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   Chapter 3 No.3

They of the High Trails By Hamlin Garland Characters: 6363

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Sierra Blanca is the prodigious triple-turreted tower which stands at the southern elbow of the Sangre de Cristo range. It is a massive but symmetrical mountain, with three peaks so nearly of the same altitude that the central dome seems the lowest of them all, though it is actually fourteen thousand four hundred and eighty feet above the sea. On the west and south this great mass rises from the flat, dry floor of the San Luis Valley in sweeping, curving lines, and the pi?ons cover these lower slopes like a robe of bronze green.

At eight thousand feet above the sea these suave lines become broken. The pi?ons give place to pine and fir, and the somber ca?ons begin to yawn. It was just here, where the grassy hills began to break into savage walls, that Bidwell made his camp beside a small stream which fell away into Bear Creek to the south. From this camp he could look far out on the violet and gold of the valley, and see the railway trains pass like swift and monstrous dragons. He could dimly see the lights of Las Animas also, and this led him to conceal his own camp-fire.

Each day he rode forth, skirting the cliffs, examining every bit of rock which showed the slightest mineral stain. Scarcely a moment of the daylight was wasted in this search. His mysterious guide no longer touched him, and this he took to be a favorable omen. "I'm near it," he said.

One day he hitched his mule to a small dead pine at the foot of a steep cliff, and was climbing to the summit when a stone, dislodged by his feet, fell, bounced, thumped the mule in the ribs, and so scared the animal that he pulled up the tree and ran away.

Angry and dispirited (for he was hungry and tired) Bidwell clambered down and began to trail the mule toward camp. The tree soon clogged the runaway and brought him to a stand in a thicket of willows.

As Bidwell knelt to untie the rope his keen eyes detected the glitter of gold in the dirt which still clung to the moist root of the pine. With a sudden conviction of having unearthed his fortune, the miner sprang to his saddle and hurried back to the spot whence the tree had been rived. It was dusk by the time he reached the spot, but he could detect gold in the friable rock which lined the cavity left by the uprooted sapling. With a mind too excited to sleep he determined to stay with his find till morning. To leave it involved no real risk of losing it, and yet he could not bring himself to even build a camp-fire, for fear some one might be drawn from the darkness to dispute his claim.

It was a terribly long night, and when old Blanca's southern peak began to gleam out of the purple receding waves of the night the man's brain was numb with speculation and suspense. Hovering over the little heap of broken rock which he had scooped out with his hands, he waited in almost frenzied impatience for the sun.

He could tell by the feeling that the ore was what miners of his grade call "rotten quartz," and he knew that it often held free gold in enormous richness. It was so friable he could crumble it in his hands, and so yellow with iron-stains that it looked like lumps of clay as the dawn light came. A stranger

happening upon him would have feared for his reason, so pale was his face, so bloodshot his eyes.

At last he could again detect the gleam of gold. Each moment as the light grew the value of the ore increased. It was literally meshed with rusty free gold. The whole mound was made up of a disintegrated ledge of porphyry and thousands of dollars were in sight. As his mind grasped these facts the miner rose and danced-but he did not shout!

All that day he worked swiftly, silently, like an animal seeking to escape an enemy, digging out this rock and carrying it to a place of concealment in a deep thicket not far away. He did not stop to eat or drink till mid-afternoon, and then only because he was staggering with weakness and his hands were growing ineffective. After eating he fell asleep and did not wake till deep in the night. For some minutes he could not remember what had happened to him. At last his good fortune grew real again. Saddling his mule, he rode up the creek and crossed miles above his newly discovered mine, in order to conceal his trail, and it was well toward dawn before he tapped on the widow's window.

"Is that you, Sherm?" she asked.

"Yes. Get up quick; I have news!"

When she opened the kitchen door for him she started back. "For love of God, man, phwat have you been doin' wid yersilf?"

"Be quiet!" he commanded, sharply, and crept in, staggering under the weight of a blanket full of ore. "You needn't work any more, Maggie; I've got it. Here it is!"

"Man, ye're crazy! What have you there? Not gould!"

"You bet it is! Quartz jest rotten with gold. Where can I hide it?" His manner would not have been wilder had his bag of ore been the body of a man he had murdered. "Quick! It's almost daylight."

"Let me see ut. I do not believe ut."

He untied the blanket, and as the corners unrolled, disclosing the red-brown mass, even her unskilled eyes could see the gleaming grains of pure metal. She fell on her knees and crossed herself.

"Praise be to Mary! Where did ye find ut-and how?"

"Not a word about that. I'm scared. If any one should find it while I am away they could steal thousands of dollars. Why, it's like a pocket in a placer! Get me every sack you can. Give me grub-and hide this. There are tons of it! This is the best of it. We are rich-rich as Jews, Maggie!"

They worked swiftly. The widow emptied a cracker-barrel and put the ore at the bottom, and then tumbled the crackers in on top of the ore. She set out some cold meat and bread and butter, and while Bidwell ate she brought out every rag that could serve as a sack.

"I'll have more for ye to-morrow. I wish I c'u'd go wid ye, Sherm. I'd like to set me claws at work at that dirt."

"I need help, but I am afraid to have a man. Well, I must be off. Good-by. I'll be back to-night with another load. I guess old Sherm is worth a kiss yet-eh-Maggie!"

"Be off wid ye. Can't ye see the dawn is comin'?" A moment later she ran up to him and gave him a great hug. "There-now haste ye!"

"Be silent!"

"As the grave itself!" she replied, and turned to brush up the cracker-crumbs. "That Chinese divil has sharp eyes," she muttered.

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