“Derned if the blasted bucket ain’t empty ag’in! Not a drop left, by Jimminy!”
A stare of helpless disgust was exchanged by the momentarily uplifted heads; then every man lay down again, as if trying to erase himself.
“Who brought the last?” demanded the foreman.
“I did,” said a reflective voice coming from a partner lying comfortably on his back, “and if anybody reckons I’m going to face Tophet ag’in down that slope, he’s mistaken!” The speaker was thirsty—but he had principles.
“We must throw round for it,” said the foreman, taking the dice from his pocket.
He cast; the lowest number fell to Parkhurst, a florid, full-blooded Texan. “All right, gentlemen,” he said, wiping his forehead, and lifting the tin pail with a resigned air, “only ef anything comes to me on that bare stretch o’ stage road,—and I’m kinder seein’ things spotty and black now, remember you ain’t anywhar nearer the water than you were! I ain’t sayin’ it for myself—but it mout be rough on you—and”—
“Give me the pail,” interrupted a tall young fellow, rising. “I’ll risk it.”
Cries of “Good old Ned,” and “Hunky boy!” greeted him as he took the pail from the perspiring Parkhurst, who at once lay down again. “You mayn’t be a professin’ Christian, in good standin’, Ned Bray,” continued Parkhurst from the ground, “but you’re about as white as they make ’em, and you’re goin’ to do a Heavenly Act! I repeat it, gents—a Heavenly Act!”
Without a reply Bray walked off with the pail, stopping only in the underbrush to pluck a few soft fronds of fern, part of which he put within the crown of his hat, and stuck the rest in its band around the outer brim, making a parasol-like shade above his shoulders. Thus equipped he passed through the outer fringe of pines to a rocky trail which began to descend towards the stage road. Here he was in the full glare of the sun and its reflection from the heated rocks, which scorched his feet and pricked his bent face into a rash. The descent was steep and necessarily slow from the slipperiness of the desiccated pine needles that had fallen from above. Nor were his troubles over when, a few rods further, he came upon the stage road, which here swept in a sharp curve round the flank of the mountain, its red dust, ground by heavy wagons and pack-trains into a fine powder, was nevertheless so heavy with some metallic substance that it scarcely lifted with the foot, and he was obliged to literally wade through it. Yet there were two hundred yards of this road to be passed before he could reach that point of its bank where a narrow and precipitous trail dropped diagonally from it, to creep along the mountain side to the spring he was seeking.
When he reached the trail, he paused to take breath and wipe the blinding beads of sweat from his eyes before he cautiously swung himself over the bank into it. A single misstep here would have sent him headlong to the tops of pine-trees a thousand feet below. Holding his pail in one hand, with the other he steadied himself by clutching the ferns and brambles at his side, and at last reached the spring—a niche in the mountain side with a ledge scarcely four feet wide. He had merely accomplished the ordinary gymnastic feat performed by the members of the Eureka Company four or five times a day! But the day was exceptionally hot. He held his wrists to cool their throbbing pulses in the clear, cold stream that gurgled into its rocky basin; he threw the water over his head and shoulders; he swung his legs over the ledge and let the overflow fall on his dusty shoes and ankles. Gentle and delicious rigors came over him. He sat with half closed eyes looking across the dark olive depths of the canyon between him and the opposite mountain. A hawk was swinging lazily above it, apparently within a stone’s throw of him; he knew it was at least a mile away. Thirty feet above him ran the stage road; he could hear quite distinctly the slow thud of hoofs, the dull jar of harness, and the labored creaking of the Pioneer Coach as it crawled up the long ascent, part of which he had just passed. He thought of it,—a slow drifting cloud of dust and heat, as he had often seen it, abandoned by even its passengers, who sought shelter in the wayside pines as they toiled behind it to the summit,—and hugged himself in the grateful shadows of the spring. It had passed out of hearing and thought, he had turned to fill his pail, when he was startled by a shower of dust and gravel from the road above, and the next moment he was thrown violently down, blinded and pinned against the ledge by the fall of some heavy body on his back and shoulders. His last flash of consciousness was that he had been struck by a sack of flour slipped from the pack of some passing mule.
How long he remained unconscious he never knew. It was probably not long, for his chilled hands and arms, thrust by the blow on his shoulders into the pool of water, assisted in restoring him. He came to with a sense of suffocating pressure on his back, but his head and shoulders were swathed in utter darkness by the folds of some soft fabrics and draperies, which, to his connecting consciousness, seemed as if the contents of a broken bale or trunk had also fallen from the pack. With a tremendous effort he succeeded in getting his arm out of the pool, and attempted to free his head from its blinding enwrappings. In doing so his hand suddenly touched human flesh—a soft, bared arm! With the same astounding discovery came one more terrible: that arm belonged to the weight that was pressing him down; and now, assisted by his struggles, it was slowly slipping toward the brink of the ledge and the abyss below! With a desperate effort he turned on his side, caught the body,—as such it was,—dragged it back on the ledge, at the same moment that, freeing his head from its covering,—a feminine skirt,—he discovered it was a woman!
