The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
It was sunrise on the Colorado desert.
As the advance guard of dawn emerged from behind the serrated peaks to the east and paused on their snow-encrusted summits before charging down the slopes into the open desert to rout the lingering shadows of the night, a coyote came out of his den in the tumbled malpais at the foot of the range, pointed his nose skyward and voiced his matutinal salute to the Hosts of Light.
Presently, far in the distant waste, seven dark objects detached themselves from the shadows and crawled toward the mountains. Like motes swimming in a beam of light, they came out of the Land of Nowhere, in the dim shimmering vistas over west, where the gray line of grease-wood met the blue of the horizon. Slowly they assumed definite shape; and the coyote ceased his orisons to speculate upon the ultimate possibility of breakfast and this motley trio of "desert rats" with their burro train, who dared invade his desolate waterless kingdom.
For, with the exception of the four burros, the three men who followed in their wake did, indeed, offer the rare spectacle of variety in this land of superlative monotony. One of the men wore a peaked Mexican straw hat, a dirty white cotton undershirt, faded blue denim overalls and a pair of shoes much too large for him; this latter item indicating a desire to get the most for his money, after the invariable custom of a primitive people. He carried a peeled catclaw gad in his right hand, and with this gad he continually urged to a shuffling half-trot some one of the four burros. This man was a Cahuilla Indian.
His two companions were white men. The younger of the pair was a man under thirty years of age, with kind bright eyes and the drawn but ruddy face of one whose strength seems to have been acquired more from athletic sports than by hard work. He was tall, broad-shouldered, slim- waisted, big-hipped and handsome; he stepped along through the clinging sand with the lithe careless grace of a mountain lion. An old greasy wide-brimmed gray felt hat, pinched to a "Montana peak," was shoved back on his curly black head; his shirt, of light gray wool, had the sleeves rolled to the elbow, revealing powerful forearms tanned to the complexion of those of the Indian. He seemed to revel in the airy freedom of a pair of dirty old white canvas trousers, and despite the presence of a long-barreled blue gun swinging at his hip he would have impressed an observer as the embodiment of kindly good nature and careless indifference to convention, provided his own personal comfort was assured.
The other white man was plainly an alien in the desert. He was slight, blonde, pale--a city man--with hard blue eyes set so close together that one understood instantly something of the nature of the man as well as the urgent necessity for his thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore a new Panama hat, corded riding breeches and leggings. He was clean-shaven and sinfully neat. He wore no side-arms and appeared as much out of harmony with his surroundings as might a South American patriot at a Peace Conference.
"I say," he began presently, "how much further is it to this prospect hole of yours, if, indeed, you have a prospect as you represented to me a week ago?" His tone was fretful, peevish, complaining. One would readily have diagnosed the seat of his trouble. He had come prepared to ride--and he had been forced to walk.
The young man frowned. He seemed on the point of swearing, but appearing to think better of it, he replied banteringly, "Por ahi. Por ahi."
"What in blazes does that mean?"
"Oh, I was just talking the language of the country--a language, by the way, toward which you seem most indifferently inclined. 'Por ahi' means 'a considerable way,' 'a right smart piece, I reckon,' and conveys about the same relative amount of definite information as manana. Never having measured the distance to my prospect, I have tried for the past two days to give you an approximate idea. But in this country you must know that distance is a deceptive, 'find X' sort of proposition--so please refrain from asking me that same question every two miles. If the water holds out we'll get there; and when we get there we'll find more water, and then you may shave three times a day if you feel so inclined, I'm sorry you have a blister on your off heel, and I sympathize with you because of your prickly-heat. But it's all in the day's work and you'll survive. In the meantime, however, I suggest that you compose your restless New England soul in patience, old man, and enjoy with our uncommunicative Cahuilla friend and myself the glories of a sunrise on the Colorado desert."
"Damn the sunrise," the other retorted. He would have damned his tormentor had he dared. "I do not wish to be insulted."
