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“Well,” said Morgan, as Houston overtook him, “what do you think of a ‘genuwine minin’ camp,’ as Billy calls it?”
“The quarters are much more extensive than I supposed,” replied Houston, “I never realized before that there were so many men employed here; some of them are good fellows, too, I enjoyed my visit to-night immensely.”
“I generally like to come down and listen to them once in a while,” said Morgan, “but somehow, I didn’t care to stay there to-night, that story of Billy’s made me feel sort of creepy; I’m feeling a little off to-night, anyway.”
“That was a strange story the old fellow told, almost bordering on the improbable, it seemed to me, but I suppose there are a great many strange occurrences in a country like this.”
“Yes, lots of things happen here, and folks think nothing of ’em, that would be considered improbable anywhere back east.”
“Are you from the east?” inquired Houston.
“Yes, part way,” said Morgan, “not from way back, though, I’ve never been farther east than Ohio. I was born in Missouri, and raised in northern Iowa.”
He was silent for a moment, then continued: “I believe I told you one day that sometime I’d give you a bit of my life; I guess now’s as good as any time, and when you’ve heard it, maybe you won’t wonder at some of my views.
“As I said, I was born in Missouri; when I was about three years old, my folks moved to Iowa. I can just remember my father being with us at that time, but I never saw him after I was three and a half or so, and when I got old enough to think about it and ask for him, mother told me he was dead, and I never knew anything different till years after. We were always moving, I remember, from one place to another, and though we never had any money saved up, yet we lived well and never wanted for anything. Mother used to have a good deal of company, and be away from home considerable, but she was always kind to me, and I was a soft, warm-hearted, little chap in those days, and I know I thought the world of her.
“We lived together till I was about ten years old, and then times began to get pretty close; mother didn’t have any money, and we had to pinch to get along, but she was always good to me.
“Finally she decided to go to Denver; said she had heard of an opening there for her to run a boarding house and make money, but she didn’t want to take me with her, and sent me to a brother of hers, living in Ohio. That was the end of all happiness for me. He was a man old enough to be my grandfather, for mother was the youngest of a large family. He and his wife lived by themselves, for they had no children, and a meaner, stingier old couple never lived. Mother wrote pretty often at first, and always sent money, but don’t you think I ever got any of it. They never mentioned my mother to me, and they wouldn’t let me speak of her.
“Well, things went on from bad to worse, and finally, when I was fourteen, I run away. I stole rides on freight cars when I could, and when I couldn’t do that, I tramped, till I got to St. Louis, and got a place there in a third-class hotel as bell boy. While I was there, I picked up a good many little accomplishments that have stuck to me ever since, gambling and swearing, and so on. I got to be pretty tough, I know, but in spite of it all, there was one good spot about me yet,––I thought the world of my mother. I staid in St. Louis two years; in that time I had only heard from mother twice, but she sent me money both times, and wrote me kind letters, though she never said anything about my coming to see her.”
By this time, they had reached the main road, and as Morgan seated himself on a rock to finish his story, Houston followed his example.
“I made up my mind I wanted to see her, so I took what little money I had saved up, about eighty dollars, and started for Denver. The last letter I had from mother, she said she was running a house on a certain street, and I supposed of course it was a boarding house. I won’t tell you her real name; Morgan wasn’t her name, nor mine neither, I took it afterwards, but I’ll call her name Johnson. I got to Denver, and happened to meet an old acquaintance of mine named Tim, who took me to a fifth-class boarding and lodging house where he was staying. Tim had only been in Denver a few days, and knew very little of the city, but we found a crowd of old-timers at the house, and after a while I asked for Mrs. Johnson who kept a boarding house on such a street. The men all laughed and began to guy me; I got hot and was going to sail into them, but Tim persuaded me to go out with him, and we started in to paint the town.
“Well, we’d been out about two or three hours, when we came to a dancing hall, the toughest we’d seen,––a regular dive,––and we went in, bound to have some fun. The place was full of tough-looking subs, and a lot of frouzy, dowdy girls, and what they lacked in good looks they made up in paint and brass,––such brazen faces I never saw. Half way down the hall was a big, fat woman, with her hair blondined, who seemed to have charge of the place, and was giving orders to the man behind the bar. They had some loud talk, and something in her voice took my attention, and I looked at her; just then she turned ’round facing me, and great God! it was my mother! I knew her in spite of the blond hair and the paint, and she knew me. She gave one awful shriek, and then fell in a dead faint, and when she came to half an hour after, she went into hysterics, and screamed and raved and cried nearly all night.
