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As the quondam class-mates disappeared together down the winding road, Houston gave his friend, as succinctly as possible, an explanation of his presence there in the capacity of clerk, briefly outlining his plans, and stating what he had been able so far to accomplish.
Van Dorn was intensely interested, and through his own practical knowledge and experience, was able to give Houston some valuable information, and to make some important suggestions.
Houston was quick to see that here was just the help he would need a little later; he also knew that opportunities for seeing his friend would be limited, he must act promptly.
“Arthur,” he asked rather abruptly, “how soon do you go east?”
“In about two weeks.”
“Any special engagements for this summer?”
“Nothing particularly important at present.”
“You remember my uncle, don’t you?”
“I remember Mr. Cameron perfectly, though I have not seen him for a number of years.”
“I suppose, for a sufficient consideration, you would come out here on business for us, at any time?”
“Like Lindlay, ‘just to accommodate,’ I suppose,” laughed Van Dorn, and continued, “Everard, old boy, I am at the service of yourself and your uncle, and we’ll say nothing about ‘considerations’ until afterward; then arrange it between yourselves.”
“We will not require your time and services without ample compensation,” returned Houston, “but you will be just the man I will need later; an expert, familiar with this locality, in whom my uncle will repose perfect confidence, and whom the company here will not suspect.”
“But Mr. Cameron may not place much confidence in the harum-scarum sophomore that visited his home a few years since, if he remembers him at all,” said Van Dorn, with a little laugh.
“My word will be enough for that,” said Houston, “I will write a letter this afternoon for you to take to him. There are the gentlemen now, coming down the road; I will see you again this evening, and probably to-morrow. I wonder what has become of Mr. Winters?”
“Probably he is taking his afternoon smoke,” said Van Dorn. “I think the old gentleman would throw up the whole mining deal rather than sacrifice that. After what you’ve told me of this mining concern out here, I’ve considerable curiosity to see this famous mine they’ve been writing about. I’ve got an idea just about how it will pan out, but I’ll say nothing till I’ve seen it.”
“Let me know your impressions, later,” said Houston.
“Agreed,” answered Van Dorn, and the party outside having nearly reached the door, the subject was dropped.
Meanwhile, Mr. Winters, seated in the rustic porch, his attention divided between the picturesque scenery surrounding him, and the spirals of blue smoke which he loved to watch, was in no hurry to exchange his present enjoyment for subterranean explorations; the rest and solitude seemed doubly welcome after the last few weeks of travel.
Rutherford, who lingered a few moments after the others had gone, did not find him very socially inclined, and picking up his magazine from the floor, where it had reposed since Van Dorn’s appearance, he started up the canyon for a stroll among the rocks by the lake.
It is to be feared that Mr. Winters, under the combined influence of his pipe and the warm sunshine, was very nearly asleep. It is certain that he never heard the sound of soft, trailing garments beside him, nor did he appear to be in full possession of all his faculties, until two arms rested lightly on his shoulders, and a pair of small, white hands were clasped across his eyes.
Such a proceeding, under such circumstances, naturally had the effect of very quickly restoring his faculties to their normal condition, but on trying to turn his head, he found it held as firmly as in a vise, by the hands which had been quickly removed from his eyes, while a mischievous voice announced imperiously:
“Guess who it is, and you are free!”
“Guess!” exclaimed the old gentleman in some perplexity, “why, if I were at home, I would know this was one of my little girl’s tricks, but I cannot imagine who it is here.”
There was a musical, rippling laugh, as the hands were withdrawn, and Mr. Winters, turning quickly, came near losing his pipe in astonishment.
“Bless my soul, Leslie! what does this mean? Well, well! so it was my little girl after all, up to her old tricks; but, child, how came you out here, in such a place as this?”
At that moment, Houston or Rutherford would scarcely have recognized Miss Gladden, could they have seen her seated beside Mr. Winters with all the careless abandon of a child, laughing merrily in answer to his numerous questions, while he playfully pinched her cheek, or pulled her ear. To Mr. Winters, however, she seemed like one of his own children, for Leslie Gladden was an orphan, and Mr. and Mrs. Winters, having been deeply attached to her parents, and having no daughter of their own, had always regarded her as a daughter, and much of her life had been passed in their home.
“Well, puss,” said Mr. Winters, having answered her inquiries regarding his family, “seems to me it’s about time you gave an account of yourself; what are you doing here? and what have you been doing since last Easter? and where are Helen and her husband?”
“One question at a time, if you please, sir,” said Miss Gladden.
“That’s right, giving the old man orders, as usual; we always spoiled you, Leslie. Well, in the first place, what possessed you to leave us in the way you did? We understood you had gone to spend Easter with Helen; and the next we heard, Helen wrote her sister that they were going to spend the summer traveling in the west, and that you were to accompany them.”
“I will explain that a little later; what is the next in order?”
“Is Helen here with you?”
“No, sir, she and George are in Denver.”
“And who is stopping here with you?”
“No one; do you think I need a guardian, or a chaperon?”
The old man’s eyes twinkled; “You always were an independent sort of a girl, and pretty level-headed, too, I must admit; but, my dear child, is it safe for you to be out here alone among the miners, and this rough class of people?”
Miss Gladden laughed; “Did you see any very rough people to-day at dinner?”
“Why no, to be sure, I did not, but then, there must be many of them out here in this neighborhood.”