She had been also unconscious, although the touch of his cold, wet hand on her skin had probably given her a shock that was now showing itself in a convulsive shudder of her shoulders and a half opening of her eyes. Suddenly she began to stare at him, to draw in her knees and feet toward her, sideways, with a feminine movement, as she smoothed out her skirt, and kept it down with a hand on which she leaned. She was a tall, handsome girl, from what he could judge of her half-sitting figure in her torn silk dust-cloak, which, although its cape and one sleeve were split into ribbons, had still protected her delicate, well-fitting gown beneath. She was evidently a lady.
“What—is it?—what has happened?” she said faintly, yet with a slight touch of formality in her manner.
“You must have fallen—from the road above,” said Bray hesitatingly.”
“From the road above?” she repeated, with a slight frown, as if to concentrate her thought. She glanced upward, then at the ledge before her, and then, for the first time, at the darkening abyss below. The color, which had begun to return, suddenly left her face here, and she drew instinctively back against the mountain side. “Yes,” she half murmured to herself, rather than to him, “it must be so. I was walking too near the bank—and—I fell!” Then turning to him, she said, “And you found me lying here when you came.”
“I think,” stammered Bray, “that I was here when you fell, and I—I broke the fall.” He was sorry for it a moment afterward.
She lifted her handsome gray eyes to him, saw the dust, dirt, and leaves on his back and shoulders, the collar of his shirt torn open, and a few spots of blood from a bruise on his forehead. Her black eyebrows straightened again as she said coldly, “Dear me! I am very sorry; I couldn’t help it, you know. I hope you are not otherwise hurt.”
“No,” he replied quickly. “But you, are you sure you are not injured? It must have been a terrible shock.”
“I’m not hurt,” she said, helping herself to her feet by the aid of the mountain-side bushes, and ignoring his proffered hand. “But,” she added quickly and impressively, glancing upward toward the stage road overhead, “why don’t they come? They must have missed me! I must have been here a long time; it’s too bad!”
“They missed you?” he repeated diffidently.
“Yes,” she said impatiently, “of course! I wasn’t alone. Don’t you understand? I got out of the coach to walk uphill on the bank under the trees. It was so hot and stuffy. My foot must have slipped up there—and—I—slid—down. Have you heard any one calling me? Have you called out yourself?”
Mr. Bray did not like to say he had only just recovered consciousness. He smiled vaguely and foolishly. But on turning around in her impatience, she caught sight of the chasm again, and lapsed quite white against the mountain side.
“Let me give you some water from the spring,” he said eagerly, as she sank again to a sitting posture; “it will refresh you.”
He looked hesitatingly around him; he had neither cup nor flask, but he filled the pail and held it with great dexterity to her lips. She drank a little, extracted a lace handkerchief from some hidden pocket, dipped its point in the water, and wiped her face delicately, after a certain feline fashion. Then, catching sight of some small object in the fork of a bush above her, she quickly pounced upon it, and with a swift sweep of her hand under her skirt, put on HER FALLEN SLIPPER, and stood on her feet again.
“How does one get out of such a place?” she asked fretfully, and then, glancing at him half indignantly, “why don’t you shout?”
“I was going to tell you,” he said gently, “that when you are a little stronger, we can get out by the way I came in,—along the trail.”
He pointed to the narrow pathway along the perilous incline. Somehow, with this tall, beautiful creature beside him, it looked more perilous than before. She may have thought so too, for she drew in her breath sharply and sank down again.
“Is there no other way?”
“How did you happen to be here?” she asked suddenly, opening her gray eyes upon him. “What did you come here for?” she went on, almost impertinently.
“To fetch a pail of water.” He stopped, and then it suddenly occurred to him that after all there was no reason for his being bullied by this tall, good-looking girl, even if he had saved her. He gave a little laugh, and added mischievously, “Just like Jack and Jill, you know.”
“What?” she said sharply, bending her black brows at him.
“Jack and Jill,” he returned carelessly; “I broke my crown, you know, and you,”—he did not finish.
She stared at him, trying to keep her face and her composure; but a smile, that on her imperious lips he thought perfectly adorable, here lifted the corners of her mouth, and she turned her face aside. But the smile, and the line of dazzling little teeth it revealed, were unfortunately on the side toward him. Emboldened by this, he went on, “I couldn’t think what had happened. At first I had a sort of idea that part of a mule’s pack had fallen on top of me,—blankets, flour, and all that sort of thing, you know, until”—
Her smile had vanished. “Well,” she said impatiently, “until?”
