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The Yellow-leg








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

While seated in the office of the Hinds House, with his eyes rolled to
the ceiling, listening in well-feigned rapture to "Rippling Waves" on
the cabinet organ, and other numbers rendered singly and ensemble by the
Musical Snows, Mr. Dill in reality was wondering by what miracle he was
going to carry out Sprudell's specific instructions to keep his errand a
secret.

"The great, white light which plays upon a throne" is not more searching
than that which follows the movements of a possible Live One in a
moribund mining camp, and, in spite of his puttees, Ore City hoped
against hope that some benefit might be derived from the stranger's
presence.

Dill's orders were to get upon the ground which had been worked in a
primitive way by a fellow named Bruce Burt--now deceased he was
told--and relocate it in Sprudell's name together with seven other
contiguous claims, using the name of dummy locators which would give
Sprudell control of one hundred and sixty acres by doing the assessment
work upon one. Also Dill was instructed to run preliminary survey lines
if possible and lose no time in submitting estimates upon the most
feasible means of washing the ground.

Seated in his comfortable office in Spokane, Mr. Dill had foreseen no
great difficulties in the way of earning his ample fee, but it seemed
less ample after one hundred miles by stage over three summits, and a
better understanding of conditions. Between the stage-driver's sweeping
denunciations of road-supervisors in general and long and picturesque
castigations of the local road supervisor in particular, Mr. Dill had
adroitly extracted the information that the twenty-mile trail to the
river was the worst known, and snow-line blazes left by "Porcupine Jim"
were, in summer, thirty feet in the air.

Mr. Dill learned enough en route to satisfy himself that he was going to
earn every dollar of his money, and when he reached Ore City he was sure
of it. The problem before him was one to sleep on, or rather, thinking
with forebodings of the clammy sheets upstairs, to lie awake on.
However, something would perhaps suggest itself and Mr. Dill was
resourceful as well as unhampered by any restrictions regarding the
truth.

The Snow family were at their best that evening, and Ma Snow's rendition
of "The Gypsy's Warning" was received with such favor that she was
forced to sing the six verses twice and for a third encore the entire
family responded with "The Washington Post March" which enabled Mr.
Snow, who had tottered down from his aerie, to again demonstrate his
versatility by playing the concertina with long, yellow fingers, beating
the cymbals and working the snare-drum with his feet.

Ma Snow wore her coral-rose breast-pin, and a tortoise-shell comb thrust
through her knob of ginger-colored hair added to her dignity and height;
while Miss Vi and Miss Rosie Snow were buttoned into their stylish
princess gowns, with large red bows sprouting back of each ear. In
truth, the dress of each member of the family bore some little touch
which hinted delicately at the fact that with them it had not been
always thus.

All Ore City was present. Those who "bached" had stacked their dishes
and hurried from the supper-table to the Hinds House, where the regular
boarders were already tilted on the rear legs of their chairs with
their heads resting comfortably on the particular oily spot on the
unbleached muslin sheeting, which each recognized as having been made by
weeks of contact with his own back hair.

A little apart and preoccupied sat Uncle Bill with the clipping in his
wallet burning like a red-hot coal. He could have swallowed being
"carried down the mountain side," but the paragraph wherein "tears of
gratitude rained down his withered cheeks" stuck, as he phrased it, in
his craw. It set him thinking hard of Bruce Burt and the young fellow's
deliberate sacrifice of his life for one old "Chink." Somehow he could
not rid himself of blame that he had let him go alone. As soon as he
could get back to Ore City he had headed a search party that had failed
to locate even the tent under the unusual fall of snow. Well, if Burt
had taken a life, even accidentally, he had in expiation given his own.

As he brooded, occasionally the old man glanced at Wilbur Dill. He had
seen him before--but where? The sharp-faced, sharp-eyed Yellow-Leg was
associated in the older man's mind with something shady, but what it was
he could not for the time recall.

"Rosie, perhaps Mr. Dill would like to hear 'When the Robins Nest
Again,'" Ma Snow suggested in the sweet, ingratiating tones of a mother
with two unattached daughters.

Mr. Dill declared that it was one of his favorite compositions, so Miss
Rosie obligingly stood forth with the dog-eared music.

