"Well," said one of the deputies, as he backed the horse into the shafts of the buggy in which the pursuers had driven over from the Hill, "we've about as good as got him. It isn't hard to follow a man who carries a bird cage with him wherever he goes."
McTeague crossed the mountains on foot the Friday and Saturday of that week, going over through Emigrant Gap, following the line of the Overland railroad. He reached Reno Monday night. By degrees a vague plan of action outlined itself in the dentist's mind.
"Mexico," he muttered to himself. "Mexico, that's the place. They'll watch the coast and they'll watch the Eastern trains, but they won't think of Mexico."
The sense of pursuit which had harassed him during the last week of his stay at the Big Dipper mine had worn off, and he believed himself to be very cunning.
"I'm pretty far ahead now, I guess," he said. At Reno he boarded a south-bound freight on the line of the Carson and Colorado railroad, paying for a passage in the caboose. "Freights don' run on schedule time," he muttered, "and a conductor on a passenger train makes it his business to study faces. I'll stay with this train as far as it goes."
The freight worked slowly southward, through western Nevada, the country becoming hourly more and more desolate and abandoned. After leaving Walker Lake the sage-brush country began, and the freight rolled heavily over tracks that threw off visible layers of heat. At times it stopped whole half days on sidings or by water tanks, and the engineer and fireman came back to the caboose and played poker with the conductor and train crew. The dentist sat apart, behind the stove, smoking pipe after pipe of cheap tobacco. Sometimes he joined in the poker games. He had learned poker when a boy at the mine, and after a few deals his knowledge returned to him; but for the most part he was taciturn and unsociable, and rarely spoke to the others unless spoken to first. The crew recognized the type, and the impression gained ground among them that he had "done for" a livery-stable keeper at Truckee and was trying to get down into Arizona.
McTeague heard two brakemen discussing him one night as they stood outside by the halted train. "The livery-stable keeper called him a bastard; that's what Picachos told me," one of them remarked, "and started to draw his gun; an' this fellar did for him with a hayfork. He's a horse doctor, this chap is, and the livery-stable keeper had got the law on him so's he couldn't practise any more, an' he was sore about it."
Near a place called Queen's the train reentered California, and McTeague observed with relief that the line of track which had hitherto held westward curved sharply to the south again. The train was unmolested; occasionally the crew fought with a gang of tramps who attempted to ride the brake beams, and once in the northern part of Inyo County, while they were halted at a water tank, an immense Indian buck, blanketed to the ground, approached McTeague as he stood on the roadbed stretching his legs, and without a word presented to him a filthy, crumpled letter. The letter was to the effect that the buck Big Jim was a good Indian and deserving of charity; the signature was illegible. The dentist stared at the letter, returned it to the buck, and regained the train just as it started. Neither had spoken; the buck did not move from his position, and fully five minutes afterward, when the slow-moving freight was miles away, the dentist looked back and saw him still standing motionless between the rails, a forlorn and solitary point of red, lost in the immensity of the surrounding white blur of the desert.
At length the mountains began again, rising up on either side of the track; vast, naked hills of white sand and red rock, spotted with blue shadows. Here and there a patch of green was spread like a gay table-cloth over the sand. All at once Mount Whitney leaped over the horizon. Independence was reached and passed; the freight, nearly emptied by now, and much shortened, rolled along the shores of Owen Lake. At a place called Keeler it stopped definitely. It was the terminus of the road.
The town of Keeler was a one-street town, not unlike Iowa Hill--the post-office, the bar and hotel, the Odd Fellows' Hall, and the livery stable being the principal buildings.
"Where to now?" muttered McTeague to himself as he sat on the edge of the bed in his room in the hotel. He hung the canary in the window, filled its little bathtub, and watched it take its bath with enormous satisfaction. "Where to now?" he muttered again. "This is as far as the railroad goes, an' it won' do for me to stay in a town yet a while; no, it won' do. I got to clear out. Where to? That's the word, where to? I'll go down to supper now"--He went on whispering his thoughts aloud, so that they would take more concrete shape in his mind--"I'll go down to supper now, an' then I'll hang aroun' the bar this evening till I get the lay of this land. Maybe this is fruit country, though it looks more like a cattle country. Maybe it's a mining country. If it's a mining country," he continued, puckering his heavy eyebrows, "if it's a mining country, an' the mines are far enough off the roads, maybe I'd better get to the mines an' lay quiet for a month before I try to get any farther south."
He washed the cinders and dust of a week's railroading from his face and hair, put on a fresh pair of boots, and went down to supper. The dining-room was of the invariable type of the smaller interior towns of California. There was but one table, covered with oilcloth; rows of benches answered for chairs; a railroad map, a chromo with a gilt frame protected by mosquito netting, hung on the walls, together with a yellowed photograph of the proprietor in Masonic regalia. Two waitresses whom the guests--all men-- called by their first names, came and went with large trays.
Through the windows outside McTeague observed a great number of saddle horses tied to trees and fences. Each one of these horses had a riata on the pommel of the saddle. He sat down to the table, eating his thick hot soup, watching his neighbors covertly, listening to everything that was said. It did not take him long to gather that the country to the east and south of Keeler was a cattle country.
Not far off, across a range of hills, was the Panamint Valley, where the big cattle ranges were. Every now and then this name was tossed to and fro across the table in the flow of conversation--"Over in the Panamint." "Just going down for a rodeo in the Panamint." "Panamint brands." "Has a range down in the Panamint." Then by and by the remark, "Hoh, yes, Gold Gulch, they're down to good pay there. That's on the other side of the Panamint Range. Peters came in yesterday and told me."
McTeague turned to the speaker.
"Is that a gravel mine?" he asked.
"No, no, quartz."
"I'm a miner; that's why I asked."
"Well I've mined some too. I had a hole in the ground meself, but she was silver; and when the skunks at Washington lowered the price of silver, where was I? Fitchered, b'God!"
"I was looking for a job."
