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John Barnett, Professor of Archælogy




The following story was awarded one of the prizes in The Metropolitan Magazine's $2,500.00 short-story contest.

THE blazing July sun made the rails glisten as they stretched away from the station at Three Fingers, the heat giving one the impression that they were racing towards the cool of the mountains that lay to the west. The wavy heat that rose from the plain looked like the shimmering air that streams up from a cauldron, and the desolate vastness of the alkali curse lay awesome over all.

Three Fingers, a city, as it was fondly called by its meager population, boasted of a depot, a dance hall, a general store, two saloons, and two through trails, one of which came in from Arizona; the other from Mexico.

The noises were not of business. Far off across the gray plain, lost in innumerable sage bushes, the howl of a coyote dissipated itself in the nothingness of its surroundings; a cracked piano burst forth in tinkly, discordant spurts, and the interrupted calling of a faro dealer oozed out of the "Golden Scepter" saloon. The muffled galloping of a horse, followed by a shot, split the silence, a hubbub followed, and all was still.

One morning a whistle sounded, tempered by distance and the flatness of the country, and in a short time a train approached in a leisurely way. With a groaning of couplings and shrieking of brakes it came to a stand, the panting engine exuding heat and the odor of oil, its nervous air-brakes complaining of a stop in such a place when the cool mountains were farther on.

As the train stopped, a man, nervous, small in stature, and with the complexion of things which grow where the rays of the sun do not penetrate, stepped from the combined baggage and smoking car and, looking carefully around, sauntered over to the deceiving shade of the station.

The agent, returning from his trip to the engine cab, glanced at the traveler, nodded, and passed into his office, from which he emerged a minute later, and, rounding the corner, called out: "Howdy, stranger. How's things in God's land?"

The stranger started and looked away. "If you refer to the east, it is the same as ever," he replied, and after a pause added: "Have you seen a tall, light complected, well proportioned stranger around here lately?"

"No-o, I don't think so," responded the agent.

Neither had seen the man who had slipped from the front platform of the baggage car and who was safe in a saloon before the train pulled out.

A look of fear settled upon the stranger's face as he wondered if he had eluded his pursuer and how he could hide his own presence in Three Fingers if he had not. An inspiration struck him: "Mr.——"

"Thompson, Bill Thompson," confidently supplied the agent.

"Mr. Thompson, my name is John Barnett, and I am the professor of archæology in an eastern college. I am out here at no small inconvenience to myself and expense to my college to secure if possible a complete set of maps and data, together with weapons and a little pottery, of a cliff city that is rumored located in this vicinity.

"This has long been my cherished field. All my energies have been spent in the study of this race, and now, a man well past middle age, weak and sickly, I am here. My future depends on my success. If I can go back with all that I believe I can find if left undisturbed in my work, I will become famous and my old age will be provided for. It is a very serious matter to me, I can assure you, Mr. Thompson.

"I have told you this because I am going to ask you to assist me by evading any questions that may be asked you as to my being here. I do not ask you to lie, only to evade. The man I spoke to you about is my rival, rich, strong and healthy, having everything I lack. Will you help me in this matter? All I want is fair play, and with this assistance to make up for life's handicap let the best man win."

"Mr. Barnett, I'll do what you want an' I'll do some on my own hook, too. I got a room in that there depot an' I got a broncho outen th' shack there, an' all yu got to do is straddle th' ornery cuss an' go any place yu want.

"I'm worse than a homesick pup out here by my lonesome. Yu see, I was a cow puncher afore I tackled poundin' th' key, an' I don't see the boys very much. Of course, they sure call around some, but it's when I'm poundin' my ear mostly an' then th' first thing I goes for is my gun. They sometimes shoots th' depot up a whole lot from over th' tracks. So I was sort of figurin' that yu'd be more homelike right here by me than over at th' hotel yonder. An' seein' as I got a spare bed, as mother used to say, I'd be a whole lot tickeled if yu'd bunk with me. Yu got to reckon on th' tenderfoot proposition too. Th' boys ud have more fun out o' yu than they'd get out o' a stampede.

"I c'n put yu onto a whole shebang full o' those mud jars. Yu see my pre-de-cessor was a locoed sort o' animule an' had th' mud jar tremens fit to kill. When he tried to draw quicker'n Piute Jack, he left a nice herd o' them aforesaid jars. Some are a-runnin' on four hoofs yet an' yu c'n corrall all yu want.

