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- The Desert Valley - 30/46 -
have a thing to do with it if they returned it to me.'
'But, papa,' cried Helen hotly, 'just think! They have stolen it from us, they have tried to murder----'
'My dear,' cut in Longstreet sternly, 'I trust that you will say nothing further about it. I have made up my mind; I am a man of the world and an older and cooler mind than you. Leave this to me.'
Howard heard her deep breath, slowly drawn, slowly expelled, and saw her face looking white and tense; he knew that her teeth were set, that her heart was filled with rebellion. But she made no answer, knowing the futility of mere words to move her father in his present mood. Instead, she turned away from him and looked out across the gulch along both banks of which the fires were now raging. Nor did she turn again while Monte and True were placed in the saddles which were to carry them to the camp.
'A moment, Mr. Longstreet,' said Howard, as they were starting. 'Am I to understand that you absolutely refuse to make a fight for your own rights?'
'In this particular instance, absolutely!' said Longstreet emphatically.
'Then,' pursued Howard, 'I have a suggestion to make. We are all friends here: suppose that each one of us stakes out a claim just adjoining the ones you have lost. Certainly they might have some value.'
But Longstreet shook his head impatiently.
'I am through with the whole mess,' he declared, waving his hands. 'I won't have a thing to do with it, and I won't allow Helen to touch it. Further, the other claims would have no value in my eyes; the spot that has been stolen from me is the only spot in the gulch that I would give a dollar for. Come on, Helen.'
'We'll follow you,' said Helen quietly.
The others moved away. John Carr, who had not spoken since his first words, stood hesitatingly looking at the two figures silhouetted against the fire. Then he too moved away, going with the others and in silence.
'Tell me about it,' said Helen. She dropped down and sat with her chin in her hands, her eyes moody upon the rushing flames. 'Just what happened.'
He sat by her and told her. His heart was still filled with his bitterness and his voice told the fact. Presently she withdrew her gaze from the gulch and turned it upon him; she had never seen him so relentlessly stern. Almost he frightened her. Then she noticed again the stain upon his shoulder and this time insisted upon helping him make a bandage. With his knife she slit the shirt sleeve; together they got a handkerchief bound about the wound. It was not deep nor was it in any way dangerous, but Helen winced and paled before the job was done. Then their eyes met and clung together and for a little while they were silent, and gradually the colour came back into the girl's cheeks.
'Are you tired?' he asked presently. 'Or hungry? If not, and you care to sit here with me for an hour or two, maybe a little more, I can promise to show you a sight you will never forget.'
'What is it?' she asked curiously, wondering if he meant a moonrise over the far desert mountains.
'It is the birth of a mining camp. For there will be one here before morning.'
'Surely not so soon? Who will know?'
'Who?' he grunted disgustedly. 'Everybody! Down in San Ramon Pony Lee knows; at the court-house it is known. Men give tips to their friends. Courtot's crowd knows. Out here my men know; Carr and Barbee know. Already there are a hundred men, maybe several times a hundred, who know. And you may be sure that already they are coming like a train of ants. Once gold has been uncovered the secret is out. Pony Lee swears the desert winds carry the news.'
Howard was entirely correct in his surmise, saving in the time he judged they must wait. Less than an hour had passed and the grass fire was still spreading with a fierce crackling sound and myriad sparks, when the vanguard of the gold-seekers came. Helen and Howard heard horses' hoofs, rattling stones, impatient voices, and withdrew a hundred yards from the gulch and into the shadows of a ring of boulders.
With the first came Bettins. His voice was the loudest, coming now and then distinctly; he employed the name of Howard and cursed it; he said something about his 'pals' Devine and True. A man to whom he was talking laughed at him. Thereafter half a dozen forms swarmed down into the gulch; the fire on either side of them was dying out along the gulch's edge; they cursed its heat when it offended them, took advantage of its light at all times, and more like ants than ever appeared to be running back and forth foolishly and aimlessly. But, apparently, Bettins got his stakes and his friends' back and the men with whom he had returned hastily staked out their own claims, all feverishly and by crude guesswork. There was perhaps not a man among them who knew the first thing about mining. Helen watched them in sheer fascination. Down there half in light, half in shadow, darting this way and that, they were like little gnomes playing some wild game of their own.