“Until I touched you. I’m afraid I gave you a shock; my hand was dripping from the spring.”
She colored so quickly that he knew she must have been conscious at the time, and he noticed now that the sleeve of her cloak, which had been half torn off her bare arm, was pinned together over it. When and how had she managed to do it without his detecting the act?
“At all events,” she said coldly, “I’m glad you have not received greater injury from—your mule pack.”
“I think we’ve both been very lucky,” he said simply.
She did not reply, but remained looking furtively at the narrow trail. Then she listened. “I thought I heard voices,” she said, half rising.
“Shall I shout?” he asked.
“No! You say there’s no use—there’s only this way out of it!”
“I might go up first, and perhaps get assistance—a rope or chair,” he suggested.
“And leave me here alone?” she cried, with a horrified glance at the abyss. “No, thank you! I should be over that ledge before you came back! There’s a dreadful fascination in it even now. No! I think I’d rather go—at once! I never shall be stronger as long as I stay near it; I may be weaker.”
She gave a petulant little shiver, and then, though paler and evidently agitated, composed her tattered and dusty outer garments in a deft, ladylike way, and leaned back against the mountain side, He saw her also glance at his loosened shirt front and hanging neckerchief, and with a heightened color he quickly re-knotted it around his throat. They moved from the ledge toward the trail. Suddenly she started back.
“But it’s only wide enough for one, and I never—never—could even stand on it a minute alone!” she exclaimed.
He looked at her critically. “We will go together, side by side,” he said quietly, “but you will have to take the outside.”
“Outside!” she repeated, recoiling. “Impossible! I shall fall.”
“I shall keep hold of you,” he explained; “you need not fear that. Stop! I’ll make it safer.” He untied the large bandanna silk handkerchief which he wore around his shoulders, knotted one end of it firmly to his belt, and handed her the other.
“Do you think you can hold on to that?”
“I—don’t know,”—she hesitated. “If I should fall?”
“Stay a moment! Is your belt strong?” He pointed to a girdle of yellow leather which caught her tunic around her small waist.
“Yes,” she said eagerly, “it’s real leather.”
He gently slipped the edge of the handkerchief under it and knotted it. They were thus linked together by a foot of handkerchief.
“I feel much safer,” she said, with a faint smile.
“But if I should fall,” he remarked, looking into her eyes, “you would go too! Have you thought of that?”
“Yes.” Her previous charming smile returned. “It would be really Jack and Jill this time.”
They passed out on the trail. “Now I must take your arm,” he said laughingly; “not you mine.” He passed his arm under hers, holding it firmly. It was the one he had touched. For the first few steps her uncertain feet took no hold of the sloping mountain side, which seemed to slip sideways beneath her. He was literally carrying her on his shoulder. But in a few moments she saw how cleverly he balanced himself, always leaning toward the hillside, and presently she was able to help him by a few steps. She expressed her surprise at his skill.
“It’s nothing; I carry a pail of water up here without spilling a drop.”
She stiffened slightly under this remark, and indeed so far overdid her attempt to walk without his aid, that her foot slipped on a stone, and she fell outward toward the abyss. But in an instant his arm was transferred from her elbow to her waist, and in the momentum of his quick recovery they both landed panting against the mountain side.
“I’m afraid you’d have spilt the pail that time,” she said, with a slightly heightened color, as she disengaged herself gently from his arm.
“No,” he answered boldly, “for the pail never would have stiffened itself in a tiff, and tried to go alone.”
“Of course not, if it were only a pail,” she responded.
They moved on again in silence. The trail was growing a little steeper toward the upper end and the road bank. Bray was often himself obliged to seek the friendly aid of a manzanita or thornbush to support them. Suddenly she stopped and caught his arm. “There!” she said. “Listen! They’re coming!”
Bray listened; he could hear at intervals a far-off shout; then a nearer one—a name—“Eugenia.” So that was hers!
“Shall I shout back?” he asked.
“Not yet!” she answered. “Are we near the top?” A sudden glow of pleasure came over him—he knew not why, except that she did not look delighted, excited, or even relieved.
“Only a few yards more,” he said, with an unaffected half sigh.
“Then I’d better untie this,” she suggested, beginning to fumble at the knot of the handkerchief which linked them.
Their heads were close together, their fingers often met; he would have liked to say something, but he could only add: “Are you sure you will feel quite safe? It is a little steeper as we near the bank.”
“You can hold me,” she replied simply, with a superbly unconscious lifting of her arm, as she yielded her waist to him again, but without raising her eyes.
