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The Midnight Visitor








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

Toy raised his head sharply from his little flat pillow where he lay in
his tent, pitched for convenience beside the kitchen, and listened. A
sound like the cautious scraping of the sagging storehouse door on the
other side of the kitchen had awakened him. He was not sure that he had
not dreamed it or that it was not merely renewed activities on the part
of his enemies, the pack-rats, between whom and himself there waged
constant war. There was a possibility that some prowling animal might
push in the door, but, as the month was now November and the nights were
as cold as winter, he was not too anxious to crawl from his warm nest
and investigate until he was sure.

Hearing nothing more he dropped back on his pillow sleepily, vowing
fresh vengeance on the pack-rats who at that moment no doubt were
carrying off rice and rolled oats. Suddenly there came a fresh sound,
very distinct in the stillness, somewhat like the side of a big tin
bulging where it had been dented. To ease his mind rather than because
he expected to find anything Toy slipped his feet into his thick-soled
Chinese slippers and shuffled out into the night.

The faintest gleam of light was coming through the opening in the
storehouse door, which Toy himself had carefully closed. It was all of
eleven o'clock and the men, Toy knew, had been in bed for hours. He
stepped noiselessly inside and stared with all his eyes at Smaltz.
Smaltz was about to extinguish the candle which he had been shielding
with his coat.

"What you do? What you gittee?"

Smaltz whirled swiftly at the shrill demand with a startled look on his
impudent face.

"Oh--hello," he said uncertainly.

"Why you come? What you want?"

"Why--er--I wanted to see if they was any more of them eight-penny nails
left. I'll need some to-morrow and bein' awake frettin' and stewin' over
my work I thought I'd come up and take a look. Besides," with his
mocking grin, "the evenin's reely too lovely to stay in bed."

"You lie, I think." Toy's teeth were chattering with cold and
excitement. "Why you come? What you want?"

"You oughtn't to say those rude, harsh things. They're apt to hurt the
feelin's of a sensitive feller like me."

"What you steal?" Toy pointed a trembling finger at the inside pocket of
Smaltz's coat where it bulged.

"You wrong me," said Smaltz sorrowfully in mock reproach. "That's my
Bible, Chink."

After Smaltz had gone Toy lighted a candle and poked among the boxes,
cans, and sacks. He knew almost to a pound how much sugar, flour, rice,
coffee, beans, and other provisions he had, but nothing, that he could
discover, had been disturbed. The nail kegs and reserve tools in the
corner, wedges, axe-handles and blades, files and extra shovels all were
there. It was a riddle Toy could not solve yet he knew that Smaltz had
not told the truth.

A white man who was as loyal to Bruce as Toy would have told him
immediately of Smaltz's mysterious midnight visit to the storehouse, but
that was not the yellow man's way. Instead he watched Smaltz like a
hawk, eying him furtively, appearing unexpectedly at his elbow while he
worked. From that night on, instead of one shadow Smaltz found himself
with two.

Toy never had liked Smaltz from the day he came. Those who knew the
Chinaman could tell it by the scrupulous politeness with which he
treated him. He was elaborately exact and fair but he never spoke to him
unless it was necessary. Toy yelled at and bullied those he liked but a
mandarin could not have surpassed him in dignity when he addressed
Smaltz.

Bruce surmised that the Chinaman must share his own instinctive
distrust, yet Smaltz, with his versatility, had proved himself more and
more valuable as the work progressed.

Banule's sanguine prophecy that they would be "throwin' dirt" within two
weeks had failed of fulfilment because the pump motors had sparked when
tried out. So small a matter had not disturbed the cheerful optimism of
the genius, who declared he could remedy it with a little further work.
Days, weeks, a month went by and still he tinkered, while Bruce,
watching the sky anxiously, wondered how much longer the bad weather
would hold off. As a convincing evidence of the nearness of winter,
Porcupine Jim, who considered himself something of a naturalist,
declared that the grasshoppers had lost their hind-legs.