“I was so dazed, everything was going round and round, and I thought the world was coming to an end; and it would have been better for me if it had. The next day, she was able to see me, and I went to her room, and I guess I must have staid three or four hours. She told me then, that her husband was living, but that he quit her back in Iowa, and that he claimed I was not his child. She cried and begged me to stay with her, but I left her that day. That was fifteen years ago, and I have never seen her since. From that time, the last tie that bound me to even a belief in anything good was gone. I took a different name, and came up here in this part of the country. Once I found a girl I liked, but just as I began to think something of her, I found she was like all the rest of ’em. I’ve no faith in man or woman, and don’t believe there is any such thing as honor or virtue. If there are some people who seem virtuous and honorable, it is simply either because they have been so placed that there was no temptation to be anything else, or because they have succeeded in keeping up appearances a little better than other folks.”
As Morgan paused, Houston spoke very slowly and kindly:
“Your experience has certainly been a sad one, Morgan, and I am truly sorry for you; sorry most of all that it has produced such an effect on you.”
“Well,” said Morgan, “I guess it don’t make much difference, one way or another, what we think or what we do.”
“Your mother’s opinions and actions seem to have made considerable difference in your life,” answered Houston, quietly.
“Yes, by George! I should say so!” replied Morgan, gloomily.
“Perhaps your opinions and your conduct are wrecking some other life, in like manner. There is not one of us who does not exert a powerful influence on those about us, one way or the other, to build up and strengthen, or to wreck and destroy.”
As there was no reply, Houston said: “I am very glad you have given me this sketch of your life, Morgan, I shall always feel differently toward you, remembering this.”
“Yes,” said Morgan, rising, “I wanted you to know, and I thought this was as good a time as I would have. You will remember it, whatever happens,” he added ambiguously, as he started slowly down the road, in an opposite direction from the house.
“Which way are you going?” asked Houston, also rising.
“Down to the Y.”
“What! are you going that distance as late as this?”
“Yes,” replied Morgan, “I don’t go all the way by the road; there’s a cut across that makes it a good deal shorter, and I’ll have plenty of time.”
They both stood a few moments watching a tall, dark figure that had been pacing up and down the road all the time they had been talking, sometimes approaching quite near, then retreating out of sight. They both recognized it as Jack.
“He’s a queer duck,” muttered Morgan, “wonder what he’s doing, this is rather late for a constitutional;” then added, “I wish I had some of the money that chap’s got.”
“Why, has he money?” inquired Houston.
“He must have,” was the reply, “he never spends anything, just hoards it up; he’s got enough any way to help me out just now, if I could only have it.”
“Are you in need of money?” asked Houston, quickly, “if so, I will gladly accommodate you.”
“Much obliged,” replied Morgan, starting down the road, “but I can get along for the present. Luck has been against me a little lately, but I guess it will turn all right,” adding, as he looked back over his shoulder, “if it don’t turn too late, like ‘Unlucky Pete’.”
As Houston walked rapidly up the canyon toward the house, he saw Jack again approaching, and glad of an opportunity to meet this man toward whom he felt such a powerful attraction, he slackened his pace as Jack came up, and greeting him cordially, stopped and entered into conversation with him. To his surprise, he found Jack’s manner far less reserved than on the few occasions when they had met in the mine. He seemed as ready to stop as Houston himself, and though he spoke with a dignity of tone and manner utterly unlike an employe, the icy reserve was gone, and in its place, there was in his voice the genuine ring of friendliness.
After a few moments of ordinary conversation, Jack remarked:
“You are not often out in this locality at this hour, and alone.”
“No,” Houston replied, “but I have been visiting the miners in company with Morgan, and remained there later than I intended. Then a talk with Morgan out there among the rocks delayed me still longer.”
“Pardon me,” said Jack, “but I suppose you are aware that you have enemies here.”
“Yes,” said Houston, slightly surprised, “I am conscious of that fact.”
“And,” continued Jack, lowering his tone, “you are probably also aware that this enmity is likely to increase, so that unless you exercise great caution, your life will be in danger?”
Houston was startled, not so much by the suggestion of personal danger, as by the thought that this man seemed to understand something of his position there. Was it possible his secret was known? It could not be, but if it were,––his nerves quivered, not with fear for himself, but with apprehension lest his whole scheme should in some way prove a failure.
These thoughts flashed through his mind with the speed of lightning, but Jack was quick to read them, and before Houston could make any reply, he continued:
“I desire to have a private interview with you, as early as possible, and as we will wish to be perfectly secure from interruption, as well as from all danger of being overheard, I wish you would come to my cabin, there we can talk with perfect safety. And now, as a key to this contemplated interview, allow me to say that I fully understand your mission here; but have no fear, your secret is absolutely safe. My only reason for wishing to meet you is, that I desire to aid you if you will permit me. Will you fix an evening for this conference of ours?”
“Certainly,” said Houston cordially, his momentary surprise giving way to the confidence which he had felt in this man, since first meeting him, face to face.
An engagement was made for the near future, and with a cordial hand-clasp, the two men parted.
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