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There was another breed inside, already swarming back to the gaming tables, or lining the bar; sometimes the veranda floor shivered a little with their stamping, and the air trembled with their shouts; but up and down the veranda there was never an alteration in the tone of the deep, quiet voices, speaking guardedly as though of secrets. Now and again one of the smokers finished and went inside, and as the door opened, the droning voice of a croupier floated out.
Walter Devon listened, and sighing with content, he drew in a longer breath flavored with the fragrance of many tobaccos and the pure sweetness of the pines. He was in no hurry to go back to work, with his hands resting on the green felt; he had not even picked his game for the night!
So he dwelt with aimless pleasure upon the glow of pipes and the glimpses they gave him of mustaches, and of young straight noses, and of noses thin and crooked with age; or again he considered what the cigarettes showed him when, for an instant, they made a pair of eyes look out from the night. These lights were capable of movements, the pipes stirring slowly, the cigarettes jerking rapidly up and down as the smokers gesticulated.
By sheer chance, since he had turned his attention to the subject, he saw—or thought he saw—a cigarette at the far end of the veranda wigwag, in dots and dashes clearly made, a question mark!
Walter Devon smiled at such a coincidence of gestures and unconscious ideas, and he continued to look dreamily at the distant smoker when, quickly and neatly, he saw that gleaming little point of light spell out: " Four! Once could be accident; the second time could not.
Devon knew that the smoker was signaling the length of the veranda to some other man. And yet it seemed very strange that signals should be necessary when ten steps would take the signaler to the other end of the porch! Devon left his chair and went to the side of the veranda. Over the railing he glanced down the steep sides of the gulch, covered by the ragged shadows of the pines, and in the bottom the stars found the water in an open pool showing a tarnished face of silver.
Opposite the Palace, Timbal Mountain stepped grandly up the sky.
It was, Devon agreed, turning a little toward the speaker. In this manner he faced away from the signaler whom he first had spotted, and immediately, at the farther end of the porch, he saw the duller glow of a pipe spell in the air the same question mark which he had noticed before!
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The heart of Devon stirred in him. There were times when he told himself that he roamed the world seeking his fortune, whether it should be found in wars, or cards, or a lucky marriage; but he knew in his heart that all he wanted was the excitement of adventure. In the thirty-odd years of his life while he had grown lean and hard with many labors, no gold had stuck to his fingers except a few thousand dollars to make him feel comfortable in a poker game of any size; but though he had won no money, he had found again and again the electric spark which leaped now in his brain as he observed this little mystery on the veranda of the Palace.
It would not be altogether safe, perhaps, to attempt to observe both of these signalers, though unless he watched the two of them he was not apt to make much from their strange and silent conversation. It was not safe, because the two men themselves dared not leave their chairs and speak together!
They must be under observation of the closest kind, and they spoke by this code only in the faith that the observers would not understand what they said. What were they saying, who were they, and who was keeping them under watch? These were small questions, perhaps, and had little to do with Walter Devon, but at least the solution would fill him with pleasure.
In the meantime, he had to arrange some method of keeping his eye upon the first signaler as well as the second, but this was done by taking a little pocket mirror into the palm of his hand. The signals of Number One streaked in dim red flashes across the small surface; Number Two he was facing while he talked to the man at the railing. Before him there was no answering movement of the lighted pipe, as Devon answered his new companion: "It was not like this when I was last here.
Twenty year back I forked a mule and rode down Timbal's face. He didn't wear a name, then. I come to the river.
It didn't wear no name, neither. He was aiming at Farralone, and he'd took this here valley for a short cut. Les had a barrel of white-faced poison in his wagon; when he got to Farralone he aimed to mix it up with tan bark and prune juice and call it whisky, but he thought that he'd better sample it on the way to see it wasn't gettin' bad. He tasted agin, and still he wasn't plumb clear about it.
He didn't finish tastin' until his wagon come along to this place, and by that time he'd tasted himself nearly blind and run the right fore wheel of his wagon off of the bluff. It pretty near turned the outfit over and smashed the wheel to bits on a rock. Les sat down and looked things over. He could pack part of his track along on the mules, of course, but he didn't have no proper packsaddles, and so Les Burchard says to himself that if he can't get to a town, a town'll have to get to him!
The narrator paused, chuckling softly, and now a match flared as Number Two lighted his pipe.
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Devon clearly saw a young, handsome face, and a good, square-tipped jaw such as a fighter is apt to wear. It pleased him, that face, and he registered it clearly, feature by feature, in his memory. For there are ways and ways of looking at a human face, and the poorest way of all is to depend upon a mere ensemble effect; the best is to dwell on details which cannot be altered by fictitious scars that pucker the skin, or changes of expression, or a growth of beard.
The silhouette of the nose will alter very little. The angle of the nose bridge and the forehead is another thing, and the height and spread of the cheek bones, and the ear, above all, if the memory be very photographic indeed!
It was so with Devon, and he told himself that he would know this man to the very end of time! By name of Devon, he was. Les went over and sold him a couple of his mules, and then he went back and waited a while more. He had a gun; and the valley had game; and he lived prime for a couple of months on venison and that white-faced poison of his. Burchard had been a sailor, and that fog reminded him of London harbor up the Thames. So he stuck out a sign that afternoon, and on the sign was 'London.
So the next day he wrote 'West' in front of London, and that's how this joint come to be known as West London. And the rapid cigarette point, blown upon until it glowed orange-red, made answer in the mirror:. He hit town a week later, and th' next mornin' Les woke up and heard single-jacks chattering away at the rocks; and ten days later there was five thousand men laborin' in the gulch. Les, he ladled out eggshells of his white death at a dollar a taste.
He sold the timber of his wagon for two thousand dollars in gold.
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His mules, they brung in a coupla hundred apiece, and the leather of the harness was pretty near worth its weight in gold. Les, he made enough money out of that lay to pretty near retire on, but of course he didn't. One day, when the valley was all filled with gents, Les, he was full of something better than sunshine, the last of his barrel, and he mooched off down the gulch, and says to himself that he'll try his luck at diggin' gold. Number Two, who had made a pause as though the last word startled him, as well it might, now signaled: " When? But he had along a pick and shovel that was the last of his wagonload of stuff.
When he got down into the valley he seen where a flat face of rock had been blasted out and hollowed away pretty deep, where some gents had sunk a shaft, or started to, but the vein had pinched out on 'em. Old Les, he says: 'Here's a hole part way dug already.