stroll part way around it this morning before she set to work. Doing so always spurred her on for the effort of the day. The claim was marked out roughly in a clumsy effort to indicate the allotted twenty acres one such claim could legally comprise. Vic had been meticulous in her attempt to observe all rules: fifteen hundred feet along the vein or lode; not over sixteen hundred feet in all in width, three hundred feet of it on each side of the vein at the surface. At each of the four corners she had erected a good-sized pile of stones, conspicuous now in the infiltrating sunlight. More conspicuous still was the short stake near the claim's center, and the soft, clean pine board nailed across the stake at the top. She had no need to reread the words she had laboriously printed upon it with a hard pencil, a more enduring mark than pen and paper would afford:
On the 5th day of July, 1941, I, Victoria Jane Tyrrell, discovered here the Tyrrell lode, claiming one thousand feet in a westerly direction from the discovery point, and three hundred feet north and south each side of the center line of the vein. The general course of the vein is east and west.
She had exercised care in defining the claim in order to avoid possible future conflicts. A full description, however, would be required when she filed at the county recorder's office. The entire situation troubled her more than a little. She even needed help in checking on the staking of her claim. She had written Eric all about the matter. His reply had been brief and unsatisfactory. Evidently he, too, had no real faith in her discovery. All he had said was, "You had better get it recorded without delay. Consult Dr. Weldon about it first." The advice was understandable enough, despite Vic's decision not to act on it. The secret nature of her early summer duties had made it impossible to offer Eric any satisfactory explanation of why she was so determined to keep her present activities entirely to herself.
As long as she did, the risk of delay in recording her claim did not seem great. The location was hidden, remote and obscure. Moreover, it was one altogether unlikely to invite prospectors. But now – after losing those pieces of rock samples – her uneasiness was growing. Disobeying "Dad" Weldon had become necessary. One more day – possibly two – of steady work, and she would find some excuse for the required trip.
The decision made, she felt ready for the hard day that lay before her. But one more problem worried her. Since the day she had encountered those first exposed outcroppings, she had traced hints of a vein, and brought it to view at last from under its covering of earthly material. But now she had almost reached the point where she needed the assistance of some husky laborer. How she was going to manage to bring somebody in here to work without his presence becoming known, was a problem she had not been able to solve. Her thoughts had turned to Tim O'Rourke. "I'll look him up tomorrow in High Hope," she told herself. "That is, Victoria Tyrrell," her wiser self hastened to add, "if after tonight your soaring balloon is not so completely punctured you'll have no need either to file or to hire. If that happens, I'll be more than glad that I've kept everything secret."
Vic began the day's work of cutting a complete sampling of the vein she believed she had discovered. She would attempt a preliminary assay of it tonight in so far as time and her amateur equipment permitted, hoping for enough in the way of results to justify sending it on to Eric for complete assay.
Narrow trenches now lay at regular intervals across the ground where she believed her vein was located. She had sunk each of these trenches to where the rock was found unbroken. The low walls of a lode were developing on either side. Hard as the physical labor had been, in another sense the work had not been difficult. The vein had been so much harder than the surrounding country rock and gangue matter that it had been easy to follow. This hardness was what made the girl confident she had unearthed a lode of real ore; in all likelihood, however, a composite, not a pure vein of one metal. Refractoriness was the chief cause of her doubts. Her crude assays of surface rock had all indicated antimony. And antimony could be a mean ingredient in a refractory ore, so clogging as to make segregation of the other minerals impossible.
She knew the history of this country. From the first, the refractoriness of its ore had been its greatest handicap. More than one vein containing gold and silver had proved unprofitable to work, because of its intricate combination with other metals, then unwanted and despised. Now, when it was exactly these other metals she sought, her fear was that they would be equally difficult to separate from the now relatively unimportant gold and silver. She needed expert advice. But since she refused to seek it near at hand, it was to Eric, alone, she must turn for it.
If only she could have Eric with her right now, what fun today's work would become. He would help her keep her feet on the ground, too. Laugh at her soaring dreams. And she would not care – not when it was Eric. As for Hosmer Leeds, if he should learn of her dreams, there would be in his shadow of a smile an amused and superior knowledge that would infuriate her. Mine wise, was he? Well, so was she. She was wise enough to know that what she had was at least worth full sampling. She was also wise enough to know it might not be worth anything more.
She began cutting her samples. It was no easy task. The work had to be done with a rock hammer applied from a cramping position, bringing unaccustomed muscles into play. No such difficulty as that, however, was going to daunt her. She had long since cleared off the soft and weathered material from the vein, leaving only the unaltered and fresh rock exposed. She knew that one, two, or even three pieces of ore do not make a sample from which to get anything approaching conclusive or convincing results about a prospect lode. She must have five pounds per foot of vein. This meant she would have to cut many pieces, a full day's work. Each sample must be two to three inches wide and one to two inches deep. They must not come from any one section, but be taken at regular intervals across the entire vein or deposit. Since the softer portions of even a hard vein are usually richer in mineral content, she must not let herself obey the lazy urge to cut more of the soft than of the harder portions, else they would not truly reveal the nature of the deposit. All this was running through her mind as she cut the first sample, and caught it, as she would all the others, in a clean piece of cloth. This done, she enclosed it in one of the numerous little canvas bags she had prepared, and labeled the bag with the exact location from which its contents had come.
The purple shadows of dusk were falling over the timbered and rock-strewn heights before her task was done. She had scarcely relaxed a minute, except at noon for a bite to eat. Now every muscle in her body was sore and protesting, and her mind was numbed with fatigue. Nevertheless, her spirit sang, for she had accomplished what she had set out to do. The results lay in those knobby bags that faithful Ichabod could be trusted to carry cabin-ward across the saddle.
Vic found dinner awaiting her on her return to the cabin. Silently sympathetic Imogene had made the coffee strong. Vic drank two cups of it, thanking her sister with a smile. She arose from the table and seized a moment alone with Imogene to say, "Gene, thanks to Hosmer, I'm going to work in the back of the woodshed for a while. I'll have to take a lighted lantern. Don't worry, I'll be careful. But if the light shines out through the cracks, or if Mrs. Weldon hears the grinding noise I'll be making, please don't let her investigate."
So confident was Imogene's tone that it brought forth from Vic a startled, "Why?"
"Because 'Dad' Weldon has said more than once that he hoped she wouldn't try to interfere with anything you happened to be doing these days. He said you had already had far more interference than was fair to you from both him and Hosmer."
Vic was as touched by the words as she was surprised. Quick tears sprang into her tired eyes. Had Dr. Weldon been at home that night, she would have told him everything. As it was, it would probably be days before she would have the opportunity.
One detail of the situation suddenly solved itself. As Vic was in the act of opening the back door on her way to the woodshed, where she had previously secreted her bags of samples, Mrs. Weldon reappeared in the kitchen to remark casually, "Vic, since the men plan to be away so long this time, it looks as if we might have to depend upon you occasionally to get the High Hope mail. How about tomorrow? You need a day off, I think."
"All right. I'll be glad to go for it." Inwardly she was daring to hope, "And maybe the day after tomorrow another lucky break will come along to give me a chance for a trip to the county seat." That a break might come along that was anything but lucky did not occur to her.
A Startling Broadcast
SOME time later Vic entered the absent men's cabin and established herself at the assay table. She set to work under the powerful light thrown by a lamp bracketed on the wall at her side. Her samples of crushed ore lay beside her, each in its own small bag. She selected two from the pile and opened them, keeping the contents of each carefully separate. Some of this content must be crushed still finer for the assay she was about to attempt, so she placed a portion of crushed sample in the stone mortar, and proceeded to grind it to powder with the pestle. This done, she returned to its original bag all but one good-sized pinch of the powdered rock, enough to have covered the top of a ten-cent piece. It was all she needed for the partial test she was about to make.
Most of the cut rocks of her sample had been glassy or stony in appearance; and their color, for the most part, had been gray, slightly yellow, or occasionally pale brown – all favorable indications. Where the pieces had been broken there were exposed many flat, smooth, glassy surfaces. On each piece, hard as it was, Vic had been able to make a slight scratch with a knife, another of the indications that had fed her dreams. Now she was almost afraid to begin her further test, lest these dreams be snuffed out. Tonight, of course, she would have time to assay only one or two powdered bits of sample. Then she must wrap all the small, burdened bags into a sturdy, compact package for parcel post mailing, and scribble a note to Eric to send in the same mail.
She dropped her powdered sample carefully into a test tube. Even more carefully, she poured a teaspoonful of strong hydrochloric acid over it. Then she proceeded to bring the test tube's contents to a boil over the flame of her charcoal lamp. She let them continue to boil for considerably more than a half hour, watching with steadily increasing suspense for the residue that would inevitably be left. There was no mistaking its color when it came. It was – it unmistakably was – the canary yellow she had so longed to see! Her hand shook as she added a small piece of tin to the remaining liquor, and proceeded to boil the test tube's contents once more. Again, with bated breath, she watched the yellow residue for results. They, too, came as she had hoped. The yellow coloration burned first to a deep blue, and finally to brown. She was glad there was no one near to read her excitement. If every sample she had cut responded like this, there could be little doubt that she had run across a real vein. True, it might be only a surface vein, but the yield of even a small vein justified development these days.
With her second sample she changed part of her test. To the canary yellow residue resulting from the long boiling in hydrochloric acid, she added some ammonia. Again she watched intently for the result, and again the result proved what she had hoped. The yellow residue dissolved and disappeared.
There was no more time for assaying tonight, but surely she could not have happened upon the only two pieces of ore to bring such results. She had discovered her vein in an area of quartose granite, near crystalline ignaceous rock. Now she felt even surer than before that the vein was scheelite, one of the richest of the tungsten ores. Not until she had received Eric's report, though, would she let herself feel confident. He would not delay it long. In her letter she must send him enough money to cover all the possible cost of the assay, one dollar for every different mineral found in the sample.
What those other minerals might be, their proportionate percentage, and the possible difficulties of separation to be encountered in the milling process – these were the big questions. The answer to them, together with an estimate of the extent of the vein, would determine the ultimate value of her find. She did not forget that the chief indication of her first assay had been antimony. Antimony's presence, even in minor quantity, would reduce the value of what she believed she had found later. So, too, would lead, copper, zinc or arsenic. On the other hand, molybdenite, beryl, topaz, quartz, even gold and silver, might not affect its value, provided such ingredients could be easily segregated in the milling.
With the wrappings and string she had brought from the women's cabin, she made a secure package of her entire collection of sample bags. Then she finished the letter she had begun writing Eric during the testing process. Her evening's chores were done at last. She suddenly felt very tired. The need for rest and sleep was heavy upon her. She would attempt only the High Hope trip tomorrow, leaving the one to the county seat until the following day. She could, of course, reach Crags, the county seat, over a roundabout route, by heading out of High Hope down the stage road. But she had two good reasons for preferring to travel out through the regular entrance trail at the Basin's upper end. First, she would be far less conspicuous, for rarely did one ever meet anybody on that trail. Secondly, the Weldon car was usually left at Trail's End, the resort lying at the head of the canyon road which led to the active, outside world. She must think of some pretext for asking Mrs. Weldon to let her borrow the car. She would temporarily leave Ichabod at his old home with the resort keeper, from whom the horse had been rented for the season. Even waiting over a day, she would lose no time filing her claim if she had the car to use the balance of the way.
She arose at last with the stiffened weariness of an old woman, and reached up to extinguish the lamp. As she stood there, waiting for the slow-dying flame to go out, she glanced toward the high window in the cabin wall, just beyond the corner where the assay table stood. The light curtain was pulled aside. She had not thought to draw it, for there was small need for curtains of any kind in this Basin. Now, as her glance fell upon the clear space of pane, she jumped in startled terror. A face, very close, was peering in. She stood rigid for a moment, then forced herself to move toward the window and look through it. But there was nothing out there but darkness, and her ear could not detect the slightest sound of movement.
"I must be dreaming," she thought. "What would anybody be doing snooping around here? From the fleeting glimpse I had I couldn't even be sure if it was a man or woman. Oh, well, probably all I saw was a passing shadow of a neighboring evergreen branch swaying in the wind. Or a broken twig, flying by. I'm just so woozy tired, I'm imagining things."
Just the same she was frightened, for the night was quiet, and there was no wind. She shrank from the prospect of crossing the hundred yards or so of path to the other cabin. Yet that was where she longed to be. Finally, after what seemed like hours, but actually was but a few minutes, she grasped the heavy sample package in one hand and the flashlight in the other, and bolted forth. The night was genuinely black now; even the stars had vanished. It would not be safe to run. There were too many obtruding stones in the pathway. She must keep her head, and walk only as fast as was sensible. "If I need it," she thought, with a grin of bravado, "I can use my ore package for a bludgeon." But she had no need to use it, nor did the rays from her flashlight show anything out of the ordinary.
Imogene was still up when Vic entered the cabin. "So you've quit at last," she greeted Vic, a little cross.
"Why aren't you asleep?" was her sister's retort. "You should have been in bed long ago." Inwardly Vic was thinking, "Maybe that face was Imogene's." It would be like Gene to brave a dreaded night trip to the other cabin without ever mentioning the act, if she had been sufficiently uneasy about her sister. There was enough relief in the thought to allow Vic to drift into sleep easily. But in her dreams she saw the face again, much more clearly. Only its identity was not fixed. Rather was it a succession of faces, including practically everyone she had met in the entire region this summer.
Vic reached High Hope next day in time to mail her package before the stage was in. Then she set forth to look up Tim O'Rourke. She was soon entering in leisurely fashion the side draw where Tim and Percy Slack had their claims. She found no activity at either one. The windlass and carbide-can buckets lay idle in Percy Slack's shallow shaft, and his little dump showed no additions to indicate recent excavation. Fresher looking gangue lay outside Tim's tunnel entrance, and here and there were chips indicative of recent timbering in support of tunnel walls. Yet no sound of activity or gleam of lantern or candle light came from within. The cavernous entrance was deadly silent and so black that Vic did not dare to venture in more than a few feet. There was no sunshine lighting up that narrow gulch anywhere. Instead, black clouds were gathering rapidly overhead. Suddenly they broke against the high boundary slopes into a dense shower.
Vic, about to emerge from the tunnel, paused in the entrance, looking about for better shelter. In another moment she heard a shrill feminine voice calling to her. She looked up in the direction from which the sound came. There, tucked obscurely among huge boulders and tall fir trees was a stout, weatherbeaten cabin. An angular, equally weatherbeaten looking woman was beckoning to her from the top of the narrow, ladder-like stairs that led to the cabin's entrance. "Come on up here where you can sit down out of the rain. It might last quite a spell, though tain't likely."
Vic responded by speeding through the rain across the intervening distance and racing up the steps. Presently she was seated beside the woman in the doorway, which was protected by a boxlike stoop, enclosed on top and on both sides, but open in front to a broad view of the gulch below. Even on a fair day it would not offer a clear view, but rather one well curtained by lacing branches of intervening evergreens.
"When the sun's out and you know just how and where to peek, you can see real good," the woman informed Vic cordially, adding with a significant chuckle, "without being seen yourself."
The speech was an invitation to gossip. Vic hesitated. Then, "Not much to see," she ventured.
"Mebbe. Mebbe not. Only them two little prospects and the goings-on at 'em. Or – if you like it better – the not goings-on."
Vic grew wary. "How do you happen to be living here? Does your husband work near by?"
"No, ma'am. I'm a widow. We lived in High Hope when my husband was here. He worked in one of the mills. But I moved in here after he died two months ago. Real comfortable and homey, this shack is. Mr. O'Rourke owns it. He liked my man a lot. So he tells me I could live here real cheap, now I'm a lone woman in the world, and poor. He's awful kind, Mr. O'Rourke is. He ain't in the draw much lately, but he always leaves chopped wood behind for me, and he does my store errands frequent."
"Is the other prospect owner neighborly too?"
"That Percy Slack? No, he's different. It's my guess he don't fancy my living in here none too well. Not that he pays any attention to me – no more'n as if I was in Africa. He ain't around here much, either. At least, not since I come."
The rain was already slackening, and Vic made a movement as if to rise. But the woman was not to be easily diverted from this opportunity for gossip. "From what I seen, neither of them two is a real working miner. They take too much time off; spend too much time just bein' sociable. That Percy Slack's always havin' callers. Tim O'Rourke's different that way. He's been here less than the other fellow of late, but far as I seen, he's had only one caller. That man's been here twicet – not real lately, now, though. Mebbe you know him."
"Who? The caller? How should I know him?"
"Well, he's a little, dark man in glasses who moves awful quick. Quicker than his age looks he could. It's my guess he's more'n fifty."
Sounds like "Dad" Weldon, Vic thought.
Her hostess's tongue was racing on, allowing no time for interruption. "Him and Tim acts as if they might 'a' known each other for a good long spell. Not as pals exactly, though. The caller ain't no hard rock miner nor mucker. Yet them two likes each other. Something kind o' understanding between 'em, I'd say, and it's real, it is. Different from the way Percy Slack's callers is with him. Some o' them is sort o' sneakin'. Not that I seen very much o' any of 'em. Just the same, I seen plenty. I ain't missin' any little chance I can get."
I should say you weren't, Vic thought as she maneuvered her farewell and began her hike back to the mouth of the gully. The woman's last words, delivered as Vic was walking down the steep stairs, were the most surprising of all.
"I'll tell Mr. O'Rourke you was here, wantin' bad to see him," she called. "You see, I know who you be – daughter to John Tyrrell, the mining engineer. I'm Mame Mullen – Ma Mullen, folks call me. I know most everybody in Bum's Gulch. There's a lot of mighty fine folks in here. And a few that ain't so fine."
"Like every other place in the world." Vic laughed as she waved a final farewell.
Although she took the trip back to the post-office slowly, she still had to wait for the mail. Late rains had made the crude road so difficult the stage was unusually late. When it came at last, the chief thing it brought to the girl was sharp disappointment. For in return for the detailed information she had sent Eric about her claim, all she received from him was a bulky package and a meager message written on a picture postcard of the Grand Canyon. "Still chasing will-o'-the-wisps," it read. "Following up reports of what looked like promising strikes. Up to date not one has proved worth developing. Makes the work discouraging, monotonous and awfully disillusioning. ERIC."
After a swift perusal of the card, the weariness of discouragement settled down over Vic's spirit. There was little of the spring of youth in the way she swung into the saddle for the ride homeward. The package Eric had sent her was soon proving annoyingly difficult to carry on horseback. She had received it with delight when the ever-curious postmistress had handed it out to her. Now, still unopened, it had become almost an object of recoil. "Because it's just a sop of some kind to soothe my feelings," she told herself. What Eric had meant by that postcard was unmistakably clear. He was in effect telling her that her prospect in the yellow timber of Hurricane Ridge was merely another of the will-o'-the-wisps the Bureau of Mines had been so fruitlessly chasing in its search for vital metals. The message itself was discouraging enough. But the way Eric had taken to deliver it hurt most. It was unworthy both of him and of her. All too plainly it indicated that even to Eric she was a woman to be pampered, not a fellow mining engineer capable of taking knocks straight from the shoulder.
Nevertheless, before her unhappy ride home was over, defiance had crept back into her spirit. Her full sample was already on its way to Eric and he could not refuse to have it assayed. "And I'm going to find an excuse for going to the county seat tomorrow to record my claim."
Not until supper was over did she go into her cabin room to open her package. There was too little joy in a gift, even from Eric, when it came as "soothing syrup." A lump arose in her throat. She gulped it down, annoyed at her own "babyishness." Squatted on the floor with the package before her, she began to unwrap it methodically.
How carefully the gift was packed – first in excelsior, then in an outer wrapping of corrugated cardboard. It must be something delicate and rather precious.