"But yu c'n bet yu'r last biled shirt agin th' whereabouts o' a frisky flea that yu don't want to go moseyin' 'round them there cliff joints promiscuis like, for they're as full o' trouble as a cockeyed 'Pache lookin' for glory. Yu trail along by my signs an' yu'll live a whole lot longer, savy?

"Yu prospeck them holes like this. Picket right here. Git to work thinkin' what yu'd like to strike an' put it down as if yu'd struck it. Make th' maps out o' yu'r mind an' if they asks yu for pictures show 'em yu'r machine. Yu c'n smash it easy.

"That there canyon is a stacked deck. There's a whole lot more chanct o' cashin' in over there than over to Spotted Dog on a Sunday. Yes sir-e-e. One man passed so fast he didn't have time to ask Old Peter for a pass to th' Happy Huntin' Ground, he didn't. Anyhow, yu spot where them hole-in-th'-walls are so yu c'n ride th' other way." Barnett looked at him reproachfully.

"Thank you, my friend, I will indeed be pleased to stay with you, for I frankly admit that I have no desire to become acquainted with the hotel accommodations of Three Fingers. As to my attempting to enter the cliff city, you must not try to deter me. I appreciate your reasons, but the journey was too fatiguing and costly to shirk any dangers that may arise.

"The maps, data, and photographs are the most important, for the college has quite a complete collection of pottery and skulls, and if I were to give much time to pottery I would be slighting more important things, and furthermore, I am sure that I can make valuable selections from the collection of your predecessor, for a man who cared for that sort of thing would know a valuable specimen when he saw one, and I am almost positive that I will make valuable finds among them. As it is, I will attract no unnecessary attention and be thankful that this city has no newspaper.

"But you mentioned the fact that a man lost his life in an attempt to enter the dwellings. Will you tell me how and when it occurred and who the man was? Do you know his motive? As I am going to make the same attempt all the information that you can give me will be of value."

"Well," replied Thompson, "I guess yu'r right about seein' it through, an' what yu said about them pots is O. K., too. Th' chap that cashed in was a tenderfoot, o' course. He was plum loco about a machine like yu'rn. Nothin'd do for him but to git some pictures o' that hole, because nobody had none. Yu see one o' th' boys told him about it an' re-marked that it was a hole that'd never git its picture took. Well, say, mister man went plum off'n his feed when he heard that an' sure 'nuff piked off th' next day to corrall some. We all told him that th' cards was stacked agin him, but we never thought o' th' real danger. Th' boys cottened to him for his sand an' three of 'em went along with him, he supplying a plenty o' firewater. Say, th' irrigator that that tenderfoot toted with him sure took th' cake, an' him a-spoilin' it chasin' it down with water!

"Well, they located th' joint all O. K., an' let him down with a lariat rope. All to onct he yelled like all get out an' they pulled him up. He passed pretty sudden. Th' west wall o' th' canyon gets sunny an' all warmed up in th' afternoon. Th' rattlers come out to sun themselves. He went bumpin' down th' side pushin' himself off from th' wall with his hands, an' th' snakes got mad at bein' disturbed an' filled him with a-plenty o' poison. They buried him on th' way back, he swelled so."

"Well, Mr. Thompson, I am going to try it, but long before the sun gets very warm, and I am going to wrap a blanket around me, wear gauntlets, and drop a net over my hat to my shoulders. How much of a drop is it to the opening?"

"It's about two an' a half lariats. That makes about a hundred feet. An' it's a couple a-hundred from th' hole to th' bottom o' th' canyon, too.

"If yu play th' blanket game, I reckon yu won't get hurt, but yu better tote a pole along to push off'n th' wall with. Yu got to take my repeater an' th' six-shooter with yu an' a bottle o' red-eye for bites. That's a bully scheme about gittin' there ahead o' th' sun. Blamed if I don't think yu'll make her all right. Better take some o' th' boys along to pull yu up, too."

"No, my friend, I have had too much experience in climbing to need assistance of that kind, and as to the revolver, I have one," drawing a small, pearl-handled revolver of the bull dog type in confirmation of his words.

