From: The Man From The Bitter Roots
Toy's disappearance was mysterious and complete. There was not a single
clue to show which way he had gone, or how, or why. Only one thing
seemed certain and that was that his departure was unpremeditated.
His potatoes were in a bucket of water, peeled and ready for dinner; the
bread he had set to raise was waiting to be kneaded; his pipe laid on
the window sill while his hoarded trinkets for the little Sun Loon were
still hidden under the pad of the bed in his tent. His fish-pole in its
usual place disposed of the theory that he had fallen in the river, and
although trained eyes followed every trail there was not a single
telltale track. He had vanished as though he had gone straight up.
His disappearance sobered the men. There was something uncanny about it;
they lowered their voices When they speculated and all their latent
superstition arose. Porcupine Jim declared that the place was "hoodooed"
and as evidence enumerated the many accidents and delays. Bruce himself
wondered if the malignant spirit of Slim was lingering on the river to
harry him as he had in life.
Smaltz was now in the power-house doing at last the specific work for
which he had been hired. To all Bruce's questions, he replied that the
machinery there was "doing fine." Down below, the pump-house motors were
far from satisfactory, sparking and heating in a way that Bruce, who did
not know the a, b, c's of electricity, could see was not right. While
the pumps and scrapers were working Banule dared not leave the motors
Then, after a couple of days' unsatisfactory work, the water dropped so
low in Big Squaw creek that there was only sufficient pressure to use
one scraper. Bruce discharged all the crew save Smaltz, Banule, and
Porcupine Jim, who labored in the kitchen--a living insult to the
Brotherhood of Cooks. While Bruce, by running back and forth between the
donkey-engine and the top sluice-box where the scraper dumped, managed
to do the work of two men ten hours a day.
His nerves were at a tension, for along with the strain of his
responsibilities was the constant fear of a serious break-down. Banule
made light of the sparking motors but the bearings were heating badly,
daily necessitating more frequent stops. When a grounded wire sent the
leaking current through the cable that pulled the scraper, and knocked
Bruce flat, he was not convinced by Banule's assurance that it "didn't
amount to much." It was all evidence to Bruce that fundamentally
something was wrong.
But in spite of the time lost the cut was deepening and the side walls
stood up so that every scraper that emptied into the sluice-boxes was
from the pay-streak. Bruce fairly gloated over each cubic yard that he
succeeded in getting in, for the sample pans showed that it was all he
had hoped for, and more.
If only the riffles were saving it and the tables catching the fine
This he could not know until the clean-up and he did not mean to stop
until he had brought in the last load he dared before a freeze. So far
the weather had been phenomenal, the exceptional open fall had been his
one good piece of luck. Under usual weather conditions, to avoid
cleaning up through the ice he would have been obliged to have shut down
at least a month before.
So the work kept on intermittently until an incredibly late date in
November. The leaves of the poison oak had turned crimson, the tall
tamaracks in the high mountains were gold, frost crystals glittered each
morning on the planks and boards, but Big Squaw creek kept running
steadily and the sunshine soon melted the skim ice that formed over
By this time Bruce had a fresh worry. It kept him awake hour after hour
at night. The mercury was not looking right where it showed behind the
riffles. It was too lively. There was something in it, of course, but
not enough to thicken it as he had hoped. He could see the flakes of
gold sticking to it as though it had been sprinkled with Nepaul pepper
but the activity of it where it showed in quantity alarmed him more than
he would confess to himself.
The change of weather came in the night. That day he started to
clean-up. A chill wind was blowing from the east and the sky was dark
with drab, low-hanging clouds when Bruce put on his hip-boots and began
to take up riffles. A thin sheet of water flowed through the boxes, just
sufficient to keep the sand and gravel moving down as he took up the
riffles one at a time and recovered the mercury each had contained.
Bruce's feet and fingers grew numb working in the icy water with a
scrubbing brush and a small scoop but they were no colder than the cold
hand of Premonition that lay heavy upon him.
Behind the riffles at the top of the first box the mercury was
amalgam--all that he could have wished for--beyond that point it
suddenly stopped and all that he recovered as he worked down looked to
be as active as when he had poured it from the flask.
