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   Chapter 4 No.4

They of the High Trails By Hamlin Garland Characters: 18866

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was inevitable that the golden secret should escape. Others besides the Chinese cook had sharp eyes, and the Widow Delaney grew paler and more irritable as the days wore on. She had a hunted look. She hardly ever left her kitchen, it was observed, and her bedroom door had a new lock. Every second night Bidwell, gaunt and ragged, and furtive as a burglar, brought a staggering mule-load of the richest ore and stowed it away under the shanty floor and in the widow's bedroom. Luckily miners are sound sleepers, or the two midnight marauders would have been discovered on the second night.

One day John, the cook, seized the cracker-barrel, intending to put it into a different corner. He gave it a slight wrench, looked a little surprised, and lifted a little stronger. It did not budge. He remarked:

"Klackels belly hebby. No sabbe klackels allee same deese."

"Let that alone!" screamed Mrs. Delaney. "Phwat will ye be doin' nixt, ye squint-eyed monkey? I'll tell ye whin to stir things about."

The startled Chinaman gave way in profound dismay. "Me goin' s'eep lound klackel-ballell, you sabbe?"

"Well, I'll do the sweepin' there. I nailed that barrel to the flure apurpis. L'ave it alone, will ye?"

This incident decided her. That night, when Bidwell came, she broke out:

"Sherm, I cannot stand this anny longer. I'm that nairvous I can't hear a fly buzz widout hot streaks chasin' up and down me spine like little red snakes. And man, luk at yersilf. Why, ye're hairy as a go-at and yer eyes are loike two white onions. I say stop, Sherm dear!"

"What'll we do?" asked Bidwell in alarm.

"Do? I'll tell ye phwat we'll do. We'll put our feets down and say, 'Yis, 'tis true, we've shtruck ut, and it's ours.' Then I'll get a team from Las Animas and load the stuff in before the face and eyes of the world, and go wid it to sell it, whilst you load y'r gun an' stand guard over the hole in the ground. I'm fair crazy wid this burglar's business. We're both as thin as quakin' asps and full as shaky. You go down the trail this minute and bring a team and a strong wagon-no wan will know till ye drive in. Now go!"

Bidwell was ruled by her clear and sensible words, and rode away into the clear dark of the summer's night with a feeling that it was all a dream-a vision such as he had often had while prospecting in the mountains; but, as day came on and he looked back upon the red hole he had made in the green hillside, the reality of it all came to pinch his heart and make him gasp. His storehouse, his well of golden waters, was unguarded, and open to the view of any one who should chance to look that way. He beat his old mule to a gallop in the frenzy of the moment.

The widow meanwhile got breakfast for the men, and as soon as they were off up the trail she set the awed and wondering Chinaman to hauling the sacks of ore out from beneath the shanty and piling them conveniently near the roadway. She watched every movement and checked off each sack like a shipping-clerk. "Merciful powers! the work that man did!" she exclaimed, alluding to Bidwell, who had dug all that mass of ore and packed it in the night from the mine to its safe concealment.

Of course, Mrs. Clark, the storekeeper's wife, saw them at work and came over to see what was going on.

"Good morning, Mrs. Delaney. You're not going to move?"

"I am."

"I'm sorry. What's the reason of it? Why, that looks like ore!" she said as she peered at a sack.

"It is ore! and I'm goin' to ship it to the mill. Have ye anny objection?" asked Mrs. Delaney, defiantly.

"Where did it come from?"

"That's my business. There's wan more under there," she said to the Chinaman, and as he came creeping out like a monstrous bug tugging a pair of Bidwell's overalls (ore-filled), as if they formed the trunk of a man whom he had murdered and hidden, Mrs. Clark turned and fled toward the store to tell her husband.

"There ye go, now! Ye screech-owl," sneered the Widow Delaney. "It's all up wid us; soon the whole world will know of ut. Well-we're here first," she defiantly added.

Clark came over, pale with excitement. "Let me see that ore!" he called out as he ran up and laid his hand on a sack.

"Get off-and stay off!" said Maggie, whipping a revolver out of her pocket. "That's my ore, and you let it alone!"

Clark recoiled in surprise, but the widow's anxiety to protect her property added enormously to his excitement. "The ore must be very rich," he argued. "How do I know but that comes from one of my claims?" he asked.

