It is now almost midnight, and in five minutes the new morning will begin. The scene is in the tavern billiard-room. Rough men in rough clothing, slouch hats, breeches stuffed into boot-tops, some with vests, none with coats, are grouped about the boiler-iron stove, which has ruddy cheeks and is distributing a grateful warmth; the billiard balls are clacking; there is no other sound;that is, within; the wind is fitfully moaning without. The men look bored; also expectant. A hulking broad-shouldered miner, of middle age, with grizzled whiskers, and an unfriendly eye set in an unsociable face, rises, slips a coil of fuse upon his arm, gathers up some other personal properties, and departs without word or greeting to anybody. It is Flint Buckner. As the door closes behind him a buzz of talk breaks out.
The regularest man that ever was, said Jake Parker, the blacksmith: you can tell when its twelve just by him leaving, without looking at your Waterbury.
And its the only virtue hes got, as fur as I know, said Peter Hawes, miner.
Hes just a blight on this society, said Wells-Fargos man, Ferguson. If I was running this shop Id make him say something, some time or other, or vamos the ranch. This with a suggestive glance at the barkeeper, who did not choose to see it, since the man under discussion was a good customer, and went home pretty well set up, every night, with refreshments furnished from the bar.
Say, said Ham Sandwich, miner, does any of you boys ever recollect of him asking you to take a drink?
Him? Flint Buckner? Oh, Laura!
This sarcastic rejoinder came in a spontaneous general outburst in one form of words or another from the crowd. After a brief silence, Pat Riley, miner, said:
Hes the 15-puzzle, that cuss. And his boys another one. I cant make them out.
Nor anybody else, said Ham Sandwich; and if they are 15-puzzles, how are you going to rank up that other one? When it comes to A 1 rightdown solid mysteriousness, he lays over both of them. Easy;dont he?
Everybody said it. Every man but one. He was the new-comer;Peterson. He ordered the drinks all round, and asked who No. 3 might be. All answered at once, Archy Stillman!
Is he a mystery? asked Peterson.
Is he a mystery? Is Archy Stillman a mystery? said Wells-Fargos man, Ferguson. Why, the fourth dimensions foolishness to him.
For Ferguson was learned.
Peterson wanted to hear all about him; everybody wanted to tell him; everybody began. But Billy Stevens, the barkeeper, called the house to order, and said one at a time was best. He distributed the drinks, and appointed Ferguson to lead. Ferguson said:
Well, hes a boy. And that is just about all we know about him. You can pump him till you are tired; it aint any use; you wont get anything. At least about his intentions, or line of business, or where hes from, and such things as that. And as for getting at the nature and get-up of his main big chief mystery, why, hell just change the subject, thats all. You can guess till youre black in the face;its your privilege;but suppose you do, where do you arrive at? Nowhere, as near as I can make out.
What is his big chief one?
Sight, maybe. Hearing, maybe. Instinct, maybe. Magic, maybe. Take your choice;grown-ups, twenty-five; children and servants, half price. Now Ill tell you what he can do. You can start here, and just disappear; you can go and hide wherever you want to, I dont care where it is, nor how far;and hell go straight and put his finger on you.
You dont mean it!
I just do, though. Weathers nothing to him;elemental conditions is nothing to him;he dont even take notice of them.
Oh, come! Dark? Rain? Snow? Hey?
Its all the same to him. He dont give a damn.
Oh, say;including fog, peraps?
Fog! hes got an eye t can plunk through it like a bullet.
Now, boys, honor bright, whats he giving me?
Its a fact! they all shouted. Go on, Wells-Fargo.
Well, sir, you can leave him here, chatting with the boys, and you can slip out and go to any cabin in this camp and open a book;yes, sir, a dozen of them;and take the page in your memory, and hell start out and go straight to that cabin and open every one of them books at the right page, and call it off, and never make a mistake.
He must be the devil!
More than one has thought it. Now Ill tell you a perfectly wonderful thing that he done. The other night he;
There was a sudden great murmur of sounds outside, the door flew open, and an excited crowd burst in, with the camps one white woman in the lead and crying:
My child! my child! shes lost and gone! For the love of God help me to find Archy Stillman; weve hunted everywhere!
Said the barkeeper:
Sit down, sit down, Mrs. Hogan, and dont worry. He asked for a bed three hours ago, tuckered out tramping the trails the way hes always doing, and went upstairs. Ham Sandwich, run up and roust him out; hes in No. 14.
The youth was soon downstairs and ready. He asked Mrs. Hogan for particulars.
Bless you, dear, there aint any; I wish there was. I put her to sleep at seven in the evening, and when I went in there an hour ago to go to bed myself, she was gone. I rushed for your cabin, dear, and you wasnt there, and Ive hunted for you ever since, at every cabin down the gulch, and now Ive come up again, and Im that distracted and scared and heart-broke; but, thanks to God, Ive found you at last, dear heart, and youll find my child. Come on! come quick!
