Chapter II. The Story-Book West

When a man is twenty-one, and has had no experience, and graduates from a small college where he roomed alone in splendour, and possesses a gift of words and a certain delight in reading, and is thrown into new and, to him, romantic surroundings--when all these stars of chance cross their orbits, he begins to write a novel. The novel never has anything to do with the aforesaid new and romantic surroundings; neither has it the faintest connection with anything the author has ever seen. That would limit his imagination.

Once he was well settled in his new home, and the first excitement of novel impressions had worn off, Bennington de Laney began to write regularly three hours a day. He did his scribbling with a fountain pen, on typewriter paper, and left a broad right-hand margin, just as he had seen Brooks do. In it he experienced, above all, a delightful feeling of power. He enjoyed to the full his ability to swing gorgeous involved sentences, phrase after phrase, down the long arc of rhetoric, without a pause, without a quiver, until they rushed unhasting up the other slope to end in beautiful words, polysyllabic, but with just the right number of syllables. Interspersed were short sentences. He counted the words in one or the other of these two sorts, carefully noting the relations they bore to each other. On occasions he despaired because they did not bear the right relations. And he also dragged out, squirming, the Anglo-Saxon and Latin derivations, and set them up in a row that he might observe their respective numbers. He was uneasily conscious that he ought, in the dread of college anathema, to use the former, but he loved the many-syllabled crash or modulated music of the latter. Also, there was the question of getting variety into his paragraph lengths. It was all excellent practice.

And yet this technique, absorbing as it was, counted as nothing in comparison with the subject-matter.

The method was talent; the subject-matter was Genius; and Genius had evolved an Idea which no one had ever thought of before--something brand new under the sun. It goes without saying that the Idea symbolized a great Truth. One department, the more impersonal, of Bennington's critical faculty, assured him that the Idea would take rank with the Ideas of Plato and Emerson. Emerson, Bennington worshipped. Plato he also worshipped--because Emerson told him to. He had never read Plato himself. The other, the more personal and modest, however, had perforce to doubt this, not because it doubted the Idea, but because Bennington was not naturally conceited.

To settle the discrepancy he began to write. He laid the scene in Arabia and decided to call it Aliris: A Romance of all Time, because he liked the smooth, easy flow of the syllables.

The consciousness that he could do all this sugar-coated his Wild Western experiences, which otherwise might have been a little disagreeable. He could comfort himself with the reflection that he was superior, if ridiculous.

In spots, he was certainly the latter. The locality into which his destinies had led him lay in the tumultuous centre of the Hills, about thirty miles from Custer and ten from Hill City. Spanish Gulch was three miles down the draw. The Holy Smoke mine, to which Bennington was accredited, he found to consist of a hole in the ground, of unsounded depth, two log structures, and a chicken coop. The log structures resembled those he had read about. In one of them lived Arthur and his wife. The wife did the cooking. Arthur did nothing at all but sit in the shade and smoke a pipe, and this in spite of the fact that he did not look like a loafer. He had no official connection with the place, except that of husband to Mrs. Arthur. The other member of the community was Davidson, alias Old Mizzou.

The latter was cordial and voluble. As he was blessed with a long white beard of the patriarchal type, he inspired confidence. He used exclusively the present tense and chewed tobacco. He also played interminable cribbage. Likewise he talked. The latter was his strong point. Bennington found that within two days of his arrival he knew all about the company's business without having proved the necessity of stirring foot on his own behalf. The claims were not worth much, according to Old Mizzou. The company had been cheated. They would find it out some day. None of the ore assayed very high. For his part he did not see why they even did assessment work. Bennington was to look after the latter? All in good time. You know you had until the end of the year to do it. What else was there to do? Nothing much; The present holders had come into the property on a foreclosed mortgage, and weren't doing anything to develop it yet. Did Bennington know of their plans? No? Well, it looked as though the two of them were to have a pretty easy time of it, didn't it?

Old Mizzou tried, by adroit questioning, to find out just why de Laney had been sent West. There was, in reality, not enough to keep one man busy, and surely Old Mizzou considered himself quite competent to attend to that. Finally, he concluded that it must be to watch him--Old Mizzou. Acting on that supposition, he tried a new tack.

For two delicious hours he showed up, to his own satisfaction, Bennington's ignorance of mining. That was an easy enough task. Bennington did not even know what country-rock was. All he succeeded in eliciting confirmed him in the impression that de Laney was sent to spy on him. But why de Laney? Old Mizzou wagged his gray beard. And why spy on him? What could the company want to know? He gave it up. One thing alone was clear: this young man's understanding of his duties was very simple. Bennington imagined he was expected to see certain assessment work done (whatever that was), and was to find out what he could about the value of the property.

As a matter of sedulously concealed truth, he was really expected to do nothing at all. The place had been made for him through Mr. de Laney's influence, because he wanted to go West.

"Now, my boy," Bishop, the mining capitalist, had said, when Bennington had visited him in his New York office, "do you know anything about mining?"

"No, sir," Bennington replied.

