Chapter III. Bennington Hunts for Gold and Finds a Kiss
 

One day Old Mizzou brought him a blue-print map.

"This y'ar map," said he, spreading it out under his stubby fingers, "shows the deestrict. I gets it of Fay, so you gains an idee of th' lay of the land a whole lot. Them claims marked with a crost belongs to th' Company. You kin take her and explore."

This struck Bennington as an excellent idea. He sat down at the table and counted the crosses. There were fourteen of them. The different lodes were laid off in mathematically exact rectangles, running in many directions. A few joined one another, but most lay isolated. Their relative positions were a trifle confusing at first, but, after a little earnest study, Bennington thought he understood them. He could start with the Holy Smoke, just outside the door. The John Logan lay beyond, at an obtuse angle. Then a jump of a hundred yards or so to the southwest would bring him to the Crazy Horse. This he resolved to locate, for it was said to be on the same "lode" as a big strike some one had recently made. He picked up his rifle and set out.

Now, a blue-print map maker has undoubtedly accurate ideas as to points of the compass, and faultless proficiency in depicting bird's-eye views, but he neglects entirely the putting in of various ups and down, slants and windings of the country, which apparently twist the north pole around to the east-south-east. You start due west on a bee line, according to directions; after about ten feet you scramble over a fallen tree, skirt a boulder, dip into a ravine, and climb a ledge. Your starting point is out of sight behind you; your destination is, Heaven knows where, in front. By the time you have walked six thousand actual feet, which is as near as you can guess to fifteen hundred theoretical level ones, your little blazed stake in a pile of stones is likely to be almost anywhere within a liberal quarter of a mile. Then it is guess-work. If the hill is pretty thickly staked out, the chase becomes exciting. In the middle distance you see a post. You clamber eagerly to it, only to find that it marks your neighbour's claim. You have lost your standpoint of a moment ago, and must start afresh. In an hour's time you have discovered every stake on the hill but the one you want. In two hours' time you are staggering homeward a gibbering idiot. Then you are brought back to profane sanity by falling at full length over the very object of your search.

Bennington was treated to full measure of this experience. He found the John Logan lode without much difficulty, and followed its length with less, for the simple reason that its course lay over the round brow of a hill bare of trees. He also discovered the "Northeast Corner of the Crazy Horse Lode" plainly marked on the white surface of a pine stake braced upright in a pile of rocks. Thence he confidently paced south, and found nothing. Next trip he came across pencilled directions concerning the "Miner's Dream Lode." The time after he ran against the "Golden Ball" and the "Golden Chain Lodes." Bennington reflected; his mind was becoming a little heated.

"It's because I went around those ledges and boulders," he said to himself; "I got off the straight line. This time I'll take the straight line and keep it."

So he addressed himself to the surmounting of obstructions. Work of that sort is not easy. At one point he lost his hold on a broad, steep rock, and slid ungracefully to the foot of it, his elbows digging frantically into the moss, and his legs straddled apart. As he struck bottom, he imagined he heard a most delicious little laugh. So real was the illusion that he gripped two handfuls of moss and looked about sharply, but of course saw nothing. The laugh was repeated.

He looked again, and so became aware of a Vision in pink, standing just in front of a big pine above him on the hill and surveying him with mischievous eyes.

Surprise froze him, his legs straddled, his hat on one side, his mouth open. The Vision began to pick its way down the hill, eyeing him the while.

That dancing scrutiny seemed to mesmerize him. He was enchanted to perfect stillness, but he was graciously permitted to take in the particulars of the girl's appearance. She was dainty. Every posture of her slight figure was of an airy grace, as light and delicate as that of a rose tendril swaying in the wind. Even when she tripped over a loose rock, she caught her balance again with a pretty little uplift of the hand. As she approached, slowly, and evidently not unwilling to allow her charms full time in which to work, Bennington could see that her face was delicately made; but as to the details he could not judge clearly because of her mischievous eyes. They were large and wide and clear, and of a most peculiar colour--a purple-violet, of the shade one sometimes finds in flowers, but only in the flowers of a deep and shady wood. In this wonderful colour--which seemed to borrow the richness of its hue rather from its depth than from any pigment of its own, just as beyond soundings the ocean changes from green to blue--an hundred moods seem to rise slowly from within, to swim visible, even though the mere expression of her face gave no sign of them. For instance, at the present moment her features were composed to the utmost gravity. Yet in her eyes bubbled gaiety and fun, as successive up-swellings of a spring; or, rather, as the riffles of sunlight and wind, or the pictured flight of birds across a pool whose surface alone is stirred.

Bennington realized suddenly, with overwhelming fervency, that he preferred to slide in solitude.

The Vision in the starched pink gingham now poised above him like a humming-bird over a flower. From behind her back she withdrew one hand. In the hand was the missing claim stake.

"Is this what you are looking for?" she inquired demurely.

