A Waif of the Plains

Chapter VIII

Bret Harte

WHEN CLARENCE was once more in the busy street before the bank, it seemed clear to his boyish mind that, being now cast adrift upon the world and responsible to no one, there was no reason why he should not at once proceed to the nearest gold mines! The idea of returning to Mr. Peyton and Susy, as a disowned and abandoned outcast, was not to be thought of. He would purchase some kind of an outfit, such as he had seen the miners carry, and start off as soon as he had got his supper. But although one of his most delightful anticipations had been the unfettered freedom of ordering a meal at a restaurant, on entering the first one he found himself the object of so much curiosity, partly from his size and partly from his dress, which the unfortunate boy was beginning to suspect was really preposterous, and he turned away with a stammered excuse, and did not try another. Further on he found a baker’s shop, where he refreshed himself with some gingerbread and lemon soda. At an adjacent grocery he purchased some herrings, smoked beef, and biscuits, as future provisions for his “pack” or kit. Then began his real quest for an outfit. In an hour he had secured—ostensibly for some friend, to avoid curious inquiry—a pan, a blanket, a shovel and pick, all of which he deposited at the baker’s, his unostentatious headquarters, with the exception of a pair of disguising high boots that half hid his sailor trousers, which he kept to put on at the last. Even to his inexperience the cost of these articles seemed enormous; when his purchases were complete, of his entire capital scarcely four dollars remained! Yet in the fond illusions of boyhood these rude appointments seemed possessed of far more value than the gold he had given in exchange for them, and he had enjoyed a child’s delight in testing the transforming magic of money.

Meanwhile, the feverish contact of the crowded street had, strange to say, increased his loneliness, while the ruder joviality of its dissipations began to fill him with vague uneasiness. The passing glimpse of dancing halls and gaudily whirled figures that seemed only feminine in their apparel; the shouts and boisterous choruses from concert rooms; the groups of drunken roisterers that congregated around the doors of saloons or, hilariously charging down the streets, elbowed him against the wall, or humorously insisted on his company, discomposed and frightened him. He had known rude companionship before, but it was serious, practical, and under control. There was something in this vulgar degradation of intellect and power—qualities that Clarence had always boyishly worshiped—which sickened and disillusioned him. Later on a pistol shot in a crowd beyond, the rush of eager men past him, the disclosure of a limp and helpless figure against the wall, the closing of the crowd again around it, although it stirred him with a fearful curiosity, actually shocked him less hopelessly than their brutish enjoyments and abandonment.

It was in one of these rushes that he had been crushed against a swinging door, which, giving way to his pressure, disclosed to his wondering eyes a long, glitteringly adorned, and brightly lit room, densely filled with a silent, attentive throng in attitudes of decorous abstraction and preoccupation, that even the shouts and tumult at its very doors could not disturb. Men of all ranks and conditions, plainly or elaborately clad, were grouped together under this magic spell of silence and attention. The tables before them were covered with cards and loose heaps of gold and silver. A clicking, the rattling of an ivory ball, and the frequent, formal, lazy reiteration of some unintelligible sentence was all that he heard. But by a sudden instinct he understood it all. It was a gambling saloon!

Encouraged by the decorous stillness, and the fact that everybody appeared too much engaged to notice him, the boy drew timidly beside one of the tables. It was covered with a number of cards, on which were placed certain sums of money. Looking down, Clarence saw that he was standing before a card that as yet had nothing on it. A single player at his side looked up, glanced at Clarence curiously, and then placed half a dozen gold pieces on the vacant card. Absorbed in the general aspect of the room and the players, Clarence did not notice that his neighbor won twice, and even thrice, upon that card. Becoming aware, however, that the player while gathering in his gains, was smilingly regarding him he moved in some embarrassment to the other end of the table, where there seemed another gap in the crowd. It so chanced that there was also another vacant card. The previous neighbor of Clarence instantly shoved a sum of money across the table on the vacant card and won! At this the other players began to regard Clarence singularly, one or two of the spectators smiled, and the boy, coloring, moved awkwardly away. But his sleeve was caught by the successful player, who, detaining him gently, put three gold pieces into his hand.