What was wrong? He asked himself every conceivable question as he worked
with aching hands and feet. Had he given the boxes too much grade? Had
he washed too fast--crowded the dirt so that it had not had time to
settle? Was it possible that after all the gold was too light and fine
to save in paying quantities?
Hope died hard and he tried to make himself believe that the lower boxes
and the tables had caught it--that there was more in the mercury than
there looked. But the tension as he took up riffle after rime with the
one result was like watching a long-drawn-out race with all one's
possessions staked on the losing horse.
He took up riffles until it was a physical impossibility to work longer
in the numbing water, his fingers could not hold the scoop. Then he went
to the pump-house and told Banule to telephone Smaltz to shut down.
"He wants to know if you'll be pumpin' again?"
"Yes, after awhile. Tell him to stay there. I'm going to squeeze out the
'quick' I've taken up, but I want to get as near finished to-day as I
can. You come and help me."
As Bruce walked back to the sluice-boxes with bowed head he was thinking
that the day was well suited to the ending of his roseate dreams.
Failure is dull, drab, colorless, and in his heart he had little doubt
that for some reason still to be explained, he had failed. Just how
badly remained to be seen.
Bruce had scooped the mercury into a clean granite kettle and now,
while he held the four corners of a square of chamois skin, Banule
poured mercury from the kettle into the centre of the skin until told to
"Looks like you ought to get several hundred dollars out of that,"
Banule said hopefully as Bruce gathered the four corners, twisted them
and began to squeeze.
"Yes, looks like I ought to," Bruce replied ironically.
The quicksilver came through the pores of the skin in a shower of
Banule's expression of lively interest in the process was gradually
replaced by one of bewilderment as with every twist the contents kept
squeezing through until it looked as though there would be no residue
left. It was a shock even to Bruce, who was prepared for it, when he
spread the chamois skin on a rock and looked at the ball of amalgam
which it contained.
Banule stared at it, open-mouthed.
"What's the matter? Where's it gone? And out of all that dirt!"
Bruce shook his head; his voice was barely audible:
"I don't know." The sagging clouds were not heavier than his heart--"I
wish I did."
Banule stood a moment in silent sympathy.
"Guess you won't work any more to-day," he suggested.
"Yes; tell Smaltz to start," Bruce answered dully.
"I've got to save the mercury anyhow."
"Say," he hesitated--obviously he found the confession embarrassing or
else he hated to lay the final straw upon the camel's back--"just
before you told me to shut down, the motor on the small pump started
sparkin' pretty bad."
"Yes?" Bruce knew that if Banule admitted it was "pretty bad" it was bad
"I'll look it over if we can stop awhile."
Bruce shook his head.
"There's not an hour to lose. It's going to storm; I must get done."
"I 'spose we can start." Banule looked dubious. "I'll try it, but I
think we'll have to quit."
Was there anything more that could happen? Bruce asked himself in dumb
misery as he picked up his scoop and brush and mechanically went to work
when the pumps started and the water came.
His feet and hands were soon like ice but he was scarcely conscious of
the pain for his heart-ache was so much greater. As he pursued the
elusive quicksilver and worked the sand and gravel to the end of the box
all he could see was the stack of receipted bills which the work and
plant had cost, in shocking contrast to that tiny ball of amalgam lying
in the chamois-skin on the rock. He had spent all of $40,000 and he
doubted if he would take $20 from the entire clean-up as it now looked.
How could he break the news to Helen Dunbar? Where would he find the
courage to tell the unfriendly stockholders the exact truth? It was a
foregone conclusion that they would consider him a fakir and a crook.
It had to be done. As, in his imagination, he faced the ordeal he
unconsciously straightened up.
"Burt! Burt! come quick!" Banule was waving his arms frantically from
the platform of the pump-house. There was desperation in his cry for
help. He dashed back inside as soon as he saw Bruce jump out of the
sluice-box. Before Bruce reached the pump-house he heard Banule ringing
the telephone violently, and his frenzied shout:
"Shut down, Smaltz! Shut down! Where are you? Can't you hear? For God's
sake shut down, everything's burnin' up!"