At last a black box, much like the case of a portable typewriter, came to view. She had no need of a typewriter; she could use the one Imogene had brought any time she wanted. This box did not open exactly like a typewriter case, though. For a puzzled moment Vic stared at the contents: a gadget somewhat like the receiver of a French telephone; a dry cell battery; and a pair of wires to connect the two. She began to lift them out, knowing all of a sudden what she had. A fluorescent lamp! One of those new ones, especially made for prospectors! She had heard of their being used these days to detect several kinds of badly needed metal in the living rock. With no rock were they as effective and useful as with scheelite. The use of such lamps was introducing a new method of prospecting, as romantic as any ever employed by a hoary prospector of the old school, and even more spectacular. Such lamps cost money, too; twenty dollars at the cheapest; and this was far from being a cheap one. Eric had bought it for her – had sent it to her as a gift. But why without a word of mention or explanation? The answer was easy. The gift was intended for encouragement – but encouragement so delicate with uncertainty that he dared not put it into words. He had sent that postcard in the same mail as a safety valve against the rising force of her optimism. He knew how capable she was of soaring. Yet because he believed she had some cause for soaring, he had sent her this detector.
"And already it's discovered mercury." The thought was a figurative reference to herself. Mercurial she certainly was, in the way her mood was leaping out of depression into the buoyancy of renewed hope. That lamp, she knew, was useful only in the darkness of night. If only she could test her vein with it at once! It would be dark enough as soon as the light of the early moon sank too low to penetrate the timber. What would Mrs. Weldon think – how would she act – if Vic should go out to the corral after Ichabod and start toward her claim at this time of night?
Imogene's voice, calling from the living room, interrupted the girl's thoughts. "Vic, it's after eight. The Reno broadcast is on." She referred to the news broadcast they all listened to nightly over their little portable radio. The smaller, more distant station brought the heart-piercing news of the war torn world into their little mountain nook more clearly and with less static than nearer, larger stations.
Vic knew she must obey the summons. The others would think it queer if she did not. She delayed long enough to put her lamp back into its black case and shove the case itself into a far corner of the closet behind a long bathrobe. The announcer had reached the items of local news by the time Vic entered the living room. She paused, only half listening, a few feet beyond the bedroom door. The first sentence she caught brought her sharply to attention.
"Airport officials here report concern for a private plane that took off for a supposedly short flight two days ago. It has not been heard from since. It was a Luscombe, NC78325, owned and piloted by an employe of the Federal Bureau of Mines, Eric Gordon Stuart. Although Stuart is a competent pilot and has flown much of late over this Western section, it is feared he has been caught in a desert or mountain storm. All attempts to locate him have proved unsuccessful." The announcer's voice died away. Without pause another voice, whose moronic appeal had grated on Vic's sensibilities for weeks, began an advertisement of gum. It made Vic want to scream. It must have had a similar effect upon Mrs. Weldon, for the older woman arose and turned off the radio with a hasty viciousness very unlike her usual behavior.
No sound broke the sudden silence except the crackle and drop of burning logs in the fireplace. Vic could feel Imogene's and Mrs. Weldon's sympathetic eyes upon her. Neither spoke for a full minute. Then Mrs. Weldon, her manner once again serene, said in a voice calm with reassurance, "I doubt if there's any real significance behind that report, Vic. I wouldn't let it worry me. A private pilot wouldn't have to report his goings and comings the way an official one would. Eric is very likely off on some business of his own."
"His office would have to know, wouldn't it? The radio wouldn't have sent that out if the office didn't want it to – if the office itself wasn't worried." Vic was surprised at the snappiness of her own voice; surprised, too, at the clarity with which her mind had sounded out and scorned Mrs. Weldon's well-meant comfort. Remorse at her own testiness steadied her to self-control. Her eyes, blue-black with intensity, focussed on Mrs. Weldon's motherly face with direct demand. "Where is 'Dad' Weldon tonight?" Thus instinctively did she turn to her guardian, her father's old friend, when in real trouble.
"I haven't the least idea, Vic. All I know is that he was going first to his office, and that what he did next depended on something or other he expected to learn there – and that I was not to worry no matter how long he was away from the Basin without my hearing from him."
"That's a queer situation." Vic's mood made her tactless. "I'm going to try to get him – on the nearest phone. That's at High Hope."
"Not tonight, dear." Mrs. Weldon was firm. "It would be useless. You couldn't get the office, and he isn't at the house."
"Then I'm going to start out first thing in the morning, and get down to his office the minute it's open."
"You couldn't make it, Vic. The car is not at Trail's End, you know. The men planned to take it."
Vic was nonplussed, but only for a moment. "Then I'll go to High Hope; 'phone from there to Eric's parents. After that, I'll ride on out." Her decisiveness softened into pleading. "I just can't stay here, Mother Weldon, in this out-of-the-world mountain hole, where you have to wait and wait and wait before you hear or learn anything. I've got to be doing something – even if it's foolish."
This time Mrs. Weldon made no further objections. She understood too well. And to Vic, the fact that travelling out of this region down the High Hope road would make her going conspicuous, was no longer of any importance.
A Mysterious Recording
VIC never forgot that night. She tossed fitfully, impatient for the first sign of daybreak. The three women had worked out the plans for the next day before they went to bed. Vic and Imogene would ride up to High Hope together. Vic would get in touch with Eric's parents and later, if she thought best, with Dr. Weldon's office. Imogene would carry back to Mrs. Weldon whatever word they had learned, should Vic decide to linger for later news, or to travel out of the High Hope region. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weldon would keep her ear alert for any further mention of Eric over the radio.
They were all up early, and the girls set off before the blood-red coloring of dawn had paled on the snow-crested peaks. Vic was in the public telephone booth at the Mountain Home almost before the hotel was awake, putting in her long distance call to Eric's parents. It brought her nothing. "No response at that number," was all her repeated attempts brought forth. At the earliest likely moment she put in another call for Dr. Weldon's office. Here she was more fortunate. Dr. Weldon's secretary, Helen Hunter, answered almost at once. "No. Dr. Weldon is not here. No, I have no idea where he is."
Vic threw both her pride and her sense of humor to the winds in putting her next query.
The reply was, "No. Hosmer Leeds is not here either. He and Dr. Weldon went off together not a half hour ago."
"'Dad' has been in the office this morning, then?"
"Yes, unusually early. He was here when I came in, telephoning. Over long distance, I think. Apparently in connection with some news that had reached him not so very long before. Soon afterward he and Hosmer Leeds set off on some trip. Connected with that news? I don't know, but I certainly think so. No, I've no idea what the news was. All he told me was that he and Mr. Leeds might be away from the office for some time; that he didn't know when he'd be back, nor where he could be located. He asked me to drop a note to his wife, telling her there was nothing for her to worry about, but that he might not be able or have time to write her. Whatever he'd been talking about over long distance, it had put him in an awful rush to be off."
"Was he 'phoning about Eric Stuart?" Vic persisted. She had to know.
"I think so. To Eric's parents. Dr. Weldon was almost through when I came in, but I caught something about his meeting them somewhere. I had the feeling he had something to tell them that he didn't want to say over the telephone."
"So that's where Eric's parents have gone – why I couldn't reach them – maybe way to Nevada to help search."
The worry and suspense in Vic's voice had its effect upon the girl at the other end of the wire. She hurried to add, "From the little I did overhear, Vic, it was pretty evident Dr. Weldon was reassuring Mr. and Mrs. Stuart about something. Very likely he and Eric's parents had heard about the news item you say you heard. If so, Dr. Weldon, at least, didn't seem worried. Instead, he was rather excited, and he was in an awful hurry to get hold of Hosmer Leeds and be off. I'll let you know right away if any new word comes into the office. Where'll I get you? In High Hope?"
"No. I'm riding out. I'll get in touch with you again later."
Vic left the telephone booth and reported to Imogene all she had just heard. Then she crossed to the desk to pay for her call, ignoring the curiosity in the lively black eyes of the Mountain Home's proprietress. Whatever those calls had cost, one at least had been well worth the price. Vague though its information was, it had held enough comfort to steady her. She began before long to realize that there had been almost as much mystery in it as comfort.
If Eric had been lost and downed, search was already being conducted by highly competent, personally interested people: Eric's parents, Dr. Weldon, and Hosmer Leeds. She could even smile, now, at her own satisfaction at having Hosmer in on the effort. There was no denying his thoroughness and dependability. But if they were searching for Eric, why wasn't Dr. Weldon worried? Helen Hunter had even said he had been reassuring Eric's parents. There was comfort in the very word – reassure – especially when spoken in the confident tone with which Helen had uttered it. She would try to keep her thoughts clinging to that realization, and apply her imagination solely to trying to figure out the mystery. She was clearheaded enough to see that the situation held no active responsibility for her. The only thing she could do was wait for news. To wait idly, however, was out of the question. She must have activity of some kind. She told Imogene so. "I just can't go back into that inaccessible Basin, Gene, and sit around with nothing definite to do. I'm going on."
"But we have the radio. You might get news sooner there than by going down to Dr. Weldon's office. It's such a long way around if you travel out from High Hope."
Vic hesitated only a moment. She could not deceive Imogene now. "I'm not going to the college. I'm going to Crags to file my mining claim. It may be foolish, but just the same, it's a kind of carrying on – Eric's work, you know – the search for strategic metals. There'll be newspapers down there, fresh ones, right off the press. And there'll be radios, far better ones than our little portable in the Basin. I'll be back tomorrow night, probably; anyway, by the day after. I'll come back through High Hope on my way home and pick up the mail."
The sisters parted. Vic, on Ichabod, rode out of High Hope's noisy precincts down the narrow, rough stage road. It wound circuitously, like all mountain roads, over the range to the farther side. Then it led into a wide federal highway, down many miles of scenic canyon, to the lively Western town of Crags.
Cars hummed and glided over the town's wide main street. People moved along the cement sidewalk, window shopping, stopping to chat in casual, friendly meetings, passing in and out through store doors. To be in the midst of numerous people suddenly felt good to Vic. The life about her seemed so commonplace and yet so comfortingly stable that it soothed the imaginary fears that too much solitude inevitably engenders in people of highly nervous temperament. Coming into town on horseback as she had, however, she felt herself to be far too conspicuous. She lost no time in reaching the hotel where she had planned to spend the night. Here, assured of proper care for Ichabod, she refreshed her toilet as best she could with the meager baggage she had brought in a saddle roll. Then she lingered in the hotel office to listen to the next news broadcast. It held no word of what she both longed and feared to hear. Although reluctant to leave the radio, she forced herself to set out on foot for the registry office. After all, that was what she had come to do.
She expected the filing task to be one of mere routine procedure. So it was at first. She was in time legally. The law gave her thirty days after discovery of her vein to sink a ten-foot shaft. In only one spot had she cut to that depth, but that was enough. And she had not waited the ninety days allowed her before staking her corners and filing her location with the recorder. She entered an exact duplicate of the location notice she had placed at the point of discovery on the claim itself. Then, as the law required, she added a fuller description, indicating her claim's exact location by an account of surrounding topography and natural landmarks, and outlining in detail what she had accomplished to date, and the results.
The county recorder was a little man, with a round bald head and a round face. From behind the thick lenses of his glasses his bright, bird-like eyes peered at her with friendly interest. "You're one of John Tyrrell's daughters, aren't you? One of old John Tyrrell's granddaughters?"
"I certainly am. Did you know my father and grandfather?"
"Sure did. Your father, that is. Your grandfather I only knew about."
The rest of Vic's business in that office took on a personal coloring. The little man catechized her for more specific details of the descriptions she had already given. She replied with the unhesitating promptitude of accurate knowledge. At last he asked another question. "How long before you are going to patent that claim?"
As long as she put one hundred dollars a year of assessment work on her claim, she was entitled to keep her right without further development. But the query did not surprise her. She attributed it to the urgency of the democratic world's need for strategic metals. Her claim must first show enough valuable mineral to justify its being held, though, before application for a patent could be made.
"As soon as I can fulfill the legal requirements. I want a complete and official assay before I spend money for an accurate surveying of my twenty acres, or put five hundred dollars' worth of work into developing its mineral resources, the way patenting requires."
"I'd hurry up about it if I were you." The words were as sincere as they were urgent.
"Well," the round little man countered hesitantly, as if fearful of revealing official secrets, "there's quite a revival of prospecting these days in that neck of the woods, you know. This office is recording more claims than it has for years. Just as well to get your rights fully established as quick as you can in a region where that kind of excitement's going on."
"But that's all over in the upper spur of the range, isn't it? Around the High Hope section? There's not much over toward Chandler. And my claim's in a less likely place than either. If you know that country, you'll remember there's a ridge between the Basin and old Hurricane Mountain. It's almost as if old Hurricane were a huge giant squatting there something like a Buddha with his knees up. The ridge is those knees. Old Hurricane itself is the head, shoulders and upper body. And, of course, the giant's lap is those little broken valleys in between. No one but me is looking for mineral deposits close to the yellow pine on that ridge."
"That's where you're wrong. Had a young fellow in here late yesterday to file a claim somewhere in there."
"You did?" Vic's big blue eyes reflected her astonishment. How could anybody be prospecting in that ridge without her having discovered it? "Who?" she demanded.
Again the man hesitated. Then, as if throwing caution to the winds, he leaned far across the counter of dark wood that separated his desk from the outer office and in a low, earnest tone said, "I knew John Tyrrell. No finer nor more upright mining man ever lived in this country. His daughter's sure to be the same kind of stuff. And I'm for her." In entirely different accents, he added, "A young fellow who said his name was Percy Slack. Not that he registered it that way. P. Slack was all he would put on the record, in spite of legal requirements."
"Percy Slack!" Vic's astonishment made her sound stupid. Her quick mind reasserted itself. "But he's working a claim near High Hope. I've never so much as seen him in the Basin. Nor has anybody else, I'm cer—"
Recollection flashing across her consciousness stopped her short. That face at the window! He must have seen her wrapping Eric's package and guessed she meant to take it to High Hope to mail the next day. Had he been spying to find out when she might be out of the Basin for a while? Why? Because he knew what she had? How could he? Impatience to be back at her prospect seized her. It was not possible today. She could not attempt that lonely return trip at night. She'd have to wait for daylight.
The clerk's next remark did nothing to reassure her. "I'd look into it, if I were you."
Vic spent another restless night. Yet in a way the new worry was welcome. It stole its share of midnight imaginings that would otherwise have been bestowed upon Eric's disappearance. Neither from newspapers, radio, nor telephone had she been able to glean another word of mention concerning Eric. The complete silence in regard to the follow-up was in itself a new element of mystery.
She was off on her homeward trip early next morning, and until contrition overcame her, she urged Ichabod to cover the ground at an unusual pace for the faithful old horse. But she gained her end, entering the Basin while there was still enough daylight for her to make an observation trip to her claim. Mrs. Weldon or Imogene, in all likelihood, had detected her on the incoming trail. Nevertheless, instead of riding as usual directly toward the rear of the cabin, she skirted the hills closely for some distance, then headed a disappointed and reluctant Ichabod in the familiar direction. Daylight would be vanishing in the timber, but once through it, there would be enough light for a partial circuit of her claim. It was clouding up for a real rain, though; she had no time to waste.
Before she reached her destination, her impatient eye searched out the claim board staked at her discovery point. It appeared more than usually conspicuous. All too soon the reason for this effect became clear to her. The surface was no longer that of a clean pine board. It was glaring white paper. In another minute or two she was on her knees beside it. The paper was a piece of thick white cardboard identical in size and shape with her original pine board. The lettering upon it was not in hard pencil but in ink, and the words were the very ones she had written except for three radical changes. The date was that of a week earlier than hers. The name of the discoverer was now P. Slack. The title of the mine, The Reclaimed.
She sat down flat on the ground for a moment until she could collect herself. Jumped! When? Early yesterday, when Percy Slack had known she would be away from the place, and before he had travelled down to Crags himself. Anger, consternation and a sense of outrage surged over her. Then she was on her feet again. She tore off the piece of white cardboard from the stake she herself had driven into that hard ground. Her own claim board had vanished. No other similar piece of board was at hand. Luckily, however, the stake itself was broad and flat-sided. And in Ichabod's saddle was a hard pencil with a wide lead, such as carpenters use, and a small flashlight. She needed both for the work she had to do. Darkness was gathering fast, not only because of fading daylight but also because of rapidly lowering clouds. Thunder was crashing down close over neighboring peaks. She gave it no heed. Half lying on the ground, she wrote lengthwise of the stake the same words she had used before to state her discovery right to this staked-out mining claim. She arose and stood a moment, reluctant to leave. She longed to remain here, standing rigid guard over what was so rightfully hers. Under the circumstances, however, it was impossible. Imogene and Mrs. Weldon, and, above all, news of Eric, had to be considered first.
She was soon back on Ichabod, the white cardboard shoved for protection well up under her jacket. The horse was heading down trail through the pitch blackness of the rain-pelted forest. But Ichabod proved himself sure-footed and trustworthy of instinct. The Basin itself was almost as dark as the trail through the timber, and by the time horse and rider had reached it, the rain was coming down with sudden torrential force. Again Vic trusted Ichabod to find the way. Her flashlight was too small for any widespread illumination. What it seemed to reveal most clearly was the glistening of Ichabod's rain-soaked white hide. Vic herself was soon wet to the skin, for by this time she had taken off her jacket to wrap it securely about the cardboard, which she now carried pressed close under one arm. There must be no risk of its ink lettering becoming blurred and stained with moisture. She was scarcely aware of her own discomfort, such was the tumult of thought and emotion within her.
Her claim had been jumped – by somebody who must have been shrewd enough to know she had not yet recorded it, and who had beat her to the act. Percy Slack, that mere boy, with the round, ingenuous face! It did not seem credible, especially in the light of the name he had given it. That name was too inconsistent with the boy's over-obvious simplicity. Just what did it mean, anyhow? Was it a reference to some former claim? She recalled with foreboding the long, weatherbeaten depression in which she had found those first bits of outcrop that had assayed mostly as antimony. Could the depression have been the result of some slight excavation years ago? If so, it must have been long before Percy Slack was born. There was an inexplicable inconsistency somewhere about this whole business. Her mind did not dwell long on the effort to fathom it. Instead, it was travelling along another track that soon carried her deep into the abasement of self-condemnation.
That her claim had been jumped was bad enough. What made it worse was that by her own acts she had placed herself in an appalling situation. For nobody had any firsthand knowledge of her having discovered the claim, and thus of her initial right to it. This was what had come of her keeping everything so secret; of her silly, selfish hope of future triumph for her hurt pride! "As far as I'm personally concerned, I deserve just what I've got." But what that claim stood for in the deepest recesses of her heart was not a personal matter. That was why her long secrecy seemed so unforgivable now. If she had only taken "Dad" Weldon into her confidence at the start, no claim jumper would have had a chance at her discovery. As it was, she had told no one but Eric. And who knew where Eric was?
The pain of the latter thought merged with the pain of all the others, submerging her for the moment in complete despondency. For if anything had happened to Eric, nothing else in all the world mattered, not even her claim.
Oh, yes, it did, too. In a way, it would matter more than ever, for it would be all she had left. And she would fight for it with all there was left of her. Sudden reaction lifted her out of despair to the exaltation of rededication, the same dedication to which she had pledged herself on commencement morning, in response to the appeal of the speaker's stirring address. Her inner consecration of that morning had been something of which she could never speak, even to Eric, for like many another naturally direct and outspoken person, Vic held her deepest emotions in the closest reserve. But she knew now, with unmistakable clarity, that it was first of all because of that consecration that she had sought her claim. It was because of it that she had been able to sustain the strain of the physical effort it had so far cost her. What that claim brought forth was to be her small personal contribution to her beloved country's – to all democracy's – vital needs in this awful war-torn world of today.
England's need lay especially close to her heart. She wanted to do her bit to help that heroic and unbeatable land. For was she not, indirectly at least, named for an English queen? She was in reality named for her great-grandmother, whose English father, a naturalized American, had given the name Victoria, after the English ruler of his day, to the only one of his children born off English soil. There was also the Tyrrell name. What she believed she had found in her prospect was the contribution best fitted to it. In a generation where there was no Tyrrell man to secure and make it, the task had become her sacred trust. No, not hers alone. Hers and Eric's together. And now, because of her silly, stubborn pride, was she to fail both Eric and the cause for which they both were working? Establishment of the jumper's title would mean just that. For no claim jumper, dishonest and corrupt and self-seeking as his action proved him to be, would ever use the output of her mine as she had meant it should be used and given.
She could not hope to reach the cabin through this rain in time for the Reno broadcast. But the others would listen – would let her know at once if—She refused to finish the thought. There, the cabin door was opening. Light was streaming out in misty confusion through the moisture-laden air. They were waiting for her. With news? Good or bad? It could not be bad or they would not be so eager.
