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A Tale of the Western Plains
By G. A. Henty, Alfred Pearse
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I. AN ADVERTISEMENT
Cedar Gulch was, in 1851, a flourishing camp. There had been some good finds by the first prospectors, and a rush had of course followed. In many cases first discoveries proved illusive, but it was not so at Cedar Gulch. The ground turned out well, and although no extraordinary finds were made, the average was good all over the bottom, and there were few who were not doing fairly well.
The scene was a busy one. Several hundreds of men were hard at work on the flat, which in winter was the bed of a wide stream, but which in summer was a mere thread of water among the rocks, scarce enough for washing purposes.
Everywhere were piles of stones and rubbish that had been brought up from the shafts; men toiled at windlasses; others emptied the buckets as they came up into swinging troughs or cradles; others again kept these supplied with water, and swung or rocked them, taking off the large stones that the motion brought to the surface, while the slush and mud ran out at the lower end. Newcomers moved about watching the work with eager eyes, wishing that they had had the luck to get there among the early arrivals, and to take up a claim, for every foot of ground far down the valley had already been occupied, and there was now no getting into a claim except by purchasing a share or altogether buying out the present holders.
One of the claims that was doing best was held by three men who had worked in partnership for the last two years, and who had been among the first to arrive at Cedar Gulch. They were known among the others as English Bill, Sim Howlett, and Limping Frank. Sim Howlett was perhaps the leader of the party. He had been one of the earliest gold-diggers, and was a square, powerfully built man. He was a man of few words, but the words when spoken were forcible. He was by no means quarrelsome, but was one whom few cared to quarrel with, even in a place where serious quarrels were of constant occurrence, and where revolvers cracked so often that the sound of a fray excited but little attention.
English Bill was a tall wiry man, hot of temper, but a general favourite. Generous with his money, always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone who was down on his luck, he also was a capital worker, and had, in spite of his rough clothes and the use of language as rough as that of his companions, a certain air which told that, like many others in the diggings, he was a gentleman by birth. Why these two men should have taken up with Limping Frank as a comrade was a matter of surprise to those who knew them. They were both men in the prime of life, while he was at least ten years their senior. His hair was already white; his face was that of a student rather than a miner, with a gentle and almost womanly expression. His frame was slight, and looked altogether incapable of hard work, and he walked with a distinct limp, the result of a bullet wound in the hip. And yet there were men in the gulch who, having known the trio at other diggings, declared that they would rather quarrel either with English Bill or Sim Howlett than with Limping Frank, and as some of them were desperate fellows, and noted pistol shots, their report was quite sufficient to secure respect for a man who otherwise would have been regarded with pity or contempt.
Very little of the hard work of the partnership fell upon Frank. He cooked, looked after the shanty, did what washing and mending to the clothes was necessary, and occasionally came down and assisted to work the cradle and sort the stuff. They generally addressed him as doctor. Not that he made any profession of medical knowledge; but he was always ready to give his services in case of sickness, and many a miner had he pulled through fevers which, had it not been for his nursing and care, would have proved fatal.
"I can't make out what yer mean by saying I had best not quarrel with that little old atomy you call Limping Frank," a big, powerful fellow who had recently arrived at the camp said to one who had been talking over with him the characteristics of several of the miners. "I ain't very pertiklar who I quarrels with; but what on arth there can be in that little chap to make one keep clear of him beats me. Can he shoot?"
"You bet," the other replied. "He could put a bullet plumb between your eyes ten times following, the length of the long saloon up there. There ain't no better shot nor quicker anywhere on the slopes."
"But he don't look as if he could speak up for himself," the other said.
"No; and he doesn't speak up for himself, though his mates would be ready enough to speak up for him if anyone said anything to him. There is nothing quarrelsome about him. He is always for peace and order. He is a sort of Judge Lynch all to himself. He has cleared out one or two camps I have been at. When a chap gets too bad for anything, and takes to shooting over and above what is usual and right, 'specially if he draws on quiet sort of chaps and becomes a terror, then Limping Frank comes out. I was down at Dead Man's Gulch when there was a gang of three or four men who were a terror to the place. They had stretched out seven or eight between them, and Texan Jack, as the worst of them was called, one day shot down a young fellow who had just come into camp, for no reason at all, as far as anyone knew.
