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In a Hollow of the Hills by Bret Harte

Part 3 out of 3

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The urgent telegrams of his foreman now flashed across Key's
preoccupied mind. Possibly Skinner saw his concern, "I reckon your
mine is all right, Mr. Key. One of your men was over yere last
night, and didn't say nothin'."

But this did not satisfy Key; and in a few minutes he had mounted
his horse and was speeding towards the Hollow, with a remorseful
consciousness of having neglected his colleagues' interests. For
himself, in the utter prepossession of his passion for Alice, he
cared nothing. As he dashed down the slope to the Hollow, he
thought only of the two momentous days that she had passed there,
and the fate that had brought them so nearly together. There was
nothing to recall its sylvan beauty in the hideous works that now
possessed it, or the substantial dwelling-house that had taken the
place of the old cabin. A few hurried questions to the foreman
satisfied him of the integrity of the property. There had been
some alarm in the shaft, but there was no subsidence of the "seam,"
nor any difficulty in the working. "What I telegraphed you for,
Mr. Key, was about something that has cropped up way back o' the
earthquake. We were served here the other day with a legal notice
of a claim to the mine, on account of previous work done on the
ledge by the last occupant."

"But the cabin was built by a gang of thieves, who used it as a
hoard for their booty," returned Key hotly, "and every one of them
are outlaws, and have no standing before the law." He stopped with
a pang as he thought of Alice. And the blood rushed to his cheeks
as the foreman quietly continued:--

"But the claim ain't in any o' their names. It's allowed to be the
gift of their leader to his young sister, afore the outlawry, and
it's in HER name--Alice Riggs or something."

Of the half-dozen tumultuous thoughts that passed through Key's
mind, only one remained. It was purely an act of the brother's to
secure some possible future benefit for his sister. And of this
she was perfectly ignorant! He recovered himself quickly, and said
with a smile:--

"But I discovered the ledge and its auriferous character myself.
There was no trace or sign of previous discovery or mining

"So I jedged, and so I said, and thet puts ye all right. But I
thought I'd tell ye; for mining laws is mining laws, and it's the
one thing ye can't get over," he added, with the peculiar
superstitious reverence of the Californian miner for that vested

But Key scarcely listened. All that he had heard seemed only to
link him more fatefully and indissolubly with the young girl. He
was already impatient of even this slight delay in his quest. In
his perplexity his thoughts had reverted to Collinson's: the mill
was a good point to begin his search from; its good-natured, stupid
proprietor might be his guide, his ally, and even his confidant.

When his horse was baited, he was again in the saddle. "If yer
going Collinson's way, yer might ask him if he's lost a horse,"
said the foreman. "The morning after the shake, some of the boys
picked up a mustang, with a make-up lady's saddle on." Key
started! While it was impossible that it could have been ridden by
Alice, it might have been by the woman who had preceded her.

"Did you make any search?" he inquired eagerly; "there may have
been an accident."

"I reckon it wasn't no accident," returned the foreman coolly, "for
the riata was loose and trailing, as if it had been staked out, and
broken away."

Without another word, Key put spurs to his horse and galloped away,
leaving his companion staring after him. Here was a clue: the
horse could not have strayed far; the broken tether indicated a
camp; the gang had been gathered somewhere in the vicinity where
Mrs. Barker had warned them,--perhaps in the wood beyond
Collinson's. He would penetrate it alone. He knew his danger; but
as a SINGLE unarmed man he might be admitted to the presence of the
leader, and the alleged claim was a sufficient excuse. What he
would say or do afterwards depended upon chance. It was a wild
scheme--but he was reckless. Yet he would go to Collinson's first.

At the end of two hours he reached the thick-set wood that gave
upon the shelf at the top of the grade which descended to the mill.
As he emerged from the wood into the bursting sunlight of the
valley below, he sharply reined in his horse and stopped. Another
bound would have been his last. For the shelf, the rocky grade
itself, the ledge below, and the mill upon it, were all gone! The
crumbling outer wall of the rocky grade had slipped away into
immeasurable depths below, leaving only the sharp edge of a cliff,
which incurved towards the woods that had once stood behind the
mill, but which now bristled on the very edge of a precipice. A
mist was hanging over its brink and rising from the valley; it was
a full-fed stream that was coursing through the former dry bed of
the river and falling down the face of the bluff. He rubbed his
eyes, dismounted, crept along the edge of the precipice, and looked
below: whatever had subsided and melted down into its thousand feet
of depth, there was no trace left upon its smooth face. Scarcely
an angle of drift or debris marred the perpendicular; the burial of
all ruin was deep and compact; the erasure had been swift and sure--
the obliteration complete. It might have been the precipitation
of ages, and not of a single night. At that remote distance it
even seemed as if grass were already growing ever this enormous
sepulchre, but it was only the tops of the buried pines. The
absolute silence, the utter absence of any mark of convulsive
struggle, even the lulling whimper of falling waters, gave the
scene a pastoral repose.

