Down at the cabin once more, the two faced each other, breathing hard. The boy’s face was white.
“Shanty, we gotta do something! I’m not goin’ to let that man have my dad’s mine—”
Shanty’s face was grave.
“Yon’s a bad un, lad, as would take the pennies off his dead mither’s eyes! He has no legal claim to yer feyther’s mine, for a gamblin’ debt is not recognized in the Californy courts. Sure, I’ve had six gold mines give t’ me—on paper, across the poker table—but divil a cent could I collect on ’em! He’s bankin’ on our position here—which ain’t too good, me lad. But—I’ve a hunch inside o’ me, churnin’ around like a butter paddle. Come, lad—show me the place where yer mither used to throw out trash.”
Wondering, the boy did so. Still wondering, he got pick and shovel for Shanty. But a day’s steady work, grubbing in the unsightly conglomeration of broken bottles, tin cans and rusted cooking utensils, revealed nothing in the way of pay dirt.
With pan and sluice box the old prospector worked the swollen stream. The next day and the next they kept at it from early dawn until darkness. Food supplies were dwindling. Only apples were left, and a little coffee.
Of Banshee Taylor they saw nothing. But one night they heard the snapping of a twig outside the shack, and caught the flitting shadow of a face against the window pane. Instantly it was gone.
“Tis a pity,” said Shanty, trying to speak lightly, “that we can’t teach Steven to growl and bark when unwelcome visitors is prowlin’ about!”
As if he had heard his name spoken, the big brown rat slid out of his hole in the rotten flooring, and came forward cautiously, his bright eyes fixed hopefully upon Bill.
The boy stooped down, holding out a piece of apple. The pack rat dropped what he had been carrying in his mouth, snatched the proffered morsel, and scurried back to his hole.
Shanty picked up the small white object and looked at it curiously. It was a china button, nicked at the edge.
“Now I may be crazy as a loon,” he said half to himself. “but this looks like the same chiny button as I seen away up there on the ledge! Bill lad, if only that rat could talk, I’m thinkin’ he could tell us somethin’ we’d like to know! Was it true, lad, what Banshee said about yer feyther not registerin’ his claim?” .
The boy shook his head.
“Gee—I don’t know! He staked it out, but mebbe he didn’t get into town—”
The old prospector sighed.
“And neyther one of us dares go in—unless we want to stay put!”
It was the day before Christmas, a dark, dreary day with heavy rain clouds swirling overhead and threatening momentarily to dissolve into a torrential storm. The old prospector’s heart was heavy.
“Ye’re not gettin’ anywheres, Shanty,” he muttered, “an’ ye’re draggin’ this lad nowheres with ye!”
He went to the door of the little cabin and looked up at the ominous gray sky. The sound of distant voices caught his ear. And then a tingling shock went through him. For from the highway at the top of the hill three men were descending—and Banshee Taylor was in the lead!
For an instant he stood helpless. The end to the brief interlude of freedom had come. Banshee had brought the authorities. It would mean jail this time!
With the thought came fierce, swift revulsion of feeling.
He slammed the door shut, and flung the heavy bar across it. He was panting as he turned around.
“Lad, lad, they’re upon us!”
Bill leaped from his packing-box seat.
“I ain’t going back!” he cried. “Shanty, you aren’t either! You and me are pards—we’re workin’ for a livin’! We can get along if they just let us alone until we find that gold ….”
The old prospector’s face was white.
“I’m thinkin’ they won’t listen to any sech talk, lad.” They were at the window, crouching down together, peering out.
“Kape as quiet as a mouse, an’ belike they’ll go away—especially if the rain will but come!”
The sound of thrashing footsteps came nearer … the men had paused on the other side of the swiftly racing stream to find the best place for crossing.
Suddenly, from behind the two in the cabin, came a little click. Shanty started nervously.
“It’s only Steven … he’s brought something,” whispered Bill.
But Shanty made a queer, strained sound in his throat. For the flicker of firelight had caught the object that the big brown pack rat had dropped on the floor—and it threw off a molten yellow gleam!
“Saints love us,” he whispered, trembling, “it looks like— but it can’t be. . . .”
Bill turned, staring at his friend with startled eyes. For the old prospector was crawling along the floor as if his limbs would not support him. Then he squatted in front of the fireplace, the quartz lump in his hand, and there was sweat running down his seamed face.
“Bill, Billy lad—” his voice was hoarse and shaken—“it’s—it’s gold! As rich and free as ever I saw it in me whole life! Bill—when first I saw that pack rat’s nest up on the ledge and heard ye say that yer feyther found gold there, it came into me mind that it was carried there by a trade rat who liked shiny things! And when I glimpsed them pieces o’ green glass and the chiny button—I figgered that Steven must o’ packed ‘em from underneath the trash pile.” He paused an instant.