There was no mistaking the tree, with its one broken branch which depended at an angle like the arm of a semaphore; nor did it relieve his mind to reflect that his mishap was partly due to his own foolish abstraction. He was returning to camp from a neighboring mining town, and while indulging in the usual day-dreams of a youthful prospector, had deviated from his path in attempting to make a short cut through the forest. He had lost the sun, his only guide, in the thickly interlaced boughs above him, which suffused though the long columnar vault only a vague, melancholy twilight. He had evidently penetrated some unknown seclusion, absolutely primeval and untrodden. The thick layers of decaying bark and the desiccated dust of ages deadened his footfall and invested the gloom with a profound silence.
As he stood for a moment or two, irresolute, his ear, by this time attuned to the stillness, caught the faint but distinct lap and trickle of water. He was hot and thirsty, and turned instinctively in that direction. A very few paces brought him to a fallen tree; at the foot of its upturned roots gurgled the spring whose upwelling stream had slowly but persistently loosened their hold on the soil, and worked their ruin. A pool of cool and clear water, formed by the disruption of the soil, overflowed, and after a few yards sank again in the sodden floor.
As he drank and bathed his head and hands in this sylvan basin, he noticed the white glitter of a quartz ledge in its depths, and was considerably surprised and relieved to find, hard by, an actual outcrop of that rock through the thick carpet of bark and dust. This betokened that he was near the edge of the forest or some rocky opening. He fancied that the light grew clearer beyond, and the presence of a few fronds of ferns confirmed him in the belief that he was approaching a different belt of vegetation. Presently he saw the vertical beams of the sun again piercing the opening in the distance. With this prospect of speedy deliverance from the forest at last secure, he did not hurry forward, but on the contrary coolly retraced his footsteps to the spring again. The fact was that the instincts and hopes of the prospector were strongly dominant in him, and having noticed the quartz ledge and the contiguous outcrop, he determined to examine them more closely. He had still time to find his way home, and it might not be so easy to penetrate the wilderness again. Unfortunately, he had neither pick, pan, nor shovel with him, but a very cursory displacement of the soil around the spring and at the outcrop with his hands showed him the usual red soil and decomposed quartz which constituted an “indication.” Yet none knew better than himself how disappointing and illusive its results often were, and he regretted that he had not a pan to enable him to test the soil by washing it at the spring. If there were only a miner’s cabin handy, he could easily borrow what he wanted. It was just the usual luck,—“the things a man sees when he hasn’t his gun with him!”
He turned impatiently away again in the direction of the opening. When he reached it, he found himself on a rocky hillside sloping toward a small green valley. A light smoke curled above a clump of willows; it was from the chimney of a low dwelling, but a second glance told him that it was no miner’s cabin. There was a larger clearing around the house, and some rude attempt at cultivation in a roughly fenced area. Nevertheless, he determined to try his luck in borrowing a pick and pan there; at the worst he could inquire his way to the main road again.
A hurried scramble down the hill brought him to the dwelling,—a rambling addition of sheds to the usual log cabin. But he was surprised to find that its exterior, and indeed the palings of the fence around it, were covered with the stretched and drying skins of animals. The pelts of bear, panther, wolf, and fox were intermingled with squirrel and wildcat skins, and the displayed wings of eagle, hawk, and kingfisher. There was no trail leading to or from the cabin; it seemed to have been lost in this opening of the encompassing woods and left alone and solitary.
The barking of a couple of tethered hounds at last brought a figure to the door of the nearest lean-to shed. It seemed to be that of a young girl, but it was clad in garments so ridiculously large and disproportionate that it was difficult to tell her precise age. A calico dress was pinned up at the skirt, and tightly girt at the waist by an apron—so long that one corner had to be tucked in at the apron string diagonally, to keep the wearer from treading on it. An enormous sunbonnet of yellow nankeen completely concealed her head and face, but allowed two knotted and twisted brown tails of hair to escape under its frilled cape behind. She was evidently engaged in some culinary work, and still held a large tin basin or pan she had been cleaning clasped to her breast.
Fleming’s eye glanced at it covetously, ignoring the figure behind it. But he was diplomatic.
“I have lost my way in the woods. Can you tell me in what direction the main road lies?”