He was ringing as though he would have torn the box loose from the wall
when Bruce reached the pump-house door. Bruce turned sick when he heard
the crackling of the burning motors and saw the electric flames.
"Somethin's happened in the power-house! I can't ring him! He must have
got a shock! Until I know what's wrong, I don't dare shut down for fear
I'll burn everything out up there!"
"Keep her going!" Bruce bounded through the door and dropped from the
platform. Then he threw off his hat as he always did when excited, and
ran. And how he ran! With his fists clenched and his arms tight against
his sides he ran as though the hip-boots were the seven-league boots of
In the stretch of deep sand he had to cross the weight was killing. The
drag of the heavy boots seemed to pull his legs from their sockets but
he did not slacken his pace. His breath was coming in gasps when he
started up the steep trail which led from the sand over a high
promontory. He clutched at bushes, rocks, anything to pull himself up
and the pounding of his heart sounded to him like the chug of a
steamboat, before he reached the top.
The veins and arteries in his forehead and neck seemed bursting, as did
his over-taxed lungs, when he started stumbling and sliding down the
other side. It was not the distance he had covered which had so winded
him, nor even the terrific pace, but the dragging weight of the
hip-boots. They felt as though they were soled with lead.
He imagined that he had crawled but as a matter of fact the distance
would never be covered in the same space of time again.
The perspiration was trickling from his hair and through his thick
eyebrows when he reached the boat landing where ordinarily they crossed.
He brushed it out of his eyes with the back of his sleeve and stared at
the place where usually the boat rode. It was gone! Smaltz had taken it
instead of the overhead tram in which he always crossed.
There was no time to speculate as to Smaltz's reason. He kept on running
along the river until he came to the steps of the platform where the
heavy iron cage, suspended from a cable, was tied to a tree. Bruce
bounded up the steps two at a time and loosened the rope. It was not
until then that he saw that the chain and sprocket, which made the
crossing easy, were missing. This, too, was strange. There was no time
for speculation. Could he cross in it hand over hand? For answer he put
his knee on the edge and kicked off.
The impetus sent it well over the river. Then it struck the slack in the
cable and slowed up. Bruce set his teeth and went at it hand over hand.
The test came when it started up grade. No ordinary man could have
budged it and Bruce pulled to the very last ounce of his strength. He
moved it only an inch at a time--slipping back two inches frequently
when he changed hands.
If he lost the grip of both hands for a single second and slid back to
the middle of the slack he realized that he was too near exhausted to
pull up again, so, somehow, he hung on, making inarticulate sounds as he
exerted superhuman strength, groaning like an animal loaded beyond its
limit. If only he could last!
When he reached the platform on the other side he was just able to throw
an arm around the tree and crawl out while the ponderous iron cage
squeaking on the rusty cable rolled back to the middle of the river,
where it swung to and fro.
Bruce gathered himself and tried to run. His legs refused to obey his
will and he had to fall back to a walk. He hung over from the waist like
a bent old man, his arms swinging limply at his sides.
He knew from the small amount of water going over the spillway that the
machinery was still running and as he drew nearer to the power-house he
could hear the hiss of the 200-feet head as it hit the wheel.
He dreaded entering for fear of what he should see. He had little doubt
but that Smaltz was dead--electrocuted--roasted. He expected the
sickening odor of burning flesh. He had been so long in getting
there--but he had done his best--the power must be shut off first--he
must get to the lever--if only he could run. His thoughts were
incoherent--disconnected, but all of Smaltz. Smaltz had been loyal;
Smaltz never had shirked; but he never had shown Smaltz the slightest
evidence of friendship because of his unconquerable dislike.