"Vic?" Imogene's voice came through the heavy atmosphere in troubled inquiry.
"Yes." Then, breathlessly, "Any news?"
"Not a word of any kind. Not another mention. And you?"
"None whatever – about Eric. Plenty of another kind. Just let me look after Ichabod. I owe him all the care I can give him. Then I'll be in, and tell you – everything."
There was to be no more secrecy.
INSIDE the cabin Vic found some degree of comfort. "No news is good news," Mrs. Weldon reassured in regard to Eric. "If there were need of continued search, or if a tragedy had been discovered, it would have been announced."
The plausibility of this brought Vic a relief that was like the snapping of a prop that had been holding her taut. Weariness claimed her. Dully, and without a touch of drama, she announced, as if her hearers understood, "My claim's been jumped." She tossed the rectangular piece of white cardboard upon the table. "That's the jumper's notice. I've just been up to the claim to tear it off and put my own notice back on the claim stake."
The announcement did not mar Mrs. Weldon's serenity. "Dry clothes, a hot drink and food first, Vic dear. Then you can relax on the couch and tell us all you care to have us know."
The last words, so free of resentment of her own past secrecy, brought tears to the troubled girl's eyes. Before long she was pouring forth her story. The other two women sat quietly listening, fingers busy with Red Cross knitting, too intent to be actively aware of the uninterrupted rhythmic beating of the rain upon the secure roof above their heads. Great logs, burning lustily in the wide fireplace, frustrated the chilling damp that sought to creep into the cabin. Flames cast alternate light and shadow over the homey, rustic room, as if dancing in response to the melody of crackling logs and sputtering pitch sounding above the pounding accompaniment of the rain. Soon Vic's voice was chiming in with something of the same harmonious flow. Weariness, worry and nervous excitement ebbed from her tones, so great was the comfort the overwrought girl was finding in letting down the bars of her reserve, and in the understanding of her silent listeners. Both Mrs. Weldon and Imogene had a rare capacity for sympathy, each of a different kind. Imogene's was the more emotional and a little shy. Mrs. Weldon's was mature and wisely practical.
Vic found herself turning for advice to the older woman. "It's a queer situation, Vic," Mrs. Weldon pondered aloud, when the girl had finished her story. "In the old days, when a man jumped a claim he stayed right on the spot to put up a fight for it. Your jumper not only knew when you would be away from the spot; he must have known, too, that you would soon return to it. That makes what he did in your absence look like a gesture of open defiance – as if he believed he had some other hold on your strike. That depression you speak of—" The voice dwindled away in absorbed thought.
"If a prospector did that excavating," Vic asserted, "it was a long time ago. It couldn't have looked the choked-up way it did if it wasn't awfully old."
"But you've effaced all such evidence, haven't you, dear, by the clearing out you've done since?"
Vic nodded a miserable assent. She acquiesced eagerly in the plan with which Mrs. Weldon ended the evening's conclave. It meant that Vic would ride out of the Basin again the next day. "Go straight down to 'Dad' Weldon's office first, on the bare chance he may have got back to it. If not, then go at once to Homer Pyke of the Pyke and Street law office. As you know, their specialty is mining law. Mr. Pyke has done lots of business for your father as well as for Charles. Tell Homer Pyke everything. Then do exactly as he tells you to. Take the cardboard claim notice with you. Maybe he will agree with your idea of taking it on to the recorder's office. He may even go with you. Taking in both towns will, of course, lengthen your trip – keep you longer away from the Basin—"
"And from my claim! I can't bear to stay away from it, the way things are. I ought to stay right there and guard it, day and night."
"Imogene and I will do that for you while you're gone."
Vic's relief was half protest. "How?"
Mrs. Weldon smiled. "By camping there. At least, I will. I'll let Imogene look after the cabins. You needn't look so distressed about it, either, child. We've a good tent, a rubber mattress or two – everything to make camping easy and comfortable. It's no new experience for me. I've not been a mining engineer's wife for a quarter of a century for nothing. I camped out in these Colorado mountains many a time before you were even born. I can shoot, too, when I have to, even though you have never seen me do it. As for the weather, this rain will be over before morning. Probably it's only local. But even if it isn't, your gravelly trails won't be too badly washed. And now to bed, all of us. I'll bank the fire." Mrs. Weldon's sturdily built Scotch figure arose, her fingers thrusting knitting needles into her ball of dark red yarn. She returned the girl's good night with a serene smile so full of comforting assurance that Vic drank it in gratefully.
In spite of all the day had brought, Vic slept soundly. She awoke refreshed, ready for the outgoing trip and its pressing business. She was gone four days. She did all she had intended to do, saw all the people she wanted to see, kept eye and ear ever alert for further word of Eric that never came. From everyone she received interest and close attention to all the details of her story, plus the promise of immediate effort in her behalf, but nowhere did she run across anything conclusive connected with her affairs. As soon as there was anything to report, she would hear it. With that she had to be content. Only once did a person she interviewed give her the feeling of knowing more than he told. She left the presence of the friendly little recorder with the impression that he had withheld something he would have liked to tell her if he could.
There was nothing more for her to do now but to go back to the Basin and wait. There might even be more news up there than down here. Two mail stages would have been due at High Hope since she left. With her claim to guard, probably neither Imogene nor Mrs. Weldon had been able to ride up for the mail. She would collect it on her way home. There might even be a letter from Eric. This hope dominated her thoughts as she turned at last into High Hope's one crude street. There had been enough time since she sent the full sample to Eric for a very prompt reply to reach her today. One of her first acts on reaching the outside world had been to send off an airmail letter to him, telling of the jumping of her claim. There had been a strange comfort in doing this, just as if he were really where he was supposed to be. Perhaps he was; that would explain the lack of any follow-up about his disappearance.
The postmistress handed out to her the usual big assorted bunch of Basin mail, more than their private mail box could hold. At this time of day the long room was fairly empty. Not waiting to move from in front of the window, Vic began to search for the letter she most longed to see. It was not there. None of the envelopes addressed to her, Imogene or Mrs. Weldon bore any indication of having come from Eric, Dr. Weldon, or Hosmer Leeds. Through her stabbing disappointment Vic became aware that the postmistress was speaking to her.
Vic could not endure the postmistress. She was the sister of the hotel's proprietress, a taller, thinner, more acidulous edition of the same dark type, and equally curious. Vic never minded the proprietress's curiosity, it was so friendly. But this woman's had a different quality, an intrusiveness tinged with vindictiveness. Vic felt it now as the woman said, "There's a parcel post package in here for you, Miss Tyrrell. You're forever getting them, aren't you? This one's too big to hand out through the window. Come around to the side door, and I'll show it to you. It's too big for you to manage on a saddle horse. You'll have to bring a pack horse up to get it. My husband's got something for you, too, down to his express office, as it says on a card I just handed out in your mail. My husband'll be darn glad to get that express off his hands. He's pretty sore at having had to bring it up and keep it this long. Says he won't bring in vicious express like that again for nobody."
Vic was too irritated to show curiosity. A minute later she was bending over to scrutinize the label pasted on a box that could have fallen little short of the seventy-five pound weight limit of a parcel post package. The label was the official one of a Reno business firm, with her own name beneath its printed heading. Far more conspicuous, however, were the large letters stamped in red print upon the box's side. These proclaimed the contents to be, the "Canine's Happy Choice."
"Dog food!" The exclamation broke from Vic in spite of the postmistress's hostile, curious eyes. "What kind of a joke is this?"
"It's no joke. You'll find that out when you go to the express office. Hope you get there before my husband has to sue you for getting bit."
Vic made prompt headway toward the business headquarters of the surly, cross-eyed man who operated a private express over the stage road between High Hope and the nearest station reached by railway express. He did a good business for mines and mills, but assumed an attitude of professional contempt toward personal packages.
Not so his wife. She always knew about every package that reached the place. Many another person knew too about this one of Vic's, judging from the loafers assembled on sawed-off tree stumps and overturned boxes just within and without the shack's open front doors. They hailed Vic's approach with an outburst of raillery directed toward the unseen expressman evidently located somewhere in the back of the room.
"Here she is. Be sure you've got a long lead rope when you bring him out."
"Better drive him from behind, Jake. You might be safer that way."
"Too bad she's come for him, Jake. But he ain't yourn. And the best of friends must part."
"Hand him over to a girl. That's the thing to do with an express package you ain't popular with."
"You see," one lounger was addressing the approaching girl in words not really meant for her, "Jake likes dead express packages best. They're so much safer to kick."
This insinuation made Vic's eyes blaze in sudden wrath at the gnarly, heavy-gaited figure of Jake Small, just coming into sight. A sullen man, he was ignoring his tormentors with an assumption of contemptuous superiority that was so underhung with timid caution it was evoking stifled guffaws. His crossed eyes were watching every move of Vic's express baggage, following on a leash. Vic thought she had never seen a man appear more contemptible, such was the contrast between his cringing caution and the dignified bearing of the beautiful big black dog he led. Then she completely forgot the man in her delight at the dog, whose leash the expressman was handing over to her with relief. Kindly comment from the spectators flowed unheeded around her.
"Ain't he a beauty? A Great Dane. First pure black one I ever seen."
"Got a collar and a license on. With his name on the collar. Blackout. Suits him good, don't it?"
"He's took you by surprise, ain't he, ma'am? A present, I take it, you wasn't expecting."
"A sensible one, too, with you riding so much alone in these here hills after nightfall, when the varmints is out plenty. He'll sure make you a grand guard."
Small wonder Vic gave little heed. Her heart had taken a big leap, all joy. Blackout! The dog of whom Eric had written, the one he had been training. He had sent him to her, just as these men said, for a guard.
"Can you hold him, ma'am? He's strong."
"Indeed I can." Vic answered so convincingly that her tone held in check the eager, proffered aid of several of the men. "Oh, you beauty! You beauty!" she cried as she pulled him toward her. She led him out through the crowded doorway to some distance beyond, not fully out of range of the eyes of men straining forward to watch her. Then she dropped on one knee and threw her arms around the great beast's neck. For a long minute he held himself politely resistant, head uplifted, soulful brown eyes looking straight into the blue ones of the girl. The next instant she felt his smooth tongue warmly moist against her cheek. She and Blackout had accepted each other. From that moment they were friends. "He can see that I love dogs. But never another one as I will love him. Because he comes – from Eric."
From behind her, the comments of spectators reached dimly into her absorption. "Sure takes to her, don't he?" "Didn't I say that feller had brains? You'd know it by the looks of him." "And darn good taste, too, you bet."
Vic led her new friend to where she had left Ichabod. "We three will visit for a while," she said, "until you and Ichabod get to know each other – so you will follow him and me back to the Basin, without a leash."
And so it happened, although not without difficulties. Blackout was full grown but still a young dog who had not yet cast completely aside the friskiness and curiosity of puppyhood. The trail, definitely marked now by the Basin dwellers' continual journeying, was still a wild one. In daylight, only small creatures ventured within sight of a traveller: squirrels, chipmunks, picket pins, grouse, an occasional woodchuck. But to Blackout every such creature was provocative and exciting. His continual sorties up and down slopes and back into the brush kept Vic in a constant state of worry and waiting. Mountains and trails would not be new to him; and Eric had trained him. But how wise had he made the dog in the way of the woods and the hills? Her chief fear was porcupines and skunks. Although this country was rather high and woodsy for skunks, porcupines were plentiful. But if Blackout encountered any of the creatures he apparently knew enough to keep aloof from their torturing quills. And he soon showed, too, that he knew how to follow, by frequent reappearances indicating that he was too wise to allow any enticement to lead him dangerously far from horse and rider. Trust Eric. Anyone thoughtful enough to have sent all that dog food into a game preserve, would have been equally thoughtful about other things.
As she rode, Vic was strangely happy in a way she could not quite account for. Nothing in the distressing situation was changed. There had been no word or explanation of Eric's alarming disappearance. Her claim was still jumped. No word of any kind had come from Dr. Weldon or Hosmer Leeds. Nobody knew where they were, or how to reach them. They, too, had vanished into the void. And yet – she had had another gift from Eric. When had it been sent? Before or after some of her late messages to him? Like her fluorescent lamp, Blackout meant more to her than a pleasing personal gift. His timely arrival seemed to imply significant things. That Eric was alive and aware of her needs? That she had a claim worth guarding? So he had sent her a guard? She rode across the back stretch below the hills to the cabin in Wild Basin in the late afternoon with a lighter heart than she had known for days.
She found Imogene at the cabin, packing into a basket a supper she had prepared. Each girl greeted the other with the usual request for news. Neither had any to give except for Vic's introduction of Blackout.
"We'll take him right up to the claim with us," Imogene said, "and show him to Mrs. Weldon. Have a sort of picnic welcome party. I've packed enough supper for all of us – was really just waiting for you to come. We don't build any camp fires up there so near to all those woods, you know. I'll carry the lunch basket. Mrs. Weldon already has the radio. You, Vic, could bring your new lamp. That is, if you feel like trying it out tonight and are willing to show us what it does."
Visitors in the Basin
IT WAS a strange picnic party. There was little merriment in it, and not much talk. Early attention was largely centered on Blackout. He accepted it with dignity and tolerance, but was more interested in exploring his surroundings than in receiving caresses. Only to Vic did he show any signs of personal attachment, lying down now and then for a few minutes at her feet, his big somber eyes resting on her in a kind of speculative confidence that was not yet devotion, but eventually would be. Meanwhile Vic told of her day and listened to the others' account of theirs. Only Mrs. Weldon had any news of significance. Its import struck Vic as probably of more consequence than was suggested by Mrs. Weldon's quiet telling.
"It was very quiet up here all day. The air was so clear that sound travelled even more distinctly than usual. Of course it came chiefly from the timber and the brush, sounds of small life moving: flitting wings, squirrel chatter, blue jay scoldings, other bird notes. I was listening, enjoying it all, when I thought I heard a different sort of sound, from much farther away. Footsteps, I thought, breaking through brush somewhere in a ravine back of the Ridge, between here and old Hurricane. There was something about them, a kind of stealth that had impatience mixed in it, very different from animal movement. And the step itself was different; no soft snapping of twigs under a bear's big paws; no light clicking from deer hoofs. It was noon. I could see Imogene at the top of the timber trail bringing me my hot soup in a vacuum bottle. So I left her here at the claim while I took a short hike down the other side of the Ridge to investigate. I didn't see a thing, of course. Even the peculiar sounds of movement stopped altogether before I had gone far. So I started back. Just before I had regained the top of the Ridge, I turned around for a last look over toward old Hurricane. To one side of the broad-faced slope some of you have used to climb up to the old mine workings – you know, near the bottom and around that gully-like break – I thought I glimpsed an erect human figure, disappearing. That's all. Probably the whole experience was a mere play of my imagination."
"With me or Imogene it would be, perhaps. But not with you! You're not that kind." Assent to Vic's assertion was evident by the manner of all three. It remained there when Vic added, "It was my jumper. He knew I was gone again and was trying to sneak back to reconnoiter. You scared him off." A moment later she commented, "Mr. Pyke ought to know about it. But I can't phone him about it, not from the Mountain Home, when its proprietress is one of a snoopy family that has the postmistress and her husband in it. It wouldn't be safe."
Imogene smiled at the implication. "Still so restless that you can't stay quietly in the Basin for even a day?"
"Well, with Blackout here to stand guard at the claim, I could ride out again. Not through nosey High Hope this time, though. Out the old entrance trail that leads to Trail's End and the canyon road." It was to Mrs. Weldon, not Imogene, that Vic spoke. For it was in the older woman she sensed the fuller understanding of the restless urge to activity, whether necessary or not, that would be hers until she had some satisfactory report about Eric. She did not pursue her suggestion now. A glance at the illumined face of her wrist watch showed that it was almost time for the Reno broadcast. She reached inside the little tent for the radio, and turned it on. The broadcast came at the hour, again with no reference whatever to Eric or his plane.
There was plenty of other news to tug at the women's heart strings. Stories of the continuing aftermath of the fall of France. Another German Luftwaffe attempt to bomb England into a similar defeat.
None of the three spoke during the broadcast nor after it had ended, and Vic hastened to turn the radio off before some irritating advertisement could reach the air. All three women were too deeply stirred by the consciousness of the seeming incongruity of the speaking voice coming out into the great silent night of this almost inaccessible wilderness. It was a relief to them all when Vic thrust the little radio back under the protection of the tent, and they and Blackout were alone in the mountain night. Only as there was no peace in the world, neither was there any real peace in the women's hearts.
"It'll soon be as dark as you wanted it to be, Vic." Vic merely nodded. On her lap, she was now holding in readiness the black case containing her fluorescent lamp. Blackout sniffed at it suspiciously, then, accepting Vic's attitude regarding it, stretched himself out with his head resting across the girl's booted feet.
Darkness settled down about them. Clouds blackened the night until only vague outlines of surrounding objects were discernible: the forms of the trouser-clad women grouped close together on the steep bank of the rugged mountain; Blackout, prone and yet alert, at Vic's feet; the great, black-massed smudges of evergreen forests below. Around them were the distorted, timberline trees and great, obtruding boulders. Piles of rock and excavated dirt lay nearby, facing the long shallow trench where Vic had exposed the brownish gray lode.
Vic released the spring of the box and lifted its cover, while Mrs. Weldon turned on the large flashlight and held it so its illumination would help the girl at her task. Vic lifted the gadget that looked like the receiver of a French telephone, and suggested, "You two perch yourselves where you can see down into the trench when I turn the lamp on, will you?" In half humorous confession, she added, "I'm actually afraid to look first myself."
Mrs. Weldon and Imogene obediently squatted on the trench's rim, and Vic soon followed their example. She pressed a button. Rays of light from the lamp streamed through the enveloping darkness and fell across the width of the trench, startling a pocket gopher into a moving flash of fire. But Vic did not notice. She was not interested now in small animal life. She turned the light farther down into the trench. Exclamations broke forth from the other women at what they saw. Blackout set up a frenzied barking, and began racing along the length of the trench rim. Through his commotion came Imogene's murmur, "It's – it's amazing! Nothing less than witchcraft!"
It was not any such imaginative quality that was holding Vic spellbound. Rather was it such a realization of her hopes that she had to fight to control her trembling, to steel her voice to the commonplace before she spoke. Since the loose rock at the sides of her trench remained in shadow, it was still colorless. But the strip of ore at the bottom had sprung into vivid, glittering life. Vic stood up and swung the lamp across and along the exposed portions of the vein. Wherever the light fell, legions of tiny, varicolored flashes of fire danced up out of the bluish-black background like sparkling, gleaming jewels. The three women studied them silently, then Mrs. Weldon affirmed, "It's scheelite, all right, Vic. And it certainly looks rich to me."
"Just what is scheelite?"
"One of the tungsten ores, Imogene. And tungsten is one of the country's great essential needs these days. Practically every instrument and machine in the whole category of mechanized warfare requires some tungsten. It's a hardener, you know. A necessary alloy in the steel used for all such instruments, and above all, for the steel needed for high speed tools. Without plenty of such tools, of course, any rapid output of the necessary instruments of war would be impossible. Now that China's tungsten can no longer reach us—" Mrs. Weldon turned to the other girl, her voice charged with the true Celtic feeling of her heritage. "You've joined the most urgent mining rush in our nation's history, Vic, dear. And by working so hard – few girls like you would have thought it possible for a woman to work that hard – you have been serving your country in a way not many other women have been able to do."
Vic was glad of the darkness. She bent her head lest Mrs. Weldon detect the glistening of sudden moisture in her eyes. Mrs. Weldon not only believed in her claim, she also understood what the discovery meant to the girl who had made it. Then, with the directness of the forthright, Vic blurted, "But it's been jumped. Nobody dishonest enough to be a claim jumper would want it for the sake of his country."
There was some consolation in the fact that Mrs. Weldon was now worried too. "Perhaps you are right about riding out of the Basin again tomorrow. Homer Pyke should know what you really have. And to telephone anything from High Hope about a strike like this would be unwise, even if the switchboard girl were not the postmistress's and expressman's daughter."
Vic put her lamp away, and since there seemed small likelihood of the men's return that night, the other women decided not to leave Vic alone at the claim. The air had become bitingly cold, penetrating even the thick garments they wore. One after another, they crept into the little tent, and lay down close together on the air-inflated mattresses.