She pointed a small red hand apparently in the direction he had come. “Straight over thar—across the hill.”
Fleming sighed. He had been making a circuit of the forest instead of going through it—and this open space containing the cabin was on a remote outskirt!
“How far is it to the road?” he asked.
“Jest a spell arter ye rise the hill, ef ye keep ’longside the woods. But it’s a right smart chance beyond, ef ye go through it.”
This was quite plain to him. In the local dialect a “spell” was under a mile; “a right smart chance” might be three or four miles farther. Luckily the spring and outcrop were near the outskirts; he would pass near them again on his way. He looked longingly at the pan which she still held in her hands. “Would you mind lending me that pan for a little while?” he said half laughingly.
“Wot for?” demanded the girl quickly. Yet her tone was one of childish curiosity rather than suspicion. Fleming would have liked to avoid the question and the consequent exposure of his discovery which a direct answer implied. But he saw it was too late now.
“I want to wash a little dirt,” he said bluntly.
The girl turned her deep sunbonnet toward him. Somewhere in its depths he saw the flash of white teeth. “Go along with ye—ye’re funnin’!” she said.
“I want to wash out some dirt in that pan—I’m prospecting for gold,” he said; “don’t you understand?”
“Are ye a miner?”
“Well, yes—a sort of one,” he returned, with a laugh.
“Then ye’d better be scootin’ out o’ this mighty quick afore dad comes. He don’t cotton to miners, and won’t have ’em around. That’s why he lives out here.”
“Well, I don’t live out here,” responded the young man lightly. “I shouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lost my way, and in half an hour I’ll be off again. So I’m not likely to bother him. But,” he added, as the girl still hesitated, “I’ll leave a deposit for the pan, if you like.”
“Leave a which?”
“The money that the pan’s worth,” said Fleming impatiently.
The huge sunbonnet stiffly swung around like the wind-sail of a ship and stared at the horizon. “I don’t want no money. Ye kin git,” said the voice in its depths.
“Look here,” he said desperately, “I only wanted to prove to you that I’ll bring your pan back safe. Now look! If you don’t like to take money, I’ll leave this ring with you until I come back. There!” He slipped a small specimen ring, made out of his first gold findings, from his little finger.
The sunbonnet slowly swung around again and stared at the ring. Then the little red right hand reached forward, took the ring, placed it on the forefinger of the left hand, with all the other fingers widely extended for the sunbonnet to view, and all the while the pan was still held against her side by the other hand. Fleming noticed that the hands, though tawny and not over clean, were almost childlike in size, and that the forefinger was much too small for the ring. He tried to fathom the depths of the sun-bonnet, but it was dented on one side, and he could discern only a single pale blue eye and a thin black arch of eyebrow.
“Well,” said Fleming, “is it a go?”
“Of course ye’ll be comin’ back for it again,” said the girl slowly.
There was so much of hopeless disappointment at that prospect in her voice that Fleming laughed outright. “I’m afraid I shall, for I value the ring very much,” he said.
The girl handed him the pan. “It’s our bread pan,” she said.
It might have been anything, for it was by no means new; indeed, it was battered on one side and the bottom seemed to have been broken; but it would serve, and Fleming was anxious to be off. “Thank you,” he said briefly, and turned away. The hound barked again as he passed; he heard the girl say, “Shut your head, Tige!” and saw her turn back into the kitchen, still holding the ring before the sunbonnet.
When he reached the woods, he attacked the outcrop he had noticed, and detached with his hands and the aid of a sharp rock enough of the loose soil to fill the pan. This he took to the spring, and, lowering the pan in the pool, began to wash out its contents with the centrifugal movement of the experienced prospector. The saturated red soil overflowed the brim with that liquid ooze known as “slumgullion,” and turned the crystal pool to the color of blood until the soil was washed away. Then the smaller stones were carefully removed and examined, and then another washing of the now nearly empty pan showed the fine black sand covering the bottom. This was in turn as gently washed away.
Alas! the clean pan showed only one or two minute glistening yellow scales, like pinheads, adhering from their specific gravity to the bottom; gold, indeed, but merely enough to indicate “the color,” and common to ordinary prospecting in his own locality.