“That’s your share, sonny,” he whispered.

“Share—for what?” stammered the astounded Clarence.

“For bringing me ‘the luck,’” said the man.

Clarence stared. “Am I—to—to play with it?” he said, glancing at the coins and then at the table, in ignorance of the stranger’s meaning.

“No, no!” said the man hurriedly, “don’t do that. You’ll lose it, sonny, sure! Don’t you see, you bring the luck to others, not to yourself. Keep it, old man, and run home!”

“I don’t want it! I won’t have it!” said Clarence with a swift recollection of the manipulation of his purse that morning, and a sudden distrust of all mankind.

“There!” He turned back to the table and laid the money on the first vacant card he saw. In another moment, as it seemed to him, it was raked away by the dealer. A sense of relief came over him.

“There!” said the man, with an awed voice and a strange, fatuous look in his eye. “What did I tell you? You see, it’s allus so! Now,” he added roughly, “get up and get out o’ this, afore you lose the boots and shirt off ye.”

Clarence did not wait for a second command. With another glance round the room, he began to make his way through the crowd towards the front. But in that parting glance he caught a glimpse of a woman presiding over a “wheel of fortune” in a corner, whose face seemed familiar. He looked again, timidly. In spite of an extraordinary head-dress or crown that she wore as the “Goddess of Fortune,” he recognized, twisted in its tinsel, a certain scarlet vine which he had seen before; in spite of the hoarse formula which she was continually repeating, he recognized the foreign accent. It was the woman of the stage-coach! With a sudden dread that she might recognize him, and likewise demand his services “for luck,” he turned and fled.

Once more in the open air, there came upon him a vague loathing and horror of the restless madness and feverish distraction of this half-civilized city. It was the more powerful that it was vague, and the outcome of some inward instinct. He found himself longing for the pure air and sympathetic loneliness of the plains and wilderness; he began to yearn for the companionship of his humble associates—the teamster, the scout Gildersleeve, and even Jim Hooker. But above all and before all was the wild desire to get away from these maddening streets and their bewildering occupants. He ran back to the baker’s, gathered his purchases together, took advantage of a friendly doorway to strap them on his boyish shoulders, slipped into a side street, and struck out at once for the outskirts.

It had been his first intention to take stage to the nearest mining district, but the diminution of his small capital forbade that outlay, and he decided to walk there by the highroad, of whose general direction he had informed himself. In half an hour the lights of the flat, struggling city, and their reflection in the shallow, turbid river before it, had sunk well behind him. The air was cool and soft; a yellow moon swam in the slight haze that rose above the tules; in the distance a few scattered cottonwoods and sycamores marked like sentinels the road. When he had walked some distance he sat down beneath one of them to make a frugal supper from the dry rations in his pack, but in the absence of any spring he was forced to quench his thirst with a glass of water in a wayside tavern. Here he was good-humoredly offered something stronger, which he declined, and replied to certain curious interrogations by saying that he expected to overtake his friends in a wagon further on. A new distrust of mankind had begun to make the boy an adept in innocent falsehood, the more deceptive as his careless, cheerful manner, the result of his relief at leaving the city, and his perfect ease in the loving companionship of night and nature, certainly gave no indication of his homelessness and poverty.

It was long past midnight, when, weary in body, but still hopeful and happy in mind, he turned off the dusty road into a vast rolling expanse of wild oats, with the same sense of security of rest as a traveler to his inn. Here, completely screened from view by the tall stalks of grain that rose thickly around him to the height of a man’s shoulder, he beat down a few of them for a bed, on which he deposited his blanket. Placing his pack for a pillow, he curled himself up in his blanket, and speedily fell asleep.