Move right along; Im with you, madam. Go to your cabin first.
The whole company streamed out to join the hunt. All the southern half of the village was up, a hundred men strong, and waiting outside, a vague dark mass sprinkled with twinkling lanterns. The mass fell into columns by threes and fours to accommodate itself to the narrow road, and strode briskly along southward in the wake of the leaders. In a few minutes the Hogan cabin was reached.
Theres the bunk, said Mrs. Hogan; theres where she was; its where I laid her at seven oclock; but where she is now, God only knows.
Hand me a lantern, said Archy. He set it on the hard earth floor and knelt by it, pretending to examine the ground closely. Heres her track, he said, touching the ground here and there and yonder with his finger. Do you see?
Several of the company dropped upon their knees and did their best to see. One or two thought they discerned something like a track; the others shook their heads and confessed that the smooth hard surface had no marks upon it which their eyes were sharp enough to discover. One said, Maybe a childs foot could make a mark on it, but I dont see how.
Young Stillman stepped outside, held the light to the ground, turned leftward, and moved three steps, closely examining; then said, Ive got the direction;come along; take the lantern, somebody.
He strode off swiftly southward, the files following, swaying and bending in and out with the deep curves of the gorge. Thus a mile, and the mouth of the gorge was reached; before them stretched the sage-brush plain, dim, vast, and vague. Stillman called a halt, saying, We mustnt start wrong, now; we must take the direction again.
He took a lantern and examined the ground for a matter of twenty yards; then said, Come on; its all right, and gave up the lantern. In and out among the sage-bushes he marched, a quarter of a mile, bearing gradually to the right; then took a new direction and made another great semicircle; then changed again and moved due west nearly half a mile;and stopped.
She gave it up, here, poor little chap. Hold the lantern. You can see where she sat.
But this was in a slick alkali flat which was surfaced like steel, and no person in the party was quite hardy enough to claim an eyesight that could detect the track of a cushion on a veneer like that. The bereaved mother fell upon her knees and kissed the spot, lamenting.
But where is she, then? some one said. She didnt stay here. We can see that much, anyway.
Stillman moved about in a circle around the place, with the lantern, pretending to hunt for tracks.
Well! he said presently, in an annoyed tone, I dont understand it. He examined again. No use. She was here;thats certain; she never walked away from here;and thats certain. Its a puzzle; I cant make it out.
The mother lost heart then.
Oh, my God! oh, blessed Virgin! some flying beast has got her. Ill never see her again!
Ah, dont give up, said Archy. Well find her;dont give up.
God bless you for the words, Archy Stillman! and she seized his hand and kissed it fervently.
Peterson, the new-comer, whispered satirically in Fergusons ear:
Wonderful performance to find this place, wasnt it? Hardly worth while to come so far, though; any other supposititious place would have answered just as well;hey?
Ferguson was not pleased with the innuendo. He said, with some warmth:
Do you mean to insinuate that the child hasnt been here? I tell you the child has been here! Now if you want to get yourself into as tidy a little fuss as;
All right! sang out Stillman. Come, everybody, and look at this! It was right under our noses all the time, and we didnt see it.
There was a general plunge for the ground at the place where the child was alleged to have rested, and many eyes tried hard and hopefully to see the thing that Archys finger was resting upon. There was a pause, then a several-barreled sigh of disappointment. Pat Riley and Ham Sandwich said, in the one breath:
What is it, Archy? Theres nothing here.
Nothing? Do you call that nothing? and he swiftly traced upon the ground a form with his finger. There;dont you recognize it now? Its Injun Billys track. Hes got the child.
God be praised! from the mother.
Take away the lantern. Ive got the direction. Follow!
He started on a run, racing in and out among the sage-bushes a matter of three hundred yards, and disappeared over a sand-wave; the others struggled after him, caught him up, and found him waiting. Ten steps away was a little wickieup, a dim and formless shelter of rags and old horse-blankets, a dull light showing through its chinks.
You lead, Mrs. Hogan, said the lad. Its your privilege to be first.
All followed the sprint she made for the wickieup, and saw, with her, the picture its interior afforded. Injun Billy was sitting on the ground; the child was asleep beside him. The mother hugged it with a wild embrace, which included Archy Stillman, the grateful tears running down her face, and in a choked and broken voice she poured out a golden stream of that wealth of worshiping endearments which has its home in full richness nowhere but in the Irish heart.
I find her bymeby it is ten oclock, Billy explained. She sleep out yonder, vey tired;face wet, been cryin, spose; fetch her home, feed her, she heap much hungry;go sleep gin.
In her limitless gratitude the happy mother waived rank and hugged him too, calling him the angel of God in disguise. And he probably was in disguise if he was that kind of an official. He was dressed for the character.
At half-past one in the morning the procession burst into the village singing, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, waving its lanterns, and swallowing the drinks that were brought out all along its course. It concentrated at the tavern, and made a night of what was left of the morning.