"Well, that doesn't matter much. We don't expect to do anything in the way of development. The case, briefly, is this: We've bought this busted proposition of the people who were handling it, and have assumed their debt. They didn't run it right. They had a sort of a wildcat individual in charge of the thing, and he got contracts for sinking shafts with all the turtlebacks out there, and then didn't pay for them. Now, what we want you to do is this: First of all, you're to take charge financially at that end of the line. That means paying the local debts as we send you the money, and looking after whatever expenditures may become necessary. Then you'll have to attend to the assessment work. Do you know what assessment work is?"

"No, sir."

"Well, in order to hold the various claims legally, the owners have to do one hundred dollars' worth of work a year on each claim. If the work isn't done, the claims can be 'jumped.' You'll have to hire the men, buy the supplies, and see that the full amount is done. We have a man out there named Davidson. You can rely on him, and he'll help you out in all practical matters. He's a good enough practical miner, but he's useless in bossing a job or handling money. Between you, you ought to get along."

"I'll try, anyway."

"That's right. Then, another thing. You can put in your spare time investigating what the thing is worth. I don't expect much from you in that respect, for you haven't had enough experience; but do the best you can. It'll be good practice, anyway. Hunt up Davidson; go over all the claims; find out how the lead runs, and how it holds out; get samples and ship them to me; investigate everything you can, and don't be afraid to write when you're stuck."

In other words, Bennington was to hold the ends of the reins while some one else drove. But he did not know that. He felt his responsibility.

As to the assessment work, Old Mizzou had already assured him there was no immediate hurry; men were cheaper in the fall. As to investigating, he started in on that at once. He and Davidson climbed down shafts, and broke off ore, and worked the gold pan. It was fun.

In the morning Bennington decided to work from seven until ten on Aliris. Then for three hours he and Old Mizzou prospected. In the afternoon the young man took a vacation and hunted Wild Western adventures.

It may as well be remarked here that Bennington knew all about the West before he left home. Until this excursion he had never even crossed the Alleghanies, but he thought he appreciated the conditions thoroughly. This was because he was young. He could close his eyes and see the cowboys scouring the plain. As a parenthesis it should be noted that cowboys always scour the plain, just as sailors always scan the horizon. He knew how the cowboys looked, because he had seen Buffalo Bill's show; and he knew how they talked, because he had read accurate authors of the school of Bret Harte. He could even imagine the romantic mountain maidens.

With his preconceived notions the country, in most particulars, tallied interestingly. At first Bennington frequented the little town down the draw. It answered fairly well to the story-book descriptions, but proved a bit lively for him. The first day they lent him a horse. The horse looked sleepy. It took him twenty minutes to get on the animal and twenty seconds to fall off. There was an audience. They made him purchase strange drinks at outlandish prices. After that they shot holes all around his feet to induce him to dance. He had inherited an obstinate streak from some of his forebears, and declined when it went that far. They then did other things to him which were not pleasant. Most of these pranks seemed to have been instigated by a laughing, curly-haired young man named Fay. Fay had clear blue eyes, which seemed always to mock you. He could think up more diabolical schemes in ten minutes than the rest of the men in as many hours. Bennington came shortly to hate this man Fay. His attentions had so much of the gratuitous! For a number of days, even after the enjoyment of novelty had worn off, the Easterner returned bravely to Spanish Gulch every afternoon for the mail. It was a matter of pride with him. He did not like to be bluffed out. But Fay was always there.

"Tender foot!" the latter would shriek joyously, and bear down on the shrinking de Laney.

That would bring out the loafers. It all had to happen over again.

Bennington hoped that this performance would cease in time. It never did.

By a mental process, unnecessary to trace here, he modified his first views, and permitted Old Mizzou to get the mail. Spanish Gulch saw him no more.

After all, it was quite as good Western experience to wander in the hills. He did not regret the other. In fact, as he cast in review his research in Wild West literature, he perceived that the incidents of his town visits were the proper thing. He would not have had them different--to look back on. They were inspiring--to write home about. He recognised all the types--the miner, the gambler, the saloon-keeper, the bad man, the cowboy, the prospector--just as though they had stepped living from the pages of his classics. They had the true slouch; they used the picturesque language. The log cabins squared with his ideas. The broncos even exceeded them.

But now he had seen it all. There is no sense in draining an agreeable cup to satiety. He was quite content to enjoy his rambles in the hills, like the healthy youngster he was. But had he seen it all? On reflection, he acknowledged he could not make this statement to himself with a full consciousness of sincerity. One thing was lacking from the preconceived picture his imagination had drawn. There had been no Mountain Flowers. By that he meant girls.

Every one knows what a Western girl is. She is a beautiful creature, always, with clear, tanned skin, bright eyes, and curly hair. She wears a Tam o' Shanter. She rides a horse. Also, she talks deliciously, in a silver voice, about "old pards." Altogether a charming vision--in books.

This vision Bennington had not yet realized. The rest of the West came up to specifications, but this one essential failed. In Spanish Gulch he had, to be sure, encountered a number of girls. But they were red-handed, big-boned, freckled-faced, rough-skinned, and there wasn't a Tam o' Shanter in the lot. Plainly servants, Bennington thought. The Mountain Flower must have gone on a visit. Come to think of it, there never was more than one Mountain Flower to a town.