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Boyd rode in front, Will was just behind, and then came the two heavily laden pack horses, following their masters with a faith that nothing could shake. The hunter seemed to have an instinct for choosing the right way, or else his eyes, like those of an owl, were able to pierce the dark. He avoided chasms and cliffs, chose the best places on the slopes, and wherever he wound he always led deeper and deeper into the vast maze of high mountains.
Will looked back toward the plains, but he could see no trace of them now, and he did not believe that the Sioux, however skilled they might be, could follow their trail up the ridges in the dark. Meanwhile the stars came out, and a half moon rode in a medium sky. The boy's eyes, grown used to the night, were now able to see quite clearly, and he noticed that the region into which they were riding was steadily growing wilder. Now and then they passed so close to the edge of chasms that he shivered a little, as he looked down into the dark wells. Then they passed up ravines where the lofty cliffs, clothed in stunted pine and cedar, rose high above them, and far in the north he caught the occasional glimpses of white crests on which the snow lay deep.
Boyd became quite cheerful, and, for a while, hummed a little air under his breath. When he ceased singing he said:
"I don't know where we're going, Will, but I do know that we're going away from the Sioux. They'll try to trail us tomorrow when the light comes, and they may be able to do it, but we'll be moving on again, and, however patient trailers may be, a trail that lengthens forever will wear out the most patient trailer of them all."
"Isn't that a creek down there?" asked Will, pointing to a silver flash in the dusk.
"So it is, and while these mountain streams usually have rough beds, scattered with boulders, we'll ride up it as far as we can. It may be a great help in hiding our trail."
They rode down the slope and urged the horses into the water, although the good beasts showed reluctance, fearful of the bowlders and the rough footing, but, when they were in, the two riders allowed them to pick the way, and thus they advanced slowly and with extreme caution a distance of five full miles. They heard a roaring and approached a fine fall of about thirty feet, over which the creek tumbled, sending up much white foam.
"This watery road is now blocked, that's quite sure," said Boyd. "But we've been able to use it a much greater distance than I thought, and it may throw off the Sioux entirely."
They emerged from the water and the horses climbed a steep slope to the crest of a ridge, where they stood panting. Boyd and young Clarke slipped from the saddles and stood by. The half moon and clusters of stars still made in the sky a partial light, enabling them to see that they stood upon a sort of broad shelf, sprinkled with large trees without undergrowth, but well covered with long grass. The only way of approach from the south was the rocky brook, along the bed of which they had come. What lay to the north they did not know, but the shelf seemed to narrow there.
"A large part of the night is spent," said Boyd, "and as it's not possible for the Sioux to overtake us before dawn I vote we camp here, because we're pretty well worn out, and the horses are dead tired. What does the other half of the army say?"
"It says this place was just made for us," replied Will, "and we shouldn't go forward another inch tonight."
"Then we'll unsaddle, tether the horses and take to our blankets, though, if you say so, we will first draw a little on the commissariat."
"No. I'm too tired to eat. I'd rather go to sleep."
"The two halves of the army are in agreement. So will I."
The horses fell to cropping the rich grass, but their riders, seeking the softest place they could find, folded themselves in their blankets and soon slumbered as soundly as if they were in the softest beds civilization could furnish.
Will awoke before dawn, and instantly remembered where he was. But while all had been strife and strain and anxiety before he slept, he felt now an immense peace, the great peace of the mountains. The horses having eaten their fill were lying down. The murmurs of the swift brook below came up to his ears, and with it the sound of a faint breeze playing in just a whisper among the leaves. Far above him soared peaks and ridges, so many and high that they seemed to prop up the eternal blue.
Will realized that he loved the mountains. Why shouldn't he? They had given him refuge when he needed it most, saving him and Boyd from dreadful torture and certain death. Somewhere in the heart of them lay the great treasure that he meant to find, and they possessed a majesty that appealed not merely to his sense of beauty, but to a spiritual feeling that was in truth an uplift to the soul.
He was awake scarcely a minute, but all the events of the last few days passed in a swift panorama before his mind—the warning of Red Cloud, the silent departure by night from the camp of the troops, the pursuit by the Sioux, and the escape into the high ranges. Rapidly as it passed it was almost as vivid as if it were happening again, and then he was asleep once more.
When he awoke the dawn was an hour old, and Boyd was kindling a low fire down by the edge of the stream.
"We'll draw on the coffee once more this morning," he said. "After all that we've passed through we're entitled to two cups of it apiece. I'll make bread and warm some of the dried beef, too. Suppose, while I'm doing it you climb to the crest over there, and use those glasses of yours for all they're worth."