He tried another panful with the same result. He became aware that the pan was leaky, and that infinite care alone prevented the bottom from falling out during the washing. Still it was an experiment, and the result a failure.
Fleming was too old a prospector to take his disappointment seriously. Indeed, it was characteristic of that performance and that period that failure left neither hopelessness nor loss of faith behind it; the prospector had simply miscalculated the exact locality, and was equally as ready to try his luck again. But Fleming thought it high time to return to his own mining work in camp, and at once set off to return the pan to its girlish owner and recover his ring.
As he approached the cabin again, be heard the sound of singing. It was evidently the girl’s voice, uplifted in what seemed to be a fragment of some negro camp-meeting hymn:—
“Dar was a poor man and his name it was Lazarum,|
Lord bress de Lamb—glory hallelugerum!
Lord bress de Lamb!”
The first two lines had a brisk movement, accented apparently by the clapping of hands or the beating of a tin pan, but the refrain, “Lord bress de Lamb,” was drawn out in a lugubrious chant of infinite tenuity.
“The rich man died and he went straight to hellerum.|
Lord bress de Lamb—glory hallelugerum!
Lord bress de Lamb!”
Fleming paused at the cabin door. Before he could rap the voice rose again:—
“When ye see a poo’ man be sure to give him crumbsorum|
Lord bress de Lamb—glory hallelugerum!
Lord bress de Lamb!”
At the end of this interminable refrain, drawn out in a youthful nasal contralto, Fleming knocked. The girl instantly appeared, holding the ring in her fingers. “I reckoned it was you,” she said, with an affected briskness, to conceal her evident dislike at parting with the trinket. “There it is!”
But Fleming was too astounded to speak. With the opening of the door the sunbonnet had fallen back like a buggy top, disclosing for the first time the head and shoulders of the wearer. She was not a child, but a smart young woman of seventeen or eighteen, and much of his embarrassment arose from the consciousness that he had no reason whatever for having believed her otherwise.
“I hope I didn’t interrupt your singing,” he said awkwardly.
“It was only one o’ mammy’s camp-meetin’ songs,” said the girl.
“Your mother? Is she in?” he asked, glancing past the girl into the kitchen.
“’Tain’t mother—she’s dead. Mammy’s our old nurse. She’s gone to Jimtown, and taken my duds to get some new ones fitted to me. These are some o’ mother’s.”
This accounted for her strange appearance; but Fleming noticed that the girl’s manner had not the slightest consciousness of their unbecomingness, nor of the charms of face and figure they had marred.
She looked at him curiously. “Hev you got religion?”
“Well, no!” said Fleming, laughing; “I’m afraid not.”
“Dad hez—he’s got it pow’ful.”
“Is that the reason he don’t like miners?” asked Fleming.
“‘Take not to yourself the mammon of unrighteousness,’” said the girl, with the confident air of repeating a lesson. “That’s what the Book says.”
“But I read the Bible, too,” replied the young man.
“Dad says, ‘The letter killeth’!” said the girl sententiously.
Fleming looked at the trophies nailed on the walls with a vague wonder if this peculiar Scriptural destructiveness had anything to do with his skill as a marksman. The girl followed his eye.
“Dad’s a mighty hunter afore the Lord.”
“What does he do with these skins?”
“Trades ’em off for grub and fixin’s. But he don’t believe in trottin’ round in the mud for gold.”
“Don’t you suppose these animals would have preferred it if he had? Gold hunting takes nothing from anybody.”
The girl stared at him, and then, to his great surprise, laughed instead of being angry. It was a very fascinating laugh in her imperfectly nourished pale face, and her little teeth revealed the bluish milky whiteness of pips of young Indian corn.
“Wot yer lookin’ at?” she asked frankly.
“You,” he replied, with equal frankness.
“It’s them duds,” she said, looking down at her dress; “I reckon I ain’t got the hang o’ ’em”
Yet there was not the slightest tone of embarrassment or even coquetry in her manner, as with both hands she tried to gather in the loose folds around her waist.
“Let me help you,” he said gravely.
