“Bring a candle,” he requested the storekeeper, and led the way to the abandoned Lost Dog. Into the tunnel he led them, to the very end. There he paused, holding aloft his light. At his feet was a canvas which, being removed, was found to cover neatly a number of heavy sacks.
“Here’s our dust,” said California John, “every ounce of it, he said. He kept about six hundred thousand or so that belonged to Bright: but he didn’t take none of ours. He come back to tell me so.”
The men crowded around for closer inspection.
“I wonder why he done that?” Tibbetts marvelled.
“I asked him that,” replied California John, grimly, “He said his conscience never would rest easy if he robbed us babes.”
Tibbetts broke the ensuing silence.
“Was ‘babes’ the word he used?” he asked, softly.
“‘Babes’ was the word,” said California John.
A short story, say the writers of text books and the teachers of sophomores, should deal with but a single episode. That dictum is probably true; but it admits of wider interpretation than is generally given it. The teller of tales, anxious to escape from restriction but not avid of being cast into the outer darkness of the taboo, can in self-justification become as technical as any lawyer. The phrase “a single episode” is loosely worded. The rule does not specify an episode in one man’s life; it might be in the life of a family, or a state, or even of a whole people. In that case the action might cover many lives. It is a way out for those who have a story to tell, a limit to tell it within, but who do not wish to embroil themselves too seriously with the august Makers of the Rules.
The time was 1850, the place that long, soft, hot dry stretch of blasted desolation known as the Humboldt Sink. The sun stared, the heat rose in waves, the mirage shimmered, the dust devils of choking alkali whirled aloft or sank in suffocation on the hot earth. Thus it had been since in remote ages the last drop of the inland sea had risen into a brazen sky. But this year had brought something new. A track now led across the desert. It had sunk deep into the alkali, and the soft edges had closed over it like snow, so that the wheel marks and the hoof marks and the prints of men’s feet looked old. Almost in a straight line it led to the west. Its perspective, dwindling to nothingness, corrected the deceit of the clear air. Without it the cool, tall mountains looked very near. But when the eye followed the trail to its vanishing, then, as though by magic, the Ranges drew back, and before them denied dreadful forces of toil, thirst, exhaustion, and despair. For the trail was marked. If the wheel ruts had been obliterated, it could still have been easily followed. Abandoned goods, furniture, stores, broken-down wagons, bloated carcasses of oxen or horses, bones bleached white, rattling mummies of dried skin, and an almost unbroken line of marked and unmarked graves—like the rout of an army, like the spent wash of a wave that had rolled westward—these in double rank defined the road.