"Ger-reat Scott! a one-minute fuse! I wish you were in--"
In his rage he snatched the ladder out of the shaft and ran. The boy was aghast.
"Oh, my God! Help. Help! Oh, save me!" he implored. "Oh, what can I do! What can I do!"
He backed against the wall as tightly as he could; the sputtering fuse frightened the voice out of him; his breath stood still; he stood gazing and impotent; in two seconds, three seconds, four he would be flying toward the sky torn to fragments. Then he had an inspiration. He sprang at the fuse; severed the inch of it that was left above ground, and was saved.
He sank down limp and half lifeless with fright, his strength gone; but he muttered with a deep joy:
"He has learnt me! I knew there was a way, if I would wait."
After a matter of five minutes Buckner stole to the shaft, looking worried and uneasy, and peered down into it. He took in the situation; he saw what had happened. He lowered the ladder, and the boy dragged himself weakly up it. He was very white. His appearance added something to Buckner's uncomfortable state, and he said, with a show of regret and sympathy which sat upon him awkwardly from lack of practice:
"It was an accident, you know. Don't say anything about it to anybody; I was excited, and didn't notice what I was doing. You're not looking well; you've worked enough for to-day; go down to my cabin and eat what you want, and rest. It's just an accident, you know, on account of my being excited."
"It scared me," said the lad, as he started away; "but I learnt something, so I don't mind it."
"Damned easy to please!" muttered Buckner, following him with his eye. "I wonder if he'll tell? Mightn't he?... I wish it had killed him."
The boy took no advantage of his holiday in the matter of resting; he employed it in work, eager and feverish and happy work. A thick growth of chaparral extended down the mountainside clear to Flint's cabin; the most of Fetlock's labor was done in the dark intricacies of that stubborn growth; the rest of it was done in his own shanty. At last all was complete, and he said:
"If he's got any suspicions that I'm going to tell on him, he won't keep them long, to-morrow. He will see that I am the same milksop as I always was--all day and the next. And the day after to-morrow night there 'll be an end of him; nobody will ever guess who finished him up nor how it was done. He dropped me the idea his own self, and that's odd."
The next day came and went.
It is now almost midnight, and in five minutes the new morning will begin. The scene is in the tavern billiard-room. Rough men in rough clothing, slouch-hats, breeches stuffed into boot-tops, some with vests, none with coats, are grouped about the boiler-iron stove, which has ruddy cheeks and is distributing a grateful warmth; the billiard-balls are clacking; there is no other sound--that is, within; the wind is fitfully moaning without. The men look bored; also expectant. A hulking broad- shouldered miner, of middle age, with grizzled whiskers, and an unfriendly eye set in an unsociable face, rises, slips a coil of fuse upon his arm, gathers up some other personal properties, and departs without word or greeting to anybody. It is Flint Buckner. As the door closes behind him a buzz of talk breaks out.
"The regularest man that ever was," said Jake Parker, the blacksmith: "you can tell when it's twelve just by him leaving, without looking at your Waterbury."
"And it's the only virtue he's got, as fur as I know," said Peter Hawes, miner.
"He's just a blight on this society," said Wells-Fargo's man, Ferguson. "If I was running this shop I'd make him say something, some time or other, or vamos the ranch." This with a suggestive glance at the barkeeper, who did not choose to see it, since the man under discussion was a good customer, and went home pretty well set up, every night, with refreshments furnished from the bar.
"Say," said Ham Sandwich, miner, "does any of you boys ever recollect of him asking you to take a drink?"
"Him? Flint Buckner? Oh, Laura!"
This sarcastic rejoinder came in a spontaneous general outburst in one form of words or another from the crowd.