"Listen to that coyote," replied the careless one, ignoring his companion's rising anger. "Listen to him yip-yapping over there on the ridge. There sits a shining example of bucolic joy and indifference to local annoyances. Consider the humble coyote, Boston, and learn wisdom. Of course, a coyote doesn't know a whole lot, but he does recognize a good thing when he sees it. His appreciation of a sunrise is always exuberant. Ever since that coyote's been big enough to rustle his own jack-rabbits he's howled at a lovely full moon, and if he's ever missed his sun-up cheer it's because something he ate the night before didn't agree with him."
"Sir," snapped the irascible one, "you're a trifler. You're--you're --a--"
"Say it," soothed the student of nature.
"Oh, damn it," rasped his victim, "talk business. This is a business trip, not a rehearsal for a comic opera. Talk sense."
"Well, all right--since you insist," drawled the other, smiling brightly. "In the first place, after this morning you will permit your whiskers to grow. Out here water is too precious to waste it shaving every morning. I suggested that point last night, but you ignored my polite hint. I hate to appear boorish, but I must remind you that these jacks are mine, that the four little kegs of water that they're carrying are mine, that this mozo--I beg your pardon--that this Indian is mine, and lastly--forgive me if I ascend once more into the realm of romance and improbability--this country is mine, and I love it, and I won't have it profaned by any growling, dyspeptic little squirt from a land where they have pie for breakfast. I positively forbid you to touch that water without my permission. I forbid you to cuss my mozo without my permission, and I forbid you to damn this country in my hearing. Just at this particular moment, Boston, the only things which you have and which you can call your own, and do what you please with, are your soul, your prickly-heat and your blistered heel. I'm fully convinced that you're quite a little man back in Boston for the reason that you're one hell of a small man out here, even if you do wear a string of letters after your name like the tail on a comet.
"You were swelling around in San Berdoo, talking big and hollering for an investment. I showed you samples of ore from my desert prospect and you got excited. You wanted to examine my claim, you said, and if you liked it you would engage to bring it to the attention of 'your associates' and pay me my price. I offered to bring you in here as my guest, and ever since you got off the train at Salton you've snarled and snapped and beefed and imposed on my hospitality, and it's got to stop. I don't need you; I don't care for you; I think you're a renegade four-flusher, bluffing on no pair, and if I had known what a nasty little old woman you are I'd never have opened negotiations with you. Now, you chirk up, Boston, and smile and try to be a good sport, or I'll work you over and make a man out of you. Savvy?"
Thoroughly squelched, the malingerer flushed, mumbled an apology and held out his hand. The Desert Rat took it, a little sorry that he had not been more temperate in his language.
"All right, we'll bury the hatchet" he said generously. "Maybe I'm a little too exacting and hard to get along with. I've got more on my brain than this prospect hole, and I'm worried. When I left the wife at San Berdoo we were expecting an arrival in camp, and--well, we were right down to bed-rock, and as it was a case of go now or never with you, I had to bring you in here or perhaps lose the opportunity for a fortune. She wanted me to go. She's a mighty brave little woman. You don't happen to be a married man, do you? With kids? I've got--"
The Indian had paused and was pointing with his gad to the south. Miles and miles away a great yellow cloud was gathering on the horizon, shutting out the sunlight and advancing with incredible speed.
"Sandstorm" warned the Desert Rat, and spoke quickly to the mozo in Spanish. The latter at once turned the cavalcade of burros toward the hills, less than a mile distant; shouting and beating the heavily laden little beasts into a trot, the party scurried for the shelter of a rocky draw before the sandstorm should be upon them.
They won. Throughout that day and night they camped up the draw, safe from the sand blast. Early next morning the wind had subsided and with the exception of some slight changes in topography due to the sandstorm, the desert was the same old silent pulseless mystery.
The party resumed its journey. While the Easterner remained with the Indian, the Desert Rat circled out into the open, heading for a little backbone of quartz which rose out of the sand. He had not noticed this exposed ledge during their flight into the draw, and it was evident that the sandstorm had exposed it.
Suddenly the mozo uttered a low "Whoa," and the burros halted. Off in the sage and sand the Desert Rat was standing with upraised arm, as a signal for them to halt and wait for him. For nearly half an hour he circled around, stepping off distances and building monuments. Presently, apparently having completed his investigations, he beckoned the rest of his party to approach.
"What's up?" demanded the Boston man the moment he and the Indian arrived.