It was a stiff climb to the summit, but once there Will had a tremendous view in all directions. Far to the south he was able to catch through the powerful lenses the dim line of the plains, but on all other sides were mountains, and yet more mountains. In the north they seemed very high, but far to the west was a mighty rounded peak, robed at the top in white, towering over every other. The narrow valley and the ridges were heavy with forest, but the glasses could find no sign of human life.
He descended with his report, and found the coffee, the bread and the meat ready, and while he had been too tired to eat the night before he had a tremendous appetite now. When breakfast was over they sat by the stream and considered the future. Boyd was quite sure the Sioux were still following, and that they would eventually strike the trail, though they might be two or three days in doing so. He was of the opinion that they should go farther into the high ranges.
"And what becomes of our quest?" asked Will.
"You know, lad," responded the hunter, whimsically, "that the longest way round is sometimes the shortest way through, and those that are in too great a hurry often fall over their own feet. If you are careful about your health and don't get shot you ought to live sixty or seventy years yet, because you are surely a robust youngster, and so you're richer in time than in anything else. I am, too, and for these reasons we can afford to go into the very heart of the high mountains, where we'll be well hidden, and bide until the danger of the Sioux pursuit has passed."
"A long speech, Jim, but probably a true one. Do we start right away?"
"Aye, lad, the sooner the better. Both the horses and ourselves are fed and refreshed. We don't know what this shelf leads to, but we can soon find out."
They resaddled, but did not mount, letting the well-trained horses follow, and proceeded along the shelf, until they entered a narrow pass, where they were compelled to go in single file, the hunter leading the way. Far below him Will heard the creek roaring as it foamed forward in rapids, and he was glad that the horses were, what Boyd had declared them to be, trained mountain climbers, walking on with even step, although he felt an instinctive desire to keep as far as he could from the cliff's edge, and lean against the slope on the other side. But Boyd, made familiar with such trails by his years of experience in the mountains, whistled gaily.
"Everything comes our way," he said. "If we were at the head of a trail like this we could hold it against the entire Sioux nation, if we had cartridges enough."
"I hope it won't go on forever," said Will. "It makes me feel a little dizzy."
"It won't. It's opening out now. The level land is widening on either side of the creek and that means another valley not much farther on."
But it was a good four miles before they emerged into a dip, covering perhaps two square miles, covered heavily with forest and with a beautiful little blue lake at the corner. Will uttered a cry of pleasure at the sight of the level land, the great trees green with foliage, and the gem of a lake.
"We couldn't have found a finer place for a camp," he said. "We're the children of luck."
But the wise hunter shook his head.
"When the morning's cold we hate to pull ourselves out of comfortable beds," he said, "and for mountaineers such as we've become I'll admit that this valley looks like the Garden of Eden, but here we do not bide."
"Because it's too good for us to live in. The Sioux, of course, know of it, and what draws us draws them, too. For a long time the finer a spot becomes the more dangerous it is for us. No, we'll ride on past this happy valley straight into the mountains."
"But at least let me take a little swim in that blue lake."
"Well, there's no harm in that, provided you're quick about it. When you come out I'll take one myself."
Will undressed in a couple of minutes and sprang into the water, which he found extremely cold, but he swam joyously for five minutes or so, when he emerged and was followed by Boyd. When they were in the saddle again both felt that their strength had been renewed and Will waved one hand in farewell to the little blue lake.
"Good-bye, Friend Lake," he said. "You're not large, but you're very beautiful, and some day I hope to come back and bathe in you again."
"The great ranges of mountains which run all about over the western part of the continent are full of such pleasant valleys and cool little lakes," said the hunter. "Often the lakes are far up the slopes, many thousands of feet above the sea, and sometimes you don't see 'em until you break right through the trees and bushes and come square up against the water. If we keep on, as I intend we shall, it's likely that we'll see a lot of 'em."
The lad's eyes kindled.
"That being so," he said, "I don't mind turning aside a while from our real hunt, because then we'll be explorers. It will be glorious to find new lakes and streams."
"Yes, it'll make the waiting easier, provided, of course, that we don't have rain and storms. Rain can turn a wilderness paradise in fifteen minutes into a regular place for the condemned. We've almost as much to fear now from the sky as we have from the Indians on the ground. When you see a little cloud up there you can begin to worry."
"But I don't see any, and so I refuse to worry yet."
They reached the farther edge of the valley and began to climb a slope, which, easier at first, soon became rather stiff. But the horses once more justified the hunter's praise and pressed forward nobly. He and Will dismounted again, and they let Selim lead where he would.
"All horses have wilderness sense," said Boyd, "and Selim, having both an educated sense and a wild sense, is sure to pick out the best way."