He awoke at sunrise, refreshed, invigorated, and hungry. But he was forced to defer his first self-prepared breakfast until he had reached water, and a less dangerous place than the wild-oat field to build his first camp fire. This he found a mile further on, near some dwarf willows on the bank of a half-dry stream. Of his various efforts to prepare his first meal, the fire was the most successful; the coffee was somewhat too substantially thick, and the bacon and herring lacked definiteness of quality from having been cooked in the same vessel. In this boyish picnic he missed Susy, and recalled, perhaps a little bitterly, her coldness at parting. But the novelty of his situation, the brilliant sunshine and sense of freedom, and the road already awakening to dusty life with passing teams, dismissed everything but the future from his mind. Readjusting his pack, he stepped on cheerily. At noon he was overtaken by a teamster, who in return for a match to light his pipe gave him a lift of a dozen miles. It is to be feared that Clarence’s account of himself was equally fanciful with his previous story, and that the teamster parted from him with a genuine regret, and a hope that he would soon be overtaken by his friends along the road. “And mind that you ain’t such a fool agin to let ’em make you tote their dod-blasted tools fur them!” he added unsuspectingly, pointing to Clarence’s mining outfit. Thus saved the heaviest part of the day’s journey, for the road was continually rising from the plains during the last six miles, Clarence was yet able to cover a considerable distance on foot before he halted for supper. Here he was again fortunate. An empty lumber team watering at the same spring, its driver offered to take Clarence’s purchases—for the boy had profited by his late friend’s suggestion to personally detach himself from his equipment—to Buckeye Mills for a dollar, which would also include a “shakedown passage” for himself on the floor of the wagon. “I reckon you’ve been foolin’ away in Sacramento the money yer parents give yer for return stage fare, eh? Don’t lie, sonny,” he added grimly, as the now artful Clarence smiled diplomatically, “I’ve been thar myself!” Luckily, the excuse that he was “tired and sleepy” prevented further dangerous questioning, and the boy was soon really in deep slumber on the wagon floor.

He awoke betimes to find himself already in the mountains. Buckeye Mills was a straggling settlement, and Clarence prudently stopped any embarrassing inquiry from his friend by dropping off the wagon with his equipment as they entered it, and hurriedly saying “Good-by” from a crossroad through the woods. He had learned that the nearest mining camp was five miles away, and its direction was indicated by a long wooden “flume,” or water-way, that alternately appeared and disappeared on the flank of the mountain opposite. The cooler and drier air, the grateful shadow of pine and bay, and the spicy balsamic odors that everywhere greeted him, thrilled and exhilarated him. The trail plunging sometimes into an undisturbed forest, he started the birds before him like a flight of arrows through its dim recesses; at times he hung breathlessly over the blue depths of canyons where the same forests were repeated a thousand feet below. Towards noon he struck into a rude road—evidently the thoroughfare of the locality—and was surprised to find that it, as well as the adjacent soil wherever disturbed, was a deep Indian red. Everywhere, along its sides, powdering the banks and boles of trees with its ruddy stain, in mounds and hillocks of piled dirt on the road, or in liquid paint-like pools, when a trickling stream had formed a gutter across it, there was always the same deep sanguinary color. Once or twice it became more vivid in contrast with the white teeth of quartz that peeped through it from the hillside or crossed the road in crumbled strata. One of those pieces Clarence picked up with a quickening pulse. It was veined and streaked with shining mica and tiny glittering cubes of mineral that looked like gold!

The road now began to descend towards a winding stream, shrunken by drought and ditching, that glared dazzingly in the sunlight from its white bars of sand, or glistened in shining sheets and channels. Along its banks, and even encroaching upon its bed, were scattered a few mud cabins, strange-looking wooden troughs and gutters, and here and there, glancing through the leaves, the white canvas of tents. The stumps of felled trees and blackened spaces, as of recent fires, marked the stream on either side. A sudden sense of disappointment overcame Clarence. It looked vulgar, common, and worse than all—familiar. It was like the unlovely outskirts of a dozen other prosaic settlements he had seen in less romantic localities. In that muddy red stream, pouring out of a wooden gutter, in which three or four bearded, slouching, half-naked figures were raking like chiffonniers, there was nothing to suggest the royal metal. Yet he was so absorbed in gazing at the scene, and had walked so rapidly during the past few minutes, that he was startled, on turning a sharp corner of the road, to come abruptly upon an outlying dwelling.