"Well, it's mostly cattle down here in the Panamint, but since the strike over at Gold Gulch some of the boys have gone prospecting. There's gold in them damn Panamint Mountains. If you can find a good long 'contact' of country rocks you ain't far from it. There's a couple of fellars from Redlands has located four claims around Gold Gulch. They got a vein eighteen inches wide, an' Peters says you can trace it for more'n a thousand feet. Were you thinking of prospecting over there?"
"Well, well, I don' know, I don' know."
"Well, I'm going over to the other side of the range day after t'morrow after some ponies of mine, an' I'm going to have a look around. You say you've been a miner?"
"If you're going over that way, you might come along and see if we can't find a contact, or copper sulphurets, or something. Even if we don't find color we may find silver- bearing galena." Then, after a pause, "Let's see, I didn't catch your name."
"Huh? My name's Carter," answered McTeague, promptly. Why he should change his name again the dentist could not say. "Carter" came to his mind at once, and he answered without reflecting that he had registered as "Burlington" when he had arrived at the hotel.
"Well, my name's Cribbens," answered the other. The two shook hands solemnly.
"You're about finished?" continued Cribbens, pushing back. "Le's go out in the bar an' have a drink on it."
"Sure, sure," said the dentist.
The two sat up late that night in a corner of the barroom discussing the probability of finding gold in the Panamint hills. It soon became evident that they held differing theories. McTeague clung to the old prospector's idea that there was no way of telling where gold was until you actually saw it. Cribbens had evidently read a good many books upon the subject, and had already prospected in something of a scientific manner.
"Shucks!" he exclaimed. "Gi' me a long distinct contact between sedimentary and igneous rocks, an' I'll sink a shaft without ever seeing 'color.'"
The dentist put his huge chin in the air. "Gold is where you find it," he returned, doggedly.
"Well, it's my idea as how pardners ought to work along different lines," said Cribbens. He tucked the corners of his mustache into his mouth and sucked the tobacco juice from them. For a moment he was thoughtful, then he blew out his mustache abruptly, and exclaimed:
"Say, Carter, le's make a go of this. You got a little cash I suppose--fifty dollars or so?"
"Huh ? Yes--I--I--"
"Well, I got about fifty. We'll go pardners on the proposition, an' we'll dally 'round the range yonder an' see what we can see. What do you say?"
"Sure, sure," answered the dentist.
"Well, it's a go then, hey?"
"That's the word."
"Well, le's have a drink on it."
They drank with profound gravity.
They fitted out the next day at the general merchandise store of Keeler--picks, shovels, prospectors' hammers, a couple of cradles, pans, bacon, flour, coffee, and the like, and they bought a burro on which to pack their kit.
"Say, by jingo, you ain't got a horse," suddenly exclaimed Cribbens as they came out of the store. "You can't get around this country without a pony of some kind."
Cribbens already owned and rode a buckskin cayuse that had to be knocked in the head and stunned before it could be saddled. "I got an extry saddle an' a headstall at the hotel that you can use," he said, "but you'll have to get a horse."
In the end the dentist bought a mule at the livery stable for forty dollars. It turned out to be a good bargain, however, for the mule was a good traveller and seemed actually to fatten on sage-brush and potato parings. When the actual transaction took place, McTeague had been obliged to get the money to pay for the mule out of the canvas sack. Cribbens was with him at the time, and as the dentist unrolled his blankets and disclosed the sack, whistled in amazement.
"An' me asking you if you had fifty dollars!" he exclaimed. "You carry your mine right around with you, don't you?"
"Huh, I guess so," muttered the dentist. "I--I just sold a claim I had up in El Dorado County," he added.
At five o'clock on a magnificent May morning the "pardners" jogged out of Keeler, driving the burro before them. Cribbens rode his cayuse, McTeague following in his rear on the mule.
"Say," remarked Cribbens, "why in thunder don't you leave that fool canary behind at the hotel? It's going to be in your way all the time, an' it will sure die. Better break its neck an' chuck it."
"No, no," insisted the dentist. "I've had it too long. I'll take it with me."
"Well, that's the craziest idea I ever heard of," remarked Cribbens, "to take a canary along prospecting. Why not kid gloves, and be done with it?"
They travelled leisurely to the southeast during the day, following a well-beaten cattle road, and that evening camped on a spur of some hills at the head of the Panamint Valley where there was a spring. The next day they crossed the Panamint itself.
"That's a smart looking valley," observed the dentist.
"Now you're talking straight talk," returned Cribbens, sucking his mustache. The valley was beautiful, wide, level, and very green. Everywhere were herds of cattle, scarcely less wild than deer. Once or twice cowboys passed them on the road, big-boned fellows, picturesque in their broad hats, hairy trousers, jingling spurs, and revolver belts, surprisingly like the pictures McTeague remembered to have seen. Everyone of them knew Cribbens, and almost invariably joshed him on his venture.
"Say, Crib, ye'd best take a wagon train with ye to bring your dust back."
Cribbens resented their humor, and after they had passed, chewed fiercely on his mustache.
"I'd like to make a strike, b'God! if it was only to get the laugh on them joshers."
By noon they were climbing the eastern slope of the Panamint Range. Long since they had abandoned the road; vegetation ceased; not a tree was in sight. They followed faint cattle trails that led from one water hole to another. By degrees these water holes grew dryer and dryer, and at three o'clock Cribbens halted and filled their canteens.
"There ain't any too much water on the other side," he observed grimly.
"It's pretty hot," muttered the dentist, wiping his streaming forehead with the back of his hand.
"Huh!" snorted the other more grimly than ever. The motionless air was like the mouth of a furnace. Cribbens's pony lathered and panted. McTeague's mule began to droop his long ears. Only the little burro plodded resolutely on, picking the trail where McTeague could see but trackless sand and stunted sage. Towards evening Cribbens, who was in the lead, drew rein on the summit of the hills.
Behind them was the beautiful green Panamint Valley, but before and below them for miles and miles, as far as the eye could reach, a flat, white desert, empty even of sage-brush, unrolled toward the horizon. In the immediate foreground a broken system of arroyos, and little canyons tumbled down to meet it. To the north faint blue hills shouldered themselves above the horizon.