Bruce was reproaching himself as he stepped up on the wooden casing
which covered the pipes and nozzles inside the power-house. There he
stopped and stood quite motionless, looking at Smaltz. Smaltz's face
wore a look of keenest interest, as with one shoulder braced against the
side of the building, his hands in his pockets, he watched the plant
Down below, Banule had thrown out the switch and the machinery was
running away. A rim of fire encircled the commutators. The cold, blue
flame of electrical energy was shooting its jagged flashes from every
piece of magnetic metal it could reach, while the crackling of the
short-circuited wires was like the continuous, rattling reports of a
There was something terrifying in the sight of the racing machinery,
something awe-inspiring in the spectacle of a great power gone mad. The
wind from the round blur that represented the fly-wheel was a gale and
in the semi-dusk,--Smaltz had closed the double-doors--the leaping
flames and the screech of the red-hot bearings made the place an
For a moment the amazing, unexpected sight deprived Bruce of the power
to move. Then he jumped for the lever and shut down. It was not until
the machinery responded that Smaltz turned. His yellow-brown eyes
widened until they looked round. He had not counted on anyone's being
able to cross the river for fully half an hour.
If Smaltz had been the villain of fiction, he would have been a coward
as well. But Smaltz was not a coward. It is true he was startled--so
startled that his skin turned a curious yellow-green like a half-ripe
pear--but he was not afraid. He knew that he was "in for it." He knew
that something was going to happen, and quick. That Bruce was sitting on
the wooden casing quietly pulling off his heavy boots did not deceive
him in the least.
It was as still as the tomb in the power-house when Bruce stood up and
walked toward Smaltz. Grimy streaks of perspiration showed on his
colorless face, from which every drop of blood seemed to have fled, and
his black eyes, that shone always with the soft brilliancy of a warm,
impulsive nature and an imaginative mind, were glittering and
Smaltz stood his ground as Bruce advanced.
"Why didn't you answer that telephone, Smaltz?"
In feigned surprise Smaltz glanced at the box.
"I declare--the receiver's dropped off the hook!"
Bruce ignored the answer; he did not even look, but stepped closer.
"Why didn't you shut down?"
Smaltz summoned his impudent grin, but it wavered and faded under
Bruce's burning eyes even while he replied in a tone of injured
"How should I know? The bell didn't ring--Banule hadn't told me to."
Bruce paid no attention to the foolish excuse. He demanded again:
"Why didn't you shut down, Smaltz?"
"I've told you once," was the sullen answer.
Bruce turned to the telephone and rang the bell hard.
"Hello--hello--hello!" came the frantic reply.
"Can you swim, Banule?"
"Then take it where the cable crosses the river. Come quick." He put the
receiver back on its hook and stepped to the lever. Smaltz's eyes opened
wide as Bruce shoved it hard. He stared as though he thought Bruce had
gone out of his mind. Then the dynamos began to pick up.
"What you goin' to do?" he shouted above the screech of the belting and
the hot bearings.
"You're going to tell the truth!" The last vestige of Bruce's
self-control vanished. His voice, which had been nearly a whisper, was
like the sudden roar of a deep-hurt bear. His dark face was distorted to
ugliness with rage. He rushed Smaltz--with his head down--and Smaltz
staggered with the shock. Then they grappled and went down. Once more it
was pandemonium in the power-house with the screeching of the red hot
bearings and the glare of the crackling blue flames that meant the final
and complete destruction of the plant. Over and over the grimy,
grease-soaked floor of the power-house they rolled and fought. Brutally,
in utter savagery, Bruce ground Smaltz's face into the rough planks
littered with nails and sharp-copper filings, whenever he
could--dragging him, shoving him, working him each second a little
closer to the machinery with the frenzy of haste. He had not yet
recovered from his run but Smaltz was no match for his great strength.
A glimmer of Bruce's purpose came to Smaltz at last.
"What--you tryin'--to do?" he panted.
Bruce panted back:
"I'm going to kill you! Do you hear?" His eyes were bloodshot, more than
ever he looked like some battle-crazed grizzly seeing his victim through
a blur or rage and pain. "If I can--throw you--across those
commutators--before the fireworks stop--I'm goin' to give you fifteen
A wild fright came in Smaltz's eyes.
"Let me up!" he begged.
For answer Bruce shoved him closer to the dynamo. He fought with fresh
"Don't do that, Burt! My God--Don't do that!"
"Then talk--talk! She's going fast. You've got to tell the truth before
she stops! Why did you burn out this plant?"
Smaltz would not answer. Bruce lifted him bodily from the floor. In the
struggle he threw out a hand to save himself and his finger touched the
spring that held the carbons. He screamed with the shock, but the blue
flashes were close to his face blinding him before he suddenly relaxed:
"I'm all in. I'll tell."