It was a nondescript building, half canvas and half boards. The interior seen through the open door was fitted up with side shelves, a counter carelessly piled with provisions, groceries, clothing, and hardware—with no attempt at display or even ordinary selection—and a table, on which stood a demijohn and three or four dirty glasses. Two roughly dressed men, whose long, matted beards and hair left only their eyes and lips visible in the tangled hirsute wilderness below their slouched hats, were leaning against the opposite sides of the doorway, smoking. Almost thrown against them in the rapid momentum of his descent, Clarence halted violently.

“Well, sonny, you needn’t capsize the shanty,” said the first man, without taking his pipe from his lips.

“If yer looking fur yer ma, she and yer Aunt Jane hev jest gone over to Parson Doolittle’s to take tea,” observed the second man lazily. “She allowed that you’d wait.”

“I’m—I’m—going to—to the mines,” explained Clarence, with some hesitation. “I suppose this is the way.”

The two men took their pipes from their lips, looked at each other, completely wiped every vestige of expression from their faces with the back of their hands, turned their eyes into the interior of the cabin, and said, “Will yer come yer, now will yer?” Thus adjured, half a dozen men, also bearded and carrying pipes in their mouths, straggled out of the shanty, and, filing in front of it, squatted down, with their backs against the boards, and gazed comfortably at the boy. Clarence began to feel uneasy.

“I’ll give,” said one, taking out his pipe and grimly eying Clarence, “a hundred dollars for him as he stands.”

“And seein’ as he’s got that bran-new rig-out o’ tools,” said another, “I’ll give a hundred and fifty—and the drinks. I’ve been,” he added apologetically, “wantin’ sunthin’ like this a long time.”

“Well, gen’lemen,” said the man who had first spoken to him, “lookin’ at him by and large; takin’ in, so to speak, the gin’ral gait of him in single harness; bearin’ in mind the perfect freshness of him, and the coolness and size of his cheek—the easy downyness, previousness, and utter don’t-care-a-damnativeness of his coming yer, I think two hundred ain’t too much for him, and we’ll call it a bargain.”

Clarence’s previous experience of this grim, smileless Californian chaff was not calculated to restore his confidence. He drew away from the cabin, and repeated doggedly, “I asked you if this was the way to the mines.”

“It are the mines, and these yere are the miners,” said the first speaker gravely. “Permit me to interdoose ’em. This yere’s Shasta Jim, this yere’s Shotcard Billy, this is Nasty Bob, and this Slumgullion Dick. This yere’s the Dook o’ Chatham Street, the Livin’ Skeleton, and me!”

“May we ask, fair young sir,” said the Living Skeleton, who, however, seemed in fairly robust condition, “whence came ye on the wings of the morning, and whose Marble Halls ye hev left desolate?”

“I came across the plains, and got into Stockton two days ago on Mr. Peyton’s train,” said Clarence, indignantly, seeing no reason now to conceal anything. “I came to Sacramento to find my cousin, who isn’t living there any more. I don’t see anything funny in that! I came here to the mines to dig gold—because—-because Mr. Silsbee, the man who was to bring me here and might have found my cousin for me, was killed by Indians.”

“Hold up, sonny. Let me help ye,” said the first speaker, rising to his feet. “You didn’t get killed by Injins because you got lost out of a train with Silsbee’s infant darter. Peyton picked you up while you was takin’ care of her, and two days arter you kem up to the broken-down Silsbee wagons, with all the folks lyin’ there slartered.”

“Yes, sir,” said Clarence, breathlessly with astonishment.

“And,” continued the man, putting his hand gravely to his head as if to assist his memory, “when you was all alone on the plains with that little child you saw one of those redskins, as near to you as I be, watchin’ the train, and you didn’t breathe or move while he was there?”

