Story type: Literature
“There’s gold in the Sierra Blanca country–everybody admits it,” Sherman F. Bidwell was saying as the Widow Delaney, who kept the Palace Home Cooking Restaurant in the town of Delaney (named after her husband, old Dan Delaney), came into the dining-room. Mrs. Delaney paused with a plate of steaming potatoes, and her face was a mask of scorn as she addressed the group, but her words were aimed especially at Bidwell, who had just come in from the lower country to resume his prospecting up the gulch.
“It’s aisy sayin’ gould is in thim hills, but when ye find it rainbows will be fishin’-rods.” As she passed the potatoes over Bidwell’s head she went on: “Didn’t Dan Delaney break his blessed neck a-climbin’ the high places up the creek–to no purpis includin’ that same accident? You min may talk and talk, but talk don’t pay for petaties and bacon, mind that. For eight years I’ve been here and I’m worse off to-day than iver before–an’ the town, phwat is it? Two saloons and a boardin’-house–and not a ton of ore dug–much less shipped out. Y’r large words dig no dirt, I’m thinkin’, Sherm Bidwell.”
Bidwell was a mild-spoken man who walked a little sidewise, with eyes always on the ground as though ceaselessly searching for pieces of float. He replied to his landlady with some spirit: “I’ve chashayed around these mountains ever since I got back from Californey in fifty-four and I know good rocks. I can’t just lay my pick on the vein, but I’m due to find it soon, for I’m a-gettin’ old. Why, consider the float, it’s everywhere–and you know there’s colors in every sand-bar? There’s got to be a ledge somewhere close by.”
The widow snorted. “Hah! Yiss, flo-at! Me windysills is burthened with dirty float–but where’s the gould?”
“I’ll find it, Mrs. Delaney–but you must be patient,” he mildly replied.
“Pashint! Me, pashint! Sure Job was a complainin’ mill-wheel beside me, Sherm Bidwell. Me boarders have shrunk to five and you’re one o’ the five–and here you are after another grub-stake to go picnicking into the mountains wid. I know your smooth tongue–sure I do–but ye’re up against me determination this toime, me prince. Ye don’t get a pound o’ meat nor a measure o’ flour from Maggie Delaney–“
Bidwell sat with an air of resigned Christian fortitude while the widow delivered herself. To tell the truth, he had listened to these precise words before–and resented them only because spoken publicly.
The other boarders finished their supper in silence and went out, but Bidwell lingered to wheedle the mistress while she ate her own fill at the splotched and littered table. The kerosene-lamp stood close to her plate and brought out the glow of her cheek and deepened the blue of her eyes into violet. She was still on the right side of forty and well cared for.
Bidwell shot a shy glance at her. “I like to stir you up, Maggie darlin’; it makes you purty as a girl.”
She caught up a loaf of bread and heaved it at him. He caught it deftly and inquired, guilelessly: “Is this the first of my grub-stake, lassie?”
“It is not! ‘Tis the last crumb ye’ll have of me. Out wid ye! Grub-stake indade! You go out this night, me bucko!”
Bidwell rose in pretended fright and shuffled to the door. “I don’t need much–a couple o’ sacks o’ flour–“
She lifted an arm. “You tramp!”
He slammed the door just in time to prevent a cup from flying straight into his smiling eyes. After a moment of silent laughter, and with a wink at the men in the “office,” he reopened the door and said:
“Ye’re a warm-hearted, handsome girl, Maggie. Two strips o’ bacon–“
A muffled cry and a crash caused him to again slam the door and withdraw.
Coming back to the middle of the room, he took out his pipe and began to fill it. One of the younger men said:
“You’ll get that grub-stake over the eye; the widdy is dangerous to-night.”
Sherm seemed not much concerned. Having fired his pipe, he took a piece of rock from his pocket. “What do you think o’ this?” he inquired, casually.
The other examined it eagerly, and broke out: “Jee–cripes! Why, say! that’s jest rotten with gold. Where’d you find it?”
“Out in the hills,” was the placid reply; “a new vein–high up.”
The third man took the rock and said: “That vein has got to be low down–that can’t come from high up. We’re on the wrong trail. Think o’ Cripple Creek–mine’s right under the grass on the hills. Yer can’t fool me.”
“But we know the veins are high–we’ve seen ’em,” argued the other men.
“Yes–but they’re different veins. This rock comes from lower down.”
“What do you say to that, Sherm?”
“One guess is as good as another,” he replied, and moved away with his piece of ore.