The widow thrust the muzzle of the revolver under his nose. "Would ye call me a thafe? 'Tis well Bidwell is not here; he'd do more than make ye smell of a gun. Go back to yer own business-if ye value a whole skin-an' stay away from phwat does not concern ye."

All this was characteristically intemperate of Maggie, and by the time Bidwell came clattering up the trail with a big freight-wagon the whole gulch was aroused, and a dozen men encircled the heap of motley bags on which Mrs. Delaney sat, keeping them at bay.

When she heard the wagon her nerves steadied a little and she said, more soberly: "Boys, there comes Bidwell with a wagon to haul this stuff away, and, Johnson, you help him load it while I go see about dinner."

As Bidwell drove up a mutter of amazement ran round the group and each man had his say.

"Why, Bid, what's the matter? You look like a man found dead."

"I'm just beginning to live!" said Bidwell, and the reply was long remembered in Bear Gulch.

"Well, now ye know all about it, ye gawks, take hold and help the man load up. I'll have dinner ready fer ye in a snort," repeated the widow.

Clark drew his partners aside. "He packed that ore here; he must have left a trail. You take a turn up the ca?on and see if you can't find it. It's close by somewhere."

Bidwell saw them conferring and called out: "You needn't take any trouble, Clark; I'll lead you to the place after dinner. My claim is staked and application filed-so don't try any tricks on me."

The widow's eyes were equally keen, and the growing cupidity of the men did not escape her. Coming out with a big meat sandwich, she said: "'Twill not do to sit down, Sherm; take this in yer fist and go. They'll all be slippin' away like snakes if ye don't. I'll take John and the ore-we'll make it somehow-and I'll stay wid it till it's paid for."

She was right. The miners were struggling with the demons of desire and ready to stampede at any moment. Hastily packing his mule, Bidwell started up the trail, saying:

"Fall in behind me, boys, and don't scrouge. The man who tries to crowd me off the trail will regret it."

They were quiet enough till he left the trail and started down toward the Bear. Then Johnson cried, "I know where it is!" and plunged with a whoop into the thicket of willows that bordered the creek.

"Mebbe he does and mebbe he don't," said Clark. "I'm going to stick by Bid till we get the lay o' the land."

They maintained fairly good order until Bidwell's trail became a plain line leading up the hillside; then the stampede began. With wild halloos and resounding thwacking of mules they scattered out, raced over the hilltop, and disappeared, leaving Bidwell to plod on with his laden burro.

When he came in sight of his mine men were hammering stakes into the ground on all sides of the discovery claim, and Clark and Johnson were in a loud wrangle as to who reached the spot first. Leading his mule up to the cliff wall where he had built a shelter, Bidwell unpacked his outfit, and as he stood his rifle against a rock he said:

"I'm planted right here, neighbors. My roots run deep underground, and the man who tries to jump this claim will land in the middle of hell fire-now, that's right."

Their claims once staked and their loud differences stilled, the men had leisure to come and examine the discovery claim.

"You've the best of it," said Cantor, an old miner. "There may not be an ounce of gold outside your vein. It's a curious formation; I can't tell how it runs."

Toward night the other miners left and went back to camp, leaving Bidwell alone. As darkness came on he grew nervous again. "They'd kill me if they dared," he muttered, as he crouched in his shelter, his gun on his knee. He was very sleepy, but resolved not to close his eyes. "If I only had a dog-some one I could trust; but I haven't a soul," he added, bitterly, as his weakness grew. The curse of gold sat heavily upon him and his hands were lax with weariness.

"I was a fool to let Maggie go off with that ore," he muttered, his mind following the widow in her perilous journey down the gulch. He did not distrust her; he only feared her ability to override the difficulties of her mission. For the best part of his life he had sought the metal beneath his feet, and, now that he had found it, his blood ran cold with suspicion and fear.

Daylight brought a comparative sense of safety, and, building a fire, he cooked his breakfast in peace-though his eyes were restless. "Oh, they'll come," he said, aloud. "They'll boil in here on me in another hour or two."