She lifted up her arms with childlike simplicity and backed toward him as he stepped behind her, drew in the folds, and pinned them around what proved a very small waist indeed. Then he untied the apron, took it off, folded it in half, and retied its curtailed proportions around the waist. “It does feel a heap easier,” she said, with a little shiver of satisfaction, as she lifted her round cheek, and the tail of her blue eyes with their brown lashes, over her shoulder. It was a tempting moment—but Jack felt that the whole race of gold hunters was on trial just then, and was adamant! Perhaps he was a gentle fellow at heart, too.
“I could loop up that dress also, if I had more pins,” he remarked tentatively. Jack had sisters of his own.
The pins were forthcoming. In this operation—a kind of festooning—the girl’s petticoat, a piece of common washed-out blue flannel, as pale as her eyes, but of the commonest material, became visible, but without fear or reproach to either.
“There, that looks more tidy,” said Jack, critically surveying his work and a little of the small ankles revealed. The girl also examined it carefully by its reflection on the surface of the saucepan. “Looks a little like a chiny girl, don’t it?”
Jack would have resented this, thinking she meant a Chinese, until he saw her pointing to a cheap crockery ornament, representing a Dutch shepherdess, on the shelf. There was some resemblance.
“You beat mammy out o’ sight!” she exclaimed gleefully. “It will jest set her clear crazy when she sees me.”
“Then you had better say you did it yourself,” said Fleming.
“Why?” asked the girl, suddenly opening her eyes on him with relentless frankness.
“You said your father didn’t like miners, and he mightn’t like your lending your pan to me.”
“I’m more afraid o’ lyin’ than o’ dad,” she said with an elevation of moral sentiment that was, however, slightly weakened by the addition, “Mammy’ll say anything I’ll tell her to say.”
“Well, good-by,” said Fleming, extending his hand.
“Ye didn’t tell me what luck ye had with the pan,” she said, delaying taking his hand.
Fleming shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, my usual luck,—nothing,” he returned, with a smile.
“Ye seem to keer more for gettin’ yer old ring back than for any luck,” she continued. “I reckon you ain’t much o’ a miner.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ye didn’t say wot yer name was, in case dad wants to know.”
“I don’t think he will want to; but it’s John Fleming.”
She took his hand. “You didn’t tell me yours,” he said, holding the little red fingers, “in case I wanted to know.”
It pleased her to consider the rejoinder intensely witty. She showed all her little teeth, threw away his hand, and said:—
“G’ long with ye, Mr. Fleming. It’s Tinka”—
“Yes; short for Katinka,—Katinka Jallinger.”
“Good-by, Miss Jallinger.”
“Good-by. Dad’s name is Henry Boone Jallinger, of Kentucky, ef ye was ever askin’.”
He turned away as she swiftly re-entered the house. As he walked away, he half expected to hear her voice uplifted again in the camp-meeting chant, but he was disappointed. When he reached the top of the hill he turned and looked back at the cabin.
She was apparently waiting for this, and waved him an adieu with the humble pan he had borrowed. It flashed a moment dazzlingly as it caught the declining sun, and then went out, even obliterating the little figure behind it.
Mr. Jack Fleming was indeed “not much of a miner.” He and his partners—both as young, hopeful, and inefficient as himself—had for three months worked a claim in a mountain mining settlement which yielded them a certain amount of healthy exercise, good-humored grumbling, and exalted independence. To dig for three or four hours in the morning, smoke their pipes under a redwood-tree for an hour at noon, take up their labors again until sunset, when they “washed up” and gathered sufficient gold to pay for their daily wants, was, without their seeking it, or even knowing it, the realization of a charming socialistic ideal which better men than themselves had only dreamed of. Fleming fell back into this refined barbarism, giving little thought to his woodland experience, and no revelation of it to his partners. He had transacted their business at the mining town. His deviations en route were nothing to them, and small account to himself.
The third day after his return he was lying under a redwood when his partner approached him.
“You aren’t uneasy in your mind about any unpaid bill—say a wash bill—that you’re owing?”
“There’s a big nigger woman in camp looking for you; she’s got a folded account paper in her hand. It looks deucedly like a bill.”
“There must be some mistake,” suggested Fleming, sitting up.
“She says not, and she’s got your name pat enough! Faulkner” (his other partner) “headed her straight up the gulch, away from camp, while I came down to warn you. So if you choose to skedaddle into the brush out there and lie low until we get her away, we’ll fix it!”