'They act like madmen,' she whispered. 'They run about as if everything had to be done in a minute.'
'Between them the crowd down there don't own, I'd say, fifty dollars. Each one is figuring that he has his chance to be a millionaire to-morrow. And they know that more men are coming. That's the way men think when they're in the gold rush. Look, there come some more!'
This time there were three men. They broke into a run when they heard voices; perhaps they had hoped to be first. Down into the bed of the gulch they plunged; one of them slipped and rolled and cursed; men laughed, and with the laughter dying in their throats broke off to yell a warning to some one to keep his feet off a claim already staked out. Within an hour after the return of Bettins there were a score of men on the spot; again and again rose sharp words as every man, alert to protect his own interests, was ready for a quarrel. They dragged stones to mark their boundaries; they cut and hammered stakes, they left their chosen sites now and then and altered their first judgments and restaked somewhere else. They swarmed up the banks of the gulch on both sides, they hastened back and forth, they staked everywhere. As the time passed more and more came plunging into the orgy of gold until at last the night was never quiet. Harsh words passed and once blows were struck and a man went down and lay still. Another time there was the report of a gun and a boom of many voices commanding order and that quarrels be taken to a safe distance and out of the way of busy men.
'It's dreadful,' whispered Helen. 'They're like wild animals.'
'It's just the gold fever,' he returned. 'Poor devils! they are drunk with their visions.'
But Helen wondered if they were capable of visions. Down in the shadow-filled sink they were to her imagination like so many swine plunging into a monster trough. When Alan suggested, 'We've seen, and now maybe we had better be going,' she rose without a word or backward glance and went with him. But Howard, looking over his shoulder, saw still other men coming. He himself began to wonder whence they had come: by now, it seemed to him, both Big Run and San Ramon must have emptied themselves like bags of wheat slashed with a knife.
They walked swiftly until the din of the gold-seekers was lost to their ears. Then slowly they strolled on, silence enwrapping them, Helen's eyes wandering away to the glory of the stars, Howard's contented with the girl's face. After a while Helen, feeling the intentness of his look, turned toward him with a strange little smile which came and went fleetingly. She stopped a moment, still looking at him.
'Your country has done something to me,' she said thoughtfully, 'even though I have been out here only a few weeks. For one thing, when I first came I thought that I knew all about men and that they were pretty much all alike. I am finding out that they are not at all alike and that I don't understand them.'
'No, they are not all alike, and some men are hard to make out, I suppose,' he said when she paused.
'Men are more violent than I thought men were nowadays,' she added. 'They are stronger; they are fiercer. I used to think that a girl was a wretched little coward to be afraid of any man. Now I would be afraid of many of them I have seen in this land that you like to call your country.'
He understood that in her brain had formed a vision of his fight with Devine and Ed True, and that, blurring that image, she was still seeing the picture of the dark forms rushing down into the gulch. She began to move on again, and he went at her side making no reply and communing with his own thoughts. She did not stop again until they came close to the canvas-walled cabin and saw the light shining wanly through and the shadows of the men inside. Then she lifted her face so that it was clear to him in the starlight and said to him slowly:
'I am going in and see if I can help with the wounded men now. I should have gone at first, I suppose. Maybe there is something I can do. You wouldn't want them to die, would you?'
'No,' he returned, 'I would not want them to die.'
In the silence which followed he could see that she was seeking to read his face and that she was very, very thoughtful.
'Tell me something,' she said abruptly. 'If one of them were Jim Courtot--would you want him to die?'
At the mention of Courtot's name she made out a quick hardening of his mouth; she even saw, or fancied, an angry gathering of his brows. To-night's work was largely the work of Jim Courtot, and because of it Dry Gulch, which might have poured great heaps of gold at Helen's feet, was being wrangled over by a hundred men. He thought of that and he thought of other things, of how Courtot had fired on him from the dark long ago, of how Courtot was hunting him after Courtot's own tenacious fashion.
'Why do you ask that?' he demanded sharply.
She did not reply. Instead she turned from him and looked at the stars. And then she withdrew her eyes and turned them toward the light gleaming palely through the walls of canvas. But at last she lifted
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