"I've just found Jake Revenner's lost claim. It's one of these marvelously rich ledges that have been discovered and located and lost and found and lost again, and cost scores of human lives. The sandstorms expose them and cover them up again, and after a storm--as now--the contour of the desert is so changed that a man, having staked his claim and gone out for grub, can't find the claim when he comes back. It was that way with the Nigger Ben placer. It's been found and lost half a dozen times. There was a claim discovered out here by a man named Jake Revenner, but he lost it and blew out his brains in sheer disgust. I have just stumbled across one of his monuments with his old location notices buried in a can. The late sandstorm uncovered the ledge, and it looks 'fat' enough for yours truly. Mira?"
He tossed a sample to the Indian, and another of about the same size to the white man. The latter lifted it, examined it closely and sat down. He was quite excited.
"By thunder!" he managed to say. "We're in luck."
A slight smile flickered across the face of the Desert Rat, but his voice was as calm and grave as usual.
"Yes, it's rich--very rich. There's a comfortable fortune lying exposed on the surface. By the way, I think I shall pay you a liberal fee for your lost time and abandon that prospect I was taking you in to see. Compared with this, it's not worth considering."
"I should say you should abandon it" the other exulted. "You'd have a fine time trying to get me away from this ledge now. Why, there's millions in it, and I suggest we stake it out at once. Let's get busy."
He jumped up eagerly--from force of habit dusting the seat of his riding breeches--and turned peremptorily to the mozo.
"Get those packs off, Joe, or Jim or whatever your name is, and be quick--"
"You forget, old man," interjected the Desert Rat gently. "He doesn't speak English, and if he did he wouldn't obey you. You see," he added naively, "I've told him not to."
"Oh, well, I didn't mean anything. Don't be so touchy. Let's get busy, for heaven's sake, and stake this claim."
The Desert Rat stretched himself with feline grace. "I'm sorry" he replied with his tantalizing good-natured smile, "to be forced to object to your use of the plural pronoun in conjunction with that certain tract, piece and parcel of land known and described as the Baby Mine claim. The fact of the matter is, I have already staked it. You see, I was thinking of the little one that will be waiting for me in San Berdoo when I get back. See the point? My baby--Baby Mine--rather a neat play on words, don't you think?"
"Do you mean to say that I'm not in on this find?" demanded the man from Boston.
"Your penetration is remarkable. I do."
"But such a course is outrageous. It's opposed--"
"Please do not argue with me. I found it. Naturally I claim it. I could quote you verbatim the section of the mining law under which I am entitled to maintain this high-handed--er--outrage; but why indulge in such a dry subject? I found this claim, and since I don't feel generously disposed this morning, I'm going to keep it."
"But I'm in the party with you. It seems to me that common justice--"
"For goodness' sake, Boston, don't throw up to me the sins of my past. Of course you're in my party. That's my misfortune, not my fault. I observed this little backbone of quartz and asked you to walk over here with me for a look at it. You wouldn't come. You said your foot hurt you. So I came alone. If you had been with me at the time, now, of course that would have been different. But--"
"But I--well, in a measure--why, we're out here together, sort of partners as it were, and--"
"The Lord forgive you, Boston. My partner! You never were and never could be. I'm particular in the matter of partners. All Desert Rats in good standing are. You're the last man on earth I'd have for my partner. A partner shares the expenses of a trip and bears the hardships without letting out a roar every half mile. A partner sticks, Boston. He shares his grub and his money and his last drop of water, and when that's gone he'll die with you like a gentleman. That's what a partner does, but you wouldn't do it."
"Well, I'm entitled to a half interest and I'll see that I get it," shrilled the other furiously. "I'll sue you--"
"How about the Indian?"
"Only an Indian, eh? Well, you're entitled to your point of view. Only that mozo and I have slept under the same blanket so often--"
"You can't stop me from staking this claim, too" shouted the Boston man, and shook his skinny little fist under the Desert Rat's nose. The latter slapped him across the wrist.
"Pesky fly" he said.
"You can't stop me, I tell you."
"I can. But I won't. I'm not a bully."
"You think you can beat me out of my rights, do you? I'll show you. I'll beat you out of your half before I'm through with you."
"On whose water!"
