Chapter XIV. The Pioneer's Picnic
 

The Lawtons were not going to the picnic. Bennington was to take Mary down to Rapid, where the girl was to stay with a certain Dr. McPherson of the School of Mines.

An early start was accomplished. They rode down the gulch through the dwarf oaks, past the farthermost point, and so out into the hard level dirt road of Battle Creek canon. Beyond were the pines, and a rugged road, flint-edged, full of dips and rises, turns and twists, hovering on edges, or bosoming itself in deep rock-strewn cuts. Mary's little pony cantered recklessly through it all, scampering along like a playful dog after a stone, leading Bennington's larger animal by several feet. He had full leisure to notice the regular flop of the Tam o'Shanter over the lighter dance of the hair, the increasing rosiness of the cheeks dimpled into almost continual laughter, to catch stray snatches of gay little remarks thrown out at random as they tore along. After a time they drew out from the shadow of the pines into the clearing at Rockerville, where the hydraulic "giants" had eaten away the hill-sides, and left in them ugly unhealed sores. Then more rough pine-shadowed roads, from which occasionally would open for a moment broad vistas of endless glades, clear as parks, breathless descents, or sharp steep cuts at the bottom of which Spring Creek, or as much of it as was not turned into the Rockerville sluices, brawled or idled along. It was time for lunch, so they dismounted near a deep still pool and ate. The ponies cropped the sparse grasses, or twisted on their backs, all four legs in the air. Squirrels chattered and scolded overhead. Some of the indigo-coloured jays of the lowlands shot in long level flight between the trees. The girl and the boy helped each other, hindered each other, playing here and there near the Question, but swerving always deliciously just in time.

After lunch, more riding through more pines. The road dipped strongly once, then again; and then abruptly the forest ceased, and they found themselves cantering over broad rolling meadows knee-high with grasses, from which meadow larks rose in all directions like grasshoppers. Soon after they passed the canvas "schooners" of some who had started the evening before. Down the next long slope the ponies dropped cautiously with bunched feet and tentative steps. Spring Creek was forded for the last time, another steep grassy hill was surmounted, and they looked abroad into Rapid Valley and over to the prairie beyond.

Behind them the Hills lay, dark with the everlasting greenery of the North--even, low, with only sun-browned Harney to raise its cliff-like front above the rest of the range. As though by a common impulse they reined in their horses and looked back.

"I wonder just where the Rock is?" she mused.

They tried to guess at its location.

The treeless ridge on which they were now standing ran like a belt outside the Hills. They journeyed along its summit until late in the afternoon, and then all at once found the city of Rapid lying below them at the mouth of a mighty canon, like a toy village on fine velvet brown.

In the city they separated, Mary going to the McPhersons', Bennington to the hotel. It was now near to sunset, so it was agreed that Bennington was to come round the following morning to get her. At the hotel Bennington spent an interesting evening viewing the pioneers with their variety of costume, manners, and speech. He heard many good stories, humorous and blood-curdling, and it was very late before he finally got to bed.

The immediate consequence was that he was equally late to breakfast. He hurried through that meal and stepped out into the street, with the intention of hastening to Dr. McPherson's for Mary, but this he found to be impossible because of the overcrowded condition of the streets. The sports of the day had already begun. From curb to curb the way was jammed with a dense mass of men, women, and children, through whom he had to worm his way. After ten feet of this, he heard his name called, and looking up, caught sight of Mary herself, perched on a dry-goods box, frantically waving a handkerchief in his direction.

"You're a nice one!" she cried in mock reproach as he struggled toward her. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks flew red signals of enjoyment.

Bennington explained.

"I know. Well, it didn't matter, any way. I just captured this box. Climb up. There's room. I've lost the doctor and Mrs. McPherson already."

Two mounted men, decorated with huge tin marshals' badges, rode slowly along forcing the crowd back to the right and to the left. The first horse race was on. Suddenly there was an eager scramble, a cloud of dust, a swift impression of dim ghostlike figures. It was over. The crowd flowed into the street again.

The two pressed together, hand in hand, on the top of the dry-goods box. They laughed at each other and everything. Something beautiful was very near to them, for this was the Pioneer's Picnic, and both remembered that the Pioneer's Picnic marked the limit of many things.

"What's next? What's next?" she called excitedly to a tall young cattleman.

The cowboy looked up at her, and his face relaxed into a pleased smile.

"Why, it's a drillin' match over in the next street, miss," he answered politely. "You'd better run right along over and get a good place." He glanced at de Laney, smiled again, and turned away, apparently to follow his own advice.

"Come on, we'll follow him," cried Mary, jumping down.

"And abandon our box?" objected Bennington. But she was already in full pursuit of the tall cowboy.