While the time sped, Bruce realized that he must abandon his dream of
taking out enough gold to begin to repay the stockholders. The most he
could hope for now was a few days' run.

"If only I could get into the pay-streak! If I can just get enough out
of the clean-up to show them that it's here; that it's no wild-cat;
that I've told them the truth!" Over and over he said these things
monotonously to himself until they became a refrain to every other
thought.

In the middle of the summer he had been forced to ask for more money. He
was days nerving himself to make the call; but there was no
alternative--it was either that or shut down. He had written the
stockholders that it would surely be the last, and his relief and
gratitude had been great at their good-natured response.

Now the sparking of the motors which unexpectedly prolonged the work had
once more exhausted his funds. It took all Bruce's courage to write
again. It seemed to him that it was the hardest thing he had ever done
but he accomplished it as best he could. He was peremptorily refused.

His sensations when he read the letter are not easy to describe. There
was more than mere business curtness in the denial. There was actual
unfriendliness. Furthermore, it contained an ultimatum to the effect
that if the season's work was unsuccessful they would accept an offer
which they had had for their stock.

With Helen's warning still fresh in his mind, Bruce understood the
situation in one illuminating flash. Under the circumstances, no one but
Sprudell would want to buy the stock. Obviously Sprudell had gotten in
touch with the stockholders and managed somehow to poison their minds.
This was the way, then, that he intended taking his revenge!

Harrah's secretary had written Bruce in response to his last appeal that
Harrah had been badly hurt in an aeroplane accident in France and that
it would not be possible to communicate with him for months perhaps.
This was a blow, for Bruce counted him his only friend.

Bruce had neither the time nor money to go East and try to undo the harm
Sprudell had done, and, furthermore, little heart for the task of
setting himself right with people so ready to believe.

There was just one thing that remained for Bruce to do. He could use the
amount he had saved from his small salary as general manager and
continue the work as long as the money lasted. When this was gone he was
done. In any event it meant that he must face the winter there alone. If
the machinery was still not in working order when he came to the end of
his resources it meant that he was stranded, flat broke, unable even to
go outside and struggle.

In his desperation he sometimes thought of appealing to his father. The
amount he required was insignificant compared to what he knew his
father's yearly income must be. He doubted if even Harrah's fortune was
larger than the one represented by his father's land and herds; but just
as often as he thought of this way out just so often he realized that
there were some things he could not do--not even for Helen Dunbar--not
even to put his proposition through.

That humiliation would be too much. To go back begging after all
these years--no, no, he could not do it to save his life! He would meet
the pay-roll with his own checks so long as he had a cent, and hope for
the best until he knew there was no best.

The end of his rope was painfully close the day Banule announced, after
frequent testings, that they might start.

During short intervals of pumping, Bruce had been able by
ground-sluicing to work off a considerable area of top soil and now that
the machinery was declared to be ready for a steady run he could set the
scrapers at once in the red gravel streak that contained the "pay."

The final preparation before starting was to pour the mercury behind the
riffles in the sluice-boxes. When it lay quivering and shining behind
each block and bar Bruce felt that his gargantuan bread-crumb had been
dragged almost to the goal. It was well, too, he told himself with
indescribable relief, for, not only his money, but his courage, his
nerves, were well-nigh gone.

Bruce would trust no one but himself to pour the mercury in the boxes.

"That looks like good lively 'quick'," Smaltz commented as he watched
him at the task.

"It should be; it was guaranteed never to have been used." He added with
a smile: "Let's hope when we see it again it won't be quite so lively."

"Looks like it orter be as thick as mush if you can run a few thousand
yards of that there pay-streak over it." There was a mocking look in
Smaltz's yellow-brown eyes which Bruce, stooping over, did not see. He
only heard the hopeful words.

"Oh, Smaltz--Smaltz--if it only is! Success means so much to me!"
Unaccountably, such a tide of feeling rose within him that Bruce bared
his heart to the man he did not like.