“The old man’s mighty fly this evenin’. I wonder if he really has trailed that float to a standstill. I’d sooner think he’s stringin’ us.”
Bidwell went out on the edge of the ravine, and for a long time sat on a rock, listening to the roar of the swift stream and looking up at the peaks which were still covered with heavy yellow snow, stained with the impalpable dust which the winter winds had rasped from the exposed ledges of rock. It was chill in the canyon, and the old man shivered with cold as well as with a sense of discouragement. For twenty years he had regularly gone down into the valleys in winter to earn money with which to prospect in summer–all to no purpose. For years Margaret Delaney had been his very present help in time of trouble, and now she had broken with him, and under his mask of smiling incredulity he carried a profoundly disturbed conscience. His benefactress was in deadly earnest–she meant every word she said–that he felt, and unless she relented he was lost, for he had returned from the valley this time without a dollar to call his own. He had a big, strong mule and some blankets and a saddle–nothing further.
The wind grew stronger and keener, roaring down the canyon with the breath of the upper snows, and the man’s blood cried out for a fire (June stands close to winter in the high ranges of the Crestones), and at last he rose stiffly and returned to the little sitting-room, where he found the widow in the midst of an argument with her boarders to prove that they were all fools together for hangin’ to the side of a mountain that had no more gould in it than a flatiron or a loomp o’ coal–sure thing!
“What you goin’ to do about our assays?” asked young Johnson.
“Assays, is it? Annybody can have assays–that will pay the price. Ye’re all lazy dogs in the manger, that’s phwat ye air. Ye assay and want somebody else to pay ye fer the privilege of workin’. Why don’t ye work yer-silves–ye loots? Sit around here expectin’ some wan ilse to shovel gould into yer hat. Ye’ll pay me yer board–moind that,” she ended, making a personal application of her theories; “ivery wan o’ ye.”
If any lingering resolution remained in Bidwell’s heart it melted away as he listened to Mrs. Delaney’s throaty voice and plain, blunt words. Opening the door timidly, he walked in and without looking at the angry woman seized upon his bundles, which lay behind the door.
The widow’s voice rang out: “Where ye gawun wid thim bags?”
Bidwell straightened. “They’re my bundles, I reckon. Can’t a man do as he likes with his own?”
“Not whin he’s owin’ fer board. Put thim boondles down!”
The culprit sighed and sat down on the bundles. Even young Johnson lost his desire to laugh, for Bidwell looked pathetically old and discouraged at the moment, as he mildly asked:
“You wouldn’t send a man out in the night without his blankets, would you?”
“I’d send a sneak to purgatory–if I c’u’d. Ye thought ye’d ooze out, did ye? Nice speciment you are!”
Bidwell was roused. “If I had planned to sneak I wouldn’t ‘a’ come into the room with you a-standin’ in the middle of the floor,” he replied, with some firmness. “You ordered me out, didn’t you? Well, I’m goin’. I can’t pay you–you knew that when you told me to go–and I owe you a good deal–I admit that–but I’m going to pay it. But I must have a little time.”
The other men, with a grateful sense of delicacy, got up and went out, leaving Bidwell free space to justify himself in the eyes of the angry woman.
As the door slammed behind the last man the widow walked over and gave Bidwell a cuff. “Get off thim boondles. Gaw set on a chair like a man, an’ not squat there like a baboon.” She pitched his bundles through an open door into a small bedroom. “Ye know where yer bed is, I hope! I do’ know phwat Dan Delaney w’u’d say to me, housin’ and feedin’ the likes o’ you, but I’ll do it wan more summer–and then ye gaw flyin’. Ye hear that now!”
And she threw the door back on its hinges so sharply that a knob was broken.
Bidwell went in, closed the door gently, and took to his bed, dazed with this sudden change in the climate. “She’s come round before–and surprised me,” he thought, “but never so durn sudden as this. I hope she ain’t sick or anything.”
Next morning at breakfast Maggie was all smiles. The storm of the evening before had given place to brilliant sunshine. She ignored all winks and nudgings among her boarders, and did not scruple to point out to Bidwell the choicest biscuit on the plate, and to hand him the fattest slice of bacon, all of which he accepted without elation.
“Old Sherm must be one o’ these hypnotical chaps,” said Johnson as they were lighting their pipes in the sitting-room. “He’s converted the widow into another helping. He’s goin’ to get his flour and bacon all right!”
“You bet he is, and anything else he wants. Beats me what she finds in that old side-winder, anyhow.”