"Well," observed Cribbens, "we're on the top of the Panamint Range now. It's along this eastern slope, right below us here, that we're going to prospect. Gold Gulch"--he pointed with the butt of his quirt--"is about eighteen or nineteen miles along here to the north of us. Those hills way over yonder to the northeast are the Telescope hills."
"What do you call the desert out yonder?" McTeague's eyes wandered over the illimitable stretch of alkali that stretched out forever and forever to the east, to the north, and to the south.
"That," said Cribbens, "that's Death Valley."
There was a long pause. The horses panted irregularly, the sweat dripping from their heaving bellies. Cribbens and the dentist sat motionless in their saddles, looking out over that abominable desolation, silent, troubled.
"God!" ejaculated Cribbens at length, under his breath, with a shake of his head. Then he seemed to rouse himself. "Well," he remarked, "first thing we got to do now is to find water."
This was a long and difficult task. They descended into one little canyon after another, followed the course of numberless arroyos, and even dug where there seemed indications of moisture, all to no purpose. But at length McTeague's mule put his nose in the air and blew once or twice through his nostrils.
"Smells it, the son of a gun!" exclaimed Cribbens. The dentist let the animal have his head, and in a few minutes he had brought them to the bed of a tiny canyon where a thin stream of brackish water filtered over a ledge of rocks.
"We'll camp here," observed Cribbens, "but we can't turn the horses loose. We'll have to picket 'em with the lariats. I saw some loco-weed back here a piece, and if they get to eating that, they'll sure go plum crazy. The burro won't eat it, but I wouldn't trust the others."
A new life began for McTeague. After breakfast the "pardners" separated, going in opposite directions along the slope of the range, examining rocks, picking and chipping at ledges and bowlders, looking for signs, prospecting. McTeague went up into the little canyons where the streams had cut through the bed rock, searching for veins of quartz, breaking out this quartz when he had found it, pulverizing and panning it. Cribbens hunted for "contacts," closely examining country rocks and out-crops, continually on the lookout for spots where sedimentary and igneous rock came together.
One day, after a week of prospecting, they met unexpectedly on the slope of an arroyo. It was late in the afternoon. "Hello, pardner," exclaimed Cribbens as he came down to where McTeague was bending over his pan. "What luck?"
The dentist emptied his pan and straightened up. "Nothing, nothing. You struck anything?"
"Not a trace. Guess we might as well be moving towards camp." They returned together, Cribbens telling the dentist of a group of antelope he had seen.
"We might lay off to-morrow, an' see if we can plug a couple of them fellers. Antelope steak would go pretty well after beans an' bacon an' coffee week in an' week out."
McTeague was answering, when Cribbens interrupted him with an exclamation of profound disgust. "I thought we were the first to prospect along in here, an' now look at that. Don't it make you sick?"
He pointed out evidences of an abandoned prospector's camp just before them--charred ashes, empty tin cans, one or two gold-miner's pans, and a broken pick. "Don't that make you sick?" muttered Cribbens, sucking his mustache furiously. "To think of us mushheads going over ground that's been covered already! Say, pardner, we'll dig out of here to- morrow. I've been thinking, anyhow, we'd better move to the south; that water of ours is pretty low."
"Yes, yes, I guess so," assented the dentist. "There ain't any gold here."
"Yes, there is," protested Cribbens doggedly; "there's gold all through these hills, if we could only strike it. I tell you what, pardner, I got a place in mind where I'll bet no one ain't prospected--least not very many. There don't very many care to try an' get to it. It's over on the other side of Death Valley. It's called Gold Mountain, an' there's only one mine been located there, an' it's paying like a nitrate bed. There ain't many people in that country, because it's all hell to get into. First place, you got to cross Death Valley and strike the Armagosa Range fur off to the south. Well, no one ain't stuck on crossing the Valley, not if they can help it. But we could work down the Panamint some hundred or so miles, maybe two hundred, an' fetch around by the Armagosa River, way to the south'erd. We could prospect on the way. But I guess the Armagosa'd be dried up at this season. Anyhow," he concluded, "we'll move camp to the south to-morrow. We got to get new feed an' water for the horses. We'll see if we can knock over a couple of antelope to-morrow, and then we'll scoot."
"I ain't got a gun," said the dentist; "not even a revolver. I--"
"Wait a second," said Cribbens, pausing in his scramble down the side of one of the smaller gulches. "Here's some slate here; I ain't seen no slate around here yet. Let's see where it goes to."
McTeague followed him along the side of the gulch. Cribbens went on ahead, muttering to himself from time to time:
"Runs right along here, even enough, and here's water too. Didn't know this stream was here; pretty near dry, though. Here's the slate again. See where it runs, pardner?"
"Look at it up there ahead," said McTeague. "It runs right up over the back of this hill."
"That's right," assented Cribbens. "Hi!" he shouted suddenly, "Here's a 'contact,' and here it is again, and there, and yonder. Oh, look at it, will you? That's grano- diorite on slate. Couldn't want it any more distinct than that. God! if we could only find the quartz between the two now."
"Well, there it is," exclaimed McTeague. "Look on ahead there; ain't that quartz?"
"You're shouting right out loud," vociferated Cribbens, looking where McTeague was pointing. His face went suddenly pale. He turned to the dentist, his eyes wide.
"By God, pardner," he exclaimed, breathlessly. "By God--" he broke off abruptly.
"That's what you been looking for, ain't it?" asked the dentist.
"Looking for! Looking for!" Cribbens checked himself . "That's slate all right, and that's grano- diorite, I know"--he bent down and examined the rock-- "and here's the quartz between 'em; there can't be no mistake about that. Gi' me that hammer," he cried, excitedly. "Come on, git to work. Jab into the quartz with your pick; git out some chunks of it." Cribbens went down on his hands and knees, attacking the quartz vein furiously. The dentist followed his example, swinging his pick with enormous force, splintering the rocks at every stroke. Cribbens was talking to himself in his excitement.
"Got you this time, you son of a gun! By God! I guess we got you this time, at last. Looks like it, anyhow. Get a move on, pardner. There ain't anybody 'round, is there? Hey?" Without looking, he drew his revolver and threw it to the dentist. "Take the gun an' look around, pardner. If you see any son of a gun anywhere, plug him. This yere's our claim. I guess we got it this tide, pardner. Come on." He gathered up the chunks of quartz he had broken out, and put them in his hat and started towards their camp. The two went along with great strides, hurrying as fast as they could over the uneven ground.
