From: The Man From The Bitter Roots
Smaltz was a liar, as he said, but Bruce knew that he had told the truth
regarding Banule's work. He confirmed the suspicions and fears that had
been in Bruce's mind for months. Therefore, when he said quietly to
Banule--"You'd better go up the hill!" there was that in his voice and
eyes which made that person take his departure with only a little less
celerity than Smaltz had taken his.
It remained for Bruce to gather up Banule's scattered tools, drain the
pumps, and nail the pump-house door. When he closed the head gate and
turned the water back into Big Squaw Creek, removed the belting from the
pulleys in the power-house and shut the place up tight, he felt that it
was much like making arrangements for his own funeral.
At last everything was done and Porcupine Jim, who had stayed on a day
or so to help, was waiting for Bruce to finish his letter to Helen
Dunbar so he could take it up the hill. Jim sat by the kitchen stove
whistling dismally through his teeth while Bruce groped for words in
which to break the news of his complete failure.
If only he could truthfully hold out some hope! But there was not the
slightest that he could see. Harrah was out of it. The stockholders had
lost both confidence and interest in him and his proposition and would
sell out, as they had notified him they would do if the season's work
was a failure--and consider themselves lucky to have the chance. It was
a foregone conclusion that Sprudell would shortly own the controlling
There was nothing for it but the blunt truth so Bruce wrote:
Sprudell boasted that he would down me and he has. Villainy,
incompetency and carelessness have been too strong a combination
for my inexperience to beat.
I've failed. I'm broke. I've spent $40,000 and have nothing to
show for it but a burned-out plant of an obsolete type.
You can't imagine how it hurts to write these words. The
disappointment and humiliation of it passes belief. No one who
has not been through an experience like it could ever, even
I grow hot and cold with shame when I look back now and see my
mistakes. They are so plain that it makes me feel a fool--an
ignorant, conceited, inexperienced fool. I've learned many
lessons, but at what a price!
You'll see from the enclosed paper what I was up against. But it
does not excuse me, not in the least. Thinking myself just, I
was merely weak. A confiding confidence in one's fellowman is
very beautiful in theory but there's nothing makes him more
ridiculous when it's taken advantage of. When I recall the
suspicious happenings that should have warned me from Jenning's
incompetency to Smaltz's villainy I have no words in which to
express my mortification. The stockholders cannot condemn me
more severely for my failure than I condemn myself.
You are the beginning and end of everything with me. All my
hopes, my ambitions, my life itself have come to centre in you.
It was the thought that it was for you that kept me going when I
have been so tired doing two men's work that I could scarcely
drag one foot after the other. It made me take risks I might
otherwise never have dared to take. It kept me plodding on when
one failure after another smashed me in the face so fast that I
could not see for the blackness.
I never dreamed that love was like this--that it was such a
spur--such an incentive--or that it could add so to the
bitterness of failure. For I do love you, Helen; I see now that
I have loved you from the time I saw you with Sprudell--further
back than that, from the time I shook your picture out of that
I'm telling you this so you'll know why my tongue ran away with
my judgment when I talked so much to you of my plans and
expectations, hoping that in spite of the great disappointment
my failure will be to you, it will make you a little more
I have failed so completely that I don't even dare ask you if
you care the least bit for me. It's presumptuous to suggest it--
it seems like presuming because you have been kind. But even if
such a miracle could be, I have nothing to offer you. I don't
mean to quit but it may be years before I get again the chance
that I had down here.
I love you, Helen, truly, completely: I am sure there will never
be any one else for me. If only for this reason won't you write
to me sometimes, for your letters will mean so much in the days
that are ahead of me.
When he had finished, Bruce gave Jim the letter and paid him off with
the check that took the last of his balance in the bank.
From the doorway of the shack he watched the Swede climb the hill,
following him with his eyes until he had rounded the last point before
the zig-zag trail disappeared into the timber on the ridge. A pall of
awful loneliness seemed to settle over the canyon as the figure passed
from sight and as Bruce turned inside he wondered which was going to be
the worst--the days or nights. His footsteps sounded hollow when he
walked across the still room. He stopped in the centre and looked at the
ashes overflowing the hearth of the greasy range, at the unwashed
frying-pan on the dirty floor, at the remains of Jim's lunch that
littered the shabby oilcloth on the table. A black wave of despair
swept over him. This was for him instead of cleanliness, comfort,
brightness, friendly people--and Helen Dunbar. This squalor, this bare
loneliness, was the harsh penalty of failure. He put his hand to his
throat and rubbed it for it ached with the sudden contraction of the
muscles, but he made no sound.
