Book Two
Chapter VII. In a Virgin Country
 

One night Tavernake began to laugh. He had grown a long brown beard and the hair was over his ears. He was wearing a gray flannel shirt, a handkerchief tied around his neck, and a pair of worn riding breeches held up by a belt. He had kicked his boots off at the end of a long day, and was lying in the moonlight before a fire of pine logs, whose smoke went straight to the star-hung sky. No word had been spoken for the last hour. Tavernake's fit of mirth came with as little apparent reason as the puffs of wind which every now and then stole down from the mountain side and made faint music in the virgin forests.

Pritchard turned over on his side and looked at him. Cigars had for many weeks been an unknown thing, and he was smoking a corn-cob pipe full of coarse tobacco.

"Stumbled across a joke anywhere?" he asked.

"I'm afraid no one but myself would see the humor of it," Tavernake answered. "I was thinking of those days in London; I was thinking of Beatrice's horror when she discovered that I was wearing ready-made clothes, and the amazement of Elizabeth when she found that I hadn't a dress suit. It's odd how cramped life gets back there."

Pritchard nodded, pressing the tobacco down into the bowl of his pipe with his forefinger.

"You're right, Tavernake," he agreed. "One loses one's sense of proportion. Men in the cities are all alike. They go about in disguise."

"I should like," Tavernake said, inconsequently, "to have Mr. Dowling out here."

"Amusing fellow?" Pritchard inquired.

Tavernake shook his head, smiling.

"Not in the least," he answered, "only he was a very small man. Out here it is difficult to keep small. Don't you feel it, Pritchard? These mountains make our hills at home seem like dust-heaps. The skies seem loftier. Look down into that valley. It's gigantic, immense."

Pritchard yawned.

"There's a little place in the Bowery," he began,--

"Oh, I don't want to know any more about New York," Tavernake interrupted. "Lean back and close your eyes, smell the cinnamon trees, listen to that night bird calling every now and then across the ravine. There's blackness, if you like; there's depth. It's like a cloak of velvet to look into. But you can't see the bottom--no, not in the daytime. Listen!"

Pritchard sat up. For a few moments neither spoke. A dozen yards or so off, a scattered group--the rest of the party--were playing cards around a fire. The green wood crackled, an occasional murmur of voices, a laugh or an exclamation, came to their ears, but for the rest, an immense, a wonderful silence, a silence which seemed to spread far away over that weird, half- invisible world! Tavernake listened reverently.

"Isn't it marvelous!" he exclaimed. "We haven't seen a human being except our own party, for three days.

There probably isn't one within hearing of us now. Very likely no living person has ever set foot in this precise spot."

"Oh, it's big," Pritchard admitted, "it's big and it's restful, but it isn't satisfying. It does for you for a time because you started life wrong and you needed a reaction. But for me--ah, well!" he added, "I hear the call right across these thousands of miles of forests and valley and swamp. I hear the electric cars and the clash of the overhead railway, I see the flaring lights of Broadway and I hear the babel of tongues. I am going back to it, Tavernake. There's plenty to go on with. We've done more than carry out our program."

"Back to New York!" Tavernake muttered, disconsolately.

"So you're not ready yet?" Pritchard demanded.

"Heavens, no!" Tavernake answered. "Who would be? What is there in New York to make up for this?"

Pritchard was silent for a moment.

"Well," he said, "one of us must be getting back near civilization. The syndicate will be expecting to hear from us. Besides, we've reports enough already. It's time something was decided about that oil country. We've done some grand work there, Tavernake."

Tavernake nodded. He was lying on his side and his eyes were fixed wistfully southward, over the glimmering moonlit valley, over the great wilderness of virgin pine woods which hung from the mountains on the other side, away through the cleft in the hills to the plains beyond, chaotic, a world unseen.

"If you like to go on for a bit," Pritchard suggested, slowly, "there's no reason why you shouldn't take McCleod and Richardson with you, and Pete and half the horses, and strike for the tin country on the other side of the Yolite Hills. So long as we are here, it's quite worth it, if you can stick it out."

Tavernake drew a long breath.