The mesmeric spell broke, and Bennington was permitted to babble incoherencies.

She stamped her foot.

"Is this what you're looking for?" she persisted.

Bennington's chaos had not yet crystallized to relevancy.

"Wh-where did you get it?" he stammered again.

"IS THIS WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR?" she demanded in very large capitals.

The young man regained control of his faculties with an effort.

"Yes, it is!" he rejoined sharply; and then, with the instinct that bids us appreciate the extent of our relief by passing an annoyance along, "Don't you know it's a penal offence to disturb claim stakes?"

He had suddenly discovered that he preferred to find claim stakes on claims.

The Vision's eyes opened wider.

"It must be nice to know so much!" said she, in reverent admiration.

Bennington flushed. As a de Laney, the girls he had known had always taken him seriously. He disliked being made fun of.

"This is nonsense," he objected, with some impatience. "I must know where it came from."

In the background of his consciousness still whirled the moil of his wonder and bewilderment. He clung to the claim stake as a stable object.

The Vision looked straight at him without winking, and those wonderful eyes filled with tears. Yet underneath their mist seemed to sparkle little points of light, as wavelets through a vapour which veils the surface of the sea. Bennington became conscious-stricken because of the tears, and still he owned an uneasy suspicion that they were not real.

"I'm so sorry!" she said contritely, after a moment; "I thought I was helping you so much! I found that stake just streaking it over the top of the hill. It had got loose and was running away." The mist had cleared up very suddenly, and the light-tipped sparkles of fun were chasing each other rapidly, as though impelled by a lively breeze. "I thought you'd be ever so grateful, and, instead of that, you scold me! I don't believe I like you a bit!"

She looked him over reflectively, as though making up her mind.

Bennington laughed outright, and scrambled to his feet. "You are absolutely incorrigible!" he exclaimed, to cover his confusion at his change of face.

Her eyes fairly danced.

"Oh, what a lovely word!" she cried rapturously. "What does it mean? Something nice, or I'm sure you wouldn't have said it about me. Would you?" The eyes suddenly became grave. "Oh, please tell me!" she begged appealingly.

Bennington was thrown into confusion at this, for he did not know whether she was serious or not. He could do nothing but stammer and get red, and think what a ridiculous ass he was making of himself. He might have considered the help he was getting in that.

"Well, then, you needn't," she conceded, magnanimously, after a moment. "Only, you ought not to say things about girls that you don't dare tell them in plain language. If you will say nice things about me, you might as well say them so I can understand them; only, I do think it's a little early in our acquaintance."

This cast Bennington still more in perplexity. He had a pretty-well-defined notion that he was being ridiculed, but concerning this, just a last grain of doubt remained. She rattled on.

"Well!" said she impatiently, "why don't you say something? Why don't you take this stick? I don't want it. Men are so stupid!"

That last remark has been made many, many times, and yet it never fails of its effect, which is at once to invest the speaker with daintiness indescribable, and to thrust the man addressed into nether inferiority. Bennington fell to its charm. He took the stake.

"Where does it belong?" he asked.

She pointed silently to a pile of stones. He deposited the stake in its proper place, and returned to find her seated on the ground, plucking a handful of the leaves of a little erect herb that grew abundantly in the hollow. These she rubbed together and held to her face inside the sunbonnet.

"Who are you, anyway?" asked Bennington abruptly, as he returned.

"D' you ever see this before?" she inquired irrelevantly, looking up with her eyes as she leaned over the handful. "Good for colds. Makes your nose feel all funny and prickly."

She turned her hands over and began to drop the leaves one by one. Bennington caught himself watching her with fascinated interest in silence. He began to find this one of her most potent charms--the faculty of translating into a grace so exquisite as almost to realize the fabled poetry of motion, the least shrug of her shoulders, the smallest crook of her finger, the slightest toss of her small, well-balanced head. She looked up.

"Want to smell?" she inquired, and held out her hands with a pretty gesture.

Not knowing what else to do, Bennington stepped forward obediently and stooped over. The two little palms held a single crushed bit of the herb in their cup. They were soft, pink little palms, all wrinkled, like crumpled rose leaves. Bennington stooped to smell the herb; instead, he kissed the palms.

The girl sprang to her feet with one indignant motion and faced him. The eyes now flashed blue flame, and Bennington for the first time noticed what had escaped him before--that the forehead was broad and thoughtful, and that above it the hair, instead of being blonde and curly and sparkling with golden radiance, was of a peculiar wavy brown that seemed sometimes full of light and sometimes lustreless and black, according as it caught the direct rays of the sun or not. Then he appreciated his offence.

"Sir!" she exclaimed, and turned away with a haughty shoulder.

"And we've never been introduced!" she said, half to herself, but her face was now concealed, so that Bennington could not see she laughed. She marched stiffly down the hill. Bennington turned to follow her, although the action was entirely mechanical, and he had no definite idea in doing so.