"When the Robins Nest Again, and the flower-r-rs--" she was warbling,
but they never bloomed, for Mrs. Snow started for the door, explaining:
"I'm sure I heard a scrunching." She threw it open and the yellow light
fell upon a gaunt figure leaning against the entrance of the snow
tunnel. The man was covered with frost and icicles where his breath had
frozen on his cap and upturned collar, while it was obvious from his
snow-caked knees and elbows that he had fallen often. He stood staring
dumbly at the light and warmth and at Ma Snow, then he stooped and began
fumbling clumsily at the strappings of his snow-shoes.

"Won't you-all come in?" Ma Snow, recovering a little from her surprise,
asked hospitably.

He pitched forward and would again have gone down but that he threw out
his hand and caught the door-jamb.

"Bruce Burt! Hell's catoots! Bruce Burt!" Uncle Bill was on his knees
outside in an instant, jerking and tugging at the snow-clogged buckles.

Chairs came down on their forelegs with a thump and Ore City shambled
forward in curiosity and awkward congratulation. Mr. Dill did not move.
He was gazing at the scene in mingled resentment and consternation. Was
this the Bruce Burt whose claims he was sent to survey? It was plain
enough that Bruce Burt "now deceased" was very much alive, and he, Dill,
had crossed three summits on a wild goose chase, since it was obvious he
could not relocate a man's ground while he was actually living upon it.
Why didn't Sprudell find out that he was deceased before he sent a busy
engineer on such a trip in winter? Mr. Dill sat frowning at Bruce, while
willing hands helped him out of the coat his fingers were too stiff to
unbutton.

"I've been coming since daylight." He spoke thickly, as though even his
tongue were cold. "I played out on the last big hill and sat so long I
chilled."

"And I guess you're hungry," Uncle Bill suggested.

Hungry! The word stabbed Ma Snow to the heart and her heels went
clickity-click as she flew for the kitchen.

Divested of his coat Bruce looked a big, starved skeleton. The cords of
his neck were visible when he turned his head, his cheeks were hollow,
his wrist-bones were prominent like those of a fever convalescent.

"You're some ga'nted up," Uncle Bill commented as he eyed him
critically. "Don't hardly look as though you'd winter."

The shadow of a smile crossed Bruce's dark face.

"Toy and I proved just about the length of time a man can go without
eating, and live."

"You made it then? You got to Toy--he's all right?"

"Yes," briefly, "but none too soon. The snow had broken the tent down,
so we made it over the ridge to an old tunnel . . . I killed a porcupine
but we ran out of matches and there was no dry wood or sticks to make a
fire."

"I et raw wolf onct in Alasky," Yankee Sam interjected reminiscently.
"'Tain't a dish you'd call for in a restauraw, and I reckon procupine's
got much the same flavor of damp dog. How did you get the Chinaman
down?"

"I rigged up a travois when he could travel and hauled him to the cabin,
where's he's waiting now. We are nearly out of grub, so I had to come."

Of the fierce hunger, the wearing, unceasing fight against Arctic cold,
and, when weakened and exhausted by both, the dumb, instinctive struggle
for life against the combination, Bruce said nothing; but in a dozen
commonplace sentences described physical sufferings sufficient for a
lifetime--which is the western way.

He walked to the desk, where the gifted tenor, clerk and post-master
stood pleased and expectant, pen in hand, waiting for him to register.

"Is there any mail for me?" He tried to speak casually but, to himself
the eager note in his voice seemed to shriek and vibrate. Making every
allowance for delays and changed addresses he had calculated that by now
he should have an answer from Slim's mother or sister. He did not
realize how positively he had counted on a letter until the clerk shook
his head.

"Nothing?" Bruce looked at him blankly.

"Nothing." The answer seemed to take the last scrap of his vitality. He
moved to the nearest chair and sat down heavily.

The thought of assuming Slim's responsibilities, of making up for his
own futile years, and bringing to pass at least a few of his mother's
dreams for him, had become a kind of obsession since that first night of
horror after his quarrel with Slim. It had kept him going, hanging on
doggedly, when, as he since believed, he might have given up. It seemed
to have needed the ghastly, unexpected happening in the lonely cabin to
have aroused in him the ambition which was his inheritance from his
mother. But it was awake at last, the stronger perhaps for having lain
so long dormant.

Failures, humiliating moments, hasty, ungenerous words, heartless deeds,
have a way of coming back with startling vividness in the still solitude
of mountains, and out of the passing of painful panoramas had grown
Bruce's desire to "make good." Now, in the first shock of his intense
disappointment he felt that without a tangible incentive he was done
before he had started.