The stars came out until at last the sky sparkled with their brilliance. Vic lay looking through the open tent flap. Blackout was stretched outside, his long, dark silhouette clearly outlined, with one ear ever alert even while he slept. Vic slept, too, after a while. If the other two women lay taut and uncomfortably crowded so as not to disturb her, she knew nothing of it. All three were up and actively busy at daybreak. And not long afterward, Vic was once again riding up the Basin toward the outgoing trail.
She reentered the Basin by the same trail on the afternoon of the second day following, little wiser than when she had left. But she had given Homer Pyke a much more convincing account of her claim's value. And in her long distance calls she had included one to Eric's business headquarters in Nevada. The only response she had succeeded in getting was, "Not here at present." Unsatisfactory, of course, but worth while in that it held no indication of worry or suspense.
Vic rode directly to the cabin for a change of clothes and a bath. To her surprise, both Imogene and Mrs. Weldon were there. They had no news of Eric to offer, but they did have news of another kind. "Blackout's at the claim," Mrs. Weldon explained, "but not alone. He has good company, a man who came into the Basin to see you. He told Imogene his name was Tim O'Rourke, and he said a woman he called 'Ma' Mullen had told him you wanted him to come down in here to do some mining work for you. So Imogene brought him up to me. I left him there on guard with Blackout."
Vic was taken slightly aback. "But how did you know he was trustworthy?"
"You told us once yourself you were sure he was."
"And he brought a note with him," Mrs. Weldon added. "It was addressed to you, but since you weren't here, Imogene opened it. It removed any doubts she might otherwise have had. It recommended we keep the man in here as long as we women were alone."
"Who wrote it?"
The hope that had risen in Vic's heart died at Imogene's answer. "Hosmer. Here it is. It's his handwriting, all right."
Vic glanced through its brief length. It had neither date nor other heading, was signed only with initials, and contained no personal message – except for an "O.K." and a "Before long" written under the signature. It was the kind of note that would have meant little to anybody else had it gone astray. But its author was unmistakably Hosmer. That, of course, was assurance enough for Imogene and Mrs. Weldon. Through Vic's mind flashed the uncomfortable recollection that, after all, Hosmer Leeds was a friend of Frederick Diehl.
"Where did Tim get the note?" Vic queried.
"He was none too communicative as to that," Imogene replied. "All he would say was that it came to him enclosed in one of his own, 'unbeknownst to them High Hope post-office snoopers and their loikes.' Mrs. Weldon thought the implication was he got it second hand through somebody in Chandler."
"I'll clean up and get a snack to eat. Then I'll ride up to the claim. Wonder who the next person to come into the Basin will be?"
She was soon to learn. For while she was eating, a new sound caught the women's attention, freezing them all into intent listening. "That's no car motor, even if a car could possibly get down into this basin. It's – it's—" Imogene did not finish. She was looking at Vic.
In another minute all three were outside the cabin, gazing overhead, hands upraised to shade their eyes against the blinding brilliance of the late sunlight on the metal wings of an airplane that had soared into the Basin. The whirring drone grew louder. The mechanical bird, pale blue of body, with silver wings, swooped nearer through the air. It was well within the Basin now, circling about, swinging low, plainly in search of a landing place. Finally the sound of the engine ceased, and the plane glided down to a smooth landing on the long, natural stretch of runway which Hosmer Leeds had cleared early that summer.
The women were hurrying toward the spot, Mrs. Weldon in the lead, a strangely quiet Vic bringing up the rear. By the time Mrs. Weldon reached the airplane, even the propeller had ceased to turn. Imogene looked back over her shoulder at Vic, just behind. "Of course, it's—?" She hesitated as if fearful of her own question.
Vic moistened her lips and nodded. "It's a Luscombe plane," was all she managed to say. Inwardly, she was trying to tell herself that after all it might not be the Mountain Gull – that Eric was not the only pilot to fly a blue and silver Luscombe. All of a sudden there flashed past them a more positive answer to Imogene's unfinished query. It was the swiftly moving streak of a long, black body. Blackout, on guard up in his more distant hills, had also heard and recognized that motor. He had known it for more than a Luscombe. It was that of the Mountain Gull, flown by a man he knew and loved. Now, no word of command or sense of duty could keep him chained to his post in the face of its coming.
An Unalterable Decision
MRS. WELDON was the first to reach the plane, Imogene close behind her, and Vic, usually the most quick-moving of the three, bringing up the rear. She was missing no detail of the arrival, however. The tall figure emerging through the side door of the tiny Luscombe cabin was unmistakably Eric. The gesture with which he snatched his helmet from his head and tossed back his unruly hair brought a leap of joyous certainty to Vic's heart. Then Blackout was upon him, pawing him, emitting short frantic barks of delight. Eric stooped to caress the dog in response, but above Blackout's long body his eyes were seeking Vic's. Her look answered his, but she did not speak. Instead she stood strangely quiet and unassertive behind the other two women, letting Imogene and Mrs. Weldon do most of the first eager questioning. But she missed none of Eric's replies.
"You don't mean that way in here you heard that silly announcement of the Gull's disappearance? It was a mere local item, given just once – the work of a cub reporter so crazy to score a 'beat' he couldn't obey orders. It cost him his job. Our office certainly went after that local news office, clamped down on that item, and saw to it there was no follow-up. It never occurred to me it could have found its way into this wilderness. I'm sorry." Again his eyes, now contrite, sought Vic's. She smiled her understanding.
"Where's the Doc?" he was soon querying, looking about him. "And Hos?" Plainly he expected to find them there. As he listened to the tale of their prolonged absence, his face grew thoughtful. His response of, "Oh, well, they'll show up before long. Can't lose either of those two in any Western mining country," was not altogether convincing. A sense of his anxiety spread to the women and took the edge off the joy of his coming.
He turned his attention again to his plane, remarked on the likelihood of a rising wind sweeping up the Basin, or the possibility of sudden, heavy rain. The light little Luscombe, with no hangar to shelter it, would need to be secured against such dangers. They all walked back toward the cabins together. As they neared the main cabin, Eric asked for the key to one of the outside sheds, where an assortment of old junk was stored. Before long he was emerging from the place, laden with a rather surprising burden of heavy rope, stakes, pulleys, and a large piece of thick canvas. He looked toward Vic. "Want to go back with me? Help me tie down the Mountain Gull?"
"Of course. But – how on earth could you know that all the tackle you needed for the job was in that old shed?"
His answer was, "Hos."
"You mean that Hosmer Leeds sent you word about it? Saw to it that it was all there?"
"Sure thing," he responded with a camouflaging casualness that made Vic retort, "I don't happen to see 'the sure thing' of it, myself." She laughed as she spoke. After all, this was no time for inquisitive persistence. As soon as they were really alone together she would probably get an explanation not only about the tackle, but about – well, the assay and all the other things.
But Eric didn't offer a word of explanation. Their only talk was about the plane and the work of tying it down. As soon as the Luscombe was secure under the canvas, Eric, with Blackout close at his heels, became absorbed in an inspection of the landing ground. "You were dead right about this being a natural landing field, Vic, and Hos has done some good work in making it smooth. I believe a lot bigger plane than mine could make it in here, in the hands of a pilot who understands mountains and their air currents and all the rest. I wish I'd believed it before."
"Why? Is one likely to come?" She tried not to sound too eager, but it was growing harder to restrain her impatience.
Eric remained noncommittal. "Perhaps," was all he answered with an affectionate grin. He had regained Vic's side, one hand resting lightly on Blackout's head. "No need to ask whether the pup reached you all right. How about the lamp? Used it yet?"
Prospector fever mounted into Vic's answering account. Eric must have thought it unwise to stimulate it further, for his response of, "We might try it out again tonight together," was uttered with so little suggestion of urgency or importance that it clipped the wings of her rising hope. Nor did he make any further reference to her claim. Surely he knew how eager she was to learn his verdict concerning it. His delay in giving it was anything but encouraging. It seemed suddenly clear to her that he did not want to mar the first moments of their reunited companionship with bad news. Well, she would take the hint, and not mention her claim again until he was ready. That would give her time to steel herself against what was coming. For a little while she would just enjoy Eric's presence.
As they began strolling back toward the cabin, Eric's hand reached out to close over hers. "How's the wild rose?" he queried. There was tenderness in his smile.
His use of her campus nickname brought Vic up short. If only she had not ignored Imogene's warnings. "Blasted on the stalk by the fumes of a mine," she managed to say with a laugh. If her clear white skin and play of color had once given her some title to the nickname Eric had used, she certainly had no claim to it now. Her skin was not only dyed a bright red from sunburn, but in many places it was a little blistered, and in others, peeling. Her sore and stiff muscles marred her suppleness of movement. As for her hands – her sudden realization of their roughness led her to try to pull the left one away from Eric.
His big right hand settled over it so firmly she did not succeed. "And the stalk itself has grown altogether too thin," he said, eyeing her critically in disapproval.
And thinness, she thought, had made the stubborn lines of her chin more prominent. Aloud she was saying, "Wild roses can't expect to bloom in places like this, you know, not with things as they are in the world today." His long searching look was still strong with disapproval, but it was a kind of disapproval that made her glow with happiness.
Not until evening were Vic and Eric alone together again. There was lingering talk about the supper table, Mrs. Weldon and Imogene contributing much of it. Eric's replies to some of their direct questions were brief and unsatisfactory. When Imogene queried, "Did you fly here alone, Eric?" he answered only, "No. Had company practically all of the way. Dropped the fellow, though, shortly before I entered the Basin."
"Who was he?" Vic put the question for Imogene's benefit. She thought Gene might have had some foolish hope it could have been Hosmer.
"Nobody any of you know. Just a fellow I met out West. Had business he was in a hurry to attend to somewhere in this region, so he was glad to fly with me."
Before long Eric became the questioner. He showed acute interest in all the summer happenings in and around the Basin, above all in the jumping of Vic's claim. There was sharpness in his query, "And you're leaving the prospect unguarded?"
Imogene's account of Tim O'Rourke's arrival relieved and gratified him. "Vic and I are going to ride up there now and free him for a few hours. We'll send him down here to eat."
They were soon on their way. Early moonlight was flooding the wild mountain valley with the spirit of romance it evokes even in far less congenial surroundings.
Vic and Eric were caught up in it. They talked surprisingly little as their horses plodded along side by side. At the entrance to the ridge trail, they got off the horses and began leading them upward, fearful of night prowlers if they left them alone. The moon penetrated the thick timber only fitfully. Often they needed their flashlights to illumine the footing of the deep spongy carpet of old pine needles over which they trod. At last they emerged within sight of Tim and the prospect.
Eric's quiet thoughtfulness vanished. He was thrusting out his hand to grasp that of the Irishman, who had been standing alertly on guard until he was sure of their identity. "So you are Tim O'Rourke. I'm mighty glad you're here. I'm Eric Stuart."
Vic was promptly aware that behind the hearty exchange of greeting there was for both men some sort of unspoken understanding she did not share. Her own greeting of Tim was an anti-climax. In another moment or two he was gone, and Eric and Vic were as deep in a survey of her staked claim as the night light afforded. All around them hung the spicy fragrance of the heavy pine forest. Vic could hear Eric drawing in great lungfuls of it.
She too felt its headiness. "Like it?" she threw at him in bright query.
She received a hearty, "You bet," in response; then a thoughtful, "You belong here, Vic, don't you? In country like this, I mean?"
"I certainly do. I was born to it, and for it. This kind of life, I mean. Together with a life business in it – like mining. That's why I'm so eager—"
"I know." Again Eric was heading off questions.
Vic yielded, saying little for some time except to reply to his inquiries. Queer, how defiance and independence seeped out of her when she was with Eric. Of course she did not really need to tell him anything. She had already written him everything she knew and hoped about this claim. Evidently he had never quite credited it all, for after a little he was saying, with something almost like awe in his tone, "Well, it's true. I simply could not believe you could do it. A girl. All alone. Work as tough as this. Entirely too hard." His voice was admiring, and tender, and disapproving all at once.
"No, Eric, it wasn't too hard. I remembered something I had heard my father say. That he would be ashamed not to have mind, ambition, and will power enough to train himself for something more than mere physical labor. But that he would be equally ashamed if when manual labor lay before him to be done, he could not pitch in and do it. So I pitched in, you see, and did what I could. And it wasn't too hard. Not if my prospect proves worth it, and – and – my claim jumper doesn't get possession."
Again he failed to follow her lead. Unable to endure the uncertainty any longer, she burst forth, "Is it worth it, Eric? Why don't you tell me? What of the complete results from the full sample I sent you? Haven't you got them yet? Or can't you bear to tell me because they're so unfavorable?"
"No," Eric's answer was as direct as her query. "I'm afraid to tell you because they're so darn good. I don't dare trust them. There's very little trace of antimony in the entire sample, or any other substance that would make the ore refractory. And it's rich with tungsten. Full of the stuff."
They had been sitting quietly on a clear patch of ground, awaiting full darkness. Now Vic jumped to her feet in delight and triumph, then suddenly stood still in an effort to check her exuberance. "I understand, Eric. You were afraid I'd soar too high and too fast like a balloon cut loose in a favorable wind. You wanted to keep me tied down until we could be sure the wind was a real current, not just a little puff. Don't worry. I know as well as you do that it may be only a puff – a mere surface deposit. I'll stay tied, I promise. There, the moon's gone." Vic reached for the flashlight. "Get the lamp ready. It's time."
In another minute or two they were kneeling on the trench's rim just as the three women had previously done. Only this time was better, Vic thought. Eric, besides being more than a close friend, was another mining engineer of considerable recent experience. His reaction was all she had hoped for. Triumphant excitement claimed him, hard as he tried to keep from showing it. He could hardly tear his eyes from the dancing splatter of lights. He walked slowly along the trench rims, lamp in hand. He jumped down into the trench itself and picked up broken pieces of the rock for closer examination. He illumined the trench sides and studied them. Vic, finding breathing difficult, followed in his wake. When at last he spoke, she was more than satisfied.
"Vic," he said, "for weeks now I've been following up and investigating reports of promising strikes. I haven't found one worth enough to justify the expense of developing it. Of course, as a mere cub I haven't gone alone, or I've been sent to the least likely places. Then you brought me here – and I find at last what looks like a real discovery." He paused as if to get himself in hand before adding more judicially, "At least you've a real deposit near the surface – a darn rich one at that. Of course, how far it extends remains to be seen. You must also remember the expense involved in developing a mine in country like this – off all the main highways and with no roads of its own. It would have to be a pretty big paying mine to justify it. The chances, I'd say, are about one to ten against it. Still, it's well worth investigating. I knew that before I arrived. As a matter of fact, that's why the office was willing to let me come. Some equipment and a few men have been ordered sent in, too. I wish I'd known about the landing field, or rather Hos's runway – had had more faith in it, I mean – before they started from their last set-up. A light cargo plane could make it. Perhaps it's still not too late—" Eric was thinking aloud now rather than talking to Vic. "I'll fly out of the Basin tomorrow. Try to head them off by 'phone. It wouldn't be wise to do it from High Hope. That nosey hole is no place for 'phoning about anything like this."
For a time they sat side by side on the rim of the trench, Eric telling Vic about other investigations made by Bureau men, mostly of low grade ore in sections too isolated to make development promising. Vic smiled into the darkness. "You needn't try so hard to smother my dreams, Eric, because I keep thinking of something you seem to forget. It's something that makes the situation all the worse if my strike proves to be a rich one. My claim's been jumped. And I've not received one encouraging word from 'Dad' Weldon's lawyer as to the chances of getting my discovery rights legally recognized."
"I'd like to call on that lawyer when I fly out."
"I'll take you. You're going to let me fly with you, aren't you?"
Eric was reluctant in the face of her eagerness. "I can't, honey. Not this time. I've other things to do outside—"
"More secrets?" All her disappointment spoke in the words. "They've been dished up to us ever since we landed in the Basin this summer – even before then. Worse than secrets – mysteries. I'm sick to death of them."
"Well, you cooked up a few of them yourself didn't you?"
"There wasn't one that was all my own that I didn't tell you.''
"And those that weren't all your own – the things that happened before the Weldons appeared to take charge of the set-up – I learned from the others." He was smiling in enjoyment at her surprise. "You know: foot prints; a spent pigeon; chance encounters—"
"You mean," she interrupted his half-teasing, "that you know all about my spy attempts and reports? And how I was squeezed out of carrying on any more of them?"
He nodded. "I'll even promise to take you in to your old mill site one of these days."
"You talk as if you knew the way."
"Well, if it's the place Hosmer tried to locate and failed that day he took French leave from the skiing party last spring, I've some notion of about where to look for it. Of course, all Hos had to go on was a dim recollection of some old miner's tale. On foot, it was a needle-in-the-haystack search. From the air it's different. That's why I think maybe I can spot it tomorrow."
"Oh, Eric, no," Vic protested. "It's too dangerous – flying over those mountains. No mill site's worth it. They're so high and broken – all kinds of air pockets – currents every which way."
"Don't worry," Eric soothed. "I won't take foolish risks." But his thoughts were not on flying, as his next remark showed. "I do wish Doc Weldon was here though. I want to talk to him before I do anything. After all, he's your legal guardian."
"Not any more. I was twenty-one last month. According to Dad's will, that makes me my own boss."
The speech did not bring Eric out of his thoughtful mood. Was it the "jumping" that was troubling him? Or was he still unable to convince himself that she was capable of good business judgment? No matter. She had become even more deeply thoughtful than he. She began to speak with a quiet firmness that headed off interruptions. "I know what you want to talk to 'Dad' Weldon about, Eric. How to finance the development of my claim. Well – it happens that I don't want you to talk to him. It might make the situation unpleasant in a way I'd rather avoid. 'Dad' Weldon is a darling; he'd insist upon doing what he considered was best for me. But I don't see things in the way I'm afraid he will. And I've already made my decision. It isn't an impulsive one, either. I thought it over more than once before I finally made up my mind. Now, neither 'Dad' Weldon, nor anybody else – not even you, Eric – can change it."
Eric made no attempt to break the ensuing pause with anything more than an expectant, "Yes?" Vic was grateful to him. Even that one word was uttered as if he almost feared what was coming, feared what his own attitude in regard to it should be.
"I know the money-making chances of a strike like this as well as you do, or as 'Dad' Weldon does, for that matter. And I'm well aware of the gamble that lies in any financial plan of development – whether it be outright sale, or the borrowing of capital, or the organization of a development company on shares. That's what you want to consult 'Dad' Weldon about, isn't it? How to secure for me the biggest and safest share of money profit?"
"You've guessed it."
"Then there's no need to consult him. Because – as I've already said – I've made up my own mind definitely as to what I'm going to do. And because of what I've decided, I intend to fight to the last ditch for my discovery rights against any and all technical claims of any thieving claim-jumper. In that fight I'll want all the help you can give me. I'll be glad to have you consult 'Dad' Weldon all you want to about that. But about the other matter – what I want done with the claim as soon as it's legally established as mine – I may even need your help against him," she ended with a touch of humor.
She paused again, and it was some time before she went on. Eric waited, reading her mood too well to break into the silence. She drew from him the hand he had been holding and clasped it with her other one in her lap, as if to help her in her search for exactly the right words for what she had to say. When they came they were well formulated, quietly clear, and very firm.
"I found this prospect, I worked hard to learn its promise, for just one purpose – to do my share to help meet the great needs of democracy's and all decent humanity's struggle in the awful war of today. What I wanted, too, was to contribute my share in the way most suited to the Tyrrell name, which Imogene and I are the last to bear. My greatest hope of my claim is that it is going to make me able to do it. Its biggest output promises to be tungsten, the alloy needed to harden the steel for the tools and instruments of war. That means that my tungsten will be used for just one thing – for furthering the awful work of destruction going on in today's terrible world. I want it used for that, by England, by Russia, by America, by China, by all the people righting for and helping the cause of human rights and human freedom. They have no choice. Causing destruction and waste and human suffering has been forced upon them by men so unspeakably evil that they are willing to plunge the world into all the present day's horrors for the sake of their own ruthless, bestial ends. I should be a pretty poor American if I did not want to do my part in crushing that evil as it has got to be crushed.