"I don' know," exclaimed Cribbens, breathlessly, "I don' want to say too much. Maybe we're fooled. Lord, that damn camp's a long ways off. Oh, I ain't goin' to fool along this way. Come on, pardner." He broke into a run. McTeague followed at a lumbering gallop. Over the scorched, parched ground, stumbling and tripping over sage-brush and sharp-pointed rocks, under the palpitating heat of the desert sun, they ran and scrambled, carrying the quartz lumps in their hats.
"See any 'color' in it, pardner?" gasped Cribbens. "I can't, can you? 'Twouldn't be visible nohow, I guess. Hurry up. Lord, we ain't ever going to get to that camp."
Finally they arrived. Cribbens dumped the quartz fragments into a pan.
"You pestle her, pardner, an' I'll fix the scales." McTeague ground the lumps to fine dust in the iron mortar while Cribbens set up the tiny scales and got out the "spoons" from their outfit.
"That's fine enough," Cribbens exclaimed, impatiently. "Now we'll spoon her. Gi' me the water."
Cribbens scooped up a spoonful of the fine white powder and began to spoon it carefully. The two were on their hands and knees upon the ground, their heads close together, still panting with excitement and the exertion of their run.
"Can't do it," exclaimed Cribbens, sitting back on his heels, "hand shakes so. You take it, pardner. Careful, now."
McTeague took the horn spoon and began rocking it gently in his huge fingers, sluicing the water over the edge a little at a time, each movement washing away a little more of the powdered quartz. The two watched it with the intensest eagerness.
"Don't see it yet; don't see it yet," whispered Cribbens, chewing his mustache. "Leetle faster, pardner. That's the ticket. Careful, steady, now; leetle more, leetle more. Don't see color yet, do you?"
The quartz sediment dwindled by degrees as McTeague spooned it steadily. Then at last a thin streak of a foreign substance began to show just along the edge. It was yellow.
Neither spoke. Cribbens dug his nails into the sand, and ground his mustache between his teeth. The yellow streak broadened as the quartz sediment washed away. Cribbens whispered:
"We got it, pardner. That's gold."
McTeague washed the last of the white quartz dust away, and let the water trickle after it. A pinch of gold, fine as flour, was left in the bottom of the spoon.
"There you are," he said. The two looked at each other. Then Cribbens rose into the air with a great leap and a yell that could have been heard for half a mile.
"Yee-e-ow! We got it, we struck it. Pardner, we got it. Out of sight. We're millionaires." He snatched up his revolver and fired it with inconceivable rapidity. "Put it there, old man," he shouted, gripping McTeague's palm.
"That's gold, all right," muttered McTeague, studying the contents of the spoon.
"You bet your great-grandma's Cochin-China Chessy cat it's gold," shouted Cribbens. "Here, now, we got a lot to do. We got to stake her out an' put up the location notice. We'll take our full acreage, you bet. You--we haven't weighed this yet. Where's the scales?" He weighed the pinch of gold with shaking hands. "Two grains," he cried. "That'll run five dollars to the ton. Rich, it's rich; it's the richest kind of pay, pardner. We're millionaires. Why don't you say something? Why don't you get excited? Why don't you run around an' do something?"
"Huh!" said McTeague, rolling his eyes. "Huh! I know, I know, we've struck it pretty rich."
"Come on," exclaimed Cribbens, jumping up again. "We'll stake her out an' put up the location notice. Lord, suppose anyone should have come on her while we've been away." He reloaded his revolver deliberately. "We'll drop him all right, if there's anyone fooling round there; I'll tell you those right now. Bring the rifle, pardner, an' if you see anyone, plug him, an' ask him what he wants afterward."
They hurried back to where they had made their discovery.
"To think," exclaimed Cribbens, as he drove the first stake, "to think those other mushheads had their camp within gunshot of her and never located her. Guess they didn't know the meaning of a 'contact.' Oh, I knew I was solid on 'contacts.'"
They staked out their claim, and Cribbens put up the notice of location. It was dark before they were through. Cribbens broke off some more chunks of quarts in the vein.
"I'll spoon this too, just for the fun of it, when I get home," he explained, as they tramped back to the camp.
"Well," said the dentist, "we got the laugh on those cowboys."
"Have we?" shouted Cribbens. "Have we? Just wait and see the rush for this place when we tell 'em about it down in Keeler. Say, what'll we call her?"
"I don' know, I don' know."
"We might call her the 'Last Chance.' 'Twas our last chance, wasn't it? We'd 'a' gone antelope shooting tomorrow, and the next day we'd 'a'--say, what you stopping for?" he added, interrupting himself. "What's up?"
The dentist had paused abruptly on the crest of a canyon. Cribbens, looking back, saw him standing motionless in his tracks.
"What's up?" asked Cribbens a second time.
McTeague slowly turned his head and looked over one shoulder, then over the other. Suddenly he wheeled sharply about, cocking the Winchester and tossing it to his shoulder. Cribbens ran back to his side, whipping out his revolver.
"What is it?" he cried. "See anybody?" He peered on ahead through the gathering twilight.
"No, didn't hear anything."
"What is it then? What's up?"
"I don' know, I don' know," muttered the dentist, lowering the rifle. "There was something."
"Something--didn't you notice?"
"I don' know. Something--something or other."
"Who? What? Notice what? What did you see?"
The dentist let down the hammer of the rifle.
"I guess it wasn't anything," he said rather foolishly.
"What d'you think you saw--anybody on the claim?"
"I didn't see anything. I didn't hear anything either. I had an idea, that's all; came all of a sudden, like that. Something, I don' know what."
"I guess you just imagined something. There ain't anybody within twenty miles of us, I guess."
"Yes, I guess so, just imagined it, that's the word."
Half an hour later they had the fire going. McTeague was frying strips of bacon over the coals, and Cribbens was still chattering and exclaiming over their great strike. All at once McTeague put down the frying-pan.