He did,—holding her rather tightly, I fear, as they clambered up the remaining slope, for it seemed to him as a last embrace. As he lifted her to the road bank, the shouts came nearer; and glancing up, he saw two men and a woman running down the hill toward them. He turned to Eugenia. In that instant she had slipped the tattered dust-coat from her shoulder, thrown it over her arm, set her hat straight, and was calmly awaiting them with a self-possession and coolness that seemed to shame their excitement. He noticed, too, with the quick perception of unimportant things which comes to some natures at such moments, that she had plucked a sprig of wild myrtle from the mountain side, and was wearing it on her breast.
“Goodness Heavens! Genie! What has happened! Where have you been?”
“Eugenia! this is perfect madness!” began the elder man didactically. “You have alarmed us beyond measure—kept the stage waiting, and now it is gone!”
“Genie! Look here, I say! We’ve been hunting for you everywhere. What’s up?” said the younger man, with brotherly brusqueness.
As these questions were all uttered in the same breath, Eugenia replied to them collectively. “It was so hot that I kept along the bank here, while you were on the other side. I heard the trickle of water somewhere down there, and searching for it my foot slipped. This gentleman”—she indicated Bray—“was on a little sort of a trail there, and assisted me back to the road again.”
The two men and the woman turned and stared at Bray with a look of curiosity that changed quickly into a half contemptuous unconcern. They saw a youngish sort of man, with a long mustache, a two days’ growth of beard, a not overclean face, that was further streaked with red on the temple, a torn flannel shirt, that showed a very white shoulder beside a sunburnt throat and neck, and soiled white trousers stuck into muddy high boots—in fact, the picture of a broken-down miner. But their unconcern was as speedily changed again into resentment at the perfect ease and equality with which he regarded them, a regard the more exasperating as it was not without a suspicion of his perception of some satire or humor in the situation.
“Ahem! very much obliged, I am sure. I—er”—
“The lady has thanked me,” interrupted Bray, with a smile.
“Did you fall far?” said the younger man to Eugenia, ignoring Bray.
“Not far,” she answered, with a half appealing look at Bray.
“Only a few feet,” added the latter, with prompt mendacity, “just a little slip down.”
The three new-comers here turned away, and, surrounding Eugenia, conversed in an undertone. Quite conscious that he was the subject of discussion, Bray lingered only in the hope of catching a parting glance from Eugenia. The words “You do it,” “No, you!” “It would come better from her,” were distinctly audible to him. To his surprise, however, she suddenly broke through them, and advancing to him, with a dangerous brightness in her beautiful eyes, held out her slim hand. “My father, Mr. Neworth, my brother, Harry Neworth, and my aunt, Mrs. Dobbs,” she said, indicating each one with a graceful inclination of her handsome head, “all think I ought to give you something and send you away. I believe that is the way they put it. I think differently! I come to ask you to let me once more thank you for your good service to me to-day—which I shall never forget.” When he had returned her firm handclasp for a minute, she coolly rejoined the discomfited group.
“She’s no sardine,” said Bray to himself emphatically, “but I suspect she’ll catch it from her folks for this. I ought to have gone away at once, like a gentleman, hang it!”
He was even angrily debating with himself whether he ought not to follow her to protect her from her gesticulating relations as they all trailed up the hill with her, when he reflected that it would only make matters worse. And with it came the dreadful reflection that as yet he had not carried the water to his expecting and thirsty comrades. He had forgotten them for these lazy, snobbish, purse-proud San Franciscans—for Bray had the miner’s supreme contempt for the moneyed trading classes. What would the boys think of him! He flung himself over the bank, and hastened recklessly down the trail to the spring. But here again he lingered—the place had become suddenly hallowed. How deserted it looked without her! He gazed eagerly around on the ledge for any trace that she had left—a bow, a bit of ribbon, or even a hairpin that had fallen from her.
As the young man slowly filled the pail he caught sight of his own reflection in the spring. It certainly was not that of an Adonis! He laughed honestly; his sense of humor had saved him from many an extravagance, and mitigated many a disappointment before this. Well! She was a plucky, handsome girl—even if she was not for him, and he might never set eyes on her again. Yet it was a hard pull up that trail once more, carrying an insensible pail of water in the hand that had once sustained a lovely girl! He remembered her reply to his badinage, “Of course not—if it were only a pail,” and found a dozen pretty interpretations of it. Yet he was not in love! No! He was too poor and too level headed for that! And he was unaffectedly and materially tired, too, when he reached the road again, and rested, leaving the spring and its little idyl behind.