"But I want no wealth – nor any money – from a source needed to help in that crushing. I am proud of having done my bit, but I could not profit by it financially and keep my self-respect. So once I get my claim established as indisputably mine, I want its development financed in some way that will make its output my personal contribution to my country's need. I don't know just how it is to be managed. I'm going to leave all that to you, Eric. Your Bureau will help you in the planning, won't it? So will Mr. Pyke, the lawyer. So, too, will 'Dad' Weldon, once he has come to accept my decision as unalterable. As for me – there's only one thing I ask for myself in the development of the mine; that's a job in some capacity as a mining engineer.
"Call me quixotic, if you want to. I don't care. All I know is that I could not make money out of the destruction and suffering of war and live with myself afterward."
"That's all, Eric. I've said my little say. There's no need of discussing it any more with anybody. If you disapprove, I'm sorry. But even you can't change me."
Nor did Eric try. He sat for some time as silent as she and as deeply stirred. They did not even touch each other. But never had they been so close in spirit.
It was Vic who broke the tension by saying practically, "I want you to go to see Mr. Pyke the lawyer, and the county clerk, too, where my claim is filed. But I would like to go with you. With Tim O'Rourke and Blackout to guard the prospect, there's no need for me to stay here. And as for trying to spot the old mill site, it's no more dangerous for me to fly over the mountains around the old Hurricane than it is for you. Please, let me fly out with you tomorrow, won't you?"
"I can't, dear." Eric spoke with regret. "You see, I've business to attend to. Sorry I can't tell you about it."
Vic scrambled quickly to her feet. "Oh, Eric! More secrets!" She tried to cover her disappointment with raillery. "I just can't like you, can I, when I tell you everything, and you still keep so much from me?"
Eric was on his feet as quickly as she. He reached out to grasp both her hands and crush them in his. He did not speak at once. But when he did his voice was so deeply vibrant with feeling that it made her tremble. "Oh, yes you do, Victoria Tyrrell," he affirmed. "You like me an awful lot. But not nearly so much as I like you. Because I love you enough to trust you, always. And you aren't willing to trust me with secrets that I couldn't divulge even to you without being dishonorable."
After that there was nothing more Vic could say, even if she had not been too happy to care. She was even too happy to sleep, and long after she had crept into her porch bed she gazed out, starry-eyed herself, on the starlit night. Only one incident of the evening troubled her. There had been a moment when her head, resting on Eric's shoulder, had felt a small hard object under his windbreaker. Her quick fingers had searched it out before Eric could stop her. "Why, Eric," she had exclaimed, "you're wearing a metal disc or star – like a policeman – or detective, or something!"
"Just a big bluff." He had laughed the matter off. "I've never used it but once. I just keep on wearing it on the chance it might come in handy again. I'm a federal employe, you know."
"When was that once?" she had demanded, adding, "You're carrying a gun of some sort, too, I suppose. Guns usually go with metal stars."
He ignored her last remark by answering her question, speaking as casually as he would of some insignificant matter. "Oh, it helped me hold a fellow the law wanted me to identify. It was at an airport. I happened to run across – deliberately that time, though – a certain pilot flying a private plane I'd run into more than once before. I wasn't on duty long. The law arrived soon to do the real bagging."
"What had the pilot done?"
"Received and transported stolen stuff. Got it at certain secret places of rendezvous, and then carried it to others, with the idea of smuggling it out of this country."
"What kind of stuff?" she persisted, holding his sleeve to prevent his escaping.
"Mostly strategic metals, if you have to know," he replied after considerable hesitation. "Flasks of mercury, tungsten concentrate, and so on."
She remembered the letter she had had from Eric earlier in the summer, and thought, "Could that be the reason why Hosmer asked me not to tell anybody what was in that letter?" Aloud she was saying, "A small private plane couldn't carry any very big quantity of mercury or tungsten."
"No, but small quantities are easier to steal and easier to carry secretly. In time, a lot of small quantities make a big one. Any quantity is welcome when the need is great and the chances of satisfying it are becoming desperate."
"Japan's, I guess. Now, young lady, that's the last question I'm going to answer. I've already told you more than I had any business to do. Only when a fellow gets reported lost over the radio, and alarms his best girl, he owes her some sort of explanation of what he was really up to, doesn't he?"
An Old-Fashioned Arrival
ERIC left in the morning before Vic was up. She understood why. He did not want her to see him taking Tim O'Rourke with him after having refused to take her. Tim's going meant that she and Blackout must stand guard at the claim. But the vigil proved a happy one because Imogene shared most of it with her, and the sisters renewed the confidential companionship of which the early summer events had largely robbed them. Vic's glowing happiness was in itself enough to tell sensitive Imogene that between her sister and Eric there had come about a complete understanding as to their future relationship. Vic's own happiness made her sorry for Imogene, whose love affair had not come to the same definite promise. For Imogene's sake she tried to smother such misgivings as she still had about Hosmer Leeds. Instead, she told Imogene of an incident about which she herself was still puzzled.
"Last night I told Eric that somehow I never could like that metal buyer, Frederick Diehl, and that I did wish Hosmer had not struck up such a friendship with him. And how do you think Eric greeted my remark? He burst out laughing. And when I asked him why, he only teased and evaded me."
Eric was alone in his plane when it reentered the Basin toward the close of the next afternoon. "Where's Tim?" was the prompt query of all three women.
"Left him outside to attend to a little business."
"Did you happen to run across any sign of my husband?" Mrs. Weldon refused to show she was anxious, but Vic knew she was.
"I'm sorry, but I didn't." Eric smiled across at Imogene. "Nor of Hos either, Gene."
Again Vic stayed with Eric to help secure and cover the Mountain Gull. "Did you have a successful trip?"
"Not very. Called on your lawyer and the county recorder, though."
"Learn anything?" She just could not resist the question, though she was trying hard to curb her curiosity.
Eric did not seem to mind. "A little. Nothing very vital, but interesting just the same. It seems your jumper came back to the county clerk's office with a full description of the claim. But he wanted to change the name he'd filed under. At first, that is. After he found out you'd been in there, he reconsidered again, although he seemed pretty worried, even a little scared, about doing it – about retaining his own name, I mean, instead of changing it to the Hurricane Mining Company."
Vic stopped tying a rope around a ground-driven stake.
"The Hurricane Mining Company! Wasn't that the name the old Hurricane was mined under? With Hiram Tobin as the sole proprietor?"
"Sure was. But it covered a lot more territory. Seems old Tobin bought up all the rights he could get his hands on anywhere around. His holdings even reached over into Hurricane Ridge."
"Where my claim is. That debris-filled depression I found." Vic was thinking aloud. "But how could that matter now, Eric? All the property belonging to the old Hurricane Mining Company reverted to the public domain years ago. Does Mr. Pyke know about it?"
"He certainly does. I went to see him as soon as I learned the attempted set-up. But it's about as hard to get a lawyer to commit himself about anything as it is to get a really important fact out of an F.B.I. man. He seemed pleased, though, when I told him what you planned to do with your claim as soon as he got it legally established as yours. He said a crook who wouldn't scruple to put a steal over on a girl would think twice about getting into a tangle where federal authorities might have something to say about it."
"And that was all the information he had to offer?"
"About your claim, yes. He'd just got another pretty interesting bit of news, though. It came from his firm's branch office in Chandler, the one where the district attorney of this region used to practice. They've been doing a lot of careful research – following up old and new records of various kinds – and clues. As a result—"
Eric stopped short, his whole manner changing into one of listening alertness. Then he was on his feet, dismissing all thought of his late trip except to say hurriedly, "There they are now. Coming into the Basin down the regular entrance trail. The pack train, I mean. I was too late to head it off, you see – to get word to headquarters that a cargo plane could land here—" He had begun to run. The rest of his words were a half shout coming back over his shoulder. "Sorry, but I've got to hurry. I'll get the horses. You stay in the open and watch. There's Imogene. Take her to where she can get a good view. It's her kind of meat, you know, for her story writing."
Vic was already following him. Imogene awaited her not far from the cabin, and a little later the sisters were standing side by side, hand-shaded eyes fixed on the scene Eric had bade them watch. A pack train of some half dozen little jacks, driven by two or three men on foot, was soon moving along the Basin floor from the upper end.
"It's a real, live picture out of early Colorado history," Imogene murmured.
Vic laughed. "Oh, no, it isn't. It's modern history, although a little antiquated in form. They're not coming in to haul out gold ore. They're packing in diamond core drills and a portable gasoline compressor to sink a shaft or bore a tunnel into a tungsten deposit." She did not have the courage to speak aloud her afterthought of, "The tungsten deposit that's been jumped." Instead she said, "Eric says he was lucky to get those burros. They're in such great demand today and there are so few of them, they aren't easy to get."
As the watching girls took in the scene, each seeing in it a different significance, the vision enlarged and grew more distinct. It came to seem more and more, as it enlarged, like a sound movie. First one black burro, then two brown ones, and then three gray little beasts of burden, each sturdily bearing its brace of saddle bags extending down over both sides of the bearer. Some of the bulky bags were laden with irregularly shaped content; others, equally full, were smooth in outline. Behind the little beasts walked the drivers, their shouts puncturing the shuffling and scuffing sounds of brisk little feet over the Basin floor. The shuffling sounds themselves were being broken by frequent sharp, metallic clicks of flinty hoofs against obtruding stones.
Suddenly the sturdy little black jack in the lead burst forth with the call of the donkey, so modestly dubbed hee-haw. Immediately all five of his four-footed companions followed suit, each challenging a comparison of its powers with that of all the others.
The noise ended the romance of the scene for the girls, and they broke into laughter. From just behind them, Eric joined in. He was on Pinto Bean, bareback, leading Ichabod, also unsaddled. He had lingered only long enough to catch and bridle the horses. Nor did he stop as he passed the girls. "Lead Ich over to that big boulder and climb on together, can't you? Then come on. Sorry, but I can't wait to help you. I've got to head those fellows off. Show them where to unload and pitch camp."
The girls were soon urging the double-burdened Ichabod after Bean, arriving near the caravan in time to hear the leader of the three drivers greet Eric. "Here we are, Mr. Stuart. Show us the site you've picked and we'll have camp pitched before dark. Swell in here, isn't it? Prettiest spot we've struck yet on our job. A long way from some of the desert hell holes we've had to camp in before. Sure hope this strike's the real thing, and we can stay here a while."
The girls slid off Ichabod, saw Mrs. Weldon approaching on foot from the cabin, and walked back a few steps to await her. Meanwhile Vic was saying, "I'm glad she's coming, so as not to miss the first of this. It's the kind of scene we're not any of us likely to see again, for if there's really a mine here, there'll be a truck road built in to it, of course. And even before that, Eric thinks the men, machinery, materials – all the equipment needed – can be flown in a lot more quickly by small cargo plane. That really will be modern, won't it?"
"Too modern," Imogene answered, her face shadowed, her voice lacking the exuberance of Vic's.
But Vic understood, even sympathized. "I know. In a way it's almost wicked – the way it will spoil our lovely, peaceful Basin."
For the next two days Vic scarcely saw Eric alone. He stayed with the men, helped them pitch camp, ate, slept and worked with them. A large portion of his time was spent in close consultation with Jim Petrie, the leader of the men who had come with the pack train. At first Eric tried to include Vic in these discussions. It was Vic who eliminated herself, sensing that Jim Petrie preferred not to have her near. "He's like Hosmer," she thought. "He doesn't approve of a woman mining engineer. I'll have to be patient, let him get used to the idea of me first, so as not to be a handicap to Eric."
Eric had found the chance to utter a few private words to her about the situation. "Nominally I'm in charge here for the Bureau. But that's all a bluff. It's really Jim who is. He's just so decent he pretends to defer to me because I'm a college trained man and he isn't. But he knows darn well, just as I do, that no cub like me would have been put on this job without a smart fellow like Jim along, who knows mines and all the rest of it from years of practical experience at just this sort of thing. Oh, I may hand him a little book knowledge, and scientific theory, perhaps. But he's the fellow who'll do the real work, take the real responsibility of finding out what your strike's really worth."
"My strike, Eric?" Vic seized the opportunity to utter the question that was persistently troubling her. "I know my jumper seems to have vanished. But couldn't he just be lying low to let us do a lot of work that he could gain advantage of later? Are you sure the Bureau understands the risk?"
"Darn sure. I talked to headquarters, you see, over long distance, while I was outside. They told me to go ahead again. They already had ordered Jim's pack outfit sent in. Time's so precious that it's better to take a chance. That's how they see it."
The following two days were crowded and thrilling. New life had entered the peaceful valley, new life, new activities, all, of course, centered about the prospect on Hurricane Ridge. There were the chugging methodical puffs and snorts of the gasoline compressor; the grating buzz of the diamond core drill boring through layers of hard rock; the shouts of workmen making themselves heard above the noise of machinery. Such sounds penetrated the thin air even as far down the Basin as the cabins, a full mile from their source. Closer to the mine site other noises intermingled in lower keys: shovels tossing dirt and clinking repeatedly against stones and boulders; pickaxes swinging where shovels refused to penetrate the hard ground; movements of men and beasts toiling up stiff grade under drivers' orders; the rattle of unloading packs.
Mrs. Weldon and Imogene were almost as intent upon all this activity as Vic. Even to Imogene the fascination of the scene appeared irresistible. "It's as appealing as it is desecrating," Vic heard her remark once to the older woman. "And what do you make of Vic, the way she lets Eric and Jim do the bossing? That's what love does, I suppose."
"And good judgment," Mrs. Weldon replied with a sly smile.
As the work went on Vic detected in Eric an unwonted restlessness. He was always bubbling with energy. But usually it found expression in a genial easiness of execution that kept him from exuding the strain of hurry or impatience. Now he was plainly eager to be free from the matter at hand to turn to some other activity. Vic learned why when he found a moment to remark to her, "Just let things get a good start here, and you and I are going to take a day off to investigate the old millsite trail."
"You think you spotted the place?"
"I spotted something I'm in a big hurry to investigate. Or rather Tim spotted it, with the binoculars, as we flew over. Since it's nothing I've been sworn to secrecy about, I've decided to take you along on the investigation, though I'll likely catch the devil from Doc Weldon later for doing it. And I'm not at all sure he won't be right."
"He's taking me because he hasn't the heart to refuse me again," Vic thought, while aloud she laughed. "I'll be safe enough if you don't forget to wear your star."
"You're darn right I'll wear it."
And that was all at the moment. The evening before they were to take their trip, Eric brought Jim Petrie up to the cabin to tell Vic what the men would be doing while they were gone. When the two men left, Vic followed them outside the cabin and Eric remarked, "Here, Jim, take the flash and start on ahead, will you? I'll be along in a minute or two."
Jim Petrie obeyed promptly, his seamed, weatherbeaten face respectfully serious, unaware that a gleam of light from the flash Eric was handing him was revealing to Vic the surreptitious wink he was directing at Eric. Vic's first discomfort about the man leaped into liking at the sight. The wink was so understanding, so sympathetically kindly, and, yes, approving. The time was not far off, she was sure, when she and Jim Petrie would be working companions and friends.
"It'll be nice to have a day alone with you, Eric. By the way, you've never finished telling me what it was you learned at Mr. Pyke's office the day you were gone."
Eric did not speak at once, and she sensed that he was debating with himself before he said, "Well, it's still confidential information. Perhaps I'm doing wrong to tell you. Just the same, it's only fair. You've a right to know – since you were the one who found her."
"Found who?" But she could guess.
"The dying woman in the shack on Hurricane. They've established her identity at last beyond any doubt."
"And who was she?" Vic was eagerly impatient.
"Hildegarde Tobin. Old Hiram Tobin's daughter. His only heir after his wife died. Only he had nothing to leave any heir but dreams and a fanatic faith in an old exhausted mine. Even the property itself was no longer his."
It was Vic's turn to be silent for a moment. "You mean she was the little baby girl, grown up? The one her parents took East with them?"
"But what was she doing there all alone? Sneaking in like that, not letting anybody know about it? Had she come back there to die?"
"Not likely. It's all surmise. But probably she'd come back there to live in the belief that she had a right there. That property had never been sold. It had once belonged to her father. She was his only heir. She must have had some kind of hope of reasserting her claim to the mine through inheritance. Maybe she thought it wise to stand guard on the actual grounds, or had some idea she could strengthen her claim through squatter's rights. Very likely there was some unscrupulous lawyer in the background, bolstering up the faith she had probably been raised on."
"Poor thing," Vic murmured, lost in pity as the evening in the refuge shack flashed vividly through her memory. "She may have been brought up on a fanatic faith in that mine, but she certainly had never been taught what a spring blizzard could be and do in high Colorado mountains. And you say her story still has to be kept a secret. Why? It's such a pathetic and yet romantic story. The public would love it."
"Perhaps that's part of the reason why it has to be kept secret." Such was the last word Eric had to say that night upon the subject.
To Vic, musing over the matter after Eric had left, it seemed more like another mystery than a revelation.
A Wrecked Car
VIC and Eric set forth on horseback so early that no one else was astir in the Basin. They ate breakfast together by lamplight in the kitchen of the cabin, Vic's heart singing a little song to itself meanwhile. "It may be like this many mornings after Eric and I are married, if we both get jobs in the developing of the mine, and they let us make our first home in this very cabin." Such were the dreams they were weaving together during these passing days.
Soon they were trotting past the workmen's camp which was just stirring into life. They flanked a slope that turned them away from the route to the main entrance trail toward the steeper, more barren slope up which Dr. Weldon and Hosmer Leeds had come to their rescue on the night of the spring blizzard. It was lighted now with the pale gray of oncoming dawn, while the great jagged peaks toward which they rode were dyed with the blood-red brilliance of sunrise. "It'll be full daylight by the time we reach unfamiliar going," Eric said.
Eric had explained, they were not to search out the entrance into the old millsite trail at once. He did say, when they had reached the wide ledge just below the old Hurricane mine, that he was unwilling to leave the horses there.
"We'd better lead them with us as far as we can before we tether or hobble them – to some place where we can hear them, at least, even if we can't see them."
Vic understood what he meant. The queer black blotch Tim had spotted from the air through the glasses lay, Eric said, in a deep ravine that broke off from the old wagon road winding around the mountain and extending toward Chandler.
As they passed the decaying structure of the old mine, Vic remarked, "Look at those dumps, Eric. Remember how huge they looked the night we were lost last spring? There must have been an awful amount of snow on them to make them show up so much smaller now. Especially that one way back there. The snow must have melted awfully fast, too, I'd say. Because I'm sure some of those dumps are smaller now than they were the day Imogene and I were up here."
"Maybe," Eric replied noncommittally, as if the matter did not interest him. His mind was evidently upon the coming investigation.
Before long they had left the horses in a fairly well protected spot, and were themselves winding and twisting down a difficult descent into the ravine where the black object lay. Bracing themselves against the steepness of the slope, they chose their footsteps cautiously in order to evade entanglement in bristling, tenacious overgrowth. Soon, however, they were discovering that many of what appeared to be rooted obstructions in the pathway were mere camouflage. Huge clumps of intervening brush proved rootless and loose, many of them, the couple discovered as they progressed, no longer even upright in position. Soon, too, Eric was detecting tire tracks. Haste had evidently prevented somebody from obliterating them or covering them completely.
"You see what all this means now, don't you, Vic? And what we're coming to?" Eric was motioning toward the black object, now recognizable as a wrecked automobile, lying on its side half buried in brush at the bottom of the ravine.
Vic nodded, panting out her answer as she and Eric took the last steep stretch of slope at a run. "Somebody cleared a way down this slope for a car, and then, after the car had passed over it, tried to camouflage the fact. It must have been a madman. Nobody else would attempt to drive a car down a slope like this."
Eric's reply came as they bent over the wrecked auto together. "It might not have been a madman who shoved it off to a start down that slope with the engine running. It might have been somebody who was desperate to get it out of the way in some hidden spot. Nobody but a man in an airplane and using strong glasses could have seen it in this hole. And airplanes are rare around here. In fact, yours truly is a real pioneer, of the air variety. Now let's get busy and find out what's especially queer about this particular car."
"But a shove like that would be sure to wreck it," Vic continued to protest. "Anybody would know that."
"Just the same it might have been safer to wreck the car for the sake of hiding it than to be found possessing it. You'll soon see why I brought along a few other tools besides just a hand axe for trail clearing."