Bruce let him drop back hard upon the floor and thrust a knee into his
The words came with an effort; he seemed afraid of their effect upon
Bruce, then, uncertainly:
For the fraction of a second Bruce stared into Smaltz's scared face.
"You were paid," he repeated slowly. "Who--" and then the word came
rapier-like as had the thought--"Sprudell!"
"He told me to see that you didn't start. He left the rest to me." With
sullen satisfaction: "And it's cost him plenty--you bet--"
Inexplicable things suddenly grew clear to Bruce.
"You turned the boat loose in Meadows--"
"You wrecked it on that rock--"
"You fouled the mercury in the boxes?"
"And Toy!" The look of murder came back into Bruce's face, his hand
crept toward Smaltz's throat. "Don't lie! What did you do to Toy?"
Smaltz whispered--he could barely speak--"I'm tellin' the truth--it was
an accident. He jumped me--I threw him off and he fell in the
sluice-box--backward--I tried to save him--I did--that's straight."
Smaltz kept rolling his head back and forth in an oil-soaked spot where
a grease cup leaked. Bruce's knee was grinding into his ribs and chest
and his fingers were tightening on his throat.
Bruce raised himself a little and looked down at Smaltz. As he stared at
the smudged, bleeding face and into the yellow-brown eyes with their
dilated pupils, the rage in his own gave place to a kind of intense
curiosity, the scrutiny one gives to a repulsive and venomous insect or
reptile he has captured. He was trying to impress upon his own mind the
incredible fact that this human being, lying helpless beneath him,
watching him with questioning fear, had ruined him without the least
personal malice--had robbed him of all he had strained, and worked, and
fought for, for pay! It seemed like a preposterous, illogical dream; yet
there he lay, alive, real, his face less than two feet from his own.
Finally, Bruce took his knee from his chest and got up. Smaltz pulled
himself to his feet and stood uncertainly.
"Well--I suppose it's jail." There was sullen resignation in his voice.
Bruce stopped the machinery without answering. Then he folded his arms
and leaned his broad shoulders against the rough boards of the
power-house while, eying Smaltz, he considered. A year ago he would have
killed him--he would have killed him begging on his knees, but taking a
human life either makes a man callous or sobers him and the remorse
which had followed the tragedy in the cabin was a sensation Bruce never
wanted to experience again.
Penitentiaries were made for men like Smaltz--but in a country of long
and difficult distances, with the lax courts and laws indifferently
enforced, to put Smaltz where he belonged was not so simple as it might
sound. It required time and money; Bruce had neither to spare.
It was so still in the power-house that the ticking of the dollar watch
hanging on a nail sounded like a clock. Smaltz shifted feet nervously.
At last Bruce walked to the work-bench and took a carpenter's pencil
from a box and sharpened it. He smoothed out some wrapping paper then
motioned Smaltz to sit down.
"I want you to write what you told me--exactly--word for word. Write it
in duplicate and sign your name."
Consternation overspread Smaltz's face. A verbal confession to save
himself from being electrocuted was one thing, to put it in black and
white was quite another. He hesitated. Bruce saw the mutiny in his face;
also the quick, involuntary glance he gave toward a monkey-wrench which
lay on the end of the work-bench within his reach.
Rage burned up in Bruce again.
"Don't you know when you've got enough?" He stepped forward and removed
the heavy wrench from Smaltz's reach. "I'll give you just one minute by
the watch there to make up your mind. You'd better write, for you won't
be able when I'm through!"
They measured each other, eye to eye again. Each could hear the
breathing of the other in the silence while the watch ticked off the
seconds. An over-sanguine pack-rat tried to scramble up the tar-paper
covering on the outside and squeaked as he fell back with a thud, but
the face of neither man relaxed. Smaltz took the full limit of the time.
He saw Bruce's fingers work, then clinch. Suddenly he grinned--a
sheepish, unresentful grin.
"I guess you're the best man," He slouched to the bench and sat down.