* * * * *
One of the pictures with which Bruce tortured himself was Helen's
disappointment when she should read his letter. He imagined the
animation fading from her face, the tears rising slowly to her eyes. Her
letters had shown how much she was counting on what he had led her to
expect, for she had written him of her plans; so the collapse of her
air-castles could not be other than a blow.
And he was right. The blunt news was a blow. In one swift picture
Helen saw herself trudging drearily along the dull, narrow road of
genteel poverty to the end of her days, sacrificing every taste, and
impulse, and instinct to the necessity of living, for more and more as
she thought her freedom closer the restrictions of economic slavery
But as she read on, her face grew radiant and when she raised the letter
impulsively to her lips her eyes were luminous with happiness. He loved
her--he had told her so--that fact was paramount. It overshadowed
everything else, even her disappointment. The conditions against which
she rebelled so fiercely suddenly shrank to small importance. It was
extraordinary how half-a-dozen sentences should change the world! She
was so incredibly happy that she could have cried.
In her eagerness, she had read the first of Bruce's letter hastily so
she had not grasped the full significance of what he had written of the
part in his failure that Sprudell had played. It was not until she read
it again together with Smaltz's confession, that it came to her clearly.
When it did she was dumfounded by the extent of Sprudell's villainy, his
audacity, the length to which his mania for revenge would take him. It
was like a plot in one of his own preposterous melodramas!
And was he to be allowed to get away with it? Were his plans to work out
without a hitch? she asked herself furiously. She realized that Bruce's
hands were tied, that the complete exhaustion of his resources left him
She sat at her desk for a long time, mechanically drawing little designs
upon a blotter. Wild impulses, impractical plans, followed each other in
quick succession. They crystallized finally into a definite resolve, and
her lips set in a line of determination.
"I don't know how much or how little I can do, but, T. Victor Sprudell,"
Helen clenched a small fist and shook it in the direction in which she
imagined Bartlesville lay, "I'm going to fight!"
If much of Helen's work was uncongenial it at least had the merit of
developing useful traits. It had given her confidence, resourcefulness,
persistency and when she was aroused, as now, these qualities were of
the sort most apt to furnish the exultant Sprudell with a disagreeable
* * * * *
It was not such a difficult matter as Helen had thought to get from the
investors a thirty days' option upon their stock. In the first place
they were frankly amused and interested by her request; and, in the
second, while Sprudell had succeeded in shaking their confidence in
Bruce he had not inspired any liking for himself. Besides, he had not
been able to conceal his eagerness and they felt that his offer would
keep. It was unusual and quite outside their experiences, but in these
days of women architects, legislators, financiers, who could tell where
the sex would turn up next? So at a meeting of the stockholders it was
agreed that it would do no harm to "give the girl a chance" though they
made no secret of the fact that they had little expectation that she
would be able to take up the option.
When it was secure and she had obtained leave of absence from the
office, Helen felt that the hardest part of the task she had assigned
herself was done. To acquaint Bruce's father with Sprudell's plot and
enlist him on Bruce's side seemed altogether the easiest part of her
plan. She had no notion that she was the brilliant lady-journalist to
whom the diplomat, the recluse, the stern and rock-bound capitalist,
give up the secrets of their souls, but she did have an assured feeling
that with the arguments she had to offer she could manage Bruce's "Dad."
Therefore on the monotonous journey west her nerves relaxed and with a
comfortable feeling of security she rehearsed her case as she meant to
present it, which was to conclude with an eloquent plea for help. It
seemed to her that in spite of the years of estrangement it would be the
most natural thing in the world for Burt, when he heard all the facts,
to rush to the rescue of his son. Of the result she really entertained
But she was reckoning without John Burt. Reasoning that would apply to
nearly any other man did not at all fit Bruce's father. Helen had the
sensation of having run at full speed against a stone wall when Burt
came toward her slowly, leading his saddle-horse through one of the
corrals near the unpretentious ranch-house, which she had reached after
a long drive.