"I happened to be in the saloon five minutes afterwards, when Limping Frank came in. Texan Jack was standing drinking there with two of his mates, laughing and jawing. You would scarcely have known that little chap if you had seen him then! He had been nursing a mate of mine only the night before, and as I had been sitting near him I thought what a gentle sort of face he had—more like a woman's than a man's. But now his eyes were wide open and his lips closed, and there was just a set look in his face that I knew meant mischief—for I had seen him once before when his dander was up—and I put my hand into my back pocket for my pistol, for I knew there was going to be a muss. He stopped in the middle of the room, and he said in a loud, clear voice that made everyone look sharp round, 'Texan Jack, murderer and villain, we have borne with you too long. If you are a man, draw.' Texan Jack stared with astonishment.
"'Are you mad, you little fool?' he said.
"'Draw, or I will shoot you down as you stand,' Limping Frank said, and the Texan saw that he meant mischief. Frank had no weapon in his hand, for he was not one to take an advantage. The Texan carried his weapon up his sleeve, but quick as he was with it, Frank was as quick, and the two pistols cracked pretty well at the same moment. Frank got a ball in the shoulder, but the Texan fell dead with a bullet in the centre of his forehead. His two mates drew in a moment, but Frank's revolver cracked twice as quick as you could count them, and there were just three bodies lying dead in a heap. Then he put up his pistol, and said in his ordinary quiet voice, 'I don't like these things, but we must have peace and order. Will some of you tell the others that they had better git.' And you bet they did git. Limping Frank never said another word about it, but got his arm in a sling, and half an hour afterwards I saw him quietly cooking his mates' dinner while they were both standing by blowing him up for starting out without them to back him."
"What did he say?" the newcomer asked.
"I heard him say, 'It is no use your going on like that, mates. If you had gone down he would have got his friends, and then there would have been a general fight, and several would have got hurt. When you have murderers like these you don't want a fight—you want an execution; and having a sort of natural knack with the pistol, I took it upon myself to be executioner.'
"There was another case, although it didn't happen at the camp I was at, in which a woman was murdered by a half-breed Mexican. I did not hear the circumstances, but it was a shocking bad case. She left a child behind her, and her husband, a little German, went clean off his head.
"Next morning Limping Frank was missing. All that was known was that he had bought a horse of a man who had come in late the night before, and was gone. His two mates looked high and low for him, but said at last they guessed he would turn up again. It was wellnigh two months before he came back. He brought back with him a watch and some trinkets that had been stolen from the murdered woman, and it seems that he had followed the fellow right down into New Mexico, and had shot him there. The man who told me said he never made any talk about it, but was at work as usual the morning after he came back. I tell you I would rather quarrel with Sim Howlett and English Bill together than I would get that little man's dander up. He is a peacemaker too, he is, and many a quarrel he has smoothed down. At one camp we were in we made him a sort of judge, and whenever there was a dispute about claims, or tools, or anything else, we went to him and he decided, and no judge could have gone into the case fairer or given a better judgment; and though, in course, those he decided against were not pleased, they had to put up with it. In the first place, the camp was with him; and in the second, there ain't much use disputing with a judge who can shoot as straight as he can, and is ready to do it if necessary."
The three partners had finished their day's work, and sat down to a meal of tea, steak, and corn-cakes that Limping Frank had prepared for them.
"We shall have to be moving from here soon," the Englishman said. "Another week and our claim will be worked out. We have not done badly, on the whole. The question is, had we better buy up somebody else's claim and go on working here, or make a start for some fresh field?"
"I vote for a move," Sim Howlett said. "I don't say the claim hasn't panned out well, but there is no excitement about it. The gold lies regular right through the gravel, and it is almost as bad as working for wages. You can always tell within an ounce or so what there will be when you come to clean up the cradle. I like a bit of excitement. Nothing one day and eight or ten ounces the next."
"It comes to the same thing in the long run," the Englishman said. "We don't get very much forwarder. Grub costs a lot of money, and then what there is over and above slips through our fingers somehow. The gambling-tables take a large share of mine; and your weakness for champagne, Sim, when you break out about once a month, makes a hole in yours; and as to Frank's, he spends half his in getting meat for soups and wines and medicines for his patients."
"What is one to do?" Frank said apologetically. "One cannot see people die for want of ordinary necessaries. Besides, Bill, you give away a lot too."
"Only my money is not so well spent as yours, doctor."
"Well, no, I don't think it is."
"I suppose it comes to the same thing in the end. I don't want to lay by money. What should I do with it if I had it?"
"You don't want to lay by money, because you are strong, and can go on earning it for years yet; and you both know very well that if you had a hundred thousand dollars you would chuck it all away in six months."
Sim Howlett laughed aloud.
"Perhaps you are right, doctor," English Bill said. "But if your argument means anything, it means that we are fools for working as hard as we do."