His confidence was not misplaced, as the horse instinctively chose the easiest path, and, before the twilight came, they reached the crest of a lofty ridge, from which they saw a sea of mountains in all directions, a scene so majestic that it made Will draw a sharp breath.
"I think we'd better go down the slope until it becomes too dark for us to see a way," said Boyd, "because we're up so high now that the night is sure to be biting cold here on the very top of the ridge."
In an hour they found a glen sheltered well by high trees all about and with a pool of icy cold water at the edge. It was a replica on a small scale of the valley and lake they had left behind, and glad enough they were to find it. They drank of the pool, and the horses followed them there with eagerness. Then, eating only cold food, they made ready for the night.
"Get an extra pair of blankets from your pack, Will," said Boyd. "You don't yet know how cold the night can be on these mountains, at any time of the year."
The hunter's advice was good, as Will the next morning, despite two blankets beneath him and two above him, felt cold, and when he sprang up he pounded his chest vigorously to make the circulation brisk. Boyd laughed.
"I'm about as cold as you are," he said, "and, in view of the winter into which we've suddenly dropped, we'll have hot coffee and hot food for breakfast. I don't think we risk anything by building a fire here. What's the matter with our horses?"
They had tethered the horses in the night, and all four of them suddenly began to rear and stamp in terror.
"There's a scout watching us!" exclaimed Will.
"A scout?" said Boyd, startled.
"Yes! See him standing on the big rock, far off there to the right."
The hunter looked and then drew a breath of relief.
"Old Ephraim!" he said.
A gigantic grizzly bear was upreared on a great rocky outcrop about three hundred yards away, and the opalescent light of the morning magnified him in the boy's eyes, until he was the largest beast in the world. Monstrous and sinister he stood there, unmoving, gazing at the strange creatures in the little camp. He seemed to Will a symbol of this vast and primeval new world into which he had come. Remembering his glasses he took them and brought the great grizzly almost before his eyes.
"He appears to be showing anger and a certain curiosity because we're here," he said. "I don't think he understands us, but he resents our invasion of his territory."
"Well, we're not going to explain who we are. If he don't meddle with us we won't meddle with him."
The grizzly did not stay long, retreating from the rock, then disappearing in the underbrush. Will had qualms now and then lest he should break through the bushes and appear in their little glen, but Boyd knew him better. He was content to leave alone those who left him alone.
The breakfast with its hot coffee and hot food was very grateful, and continuing the descent of the slope they passed through other narrow passes and over other ridges, but all the while ascending gradually, the world about them growing in majesty and beauty. Four days and a large part of four nights they traveled thus after leaving the little valley with the blue lake, and the bright air was growing steadily colder as they rose. Boyd talked a little now of stopping, but he did not yet see a place that fulfilled all his ideas of a good and safe camp, though he said they would soon find it.
"How far do you think we've come into the mountains?" asked Will.
"About a hundred miles, more or less," replied the hunter.
"Seems to me more like a thousand, chiefly more. If the Sioux find us here they'll have to be the finest mountain climbers and ravine crossers the world has ever seen. Just what are you looking for, Jim?"
"Four things, wood, water, grass and shelter. We've got to have 'em, both for ourselves and the horses, and we've got to find 'em soon, because, d'you see, Will, we've been wonderfully favored by Providence. The rains and storms have held off longer than they usually do in the high mountains, but we can't expect 'em to hold off forever just for our sakes. Besides, the hoofs of the horses are getting sore, and it's time to give 'em a long rest."
They were now far up the high slopes, but not beyond the timber range. The air was thin and cold, and at night they always used two pairs of blankets, spreading the under pair on thick beds of dry leaves. In the morning the pools would be frozen over, but toward noon the ice under the slanting rays of the sun would melt. The march itself, and the air laden with odors of pine and spruce, and cedar and balsam, was healthful and invigorating. Will felt his chest expand. He knew that his lung power, already good, was increasing remarkably and that his muscles were both growing and hardening.
Another day and crossing a ridge so sharp that they were barely able to pull the horses over it, they came to a valley set close around by high mountains, a valley about three miles long and a mile wide, one-third of its surface covered by a lake, usually silver in color, but varying with the sky above it. Another third of the valley was open and heavy in grass, the remainder being in forest with little undergrowth.
"Here," said Boyd, "we'll find the four things we need, wood, water, grass and shelter, and since it's practically impossible for the original band of Sioux to trail us into this cleft, here we will stay until such time as we wish to resume our great hunt. What say you?"
"Seems to me, Jim, that we're coming home. This valley has been waiting for us a great many years, but the true tenants have arrived at last."
"That's the right spirit. Hark to Selim, now! He, too, approves."