“Yes, sir,” said Clarence eagerly.

“And you was shot at by Peyton, he thinkin’ you was an Injun in the mesquite grass? And you once shot a buffalo that had been pitched with you down a gully—all by yourself?”

“Yes,” said Clarence, crimson with wonder and pleasure. “You know me, then?”

“Well, ye-e-es,” said the man gravely, parting his mustache with his fingers. “You see, you’ve been here before.

“Before! Me?” repeated the astounded Clarence.

“Yes, before. Last night. You was taller then, and hadn’t cut your hair. You cursed a good deal more than you do now. You drank a man’s share of whiskey, and you borrowed fifty dollars to get to Sacramento with. I reckon you haven’t got it about you now, eh?”

Clarence’s brain reeled in utter confusion and hopeless terror.

Was he going crazy, or had these cruel men learned his story from his faithless friends, and this was a part of the plot? He staggered forward, but the men had risen and quickly encircled him, as if to prevent his escape. In vague and helpless desperation he gasped—

“What place is this?”

“Folks call it Deadman’s Gulch.”

Deadman’s Gulch! A flash of intelligence lit up the boy’s blind confusion. Deadman’s Gulch! Could it have been Jim Hooker who had really run away, and had taken his name? He turned half-imploringly to the first speaker.

“Wasn’t he older than me, and bigger? Didn’t he have a smooth, round face and little eyes? Didn’t he talk hoarse? Didn’t he—” He stopped hopelessly.

“Yes; oh, he wasn’t a bit like you,” said the man musingly. “Ye see, that’s the h-ll of it! You’re altogether too many and too various fur this camp.”

“I don’t know who’s been here before, or what they have said,” said Clarence desperately, yet even in that desperation retaining the dogged loyalty to his old playmate, which was part of his nature. “I don’t know, and I don’t care—there! I’m Clarence Brant of Kentucky; I started in Silsbee’s train from St. Jo, and I’m going to the mines, and you can’t stop me!”

The man who had first spoken started, looked keenly at Clarence, and then turned to the others. The gentleman known as the living skeleton had obtruded his huge bulk in front of the boy, and, gazing at him, said reflectively, “Darned if it don’t look like one of Brant’s pups—sure!”

“Air ye any relation to Kernel Hamilton Brant of Looeyville?” asked the first speaker.

Again that old question! Poor Clarence hesitated, despairingly. Was he to go through the same cross-examination he had undergone with the Peytons? “Yes,” he said doggedly, “I am—but he’s dead, and you know it.”

“Dead—of course.” “Sartin.” “He’s dead.” “The Kernel’s planted,” said the men in chorus.

“Well, yes,” reflected the Living Skeleton ostentatiously, as one who spoke from experience. “Ham Brant’s about as bony now as they make ’em.”

“You bet! About the dustiest, deadest corpse you kin turn out,” corroborated Slumgullion Dick, nodding his head gloomily to the others; “in point o’ fack, es a corpse, about the last one I should keer to go huntin’ fur.”

“The Kernel’s tech ’ud be cold and clammy,” concluded the Duke of Chatham Street, who had not yet spoken, “sure. But what did yer mammy say about it? Is she gettin’ married agin? Did she send ye here?”

It seemed to Clarence that the Duke of Chatham Street here received a kick from his companions; but the boy repeated doggedly—

“I came to Sacramento to find my cousin, Jackson Brant; but he wasn’t there.”

“Jackson Brant!” echoed the first speaker, glancing at the others. “Did your mother say he was your cousin?”

“Yes,” said Clarence wearily. “Good-by.”

“Hullo, sonny, where are you going?”

“To dig gold,” said the boy. “And you know you can’t prevent me, if it isn’t on your claim. I know the law.” He had heard Mr. Peyton discuss it at Stockton, and he fancied that the men, who were whispering among themselves, looked kinder than before, and as if they were no longer “acting” to him. The first speaker laid his hand on his shoulder, and said, “All right, come with me, and I’ll show you where to dig.”