"What's that?" he growled.
"Hey? What's what?" exclaimed Cribbens, getting up.
"Didn't you notice something?"
"Off there." The dentist made a vague gesture toward the eastern horizon. "Didn't you hear something--I mean see something--I mean--"
"What's the matter with you, pardner?"
"Nothing. I guess I just imagined it."
But it was not imagination. Until midnight the partners lay broad awake, rolled in their blankets under the open sky, talking and discussing and making plans. At last Cribbens rolled over on his side and slept. The dentist could not sleep.
What! It was warning him again, that strange sixth sense, that obscure brute instinct. It was aroused again and clamoring to be obeyed. Here, in these desolate barren hills, twenty miles from the nearest human being, it stirred and woke and rowelled him to be moving on. It had goaded him to flight from the Big Dipper mine, and he had obeyed. But now it was different; now he had suddenly become rich; he had lighted on a treasure--a treasure far more valuable than the Big Dipper mine itself. How was he to leave that? He could not move on now. He turned about in his blankets. No, he would not move on. Perhaps it was his fancy, after all. He saw nothing, heard nothing. The emptiness of primeval desolation stretched from him leagues and leagues upon either hand. The gigantic silence of the night lay close over everything, like a muffling Titanic palm. Of what was he suspicious? In that treeless waste an object could be seen at half a day's journey distant. In that vast silence the click of a pebble was as audible as a pistol-shot. And yet there was nothing, nothing.
The dentist settled himself in his blankets and tried to sleep. In five minutes he was sitting up, staring into the blue-gray shimmer of the moonlight, straining his ears, watching and listening intently. Nothing was in sight. The browned and broken flanks of the Panamint hills lay quiet and familiar under the moon. The burro moved its head with a clinking of its bell; and McTeagues mule, dozing on three legs, changed its weight to another foot, with a long breath. Everything fell silent again.
"What is it?" muttered the dentist. "If I could only see something, hear something."
He threw off the blankets, and, rising, climbed to the summit of the nearest hill and looked back in the direction in which he and Cribbens had travelled a fortnight before. For half an hour he waited, watching and listening in vain. But as he returned to camp, and prepared to roll his blankets about him, the strange impulse rose in him again abruptly, never so strong, never so insistent. It seemed as though he were bitted and ridden; as if some unseen hand were turning him toward the east; some unseen heel spurring him to precipitate and instant flight.
Flight from what? "No," he muttered under his breath. "Go now and leave the claim, and leave a fortune! What a fool I'd be, when I can't see anything or hear anything. To leave a fortune! No, I won't. No, by God!" He drew Cribbens's Winchester toward him and slipped a cartridge into the magazine.
"No," he growled. "Whatever happens, I'm going to stay. If anybody comes--" He depressed the lever of the rifle, and sent the cartridge clashing into the breech.
"I ain't going to sleep," he muttered under his mustache. "I can't sleep; I'll watch." He rose a second time, clambered to the nearest hilltop and sat down, drawing the blanket around him, and laying the Winchester across his knees. The hours passed. The dentist sat on the hilltop a motionless, crouching figure, inky black against the pale blur of the sky. By and by the edge of the eastern horizon began to grow blacker and more distinct in out-line. The dawn was coming. Once more McTeague felt the mysterious intuition of approaching danger; an unseen hand seemed reining his head eastward; a spur was in his flanks that seemed to urge him to hurry, hurry, hurry. The influence grew stronger with every moment. The dentist set his great jaws together and held his ground.
"No," he growled between his set teeth. "No, I'll stay." He made a long circuit around the camp, even going as far as the first stake of the new claim, his Winchester cocked, his ears pricked, his eyes alert. There was nothing; yet as plainly as though it were shouted at the very nape of his neck he felt an enemy. It was not fear. McTeague was not afraid.
"If I could only see something--somebody," he muttered, as he held the cocked rifle ready, "I--I'd show him."
He returned to camp. Cribbens was snoring. The burro had come down to the stream for its morning drink. The mule was awake and browsing. McTeague stood irresolutely by the cold ashes of the camp-fire, looking from side to side with all the suspicion and wariness of a tracked stag. Stronger and stronger grew the strange impulse. It seemed to him that on the next instant he must perforce wheel sharply eastward and rush away headlong in a clumsy, lumbering gallop. He fought against it with all the ferocious obstinacy of his simple brute nature.
"Go, and leave the mine? Go and leave a million dollars? No, no, I won't go. No, I'll stay. Ah," he exclaimed, under his breath, with a shake of his huge head, like an exasperated and harassed brute, "ah, show yourself, will you?" He brought the rifle to his shoulder and covered point after point along the range of hills to the west. "Come on, show yourself. Come on a little, all of you. I ain't afraid of you; but don't skulk this way. You ain't going to drive me away from my mine. I'm going to stay."
An hour passed. Then two. The stars winked out, and the dawn whitened. The air became warmer. The whole east, clean of clouds, flamed opalescent from horizon to zenith, crimson at the base, where the earth blackened against it; at the top fading from pink to pale yellow, to green, to light blue, to the turquoise iridescence of the desert sky. The long, thin shadows of the early hours drew backward like receding serpents, then suddenly the sun looked over the shoulder of the world, and it was day.
At that moment McTeague was already eight miles away from the camp, going steadily eastward. He was descending the lowest spurs of the Panamint hills, following an old and faint cattle trail. Before him he drove his mule, laden with blankets, provisions for six days, Cribben's rifle, and a canteen full of water. Securely bound to the pommel of the saddle was the canvas sack with its precious five thousand dollars, all in twenty-dollar gold pieces. But strange enough in that horrid waste of sand and sage was the object that McTeague himself persistently carried--the canary in its cage, about which he had carefully wrapped a couple of old flour-bags.
At about five o'clock that morning McTeague had crossed several trails which seemed to be converging, and, guessing that they led to a water hole, had followed one of them and had brought up at a sort of small sundried sink which nevertheless contained a little water at the bottom. He had watered the mule here, refilled the canteen, and drank deep himself. He had also dampened the old flour-sacks around the bird cage to protect the little canary as far as possible from the heat that he knew would increase now with every hour. He had made ready to go forward again, but had paused irresolute again, hesitating for the last time.