Smaltz looked at him with a curious soberness.

"Does it?" he responded after a pause.

"And I've tried so hard."

"You've sure worked like a horse." There was a look that was half pity,
half grudging admiration on Smaltz's impudent face.

Banule was to run the power-house for the day and complete some work
inside, so when Bruce had finished with the mercury he told Smaltz to
telephone Banule from the pump-house that they were ready to start.
Therefore while Bruce took his place at the lever on the donkey-engine
enclosed in a temporary shed to protect the motor from rain and dust,
Smaltz went to the pump-house as he was bid.

When Banule answered his ring he shouted:

"Let her go in about two minutes--two minutes--d'ye hear?" The
telephone receiver was shaking in Smaltz's hand and he was breathing
hard.

"Yes," Banule answered irritably, "but don't yell so in my ear."

Smaltz already had slammed the receiver back on the hook. With a swift
movement he threw in the switch and jumped for the outside. He dropped
from the high platform and fell among the rocks some ten feet below.
Instantly he scrambled to his feet and crouching, dodging among the
boulders that strewed the river bank, he ran at top speed until he
reached the sluice-boxes. The carpenter came out from his shop to take a
leisurely survey of the world and Smaltz threw himself flat until he had
turned inside again.

Then, still crouching, looking this way and that, watching the trail, he
took a bottle from his pocket and pulling the cork with his teeth poured
the contents over the mercury almost to the upper end of the first box.
He went as far as he dared without being seen by Bruce inside the shed.

The pumps had already started and the big head of water was coming with
a rush down the steep grade, but Smaltz had done his evil work
thoroughly for wherever the mercury laid thickest it glittered with
iridescent drops of kerosene.

He was thrusting the bottle back in his pocket, his tense expression
relaxed, when he turned his head sharply at the sound of a crashing in
the brush.

"Toy!" Smaltz looked startled--scared.

It was Toy, his skin a waxy yellow and his oblique eyes blazing with
excitement and rage.

"I savvy you, Smaltz! I savvy you!" His voice was a shrill squawk. "I
savvy you!" His fingers with their long, sharp nails were opening and
shutting like claws.

Smaltz knew that he had seen him from the hill and, watching, had
understood. It was too late to run, useless to evade, so he stood
waiting while shrieking, screeching at every step, the Chinaman came on.

He flew at Smaltz's face like a wild-cat, clawing, scratching, digging
in his nails and screaming with every breath: "I savvy you! I savvy
you!"

Smaltz warded him off without striking, trying to get his hand over his
mouth; but in vain, and the Chinaman kept up his shrill accusing cry, "I
savvy you, Smaltz! I savvy you!" There was little chance, however, of
his being heard above the rush of the water through the sluice-boxes and
the bumping and grinding together of the rocks and boulders that it
carried down.

Then Smaltz struck him. Toy fell among the rocks, sprawling backwards.
He got to his feet and came back. Once more he clawed and clung and once
more Smaltz knocked him down. A third time he returned.

"You're harder to kill nor a cat," Smaltz grinned without malice, but he
threw him violently against the sluice-box.

Toy lost his balance, toppled, and went over backward, reaching out
wildly to save himself as he fell. The water turned him over but he
caught the edge of the box. His loose purple "jumper" of cotton and silk
ballooned at the back as he swung by one hand in the on-rushing water,
thick and yellow with sand, filled with the grinding boulders that came
down as, though shot from a catapult, drowning completely his, agonized
cry of "Bluce! Bluce!"

It was only a second that he hung with his wild beseeching eyes on
Smaltz's scared face while his frail, old body acted as a wedge for the
racing water and the rocks. Then he let go and turned over and over
tumbling grotesquely in the wide sluice-box while the rocks pounded and
ground him, beat him into insensibility. He shot over the tail-race into
the river limp and unresisting, like a dead fish.





Next: The Clean-up

Previous: Good Enough



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