Vic was glad she had been able to hold back her curiosity about those extra tools. Since she was to be a full partner in their use, it was more fun, anyhow, not to know too much and thus spoil the dramatic effect of what was to come. From the moment of starting out that morning, Eric's bringing those tools had set her atingle with a premonition of something really exciting about to happen. Perhaps this was it.
The car, they soon discovered, was a strongly built coupe, reinforced in numerous places as if for hard driving over difficult roads. It lay at an angle of perhaps forty-five degrees, half buried and half upright in a hollow. Both wheels and fender on the down side were badly smashed. The engine was thrust deep into softened debris at the bottom of the ravine. The door on the up side, however, was half off its hinges, apparently broken open by the crash. Eric thrust head and shoulders inside for a swift and fruitless investigation. "Stripped of everything," he announced. "It's my bet that everything which might furnish a clue to the owner's identity has vanished from the earth. In a blaze – or, perhaps, in the deepest level of the old Hurricane."
"The car certainly hasn't any license plate." Vic was inspecting it from the rear.
Eric came around to join her. There was a pleased expectancy about him, as if of conjecture fulfilled. "Think we could right the car a little, Vic? Then I'll show you what I brought these for." He referred to a hammer, screw driver, long chisel, and a small crowbar.
With the help of a supporting boulder or two they did manage to get the car fairly upright. Eric became interested in the rear storage compartment, now badly bent and battered. It had been locked and the key removed. The lock seemed sprung, barring an easy opening. Before long, however, Eric's tools had forced an entrance. While Vic held up the partially removed cover, Eric explored within. He began hauling forth old camping equipment: a dirty tent canvas; a dilapidated camp stove; a pair of blankets; a few groceries in smudged unlabeled bags; bacon, beans, and flour. He examined each article quickly, then tossed it aside.
"Camouflage junk," he asserted. "Not an identifying article in the lot." Again he thrust head and shoulders inside, then began shoving his body forward until hands and tools, too, had disappeared. His muffled voice came out, "Don't let that thing drop on my back, Vic." "Hardly." She laughed, bracing her hold. Other noises came from within. A tapping as if against some inner partition. The sounds it brought forth were heavy and solid rather than reverberations from a hollow interior. Again Eric's voice, this time in a muffled shout: "Can you manage to hold that cover up, and still give me a little light with the flash at the upper corner?"
Vic complied, not without considerable difficulty. Sounds from within continued. Now they were those of a careful chopping and prying, succeeded by a splitting of wood. Presently Eric was shoving himself backward, into the open. He tossed his tools aside. Then he dragged forth from the inner depths several heavy and nondescript packages. Each was well wrapped, as if for transportation, but unaddressed. Eric himself had become an amusing picture. His hat was gone, his hair rumpled and smudged with dust, and his face dirt-streaked. Through this dishevelment his lively gray eyes shone out, bright with triumph. "Just what I expected," he gloried. "Tucked away in a hidden compartment back of the open one, completely shut off and barricaded by a solid partition. I split it."
"What are they?" Queer that such commonplace-looking packages could cause so much excitement.
"Tungsten concentrate! I'll bet my head on that. You see, I've run across packages of this sort before. Not all just like these. The content might be different. But the purpose and the destination were the same – I'd be willing to swear to that. And they all held some strategic metal – ready to be smuggled out of this country by one means or another."
"You mean – it's what you happened to run into those times – at airports – at clipper take-offs? But how could you know?"
"Didn't, at first. Just got suspicious, and told a fellow I knew. Then I flew him around a bit with me. After a while we began to nose out some pretty convincing and damning facts. And it's to that same friend – or at least to some colleague of his – that you and I are going right now to deliver these packages."
"And whereabouts, may I ask, is this colleague to be found?"
"Chandler. At Mr. Pyke's branch office. Where the man who's now district attorney used to practice. If the fellow I want isn't there, somebody in the office will know where to find him."
"Who was this friend you took with you on spying trips? Or is that something else you can't tell?"
Eric hesitated only a minute before he replied straightforwardly, "He's the fellow who flew into this region with me when I came. A young lawyer who's a member of the F.B.I. Since I've brought you into this – like a darn fool – you might as well know, because you'll have to go on with me. I'm most certainly not leaving you alone up here."
Vic checked the questions that sprang to her lips. Although she was not in the least afraid to be left, she had not the slightest intention of staying. Chandler promised to be too interesting.
She was relieved when Eric continued. "Now, let's get going. We've no time to spare. Chandler first. Then, if there's any of the day left, we'll come back up here and take a try at locating the old trail into the lost millsite."
Before they had progressed far over the washed and rutted road, Vic remarked, "Eric, there are tire tracks in the sandy spots on this road, and they can't be very old, or they'd have been washed out. The car that made them must have had a reckless driver, too. Those slick streaks mean skidding. Was it the car we found, do you suppose? And what do you suppose has become of the person who drove it?"
"Looks as if some bird had suddenly waked up to the fact that the law was too close on his heels for a getaway in that car. He wrecked it in an undiscoverable spot – so he thought. Maybe he's parked himself in another. It wouldn't be hard to do in these mountains."
Except for the inconvenience of managing their packages of tungsten, they reached Chandler without incident. The town lay in an open bowl among high hills down on the other side of Hurricane mountain, opposite High Hope and Wild Basin. On its outskirts clustered wrecks of the modest homes that had once sheltered the families of miners working underground on old Hurricane's many levels. Big mills and smelters, now idle, had once boomed nearby. The Hurricane's rich ore had been carried to them, sometimes in mule-drawn wagons, more often in long pack trains, over the road whose remnants the young people had just followed. "The town has never really lived since the old Hurricane died," Vic commented as they entered the main street. The remark would have been resented by the town's one thousand or so inhabitants had they heard it. For mining on a small scale still went on in the adjacent hills, keeping the little burg confident that some day a big and new infusion of life would be injected into it.
At the attorney's office, Eric, burdened with his packages, entered the inner sanctum and closed the door. Vic settled down in the reception room to wait for him. He reappeared much sooner than she had expected, hurrying toward her and talking as he walked. "Sorry, but I've got to leave you here for a little while, Vic. I'll be back in a half hour or so."
She had no time to question him, and she had to meet the proffered courtesies of their lawyer host. Not that she would really read any of the new magazines he was offering her. Her mind was too occupied with Eric's puzzling behavior. While she was thus engaged with her thoughts, Eric again reappeared, sooner than she had anticipated, and in a manner that puzzled her still more. He had taken time to tidy his person, but haste was still evident in his movements. His eyes were brighter than ever with an excitement that now held an expectant exultation strangely mixed with uncertainty.
She understood some of the reason for it when he took up his stand directly in front of her, and blurted, "Vic, you wouldn't be willing, would you, to stay on here in Chandler for the afternoon, alone?"
She stared at him, wide-eyed. "I should say not! This is our day off together – we've been waiting and planning for it. And we haven't even searched out the entrance into the old millsite trail, let alone begun to chop a passageway through it." Eric knew as well as she what a tough job that chopping was going to be. Already the day was too far gone for them to be able to do more than make a beginning at it.
"All right," Eric answered, "then you and I'll just wait here in Chandler together for a little while. What do you say we hunt up a restaurant and get a hot meal? Keep the lunch we brought for later in the day if we need it."
"And just how far, pray, do you plan to get on the old mill trail today?" There was an edge to the quietly uttered query.
Eric met it with spontaneous laughter. Delightedly he watched the pupils of Vic's eyes expand until they were more black than blue. "The whole darn way. I promise to have you there before dark. You see, I've just learned that the chopping's already done. A lot better than we'd ever have done it, too. Somebody beat us to the job."
"Probably your claim jumper, Percy Slack." Eric sobered, becoming almost solemn. "Vic, if you'll promise not to ask any questions until we reach the millsite, I'll tell you something. I've got a pretty sure hunch that before this day is over, you and I will come face to face with the solution of practically all your mysteries."
Vic sprang to her feet in eager assent. "All right. It will be more fun not knowing too much beforehand, anyway. More exciting. Learning things step by step right up to the climax, and then a quick dénouement. You know, the way Imogene always tries to plan a mystery story."
The Chopped Trail
VIC and Eric ate dinner, rode back to Hurricane without haste, and headed at last toward the old mill trail. Eric showed little hesitation about locating the entrance to it. He also now showed no misgiving about leaving the horses tethered near the Hurricane workings. Yet he could not have failed to notice a Dodge sedan of ancient vintage parked in a niche off the end of the old wagon road that they themselves had followed up from Chandler. But since Eric made no mention of the sedan, Vic didn't either.
Vic was not always so successful in keeping her thoughts to herself. As they passed the refuge shack, still firmly locked against intrusion, she remarked, "We'd have harder work breaking into it today than we did the night of the blizzard, wouldn't we? Wonder what we'd find in there now. Anything new besides Hildegarde Tobin's ghost?"
"I sure hope that's there," Eric was emphatic, "haunting the place day and night, demanding vengeance."
Vic wanted to say, "Demanding it of whom?" Could Eric possibly mean Percy Slack, that seemingly ingenuous youth? Yet young Slack had not been too simple to try to jump her claim. And why had he done the hard work of clearing the old mill trail? She put this query to Eric, adding, "Could it be that the old mill is in working order again, and that ore is being carried into it? If so, where from? The low levels of the supposedly flooded Hurricane? Or – just a guess – the old and shrinking dumps? They probably would have some flecks and traces of value left in their discarded ore. Of course, I'm just thinking out loud, Eric. I don't expect you to answer my questions."
Nor did he in words. Only by the gleam of assent in his clear gray eyes.
The trail they sought led out and down from behind the refuge shack on the opposite side of the old mine. The spot Eric indicated as the entrance appeared as tightly blocked with tough, spiny growth as did its surroundings on either side. But Vic's eye was as quick as Eric's to detect that this growth had been grubbed out or cut at the roots, then hastily replaced. Very cautiously, because of its vicious stabbing and snagging propensities, Eric tossed great clumps of it aside to open up a narrow cleared passage.
Travel over the cleared trail did not prove easy, however, for it was not always pleasant footing, being still boulder-strewn and snag-ridden. Here and there in sandy patches footprints were discernible. Those of pack burros swaying under loads appeared often in a waving line. Those of men's boots, some of them pretty fresh, were straighter. For the most part the trail wound downgrade in the switchback fashion of early narrow gauge mountain railroads. The farther down it went, the easier it became to traverse. Before long they were below timberline, where the slopes began to be dotted with evergreens. Soon leafy shrubbery of alder, willow and false raspberry were appearing in the hollows and breaks of the hills. Vic knew they could not be very far from some deep little mountain valley or pocket, frequently found among these towering heights. And she was equally sure that this pocket would prove to be the mill site.
She began to talk again, or rather to muse aloud. "Eric," she said, "I've been figuring out a few things. For instance, could the tungsten concentrate we found in that car this morning have been milled in here from the refuse rock of the old Hurricane's dumps? If so, it must mean that even in the long-ago days, when the mine was worked only for its gold and silver content, the tungsten was there in its ore. Do you suppose that old Hiram Tobin could have had some inkling about the future value of that tungsten content? Could that have been part of the reason for his fanatical faith in the old exhausted mine? If so, he must have told his wife and daughter. And maybe, now that metals like tungsten have more than come into their own, poor Hildegarde Tobin came back here last spring and tried to live in the shack her father had once used for temporary quarters, because of some dim hope of recovering lost family possessions. But why did she come before the snows had melted and the mining season had opened up again—"
Eric checked her flow of words with a hand on her arm. "Hush," he whispered. "And listen!"
She obeyed at once, standing as still and intent as he for the next few minutes. Mingled sounds of numerous human voices were drifting up to them from some still invisible spot below. No words were distinguishable, only tones. Sometimes they came in the curtailed utterance of a single voice; more often, of two or three speaking at once, soon broken in upon by a jangling chorus. Presently one voice dominated and eclipsed all the others, forcing them to silence.
Vic glanced at Eric. "Do you know who that is?"
Eric nodded. Then a new sound caught Vic's attention, at first so faint that she thought she must have imagined it. "Was that a click, Eric? Metal?"
Sounds of footsteps followed, moving across some hidden area below. Eric began leading Vic off the trail into a brush-free nook a few feet ahead. They reached a long, level-topped boulder protruding slightly above ground and half hidden from the trail by a side growth of shrubbery.
"We'll sit here and wait," Eric said. "There's not room for people to pass easily on that narrow trail. We're not sneaking out of sight, either. We're visible enough to anyone who takes the trouble to look."
Vic accepted the less exposed section of the boulder for her share of the seat. Eric placed himself beside her.
"Keep your eyes on the trail," he whispered. "Watch that next bend below."
Vic nodded. The sounds of approaching movement intensified, becoming more and more distinct. At times, they assumed an almost marching cadence, as if clear stretches of ground were being covered. Now and then this was broken by heavy stumbling. Each time the stumbling sound was followed by some low-spoken word of command that was half encouragement. Sharp snapping or the breaking of brush or twigs occasionally punctured the air, and all the while the entire ensemble of sound was steadily approaching the trail. Then figures came into view around the bend Eric had bade Vic watch. The spirit of adventure and drama was holding the girl breathless. At the same ! time she was not without a strange heaviness of heart. She reached for Eric's hand. Neither spoke. Vic thought, "He knows who they are. He's sure of it."
The figures kept coming straight up the span between the watchers and the lower turn. When the first one reached the direct range of her vision, Vic recognized who it was at once. In another minute or two she heard Eric say, so casually it was startling, "Hello, Hos."
Hosmer's strong-featured face with the thoughtful eyes set so deeply under the straight brows looked squarely in their direction. "Hello, you two," he said. He showed no intention of pausing. It was easy to see why. The big, overgrown young fellow at his side moved so heavily it was at once apparent that it must have been he who had been doing the stumbling. The fellow's right wrist was manacled to Hosmer's, and Hosmer was leading his prisoner firmly, but not unkindly.
"Percy Slack," Vic murmured. "My claim jumper." To her surprise she felt no resentment. Never had she seen the powerfully-built lad look so much like a clumsy, overgrown boy. All the rosy color had gone from his round, ingenuous face, as had its habitual expression of genial naiveté. In its place was terrified bewilderment. After one look, Vic shrank from the sight. She glanced back at Hosmer and saw something that made her gasp in a spontaneous breath of admiration. Then she murmured, "Eric, Hosmer's got a star like yours."
"Sure has. And not the bluff mine's been. He's used it."
And rightfully, Vic thought. It was the contrast between Hosmer's bearing and that of the man directly behind him that made her so instantly sure. There was an honest independence about the way Hosmer carried his awkward strength, vastly superior to the polished grace of movement of the other man. This man, too, Vic had recognized at first glance. He was Frederick Diehl, the strategic metal buyer. He also was manacled, but to a stranger, who, as he reached the watching pair, greeted Eric with, "Hi, Stuart! So you got here."
"Sure did." Eric was as casual as before.
"Who is he?" Vic queried sharply.
"Hal Gray, the F.B.I. fellow who flew into this country with me. He's been doing quite a bit of flying with me lately. You see, I happened to run into him and Hos for a few minutes not long after we arrived in Chandler."
Vic glanced at the stranger. He was the smallest of the four, quick moving, trim, with bright brown eyes. She liked him. Then her interest centered upon the F.B.I. man's prisoner, Frederick Diehl.
It seemed incredible that the buyer's appearance could differ so little from what it had been at the times of her previous meetings with him. He was as immaculately groomed as ever, and he moved with his usual suave grace. His face, however, was paler than she had ever seen it, and his genial smile was noticeably absent. The light brown eyes, behind the overlong dark lashes, were now neither cold nor appraising. They might be undershot with fear; of that she was not sure. But there was no mistaking their dominant expression of resentful bitterness, even hatred, concentrated upon Hosmer Leeds in front of him.
Eric must have noticed it too, for he was explaining in a half whisper, "Hos had to play a pretty dirty part to trap Diehl, one you could never have played even if you had been willing. Besides, none of us were willing to let you try it."
Vic nodded. She was beginning to understand many things she had previously resented. The marchers had come far enough up the trail for Vic to be clearly visible behind her half screen of shrubbery. She still made no sign of greeting. Would any of the passers-by show they recognized her? Hosmer did, with one of those rare illuminating smiles of his. Soon the captive metal buyer behind him was "going him one better." Frederick Diehl actually paused a moment as he passed the girl, lifting his expensive hat with his free hand in a gesture of mocking gentlemanly dignity.
Vic heard Eric mutter under his breath. Then he spoke out loud, "What a waste of talent for melodramatic acting – in a petty thief and smuggler."
"So they are the smugglers! Which one did the wrecked car belong to?"
"Diehl. He often kept it in Chandler, claiming, plausibly enough, that he used it for professional buying trips in this and other small, remote mining communities."
"And he never really was a legitimate buyer for a big metal company?"
"Oh, that claim was straight enough. He had been such a buyer in the East. Still was, in a lesser way, out here. Only he was no longer a salaried employe, merely a free lance. He received a small commission on purchases delivered to and paid for directly by the company. Diehl knew metals, all right, and he's a good assayer. But he'd been discharged from his company's Eastern branch because of petty thefts. The company was lenient enough not to prosecute him, and to leave him a chance to earn some sort of living. He couldn't earn enough, though, to satisfy his expensive tastes. So he began to plan for bigger hauls, and thought he saw a chance for a real one in this section. Landed here early in the spring, and was getting well started on his plan when we Basin folks happened along. Later, because of us, he got in such a hurry that he lost his caution. Thereby hangs our tale. No time now, though, to tell it all." Eric was plainly restless.
Vic ignored his last statement. "Where does Percy Slack come in?" she persisted.
"Merely as Diehl's stooge, or tool. Trail chopper; contact man; pack driver; bribed well at first, probably. Later compelled through fear of being found out. So Tim declares, anyway. Tim's been in with us, you see, ever since our girl sleuth reported running into him early this summer. Doc Weldon looked him up and set him to keeping an eye on young Slack in the draw near High Hope, especially as to Percy's visitors. Later, when Percy took to staying away from his prospect more and more, Tim planted the woman you told about – Ma Mullen, he calls her – to keep her eye out locally while he enlarged his own field of follow-up." Even as he talked, Eric was showing an inner impatience that amounted almost to abstraction.
Vic was annoyed at the perfunctoriness and rapidity of his explanations. Surely after what they had just seen there could be little need for further secrecy or reserve. So far, however, he had made no attempt to rise. He was waiting, she supposed, for the cavalcade to disappear around the trail's upper turn. Only, if that were so, why was it the lower turn he continued to watch with that air of expectancy?
Eric must have felt her annoyance, for he added, "Our girl sleuth gave us more valuable help than she realizes, I think. For instance, it was she who supplied us with the first real suspicion about the old mill and the obliterated trail into it."
Vic felt little elation about her own contributions to the situation. Eric was differently affected. Mingled with his impatient watchfulness was the unmistakable lightheartedness of relief. Vic spoke of it.
"Relieved?" he returned. "You bet I am. Nothing so good as getting my eye on old Hos in Chandler has happened to me for a long time. I confess I was good and worried when I didn't find him and Doc back in the Basin. I flew out the next day more to try to get some clue to their whereabouts than for any other reason. No luck! Not a trace did I get! So I left Tim outside to carry on. And golly, he did it, bless him."
"You see," Eric went on, "I knew what Doc and Hos were up to. Dangerous work. Helping the F.B.I. But they were needed on the job because of their professional knowledge and the natural excuse it gave them for being around mines. Diehl's only a petty crook, you see. Probably he could have been successfully landed some time ago. But the G-men gave orders to let him carry on until they had traced his connections. He was never gone very long from this community. To whom was he delivering his loot? And where? What finally became of it? Was there a string of go-betweens before it reached its final destination? That, of course, was Japan. I've already told you that. It was the big spies and traitors at the root of the whole dirty game that the F.B.I. wanted most. And it wanted all the other little suppliers like Diehl. So Doc and Hos started out to help with the tracking and the tracing, especially in their own territory. They were to have been back to bag Diehl by the time I got into this region, bringing Gray. And they weren't."
"And Frederick Diehl has been smuggling tungsten concentrate out all the while they've been gone."