Thompson stared at it a few seconds and then reached over and took it. He weighed it critically, looked at the bore and the small, short barrel and a grin flickered across his face.

"Yu don't call that a gun, do yu? Why, man, that's a death warrant. Yu can't hit a saloon at twenty paces with that there toy. Here," drawing his own long barrelled revolver, "is a gun! This here baby c'n shoot when th' man that's a-holding it is worth a gun. Th' barrel is about seven inches long, I reckons, an' she throws a whole plenty o' lead. She's a Colt, she is, an' that says a whole lot. Have yu got a rifle, too?"

Laughing at the inference in his last question, he disappeared into the office, returning shortly with a Winchester repeating rifle of the 1886 model, which he proceeded to clean and oil, though it needed neither.

"I'll just look her over an' see that she's all here. She holds 'leven shots when she's full up. She shoots a long way, too."

The hours passed slowly and the crimson sunset flared up into the sky and began to fade into the long twilight. One by one the reddish-yellow lights began to show in the windows across the tracks. The penetrating silence fell on the town. The mournful howl of a coyote quavered from the dusty sage brush and occasionally the hum of voices, indistinct and muffled, and the tinkle of the cracked piano wandered feebly across the sandy plaza.

The two men sat and smoked, the intermittent glow of their pipes growing fainter and fainter as the ashes deepened, until the only light was that of the stars. They were discussing the morrow's trip and perfecting their plans.

A man silently flitted into the shadows of the building, lingered awhile, and as silently flitted away and entered the office of the hotel, where he sat and smoked, listening to the stories that passed around until he and the night clerk were left alone.

He was a man; every inch told of strength and agility, his six feet of manhood so well proportioned as to make him appear shorter. A well formed head, capped with brown hair, sat on a corded neck of bronze. His eyes were a mild blue and continually half closed, but nothing occurred in his vicinity that he did not know of. He sat facing a mirror either by accident or intent, so that the space behind his back was covered by his eyes. His clothing was a conventional suit of blue serge, from under the coat of which protruded the tip of a silver-studded holster.

As the clock struck two he quietly arose, nodded to the clerk, and went out. Soon the diminishing gallop of a horse was heard and the tired clerk, deprived of his companion, went to sleep.

Meanwhile, the agent and his scientific guest sat lost in their reveries and the professor began to feel secure.

A whistle sounded remote and low. Thompson went out along the track and polished up the switch lights, gazed long into the darkness of the east, and returned to his chair.

The rails clicked, tuning up from nothing to a clear, distinct sound and finally a light, circling off on the desert, showed where the "Southern Arrow" was making up lost time. Another whistle, now a shriek, caused several doors to open and a few heads emerged to see it pass.

With a rush and roar, a blaze of light lit up the immediate darkness and the rear lights careened off towards Arizona, lighting up the track litter that chased them.

"Twenty minutes late an' goin' like hell," volunteered Thompson. "God help her if she hits cattle to-night!"

After an interval he added, "I've seen that there streak go by here so hang'd fast that I've mixed up her headlight with her tailenders. Bob MacCullough runs her on this stretch an' there ain't a happier man when he leaves th' cab than his fireman. Bob played out two last month. She waters about fifty miles farther on."

Finally, with a yawn, Thompson arose, kicked his chair against the wall of the depot, stretched and said: "Yu better turn in now. It's past nine an' yu got a hard day's work ahead o' yu. I'll get a rope an' fix things up an' call yu at two-thirty. Take the bed, for I always use th' bunk. I'll tell yu about that bed some time. So long."

At half past two Thompson called the sleepy tenderfoot and saddled the horse while Barnett ate his breakfast.

As he finished eating Thompson was fastening the lunch and a coil of carefully knotted rope to the rawhide strings of the saddle.

Barnett mounted and took the rifle, which he slung over his shoulder, and strapping the Colt around his waist, listened to the agent's instructions.

"Th' Mexican trail's out there about five minutes' gallop," indicating it with a sweep of his hand, "and when yu hits it go south for about an hour. Yu'll find a big boulder that splits the trail. That's where you strike west. After while another trail'll cross yu. Follow that over th' bed o' th' creek. There ain't no water there now, so yu won't have no trouble gittin' acrost th' ford. Pike along 'till yu gits to th' top an' then go south agin. 'Twon't be long 'till yu comes to an arroyo. Th' town ain't fur from that. Don't git too hot-footed 'round that there canyon. Take it easy like an' yu'll not git in so much trouble. Well, good luck. Here! Hold up a minute! I ain't got th' blanket on."