"I'm a fool," he growled, scowling back at the range behind him. "I'm a fool. What's the matter with me? I'm just walking right away from a million dollars. I know it's there. No, by God!" he exclaimed, savagely, "I ain't going to do it. I'm going back. I can't leave a mine like that." He had wheeled the mule about, and had started to return on his tracks, grinding his teeth fiercely, inclining his head forward as though butting against a wind that would beat him back. "Go on, go on," he cried, sometimes addressing the mule, sometimes himself. "Go on, go back, go back. I will go back." It was as though he were climbing a hill that grew steeper with every stride. The strange impelling instinct fought his advance yard by yard. By degrees the dentist's steps grew slower; he stopped, went forward again cautiously, almost feeling his way, like someone approaching a pit in the darkness. He stopped again, hesitating, gnashing his teeth, clinching his fists with blind fury. Suddenly he turned the mule about, and once more set his face to the eastward.
"I can't," he cried aloud to the desert; "I can't, I can't. It's stronger than I am. I can't go back. Hurry now, hurry, hurry, hurry."
He hastened on furtively, his head and shoulders bent. At times one could almost say he crouched as he pushed forward with long strides; now and then he even looked over his shoulder. Sweat rolled from him, he lost his hat, and the matted mane of thick yellow hair swept over his forehead and shaded his small, twinkling eyes. At times, with a vague, nearly automatic gesture, he reached his hand forward, the fingers prehensile, and directed towards the horizon, as if he would clutch it and draw it nearer; and at intervals he muttered, "Hurry, hurry, hurry on, hurry on." For now at last McTeague was afraid.
His plans were uncertain. He remembered what Cribbens had said about the Armagosa Mountains in the country on the other side of Death Valley. It was all hell to get into that country, Cribbens had said, and not many men went there, because of the terrible valley of alkali that barred the way, a horrible vast sink of white sand and salt below even the sea level, the dry bed, no doubt, of some prehistoric lake. But McTeague resolved to make a circuit of the valley, keeping to the south, until he should strike the Armagosa River. He would make a circuit of the valley and come up on the other side. He would get into that country around Gold Mountain in the Armagosa hills, barred off from the world by the leagues of the red-hot alkali of Death Valley. "They" would hardly reach him there. He would stay at Gold Mountain two or three months, and then work his way down into Mexico.
McTeague tramped steadily forward, still descending the lower irregularities of the Panamint Range. By nine o'clock the slope flattened out abruptly; the hills were behind him; before him, to the east, all was level. He had reached the region where even the sand and sage-brush begin to dwindle, giving place to white, powdered alkali. The trails were numerous, but old and faint; and they had been made by cattle, not by men. They led in all directions but one-- north, south, and west; but not one, however faint, struck out towards the valley.
"If I keep along the edge of the hills where these trails are," muttered the dentist, "I ought to find water up in the arroyos from time to time."
At once he uttered an exclamation. The mule had begun to squeal and lash out with alternate hoofs, his eyes rolling, his ears flattened. He ran a few steps, halted, and squealed again. Then, suddenly wheeling at right angles, set off on a jog trot to the north, squealing and kicking from time to time. McTeague ran after him shouting and swearing, but for a long time the mule would not allow himself to be caught. He seemed more bewildered than frightened.
"He's eatun some of that loco-weed that Cribbens spoke about," panted McTeague. "Whoa, there; steady, you." At length the mule stopped of his own accord, and seemed to come to his senses again. McTeague came up and took the bridle rein, speaking to him and rubbing his nose.
"There, there, what's the matter with you?" The mule was docile again. McTeague washed his mouth and set forward once more.
The day was magnificent. From horizon to horizon was one vast span of blue, whitening as it dipped earthward. Miles upon miles to the east and southeast the desert unrolled itself, white, naked, inhospitable, palpitating and shimmering under the sun, unbroken by so much as a rock or cactus stump. In the distance it assumed all manner of faint colors, pink, purple, and pale orange. To the west rose the Panamint Range, sparsely sprinkled with gray sage- brush; here the earths and sands were yellow, ochre, and rich, deep red, the hollows and canyons picked out with intense blue shadows. It seemed strange that such barrenness could exhibit this radiance of color, but nothing could have been more beautiful than the deep red of the higher bluffs and ridges, seamed with purple shadows, standing sharply out against the pale-blue whiteness of the horizon.
By nine o'clock the sun stood high in the sky. The heat was intense; the atmosphere was thick and heavy with it. McTeague gasped for breath and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead, his cheeks, and his neck. Every inch and pore of his skin was tingling and pricking under the merciless lash of the sun's rays.
"If it gets much hotter," he muttered, with a long breath, "if it gets much hotter, I--I don' know--" He wagged his head and wiped the sweat from his eyelids, where it was running like tears.
The sun rose higher; hour by hour, as the dentist tramped steadily on, the heat increased. The baked dry sand crackled into innumerable tiny flakes under his feet. The twigs of the sage-brush snapped like brittle pipestems as he pushed through them. It grew hotter. At eleven the earth was like the surface of a furnace; the air, as McTeague breathed it in, was hot to his lips and the roof of his mouth. The sun was a disk of molten brass swimming in the burnt-out blue of the sky. McTeague stripped off his woollen shirt, and even unbuttoned his flannel undershirt, tying a handkerchief loosely about his neck.
"Lord!" he exclaimed. "I never knew it could get as hot as this."
The heat grew steadily fiercer; all distant objects were visibly shimmering and palpitating under it. At noon a mirage appeared on the hills to the northwest. McTeague halted the mule, and drank from the tepid water in the canteen, dampening the sack around the canary's cage. As soon as he ceased his tramp and the noise of his crunching, grinding footsteps died away, the silence, vast, illimitable, enfolded him like an immeasurable tide. From all that gigantic landscape, that colossal reach of baking sand, there arose not a single sound. Not a twig rattled, not an insect hummed, not a bird or beast invaded that huge solitude with call or cry. Everything as far as the eye could reach, to north, to south, to east, and west, lay inert, absolutely quiet and moveless under the remorseless scourge of the noon sun. The very shadows shrank away, hiding under sage-bushes, retreating to the farthest nooks and crevices in the canyons of the hills. All the world was one gigantic blinding glare, silent, motionless. "If it gets much hotter," murmured the dentist again, moving his head from side to side, "if it gets much hotter, I don' know what I'll do."