The great horse, probably moved by the sight of grass and water, raised his head and neighed.
"If we had felt any doubts the horses would have settled it for us," said Will. "I understand their language and they say in the most correct English that here we are to bide and rest, as long as we wish. The presence of the lake indicates a running stream, an entrance and exit, so to speak. I think, Jim, it's about the most beautiful valley I ever saw."
They descended the last slope, and came to the creek that drained the lake, a fine, clear, cold current, flowing swiftly over a rocky bottom. After letting the horses drink they forded it, and rode on into the valley. Will noticed something white on the opposite slope, and examining it through his glasses saw that it was a foaming cascade.
"It's the stream that feeds the lake," he said. "It rushes down from the higher mountains, and here we have a beautiful waterfall. Nature has neglected nothing in preparing our happy valley, providing not only comfort and security but scenic beauty as well."
The hunter looked a moment or two at the waterfall, and the tremendous mountains about them with a careful eye.
"What is it, Jim?" asked Will.
"I'm looking for tracks."
"What tracks? You said we wouldn't find any Sioux in here."
"Not the footprints of the Sioux."
"It's not in the range of the Crows, Blackfeet or Assiniboines. Surely you don't expect them."
"I don't expect Crows, Blackfeet or Assiniboines."
"Then what do you expect?"
"Why bother about wild animals? Armed as we are we've nothing to fear from them."
"Nothing to fear, but a lot to hope. I think we're likely to stay here quite a spell, and we'll need 'em in our business. Remember that for the present, Will, we're wild men, and we'll have to live as wild men have lived since the world began. We want their meat and their skins."
"The meat I understand, because I'd like to bite into a juicy piece of it now, but we're not fur hunters."
"No, but we need the skins of big animals, and we need 'em right away. This weather can't last forever. We're bound to have a storm sometime soon. We must first make a wickiup. It's quite simple. The Sioux always do it. A Sioux warrior never sleeps in the open if he can help it, and as they've lived this sort of life for more hundreds of years than anybody knows they ought to know something about it."
"But I don't see that cloud you told me several days ago to watch for."
"It will come. It's bound to come. Now here's the lake ahead of us. Isn't it a beauty? I told you we'd find a lot of these fine little lakes all along the slopes of the ridges, but this seems to be the gem of them all. See how the water breaks into waves and looks like melted silver! And the banks sloping and firm, covered with thick green turf, run right down to the water's edge, like a gentleman's park."
"It's all that you claim for it," said Will, making a wide, sweeping gesture, "and, bright new lake, I christen thee Lake Boyd!"
"The lake accepts the name," said the hunter with a pleased smile, and then he added, also making a wide, sweeping gesture:
"Green and sheltered valley, I christen thee Clarke Valley."
"I, too, accept the compliment," said Will.
"The far side of the valley is much the steeper," said the hunter, "and I think it would be a good idea for us to build the wickiup over there. It would be sheltered thoroughly on one side at least by the lofty cliffs."
"Going back a moment to the search you were making a little while ago, have you noticed the footprints of any wild animals?"
"Aye, Will, my lad, so I have. I've seen tracks of elk, buffalo and bear, and of many smaller beasts."
"Then, that burden off your mind, we might as well locate the site of our house."
"Correct. I think I see it now in an open space under the shelter of the cliff."
They had ridden across the valley, and both marked a slight elevation under the shadow of the cliff, a glen forty or fifty yards across, protected by thick forest both to east and west, and by thin forest on the south, from which point they were approaching.
"It's the building site that's been reserved for us five hundred years, maybe," said the hunter. "The mountain and the trees will shelter us from most of the big winds, and if any of the trees should blow down their falling bodies would not reach us here in the center of the open space. There is grass everywhere for the horses, and water, both lake and running, for all of us."
They unsaddled the riding horses, took the packs off the others and turned them loose. All four neighed gratefully, and set to work on the grass.
"They've done a tremendous lot of mountain climbing, and they've carried heavy burdens," said Boyd, "and they're entitled to a long rest, long enough to heal up their sore feet and fill out their sides again. Now, Will, you'll make a great hunter some day, but suppose, for the present, you guard the packs while I look for an elk and maybe a bear. Two of them would furnish more meat than we could use in a long time, but we need their skins."
"I'm content to wait," said Will, who was saddle-tired.
He sat down on the thick, soft grass by the side of the packs, and his physical system, keyed up so long, suffered a collapse, complete but not unpleasant. Every nerve relaxed and he sank back against his pack, content to be idle as long as Boyd was away. But while his body was weak then, his mind was content. Clarke Valley, which had been named after him, was surely wonderful. It was green and fresh everywhere and Boyd Lake was molten silver. Not far away the cataract showed white against the mountainside, and its roar came in a pleasant murmur to his ears.