The amenities to which she was accustomed were not, as the phrase is,
John Burt's long suit. He did not raise his hat, extend a hand, or
evince the slightest interest by any lighting of the eye. With his arm
thrown across his saddle he waited for her to begin, to state her
business and be gone.
The broad backs of ten thousand cattle glistened in the sun as they fed
inside the John Burt ranch, but owing to his seedy appearance their
owner was frequently mistaken for his own hired man. Self-centred, of
narrow views, strong prejudices, saving to penuriousness, whatever there
was of sentiment, or warm human impulse, in his nature, seemed to have
been buried with Bruce's mother. He had not re-married, but this was the
only outward evidence by which any one could know that the memory of
"his Annie" was as green as the day she died. He never spoke of her nor
of his son, and Burt's life seemed to have for its aim the piling up of
dollars faster than his neighbors.
Helen grasped something of his character in her swift appraisement. As
she returned his impersonal gaze she realized that to him she was simply
a female--a person in petticoats who was going to take up his time and
bore him until he could get rid of her. She was not accustomed to a
reception of this kind; it disconcerted her, but chiefly the magnitude
of her task loomed before her.
The sudden, unexpected fear of failure threw her into a panic. The
feeling which came upon her was like stage-fright. In the first awkward
moment she could scarcely remember why she had come, much less what she
had intended to say. But he was too indifferent to notice her confusion
and this helped her somewhat to recover her presence of mind.
When she mentioned the distance she had travelled to see him he was
entirely unimpressed and it was not until she mentioned Bruce's name
that he appeared to realize that she was not an agent trying to sell him
a book. Then Helen saw in his eyes his mental start;--the look of
resignation vanished and his black brows, so like Bruce's, contracted in
"He's alive then," Burt's voice was hard.
"I've come to see you on his behalf."
"Oh, he's in trouble." His voice had an acid edge. "He wants me to help
"In trouble--yes--but I'm not sure he'd forgive me if he knew I had
"Still sore, is he?" His features stiffened.
"Not sore," Helen pleaded, "but--proud."
"Stubborn"--curtly--"mulish. But why should you come to me?"
"Why shouldn't I? You're his father and he needs a helping hand just now
more perhaps than he ever will again."
"Being his father is no reason, that I can see. He's never written me a
"And you've never tried to find him," Helen retorted.
"He had a good home and he ran away. He was fourteen--old enough to know
what he was doing."
"Fourteen!" repeated Helen scornfully throwing diplomacy to the winds at
his criticism of Bruce, "Fourteen!--and you judged him as though he
were a man of your own age and experience!"
"I made $20 a month and my board when I was fourteen."
"That doesn't prove anything except a difference in ambition. You wanted
the $20 a month and Bruce wanted an education."
"He owed me some respect." Burt declared obstinately. At the moment he
and Bruce looked marvellously alike.
"And don't you think you owed him anything?" Helen's cheeks were
flaming. The last thing she had expected was to quarrel with Bruce's
father, but since she was in it she meant to stand her ground. She had
made a muddle of it she felt, and her chances of success were slim
indeed. "Don't you think a child is entitled to the best chance for
happiness and success that his parents can give him? All Bruce asked was
an education--the weapon that every child has a right to, to enable him
to fight his own battles. I had the best education my parents could
afford and at that I'm not bowed down with gratitude for the privilege
of struggling merely to exist."
She expected him to reply with equal heat but instead he ignored her
argument and with a return to his former manner as though his flare-up
of interest had passed, asked indifferently:
"What's he done?"
"Nothing to be ashamed of," Helen answered vigorously, "and everything
to be proud of. He's put up a plucky fight but the odds are too strong
against him and he's going to lose unless you come to the
Burt combed the horse's mane with his fingers.
"What's he in--what's he doing?" There was no personal interest in the
Helen hesitated for a second, knowing instinctively the effect her
answer would have upon him--then she replied with a touch of defiance:
"Minin'!" His tone was full of disgust, much as though she had said
gambling or burglary. "I might have known it would be some fool thing
like that. No, ma'am," harshly, "by writin' first you might have saved
yourself the trip for not a dollar of my money ever has or ever will go
into any minin' scheme. I don't speculate."