Steadily the heat increased. At three o'clock it was even more terrible than it had been at noon.
"Ain't it ever going to let up?" groaned the dentist, rolling his eyes at the sky of hot blue brass. Then, as he spoke, the stillness was abruptly stabbed through and through by a shrill sound that seemed to come from all sides at once. It ceased; then, as McTeague took another forward step, began again with the suddenness of a blow, shriller, nearer at hand, a hideous, prolonged note that brought both man and mule to an instant halt.
"I know what that is," exclaimed the dentist. His eyes searched the ground swiftly until he saw what he expected he should see--the round thick coil, the slowly waving clover- shaped head and erect whirring tail with its vibrant rattles.
For fully thirty seconds the man and snake remained looking into each other's eyes. Then the snake uncoiled and swiftly wound from sight amidst the sagebrush. McTeague drew breath again, and his eyes once more beheld the illimitable leagues of quivering sand and alkali.
"Good Lord! What a country!" he exclaimed. But his voice was trembling as he urged forward the mule once more.
Fiercer and fiercer grew the heat as the afternoon advanced. At four McTeague stopped again. He was dripping at every pore, but there was no relief in perspiration. The very touch of his clothes upon his body was unendurable. The mule's ears were drooping and his tongue lolled from his mouth. The cattle trails seemed to be drawing together toward a common point; perhaps a water hole was near by.
"I'll have to lay up, sure," muttered the dentist. "I ain't made to travel in such heat as this."
He drove the mule up into one of the larger canyons and halted in the shadow of a pile of red rock. After a long search he found water, a few quarts, warm and brackish, at the bottom of a hollow of sunwracked mud; it was little more than enough to water the mule and refill his canteen. Here he camped, easing the mule of the saddle, and turning him loose to find what nourishment he might. A few hours later the sun set in a cloudless glory of red and gold, and the heat became by degrees less intolerable. McTeague cooked his supper, chiefly coffee and bacon, and watched the twilight come on, revelling in the delicious coolness of the evening. As he spread his blankets on the ground he resolved that hereafter he would travel only at night, laying up in the daytime in the shade of the canyons. He was exhausted with his terrible day's march. Never in his life had sleep seemed so sweet to him.
But suddenly he was broad awake, his jaded senses all alert.
"What was that?" he muttered. "I thought I heard something --saw something."
He rose to his feet, reaching for the Winchester. Desolation lay still around him. There was not a sound but his own breathing; on the face of the desert not a grain of sand was in motion. McTeague looked furtively and quickly from side to side, his teeth set, his eyes rolling. Once more the rowel was in his flanks, once more an unseen hand reined him toward the east. After all the miles of that dreadful day's flight he was no better off than when he started. If anything, he was worse, for never had that mysterious instinct in him been more insistent than now; never had the impulse toward precipitate flight been stronger; never had the spur bit deeper. Every nerve of his body cried aloud for rest; yet every instinct seemed aroused and alive, goading him to hurry on, to hurry on.
"What is it, then? What is it?" he cried, between his teeth. "Can't I ever get rid of you? Ain't I ever going to shake you off? Don' keep it up this way. Show yourselves. Let's have it out right away. Come on. I ain't afraid if you'll only come on; but don't skulk this way." Suddenly he cried aloud in a frenzy of exasperation, "Damn you, come on, will you? Come on and have it out." His rifle was at his shoulder, he was covering bush after bush, rock after rock, aiming at every denser shadow. All at once, and quite involuntarily, his forefinger crooked, and the rifle spoke and flamed. The canyons roared back the echo, tossing it out far over the desert in a rippling, widening wave of sound.
McTeague lowered the rifle hastily, with an exclamation of dismay.
"You fool," he said to himself, "you fool. You've done it now. They could hear that miles away. You've done it now."
He stood listening intently, the rifle smoking in his hands. The last echo died away. The smoke vanished, the vast silence closed upon the passing echoes of the rifle as the ocean closes upon a ship's wake. Nothing moved; yet McTeague bestirred himself sharply, rolling up his blankets, resaddling the mule, getting his outfit together again. From time to time he muttered:
"Hurry now; hurry on. You fool, you've done it now. They could hear that miles away. Hurry now. They ain't far off now."
As he depressed the lever of the rifle to reload it, he found that the magazine was empty. He clapped his hands to his sides, feeling rapidly first in one pocket, then in another. He had forgotten to take extra cartridges with him. McTeague swore under his breath as he flung the rifle away. Henceforth he must travel unarmed.
A little more water had gathered in the mud hole near which he had camped. He watered the mule for the last time and wet the sacks around the canary's cage. Then once more he set forward.
But there was a change in the direction of McTeague's flight. Hitherto he had held to the south, keeping upon the very edge of the hills; now he turned sharply at right angles. The slope fell away beneath his hurrying feet; the sage-brush dwindled, and at length ceased; the sand gave place to a fine powder, white as snow; and an hour after he had fired the rifle his mule's hoofs were crisping and cracking the sun-baked flakes of alkali on the surface of Death Valley.
Tracked and harried, as he felt himself to be, from one camping place to another, McTeague had suddenly resolved to make one last effort to rid himself of the enemy that seemed to hang upon his heels. He would strike straight out into that horrible wilderness where even the beasts were afraid. He would cross Death Valley at once and put its arid wastes between him and his pursuer.
"You don't dare follow me now," he muttered, as he hurried on. "Let's see you come out here after me."
He hurried on swiftly, urging the mule to a rapid racking walk. Towards four o'clock the sky in front of him began to flush pink and golden. McTeague halted and breakfasted, pushing on again immediately afterward. The dawn flamed and glowed like a brazier, and the sun rose a vast red-hot coal floating in fire. An hour passed, then another, and another. It was about nine o'clock. Once more the dentist paused, and stood panting and blowing, his arms dangling, his eyes screwed up and blinking as he looked about him.