“Nonsense! I’ll see her.”
His partner looked aghast at this temerity, but Fleming, jumping to his feet, at once set out to meet his mysterious visitor. This was no easy matter, as the ingenious Faulkner was laboriously leading his charge up the steep gulch road, with great politeness, but many audible misgivings as to whether this was not “Jack Fleming’s day for going to Jamestown.”
He was further lightening the journey by cheering accounts of the recent depredations of bears and panthers in that immediate locality. When overtaken by Fleming he affected a start of joyful surprise, to conceal the look of warning which Fleming did not heed,—having no eyes but for Faulkners companion. She was a very fat negro woman, panting with exertion and suppressed impatience. Fleming’s heart was filled with compunction.
“Is you Marse Fleming?” she gasped.
“Yes,” said Fleming gently. “What can I do for you?”
“Well! Ye kin pick dis yar insek, dis caterpillier,” she said, pointing to Faulkner, “off my paf. Ye kin tell dis yar chipmunk dat when he comes to showin’ me mule tracks for b’ar tracks, he’s barkin’ up de wrong tree! Dat when he tells me dat he sees panfers a-promenadin’ round in de short grass or hidin’ behime rocks in de open, he hain’t talkin’ to no nigger chile, but a growed woman! Ye kin tell him dat Mammy Curtis lived in de woods afo’ he was born, and hez seen more b’ars and mountain lyuns dan he hez hairs in his mustarches.”
The word “Mammy” brought a flash of recollection to Fleming.
“I am very sorry,” he began; but to his surprise the negro woman burst into a good-tempered laugh.
“All right, honey! S’long’s you is Marse Fleming and de man dat took dat ’ar pan offer Tinka de odder day, I ain’t mindin’ yo’ frens’ bedevilments. I’ve got somefin fo’ you, yar, and a little box,” and she handed him a folded paper.
Fleming felt himself reddening, he knew not why, at which Faulkner discreetly but ostentatiously withdrew, conveying to his other partner painful conviction that Fleming had borrowed a pan from a traveling tinker, whose negro wife was even now presenting a bill for the same, and demanding a settlement. Relieved by his departure, Fleming hurriedly tore open the folded paper. It was a letter written upon a leaf torn out of an old account book, whose ruled lines had undoubtedly given his partners the idea that it was a bill. Fleming hurriedly read the following, traced with a pencil in a schoolgirl’s hand:—
Mr. J. FLEMING.
Dear Sir,—After you went away that day I took that pan you brought back to mix a batch of bread and biscuits. The next morning at breakfast dad says: “What’s gone o’ them thar biscuits—my teeth is just broke with them—they’re so gritty—they’re abominable! What’s this?” says he, and with that he chucks over to me two or three flakes of gold that was in them. You see what had happened, Mr. Fleming, was this! You had better luck than you was knowing of! It was this way! Some of the gold you washed had got slipped into the sides of the pan where it was broke, and the sticky dough must have brought it out, and I kneaded them up unbeknowing. Of course I had to tell a wicked lie, but “Be ye all things to all men,” says the Book, and I thought you ought to know your good luck, and I send mammy with this and the gold in a little box. Of course, if dad was a hunter of Mammon and not of God’s own beasts, he would have been mighty keen about finding where it came from, but he allows it was in the water in our near spring. So good-by. Do you care for your ring now as much as you did?
Yours very respectfully,
As Mr. Fleming glanced up from the paper, mammy put a small cardboard box in his hand. For an instant he hesitated to open it, not knowing how far mammy was intrusted with the secret. To his great relief she said briskly: “Well, dar! now dat job’s done gone and often my han’s, I allow to quit and jest get off dis yer camp afo’ ye kin shake a stick. So don’t tell me nuffin I ain’t gotter tell when I goes back.”
Fleming understood. “You can tell her I thank her—and—I’ll attend to it,” he said vaguely; “that is—I”—
“Hold dar! that’s just enuff, honey—no mo’! So long to ye and youse folks.”
He watched her striding away toward the main road, and then opened the box.