He heard a distant shot, but it did not disturb him. He knew it was Boyd, shooting something, probably the elk he wished. After a while he heard another report, and he put that down as the bear. His surmise was correct in both instances.
Boyd, with his help, skinned both the bear and the elk, and they hung great quantities of the flesh of both in the trees to dry. Boyd carefully scraped the skins with his hunting knife, and they, too, were hung out to dry. While they were hanging there Will also shot a bear, and his hairy covering was added to the others.
A few days later Boyd built the wickiup, called by the Sioux tipiowinja. Taking one of the sharp axes he quickly cut a number of slender, green poles, the larger ends of which he sharpened well and thrust deep into the ground, until he had made with them a complete circle. The smaller ends were bent toward a common center and fastened tightly with withes of skin. The space between was thatched with brush, and the whole was covered with the skins of elk and bear, which Boyd stitched together closely and firmly. Then they cut out a small doorway, which they could enter by stooping. The floor was of poles, made smooth and soft with a covering of dead leaves.
It was rude and primitive, but Will saw at once that in need it would protect both their stores and themselves.
"I learned that from the Sioux long ago," said Boyd, not without some admiration of his handiwork. "It's close and hot, and after we've put the stores in we'll have to tuck ourselves away in the last space left. But it will feel mighty good in a storm."
The second night after the wickiup was finished his words came true. A great storm gathered in the southwest, the first that Will had seen in the high mountains, and it was a tremendous and terrifying manifestation of nature.
The mountains fairly shook with the explosions of thunder, and the play of lightning was dazzling on the ridges. When thunder and lightning subsided somewhat, the hunter and the lad crept into the wickiup and listened to the roaring of the rain as it came. Will, curled against the side upon his pack, heard the fierce wind moaning as if the gods themselves were in pain, and the rain beating in gust after gust. The stout poles bent a little before both wind and rain, but their elasticity merely added to their power of resistance, as the wickiup, so simple in its structure and yet so serviceable, stood fast, and Boyd had put on its skin covering so well that not a single drop of water entered.
In civilization he might have found the wickiup too close to be supportable, but in that raging wilderness, raging then at least, it was snug beyond compare. He had a thought or two for the horses, but he knew they would find shelter in the forest. Boyd, who was curled on the other side of the wickiup, was already asleep, but the lad's sense of safety and shelter was so great that he lay awake, and listened to the shrieking of the elements, separated from him only by poles and a bearskin. The power of contrast was so great that he had never felt more comfortable in his life, and after listening awhile he, too, fell asleep, sleeping soundly until day, when the storm had passed, leaving the air crisper and fresher, and the earth washed afresh and clean.
They found the horses already grazing, and their bear and elk steaks, which they had fastened securely, safe on the boughs. The valley itself, so keen and penetrating was the odor of balsam and pine, seemed redolent with perfume, and the lake itself had taken on a new and brighter tint of silver.
"Boyd Lake and Clarke Valley are putting on their best in our honor," said Will.
Then they ate a huge breakfast, mostly of elk and bear meat, and afterward considered the situation. Will had the natural impatience of youth, but Boyd was all for staying on a couple of weeks at least. They might not find another such secure place, one that furnished its own food, and nothing would be lost while much could be gained by waiting. It was easy enough to persuade the lad, who was, on the whole, rather glad to be convinced, and then they turned their thoughts toward the improvement of a camp which had some of the elements of permanency.
"We could, of course, build a good, strong cabin," said Boyd, "and with our stout axes it would not take long to do it, but I don't think we'll need the protection of logs. The wickiup ought to serve. We may not have another storm while we're here, but showers are pretty sure to come."
To provide against contingencies they strengthened the wickiup with another layer of poles, and Boyd spread over the leaves on the floor the skin of a huge grizzly bear that he killed on one of the slopes. They felt now that it was secure against any blizzard that might sweep through the mountains, and that within its shelter they could keep warm and dry in the very worst of times. But they did not sleep in it again for a full week, no rain falling at night during that period. Instead they spread their blankets under the trees.
"It's odd, and I don't pretend to account for it," said Boyd, "but it's only progressive white men who understand the value of fresh air. As I told you, the Sioux never sleep outside, when they can help it. Neither do the other Indians. In the day they live outdoors, but at night they like to seal themselves up in a box, so to speak."
"Rushing from extreme to extreme."
"Maybe, but as for me, I want no better bed than the soft boughs of balsam, with blankets and the unlimited blue sky, provided, of course, that it isn't raining or hailing or sleeting or snowing. It's powerful healthy. Since we've come into Clarke Valley I can see, Will, that you've grown about two inches in height and that you're at least six inches bigger around the chest."