"Mistah Bruce, if you'll jest step out and take what they is," announced
Ma Snow from the doorway. "And watch out foah yoah laig in this hole
heah." She called over her shoulder: "Mistah Hinds, I want you should
get to work and fix that place to-morrow or I'll turn yoah ol' hotel back
on yoah hands. You heah me?"

The threat always made Old Man Hinds jump like the close explosion of a
stick of giant powder.

Bruce looked at the "light" bread and the Oregon-grape "jell," the
steaming coffee and the first butter he had seen in months, while before
his plate on the white tablecloth at the "transient" end of the table,
sat a slice of ham with an egg! like a jewel--its crowning glory.

Ma Snow whispered confidentially:

"One of the hins laid day 'fore yistiddy." The prize had been filched
from Mr. Snow, one of whose diversions was listening for a hen to
cackle.

From his height Bruce looked down upon the work-stooped little woman and
he saw, not her churn-like contour nor her wrinkled face, but the light
of a kind heart shining in her pale eyes. He wanted to cry--he--Bruce
Burt! He fought the inclination furiously. It was too ridiculous--weak,
sentimental, to be so sensitive to kindness. But he was so tired, so
lonely, so disappointed. He touched Ma Snow's ginger-colored hair
caressingly with his finger tips and the impulsive, boyish action made
for Bruce a loyal friend.

In the office, Mr. Dill was noticeably abstracted. His smiling suavity,
his gracious manner, had given place to taciturnity and Ore City's
choicest bon mots, its time-tested pleasantries, fell upon inattentive
ears. As a matter of fact, his bones ached like a tooth from three long,
hard days in the mail-carrier's sledges, and also he recognized certain
symptoms which told him that he was in for an attack of dyspepsia due to
his enforced diet en route, of soda-biscuit, ham, and bacon. But these
were minor troubles as compared to the loss of the fee which in his mind
he had already spent. The most he could hope for, he supposed, was
compensation for his time and his expenses.

He sat in a grumpy silence until Bruce came out of the dining-room, then
he stated his intention of going to bed and asked for a lamp. As he said
good-night curtly he noticed Uncle Bill eyeing him hard, as he had
observed him doing before, but this time there was distinct hostility in
the look.

"What's the matter with that old rooster?" he asked himself crossly as
he clumped upstairs to bed.

"I know that young duck now," said Uncle Bill in an undertone, as Bruce
sat down beside him. "He's a mining and civil engineer--a good one,
too--but crooked as they come. He's a beat."

"He's an engineer?" Bruce asked in quick interest.

"He's anything that suits, when it comes to pulling off a mining deal.
He'd 'salt' his own mother, he'd sell out his grandmother, but in his
profession there's none better if he'd stay straight. I knowed him down
in Southern Oregon--he was run out."

"Have you heard yet from Sprudell?"

"Yes," Uncle Bill answered grimly. "As you might say, indirectly. I want
you should take a look at this."

He felt for his leather wallet and handed Bruce the clipping.

"Don't skip any," he said acidly. "It's worth a careful peruse."

There was a little likelihood of that after Bruce had read the
headlines.

"I hopes you takes special note of tears of gratitude rainin' down my
withered cheeks," said Uncle Bill savagely, "I relishes bein' published
over the world as a sobbin' infant."

Bruce folded the clipping mechanically many times before he handed it
back. There was more in it to him than the withholding of credit which
belonged to an obscure old man, or the self-aggrandizement of a pompous
braggart. To Bruce it was indicative of a man with a moral screw loose,
it denoted a laxity of principle. With his own direct standards of
conduct it was equivalent to dishonesty.

"You didn't git no answer to your letter, I notice," Griswold commented,
following Bruce's thoughts.

"No."

They smoked in silence for a time, the target of interested eyes, Bruce
unconscious that the stories of his feats of strength and his daring as
a boatman had somehow crossed the almost impassable spurs of mountain
between Ore City and Meadows to make a celebrity of him, not only in
Ore City but as far as the evil reputation of the river went.

"You'll hardly be startin' back to-morrow, will you, Burt?"

"To-morrow? No, nor the next day." There was a hard ring in Bruce's
voice. "I've changed my mind. I'm going outside! I'm going to
Bartlesville, Indiana, to see Sprudell!"

"Good!" enthusiastically. "And if you has cause to lick that pole kitty
hit him one for me."

