“But, lad—I’m thinkin’ the vein’s nearer. He’s been breakin’ off pieces along his runway, belike! Git that pick and dig—right down that hole there, under the floorin’ where Steven comes up!”
There were voices outside—the men had crossed the stream. Shanty got to his feet. His eyes were blazing.
“I’ll hold ’em off, lad! If we can prove we ain’t paupers—”
There was a peremptory knock on the barred door. Then a crisp, authoritative voice.
“Open up! We know you’re in there, Shanty—”
For a terrified second, Bill hesitated. Then he leaped for the short-handled pick. He swung it above his head, and it came crashing down into the rotten flooring.
“That’s it, lad—dig! Straight along Steven’s burrow—” He had the double-barreled shotgun in his hands, and was poking it through the broken pane.
“Stand where ye are,” he called out sharply. “Banshee, kape yer hands well above yer head; and you, Mister Sheriff, and you, Mister Deputy, take the same positions! I’m in no argyfyin’ mood, and Banshee will tell ye whether I can shoot straight.”
The three men outside, startled at the unexpected menace of the steady gun, lifted their arms involuntarily. Banshee Taylor’s face had turned a mottled bluish white.
“D-d-on’t shoot—” he stammered. “We—we don’t mean you no harm, Shanty—”
The voice from within was pricked with sarcasm.
“Ye don’t need to be tellin’ me, Banshee! Sure, I’ve had plenty of experience in the past with yer dove-like kindness . . . . (Go on, lad, dig!)”
The sheriff frowned. He was a short, gray-eyed man with a deeply tanned face.
“Shanty, you’re just making things harder for yourself and the boy. You deliberately became a fugitive. Defying the law with a weapon is another serious offense. And you’re crazy if you think you can dig out of the shack. It’s hopeless, Shanty. Put that gun down, and let us in!”
The deputy spoke softly, out of the corner of his mouth.
“Mebbe I can sneak around the corner and stick a gun through one o’ the side windows!”
The gathering storm was nearer. The clouds were heavy and black. A white swish of lightning was followed by a crackling rattle of thunder.
“I’ll not let ye in unless ye agree to give us a chance! (Dig, lad! Tear up that board yonder!)”
The sheriff’s voice was stern.
“You’re spoiling every chance for yourself and the boy. Open that door and surrender peaceably!”
Again came the white gnashing of the lightning’s teeth, and the snarling roar of the thunder. The air was murky black….
“Beat it!” rasped out the sheriff to his deputy, and the man slipped like a phantom around the corner of the shack.
“Open the door, Shanty. You’re covered from the other side!”
Suddenly, from within, there came an inarticulate cry. Then the gun barrel wavered, and the sheriff sprang forward and seized it, and dragged it through the broken window pane. Banshee, like a coyote, had turned tail and fled to the edge of the clearing. He came slowly back when he saw the gun safely in the hands of the sheriff.
“Be careful o’ that old cuss,” he said fearfully. “He shoots awful straight!”
The sheriff flung him a look of disgust.
The rain came down suddenly, in a vicious, breath-taking deluge. The three men hunched themselves against it.
“Let’s get back to the car until this is over!” shouted Banshee Taylor above the smashing fury of the storm.
“Shut up, you!” the sheriff roared at him.
Then the cabin door opened abruptly, with the sound of falling bar and creaking hinges. The old prospector stood there, a strange, wild look in his eyes. His gray hair was disheveled by the driving wind.
“Come in!” he cried out to them, “come in and take shelter! Mister Sheriff, it’s trustin’ to yer honor that I am ….”
They stumbled inside, gasping for breath. Shanty shut the door behind them. The sheriff shook from his hat a shower of rain drops. “I’ve told you, Shanty, I can’t promise anything except the law.”
The bent figure straightened. There was an electric quality to his voice that seemed a part of the unleashed storm outside.
“It’s justice of the law that I’m askin’! Justice fer an orphaned lad and his wee sister—fer them as has no feyther, and is hounded by a black devil in human form! You, Banshee Taylor—” he pointed a shaking hand at the dark, belligerent face—“you tricked William Radfield once by saltin’ a worthless mine—and then, when ye thought gold was truly there, ye tricked him into gettin’ it back again! But there’s a justice above all yer dirty schemin’s—and the instrument of it was a humble one! Jest a pack rat it was that fooled ye, Banshee Taylor, with his cache o’ shinin’ rocks! The vein is not up on the hill—it’s here, under our very feet !”
The three men followed his pointing finger with hypnotized eyes. They saw a boy’s bowed form, bent over something on the floor beside him—and there was tragedy in his figure.