"I'd like to go," he admitted, simply. "I know McCleod is keen about prospecting further south. You see, most of our finds so far have been among the oil fields."

"Settled," Pritchard declared. "To-morrow, then, we part. I'm for the valley, and I reckon I'll strike the railway to Chicago in a week. Gee whiz! New York will seem good!"

"You think that the syndicate will be satisfied with what we have done so far?" Tavernake asked.

His companion smiled.

"If they aren't, they'll be fools. I reckon there's enough oil fields here for seven companies. There'll be a bit for us, too, Tavernake, I guess. Don't you want to come back to New York and spend it?"

Tavernake laughed once more, but this time his laugh was not wholly natural.

"Spend it!" he repeated. "What is there to spend it on? Uncomfortable clothes, false plays, drinks that are bad for you, food that's half poisoned, atmosphere that stifles. My God, Pritchard, is there anything in the world like this! Stretch out your arms, man. Lie on your back, look up at the stars, let that wind blow over your face. Listen."

They listened, and again they heard nothing, yet again there seemed to be that peculiar quality about the silence which spoke of the vastness of space.

Pritchard rose to his feet.

"New York and the fleshpots for me," he declared. "Keep in touch, and good luck old man!"

Next day at dawn they parted, and Tavernake, with his three companions, set his face towards an almost undiscovered tract of land. Their progress was slow, for they were all the time in a country rich with possibilities. For weeks they climbed, climbed till they reached the snows and the wind stung their faces and they shivered in their rugs at night. They came to a land of sparser vegetation, of fewer and wilder animals, where they heard the baying of wolves at night, and saw the eyes of strange animals glisten through the thicket as the flames of their evening fire shot up toward the sky. Then the long descent began, the long descent to the great plain. Now their faces were bronzed with a sun ever hotter, ever more powerful. No longer the snow flakes beat their cheeks. They came slowly down into a land which seemed to Tavernake like the biblical land of Canaan. Three times in ten days they had to halt and make a camp, while Tavernake prepared a geographical survey of likely-looking land.

McCleod came up to Tavernake one day with a dull-looking lump in his hand, glistening in places.

"Copper," he announced, shortly. "It's what I've been looking for all the time. No end to it. There's something bigger than oil here."

They spent a month in the locality, and every day McCleod became more enthusiastic. After that it was hard work to keep him from heading homeward at once.

"I tell you, sir," he explained to Tavernake, "there's millions there, millions between those four stakes of yours. What's the good of more prospecting? There's enough there in a square acre to pay the expenses of our expedition a thousand times over. Let's get back and make reports. We can strike the railway in ten days from here--perhaps sooner."

"You go," Tavernake said. "Leave me Pete and two of the horses."

The man stared at him in surprise.

"What's the good of going on alone?" he asked. "You're not a mining expert or an oil man. You can't go prospecting by yourself."

"I can't help it," Tavernake answered. "It's something in my blood, I suppose. I am going on. Think! You'll strike that railway and in a month you will be back in New York. Don't you imagine, when you're there, when you hear the clatter and turmoil of it, when you see the pale crowds chivvying one another about to pick the dollars from each other's pockets,--don't you believe you'll long for these solitudes, the big empty places, great possibilities, the silence? Think of it, man. What is there beyond those mountains, I wonder?"

McCleod sighed.

"You're right," he said. "One may never get so far out again. Our fortunes will keep, I suppose, and anyhow we ought to strike a telegraph station in about a fortnight. We'll go right ahead, then."

In ten days they dropped ten thousand feet. They came to a land where their throats were always dry, where the trees and shrubs seemed like property affairs from a theatre, where they plunged their heads into every pool that came to wash their noses and mouths from the red dust that seemed to choke them up. They found tin and oil and more copper. Then, by slow stages, they passed on to a land of great grassy plains, of blue grass, miles and miles of it, and suddenly one day they came to the telegraph posts, rough pine trees unstripped of their bark, with a few sagging wires. Tavernake looked at them as Robinson Crusoe might have looked at Man Friday's footsteps. It was the first sign of human life which they had seen for months.

"It's a real world we are in, after all!" he sighed. "Somehow or other, I thought--I thought we'd escaped."