"Sure has. Yet I can't see yet how he got time for all the delivery, because he and young Slack were hard at work on the old Hurricane dumps. A darn rich find they were, too. Diehl had stayed clear of them before, probably thinking they'd fit in better with his future plans. Then he suddenly had to have money. Probably thought Doc's and Hos's absence offered him just the chance he needed to get it."
"But surely he and Percy Slack couldn't have been doing all that work. They must have had help, not only with the delivering, but with the milling. But if they had somebody in there where we were going, operating the old mill, putting it into running order – why wasn't he arrested, too?"
"That's what I don't understand. The third fellow's appearance is just what I've been waiting for. I expected him to come along after the others, probably in Doc's and Tim's custody. But I'm waiting no longer. I'm going on down and find out what's keeping them." He got up at last, and held out a hand to pull Vic to her feet.
She arose obediently, stretching the cramp out of her long legs and saying mischievously, "You mean you may have to face 'Dad' Weldon in the lion's den with me in tow?" Did Eric have more than one reason for his lingering? She moved on down the trail ahead of him, managing to get in one more question and answer before she reached the lower bend. "Eric, I don't quite see where you came in on all this."
"Well, you might say I came in at the other end. I'd met Hal Gray. We got to be pretty good friends. I'd seen him when he was nabbing two Jap employes of a clipper ready to take off for the Orient. They were about to smuggle out two small packages of platinum in their personal baggage. I told Hal of two or three rather puzzling encounters I'd happened to have at out-of-the-way airports. He was pretty interested, and began following things up. He finally landed the fellow I'd run across flying a private plane who was smuggling flasks of mercury across the border. Unregistered tramp steamers were picking up a collection of such hauls on a supposedly uninhabited island off Mexico's west coast. Japan, it seems, is after any quantity of any strategic she can get her hands on. I wrote Hos all about my experiences – you, too, for that matter, at first. Hos put a stop to that. He said he'd had to hush you up about what I had already written. That he'd done it in the very nick of time, too."
"I remember." How silly she had been ever to be suspicious of Hosmer Leeds. She rounded the turn in the trail as she spoke. Suddenly she stood still with a sharp intake of breath, held for the moment by the beauty of the scene that opened up before her. Below, at the foot of a slope, lay a deep mountain hollow or pocket, several acres in size. To Vic it looked like the wide-open calix of a great flower, with high, broken mountain sides – snow-mottled, boulder-strewn, and timber-green at the base – for petals. Its most striking feature was one of the Rocky Mountains' many small hidden lakes, which are fed in trickling streams and leaping waterfalls from melting snows on surrounding summits. Its placid surface reflected in haunting, solitary dignity every conceivable shade of color and shadow of sky, boulder, lichen growth, and somber, deeply-green spruce and fir.
Vic turned toward Eric, eyes wide with appreciative wonder. "Eric," she breathed, "it's so lovely – so magnificent and yet so exquisite – it – it just couldn't be a place where wicked things were being done. How could anybody doing what was wrong make use of a spot as beautiful as this? Why, anybody would just have to be good to dare to live in it."
The Old Millsite
"YET it's the millsite, all right." Eric indicated two buildings nestled against a protecting wall of rock at one side; one was small, the other taller and wide-spread. Both were built of logs darkly stained by age, but blotched with lighter touches of recent repair. Lazy wisps of smoke curled up from native stone chimneys on both, the only visible evidence of man's occupation in the pocket. "The small one's the house. The other's the mill. That dump of ore rock to one side shows that."
"The mill isn't working, though. Listen, Eric! What are those other sounds, so soft and gentle? Can they really be pigeons cooing? In a wild spot like this? And they're happy sounds. Oh, I'm so glad." Vic moved ahead again down the trail. Eric followed, not without a certain reluctance as if for her sake he dreaded possible disillusionment.
Suddenly another sound rent the thin air, breaking and repeating in a succession of ear-splitting echoes among surrounding hills. It was one to which the ears of Basin dwellers had grown accustomed during the last few days – the raucous, deep-throated bray of a welcoming donkey. A long gray face, peculiarly marked with white and surmounted by two long ears, was peering out through one of the breaks in the boundary slopes, its big mouth opened over huge teeth. The body behind the head moved forward into the open.
"Eric, it's Strike. Percy Slack's burro. I'd know him anywhere because of the white blotch on his face."
"And he has company." Three more burros were appearing behind him.
"They don't fit." Vic laughed. "In a spot like this, they should be deer, or bears, or even mountain lions."
"Bet those pigeons are glad they aren't. Those birds don't fit, either. They should be eagles." The pigeons were visible now, preening their feathers on a long, tightly screened platform built across the upper part of the house. Small openings leading out onto the platform showed the attic to be the pigeon cote. "Pigeons must need lots of care and watching in a place like this. As for the burros, I'll bet at least two of them just came in lately over the other trail."
Vic turned toward Eric, wide-eyed. "The other trail?"
"Just that. A longer and more roundabout one, but easier. Comes in from the other side – over High Hope way. Leads off from an obscure point below the town and well out of sight of it."
"How on earth did you know?"
"Tim. When I left him outside the other day, he said he hoped to be carrying out a plan for making use of it before long."
"And did he?"
"All I know is what Hos had time to tell me in Chandler. Doc and Tim were to head down into this millsite dip from the other side while Hos and Gray made their way in over the trail we followed. In that way the fellows they wanted to bag wouldn't have a chance of escaping. You see, there's no other possible way of getting in or out of this place."
They began a circuit of the pocket, taking in details. As they neared the building they had decided was the mill, they caught the sound of human voices coming through its slightly open front door. "I'm here when you want me," a strange voice was saying. "Ready to pay the penalty."
"There'll be no penalty, Pete. Ye did not know what ye was harborin'. And when ye did, ye harbored thim no longer, even wi' one o' thim bein' yer own son."
"Maybe because one of them was my own son," the disillusioned voice continued. "I prefer to see justice done than to see him continue to be the tool of that other."
"And right ye are. If that went on fer a while longer, 'tis more'n a tool yer boy might be. And thin, there'd be less chancet fer the leniency. Neither me nor the little Doc is the man to be forgettin' our promise o' that."
"Tim," Vic whispered to Eric. Then she gave her full attention to the onrush of brogue. She knew almost immediately that Tim was addressing his old friend, Peter Slack, whose story he had once sketched to the girl on the day of their first meeting in the draw near High Hope. Soon she realized that the elder Slack had given the Irishman permission to bring Dr. Weldon into his mountain retreat on the promise that leniency would be sought for his erring son. For the same reason, Hosmer Leeds had been told about the other trail. "Shure, 'twas relief ye felt in helping us, Pete. What wi' all the worryin' ye'd been havin' over the late goin's-on."
Other facts became evident. When High Hope had reawakened to hectic new life, Peter Slack had realized the town was no longer a safe dwelling place for him on account "o' demon rum again frequentin' it aplenty." In his need of a refuge he had remembered this beautiful mountain pocket, supplied with cabins and water. Years ago, he had worked for a short time as mill man for old Hiram Tobin in this very spot, just before the Hurricane Mining Company had "petered out ontoirely."
All had apparently gone well for Pete in his new retreat during the early summer. Then, "the rich stuff began acomin' in that thick and fast, it was soon adrivin' ye almost crazy, especially since it was acomin' stiddy from the wrong direction. Small wonder the suspicions began agrowin' thick on ye, Pete, and ye was fearin' more'n more all the time fer the salvation o' yer boy's soul. 'Tain't one o' these here friends o' mine that ain't an honest man, though, true to his word oncet he's gave it."
The mill door was swinging open from within. Three men emerged. The short, spectacled one in the lead was the first to recognize the girl. "You?" Dr. Weldon said, his voice crisply disapproving.
"Rather due her, don't you think?" Eric intervened pleasantly. "Since it was she who gave you the first hint that there was something suspicious connected with this old mill site."
"True. And the danger's past." Dr. Weldon turned toward the taller of the two men behind him. "My ward, Victoria Tyrrell. And Eric Stuart, a former pupil and recent collaborator."
The tall, erect stranger greeted the young people without smiling. "I am another P. Slack," he said. "Peter Slack, to distinguish me from my son, Percy, whom you must have passed on the way in if you entered by the trail down from Hurricane." Although the man's English was excellent, he spoke with a painstaking slowness, as if speech were not habitual with him.
Vic was too surprised at his words for prompt response. Here was a man who faced truth too realistically for any fact dodging. Yet the saddened disillusionment in his voice plainly showed that he had spoken neither in defense of nor in apology for his son. "I have just been showing your friends my mill. Would you care to see it?" he invited.
Assent was the only courteous reply. The entire party reentered the building. As they moved through the doorway, Eric managed to get close enough to Vic to whisper, "You and I have no right in this pocket. We're brazen intruders, forcing ourselves in."
Vic gave him a glance of understanding. An intangible quality about their host had given her the same guilty feeling. It was their host himself, however, who answered Eric's whisper. "You're mistaken. It makes no difference now who comes. If I hadn't been a weakling and a recluse, forced to live apart from men to keep my self-respect, the situation would never have developed as it has. I would have raised my boy myself – out in the world – among men – as all decent fathers do." With little change of tone, he added, "You can see how I re-established the mill – the repairs I made, the new parts I added, all packed in to me with considerable difficulty, in segments, by my boy. The parts were brought in from the point where the road – the one the express uses to High Hope – branches off into the trail I originally built, myself, with Percy's help."
Peter Slack was leading Eric ahead of the others. Vic followed close behind, saying little herself, but listening to the mill man's comments and Eric's responses. It was a ball mill, operated by steam boiler, thus making use of the mountain pocket's water as power to run the machinery. The owner pointed out the little jig, the small crusher, the table. Scheelite was one tungsten ore that could be floated with success.
"And your output of concentrate?" Vic heard Eric query.
"Very small all through the early summer. The ore was of such a low grade that lots of people would have thought it scarcely worth crushing, let alone packing it into this pocket. Considerations were different with a man like me. I aimed at small returns; was content with little. And I had no desire to work every day, only now and then when I had to, and when I had enough rock accumulated."
"And the rock you crushed was all packed in to you by your son?"
"Yes. Supposedly from my own mine that I had turned over to him. Also, a little now and then from Tim O'Rourke's. His diggings were in the same draw as mine. I had all the overcredulous hope and faith in my strike that foolish prospectors have. Percy took advantage of it. He lied, of course. He was the other man's tool from the beginning. It was – that other – " the man plainly shrank from mentioning Frederick Diehl's name – "who let Percy know where to get hold of the secondhand parts I needed, supplied him with the credit to secure it where credit was needed. In return Percy turned over to him all my output, secretly and unregistered. Much of the guilt is mine, because of my careless blindness. As I saw it, there was no need for me to handle any of the money business. Percy packed in my simple supplies. Any profit that remained was rightfully his, as a reward for his work. Very likely," the bitterness of disillusionment deepened in the level tone, "that traitor was even supplying the food I was eating. I can blame only myself. I woke up to the fact that Percy was lying long before I could bring myself to acknowledge it."
"And when was that?" Eric asked, half shyly.
"When the rich ore began coming in faster and faster. No longer over the trail from High Hope, either, but over the one from the old Hurricane. Percy had cleared it. It must have been tough work even for a strong, muscular boy like him. Somehow it must have been worth the effort. The pretexts and excuses he offered weren't the kind any sensible man could believe. Nor did Percy act like a lucky miner. He was irritable and impatient – not at all like himself – trying to force me to keep at the milling day and night, and evading my protests that rock of such richness would be welcome at any mill. He was, of course, being ruthlessly driven from behind, as I now know."
"You have learned the truth of the situation, then?"
"Only too well, through the explanations I have received since the arrests. That man and my son are thieves. And they are traitors – though my son evidently told the truth when just now he said he had been made to believe that – that Diehl" – the aversion to speaking the name was difficult to overcome – "had not stolen the ore; that it was rightfully and honestly his. Even if such a claim were true, it wouldn't justify selling it illegally to a gang of traitorous smugglers."
They were all leaving the mill by this time, Tim and Vic in the rear, the irrepressible Irishman having seized his chance to pour his flow of talk into Vic's ear. "'Tis an old soldier of the United States Army my friend, Pete, is. A trainer o' homing pigeons he was for the army in his soldier days. 'Tis that gave him his love fer them birds. And a real patriot too is Pete, ma'am, wi' honorable discharge. No more loyal citizen has this grand country o' ours got than Peter Slack, the mill man. And the blow he has got this day is something he'll not be gettin' over in a hurry. Low in his mind is poor Pete, at present, and small wonder. What hurts 'im cruel ain't only his boy, but that he should be caught harborin' a criminal against the defense o' the country he oncet swore as a soldier to die for if need be to save and pertect."
Tim's harangue went on. Never, so he asserted, until the man had sneaked down into the mill pocket to hide, had Peter Slack laid eyes upon that "slimy eel o' a Diehl." All young Perc had told his father of the fellow was that he was a buyer willing to pay well for the concentrate Pete milled and Percy packed out. Yesterday Percy had beaten the other fellow down into the pocket by a hair. The boy had been in such a bad state of jitters that he had refused to explain matters to his father. Then along had come "the other varmint, Diehl," desperate for hiding and safety, and telling Peter Slack that he had to harbor him because he, Diehl, owned not only the entire mill set-up, but the very pocket itself. "A likely lie, that, drummed into a poor scairt kid by that villain, Diehl. And him with the nerve to be repeatin' it to Pete, without any explainin' to be backin' it up."
Outside the mill, their host invited them into his cabin for a cup of coffee. Vic anxiously awaited Dr. Weldon's answer, for she knew the little professor was impatient to leave. But he showed himself as sensitively aware as she of how to meet the offer of hospitality.
The cabin proved to be a comfortable, home-like place, with its rough, hand-hewn furniture and animal skin rugs. What first caught Vic's eye was the shelf of books on the wide wall and the rough-board table spread with copies of some of the better current magazines.
Peter Slack made coffee, fried bacon, and set these, together with slices of his homemade Dutch-oven bread, before his guests. The food was good. They all ate hungrily. But there was no spirit of festivity. The conversation was desultory, almost forced, and back of their host's courtesy they sensed the depth of his sorrow. Now and then, from overhead, came the sound of pigeons cooing. It was Tim who first mentioned them. "Pete's good friends and companions," he explained. Then, turning to their host, "Miss Victoria, here, was meeting one o' yer birds, I'm thinkin', early this summer. Wouldn't ye be likin' her to be tellin' ye the particulars of it?"
Peter Slack appeared genuinely interested, so Vic told her story of finding the pigeon on the first evening after her arrival in Wild Basin. She even repeated the exact words of the confiscated message: "Place 3, Usual hour. 5-31. 6-4." Their significance was no longer hard to decipher. Diehl and Percy had had several secret meeting places, three at least. There the boy would turn over to the man the concentrate he was transporting from his father's mill. They always met at the same time of day – or, more likely, of night. Naturally, 5-31 was the date of a coming meeting, while 6-4 was Frederick Diehl's signature, F being the sixth letter of the alphabet, and D the fourth.
"It was Gray Brother, beyond any doubt," Peter Slack said, when Vic had ceased speaking. "My prize bird, which I was training a little as a pastime. Percy said he wanted to carry him out and see if he could use him to send messages back in here to me, so I let him take the bird twice. It didn't happen again after the time you speak of."
Tim broke the questioning pause that followed this meager explanation. "Ye won't mind, will ye, Pete, if I add a few words to yer tellin', as is due to the lady who found yer bird fer you afther that polecat, Diehl, neglected and abused him?" Without giving anyone a chance to wedge in a response, Tim went on with his story. Diehl's neglect of the pigeon was partly the result of his being bent upon his own sudden "lightin' out o' the Basin" before the young ladies could get down into it. He had undoubtedly spied them pausing on a high pass of the entrance trail before beginning to wind down into their summer quarters, where they would have caught Diehl, "livin' and pryin' in a place where he hadn't no right to be."
Peter Slack had noticed that both times Gray Brother had been expected to arrive back at his home quarters, young Perc had made a point of being in there, too. And both times Percy had managed to get his hands upon the bird before his father could do so. Something about the bird had been a source of sore disappointment to Percy that last time. "Ye see, Miss Vic, ye'd cribbed the message young Perc was expectin'." It was "a pretty sure bet" what Diehl and Percy had been up to. They had grown "leary" about being seen talking together – Vic herself had once run into them, she would remember – and they were even more "leary" about sending letters at all frequently through the "nosey" High Hope post-office. So they were trying to find some safe way of communicating "unbeknownst to snoopers. You and Pete busted up one scheme o' the crooks before it got a real start, I'm thinkin'."
They all left the millsite soon after that. Because of the long trek back to the Basin, their thoughtful host offered them burros to ride. But Ichabod and Pinto Bean were awaiting Vic and Eric on Hurricane, and Dr. Weldon was a life-long hiker. So they accepted only Strike. Tim insisted that Vic ride the donkey, and appointed himself her special squire. Dr. Weldon paired with Eric, as he was eager for a report of the young man's recent activities.
Eric and the little professor started on ahead. Tim, with Strike in lead, deliberately lingered. Vic knew why, when he turned to their host in farewell. "Don t ye have no worryin', Pete, about earnin' yer bit of livin'. I'll be seein' to that wi' the help, I'm thinkin', o' my good friends. Miss Victoria, here, may be needin' a good mill man in Wild Basin before long. Ye might be thinkin' about it. Miss Victoria won't be fergettin' ye when the time comes, I'll swear to that."
"Indeed I won't." Vic shook hands cordially, then set Strike's unwilling face toward the upgoing trail. Both Tim and Peter Slack, one at the bridle and the other at the rear, added all their urging before they could get the stubborn little beast started. The flow of Tim's talk scarcely ceased on the entire upward, winding trip back to Hurricane. It began with Vic remarking, as soon as they were under way, "So you succeeded in locating your friend at last."
"Shure, I did. Some time back, it was, and 'tis Strike I'd be thankin'. I borrowed him, unbeknownst, as I prophesied to ye I'd be doing. 'Twas to that garden of Eden he was bringin' me. But the serpent was in there ahead o' me, and 'twas an unhappy Pete I was findin', deep in worryin' about his boy." Not that Peter Slack had told Tim for some time what was troubling him so deeply. When at last he did, his confidence had put poor Tim between the "devil and the dape blue sea." For by then Tim was working with "the little Doc." So it was only a hint or two that Tim could honorably drop to Pete. In the end it had been enough to win Pete's consent to Tim's bringing "the little Doc" in to talk to his troubled friend. Alas, the consent had come too late to forestall trouble. "The little Doc" was no longer anywhere around, nor had he showed up again until yesterday. And then with the "trap all set for the springin'. And will ye belave it? 'Twas a help old Tim could be in that springin', thanks to the dirty double-crosser, Jake Small, the High Hope expressman."
"Jake Small?" The direction of Vic's interest veered. "Was he in on the smuggling, too?"
"Only of late, ma'am. What wi' the skunk of a Diehl gettin' overbusy to be takin' time off deliverin' in his own person." So Diehl had bribed Jake to carry out some of his packages for him without bothering to register them. Nor had they been addressed. Undoubtedly Jake had delivered them into secret hands "somewheres on the sneak," or else left them somewhere for a "pick-up." By that time, however, some of the secret hands were not entirely unknown to the "little Doc's crowd." And somewhere Jake Small had got his nose to the wind that was blowing up ahead of "the slinkin' hyena, Diehl, as was his boss." Jake had been smart enough to "light out" before the cyclone struck. Maybe that "nosey High Hope" wasn't buzzing with the news of Jake's vanishing. Good riddance was what the town was saying, "Jake havin' the love o' nobody." Even better riddance for his wife and daughter. Already his wife had found a steady fellow to take over the express business. And everyone was saying that now the woman's nosiness would be more like her sister's, "friendly-loike, wi' the acid evaporatin'." It had been living with that man of hers that had developed the meanness in her. "And who will ye be thinkin'," Tim's manner became impressive with self importance, "Jake come to on the sly fer a last interview – without a hint, 'tis true, of his vanishin' intentions?"
Vic humored the Irishman's mood with a cordial, "I haven't the least idea."
