It had lain there before him a moment ago—a misshapen piece of brown-stained quartz, interspersed with dull yellow metal; yielding enough to have allowed the points of his pick to penetrate its honeycombed recesses, yet heavy enough to drop from the point of his pick as he endeavored to lift it from the red earth.
He was seeing all this plainly, although he found himself, he knew not why, at some distance from the scene of his discovery, his heart foolishly beating, his breath impotently hurried. Yet he was walking slowly and vaguely; conscious of stopping and staring at the landscape, which no longer looked familiar to him. He was hoping for some instinct or force of habit to recall him to himself; yet when he saw a neighbor at work in an adjacent claim, he hesitated, and then turned his back upon him. Yet only a moment before he had thought of running to him, saying, “By Jingo! I’ve struck it,” or “D—n it, old man, I’ve got it”; but that moment had passed, and now it seemed to him that he could scarce raise his voice, or, if he did, the ejaculation would appear forced and artificial. Neither could he go over to him coolly and tell his good fortune; and, partly from this strange shyness, and partly with a hope that another survey of the treasure might restore him to natural expression, he walked back to his tunnel.
Yes; it was there! No mere “pocket” or “deposit,” but a part of the actual vein he had been so long seeking. It was there, sure enough, lying beside the pick and the debris of the “face” of the vein that he had exposed sufficiently, after the first shock of discovery, to assure himself of the fact and the permanence of his fortune. It was there, and with it the refutation of his enemies’ sneers, the corroboration of his friends’ belief, the practical demonstration of his own theories, the reward of his patient labors. It was there, sure enough. But, somehow, he not only failed to recall the first joy of discovery, but was conscious of a vague sense of responsibility and unrest. It was, no doubt, an enormous fortune to a man in his circumstances: perhaps it meant a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or more, judging from the value of the old Martin lead, which was not as rich as this, but it required to be worked constantly and judiciously. It was with a decided sense of uneasiness that he again sought the open sunlight of the hillside. His neighbor was still visible on the adjacent claim; but he had apparently stopped working, and was contemplatively smoking a pipe under a large pine-tree. For an instant he envied him his apparent contentment. He had a sudden fierce and inexplicable desire to go over to him and exasperate his easy poverty by a revelation of his own new-found treasure. But even that sensation quickly passed, and left him staring blankly at the landscape again.
As soon as he had made his discovery known, and settled its value, he would send for his wife and her children in the States. He would build a fine house on the opposite hillside, if she would consent to it, unless she preferred, for the children’s sake, to live in San Francisco. A sense of a loss of independence—of a change of circumstances that left him no longer his own master—began to perplex him, in the midst of his brightest projects. Certain other relations with other members of his family, which had lapsed by absence and his insignificance, must now be taken up anew. He must do something for his sister Jane, for his brother William, for his wife’s poor connections. It would be unfair to him to say that he contemplated those things with any other instinct than that of generosity; yet he was conscious of being already perplexed and puzzled.
Meantime, however, the neighbor had apparently finished his pipe, and, knocking the ashes out of it, rose suddenly, and ended any further uncertainty of their meeting by walking over directly towards him. The treasure-finder advanced a few steps on his side, and then stopped irresolutely.
“Hollo, Slinn!” said the neighbor, confidently.
“Hollo, Masters,” responded Slinn, faintly. From the sound of the two voices a stranger might have mistaken their relative condition. “What in thunder are you mooning about for? What’s up?” Then, catching sight of Slinn’s pale and anxious face, he added abruptly, “Are you sick?”
Slinn was on the point of telling him his good fortune, but stopped. The unlucky question confirmed his consciousness of his physical and mental disturbance, and he dreaded the ready ridicule of his companion. He would tell him later; Masters need not know when he had made the strike. Besides, in his present vagueness, he shrank from the brusque, practical questioning that would be sure to follow the revelation to a man of Masters’ temperament.
“I’m a little giddy here,” he answered, putting his hand to his head, “and I thought I’d knock off until I was better.”
Masters examined him with two very critical gray eyes. “Tell ye what, old man!—if you don’t quit this dog-goned foolin’ of yours in that God-forsaken tunnel you’ll get loony! Times you get so tangled up in follerin’ that blind lead o’ yours you ain’t sensible!”
Here was the opportunity to tell him all, and vindicate the justice of his theories! But he shrank from it again; and now, adding to the confusion, was a singular sense of dread at the mental labor of explanation. He only smiled painfully, and began to move away. “Look you!” said Masters, peremptorily, “ye want about three fingers of straight whiskey to set you right, and you’ve got to take it with me. D—n it, man, it may be the last drink we take together! Don’t look so skeered! I mean—I made up my mind about ten minutes ago to cut the whole d—d thing, and light out for fresh diggings. I’m sick of getting only grub wages out o’ this bill. So that’s what I mean by saying it’s the last drink you and me’ll take together. You know my ways: sayin’ and doin’ with me’s the same thing.”