"Don't you dare, sir!" she cried.

So he did not dare.

This vexed her for a moment. Then, having gone quite out of sight, she sank down and laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

"I didn't think he knew enough!" she said, with a final hysterical chuckle.

This first impression of the Mountain Flower, Bennington would have been willing to acknowledge, was quite complicated enough, but he was destined to further surprises.

When he returned to the Holy Smoke camp he found Old Mizzou in earnest conversation with a peculiar-looking stranger, whose hand he was promptly requested to shake.

The stranger was a tall, scraggly individual, dressed in the usual flannel shirt and blue jeans, the latter tucked into rusty cowhide boots. Bennington was interested in him because he was so phenomenally ugly. From the collar of his shirt projected a lean, sinewy neck, on which the too-abundant skin rolled and wrinkled in a dark red, wind-roughened manner particularly disagreeable to behold. The neck supported a small head. The face was wizened and tanned to a dark mahogany colour. It was ornamented with a grizzled goatee.

The man smoked a stub pipe. His remarks were emphasized by the gestures of a huge and gnarled pair of hands.

"Mr. Lawton is from Old Mizzou, too, afore he moved to Illinoy," commented Davidson. One became aware, from the loving tones in which he pronounced the two words, whence he derived his sobriquet.

Lawton expressed the opinion that Chillicothe, of that State, was the finest town on top of earth.

Bennington presumed it might be, and then opportunely bethought him of a bottle of Canadian Club, which, among other necessary articles, he had brought with him from New York. This he produced. The old Missourians brightened; Davidson went into the cabin after glasses and a corkscrew. He found the corkscrew all right, but apparently had some difficulty in regard to the glasses. They could hear him calling vociferously for Mrs. Arthur. Mrs. Arthur had gone to the spring for water. In a few moments Old Mizzou appeared in the doorway exceedingly red of face.

"Consarn them women folks!" he grumbled, depositing the tin cups on the porch. "They locks up an' conceals things most damnable. Ain't a tumbler in th' place."

"These yar is all right," assured Lawton consolingly, picking up one of the cups and examining the bottom of it with great care.

"I reckon they'll hold the likker, anyhow," agreed Davidson.

They passed the bottle politely to de Laney, and the latter helped himself. For his part, he was glad the tin cups had been necessary, for it enabled him to conceal the smallness of his dose. Lawton filled his own up to the brim; Davidson followed suit.

"Here's how!" observed the latter, and the two old turtlebacks drank the raw whisky down, near a half pint of it, as though it had been so much milk.

Bennington fairly gasped with astonishment. "Don't you ever take any water?" he asked.

They turned slowly. Old Mizzou looked him in the eye with glimmering reproach.

"Not, if th' whisky's good, sonny," said he impressively.

"Wall," commented Lawton, after a pause, "that is a good drink. Reckon I must be goin'."

"Stay t' grub!" urged Old Mizzou heartily.

"Folks waitin'. Remember!"

They looked at Bennington and chuckled a little, to that young man's discomfort.

"Lawton's a damn fine fella'," said Old Mizzou with emphasis. Bennington thought, with a shudder, of the loose-skinned, turkey-red neck, and was silent.

After supper Bennington and Old Mizzou played cribbage by the light of a kerosene lamp.

"While I was hunting claims this afternoon," said the Easterner suddenly, "I ran across a mighty pretty girl."

"Yas?" observed Old Mizzou with indifference. "What fer a gal was it?"

"She didn't look as if she belonged around here. She was a slender girl, very pretty, with a pink dress on."

"Ain't no female strangers yar-abouts. Blue eyes?"

"Yes."

"An' ha'r that sometimes looks black an' sometimes yaller-brown?"

"Yes, that's the one all right. Who is she?"

"Oh, that!" said Old Mizzou with slight interest, "that's Bill Lawton's girl. Live's down th' gulch. He's th' fella' that was yar afore grub," he explained.

For a full minute Bennington stared at the cards in his hand. The patriarch became impatient.

"Yore play, sonny," he suggested.

"I don't believe you know the one I mean," returned Bennington slowly. "She's a girl with a little mouth and a nose that is tipped up just a trifle----"

"Snub!" interrupted Old Mizzou, with some impatience. "Yas, I knows. Same critter. Only one like her in th' Hills. Sasshays all over th' scenery, an' don't do nothin' but sit on rocks."

"So she's the daughter of that man!" said Bennington, still more slowly.

"Wall, so Mis' Lawton sez," chuckled Mizzou.

That night Bennington lay awake for some time. He had discovered the Mountain Flower; the story-book West was complete at last. But he had offended his discovery. What was the etiquette in such a case? Back East he would have felt called upon to apologize for being rude. Then, at the thought of apologizing to a daughter of that turkey-necked old whisky-guzzler he had to laugh.