As Thompson came into sight with the blanket and the archæologist's valise, Barnett asked him to get a crowbar, adding that he would probably need it.

When all was secured to the agent's satisfaction, Barnett cheerily bade his big-hearted friend good-by and galloped off. His mount found the trail in the darkness more by instinct than by sight, and soon the lights of the station were left far behind.

An hour before him rode another horseman. It was the man in the blue serge suit, but on the lapel of his coat there was now a gold badge, and as the light increased the hoof-prints of his horse showed plainly in the sand of the trail.

Barnett did not notice these tell-tale marks, and if he had, he would have thought nothing of them for the trail was a well used one, and many horses might have passed that way. Had Thompson been with him, the fresh made tracks would have made him cautious, but to city bred eyes they told nothing. And besides, the danger that Barnett feared, he thought to be behind. His very soul quivered with elation, for the unbounded plain was the personification of freedom, and to him freedom meant a great deal.

As the sun rose he was crossing the canyon. When he had crossed the arroyo he began to look searchingly at the rocks on both sides of the chasm.

Finding the one for which he was looking he dismounted and, taking his horse in between two towering boulders where it was hid from sight, unsnapped the bridle rein and fastened one end of it to a cactus stump. When he was satisfied that it was securely tied, he took the rifle and came out cautiously to reconnoiter. Seeing nothing to cause him apprehension and not dreaming that he formed the target for a revolver that never missed not over fifty feet away, he returned to his mount and reappeared with all of his pack but the blanket.

Without hesitation he walked over to a large, flat, oblong stone and, sweeping away the sand on it, uncovered a cross deeply cut in its surface.

Placing the crowbar under one edge, he managed to move it after repeated efforts. As it slid back it revealed an irregular opening that was about two feet across at its widest part, and from which a burst of foul air issued, soon, however, followed by fresh.

"Not much fear of snakes in that hole," he chuckled, as he lowered his valise into it with the rope that Thompson had sat up late to sleepily and laboriously knot.

At the thought of the agent working on it, he laughed aloud. In that laugh, however, an interested observer noticed a certain tenseness that told of an insistent fear and of nerves strained to the point of collapse. Indeed, the echo, rebounding from the opposite wall of the canyon, startled him so that he dropped the rope, which slid towards the hole until arrested by a fallen cactus, and, seizing the rifle, peered, panic stricken, about him.

Reassured by the oppressive silence, he hid the weapon under the edge of a rock and, taking a small lantern that he had brought in his valise and tying it to his belt, descended into the shaft, this being comparatively easy on account of the notches that he found cut into the wall.

Five minutes passed and a man in a blue serge suit, whose eyes were now fully opened, came out from behind a mass of boulders and dead cactus. lie hid the rifle again under a cactus that had fallen some distance from the shaft and, hastily twirling the cylinder of his revolver to make sure that it was in perfect working order, swiftly and silently entered after Barnett.

Reaching the bottom, Barnett glanced up. Seeing nothing but a piece of blue sky as large as his hat, he untied the valise and, drawing the revolver, strode down the sloping passage. He seemed to have been there before from the way he passed other openings without the least hesitation. After making several turns, he at last came to a deep cut, whose sides were perpendicular and that could have stopped an army had its opposite bank been defended. It was the old defense of the passage, and all the diverging passages that he had passed were only blind alleys to confuse a foe.

Below him, ensconced in a mighty fissure, lay an ancient city. Dim in the early light, almost dark in fact, silent as a tomb and with its terraced houses of stone and sun-dried brick, it seemed to be of another world. It was hard to realize that in this mighty catacomb, a race had lived and died; that its lofty roof had rung to the noises of peace and war, and that in those narrow streets a people had thronged where now was seen no living thing.

Directly across from him Barnett saw a building more massive than the rest. It was of three stories, each smaller than the one below it, and with many loopholes in its walls. The lower story had no openings, save one that was just large enough to admit a man if he entered on his hands and knees. This structure was the citadel, and in it was that for which he had come.