By this time the sun had left the burning ledge of the Eureka Company, and the stage road was also in shadow, so that his return through its heavy dust was less difficult. And when he at last reached the camp, he found to his relief that his prolonged absence had been overlooked by his thirsty companions in a larger excitement and disappointment; for it appeared that a well-known San Francisco capitalist, whom the foreman had persuaded to visit their claim with a view to advance and investment, had actually come over from Red Dog for that purpose, and had got as far as the summit when he was stopped by an accident, and delayed so long that he was obliged to go on to Sacramento without making his examination.
“That was only his excuse—mere flap-doodle!” interrupted the pessimistic Jerrold. “He was foolin’ you; he’d heard of suthin better! The idea of calling that affair an ‘accident,’ or one that would stop any man who meant business!”
Bray had become uneasily conscious. “What was the accident?” he asked.
“A d——d fool woman’s accident,” broke in the misogynist Parkhurst, “and it’s true! That’s what makes it so cussed mean. For there’s allus a woman at the bottom of such things—bet your life! Think of ’em comin’ here. Thar ought to be a law agin it.”
“But what was it?” persisted Bray, becoming more apprehensive.
“Why, what does that blasted fool of a capitalist do but bring with him his daughter and auntie to ‘see the wonderful scenery with popa dear!’ as if it was a cheap Sunday-school panorama! And what do these chuckle-headed women do but get off the coach and go to wanderin’ about, and playin’ ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’ until one of ’em tumbles down a ravine. And then there’s a great to do! and ‘dear popa’ was up and down the road yellin’ ‘Me cheyld! me cheyld!’ And then there was camphor and sal volatile and eau de cologne to be got, and the coach goes off, and ‘popa dear’ gets left, and then has to hurry off in a buggy to catch it. So we get left too, just because that God-forsaken fool, Neworth, brings his women here.”
Under this recital poor Bray sat as completely crushed as when the fair daughter of Neworth had descended upon his shoulders at the spring. He saw it all! His was the fault. It was his delay and dalliance with her that had checked Neworth’s visit; worse than that, it was his subsequent audacity and her defense of him that would probably prevent any renewal of the negotiations. He had shipwrecked his partners’ prospects in his absurd vanity and pride! He did not dare to raise his eyes to their dejected faces. He would have confessed everything to them, but the same feeling of delicacy for her which had determined him to keep her adventures to himself now forever sealed his lips. How might they not misconstrue his conduct—and hers! Perhaps something of this was visible in his face.
“Come, old man,” said the cheerful misogynist, with perfect innocence, “don’t take it so hard. Some time in a man’s life a woman’s sure to get the drop on him, as I said afore, and this yer woman’s got the drop on five of us! But—hallo, Ned, old man—what’s the matter with your head?” He laid his hand gently on the matted temple of his younger partner.
“I had—a slip—on the trail,” he stammered. “Had to go back again for another pailful. That’s what delayed me, you know, boys,” he added. “But it’s nothing!”
“Nothing!” ejaculated Parkhurst, clapping him on the back and twisting him around by the shoulders so that he faced his companions. “Nothing! Look at him, gentlemen; and he says it’s ‘nothing.’ That’s how a man takes it! He didn’t go round yellin’ and wringin’ his hands and sayin’ ‘Me pay-l! me pay-l!’ when it spilt! He just humped himself and trotted back for another. And yet every drop of water in that overset bucket meant hard work and hard sweat, and was as precious as gold.”
Luckily for Bray, whose mingled emotions under Parkhurst’s eloquence were beginning to be hysterical, the foreman interrupted.
“Well, boys! it’s time we got to work again, and took another heave at the old ledge! But now that this job of Neworth’s is over—I don’t mind tellin’ ye suthin.” As their leader usually spoke but little, and to the point, the four men gathered around him. “Although I engineered this affair, and got it up, somehow, I never saw that Neworth standing on this ledge! No, boys! I never saw him here.” The look of superstition which Bray and the others had often seen on this old miner’s face, and which so often showed itself in his acts, was there. “And though I wanted him to come, and allowed to have him come, I’m kinder relieved that he didn’t, and so let whatsoever luck’s in the air come to us five alone, boys, just as we stand.”
The next morning Bray was up before his companions, and although it was not his turn, offered to bring water from the spring. He was not in love with Eugenia—he had not forgotten his remorse of the previous day—but he would like to go there once more before he relentlessly wiped out her image from his mind. And he had heard that although Neworth had gone on to Sacramento, his son and the two ladies had stopped on for a day or two at the ditch superintendent’s house on the summit, only two miles away. She might pass on the road; he might get a glimpse of her again and a wave of her hand before this thing was over forever, and he should have to take up the daily routine of his work again. It was not love—of that he was assured—but it was the way to stop it by convincing himself of its madness. Besides, in view of all the circumstances, it was his duty as a gentleman to show some concern for her condition after the accident and the disagreeable contretemps which followed it.