"You're a pretty big exaggerator!" laughed Will, "but I certainly do feel bigger and stronger than I was when I arrived here. If the Sioux will only let us bide in peace awhile I think I may keep on growing. Tell me more about the Sioux, Jim. They're a tremendous league, and I suppose you know as much about 'em as any white man in this part of the world."
"I've been in their country long enough to learn a lot, and there's a lot to learn. The Sioux are to the West what the Iroquois were to the East, that is, so far as their power is concerned, though their range of territory is far larger than that of the Iroquois ever was. They roam over an extent of mountain and plain, hundreds and hundreds of miles either way. I've heard that they can put thirty thousand warriors in the field, though I don't know whether it's true or not, but I do know that they are more numerous and warlike than any other Indian nation in the West, and that they have leaders who are really big men, men who think as well as fight. There's Mahpeyalute, whom you saw and whom we call Red Cloud, and Tatanka Yotanka, whom we call Sitting Bull, and Gray Wolf and War Eagle and lots of others.
"Besides, the Sioux, or, in their own language, the Dakotas, are a great nation made up of smaller nations, all of the same warlike stock. There is the tribe of the Mendewakaton, which means Spirit Lake Village, then you have the Wahpekute or Leaf Shooters; the Wahpeton, the Leaf Village; the Sisseton, the Swamp Village; the Yankton, the End Village, the Yanktonnais, the Upper End Village, and the Teton, the Prairie Village. The Teton tribe, which is very formidable, is subdivided into the Ogalala, the Brule, and the Hunkpapa. Red Cloud, as I've told you before, is an Ogalala. And that's a long enough lesson for you for one day. Now, like a good boy, go catch some fish."
Will had discovered very early that Lake Boyd, which was quite deep, contained fine lake trout and also other fish almost as good to the taste. As their packs included strong fishing tackle it was not difficult to obtain all the fish they wanted, and the task generally fell to the lad. Now, at Boyd's suggestion, he fulfilled it once more with the usual success.
Game of all kinds, large and small, was abundant, the valley being fairly overrun with it. Boyd said that it had come in through the narrow passes, and its numbers indicated that no hunters had been there in a long time. Will even found a small herd of about a dozen buffaloes grazing at the south end of the valley, but the next day they disappeared, evidently alarmed by the invasion of human beings. But the deer continued numerous and there were both bears and mountain lions along the slopes.
Will, who had a certain turn for solitude, being of a thoughtful, serious nature, ceased to find the waiting in the valley irksome. He began to think less of the treasure for which he had come so far and through such dangers. They had found a happy valley, and he did not care how long they stayed in it, all nature being so propitious. He had never before breathed an air so fine, and always it was redolent with the odor of pine and balsam. He began to feel that Boyd had not exaggerated much when he talked about his increase in height and chest expansion.
Both he and the hunter bathed every morning in Lake Boyd. At first Will could not endure its cold water more than five minutes, but at the end of ten days he was able to splash and swim in it as long as he liked.
Their days were not all passed in idleness, as they replenished their stores by jerking the meat of both bear and deer. At the end of two weeks the hunter began to talk of departure, and he and Will walked toward the western end of the valley, where the creek issued in a narrow pass, the only road by which they could leave.
"It's likely to be a mighty rough path," said Boyd, "but our horses are still mountain climbers and we'll be sure to make it."
They went a little nearer and listened to the music of the singing waters, as the creek rushed through the cleft. It was a fine, soothing note, but presently another rose above it, clear and melodious.
It was a whistle, and it had such a penetrating quality that Will, at first, thought it was a bird. Then he knew it sprang from the throat of a man, hidden by the bushes and coming up the pass. Nearer and nearer it came and mellower and mellower it grew. He had never before heard anyone whistle so beautifully. It was like a song, but it was evident that someone was entering their happy valley, and in that wilderness who could come but an enemy? Nearer and nearer the whistler drew and the musical note of the whistling and its echoes filled all the pass.
"Wouldn't it be better for us to draw back a little where we can remain hidden among the brakes?" said Will.
"Yes, do it," replied the hunter, "just for precaution against any possible mistake, but I don't think we really need to do so. In all the world there's not another such whistler! It's bound to be Giant Tom, Giant Tom his very self, and none other!"
"Giant Tom! Giant Tom! Whom do you mean?" exclaimed Will.
"Just wait a minute and you'll see."
The whistler was now very near, though hidden from sight by the bushes, and he was trilling forth old airs of home that made the pulses in the lad's throat beat hard.