Wilbur Dill, who had not expected to close his eyes, was sleeping
soundly, while Bruce in the adjoining room, who had looked forward to a
night of rest in a real bed, was lying wide awake staring into the dark.
His body was worn out, numb with exhaustion, but his mind was
unnaturally alert. It refused to be passive, though it desperately
needed sleep. It was active with plans for the future, with speculation
concerning Sprudell, with the rebuilding of the air castles which had
fallen with his failure to find mail. In the restless days of waiting
for Toy to get well enough to leave alone for a few days while he went
up to Ore City for mail and provisions, a vista of possibilities had
unexpectedly opened to Bruce. He was standing one morning at the tiny
window which overlooked the river, starting across at Big Squaw creek,
with its cascades of icicles pendant from its frozen mouth.

What a stream Big Squaw creek was, starting as it did all of thirty
miles back in the unknown hills, augmented as it came by trickling
rivulets from banks of perpetual snow and by mountain springs, until it
grew into a roaring torrent dashing itself to whiteness against the
green velvet boulders, which in ages past had crashed through the
underbrush down the mountainside to lie forever in the noisy stream!
And the unexpected fern-fringed pools darkened by overhanging boughs,
under which darted shadows of the trout at play--why he had thought, if
they had Big Squaw creek back in Iowa, or Nebraska, or Kansas, or any of
those dog-gone flat countries where you could look further and see less,
and there were more rivers with nothing in them than any other states in
the Union, they'd fence it off and charge admission. They'd--it was then
the idea had shot into his mind like an inspiration--they'd harness
Big Squaw creek if they had it back in Iowa, or Nebraska, or Kansas, and
make it work! They'd build a plant and develop power!

The method which had at once suggested itself to Sprudell was slow in
coming to Bruce because he was unfamiliar with electricity. In the
isolated districts where he had lived the simpler old-fashioned,
steam-power had been employed and his knowledge of water-power was
chiefly from reading and hearsay.

But he believed that it was feasible, that it was the solution of the
difficulty, if the expense were not too great. With a power-house at the
mouth of Squaw creek, a transmission wire across the river and a
pump-house down below, he could wash the whole sand-bar into the river
and all the sand-bars up and down as far as the current would carry! In
his excitement he had tried to outline the plan to Toy, who had more
that intimated that he was mad.

The Chinaman had said bluntly: "No can do."

Placer-mining was a subject upon which Toy felt qualified to speak,
since, after a cramped journey from Hong Kong, smuggled in his uncle's
clothes hamper, he had started life in America at fourteen, carrying
water to his countrymen placering in "Chiny" Gulch; after which he
became one of a company who, with the industry of ants, built a trestle
of green timber one hundred and fifty feet high to carry water to the
Beaver Creek diggings and had had his reward when he had seen the
sluice-box run yellow with gold and had taken his green rice bowl
heaping full upon the days of division.

Those times were quick to pass, for the white men had come, and with
their fists and six-shooters drove them from the ground, but the
eventful days surcharged with thrills were the only ones in which he
counted he lived. He laundered now, or cooked, but he had never left the
district and he loved placer-mining as he loved his life.

Bruce had found small comfort in discussing his idea with Toy, for Toy
knew only the flume and the ditch of the days of the 60's, so he was
eager to submit his plan to some one who knew about such things and he
wished that he had had an opportunity of talking to the "Yellow-Leg." If
it was practicable, he wanted to get an idea of the approximate cost.

Bruce was thinking of the "Yellow-Leg" and envying him his education and
knowledge when a new sound was added to the audible slumbers of the
guests of the Hinds House and of the Snow family, who were not so
musical when asleep. Accustomed to stillness, as he was, the chorus that
echoed through the corridor had helped to keep him awake, this and the
uncommon softness of a feather pillow and a cotton mattress that Mr.
Dill in carping criticism had likened unto a cement block.

This new disturbance which came through the thin partition separating
his room from Dill's was like the soft patter of feet--bare
feet--running around and around. Even a sudden desire for exercise
seemed an inadequate explanation in view of the frigid temperature of
the uncarpeted rooms. Bruce was still more mystified when he heard Dill
hurdling a chair, and utterly so when his neighbor began dragging a
wash-stand into the centre of the room. Making all due allowance for the
eccentricities of Yellow-Legs, Bruce concluded that something was amiss,
so, slipping into his shoes, he tapped upon the stranger's door.

The activity within continuing, he turned the knob and stepped inside
where Mr. Dill was working like a beaver trying to add a heavy home-made
bureau to the collection in the middle of the floor. Shivering in his
striped pajamas he was staring vacantly when Bruce lighted the lamp and
touched him on the shoulder.