And they did. The men from Delaney came first, followed a little later by their partners from the high gulches, and after them the genuine stampeders. The merchants, clerks, hired hands, barbers, hostlers, and half-starved lawyers from the valley towns

came pouring up the trail and, pausing just long enough to see the shine of gold in Bidwell's dump, flung themselves upon the land, seizing the first unclaimed contiguous claim without regard to its character or formation. Their stakes once set, they began to roam, pawing at the earth like prairie-dogs and quite as ineffectually. Swarms of the most curious surrounded Bidwell's hole in the ground, picking at the ore and flooding the air with shouts and questions till the old man in desperation ordered them off his premises and set up a notice:

"Keep off this ground or meet trouble!"

To his friends he explained, "Every piece of rock they carry off is worth so much money."

"Ye've enough here to buy the warrld, mon," protested Angus Craig, an old miner from the north.

"I don't know whether I have or not," said Bidwell. "It may be just a little spatter of gold."

That night the whole range of foot-hills was noisy with voices and sparkling with camp-fires. From the treeless valleys below these lights could be seen, and the heavily laden trains of the San Luis Accommodation trailed a loud hallelujah as the incoming prospectors lifted their voices in joyous greeting to those on the mountainside.

"It's another Cripple Creek!" one man shouted, and the cry struck home. "We're in on it," they all exulted.

Bidwell did not underestimate his importance in this rush of gold-frenzied men. He was appalled by the depth and power of the streams centering upon him. For weeks he had toiled to the full stretch of his powers without sufficient sleep, and he was deathly weary, emaciated to the bone, and trembling with nervous weakness, but he was indomitable. A long life of camping, prospecting, and trenching had fitted him to withstand even this strain, and to "stay with it" was an instinct with him. Therefore he built a big fire not far from the mine and spread his blankets there; but he did not lie down till after midnight, and only then because he could not keep awake, even while in sitting posture. "I must sleep, anyhow," he muttered. "I can't stand this any longer. I must sleep"-And so his eyes closed.

He was awakened by a voice he knew calling out: "Is this the way ye watch y'r mine, Sherm Bidwell?" And, looking up, he saw the Widow Delaney sitting astride a mule and looking down at him with tender amusement. "Ye are a pitcher; sure! Ye look like wan o' the holy saints of ould-or a tramp. Help me off this baste and I'll turn to and scorch a breakfast for ye."

He staggered stiffly to his feet and awkwardly approached her. "I had only just dropped off," he apologized.

"Ye poor lad!" she said, compassionately. "Ye're stiff as a poker wid cold."

"How did ye come out with the ore?" he asked.

"Thrust y'r Maggie! I saw it loaded into a car and sent away. Bedad, I had a moind to go wid it to the mill, but I says, Sherm nor mesilf can be in two places to wanst. So I gave o'er the notion and came home. They'll thieve the half of it, av coorse, but so goes the world, divil catch it!"

The widow was a powerful reinforcement. She got breakfast while Bidwell dozed again, and with the influence of hot coffee and the genial sun the firm grew confident of holding at least the major part of their monstrous good luck.

"Thrust no wan but me," said the widow in decisive warning. "The world is full of rogues. From this toime ivery man's hand is agin' y'r gold-schamin' to reach y'r pockets. Rest yersilf and I'll look after the gould. From this toime on we work only wid our brains."

She did indeed become the captain. On her advice he sent a man for ore-sacks and tools, while other willing hands set to work to build a cabin to shelter them.

"We're takin' no chances," she said; "we camp right here."

That day Las Animas, Crestone, Powder Gulch, and Los Gatos emptied themselves upon the hills, and among them were representatives of big firms in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. The path past the Maggie Mine was worn deep by the feet of the gold-seekers, and Bidwell's rude pole barrier was polished by the nervous touch of greedy palms.

About ten o'clock a quiet man in a gray suit of clothes asked Bidwell if he wanted to sell. Bidwell said, "No," short and curt, but Maggie asked, with a smile, "How much?"

"Enough to make you comfortable for life. If it runs as well as this sample I'll chance fifty thousand dollars on it."

Maggie snorted. "Fifty thousand! Why, I tuk twoice that to the mill last night."

"Let me get in and examine the mine a little closer. I may be able to raise my bid."

"Not till ye make it wan hundred thousand may you even have a luk at it," she replied.