"It's Giant Tom. There's no other such in the world," repeated Boyd more to himself than to Will. "In another minute you'll see him. You can hear him now brushing past the bushes. Ah, there he is! God bless him!"
The figure of an extraordinary man now came into view. He was not more than five feet tall, nor was he particularly broad for his height. He was just the opposite of a giant in size, but there was something about him that suggested the power of a giant. He had a wonderfully quick and light step, and it was Will's first impression that he was made of steel, instead of flesh and blood. His face, shaven smoothly, told little of his age. He was dressed in weather-beaten brown, rifle on shoulder, and two mules, loaded with the usual packs and miner's tools, followed him in single file and with sure step.
Will's heart warmed at once to the little man who continued to whistle forth a volume of clear song, and whose face was perhaps the happiest he had ever seen. Boyd stepped suddenly from the shielding brushwood and extended his hand.
"Tom Bent," he said, "put 'er there!"
"Thar she is," said Giant Tom, placing his palm squarely in Boyd's.
"My young friend, Mr. William Clarke," said the hunter, nodding at the lad, "and this is Mr. Thomas Bent, better known to me and others as Giant Tom."
"Glad to meet you, William," said the little man, and ever afterward he called the boy William. "Anybody that I find with Jim, here, has got on 'im the stamp an' seal o' high approval. I don't ask your name, whar you come from or why you're here, or whar you're goin', but I take you fur a frien' o' Jim's, an' so just 'bout all right. Now put 'er thar."
He grinned a wide grin and extended a wide palm, into which Will put his to have it enclosed at once in a grasp so mighty that he was convinced his first impression about the man being made of steel was correct. He uttered an exclamation and Giant Tom dropped his hand at once.
"I never do that to a feller more than once," he said, "an' it's always the first time I meet him. Even then I don't do it 'less I'm sure he's all right, an' I'm goin' to like 'im. It's jest my way o' puttin' a stamp on 'im to show that he's passed Tom Bent's ordeal, an' is good fur the best the world has to offer. Now, William, you're one o' us."
He smiled so engagingly that Will was compelled to laugh, and he felt, too, that he had a new and powerful friend.
"That's right, laugh," said Giant Tom. "You take it the way a feller orter, an' you an' me are goin' to be mighty good pards. An' that bein' settled I want to know from you, Jim Boyd, what are you doin' in my valley."
"Your valley, Giant! Why, you never saw it before," said the hunter.
"What's that got to do with it? I wuz comin' here an' any place that I'm goin' to come to out here in the wilderness is mine, o' course."
"Coming here, I suppose, to hunt for gold! And you've been hunting for it for fifteen years, you've trod along thousands and thousands of miles and never found a speck of it yet."
The little man laughed joyously.
"That's true," he said. "I've worked years an' years an' I never yet had a particle o' luck. But a dry spell, no matter how long, is always broke some time or other by a rain, an' when my luck does come, it's goin' to bust all over my face. Gold will just rain on me. I'll stand in it knee-deep an' then shoulder deep, an' then right up to my mouth."
"You haven't changed a bit," said Boyd, grinning also. "You're the same Giant Tom, a real giant in strength and courage, that I've met off and on through the years. It's been a long time since I first saw you."
"It was in Californy in '49. I was only fourteen then, but I went out with my uncle in the first rush. Seventeen years I've hunted the yellow stuff, in the streams, in the mountains, all up an' down the coast, in the British territories, an' way back in the Rockies, but I've yet to see its color. Uncle Pete found some, and when he died he left what money he had to me. 'Jest you take it an' keep on huntin', Tom, my boy,' he said. 'Now an' then I think I've seen traces o' impatience in you. When you'd been lookin' only six or seven years, an' found nothin', I heard you speak in a tone of disapp'intment, once. Don't you do it ag'in. That ain't the way things are won. It takes sperrit an' patience to be victor'us. Hang on to the job you've set fur yourse'f, an' thirty or forty years from now you'll be shore to reap a full reward, though it might come sooner.' An' here I am, fresh, strong, only a little past thirty, and I kin afford to hunt an' wait for my pay 'bout thirty years more. I've never forgot what Uncle Pete told me just afore he died. A mighty smart man was Uncle Pete, an' he had my future in mind. Don't you think so, young William?"
"Of course," replied Will, looking at him in wonder and admiration. "I don't think a man of your cheerful and patient temperament could possibly fail."
"And maybe his reward will come much sooner than he thinks," said the hunter, glancing at the lad.
Will understood what Boyd meant, and he was much taken with the idea. The Little Giant seemed to be sent by Providence, but he said nothing, waiting until such time as the hunter thought fit to broach the subject.