It contained three flakes of placer or surface gold, weighing in all about a quarter of an ounce. They could easily have slipped into the interstices of the broken pan and not have been observed by him. If this was the result of the washing of a single pan—and he could now easily imagine that other flakes might have escaped—what— But he stopped, dazed and bewildered at the bare suggestion. He gazed upon the vanishing figure of “mammy.” Could she—could Katinka—have the least suspicion of the possibilities of this discovery? Or had Providence put the keeping of this secret into the hands of those who least understood its importance? For an instant he thought of running after her with a word of caution; but on reflection he saw that this might awaken her suspicion and precipitate a discovery by another.
His only safety for the present was silence, until he could repeat his experiment. And that must be done quickly.
How should he get away without his partners’ knowledge of his purpose? He was too loyal to them to wish to keep this good fortune to himself, but he was not yet sure of his good fortune. It might be only a little “pocket” which he had just emptied; it might be a larger one which another trial would exhaust.
He had put up no “notice;” he might find it already in possession of Katinka’s father, or any chance prospector like himself. In either case he would be covered with ridicule by his partners and the camp, or more seriously rebuked for his carelessness and stupidity. No! he could not tell them the truth; nor could he lie. He would say he was called away for a day on private business.
Luckily for him, the active imagination of his partners was even now helping him. The theory of the “tinker” and the “pan” was indignantly rejected by his other partner. His blushes and embarrassment were suddenly remembered by Faulkner, and by the time he reached his cabin, they had settled that the negro woman had brought him a love letter! He was young and good looking; what was more natural than that he should have some distant love affair?
His embarrassed statement that he must leave early the next morning on business that he could not at present disclose was considered amply confirmatory, and received with maliciously significant acquiescence. “Only,” said Faulkner, “at your age, sonny,”—he was nine months older than Fleming,—“I should have gone to-night.” Surely Providence was favoring him!
He was off early the next morning. He was sorely tempted to go first to the cabin, but every moment was precious until he had tested the proof of his good fortune.
It was high noon before he reached the fringe of forest. A few paces farther and he found the spring and outcrop. To avert his partners’ suspicions he had not brought his own implements, but had borrowed a pan, spade, and pick from a neighbor’s claim before setting out. The spot was apparently in the same condition as when he left it, and with a beating heart he at once set to work, an easy task with his new implements. He nervously watched the water overflow the pan of dirt at its edges until, emptied of earth and gravel, the black sand alone covered the bottom. A slight premonition of disappointment followed; a rich indication would have shown itself before this! A few more workings, and the pan was quite empty except for a few pin-points of “color,” almost exactly the quantity he found before. He washed another pan with the same result. Another taken from a different level of the outcrop yielded neither more nor less! There was no mistake: it was a failure! His discovery had been only a little “pocket,” and the few flakes she had sent him were the first and last of that discovery.
He sat down with a sense of relief; he could face his partners again without disloyalty; he could see that pretty little figure once more without the compunction of having incurred her father’s prejudices by locating a permanent claim so near his cabin. In fact, he could carry out his partners’ fancy to the letter!
He quickly heaped his implements together and turned to leave the wood; but he was confronted by a figure that at first he scarcely recognized. Yet—it was Katinka! the young girl of the cabin, who had sent him the gold. She was dressed differently—perhaps in her ordinary every-day garments—a bright sprigged muslin, a chip hat with blue ribbons set upon a coil of luxurious brown hair. But what struck him most was that the girlish and diminutive character of the figure had vanished with her ill-fitting clothes; the girl that stood before him was of ordinary height, and of a prettiness and grace of figure that he felt would have attracted anywhere. Fleming felt himself suddenly embarrassed,—a feeling that was not lessened when he noticed that her pretty lip was compressed and her eyebrows a little straightened as she gazed at him.
“Ye made a bee line for the woods, I see,” she said coldly. “I allowed ye might have been droppin’ in to our house first.”
“So I should,” said Fleming quickly, “but I thought I ought to first make sure of the information you took the trouble to send me.” He hesitated to speak of the ill luck he had just experienced; he could laugh at it himself—but would she?
“And ye got a new pan?” she said half poutingly.
Here seemed his opportunity. “Yes, but I’m afraid it hasn’t the magic of yours. I haven’t even got the color. I believe you bewitched your old pan.”