So profound was the impression upon Key and his human passion that
it at first seemed an ironical and eternal ending of his quest. It
was with difficulty that he reasoned that the catastrophe occurred
before Alice's flight, and that even Collinson might have had time
to escape. He slowly skirted the edge of the chasm, and made his
way back through the empty woods behind the old mill-site towards
the place where he had dismounted. His horse seemed to have
strayed into the shadows of this covert; but as he approached him,
he was amazed to see that it was not his own, and that a woman's
scarf was lying over its side saddle. A wild idea seized him, and
found expression in an impulsive cry:--


The woods echoed it; there was an interval of silence, and then a
faint response. But it was HER voice. He ran eagerly forward in
that direction, and called again; the response was nearer this
time, and then the tall ferns parted, and her lithe, graceful
figure came running, stumbling, and limping towards him like a
wounded fawn. Her face was pale and agitated, the tendrils of her
light hair were straying over her shoulder, and one of the sleeves
of her school-gown was stained with blood and dust. He caught the
white and trembling hands that were thrust out to him eagerly.

"It is YOU!" she gasped. "I prayed for some one to come, but I did
not dream it would be YOU. And then I heard YOUR voice--and I
thought it could be only a dream until you called a second time."

"But you are hurt," he exclaimed passionately. "You have met with
some accident!"

"No, no!" she said eagerly. "Not I--but a poor, poor man I found
lying on the edge of the cliff. I could not help him much, I did
not care to leave him. No one WOULD come! I have been with him
alone, all the morning! Come quick, he may be dying."

He passed his arm around her waist unconsciously; she permitted it
as unconsciously, as he half supported her figure while they
hurried forward.

"He had been crushed by something, and was just hanging over the
ledge, and could not move nor speak," she went on quickly. "I
dragged him away to a tree, it took me hours to move him, he was so
heavy,--and I got him some water from the stream and bathed his
face, and blooded all my sleeve."

"But what were you doing here?" he asked quickly.

A faint blush crossed the pallor of her delicate cheek. She looked
away quickly. "I--was going to find my brother at Bald Top," she
replied at last hurriedly. "But don't ask me now--only come quick,

"Is the wounded man conscious? Did you speak with him? Does he
know who you are?" asked Key uneasily.

"No! he only moaned a little and opened his eyes when I dragged
him. I don't think he even knew what had happened."

They hurried on again. The wood lightened suddenly. "Here!" she
said in a half whisper, and stepped timidly into the open light.
Only a few feet from the fatal ledge, against the roots of a
buckeye, with HER shawl thrown over him, lay the wounded man.

Key started back. It was Collinson!

His head and shoulders seemed uninjured; but as Key lifted the
shawl, he saw that the long, lank figure appeared to melt away
below the waist into a mass of shapeless and dirty rags. Key
hurriedly replaced the shawl, and, bending over him, listened to
his hurried respiration and the beating of his heart. Then he
pressed a drinking-flask to his lips. The spirit seemed to revive
him; he slowly opened his eyes. They fell upon Key with quick
recognition. But the look changed; one could see that he was
trying to rise, but that no movement of the limbs accompanied that
effort of will, and his old patient, resigned look returned. Key
shuddered. There was some injury to the spine. The man was

"I can't get up, Mr. Key," he said in a faint but untroubled voice,
"nor seem to move my arms, but you'll just allow that I've shook
hands with ye--all the same."

"How did this happen?" said Key anxiously.

"Thet's wot gets me! Sometimes I reckon I know, and sometimes I
don't. Lyin' thar on thet ledge all last night, and only jest able
to look down into the old valley, sometimes it seemed to me ez if I
fell over and got caught in the rocks trying to save my wife; but
then when I kem to think sensible, and know my wife wasn't there at
all, I get mystified. Sometimes I think I got ter thinkin' of my
wife only when this yer young gal thet's bin like an angel to me
kem here and dragged me off the ledge, for you see she don't belong
here, and hez dropped on to me like a sperrit."

"Then you were not in the house when the shock came?" said Key.

"No. You see the mill was filled with them fellers as the sheriff
was arter, and it went over with 'em--and I"--

"Alice," said Key, with a white face, "would you mind going to my
horse, which you will find somewhere near yours, and bringing me a
medicine case from my saddle-bags?"

The innocent girl glanced quickly at her companion, saw the change
in his face, and, attributing it to the imminent danger of the
injured man, at once glided away. When she was out of hearing, Key
leaned gravely over him:--

"Collinson, I must trust you with a secret. I am afraid that this
poor girl who helped you is the sister of the leader of that gang
the sheriff was in pursuit of. She has been kept in perfect
ignorance of her brother's crimes. She must NEVER know them--nor
even know his fate! If he perished utterly in this catastrophe, as
it would seem--it was God's will to spare her that knowledge. I
tell you this, to warn you in anything you say before her. She
MUST believe, as I shall try to make her believe, that he has gone
back to the States--where she will perhaps, hereafter, believe that
he died. Better that she should know nothing--and keep her thought
of him unchanged."