The bantering smile broadened to a grin--the graceless young desert wanderer threw back his head and laughed.
"You're such a card, Boston" he chortled. "Such exquisite notions of social usage I have never observed outside the peerage. Really, you shouldn't be allowed to go visiting. You're unmannerly enough to ask for a third helping to cake."
"I insist that I am entitled to a half interest in this claim. As you decline to recognize my rights, I must take the matter in my own hands. I, too, shall stake the claim and endeavor to get my location notice filed in the land office before yours. If you haven't any sense of justice and decency, I have."
"Oh, all right, fire away. I'll take you back to civilization and see that you don't starve or die of thirst on the way. I'm not entirely heartless, Boston. In the meantime, however, while you're staking the claim, it occurs to me that I can gather together a very snug fortune in the next day or two. There appears to be more gold than quartz in this rock--some indeed, is the pure quill. All hands, including the jacks, will go on a short ration of water from now on. Of course we're taking chances with our lives, but what's life if a fellow can't take a chance for a fortune like this? I'd sooner die and be done with, it than live my life without a thrill. That's why I've degenerated from a perfectly matriculated mining engineer into a wandering desert rat. Would you believe it, Boston, I lived in your town once. Graduated from the Tech. Why, I once made love to a Boston girl in a conservatory. I remember her very well. She spilled pink lemonade over my dress shirt. I took a long chance that time; but out here, even if the chances are longer, when you win--"
He kissed his grimy paw airily and flung it into space.
"'The Lord is my shepherd,' he quoted, 'I shall not want.' This morning He left the door opened and I wandered into His Treasure House, so I guess I'll get busy and grab what I can before the Night Watchman comes around. Ever see the Night Watchman, Boston? I have. He's a grave old party with a long beard, and he carries a scythe. You see him when you're thirsty, and--well, in the pursuit of my inborn hobby for taking chances, I'll introduce you to him this trip. Permit me to remind you once more of the consequences if you help yourself to the water without consulting me. It'll militate against your chances of getting to the land office first."
The Desert Rat helped the mozo unpack the burros, while the man from Boston tore some pages from his notebook and proceeded to write out his location notices and cache them in monuments which he built beside those of his predecessors. He even copied the exact wording on the Desert Rat's notices. He forgot his blistered heel and worked with prodigious energy and interest, receiving with dogged silent disdain the humorous sallies of the Desert Rat, to whom the other's sudden industry was a source of infinite amusement. The Desert Rat and the Indian were busy with pans and prospector's picks gouging out "stringers" and crevices and picking up scattered pieces of "jewelry" rock. When all the "color" in sight had been cleaned up, the Desert Rat produced a drill and a stick of dynamite from the pack, put in a "shot" and uncovered a pocket of such richness that even the stolid Cahuilla could not forbear indulgence in one of his infrequent Spanish expletives. It was a deposit of rotten honeycombed rock that was nine- tenths pure gold--what is known in the parlance of the prospector as a "kidney."
The disgruntled claimant to a half interest in the Baby Mine reached into the hole and seized a nugget worth fully a thousand dollars. The Desert Rat tapped him smartly across the knuckles with the handle of his prospector's pick and made him drop it.
"If you please, Boston" he said gently. "You're welcome to share my grub, and I'll whack up even with you on the water, and I'll cook for you and wait on you, but I'll be doggoned if it isn't up to you to furnish your own dynamite. There was ten thousand in loose stuff lying, on the surface, and you might have been pardoned for helping yourself to as much of it as you could carry personally, but you elected to restake the claim and now all that easy picking belongs to the Indian and me. He's a good Indian and I'm going to let him have some of it. He won't take much because he's fond of me. I saved him from being lynched for killing a white man who deserved it. But for years he's just hungered for a top-buggy, with side bars and piano box and the whole blamed rig painted bright red, so he can take his squaw out in style; and I'm going to see that he gets it. However, that's neither here nor there. You keep your fingers out of the sugar bowl, old sport. It's a lovely sight and hard to resist, I know, but do be careful."