Far behind him the Panamint hills were already but blue hummocks on the horizon. Before him and upon either side, to the north and to the east and to the south, stretched primordial desolation. League upon league the infinite reaches of dazzling white alkali laid themselves out like an immeasurable scroll unrolled from horizon to horizon; not a bush, not a twig relieved that horrible monotony. Even the sand of the desert would have been a welcome sight; a single clump of sage-brush would have fascinated the eye; but this was worse than the desert. It was abominable, this hideous sink of alkali, this bed of some primeval lake lying so far below the level of the ocean. The great mountains of Placer County had been merely indifferent to man; but this awful sink of alkali was openly and unreservedly iniquitous and malignant.
McTeague had told himself that the heat upon the lower slopes of the Panamint had been dreadful; here in Death Valley it became a thing of terror. There was no longer any shadow but his own. He was scorched and parched from head to heel. It seemed to him that the smart of his tortured body could not have been keener if he had been flayed.
"If it gets much hotter," he muttered, wringing the sweat from his thick fell of hair and mustache, "if it gets much hotter, I don' know what I'll do." He was thirsty, and drank a little from his canteen. "I ain't got any too much water," he murmured, shaking the canteen. "I got to get out of this place in a hurry, sure."
By eleven o'clock the heat had increased to such an extent that McTeague could feel the burning of the ground come pringling and stinging through the soles of his boots. Every step he took threw up clouds of impalpable alkali dust, salty and choking, so that he strangled and coughed and sneezed with it.
"Lord! what a country!" exclaimed the dentist.
An hour later, the mule stopped and lay down, his jaws wide open, his ears dangling. McTeague washed his mouth with a handful of water and for a second time since sunrise wetted the flour-sacks around the bird cage. The air was quivering and palpitating like that in the stoke-hold of a steamship. The sun, small and contracted, swam molten overhead.
"I can't stand it," said McTeague at length. "I'll have to stop and make some kinda shade."
The mule was crouched upon the ground, panting rapidly, with half-closed eyes. The dentist removed the saddle, and unrolling his blanket, propped it up as best he could between him and the sun. As he stooped down to crawl beneath it, his palm touched the ground. He snatched it away with a cry of pain. The surface alkali was oven-hot; he was obliged to scoop out a trench in it before he dared to lie down.
By degrees the dentist began to doze. He had had little or no sleep the night before, and the hurry of his flight under the blazing sun had exhausted him. But his rest was broken; between waking and sleeping, all manner of troublous images galloped through his brain. He thought he was back in the Panamint hills again with Cribbens. They had just discovered the mine and were returning toward camp. McTeague saw himself as another man, striding along over the sand and sagebrush. At once he saw himself stop and wheel sharply about, peering back suspiciously. There was something behind him; something was following him. He looked, as it were, over the shoulder of this other McTeague, and saw down there, in the half light of the canyon, something dark crawling upon the ground, an indistinct gray figure, man or brute, he did not know. Then he saw another, and another; then another. A score of black, crawling objects were following him, crawling from bush to bush, converging upon him. "They" were after him, were closing in upon him, were within touch of his hand, were at his feet--were at his throat.
McTeague jumped up with a shout, oversetting the blanket. There was nothing in sight. For miles around, the alkali was empty, solitary, quivering and shimmering under the pelting fire of the afternoon's sun.
But once more the spur bit into his body, goading him on. There was to be no rest, no going back, no pause, no stop. Hurry, hurry, hurry on. The brute that in him slept so close to the surface was alive and alert, and tugging to be gone. There was no resisting that instinct. The brute felt an enemy, scented the trackers, clamored and struggled and fought, and would not be gainsaid.
"I can't go on," groaned McTeague, his eyes sweeping the horizon behind him, "I'm beat out. I'm dog tired. I ain't slept any for two nights." But for all that he roused himself again, saddled the mule, scarcely less exhausted than himself, and pushed on once more over the scorching alkali and under the blazing sun.
From that time on the fear never left him, the spur never ceased to bite, the instinct that goaded him to fight never was dumb; hurry or halt, it was all the same. On he went, straight on, chasing the receding horizon; flagellated with heat; tortured with thirst; crouching over; looking furtively behind, and at times reaching his hand forward, the fingers prehensile, grasping, as it were, toward the horizon, that always fled before him.
The sun set upon the third day of McTeague's flight, night came on, the stars burned slowly into the cool dark purple of the sky. The gigantic sink of white alkali glowed like snow. McTeague, now far into the desert, held steadily on, swinging forward with great strides. His enormous strength held him doggedly to his work. Sullenly, with his huge jaws gripping stolidly together, he pushed on. At midnight he stopped.
"Now," he growled, with a certain desperate defiance, as though he expected to be heard, "now, I'm going to lay up and get some sleep. You can come or not."
He cleared away the hot surface alkali, spread out his blanket, and slept until the next day's heat aroused him. His water was so low that he dared not make coffee now, and so breakfasted without it. Until ten o'clock he tramped forward, then camped again in the shade of one of the rare rock ledges, and "lay up" during the heat of the day. By five o'clock he was once more on the march.
He travelled on for the greater part of that night, stopping only once towards three in the morning to water the mule from the canteen. Again the red-hot day burned up over the horizon. Even at six o'clock it was hot.
"It's going to be worse than ever to-day," he groaned. "I wish I could find another rock to camp by. Ain't I ever going to get out of this place?"
There was no change in the character of the desert. Always the same measureless leagues of white-hot alkali stretched away toward the horizon on every hand. Here and there the flat, dazzling surface of the desert broke and raised into long low mounds, from the summit of which McTeague could look for miles and miles over its horrible desolation. No shade was in sight. Not a rock, not a stone broke the monotony of the ground. Again and again he ascended the low unevennesses, looking and searching for a camping place, shading his eyes from the glitter of sand and sky.
He tramped forward a little farther, then paused at length in a hollow between two breaks, resolving to make camp there.
Suddenly there was a shout.
"Hands up. By damn, I got the drop on you!"
McTeague looked up.
It was Marcus.