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In a Hollow of the Hills Bret Harte

Chapter II.

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A week later Preble Key returned to Skinner's with a foreman and ten men, and an unlimited credit to draw upon at Marysville! Expeditions of this kind created no surprise at Skinner's. Parties had before this entered the wilderness gayly, none knew where or what for; the sedate and silent woods had kept their secret while there; they had evaporated, none knew when or where--often, alas! with an unpaid account at Skinner's. Consequently, there was nothing in Key's party to challenge curiosity. In another week a rambling, one-storied shed of pine logs occupied the site of the mysterious ruins, and contained the party; in two weeks excavations had been made, and the whole face of the outcrop was exposed; in three weeks every vestige of former tenancy which the fire had not consumed was trampled out by the alien feet of these toilers of the "Sylvan Silver Hollow Company." None of Key's former companions would have recognized the hollow in its blackened leveling and rocky foundation; even Collinson would not have remembered this stripped and splintered rock, with its heaps of fresh debris, as the place where he had overtaken Key. And Key himself had forgotten, in his triumph, everything but the chance experiment that had led to his success.

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Perhaps it was well, therefore, that one night, when the darkness had mercifully fallen upon this scene of sylvan desolation, and its still more incongruous and unsavory human restoration, and the low murmur of the pines occasionally swelled up from the unscathed mountain-side, a loud shout and the trampling of horses' feet awoke the dwellers in the shanty. Springing to their feet, they hurriedly seized their weapons and rushed out, only to be confronted by a dark, motionless ring of horsemen, two flaming torches of pine knots, and a low but distinct voice of authority. In their excitement, half-awakened suspicion, and confusion, they were affected by its note of calm preparation and conscious power.

"Drop those guns--hold up your hands! We've got every man of you covered."

Key was no coward; the men, though flustered, were not cravens: but they obeyed. "Trot out your leader! Let him stand out there, clear, beside that torch!"

One of the gleaming pine knots disengaged itself from the dark circle and moved to the centre, as Preble Key, cool and confident, stepped beside it.

"That will do," said the immutable voice. "Now, we want Jack Riggs, Sydney Jack, French Pete, and One-eyed Charley."

A vivid reminiscence of the former night scene in the hollow--of his own and his companions voices raised in the darkness--flashed across Key. With an instinctive premonition that this invasion had something to do with the former tenant, he said calmly:--

"Who wants them?"

"The State of California," said the voice.

"The State of California must look further," returned Key in his old pleasant voice; "there are no such names among my party."

"Who are you?"

"The manager of the 'Sylvan Silver Hollow Company,' and these are my workmen.

There was a hurried movement, and the sound of whispering in the hitherto dark and silent circle, and then the voice rose again:

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In a Hollow of the Hills
Bret Harte

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