“Who are you?” said Clarence. “You called yourself only ‘me.’”

“Well, you can call me Flynn—Tom Flynn.”

“And you’ll show me where I can dig—myself?”

“I will.”

“Do you know,” said Clarence timidly, yet with a half-conscious smile, “that I—I kinder bring luck?”

The man looked down upon him, and said gravely, but, as it struck Clarence, with a new kind of gravity, “I believe you.”

“Yes,” said Clarence eagerly, as they walked along together, “I brought luck to a man in Sacramento the other day.” And he related with great earnestness his experience in the gambling saloon. Not content with that—the sealed fountains of his childish deep being broken up by some mysterious sympathy—he spoke of his hospitable exploit with the passengers at the wayside bar, of the finding of his Fortunatus purse and his deposit at the bank. Whether that characteristic old-fashioned reticence which had been such an important factor for good or ill in his future had suddenly deserted him, or whether some extraordinary prepossession in his companion had affected him, he did not know; but by the time the pair had reached the hillside Flynn was in possession of all the boy’s history. On one point only was his reserve unshaken. Conscious although he was of Jim Hooker’s duplicity, he affected to treat it as a comrade’s joke.

They halted at last in the middle of an apparently fertile hillside. Clarence shifted his shovel from his shoulders, unslung his pan, and looked at Flynn. “Dig anywhere here, where you like,” said his companion carelessly, “and you’ll be sure to find the color. Fill your pan with the dirt, go to that sluice, and let the water run in on the top of the pan—workin’ it round so,” he added, illustrating a rotary motion with the vessel. “Keep doing that until all the soil is washed out of it, and you have only the black sand at the bottom. Then work that the same way until you see the color. Don’t be afraid of washing the gold out of the pan—you couldn’t do it if you tried. There, I’ll leave you here, and you wait till I come back.” With another grave nod and something like a smile in the only visible part of his bearded face—his eyes—he strode rapidly away.

Clarence did not lose time. Selecting a spot where the grass was less thick, he broke through the soil and turned up two or three spadefuls of red soil. When he had filled the pan and raised it to his shoulder, he was astounded at its weight. He did not know that it was due to the red precipitate of iron that gave it its color. Staggering along with his burden to the running sluice, which looked like an open wooden gutter, at the foot of the hill, he began to carefully carry out Flynn’s direction. The first dip of the pan in the running water carried off half the contents of the pan in liquid paint-like ooze. For a moment he gave way to boyish satisfaction in the sight and touch of this unctuous solution, and dabbled his fingers in it. A few moments more of rinsing and he came to the sediment of fine black sand that was beneath it. Another plunge and swilling of water in the pan, and—could he believe his eyes!—a few yellow tiny scales, scarcely larger than pins’ heads, glittered among the sand. He poured it off. But his companion was right; the lighter sand shifted from side to side with the water, but the glittering points remained adhering by their own tiny specific gravity to the smooth surface of the bottom. It was “the color”—gold!

Clarence’s heart seemed to give a great leap within him. A vision of wealth, of independence, of power, sprang before his dazzled eyes, and—a hand lightly touched him on the shoulder.

He started. In his complete preoccupation and excitement, he had not heard the clatter of horse-hoofs, and to his amazement Flynn was already beside him, mounted, and leading a second horse.

“You kin ride?” he said shortly.

“Yes” stammered Clarence; “but—”

But—we’ve only got two hours to reach Buckeye Mills in time to catch the down stage. Drop all that, jump up, and come with me!”

“But I’ve just found gold,” said the boy excitedly.

“And I’ve just found your—cousin. Come!”

He spurred his horse across Clarence’s scattered implements, half helped, half lifted, the boy into the saddle of the second horse, and, with a cut of his riata over the animal’s haunches, the next moment they were both galloping furiously away.

A Waif of the Plains - Contents    |     Chapter IX

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