"You'd better hop into bed, mister."

Mr. Dill mumbled as he swung his arms in the gesture of swimming.

"Got to keep movin'!"

"Wake up." Bruce shook him vigorously.

The suspected representative of the "Guggenheimers" whined plaintively:
"Itty tootsies awfy cold!"

"Itty tootsies will be colder if you don't get 'em off this floor,"
Bruce said with a grin, as he dipped his fingers in the pitcher and
flirted the ice water in his face.

"Oh--hello!" Intelligence returned to Mr. Dill's blank countenance.
"Why, I must have been walking in my sleep. I always do when I sleep in
a strange place, but I thought I'd locked myself in. I dreamed I was a
fish freezing up in a cake of ice."

"It's not surprising."

"Say." Mr. Dill looked at him wistfully as he stood on one foot curling
his purple toes around the other knee. "I wonder if you'd let me get in
with you? I'm liable to do it again--sleeping cold and all."

"Sure," said Bruce sociably, leading the way. "Come ahead."

The somnambulist chattered:

"I've been put out of four hotels already for walking into other
people's rooms, and once I got arrested. I've doctored for it."

While lamenting his inability to discuss his proposition with the
engineer, the last thing Bruce anticipated was to be engaged before
daylight in the humane and neighborly act of warming Wilbur Dill's back,
but so it is that Chance, that humorous old lady, thrusts Opportunity in
the way of those in whom she takes an interest.

Bruce was so full of his subject that he saw nothing unusual in
propounding his questions in Mr. Dill's ear under the covers in the
middle of the night.

"How many horse-power could you develop from a two-hundred-feet head
with a minimum flow of eight hundred miners' inches?"

"Hey?" Mr. Dill's muffled voice sounded startled.

Bruce repeated the question, and added:

"I'm going out on the stage in the morning and it leaves before you're
up. I'd like mightily to know a few things in your line if you don't
mind my asking."

He was leaving, was he? Going out on the stage? Figuratively, Mr. Dill
sat up.

"Certainly not." His tone was cordial. "Any information at all----"

As clearly as he could, Bruce outlined the situation, estimating that a
flume half a mile in length would be necessary to get this
two-hundred-foot head, with perhaps a trestle bridging the canyon of Big
Squaw creek. And Dill, wide awake enough now, asked practical, pertinent
questions, which made Bruce realize that, as Uncle Bill had said,
whatever doubt there might be about his honesty there could be none at
all concerning his ability.

He soon had learned all that Bruce could tell him of the situation, of
the obstacles and advantages. He knew his reason for wishing to locate
the pump-house at the extreme end of the bar, the best place to cross
the river with the transmission wire, of the proximity of saw-timber,
and of the serious drawback of the inaccessibility of the ground. Bruce
could think of no detail that Dill had overlooked when he was done.

"Transportation is your problem," the engineer said, finally. "With the
machinery on the ground the rest would be a cinch. But there's only the
river or an expensive wagon-road. A wagon-road through such country
might cost you the price of your plant or more. And the river with its
rapids, they tell me, is a terror; so with the water route eliminated,
there remains only your costly wagon-road."

"But," Bruce insisted anxiously, "what would be your rough estimate of
the cost of such a plant, including installation?"

"At a guess, I'd say $25,000, exclusive of freight, and as you know the
rates from the coast are almighty high."

"Twenty-five thousand dollars!" And five hundred, Bruce reminded
himself, was about the size of his pile.

"Much obliged."

"Don't mention it," Mr. Dill yawned. "One good turn deserves another,
and, thanks to you, I'm almost warm."

Because Mr. Dill yawned it did not follow that he slept. On the
contrary, he was as wide awake as Bruce himself and when Bruce gently
withdrew from the sociable proximity of a bed that sagged like a
hammock, and tiptoed about the room while dressing, going downstairs to
the office wash-basin when he discovered that there was skating in the
water-pitcher, lest the sound of breaking ice disturb his bed-fellow,
Dill was gratefully appreciative.

He really liked the fellow, he did for a fact--in spite of his first
prejudice against him for being alive. Besides, since he was going
outside, as he had told him, for an indefinite stay, he might not
interfere so much with his plans after all, for Mr. Dill, too, had had
an inspiration.





Next: Capital Takes Holt

Previous: Uncle Bill Finds News In The Try-bune



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