Other agents came-some confidential, others coldly critical, but all equally unsuccessful. The two "idiots" could not see why they should turn over the gold which lay there in sight to a syndicate. It was theirs by every right, and though the offers went far beyond their conception they refused to consider them.

All day axes resounded in the firs, and picks were busy in the gullies. Camp goods, provisions, and bedding streamed by on trains of mules, and by nightfall a city was in its initial stages-tent stores, open-air saloons, eating-booths, and canvas hotels. A few of the swarming incomers were skeptical of the find, but the larger number were hilariously boastful of their locations, and around their evening camp-fires groups gathered to exult over their potentialities.

The sun had set, but the western slope of the hill was still brilliant with light as Bidwell's messenger with his sumpter horse piled high with bales of ore-sacks came round the clump of firs at the corner of Bidwell's claim. He was followed by a tall man who rode with a tired droop and nervous clutching at the rein.

Bidwell stared and exclaimed, "May I be shot if the preachers aren't takin' a hand in the rush!"

The widow looked unwontedly rosy as she conclusively said, "I sent for him, man dear!"

"You did? What for?"

The widow was close enough now to put her hand in the crook of his elbow. "To make us wan, Sherm darlin'. There's no time like the prisent."

Bidwell tugged at his ragged beard. "I wish I had time to slick up a bit."

"There'll be plinty of time for that afterward," she said. "Go welcome the minister."

In the presence of old Angus Craig and young Johnson they were married, and when the minister gave Mrs. Bidwell a rousing smack she wiped her lips with the back of her hand and said to Bidwell:

"Now we're ayqul partners, Sherm, and all old scores wiped out."

And old Angus wagged his head and said, "Canny lass, the widdy!"

When the news of this marriage reached the camp demons of laughter and disorder were let loose. Starting from somewhere afar off, a loud procession formed. With camp-kettles for drums and aspen-bark whistles for pipes, with caterwaul and halloo, the whole loosely cohering army of prospectors surrounded the little log cabin of the Maggie Mine and shouted in wild discord:

"Bidwell! Come forth!"

"A speech! A speech!"

Bidwell was for poking his revolver out through the unchinked walls and ordering the mob to disperse, but his wife was diplomatic.

"'Tis but an excuse to get drink," she said. "Go give them treat."

So Bidwell went forth, and, while a couple of stalwart friends lifted him high, he shouted, sharp and to the point, "It's on me, Clark!"

The mob, howling with delight, rushed upon him and bore him away, struggling and sputtering, to Clark's saloon, where kegs of beer were broached and the crowd took a first deep draught. Bidwell, in alarm for Maggie, began to fight to get back to the cabin. But cries arose for the bride.

"The bride-let's see the bride!"

Bidwell expostulated. "Oh no! Leave her alone. Are you gentlemen? If you are, you won't insist on seeing her."

In the midst of the crowd a clear voice rang out:

"The bride, is it? Well, here she is. Get out o' me way."

"Clear the road there for the bride!" yelled a hundred voices as Maggie walked calmly up an aisle densely walled with strange men. She had been accustomed to such characters all her life, and knew them too well to be afraid. Mounting a beer-keg, she turned a benign face on the crowd. The light of the torches lighted her hair till it shone like spun gold in a halo round her head. She looked very handsome in the warm, sympathetic light of the burning pitch-pine.

"Oh yiss, Oi'll make a speech; I'm not afraid of a handful of two-by-fours like you tenderfeet from the valley, and when me speech is ended ye'll go home and go to bed. Eleven days ago Sherm, me man, discovered this lode. Since then we've both worked night and day to git out the ore-we're dog-tired-sure we are-but we're raisonable folk and here we stand. Now gaze y'r fill and go home and l'ave us to rest-like y'r dacent mothers would have ye do."

"Good for you, Maggie!" called old Angus Craig, who stood near her. "Mak' way, lads!"

The men opened a path for the bride and groom and raised a thundering cheer as they passed.

Old Angus Craig shook his head again and said to Johnson: "Sik a luck canna last. To strike a lode and win a braw lass a' in the day, ye may say. Hoo-iver, he waited lang for baith."

* * *

THE COW-BOSS

-the reckless cowboy on his watch-eyed bronco still lopes across the grassy foot-hills-or holds his milling herd in the high parks.

* * *

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