All that day the Desert Rat and his Indian retainer worked through the stringers and pockets of the Baby Mine, while the man from Boston sat looking at them, or, when the spirit moved him, casting about in the adjacent sand for stray "specimens" of which he managed to secure quite a number. The next morning, as soon as it was light enough to see, the work was commenced again, and by noon the last piece of rotten honeycombed rock with its streaks and wens of dull virgin gold had been cleaned up. The Desert Rat used the last of his dynamite in a vain endeavor to unearth another "kidney," and finally decided to call it quits.
"They took eighty-two thousand dollars out of one little carload of ore in the Delhi mine in Nevada county" he announced, "but the Baby Mine makes that record look amateurish. It's the richest strike I have ever heard of, with the exception, possibly, of the big strike at Antelope Peak. They took out nearly three hundred thousand there in less than three days, just scratching it out of stringers and crevices with their jack-knives. Boston, my dear man, I have more than three hundred pounds of gold with, as I said before, some quartz, but not enough to bother. At twelve ounces to the pound, twenty dollars to the ounce, I'm going back to San Bernardino and buy a bath, a new suit of store clothes and a fifty-dollar baby carriage for my expected heir. With my dear little wife and the baby and all this oro, I'll manage to be quite happy.
"However, just to show you that there isn't a mean bone in my body, I'm going to withdraw my claim to the Baby Mine. My mozo and I are about to load this magnificent bunch of untainted wealth into the kyacks, and hit for civilization, and while we're getting ready to break camp you run out and destroy my location notices. I leave the whole works to you. I do this for a number of reasons--the first being that you will thus be induced to return to this section of California. Not knowing the country, you will doubtless perish, and thus from the placid bosom of society a thorn will be removed. Secondly, if you should survive long enough to get in, you could never find your way out without me for a guide--and it wouldn't be safe to hire this Indian. He dislikes you. The third reason is that I believe this is just a phenomenally rich pocket and that I have about cleaned it out. The fourth reason is that another sandstorm will probably cover the Baby Mine before long, and the fifth reason is: 'What's the use going desert-ratting until your money's all gone!'"
"Well, I'll see that I get my share of that plunder" snapped the unhappy tenderfoot. "Of course, right now, it may seem perfectly proper from your point of view to take advantage of certain adventitious circumstances, but--"
"Yes, the humble little jackass is really an adventitious circumstance. By jingo, that hadn't occurred to me at all. I guess you're right, Boston. I'll have to give you half the plunder. Now that we've settled that point, let's divide the adventitious circumstances. I have four of them and I'll sell you two for your half of the gold. No? Price too high? All right! I'll agree to freight your share in for you, only I'm afraid transportation rates are so high in the desert that the freight will about eat up all the profit. I'm afraid that the best I can do for you is to give you your half and let you carry it yourself. If you want to tote it out on your back, Boston, help yourself. No! Well, well!"
"We'll not discuss the matter further, if you please. At another time and place, perhaps--"
"Perhaps? Perhaps! Well, I'm stripping down our food supply to the bare necessities in order to make room for this gold, and the water is pretty low. If we don't strike water at Chuckwalla Tanks there'll be real eloquence to that word 'perhaps.' However, that discussion can wait. Everything appears to be propitious for an immediate start, so let's defer the argument and vamoose. Giddap, you hairy little desert birds. Crack along out o' this."
But following the dictates of his nature, when Fortune smiled and bade him "take a chance," the Desert Rat had already delayed too long his departure from the Baby Mine. The supply of water still left in the kegs was so meager that with any other man the situation would have given rise to grave concern. As it was, however, all that troubled the Desert Rat was what he was going to do with the man from Boston when that inconsistent and avaricious individual should "peter out." More than once, in his pursuit of the rainbow, the Desert Rat had known what it was to travel until he couldn't travel another yard; then to jump up and travel ten miles more--to water! He did not know the extent of his own strength, but whatever might be its limitations he knew that the Cahuilla was good for an equal demonstration of endurance. But the man from Boston! He was quickly read. The Desert Rat gave him until midnight that night, but he wilted at ten o'clock.
"A sore heel, a mean soul and no spunk have killed more men than whisky" the Desert Rat commented whimsically, as he pulled the weak brother out of a cluster of catclaw. "Boston, you're an awful nuisance --you are, for a fact. You've had water three times to our once, and yet you go to work and peter out with Chuckwalla Tanks only five miles away. Why, I've often covered that distance on my hands and knees. Come, now, buck up. Hang on to the rear cross of one of the pack saddles and let the jack snake you along."