"Yer friend, old Tim O'Rourke." Jake had come to Tim to deliver his double-cross, "the cross-eyed sneak hopin' that way to be savin' his own hide" from too close a following up by inquisitive G-men. Jake had deliberately given Tim a strong hint as to just when and where young Slack and "the sneakin' rat, Diehl, would be slidin' fer safe hidin'," surmising that their goal would be Peter Slack's house at the mill. It was Tim's guess that probably Percy had given Jake the tip to hide with them. But Jake had been too smart to take it. Of course, "slime like that Diehl couldn't be understandin' the workin's o' the mind of a man like Peter Slack, honest to the core o' him."
Without intermission, Tim let out a yell. "Ye blasted he-divil o' a—." Loquacity shifted into profuse and blasphemous vituperation that filled the air for minutes. It was directed at Strike, the burro, who had decided to take advantage of Vic's and Tim's absorption to help himself to a rest by turning around and hanging his head over the precipice on the trail's outer side. It took time and physical effort on Tim's part to get the donkey once more on its way. Accomplishing it at last, Tim turned an apologetic face toward Vic. "'Tis shamed I am to the soul o' me, and beggin' yer pardon fer makin' use of sich language in the prisince of a lady. Will ye be overlookin' it, please, ma'am, and remimberin' 'tis the only kind o' speech the breed of critters Strike belongs to can be understandin' from a man?"
Then, almost without pause, Tim settled back into the stream of his interrupted narrative. Peter Slack had had a clear purpose back of his milling enterprise in that remote mountain pocket. He had always realized that his plan for low grade milling could not be profitable as a business if all of young Percy's time required for the packing was reckoned in as expense. "But don't ye be thinkin' Pete didn't know what he was doin'. He was thinkin' of savin' Percy's soul at the very thing Diehl seized upon to be damm'n' it." Young Perc, it seemed, strong though he was, had no love for hard physical work. His clearing of that difficult trail seemed to belie such a statement, it was true. But it was Diehl who must be given credit for seeing that brought to accomplishment. There were just two occupations that Percy Slack really enjoyed. One was travelling around in the hills by himself. The other, by contrast, was hanging around being sociable where folks had nothing to do but talk.
It had to be acknowledged that Peter, the father, had had much the same tastes and disposition in his youth. And it was the second one that had proved a curse to him, above all in a mining camp. For, in such places, sociability is sure to have drinking going along with it. So Peter, the father, had thought that if he could only keep the boy Percy steadily busy with the packing through the hills, he might save his son from going the way he himself had once gone; namely, to the point of becoming "the helpless slave o' demon rum as a result o' too much minin' camp sociabil— "
"Ye dirthy blasted he-divil o' a varmint—" Once again without warning came the shift in Tim's tone and language. This time Strike was attempting to take advantage of a stretch of deep, softly-inviting dust as a place for reclining.
The refuge shack came into sight at last. Vic left the burro to Tim's care, and darted around the cabin on foot, exclaiming, "The shack's open. There are people inside."
Eric, who could not have been there many minutes himself, met her in the doorway. He drew her inside. Three other people were already there. The G-man and Hosmer had evidently forced an entrance, torn the barricading papers from the windows to let in the daylight, and were now busy making an inspection tour of the place. Dr. Weldon was following after them. "Found anything?" Vic heard him inquire.
"Nothing to speak of," Hosmer replied without turning his head. "Certainly nothing as satisfactory as the letter Stuart found the night he and Vic took shelter here."
Back on Hurricane
THE light in the cliff-sheltered shack was none too good in the late afternoon. Vic paused to adjust her vision. The situation was too clear to her to require explanation. Hal Gray and Hosmer had deposited their prisoners in the Chandler jail, and hurried back up here in the old Dodge sedan to give the place a rapid going-over before nightfall.
The inside of the shack looked both familiar and different. The same crude furnishings were there, but every movable piece had been shifted to a new position, and two new pieces had been added. One was a cot at the room's farther end. Not far from it a crude table had been built against the rear wall. It was a facsimile of the one Vic had discovered in the men's cabin in the Basin and later put to use. The articles upon it showed that this one had been used for the same purpose as the other.
Tim had followed the girl into the shack, pausing beside her to indicate the cot. It was for Percy to sleep on, he said. Percy and Frederick Diehl, Tim continued, had begun to live in the shack very soon after Hosmer Leeds and Dr. Weldon had disappeared from this section of the country. Need for hurry had made Frederick Diehl decide to take the risks of steady hauling from the rich dumps of the old Hurricane mine. He had known their richness for some time, but he had been keeping them in reserve until he had a safe hold on them. He had been sure that the future was going to give him such a hold. This was a lonely spot where outsiders did not often come. Had that snake, Diehl, been caught at work up here by unprotected visitors, it was not pleasant to think of how poisonous his bite might have been. Mighty lucky – Tim uttered this opinion with a sage shake of his head – that Vic and that pretty sister of hers had not happened to take another pleasure jaunt up this way while their men folks were out of the locality.
Could Frederick Diehl have possibly known, Vic found herself wondering, that she had been forbidden to ride out of the Basin? At least he could have known how completely absorbed she had become in what she was doing on the Ridge. Other realizations, too, struck her with sudden force. Living in that shack, Frederick Diehl had easily found opportunity to prowl down in the Basin at night, or to send Percy Slack to do it. Such behavior would explain many mysterious things: the disappearance during the night of those first bits of sample she had cut; the face at the window during the evening of her final assay; the jumping of her claim the next day; the attempt at filing by a not sufficiently informed Percy Slack. Had he been sent out to file in such a hurry by Frederick Diehl that he had failed to grasp or retain the full details he needed? Why, if he were filing for Frederick Diehl, did he do it in his own name, then later try to change the name to that of the Hurricane Mining Company? Had he and Frederick Diehl had some partnership understanding about the matter? Had it been Frederick Diehl who demanded the change of name? After all, Percy had filed first as P. Slack, not using his full name. Could that have been an act of astuteness? For P. Slack was his father's signature as well as his own. And his father was an honest man. Perhaps Percy was a loyal enough son to have been trying, by such a recording, to protect his father's welfare in the uncertain future.
There would probably never be definite answers to such questions. Nor did Vic's mind dwell long on them now. She moved nearer the men to listen to their talk. Both Eric and Tim had now joined the others. "So you couldn't get them to talk on the way to Chandler?" Eric was saying.
"Not Diehl. Too shrewd. Did a pretty good job of maintaining his pose of silent, cynical contempt. Young Slack's a bird of a different color – rather simple. Once away from Diehl, he found relief in talk. Mostly babble, pretty confused. A lot about Diehl taking only what was rightfully his in those Hurricane dumps. A lot of mumble, too, about the old Hurricane Mining Company. Something about its having been known a long time ago that there was some promising prospect down in the Basin somewhere. Our guess is that at first, anyway, Diehl thought it was Greenhorns' Folly. That would explain his being down there, with an assay outfit set up in the men's bunk house, the day he happened to spy the girls. Their appearance sure ran him out of the Basin in a hurry. He knew well enough he had no legitimate pretext for claiming any property close to the cabins."
"Where was he the night Vic and I found the dying woman in this shack? Anybody learn?"
"Yes. He'd gone off to another mining camp, some distance away, where the season opens earlier. Probably he was on legitimate business there as a buyer. After all, he had to give some time to that – couldn't afford to risk severing that connection."
"But he'd installed the Tobin woman here before he left?"
"Undoubtedly. With the idea of strengthening her claim when the time came, by some residence clause – or renewed squatter's rights. A disreputable lawyer was in the set-up, of course, working for his share of the loot if he succeeded in putting over the Diehl claims in court."
"What on earth are you men talking about?" Vic broke in at this point. The men were too deep in their own conversation to heed her. With mounting impatience she continued to listen.
"Might have succeeded in working it, too, in the end, with nobody ever wanting the property enough to pay up the back taxes all these years. Wonder how near Diehl came to collecting enough to pay those taxes? He certainly was in a heck of a rush here lately to accumulate what he had to have."
"No wonder – with the government withdrawing all old abandoned mine sites from the tax sale lists, and setting men like you and Hos to work investigating them for possible strategic metal deposits."
"And Diehl, the assayer, knowing full well there was plenty of just that in these huge old Hurricane dumps. He probably believes there's a lot more in the deep underground levels of the mine itself."
"So it's not surprisin' the dirthy rat was disperate for the moment when he could safely be struttin' his claims."
Vic had maintained polite silence as long as she possibly could.
"Claims!" she exploded in exasperation. "It's about time you told me what you mean by using that word over and over in connection with Frederick Diehl. What possible claims could he have on the old Hurricane property when it never in its history had any private owner except Hiram Tobin?"
Silence fell upon the group following her outburst. Over the face of one man after another passed expressions of surprise and guilt, the result of sudden realization of her ignorance. Dr. Weldon nodded at Eric. "Tell her, lad," he said apologetically. "You've always claimed it was unfair not to have done it from the first."
Eric's response was eager. He put his arm through Vic's to draw her close into the inner circle of men. "You see, Vic, it's this way," he began. "Diehl claims that he has a tentative right to all old Hurricane holdings by inheritance; that is, once he had accumulated enough money to settle for all back taxes, the property would be legally his. He knew, though, that to establish such a claim, he'd have to act in a hurry. So to get the necessary funds he threw overboard every trace of honor and patriotism he might once have had. He sold for illegally high prices all the tungsten concentrate he could scrape together, whether by fair means or foul. It's just possible that had he been able to make full tax payment early enough with honest money, a lenient court might have recognized his rights. But as things are, he hasn't a leg to stand on. You see, he's been buying up stolen ore through contacts Percy Slack got for him, and selling stolen concentrate to traitors and smugglers. I've already told you a little about them."
"But I still don't understand," Vic groped. "Inheritance? What inheritance claims could Frederick Diehl have to old Hiram Tobin's property?"
"Through his wife, Vic. He is her only heir, as she was her father's. The woman you and I found dying in this very shack last spring was Hildegarde Tobin. I told you that as soon as I learned it myself. The rest I couldn't tell you then. I had given my word not to tell anyone until Frederick Diehl was safely bagged. Because, you see, Hildegarde Tobin was Frederick Diehl's wife. He had brought her out here early, well ahead of the mining season, and established her in this cabin to strengthen her inheritance claims. Perhaps, too, they wanted to be on the spot first in case some other investigator of old Hurricane's present possibilities showed up. Then, after he had gone off on his own business, thinking her temporarily provided for – probably by food and wood he pilfered on snowshoes from our Basin cabin supplies – she took cold. And then that awful blizzard struck—You know the rest, better than any of us."
Through Vic's memory flitted the way Frederick Diehl, at the time of her first meeting with him, had listened to her account of finding Hildegarde Tobin dying. "He really cared for her, too, I think," she murmured, "as well as a person like him could care for anybody except himself." Presently she added, as her glance swept over the faces of the surrounding men, "And you all knew long ago that Frederick Diehl was that woman's husband? You didn't know at first that she was Hildegarde Tobin? You had to search and investigate a lot to learn that fact? But you did know she was Mrs. Frederick Diehl? How did you know it?"
"From the letter I unearthed the night we found her, Vic," a contrite Eric continued. "You remember my giving it, unopened, to Dr. Weldon, don't you? He delivered it, still unopened, to the authorities in Chandler. They opened it at once and showed it to us. It was only a few lines addressed to some lawyer in the East, stating that she had arrived on her property without anyone in the surrounding country suspecting she was there, and would continue to live in that shack. It was signed, Mrs. Frederick Diehl. As soon as the district attorney saw that signature, he swore us all to secrecy until, as he put it, there could be a thorough investigation of the entire situation. The investigation, once begun, led into bypaths nobody suspected at the beginning. We were soon following up a lot of other crooks besides Diehl, both little and big. I've already told you something about that."
Dr. Weldon took up the explanation as Eric paused. "Very likely the woman meant to give the letter to her husband at his next visit, so that he could carry it to some distant town to mail. You see, Vic, Diehl had already showed himself in this locality, making his headquarters in Chandler, but nobody suspected he had a wife nearby. He had, however, already aroused some local gossip, even a little suspicion; partly because he had arrived and been nosing about before the season was well enough advanced for any real mining to begin, and partly because of the polished, dressy type he was, so different from our Western mining men. Diehl knew his wife's whereabouts, of course. As soon as the announcement was made public – so the Chandler authorities figured – that a woman had died in an old shack on Hurricane, he would appear at once to acknowledge and claim her. Also to explain how she happened to be there. But he didn't appear. He made not the slightest move to claim her. You can easily imagine the effect of that on the legal authorities. The whole situation had to be completely investigated. It was perfectly evident from his behavior that Diehl, himself, had no suspicion of that letter's existence. It was only wisdom, then, that secrecy in regard to its existence be rigidly maintained until the exact reasons for his behavior had been discovered."
"Secret even from me who had helped to find the woman," Vic murmured, with a wry little smile. "Was that because you couldn't trust me?"
"No, lass, it was never lack of trust in you. We all knew how true blue you are to any trust. But in the first place, we had no idea then that Mrs. Frederick Diehl was Hildegarde Tobin. It took considerable research to establish that fact. In the second place, ignorance on your part kept you out of unpleasant follow-up experiences, such as the inquest; at a time, too, when Imogene was desperately ill. Also, we were already planning to send you up here for the summer to work as a sort of look-out, or spy, for us. For the work you had to do, it was considerably safer for you not to know too much. And when it began to get too risky with the need for double-crossing and the like, we took it away from you and gave it to Leeds."
It was Hosmer's turn to intervene. "You see, Vic, by that time it was becoming a pretty dirty job, as spy work often is. It wasn't fit any longer for a girl like you. But for a fellow like me—As a mere kid I'd learned plenty about the badness and the baseness in the world. For years I'd been able to lie convincingly about my age, in order to get work to live – I knew, you see, how to be crooked well enough to smell out other crooks. I'm not proud of it. But when dirty work had to be done, I was the one to take on the smudge of doing it. It was certainly no job for a fine, high-minded girl like you."
Such a tribute coming from Hosmer Leeds brought a blush of deepening color to Vic's sunburned face.
Tim had manfully kept his active tongue out of the conversation just as long as he could. Now he burst forth, "The dirthy plague rat o' a Diehl, wi' a polish as thick as enamel laid all over the outside o' him. Ain't there in the man any makin's of human dacency – let alone a bit o' heart? To treat ary woman the loikes o' that, let alone one he was schemin' to get rich off of. Leavin' her to die alone an' unshriven. Then, after she was dead and gone, leavin' her be buried unbeknownst in a pauper's grave. I'm far from being a young sprig, an' I've known many a man in my life as hadn't no claim to bein' a saint. But niver have I known one who was such a sneakin' jackal as to do a thing loike that."
The circle around Vic had loosened out. The G-man had left it some time before to continue his probing of the shack. Now he had come back close enough to overhear Tim's remarks. His bright, brown eyes lighted with humor as he inserted quietly, "Since his arrest, the only crack in the shiny, slick enamel polish he's got all over the outside of him, as you put it, Tim, came at mention of his wife. He claimed his failure to acknowledge her was only temporary. That as soon as he had acquired the money to assert his claims, he would have acknowledged her and given her a proper burial."
"'Tis the haunt drove him to it, I'm bettin'. Afther takin' up his residence in this here shack. Criminals is superstitious birds. 'Tis the guilt makes 'em. Small wonder he was puttin' off diggin' into these dumps until the hurry of him got desperate. He sensed well enough her spirit would be afther him for his treatment of her."
They were filing outside the shack by this time. While Eric went for the horses, the others stood in the dying daylight, watching the growing shadows settle down over the lower slopes and peaks. Vic and Eric were to return immediately to the Basin. It was not fair to keep Mrs. Weldon and Imogene any longer in ignorance of all that had been happening. The others had decided to stay on with Hal Gray, examining dumps and old mine quarters as long as it was possible to see anything at all. Tim's chatter was still flowing indefatigably when Eric returned with Ichabod and Bean in lead. "We amatoors is off the snoopin' at last, an' the saints be praised fer it. We've done it to the best o 'our ability, it bein' our duty to our beloved country as needed us to help ferret its treacherous sons and its blasted enemies out of their burrows. But now 'tis with thankfulness in our hearts we can be goin' back to jobs in the open, as is much more to our likin'. First, though, 'tis only fair to be acknowledgin' out loud it was Mister Hosmer Leeds as was the king-pin of all us amatoors."
"I don't agree with you," Hosmer was quick to assert. "What set us all to following the right tracks in the first place were some clues Vic unearthed for us at the beginning."
Eric cast one quick inquiring glance toward Vic, and at an answering nod from her, he burst forth, "I'll have you all know that Vic's done a heck of a lot more than just that. When the rest of you shoved her completely out of her first summer job, she turned to another one. The result is she's got a positive contribution to make to present day needs that makes anything the rest of us could do look small."
"That shure ain't no lie," Tim exploded with a big out-blowing of breath. "And the relief of gettin' that spoke right out is somethin' I'm mighty thankful for this minute."
Meanwhile Dr. Weldon was sharply inquiring,"What?"
Eric told about her discovery in detail and with an enthusiasm beyond anything he had shown to Vic herself. The result was all either he or she could have hoped for. The one skeptical note, expressed in Dr. Weldon's query, "In a yellow pine forest?" Eric promptly and conclusively silenced, finishing with, "And Frederick Diehl, the scheming crook, was the only one of us smart enough to realize what Vic was up to. Tried to jump her claim by sending young Slack off to file for it. In such a hurry, too, that Slack got all balled up on the job. It's just possible, though, that Percy Slack slipped the way he did on recording because he wasn't quite mean enough to put over Diehl's thievery on a girl like Vic. The fellow can't be without some little trace of his father in him."
Vic, who was holding Ichabod's reins, swung up into the horned saddle. Eric followed suit on Bean, inviting meanwhile, "Tonight after you're all back in the Basin, we'll have a sort of party up on Hurricane Ridge. Show you what Vic's got."
Vic tapped Ichabod's flank lightly with her heel to start him ahead toward the down-going slope. She flashed a farewell smile of full comradeship at Hosmer as she did so, saying, "I'll tell Imogene you'll be seeing her in the Basin very soon now."
Eric, too, had a parting message to deliver. He turned half around in his saddle to call back, "Tomorrow, Vic and I are going to fly out of the Basin and get everything about her mine settled just the way she wants it. And when we come back, she'll have a 'real job' as a mining engineer at last. One she earned all by herself."
Vic, overhearing the words, was struck with a surprising realization. A "real job" as a mining engineer no longer seemed nearly as important to her as it had before Eric arrived in the Basin.
Early the next morning Imogene, Hosmer, and Dr. and Mrs. Weldon watched Eric and Vic take off in the Mountain Gull. The trim, seven-hundred pound plane taxied along the runway and lifted slowly into the air. Higher and higher it went, circling the Basin several times to gain altitude. Soon it soared out over the heights above the ski slopes of the Basin's lower, wider end.
Vic turned her head for a last backward look toward the diminishing figures standing beyond the cabin. Hosmer and Imogene were well in front of the others, holding hands, Vic thought, although she could no longer actually see them clearly. She had not needed the last hurried whisper from Imogene to understand the meaning of the light glowing so deeply in her sister's big, dark eyes. It was the radiance reflected from the same kind of happiness that she herself had been living in since the night of Eric's first inspection trip to the site of her claim. Vic felt no tinge of resentment now that it was Hosmer Leeds who had brought to her beloved sister such glowing happiness. She was only deeply glad.
Behind the young people stood the married pair, wedded for more than a quarter of a century. When Vic had last waved to them, they had been looking serene and benign, Dr. Weldon standing with his arm linked in his wife's, both of them content in their foster children's happiness.
Eric, at Vic's side, was relaxing at last into an easy guiding, and was speaking to her. "Maybe," he was saying, "before long we'll be making a real home of the cabin." His words were no romantic whisper. They were the half shout they had to be to make themselves heard above the noise of the engine. "That is, if we both get real on-the-spot jobs in the development of—" He paused, to finish rather lamely, "your mine."
Vic read the reluctance behind the hesitation. "You don't like the name I gave it, do you? After father, you know. You have never once called it the Tyrrell."
"It's just that I believe that, like me, your father would prefer to have it called the Victoria."
Vic knew he was right. Then inspiration came to her. "No," she affirmed. "Not the Victoria. The Victory! Because that's the one thing it's to be developed for."
This time they both knew she was right.