“I never see them,” said Miss Gladden, “I associate only with the people you met to-day; no one here knows that I have wealth; so really, I am safer here than at home, where I am known.”
“But there is no society here,” protested the old gentleman.
“I came here to get away from society; there is plenty of refined and pleasant companionship, and if I have friends here, I know they are sincere friends, not money worshipers, or fortune hunters.”
“Oh, I see,” said Mr. Winters, “the princess is out here in disguise, seeking some knight who will love her for herself alone, and not for her fortune.”
“No,” said Miss Gladden gravely, “I have not come out here seeking for any knight, but to escape from a base, dishonorable and cowardly knave.”
“Has your cousin Humphrey been annoying you again?”
“Yes, he and his mother made life a burden to me, that was my reason for leaving home as I did. Humphrey has sunk nearly every dollar of their property by his profligacy, and now, he and his mother are determined to have my fortune. Aunt exhausted all her stock of melodramatic and sentimental language and her tears in trying to get me to fulfill what she called my father’s ‘dying wish,’ by marrying that debauchee and libertine; then she tried threats, and finally became so wild with rage, that she reminded me of the will, and told me I should never marry any one else; that Humphrey should have the property, as my father intended, sooner or later, if not with me, then without me. I knew Helen intended to come west, and I went to her and asked to let me travel with them. Now, you know my reason for leaving so suddenly, and for not writing. We have all enjoyed our trip very much; you know George came out on business, and when he was occupied, of course it was pleasanter for Helen that I was with her. While we were at St. Paul, George met some mining men, and he immediately began to have symptoms of mining fever, and hearing of the mines out here, he brought us out, among the mountains and miners. We came out when the weather was warm and delightful, and Helen and I roamed over the mountains while George explored the mines. Then he decided to go to Denver, and I would probably have accompanied them, though I had become attached to this place, but just then I heard that my cousin had traced me to St. Paul, and was in pursuit, to renew his attentions to me, so I decided to remain here where he will be less likely to find me. Helen and her husband are in Denver, sworn to secrecy regarding my whereabouts.”
“Well, well!” exclaimed the old gentleman, meditatively, “I wouldn’t have thought your aunt would so far have forgotten herself. It was unfortunate that your father made such a will, leaving everything to Humphrey in case of your dying unmarried, but that was when you were both children, and he was very fond of the little fellow. Leslie, my dear, I wish you were married.”
“But I am not, and perhaps never likely to be,” Miss Gladden answered merrily.
“Yes, and you might have been married twenty times over,” said Mr. Winters, shaking his head, “and my own boy, Harry, among the lot.”
“Once is enough for me, papa dear,” said Miss Gladden lightly, yet in a more tender tone, “when the right one comes; but it could never have been Harry, any more than his brother, Richard; you and mamma were like parents to me, and the boys both seem like brothers.”
“Have you found the right one, yet?” asked the old gentleman, watching her keenly.
“As I told you, I am not looking for a knight,” she answered brightly, but the color deepened on her cheek, “if he ever comes, he must find me.”
Mr. Winters noted the telltale flush, and slowly shaking his head, remarked, “I don’t know, Leslie, about the advisability of leaving you here; you were always inclined to be very philanthropic, and it would be like you to adopt some young man out here, thinking you had money enough for yourself and him, too; that clerk down at the office, for instance, or this kid that was prancing around in eye-glasses.”
“The ‘kid’ as you call him,” Miss Gladden answered demurely, “has plenty of money of his own, and Mr. Houston seems abundantly able to take care of himself; if I adopt any one, it will be that beautiful girl who waited on you at dinner.”
“What is that, my dear?” said the old gentleman, brightening, “I noticed that girl at the table to-day; she is remarkably fine looking, and seemed to conduct herself like a perfect lady; who is she?”
Miss Gladden, in her enthusiastic manner, began telling him of Lyle, and of the interest she had taken in her, but before she had proceeded very far, the team appeared at the junction of the roads, the men calling Mr. Winters.
“Bless my stars, if there isn’t the team!” he exclaimed, “well my little girl, good-bye for the present, you will see us both this evening,” and having given Miss Gladden a promise that neither he nor his son would betray her secret, he hastened down the road to the waiting team.
“Well, boys,” he said, stopping to carefully empty the ashes from his pipe on a projecting ledge of rock, “I will have to give you credit for being on hand very promptly; that was about the shortest half hour that I can remember.”
A loud, ringing laugh greeted this remark, which caused Mr. Winters, who was replacing his pipe in its case, to look up in mild wonder.
“That’s one on you, father,” called his son, while Mr. Blaisdell remarked, “The time evidently has passed very pleasantly.”
“What is the origin of all this mirth?” demanded Mr. Winters, as he seated himself with considerable dignity.
“It seems,” said Mr. Rivers, in explanation, “to be because you were so unconscious of the lapse of time; we were delayed in getting together our papers, and it is over an hour since we left the house.”
“I looked for you at every turn of the road,” said his son.
“I didn’t,” said Van Dorn, “I thought he had fallen asleep over his pipe; I never dreamed he was disgracing the whole crowd of us by such open flirtation as that,––I wish we had brought along a chaperon.”
“Well, gentlemen,” said Mr. Winters very deliberately, “all I have to say is, that had you been in my place, the time would have seemed equally short to you, and I don’t think there’s one of you but would have been mighty glad to have been in my place.”
“Mr. Winters,” said Mr. Blaisdell, “I begin to think you’re the youngest man of our party.”
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