Thus Bray! Alas, none of these possibilities occurred. He found the spring had simply lapsed into its previous unsuggestive obscurity,—a mere niche in the mountain side that held only—water! The stage road was deserted save for an early, curly-headed schoolboy, whom he found lurking on the bank, but who evaded his company and conversation. He returned to the camp quite cured of his fancy. His late zeal as a water-carrier had earned him a day or two’s exemption from that duty. His place was taken the next afternoon by the woman-hating Parkhurst, and he was the less concerned by it as he had heard that the same afternoon the ladies were to leave the summit for Sacramento.
But then occurred a singular coincidence. The new water-bringer was as scandalously late in his delivery of the precious fluid as his predecessor! An hour passed and he did not return. His unfortunate partners, toiling away with pick and crowbar on the burning ledge, were clamorous from thirst, and Bray was becoming absurdly uneasy. It could not be possible that Eugenia’s accident had been repeated! Or had she met him with inquiries? But no! she was already gone. The mystery was presently cleared, however, by the abrupt appearance of Parkhurst running towards them, but without his pail! The cry of consternation and despair which greeted that discovery was, however, quickly changed by a single breathless, half intelligible sentence he had shot before him from his panting lips. And he was holding something in his outstretched palm that was more eloquent than words. Gold!
In an instant they had him under the shade of the pine-tree, and were squatting round him like schoolboys. He was profoundly agitated. His story, far from being brief, was incoherent and at times seemed irrelevant, but that was characteristic. They would remember that he had always held the theory that, even in quartz mining, the deposits were always found near water, past or present, with signs of fluvial erosion! He didn’t call himself one of your blanked scientific miners, but his head was level! It was all very well for them to say “Yes, yes!” now, but they didn’t use to! Well! when he got to the spring, he noticed that there had been a kind of landslide above it, of course, from water cleavage, and there was a distinct mark of it on the mountain side, where it had uprooted and thrown over some small bushes!
Excited as Bray was, he recognized with a hysterical sensation the track made by Eugenia in her fall, which he himself had noticed. But he had thought only of her.
“When I saw that,” continued Parkhurst, more rapidly and coherently, “I saw that there was a crack above the hole where the water came through—as if it had been the old channel of the spring. I widened it a little with my clasp knife, and then—in a little pouch or pocket of decomposed quartz—I found that! Not only that, boys,” he continued, rising, with a shout, “but the whole slope above the spring is a mass of seepage underneath, as if you’d played a hydraulic hose on it, and it’s ready to tumble and is just rotten with quartz!”
The men leaped to their feet; in another moment they had snatched picks, pans, and shovels, and, the foreman leading, with a coil of rope thrown over his shoulders, were all flying down the trail to the highway. Their haste was wise. The spring was not on their claim; it was known to others; it was doubtful if Parkhurst’s discovery with his knife amounted to actual work on the soil. They must “take it up” with a formal notice, and get to work at once!
In an hour they were scattered over the mountain side, like bees clinging to the fragrant slope of laurel and myrtle above the spring. An excavation was made beside it, and the ledge broadened by a dozen feet. Even the spring itself was utilized to wash the hastily filled prospecting pans. And when the Pioneer Coach slowly toiled up the road that afternoon, the passengers stared at the scarcely dry “Notice of Location” pinned to the pine by the road bank, whence Eugenia had fallen two days before!
Eagerly and anxiously as Edward Bray worked with his companions, it was with more conflicting feelings. There was a certain sense of desecration in their act. How her proud lip would have curled had she seen him—he who but a few hours before would have searched the whole slope for the treasure of a ribbon, a handkerchief, or a bow from her dress—now delving and picking the hillside for that fortune her accident had so mysteriously disclosed. Mysteriously he believed, for he had not fully accepted Parkhurst’s story. That gentle misogynist had never been an active prospector; an inclination to theorize without practice and to combat his partners’ experience were all against his alleged process of discovery, although the gold was actually there; and his conduct that afternoon was certainly peculiar. He did but little of the real work; but wandered from man to man, with suggestions, advice, and exhortations, and the air of a superior patron. This might have been characteristic, but mingled with it was a certain nervous anxiety and watchfulness. He was continually scanning the stage road and the trail, staring eagerly at any wayfarer in the distance, and at times falling into fits of strange abstraction. At other times he would draw near to one of his fellow partners, as if for confidential disclosure, and then check himself and wander aimlessly away. And it was not until evening came that the mystery was solved.