“Oh, Sherm isn’t so worse if he had a decent outfit.”
Bidwell was deeply touched by Maggie’s clemency, and would have put his feelings into the best terms he was familiar with, but the widow stopped him.
“The best way to thank me is to hustle out and trail up that flo-at. If it’s there, find it. If it’s not there, give o’er the search, for ye are a gray man, Sherm Bidwell, and I’m not the woman I was eight years ago.”
In the exaltation of the moment Bidwell rose, and his shoulders were squared as he said: “I’m a-goin’, Maggie. If I find it I’ll come back and marry you. If I don’t–I’ll lay my useless old bones in the hills.”
“Ah–go ‘long! Don’t be a crazy fool!” she said, but her face flushed with pleasure at the sincerity of his tone. “Ye’ve made such promises ivery time before.”
“I know I have, but I mean it now.”
“Aho! so that’s the way of it–ye didn’t mean it before? Is that phwat ye’re sayin’?”
His proud pose collapsed. “You know what I mean–only you’re such a tormentin’ little devil.”
“Thank ye for the compliment, Mr. Bidwell.”
Bidwell turned. “I’m going after old Nebuchadnezzar,” he said, firmly. “I can’t waste time on a chicken-headed woman–“
“Out wid ye before I break the measly head of ye!” she retorted.
An hour later, with his mule packed with food and blankets and tools, he moved off up the trail. The other men stood to watch him go, consumed with curiosity, yet withholding all question.
The widow did not so much as look from the door as her grub-staker disappeared.
Three days later Bidwell crept stealthily down the trail, leading his mule as silently as possible. He timed his arrival so that Mrs. Delaney would be in the kitchen alone with the Chinaman, getting the dishes ready for breakfast.
“Who is ut?” called the widow as he softly knocked.
“Me–Sherm,” he replied.
“Saints in hevin! What’s the matter? Are ye sick?” she gasped as she flung the door open.
“‘Sh! Don’t speak so loud,” he commanded. “Sit down; I want to speak solemn-like to you.”
His tone impressed her deeply. “Have ye struck ut?” she asked, tremulously.
“I hain’t found it yet, but I want to tell ye–I believe I’ve had a hunch. Send the ‘chink’ away.”
Something in his tone stopped all scornful words upon her lips. Ordering the Chinaman to bed, she turned and asked:
“Phwat do ye mean? Spake, man!”
“Well, sir, as I started up the trail something kept sayin’ to me, ‘Sherman, you’re on the wrong track.’ It was just as if you pulled my sleeve and nudged me and said, ‘This way!’ I couldn’t sleep that night. I just lay on the ground and figured. Up there high–terrible high–are seams of ore–I know that–but they’re in granite and hard to get at. That’s one gold belt. There’s money in a mine up there, but it will take money to get it. Then there’s another gold belt down about here–or even lower–and I’ve just come to the conclusion that our mine, Maggie, is down here in the foot-hills, not on old Blanca.”
The air of mystery which enveloped and transformed the man had its effect on the woman. Her eyes opened wide.
“Was it a voice like?”
“No, it was more like a pull. Seemed to be pulling me to cross the creek where I found that chunk of porph’ritic limestone. I couldn’t sleep the second night–and I’ve been in camp up there in Burro Park tryin’ to figure it all out. I hated to give up and come back–I was afraid ye’d think I was weakening–but I can’t help it. Now I’ll tell you what I’m going to do–I’m going to make a camp over on the north side of the creek. I don’t want the boys to know where I’ve gone, but I wanted you to know what I’m doing–I wanted you to know–it’s plum ghostly–it scared me.”
She whispered, “Mebbe it’s Dan.”
“I thought o’ that. Him and me were always good friends, and he was in my mind all the while.”
“But howld on, Sherm; it may be the divil leadin’ ye on to break y’r neck as did Dan. ‘Twas over there he fell.”
“Well, I thought o’ that, too. It’s either Dan or the devil, and I’m going to find out which.”
“The saints go wid ye!” said the widow, all her superstitious fears aroused. “And if it is Dan he’ll sure be good to you fer my sake.”
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 pinyons cover these lower slopes like a robe of bronze green.
At eight thousand feet above the sea these suave lines become broken. The pinyons give place to pine and fir, and the somber canyons 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!”
“As the grave itself!” she replied, and turned to brush up the cracker-crumbs. “That Chinese divil has sharp eyes,” she muttered.
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’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 canyon 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.”