Her face flushed a little and brightened, and her lip relaxed with a smile. “Go ’long with yer! Ye don’t mean to say ye had no luck to-day?”
“None—but in seeing you.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Ye see, I said all ’long ye weren’t much o’ a miner. Ye ain’t got no faith. Ef ye had as much as a grain o’ mustard seed, ye’d remove mountains; it’s in the Book.”
“Yes, and this mountain is on the bedrock, and my faith is not strong enough,” he said laughingly. “And then, that would be having faith in Mammon, and you don’t want me to have that.”
She looked at him curiously. “I jest reckon ye don’t care a picayune whether ye strike anything or not,” she said half admiringly.
“To please you I’ll try again, if you’ll look on. Perhaps you’ll bring me luck as you did before. You shall take the pan. I will fill it and you shall wash it out. You’ll be my mascot.”
She stiffened a little at this, and then said pertly, “Wot’s that?”
“My good fairy.”
She smiled again, this time with a new color in her pale face. “Maybe I am,” she said, with sudden gravity.
He quickly filled the pan again with soil, brought it to the spring, and first washed out the greater bulk of loose soil. “Now come here and kneel down beside me,” he said, “and take the pan and do as I show you.”
She knelt down obediently. Suddenly she lifted her little hand with a gesture of warning. “Wait a minit—jest a minit—till the water runs clear again.”
The pool had become slightly discolored from the first washing.
“That makes no difference,” he said quickly.
“Ah! but wait, please!” She laid her brown hand upon his arm; a pleasant warmth seemed to follow her touch. Then she said joyously, “Look down there.”
“Where?” he asked.
“There—don’t ye see it?”
“You and me!”
He looked where she pointed. The pool had settled, resumed its mirror-like calm, and reflected distinctly, not only their two bending faces, but their two figures kneeling side by side. Two tall redwoods rose on either side of them, like the columns before an altar.
There was a moment of silence. The drone of a bumble-bee near by seemed to make the silence swim drowsily in their ears; far off they heard the faint beat of a woodpecker. The suggestion of their kneeling figures in this magic mirror was vague, unreasoning, yet for the moment none the less irresistible. His arm instinctively crept around her little waist as he whispered,—he scarce knew what he said,—“Perhaps here is the treasure I am seeking.”
The girl laughed, released herself, and sprang up; the pan sank ingloriously to the bottom of the pool, where Fleming had to grope for it, assisted by Tinka, who rolled up her sleeve to her elbow. For a minute or two they washed gravely, but with no better success than attended his own individual efforts. The result in the bottom of the pan was the same. Fleming laughed.
“You see,” he said gayly, “the Mammon of unrighteousness is not for me—at least, so near your father’s tabernacle.”
“That makes no difference now,” said the girl quickly, “for dad is goin’ to move, anyway, farther up the mountains. He says it’s gettin’ too crowded for him here—when the last settler took up a section three miles off.”
“And are you going too?” asked the young man earnestly.
Tinka nodded her brown head. Fleming heaved a genuine sigh. “Well, I’ll try my hand here a little longer. I’ll put up a notice of claim; I don’t suppose your father would object. You know he couldn’t legally.”
“I reckon ye might do it ef ye wanted—ef ye was that keen on gettin’ gold!” said Tinka, looking away. There was something in the girl’s tone which this budding lover resented. He had become sensitive.
“Oh, well,” he said, “I see that it might make unpleasantness with your father. I only thought,” he went on, with tenderer tentativeness, “that it would be pleasant to work here near you.”
“Ye’d be only wastin’ yer time,” she said darkly.
Fleming rose gravely. “Perhaps you’re right,” he answered sadly and a little bitterly, “and I’ll go at once.”
He walked to the spring, and gathered up his tools. “Thank you again for your kindness, and good-by.”
He held out his hand, which she took passively, and he moved away.
But he had not gone far before she called him. He turned to find her still standing where he had left her, her little hands clinched at her side, and her widely opened eyes staring at him. Suddenly she ran at him, and, catching the lapels of his coat in both hands, held him rigidly fast.