"I can't, I'm exhausted. I'll die if I don't have a drink."
"No, you'll not die. No such luck. And there isn't any more water. However, you've been spoiled in the raising, so I suppose we'll have to defer to you--particularly since it's my fault that we're short of water. What can't be cured must be endured, and I can't let you die."
He spoke to the Indian, who took two canteens and departed into the night.
"He's going to hike on ahead to Chuckwalla Tanks and bring back some water for you, Boston" the Desert Rat explained. "He'll return about daylight, and we'll wait here until he arrives. It's dangerous, but the jacks aren't in a bad way yet. They can make it to the Tanks, even after sunrise."
"Thanks" murmured the sufferer.
The Desert Rat grinned. "You're getting on" he commented.
"Where is Chuckwalla Tanks?" The tenderfoot sat up and stared after the figure of the departing Indian, still visible in the dim moonlight.
"In a little gorge between those low hills. You can just make out their outlines."
"Yes, I see them. And after that the closest water is where?"
"The Colorado river--forty miles due south. But we're headed northwest and must depend on tanks and desert water-holes. It's hard to tell how close one is to water on that course. But it doesn't matter. We'll refill the kegs at Chuckwalla Tanks. There's most always water there."
"And you say the Colorado river is forty miles due south."
"Well, between forty and fifty."
"Much obliged for the information, I'm sure."
He straightened suddenly and drew back his arm. The Desert Rat saw that he was about to hurl a large smooth stone, and simultaneously he dodged and reached for his gun. But he was a fifth of a second too slow. The stone struck him on the side of the head, rather high up, and he collapsed into a bloody heap.
On the instant the footsore man from Boston developed an alacrity and definiteness of purpose that would have surprised the Desert Rat, had he been in condition to observe it. He seized the gad which the mozo had dropped, climbed upon the lightest laden burro and, driving the others before him, set off for Chuckwalla Tanks. The Indian had disappeared by this time, and there was little danger of overtaking him; so with the two low hills as his objective point, the Easterner circled a mile out of the direct course which he knew the Indian would take, and when the dawn commenced to show in the east he herded the pack-animals down into a swale between two sand-dunes. With remarkable cunning he decided to scout the territory before proceeding further; hence, as soon as there was light enough to permit of a good view, he climbed to the crest of a high dune and looked out over the desert. As far as he could see no living thing moved; so he drove the pack train out of the swale and headed for the gorge between the hills. The thirsty burros broke into a run, hee-hawing with joy as they sniffed the water, and within a few minutes man and beasts were drinking in common at Chuckwalla Tanks.
The man permitted them to drink their fill, after which they fell to grazing on the short grass which grew in the draw. While he realized the necessity for haste if he was to succeed in levanting with the gold, the tenderfoot had been too long a slave to his creature comforts to face another day without breakfast. He abstracted some grub from one of the packs and stayed the pangs of hunger. Then he bathed his blistered feet, filled the water kegs, rounded up his pack train and departed up the draw. After traveling a mile the draw broadened out into the desert, and the man from Boston turned south and headed for the Rio Colorado. He was walking now and appeared to have forgotten about his blistered heel, for at times he broke into a run, beating the burros, screaming curses at them with all the venom of his wolfish soul, for he was pursued now by the fragments of his conscience. His attack upon the Desert Rat had been the outgrowth of a sudden murderous impulse, actuated fully as much by his hatred and fear of the man as by his desire to possess the gold. One moment he would shudder at the thought that he had committed murder; the next he was appalled at the thought that after all he had only stunned the man--that even now the Desert Rat and his Indian retainer were tracking him through the waste, bent on wreaking summary vengeance.
He need not have worried so prematurely. A low range of black malpais buttes stretched between him and the man he had despoiled, and as yet the direction of his flight could not be observed. He drifted rapidly south and presently disappeared into one of those long swales which slope gradually to the river.
Here, weaving his way among the ironwood that grow thickly in this section of the desert, for the first time since the commission of his crime he felt safe.