"But Mr. Burt--" Helen began pleadingly. She had a panicky feeling that
she was going to cry.
"It's no use arguin'," he interrupted. "He can't get me into any
wild-cat minin' scheme--"
"It isn't a wild-cat mining scheme," Helen defended hotly.
Burt went on--
"If he wants to come home and help me with the cattle and behave himself
now that he's fooled away his time and failed--"
"But he hasn't failed." Helen insisted with eager impatience. "He won't
"Well he's hard up--he wants money----" Burt spoke as though the fact
were a crime.
"A good many men have been 'hard up' and needed money before they
succeeded," Helen pleaded. "Surely you know that crises come in nearly
every undertaking where there isn't unlimited capital, obstacles and
combinations of circumstances that no one can forsee. And if you knew
what Bruce has had to fight----"
Helen had expected of course to tell Bruce's father of the placer
properties and his efforts to develop them. She had thought he would
have a father's natural pride in what Bruce had accomplished in the face
of dangers and difficulties. She had intended to tell him of Sprudell,
to show him Smaltz's confession, and the options which would defeat
Sprudell's plotting, but in the face of his narrow obstinacy, his deep
prejudices, she felt the futility of words or argument. She had not for
a moment counted upon such opposition; now she felt helpless, impotent
before this armor of hardness.
"I don't care what he's had to fight. I'd just as soon put my money in
the stove as put it in a mining scheme. There's two things I never do,
young lady, and that's speculate and go on people's notes."
"But, Mr. Burt," she begged hopelessly, "If you'd only make an
exception--just this once. Go to him--see for yourself that all he needs
is a helping hand across this one hard place."
"I got on without any helping hands. Nobody saw me across hard places.
I've told you the only way that he can expect to get anything from me."
"Then it's useless, quite, quite useless for me to say any more?" Helen
was struggling hard to keep her voice steady to the end. "No matter what
the circumstances may be you refuse to do anything for Bruce?"
"That's the size of it--unless he comes back. There's plenty for him to
do here." His tone was implacable and he was waiting with a stolid
patience for her to go.
"I'm sorry if I've bored you and I shan't inflict you any more. Please
remember that Bruce knew nothing of my coming. I came upon my own
responsibility. But his success meant so much to him--to me that I--that
I----" she choked and turned away abruptly. She dared not even say
Burt remained standing by his horse looking after her straight, slender
figure as she walked toward the gate. His face was still sphinx-like but
there was a speculative look in his shrewd eyes. Bruce's success "meant
so much to her," did it? That, then, was why she had come. The distance
she had travelled for the purpose of seeing him had not impressed him in
the least before.
Helen was halfway to the gate when she stopped to replace the rubber
that stuck in the muddy corral and slipped from her heel. Her chin was
quivering, her sensitive lips drooped and, feeling that Burt was looking
at her, she raised her eyes to his. They were brimming full of tears.
She looked for all the world like a sorrowful, disappointed, woe-begone
little girl of not more than ten or twelve.
The unconscious pathos of some look or pose grips the heart harder than
any spoken word and so it was that this unstudied trick of expression
found the vulnerable spot in Burt's armor--the spot which might have
remained impervious indefinitely to any plea. It went straight to his
one weakness, his single point of susceptibility, and that was his
unsuspected but excessive fondness for little girls.
The distinct picture that was firmly fixed in his unimaginative mind
before Bruce was born was still there; the picture of that little girl
with flaxen hair that had blue ribbons in it, with a laughing mouth that
had tiny sharp teeth like pearls, and who was to come dancing to meet
him with her arms outstretched each time that he rode into the yard.
That the dream was never realized was one of the real disappointments of
Burt's life. Inexplicably he saw that little girl again as he looked at
Helen's upturned face with its quivering chin and swimming, reproachful
John Burt had a queer feeling of something wilting, crumbling inside of
him, something hard and cold giving way around his heart. He could not
have explained it, it was not his way to try, but he took an impulsive
step toward her and called out:
"Wait a minute! Go on in the house till I put up my horse, I'll hear
what you have to say."
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