The prospecting pans had been duly washed and examined, the slope above and below had been fully explored and tested, with a result and promise that outran their most sanguine hopes. There was no mistaking the fact that they had made a “big” strike. That singular gravity and reticence, so often observed in miners at these crises, had come over them as they sat that night for the last time around their old camp-fire on the Eureka ledge, when Parkhurst turned impulsively to Bray. “Roll over here,” he said in a whisper. “I want to tell ye suthin!”
Bray “rolled” beyond the squatting circle, and the two men gradually edged themselves out of hearing of the others. In the silent abstraction that prevailed nobody noticed them.
“It’s got suthin to do with this discovery,” said Parkhurst, in a low, mysterious tone, “but as far as the gold goes, and our equal rights to it as partners, it don’t affect them. If I,” he continued in a slightly patronizing, paternal tone, “choose to make you and the other boys sharers in what seems to be a special Providence to me, I reckon we won’t quarrel on it. It’s a mighty curious, singular thing. It’s one of those things ye read about in books and don’t take any stock in! But we’ve got the gold—and I’ve got the black and white to prove it—even if it ain’t exactly human.”
His voice sank so low, his manner was so impressive, that despite his known exaggeration, Bray felt a slight thrill of superstition. Meantime Parkhurst wiped his brow, took a folded slip of paper and a sprig of laurel from his pocket, and drew a long breath.
“When I got to the spring this afternoon,” he went on, in a nervous, tremulous, and scarcely audible voice, “I saw this bit o’ paper, folded note-wise, lyin’ on the ledge before it. On top of it was this sprig of laurel, to catch the eye. I ain’t the man to pry into other folks’ secrets, or read what ain’t mine. But on the back o’ this note was written ‘To Jack!’ It’s a common enough name, but it’s a singular thing, ef you’ll recollect, thar ain’t another Jack in this company, not on the whole ridge betwixt this and the summit, except myself! So I opened it, and this is what it read!” He held the paper sideways toward the leaping light of the still near camp-fire, and read slowly, with the emphasis of having read it many times before.
“‘I want you to believe that I, at least, respect and honor your honest, manly calling, and when you strike it rich, as you surely will, I hope you will sometimes think of Jill.’”
In the thrill of joy, hope, and fear that came over Bray, he could see that Parkhurst had not only failed to detect his secret, but had not even connected the two names with their obvious suggestion. “But do you know anybody named Jill?” he asked breathlessly.
“It’s no name,” said Parkhurst in a sombre voice, “it’s a thing!”
“A thing?” repeated Bray, bewildered.
“Yes, a measure—you know—two fingers of whiskey.”
“Oh, a ‘gill,’” said Bray.
“That’s what I said, young man,” returned Parkhurst gravely.
Bray choked back a hysterical laugh; spelling was notoriously not one of Parkhurst’s strong points. “But what has a ‘gill’ got to do with it?” he asked quickly.
“It’s one of them Sphinx things, don’t you see? A sort of riddle or rebus, you know. You’ve got to study it out, as them old chaps did. But I fetched it. What comes after ‘gills,’ eh?”
“Pints, I suppose,” said Bray.
“And after pints?”
“Quartz, and there you are. So I looked about me for quartz, and sure enough struck it the first pop.”
Bray cast a quick look at Parkhurst’s grave face. The man was evidently impressed and sincere. “Have you told this to any one?” he asked quickly.
“Then don’t! or you’ll spoil the charm, and bring us ill luck! That’s the rule, you know. I really don’t know that you ought to have told me,” added the artful Bray, dissembling his intense joy at this proof of Eugenia’s remembrance.
“But,” said Parkhurst blankly, “you see, old man, you’d been the last man at the spring, and I kinder thought”—
“Don’t think,” said Bray promptly, “and above all, don’t talk; not a word to the boys of this. Stay! Give me the paper and the sprig. I’ve got to go to San Francisco next week, and I’ll take care of it and think it out!” He knew that Parkhurst might be tempted to talk, but without the paper his story would be treated lightly. Parkhurst handed him the paper, and the two men returned to the camp-fire.
That night Bray slept but little. The superstition of the lover is no less keen than that of the gambler, and Bray, while laughing at Parkhurst’s extravagant fancy, I am afraid was equally inclined to believe that their good fortune came through Eugenia’s influence. At least he should tell her so, and her precious note became now an invitation as well as an excuse for seeking her. The only fear that possessed him was that she might have expected some acknowledgment of her note before she left that afternoon; the only thing he could not understand was how she had managed to convey the note to the spring, for she could not have taken it herself. But this would doubtless be explained by her in San Francisco, whither he intended to seek her. His affairs, the purchasing of machinery for their new claim, would no doubt give him easy access to her father.