Barnett had paused at the sight, even though it had not changed since he had seen it last, and in his mind, asleep or awake, he had pictured it many times as he now saw it.

Turning quickly he glanced up the passage. It was very dim and besides, he was too slow. Had he turned more quickly, he might have seen a figure flattening itself against the wall where it was lost in the irregularities of the stone and the darkest parts of the shadows.

A sigh of relief escaped him and, reaching up, he pulled on a chain that lay hidden in a groove in the wall. A plank slowly lowered itself and bridged the fosse.

He smiled sadly as he recalled how he and the others had placed it there. He thought of the time that Harris had excitedly burst into the room where he and the rest had met to make their plans, and announced that he had learned from the whiskey-soaked lips of an Indian of a place where no one would ever think of looking for them. He produced a crude map and a note book and in a short time it was decided to look into the matter, and if the place existed and was as represented to accept his find as the safest place to work. They had journeyed south to the canyon separately, and near the end of an exhausting search under the hot sun, had stumbled on it as they were leaving in disgust.

Returning to Phœnix they had purchased an outfit and installed it after a trying journey across the alkali plains. They had gone back to Phœnix to lay in a supply of provisions, and as the toast to success was being tossed, Connor, of the Secret Service, surrounded them with his deputies and captured them all. There were enough old crimes fastened to them to send them up. Wilson received twenty years, Harris got eighteen, Johnson had twelve years and died in prison, and he himself had received fifteen.

He shook the reverie from him and crossed the plank, entering the inclosure that inclosed the citadel. Before crawling through the low door, he glanced up the passage once more and, sure of his safety as he was, all of his fears crowded upon him, for Connor was a man to be feared more when one felt safe than at any other time. He trembled with fear and joy—fear of Connor and that the things for which he was there might be spoiled or gone, and joy at having come so far in safety. The excitement that took hold of him blanched his face and there was a peculiar elation that weakened him.

Dropping on all fours, he crawled into the building and went up the ladder that led to the third floor, where he saw a bulky object covered with canvas. Tearing this off he uncovered a printing press as free from rust as the day they had set it up, for the dry air allowed none to form. In a box beneath it was a complete set of forms. Taking several cans of ink from his valise, together with an oil can, he proceeded to oil the press.

He found several bundles of paper in a recess of the machine. This paper was prepared by a chemist who was among the best in his profession, and the silk threads were so perfectly inserted as to defy all but the most expert. Johnson was the one who made it and could have made a fortune in legitimate work.

As he did these things he was becoming more nervous each minute, and realizing at last that the most important part of the whole process had been strangely forgotten in his feverish haste, he hurried to a corner of the room and frantically tore at the stones in the floor.

He shook so with many emotions that he had to cease. Fear at the loss or injury of the precious articles ran through him like fire. Cold sweat rolled from him and he thought he would choke.

Summoning all his will power he calmed himself and soon had a stone loosened and up. He tossed it aside and brought forth a packet well wrapped in many folds of oiled silk and rubber. Unrolling these he came upon two smaller packets similarly wrapped. Removing the silk and rubber from each, two dies came into sight

Hastily examining them, he placed them on the floor and danced with joy. They were safe and uninjured! All his term he had thought of them so—the click of the wheels of the train on the rails had driven it into his soul.

They were his alone! He had to share it with no one! He must work hard and fast and then cross the Rio Grande and once in Mexico he could send them into the United States with ease.

He turned to the bundles of paper he had found and counted them, finding five. Opening one of these he found five smaller ones. In one of these he found many smaller packets, each encircled by a white silk strip, on which was printed "100." There were twenty silk strips.

"One hundred to a ribbon and twenty ribbons makes two thousand to each small package," he muttered, "and five of these to each of the five large bundles makes twenty-five. Twenty-five times two thousand is fifty thousand. Not much danger of my working in my old age."

He rewrapped all but one of the ribboned packets, and turned to the dies. After wiping them carefully he placed them in the press. Working for a while, he put in a slip and worked as long again over it. Finally he removed the slip and, waiting for it to dry, warmed it on his naked calf, all the time rubbing it with tobacco-stained hands to age it. The gloss wore off and the slip had become as perfect a counterfeit of a slightly worn twenty-dollar bill as had ever been made.

