It was morning, golden and gracious, with a warmth that denied the coldness of the preceding night. Shanty and Bill were pushing their way through a thicket of tall ferns and underbrush up the hill that rose behind the cabin.
“Gee!” panted the boy, “this sure has grown up since I was up here last! Hi!” He stopped, breathing heavily as they came out on a narrow but plainly marked trail. “Someone’s been along here! See that footprint?”
Shanty nodded, sniffing. There was a perceptible odor of tobacco in the fresh mountain air.
“Did ye tell me that yer dad kep’ this mine o’ his a secret?” Bill hesitated.
“Well—not a dead secret! You see, there was a man who owned it, and he sold his claim to Dad. Mom didn’t like him ’cause he used to drink somethin’ awful, and once he tried to kill Steven for carryin’ off his pipe. After he sold Dad the mine, we couldn’t find gold in it anywheres; although there was plenty when he was showin’ it to us. . . .”
The old prospector’s eyes narrowed.
“Salted!” he said briefly. “Sech tricks ha’ fooled the wisest of us!”
“But then, a few weeks later,” Bill went on eagerly, “we found gold! Chunks of it!”
Shanty started. “Nuggets, ye mean, lad?” he asked eagerly.
“No, not exactly nuggets . . . little pieces of quartz like they had been broke off—and shot just full o’ gold! Look, it was right here!” They had reached a ledge, set back under the sheltering brow of the hill. A rudely tunneled entrance made a rectangle of black against the gray-brown walls. Bill stooped down, his face glowing with excitement.
“Right here, it was.”
Shanty, squatted down beside him, was examining the ground with attentive care. A pile of broken twigs and sticks was scattered about, a fragment or two of green glass, and a tiny piece of a mirror. He picked up a small white object and held it out to Bill.
“Was this chiny button and these pieces o’ glass here when ye found the gold-bearin’ quartz?” he asked.
The boy stared at him with wrinkled brows.
“Do you think we paid any attention to rubbish like that?”
The old prospector’s blue eyes were squinting down at the cabin and the brawling stream below, at the foot of the hill.
“No, belike not,” he said slowly, “but I’m wonderin’; ye say that yer dad found chunks o’ quartz after he’d bought the mine?”
“Yes! This man came around again, and he wanted to buy it back, but Dad wouldn’t sell it. Then one night he got Dad drunk, and when I went t’ sleep they were playin’ cards and arguin’ about the mine.”
Suddenly, through the low doorway, came the stooping figure of a man. He straightened up, blinking at the two on the ledge, his dark, unpleasant face streaked with grime and sweat. The boy caught his breath abruptly, and touched the old prospector’s sleeve.
“That’s him! That’s the man I told you about!”
Shanty stood up, his eyes strange and hard.
“The top o’ the mornin’ to ye, Banshee Taylor! Is it saltin’ the mine again that ye are, to snare some unwary devil like poor Radfield—and like mesilf when I gave ye all I had for a worthless hole in the ground?”
The man’s small, heavy-lidded eyes glinted dangerously.
“You git off my property, and stay off! This here is my claim, and I got the paper to prove it!”
The boy’s voice was shrill—more in anger than in fear. “You’re lying! My dad never sold this mine! He knew there was gold in it—he was blastin’ here when he was killed!”
Banshee Taylor grunted in derision.
“Much you know about it! He lost it to me at poker, and signed it over t’ me, fair an’ square. He’s dead, ain’t he?” A sudden thought struck him. “Say! You and yer kid sister was put in an orphanage! And you, Chauncy—I heard you was took up for vagrancy in Sacramento! The two of you is runaways, livin’ in the old cabin! Now you keep yer mouths shut, or I’ll make trouble! I ain’t forgot, Shanty, that you took a shot at me once.”
“And I ain’t forgot that the bullet went through yer hat instead o’ yer skull! The next time I’ll aim better—kape that in mind!”
The man’s face was hard and ugly. “There’s another thing to remember while we’re talkin’ about it—Radfield was jest a squatter! He never actually registered his claim to that land down there. Even the shack don’t belong to his kids.”