It was true. Slinn had often envied Masters’ promptness of decision and resolution. But he only looked at the grim face of his interlocutor with a feeble sense of relief. He was going. And he, Slinn, would not have to explain anything!
He murmured something about having to go over to the settlement on business. He dreaded lest Masters should insist upon going into the tunnel.
“I suppose you want to mail that letter,” said Masters, drily. “The mail don’t go till to-morrow, so you’ve got time to finish it, and put it in an envelope.”
Following the direction of Masters’ eyes, Slinn looked down and saw, to his utter surprise, that he was holding an unfinished pencilled note in his hand. How it came there, when he had written it, he could not tell; he dimly remembered that one of his first impulses was to write to his wife, but that he had already done so he had forgotten. He hastily concealed the note in his breast- pocket, with a vacant smile. Masters eyed him half contemptuously, half compassionately.
“Don’t forget yourself and drop it in some hollow tree for a letter-box,” be said. “Well—so long!—since you won’t drink. Take care of yourself,” and, turning on his heel, Masters walked away.
Slinn watched him as he crossed over to his abandoned claim, saw him gather his few mining utensils, strap his blanket over his back, lift his hat on his long-handled shovel as a token of farewell, and then stride light-heartedly over the ridge.
He was alone now with his secret and his treasure. The only man in the world who knew of the exact position of his tunnel had gone away forever. It was not likely that this chance companion of a few weeks would ever remember him or the locality again; he would now leave his treasure alone—for even a day perhaps—until he had thought out some plan and sought out some friend in whom to confide. His secluded life, the singular habits of concentration which had at last proved so successful had, at the same time, left him few acquaintances and no associates. And in all his well-laid plans and patiently-digested theories for finding the treasure, the means and methods of working it and disposing of it had never entered.
And now, at the hour when he most needed his faculties, what was the meaning of this strange benumbing of them!
Patience! He only wanted a little rest—a little time to recover himself. There was a large boulder under a tree in the highway of the settlement—a sheltered spot where he had often waited for the coming of the stage-coach. He would go there, and when he was sufficiently rested and composed he would go on.
Nevertheless, on his way he diverged and turned into the woods, for no other apparent purpose than to find a hollow tree. “A hollow tree.” Yes! that was what Masters had said; he remembered it distinctly; and something was to be done there, but what it was, or why it should be done, he could not tell. However, it was done, and very luckily, for his limbs could scarcely support him further, and reaching that boulder he dropped upon it like another stone.
And now, strange to say, the uneasiness and perplexity which had possessed him ever since he had stood before his revealed wealth dropped from him like a burden laid upon the wayside. A measureless peace stole over him, in which visions of his new-found fortune, no longer a trouble and perplexity, but crowned with happiness and blessing to all around him, assumed proportions far beyond his own weak, selfish plans. In its even-handed benefaction, his wife and children, his friends and relations, even his late poor companion of the hillside, met and moved harmoniously together; in its far-reaching consequences there was only the influence of good. It was not strange that this poor finite mind should never have conceived the meaning of the wealth extended to him; or that conceiving it he should faint and falter under the revelation. Enough that for a few minutes he must have tasted a joy of perfect anticipation that years of actual possession might never bring.
The sun seemed to go down in a rosy dream of his own happiness, as he still sat there. Later, the shadows of the trees thickened and surrounded him, and still later fell the calm of a quiet evening sky with far-spaced passionless stars, that seemed as little troubled by what they looked upon as he was by the stealthy creeping life in the grasses and underbrush at his feet. The dull patter of soft little feet in the soft dust of the road, the gentle gleam of moist and wondering little eyes on the branches and in the mossy edges of the boulder, did not disturb him. He sat patiently through it all, as if he had not yet made up his mind.
But when the stage came with the flashing sun the next morning, and the irresistible clamor of life and action, the driver suddenly laid his four spirited horses on their haunches before the quiet spot. The express messenger clambered down from the box, and approached what seemed to be a heap of cast-off clothes upon the boulder.
“He don’t seem to be drunk,” he said, in reply to a querulous interrogation from the passengers. “I can’t make him out. His eyes are open, but he cannot speak or move. Take a look at him, Doc.”
A rough unprofessional-looking man here descended from the inside of the coach, and, carelessly thrusting aside the other curious passengers, suddenly leant over the heap of clothes in a professional attitude.
“He is dead,” said one of the passengers.
The rough man let the passive head sink softly down again. “No such luck for him,” he said curtly, but not unkindly. “It’s a stroke of paralysis—and about as big as they make ’em. It’s a toss-up if he ever speaks or moves again as long as he lives.”