"Not at all," the doctor said gently. "You don't earn more than you want, as is shown by the fact that you lay by so little, and that we haven't more than enough dust in our sack to keep us for a month or two if we don't happen to strike it in the next claim we take up. No; I think we earn just enough. If you earned three times as much you would go three times as often to that cursed gambling-table, and it would be bad for your temper. If Sim earned three times as much he would go on the spree three times as often, and it would be bad for his health. If I were to earn three times as much, I should have three times as many patients to attend to, and I couldn't stand such a strain; so you see we are just right as we are," and he nodded pleasantly to his two comrades.
"You are the most perplexing beggar I ever came across, doctor," the Englishman said, "and I have seen some rum specimens during the twenty years I have been knocking about in the States."
The little man nodded as if it had been a compliment.
"I know, Bill. That is what I think myself sometimes; there is a tile just a little loose somewhere."
"Not at all, not at all," Bill said hotly; while Sim Howlett growled that he would like to hear anyone else say so.
"Not off, you know," Frank said, "but just a little loose. I know, dear boys. You see my machine gets muddled up. It may work right enough sometimes, but the chances are that a cog has got bent, or that there is a little twist in a crank, and the thing never works quite even. It just catches, you know—rattles now and then. You may look it all over as much as you like, but you cannot spot where it is. You say it wants grease, but you may pour bucketfuls over it and it makes no difference. There"—and he broke off—"they are at it again up in that saloon."
Two or three pistol-shots rang out in the evening air.
"Things are not going on as they ought to," he went on quietly. "That is another machine that wants regulating. There are more bad men in this camp than there ought to be."
"Don't you worry yourself," Bill said hastily. "You cannot expect a mining camp to be a sort of paradise, doctor, and all the bad men kept outside. Things have been going on pretty smooth of late. It has been quite a peaceful camp."
"I don't like the ways of that man Symonds the gambler," the doctor said meditatively, with his head a little on one side.
"He is a bad lot," Sim Howlett agreed; "but he is going. I heard tell yesterday that he said he was going down to Frisco at the end of the week; and if he doesn't go, Bill and I will get a dozen other fellows to go with us and tell him that he had better git, or the air of this camp is likely to be unhealthy for him."
"Well, if that is so we need not think any more about it," the doctor said. "I dreamt last night I saw him with a bullet mark in the centre of his forehead; but perhaps that was a mistake, or the mark will not come at present. It will come sooner or later," he added musingly, "but perhaps not for a good time yet."
"Well, well," Sim Howlett broke in, "we are wandering about like green hands lost in a sage-bush. We started by talking about whether, when we have worked up our claim, we shall stop here or foot it."
"If we foot it, where do you propose to go, Sim?"
"I heard this morning that they are doing well in that new place they call Gold Run. Then, again, you know we have always had a fancy for a month's prospecting up at the head of the Yuba. The gold must come from somewhere, though nobody has ever hit the spot yet."
"I am ready to go where you like, Sim," the doctor said; "but as I have often told you before, you miners are altogether wrong in your notions, as anyone can see with half an eye by the fact, that whether you are down here in the bottom of a gulch, or whether you are up on those flats, 2000 feet above us, you always find gravel. Now those flats were once the bed of a great river, that was when the mountains round were tens of thousands of feet higher than they are now; they must have been all that or there would never be water enough for such a river as that must have been. That river must have rolled on for thousands of years, for the gravel, which you can see in some places is 500 feet thick, is all waterworn; whether it is big boulders or little stones, it has all been rolled about.
"Well, in time these mountains were all worn away. There wasn't water then for the big river, and the water from the hills, as you see them now, began to cut fresh channels, and this Yuba, which is one of them, lies a thousand feet below the old gravel bed. In some places it has crossed the old bed, and the gold that came down from the former mountains into the gravel has been washed down into these valleys. You will never find, as you all dream of doing, a quartz vein stuck full of gold. There may have been veins like that in the old mountains, but the quartz veins that you find now, and lots of them have been assayed, are all very poor; they have got gold in them, but scarce enough to pay for working even when they get the best machinery. I fancy gold goes off with depth, though why it should I cannot say, and that these quartz veins which near the surface had big nuggets, and were choke-full of small stuff, just pettered away to nothing as they went deeper. That is why I think, Sim, that you will find no quartz reefs worth working anywhere now, and why you are less likely to find much pay dirt in the upper gorges, because the water there has not gone through the old gravel fields as it has in its windings lower down."
"But according to that, doctor, we should find it richest of all if we were to sink in the bed of the river down by the plains."
Excerpted from A Tale of the Western Plains by G. A. Henty, Alfred Pearse. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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