But it was one thing to imagine this while procuring a new and fashionable outfit in San Francisco, and quite another to stand before the “palatial” residence of the Neworths on Rincon Hill, with the consciousness of no other introduction than the memory of the Neworths’ discourtesy on the mountain, and, even in his fine feathers, Bray hesitated. At this moment a carriage rolled up to the door, and Eugenia, an adorable vision of laces and silks, alighted.
Forgetting everything else, he advanced toward her with outstretched hand. He saw her start, a faint color come into her face; he knew he was recognized; but she stiffened quickly again, the color vanished, her beautiful gray eyes rested coldly on him for a moment, and then, with the faintest inclination of her proud head, she swept by him and entered the house.
But Bray, though shocked, was not daunted, and perhaps his own pride was awakened. He ran to his hotel, summoned a messenger, inclosed her note in an envelope, and added these lines:—
DEAR MISS NEWORTH,—I only wanted to thank you an hour ago, as I should like to have done before, for the kind note which I inclose, but which you have made me feel I have no right to treasure any longer, and to tell you that your most generous wish and prophecy has been more than fulfilled.
Yours, very gratefully,
Within the hour the messenger returned with the still briefer reply:—
|“Miss Neworth has been fully aware of that preoccupation with his good fortune which prevented Mr. Bray from an earlier acknowledgment of her foolish note.”|
Cold as this response was, Bray’s heart leaped. She had lingered on the summit, and had expected a reply. He seized his hat, and, jumping into the first cab at the hotel door, drove rapidly back to the house. He had but one idea, to see her at any cost, but one concern, to avoid a meeting with her father first, or a denial at her very door.
He dismissed the cab at the street corner and began to reconnoitre the house. It had a large garden in the rear, reclaimed from the adjacent “scrub oak” infested sand hill, and protected by a high wall. If he could scale that wall, he could command the premises. It was a bright morning; she might be tempted into the garden. A taller scrub oak grew near the wall; to the mountain-bred Bray it was an easy matter to swing himself from it to the wall, and he did. But his momentum was so great that he touched the wall only to be obliged to leap down into the garden to save himself from falling there. He heard a little cry, felt his feet strike some tin utensil, and rolled on the ground beside Eugenia and her overturned watering-pot.
They both struggled to their feet with an astonishment that turned to laughter in their eyes and the same thought in the minds of each.
“But we are not on the mountains now, Mr. Bray,” said Eugenia, taking her handkerchief at last from her sobering face and straightening eyebrows.
“But we are quits,” said Bray. “And you now know my real name. I only came here to tell you why I could not answer your letter the same day. I never got it—I mean,” he added hurriedly, “another man got it first.”
She threw up her head, and her face grew pale. “Another man got it,” she repeated, “and you let another man”—
“No, no,” interrupted Bray imploringly. “You don’t understand. One of my partners went to the spring that afternoon, and found it; but he neither knows who sent it, nor for whom it was intended.” He hastily recounted Parkhurst’s story, his mysterious belief, and his interpretation of the note. The color came back to her face and the smile to her lips and eyes. “I had gone twice to the spring after I saw you, but I couldn’t bear its deserted look without you,” he added boldly. Here, seeing her face grew grave again, he added, “But how did you get the letter to the spring? and how did you know that it was found that day?”
It was her turn to look embarrassed and entreating, but the combination was charming in her proud face. “I got the little schoolboy at the summit,” she said, with girlish hesitation, “to take the note. He knew the spring, but he didn’t know you. I told him—it was very foolish, I know—to wait until you came for water, to be certain that you got the note, to wait until you came up, for I thought you might question him, or give him some word.” Her face was quite rosy now. “But,” she added, and her lip took a divine pout, “he said he waited two hours; that you never took the least concern of the letter or him, but went around the mountain side, peering and picking in every hole and corner of it, and then he got tired and ran away. Of course I understand it now, it wasn’t you; but oh, please; I beg you, Mr. Bray, don’t!”
Bray released the little hand which he had impulsively caught, and which had allowed itself to be detained for a blissful moment.
“And now, don’t you think, Mr. Bray,” she added demurely, “that you had better let me fill my pail again while you go round to the front door and call upon me properly?”
“But your father”—
“My father, as a well-known investor, regrets exceedingly that he did not make your acquaintance more thoroughly in his late brief interview. He is, as your foreman knows, exceedingly interested in the mines on Eureka ledge. He will be glad if you will call.” She led him to a little door in the wall, which she unbolted. “And now ‘Jill’ must say good-by to ‘Jack,’ for she must make herself ready to receive a Mr. Bray who is expected.”
And when Bray a little later called at the front door, he was respectfully announced. He called another day, and many days after. He came frequently to San Francisco, and one day did not return to his old partners. He had entered into a new partnership with one who he declared “had made the first strike on Eureka mountain.”