"I see--I see--I see, Mr. Key," murmured the injured man. "Thet's
wot I've been sayin' to myself lyin' here all night. Thet's wot I
bin sayin' o' my wife Sadie,--her that I actooally got to think kem
back to me last night. You see I'd heerd from one o' those fellars
that a woman like unto her had been picked up in Texas and brought
on yere, and that mebbe she was somewhar in Californy. I was that
foolish--and that ontrue to her, all the while knowin', as I once
told you, Mr. Key, that ef she'd been alive she'd bin yere--that I
believed it true for a minit! And that was why, afore this
happened, I had a dream, right out yer, and dreamed she kem to me,
all white and troubled, through the woods. At first I thought it
war my Sadie; but when I see she warn't like her old self, and her
voice was strange and her laugh was strange--then I knowed it
wasn't her, and I was dreamin'. You're right, Mr. Key, in wot you
got off just now--wot was it? Better to know nothin'--and keep the
old thoughts unchanged."

"Have you any pain?" asked Key after a pause.

"No; I kinder feel easier now."

Key looked at his changing face. "Tell me," he said gently, "if it
does not tax your strength, all that has happened here, all you
know. It is for HER sake."

Thus adjured, with his eyes fixed on Key, Collinson narrated his
story from the irruption of the outlaws to the final catastrophe.
Even then he palliated their outrage with his characteristic
patience, keeping still his strange fascination for Chivers, and
his blind belief in his miserable wife. The story was at times
broken by lapses of faintness, by a singular return of his old
abstraction and forgetfulness in the midst of a sentence, and at
last by a fit of coughing that left a few crimson bubbles on the
corners of his month. Key lifted his eyes anxiously; there was
some grave internal injury, which the dying man's resolute patience
had suppressed. Yet, at the sound of Alice's returning step,
Collinson's eyes brightened, apparently as much at her coming as
from the effect of the powerful stimulant Key had taken from his
medicine case.

"I thank ye, Mr. Key," he said faintly; "for I've got an idea I
ain't got no great time before me, and I've got suthin' to say to
you, afore witnesses"--his eyes sought Alice's in half apology--
"afore witnesses, you understand. Would you mind standin' out
thar, afore me, in the light, so I kin see you both, and you, miss,
rememberin', ez a witness, suthin' I got to tell to him? You might
take his hand, miss, to make it more regular and lawlike."

The two did as he bade them, standing side by side, painfully
humoring what seemed to them to be wanderings of a dying man.

"Thar was a young fellow," said Collinson in a steady voice, "ez
kem to my shanty a night ago on his way to the--the--valley. He
was a sprightly young fellow, gay and chipper-like, and he sez to
me, confidential-like, 'Collinson,' sez he, 'I'm off to the States
this very night on business of importance; mebbe I'll be away a
long time--for years! You know,' sez he, 'Mr. Key, in the Hollow!
Go to him,' sez he, 'and tell him ez how I hadn't time to get to
see him; tell him,' sez he, 'that RIVERS'--you've got the name, Mr.
Key?--you've got the name, miss?--'that RIVERS wants him to say
this to his little sister from her lovin' brother. And tell him,'
sez he, this yer RIVERS, 'to look arter her, being alone.' You
remember that, Mr. Key? you remember it, miss? You see, I
remembered it, too, being, so to speak, alone myself"--he paused,
and added in a faint whisper--"till now."

Then he was silent. That innocent lie was the first and last upon
his honest lips; for as they stood there, hand in hand, they saw
his plain, hard face take upon itself, at first, the gray, ashen
hues of the rocks around him, and then and thereafter something of
the infinite tranquillity and peace of that wilderness in which he
had lived and died, and of which he was a part.

Contemporaneous history was less kindly. The "Bald Top Sentinel"
congratulated its readers that the late seismic disturbance was
accompanied with very little loss of life, if any. "It is reported
that the proprietor of a low shebeen for emigrants in an obscure
hollow had succumbed from injuries; but," added the editor, with a
fine touch of Western humor, "whether this was the result of his
being forcibly mixed up with his own tanglefoot whiskey or not, we
are unable to determine from the evidence before us." For all
that, a small stone shaft was added later to the rocks near the
site of the old mill, inscribed to the memory of this obscure
proprietor," with the singular legend: "Have ye faith like to him?"
And those who knew only of the material catastrophe looking around
upon the scene of desolation it commemorated, thought grimly that
it must be faith indeed, and--were wiser than they knew.

"You smiled, Don Preble," said the Lady Superior to Key a few weeks
later, "when I told to you that many caballeros thought it most
discreet to intrust their future brides to the maternal
guardianship and training of the Holy Church; yet, of a truth, I
meant not YOU. And yet--eh! well, we shall see."

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