As he turned to the door to go down to the better light where he could examine it to greater advantage, he looked into the muzzle of a Colt's 44, and an even voice broke the silence.

"Come, Perkins, though you probably prefer Barnett, the government wants those dies even more than it wants you, and I think it will have both. There is no use to struggle—you know me too well for that, so the best thing for you to do is to put the darbies on," tossing him a pair of handcuffs.

"If you hadn't been so eager to get out of that tunnel, you could have potted me with the greatest ease as I came down and no one would have been any the wiser. Well—your mistake was my salvation and it certainly is too late now.

"I see that you have still got that gift of scientific lying—that child cow-puncher at the station will feel like a plugged cent, or a counterfeit bill, which is more pertinent just now."

Barnett was dazed. It was so unexpected, it had happened so quick, and he had felt so safe that he was in no way prepared for it; and fifteen years in the penitentiary had not improved his nerves any, and especially when confronted by the man who had sent him there. Those mild blue eyes, mild but at the same time deadly, and the unwavering muzzle of the silver-mounted revolver showed him that he could do nothing.

"My God! It is Connor!"

That cry told all. In no manner was Barnett able to cope with him. He bowed his head and the bill dropped from his nerveless fingers. He mechanically picked up the bracelets and snapped them on. His spirit, so long weakened, was broken. A sob shook him, but he controlled himself a little and said nothing.

Connor disarmed him, picked up the bill, and writing the word "COUNTERFEIT" across the face and back with a fountain pen, slipped it into his pocket. He detached the plates from the press and, wiping them off, fired a shot into the face of each, thus ruining forever the delicate lines, for fear that somehow he might lose them and some one else profit by it. Taking up the valise and placing the dies in it, he ordered Barnett to move.

As Barnett emerged from the mouth of the shaft he thought of the rifle, but his fear of the man who followed made him pause. It was too late then and, indeed, he could not have found the weapon, although he did not know it.

Connor stepped out and walked over to the cactus, where he uncovered the gun to the astonishment of his prisoner, who lost all hope of escape when he saw that. He was no match for Connor in any way and he knew it.

Slipping a lariat over the head of Burnett's horse, Connor led it to where his own was picketed and, ordering Barnett to mount, sprang into the saddle and started back to Three Fingers.

As Thompson was filling his lamps that afternoon he happened to glance out towards the trail. Dropping oil, lamps and everything, he drew his revolver and started out to where two riders, a large and a small man, the horse of the latter roped to that of the former, were trotting towards the station.

Before he had come within the range of his revolver, the sun sent the glitter of a badge to his eye and he stopped and stared. Before he could shout, the muzzle of his own rifle swung up and covered him.

"Drop your shooting-iron, agent," called out the big man.

He didn't heed the command, but clung to it and shouted, "Damn yu, who are yu? What's up?"

"Connor, of the Secret Service, and you'll be up if you don't house that gun quick."

Thompson noticed the handcuffs then, and did so, striding out to meet them.

Barnett could not look at him.

Connor, still holding the rifle at a handy angle, spoke for him.

"This is Mr. Thomas W. Perkins, known for the time being as John Barnett, professor of archæology, though even a polished liar sometimes makes a mistake—it should have been ethnology, who is the last of an old gang of counterfeiters. He has just served a fifteen year term and has successfully earned another. You will please flag the Southern Arrow for us to-night and we will bother you no more."

Thompson swore softly and nodded, adding shame-facedly, "Don't forgit to leave that Winchester an' th' Colt. I lent them to a scientific cuss—well, he's a real live scientific liar o' th' XXX brand. An' for God's sake keep it quiet. If th' boys ever get onto this I'll have to stand treat for a month."

Taking Barnett to the station, where he watched him all the rest of the time, Connor related all the incidents and the history of the case to the agent, and showed him the exhibits; namely, the dies and the plates.

"By the way, agent, I brought your blanket along—it's out in the shack."

"No wonder he wasn't 'fraid o' snakes. Thompson, yu ass, yu're a damn fool," sadly murmured the agent to himself.

As the rear lights of the express wobbled off into the darkness that night, a crestfallen cowboy-operator stood squarely in the center of the track, with his hands on his hips, and swore.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.