The ring around the large boulder--dragged by mule team from the hills--had just begun to form when they arrived, so they were enabled to secure good places near the front rank, where they kneeled on their handkerchiefs, and the crowd hemmed them in at the back. The drilling match was to determine which pair of contestants could in a given time, with sledge and drill, cut the deepest hole in a granite boulder. To one who stood apart, the sight must have been picturesque in the extreme. The white dust, stirred by restless feet, rose lazily across the heated air. The sun shone down clear and hot with a certain wide-eyed glare that is seen only in the rarefied atmosphere of the West. Around the outer edge of the ring hovered a few anxious small boys, agonized that they were missing part of the show. Stolidly indifferent Indians, wrapped close in their blankets, smoked silently, awaiting the next pony race, the riders of which were skylarking about trying to pull each other from their horses' backs.

When the last pair had finished, the judges measured the depths of the holes drilled, and announced the victors.

The crowd shouted and broke for the saloons. The latter had been plying a brisk business, so that men were about ready to embrace in brotherhood or in battle with equal alacrity.

Suddenly it was the dinner hour. The crowd broke. Bennington and Mary realized they had been wandering about hand in hand. They directed their steps toward the McPhersons with the greatest propriety. It was a glorious picnic.

The house was gratefully cool and dark after the summer heat out of doors. The little doctor sat in the darkest room and dissertated cannily on the strange variety of subjects which a Scotchman can always bring up on the most ordinary occasions.

The doctor was not only a learned man, as was evidenced by his position in the School of Mines and his wonderful collections, but was a scout of long standing, a physician of merit, and an Indian authority of acknowledged weight. Withal he was so modest that these things became known only by implication or hearsay, never by direct evidence. Mrs. McPherson was not Scotch at all, but plain comfortable American, redolent of wholesome cleanliness and good temper, and beaming with kindliness and round spectacles. Never was such a doctor; never was such a Mrs. McPherson; never was such a dinner! And they brought in after-dinner coffee in small cups.

"Ah, ha! Mr. de Laney," laughed the doctor, who had been watching him with quizzical eye. "We're pretty bad, but we aren't got quite to savagery yet."

Bennington hastened to disavow.

"That's all right," the doctor reassured him; "that's all right. I didn't wonder at ye in this country, but Mrs. McPherson and mysel' jest take a wee trip occasionally to keep our wits bright. Isn't it so, Mrs. Mac?"

"It is that," said she with a doubtful inner thought as to the propriety of offering cream.

"And as for you," went on the doctor dissertatively, "I suppose ye're getting to be somewhat of a miner yourself. I mind me we did a bit of assay work for your people the other day--the Crazy Horse, wasn't it? A good claim I should judge, from the sample, and so I wrote Davidson."

"When was this?" asked the Easterner, puzzled.

"The last week."

"I didn't know he had had any assaying done."

"O weel," said the doctor comfortably, "it may not have occurred to him to report yet. It was rich."

"Mrs. McPherson, let's talk about dresses," called Mary across the table. "Here we've come down for a holiday and they insist on talking mining."

And so the subject was dropped, but Bennington could not get it out of his mind. Why should Mizzou have had the Crazy Horse assayed without saying anything about it to him? Why had he not reported the result? How did it happen that the doctor's assistants had found the ore rich when the company's assayers East had proved it poor? Why should Mizzou have it assayed at all, since he was no longer connected with the company? But, above all, supposing he had done this with the intention of keeping it secret from Bennington, what possible benefit or advantage could the old man derive from such an action?

He puzzled over this. It seemed to still the effervescence of his joy. He realized suddenly that he had been very careless in a great many respects. The work had all been trusted to Davidson, while he, often, had never even seen it. He had been entirely occupied with the girl. He experienced that sudden sinking feeling which always comes to a man whom neglected duty wakes from pleasure.

What was Davidson's object? Could it be that he hoped to "buy in" a rich claim at a low figure, and to that end had sent poor samples East? The more he thought of this the more reasonable it seemed. His resignation was for the purpose of putting him in the position of outside purchaser.

He resolved to carry through the affair diplomatically. During the afternoon he ruminated on how this was to be done. Mary could not understand his preoccupation. It piqued her. A slight strangeness sprang up between them which he was too distrait to notice. Finally, as he tumbled into bed that night, an idea so brilliant came to him that he sat bolt upright in sheer delight at his own astuteness.

He would ask Dr. McPherson for a copy of the assays. If his suspicions were correct, these assays would represent the richest samples. He would send them at once to Bishop with a statement of the case, in that manner putting the capitalist on his guard. There was something exquisitely humorous to him in the idea of thus turning to his own use the information which Davidson had accumulated for his fraudulent purposes. He went to sleep chuckling over it.