"How long have you been here?" asked the Little Giant, looking at the valley with approving eyes.
"Quite a little while," replied Boyd. "It belonged to us two until a few minutes ago, but now it belongs to us three. We've been needing a third man badly, and while I didn't know it, you must have been in my mind all the time."
"An' what do you happen to need me fur, Jim Boyd?"
"We'll let that wait awhile, at least, until we introduce you to our home."
"All right. Patience is my strong suit. Do you mean to say you've got a home here?"
"Then I'll be your guest until you take me into the pardnership you're talkin' 'bout. Do you know that you two are the first faces o' human bein's that I've seen in two months, an' it gives me a kind o' pleasure to look at you, Jim Boyd, an' young William."
"Come on then to our camp."
He whistled to his two mules, strong, patient animals, and then he whistled on his own account the gayest and most extraordinary variation that Will had ever heard, a medley of airs, clear, pure and birdlike, that would have made the feet of any young man dance to the music. It expressed cheerfulness, hope and the sheer joy of living.
"You could go on the stage and earn fine pay with that whistling of yours," said Will, when he finished.
"Others have told me so, too," said the Little Giant, "but I'll never do it. Do you think I'd forget what Uncle Pete said to me on his dyin' bed, an' get out o' patience? What's a matter o' twenty or thirty years? I'll keep on lookin' an' in the end I'll find plenty o' gold as a matter o' course. Then I won't have to whistle fur a livin'. I'll hire others to whistle fur me."
"He's got another accomplishment, Will, one that he never brags about," said the hunter.
"What is it?"
"I told you once that I was as good a rifle shot as there was in the West, over a range of a million and a half square miles of mountain and plain, but I forgot, for a moment, about one exception. That exception is Giant Tom, here. He has one of the fine repeating rifles like ours, and whether with that or a muzzle loader he's quicker and surer than any other."
The face of Giant Tom turned red through his tan.
"See here, Jim Boyd, I'm a modest man, I'm no boaster, don't be telling wild tales about me to young William. I don't know him yet so well as I do you, an' I vally his good opinion."
"What I say is true every word of it. If his bullet would only carry that far he'd pick off a deer at five miles every time, and you needn't deny it, Giant Tom."
"Well, mebbe thar is some truth in what you say. When the Lord sawed me off a foot, so I'd hev to look up in the faces o' men whenever I talked to 'em, He looked at me an' He felt sorry fur the little feller He'd created. I'll have to make it up to him somehow, He said to Hisself, an' to he'p me along He give me muscles o' steel, not your cast steel, but your wrought steel that never breaks, then He put a mockin' bird in my throat, an' give me eyes like an eagle's an' nerves o' the steadiest. Last, He give me patience, the knowin' how to wait years an' years fur what I want, an' lookin' back to it now I think He more than made up fur the foot He sawed off. Leastways I ain't seen yet the man I want to change with, not even with you, Jim Boyd, tall as you think you are, nor with you, young William, for all your red cheeks an' your youth an' your heart full o' hope, though it ain't any fuller than mine."
"Long but mighty interesting," said Boyd. "Now, you can see our wickiup, over there in the open. We use it only when it rains. We'll help you take the packs off your mules and they can go grazing for themselves with our horses. You are not saying much about it, but I imagine that you and the mules, too, are pretty nearly worn out."
"Them's good mules, mighty good mules, but them an' me, I don't mind tellin' it to you, Jim Boyd, won't fight ag'inst restin' an' eatin' awhile."
"I'll light the fire and warm food for you," said Will. "It's a pleasure for me to do it. Sit down on the log and before you know it I'll have ready for you the finest lake trout into which you ever put your teeth."
"Young William, I accept your invite."
Will quickly had his fire going, and he served not only trout, but bear steaks and hot coffee to the Little Giant, who ate with a tremendous appetite.
"I've got provisions of my own in my packs," he said, "but sometimes the other feller's feed tastes a heap better than your own, an' this that you're offerin' me is, I take it, the cream o' the mountains, young William. A couple more o' them trout, if you don't mind, four or five more pounds o' that bear meat, an' a gallon o' coffee, if you've got it to spare. With them I think I kin make out. How are my mules gettin' on, Jim?"
"First rate. They've already introduced themselves to the horses, which have given their names, pedigrees and the stories of their lives. The mules also have furnished their histories, and, everybody being satisfied with everybody else's social station and past, they're now grazing together in perfect friendship, all six of 'em, just beyond that belt of woodland. And that being the case, I'll now give you the history of Will and myself, and I'll tell you about the biggest thing that we expect from the future."
"Go ahead," said the Little Giant, settling himself into a comfortable position.
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