He was still writing when Banule came, breathing hard and still dripping
from his frigid swim. He stopped short and his jaw dropped at seeing
Smaltz. He was obviously disappointed at finding him alive.
Smaltz handed Bruce the paper when he had finished and signed his name.
Neither the writing or composition was that of an illiterate man. Bruce
read it carefully and handed it to Banule:
"Read this and witness it."
Banule did as he was told, for once, apparently, too dumfounded for
"Now copy it," said Bruce, and Smaltz obeyed.
When this was done, signed and witnessed Smaltz looked up
inquiringly--his expression said--"What next?"
Bruce stepped to the double doors and slid the bolt.
"There's your trail--now hit it!" He motioned into the wilderness as
he threw the doors wide.
Incredulity, amazement, appeared on Smaltz's face.
In the instant that he stood staring a vein swelled on Bruce's temple
and in a spasm of fury he cried:
"Go, I tell you! Go while I can keep my hands off you--you--" he
finished with an oath.
Smaltz went. He snatched his coat from its nail as he passed but did not
stop for his hat. It was not until he reached the slab which served as a
bridge over the water from the spillway that he recovered anything of
his impudent nonchalance. He was in the centre of it when he heard
"If it ud be me I'd a put a lash rope round his neck and drug him up
that hill to jail."
Smaltz wheeled and came back a step.
"Oh, you would, would you? Say, you fakir, I'm glad you spoke. I almost
forgot you." There was sneering, utter contempt in Smaltz's voice.
"Fakir," he reiterated, "you get that, do you, for I'm pickin' my
words and not callin' names by chance. You're the worst that ever come
off the Pacific coast--and that's goin' some."
He turned sharply to Bruce.
"You know even a liar sometimes tells the truth and I'm goin' to give it
to you straight now. I've nothin' to win or lose. This machinery never
will run. The plant was a failure before it was put up. And," he nodded
contemptuously at Banule, "nobody knew it better than that dub."
"Jennings," he went on "advised this old-fashioned type of machinery
because it was the only kind he understood and he wanted the job of
putting it up, honestly believin' at the time that he could. When he
realized that he couldn't, he sent for Banule to pull him through.
"Jennings failed because of his ignorance but this feller knows, and
whatever he's done he has done knowin' that his work couldn't by any
chance last. All he's thought of was gettin' the plant up somehow so it
would run temporarily--any old way to get through--get his money, and
get out. He's experimented continually at your expense; he's bungled the
job from beginning to end with his carelessness--his 'good enough' work.
"You were queered from the start with them armatures he wound back there
on the Coast. He and Jennings took an old fifty horse-power motor and
tried to wind it for seventy-five. There wasn't room for the copper so
they hammered in the coils. They ruptured the insulation in the armature
and that's why it's always short-circuited and sparked. He rated it at
seventy-five and it's never registered but fifty at its best. He rated
the small motor at fifty and it developed thirty--no more. The blue
print calls for 1500 revolutions on the big pump and the speed indicator
shows 900. Even if the motors were all right, the vibration from that
bum foundation that he told you was 'good enough' would throw them out,
"All through he's lied and bluffed, and faked. He has yet to put up his
first successful plant. Look up his record if you think it ain't the
truth. What's happened here is only a repetition of what's happened
everywhere he's ever been. It would be a fortune if 'twas figured what
his carelessness has cost the men for whom he's worked.
"In the eyes of the law I'm guilty of wreckin' this plant but in fact I
only put on the finishin' touches. I've shortened your misery, Burt,
I've saved you money, for otherwise you'd have gone tryin' to tinker it
up. Don't do it. Take it from me it isn't worth it. From start to finish
you've been stung."
He turned mockingly to Banule:
"As we know, Alphy, generally there's a kind of honor among crooks that
keeps us from squeakin' on each other, but that little speech of yourn
about takin' a turn of a las' rope round my neck kind of put me on the
prod. That virtuous pose of yours sort of set my teeth on edge, knowin'
what I do, and I ain't told half of what I could if I had the time.
However, Alphy," he shot a look at Bruce's face, "if you'll take the
advice of a gent what feels as though a log had rolled over him, you'll
sift along without puttin' up any holler about your pay."
Previous: The Midnight Visitor