“No! no! ye sha’n’t go—ye mustn’t go!” she said, with hysterical intensity. “I want to tell ye something! Listen!—you—you—Mr. Fleming! I’ve been a wicked, wicked girl! I’ve told lies to dad—to mammy—to you! I’ve borne false witness—I’m worse than Sapphira—I’ve acted a big lie. Oh, Mr. Fleming, I’ve made you come back here for nothing! Ye didn’t find no gold the other day. There wasn’t any. It was all me! I—I—salted that pan!”
“Salted it!” echoed Fleming, in amazement.
“Yes, ‘salted it,’” she faltered; “that’s what dad says they call it—what those wicked sons of Mammon do to their claims to sell them. I—put gold in the pan myself; it wasn’t there before.”
“But why?” gasped Fleming.
She stopped. Then suddenly the fountains in the deep of her blue eyes were broken up; she burst into a sob, and buried her head in her hands, and her hands on his shoulder. “Because—because”—she sobbed against him—“I wanted you to come back!”
He folded her in his arms. He kissed her lovingly, forgivingly, gratefully, tearfully, smilingly—and paused; then he kissed her sympathetically, understandingly, apologetically, explanatorily, in lieu of other conversation. Then, becoming coherent, he asked,—
“But where did you get the gold?”
“Oh,” she said between fitful and despairing sobs, “somewhere!—I don’t know—out of the old Run—long ago—when I was little! I didn’t never dare say anything to dad—he’d have been crazy mad at his own daughter diggin’—and I never cared nor thought a single bit about it until I saw you.”
“And you have never been there since?”
“Nor anybody else?”
Suddenly she threw back her head; her chip hat fell back from her face, rosy with a dawning inspiration! “Oh, say, Jack!—you don’t think that—after all this time—there might”— She did not finish the sentence, but, grasping his hand, cried, “Come!”
She caught up the pan, he seized the shovel and pick, and they raced like boy and girl down the hill. When within a few hundred feet of the house she turned at right angles into the clearing, and saying, “Don’t be skeered; dad’s away,” ran boldly on, still holding his hand, along the little valley. At its farther extremity they came to the “Run,” a half-dried watercourse whose rocky sides were marked by the erosion of winter torrents. It was apparently as wild and secluded as the forest spring. “Nobody ever came here,” said the girl hurriedly, “after dad sunk the well at the house.”
One or two pools still remained in the Run from the last season’s flow, water enough to wash out several pans of dirt.
Selecting a spot where the white quartz was visible, Fleming attacked the bank with the pick. After one or two blows it began to yield and crumble away at his feet. He washed out a panful perfunctorily, more intent on the girl than his work; she, eager, alert, and breathless, had changed places with him, and become the anxious prospector! But the result was the same. He threw away the pan with a laugh, to take her little hand! But she whispered, “Try again.”
He attacked the bank once more with such energy that a great part of it caved and fell, filling the pan and even burying the shovel in the debris. He unearthed the latter while Tinka was struggling to get out the pan.
“The mean thing is stuck and won’t move,” she said pettishly. “I think it’s broken now, too, just like ours.”
Fleming came laughingly forward, and, putting one arm around the girl’s waist, attempted to assist her with the other. The pan was immovable, and, indeed, seemed to be broken and bent. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation and began hurriedly to brush away the dirt and throw the soil out of the pan.
In another moment he had revealed a fragment of decomposed quartz, like discolored honeycombed cheese, half filling the pan. But on its side, where the pick had struck it glancingly, there was a yellow streak like a ray of sunshine! And as he strove to lift it he felt in that unmistakable omnipotency of weight that it was seamed and celled with gold.
The news of Mr. Fleming’s engagement, two weeks later, to the daughter of the recluse religious hunter who had made a big strike at Lone Run, excited some skeptical discussion, even among the honest congratulations of his partners.
“That’s a mighty queer story how Jack got that girl sweet on him just by borrowin’ a prospectin’ pan of her,” said Faulkner, between the whiffs of his pipe under the trees. “You and me might have borrowed a hundred prospectin’ pans and never got even a drink thrown in. Then to think of that old preachin’ coon-hunter hevin’ to give in and pass his strike over to his daughter’s feller, jest because he had scruples about gold diggin’ himself. He’d hev booted you and me outer his ranch first.”
“Lord, ye ain’t takin’ no stock in that hogwash,” responded the other. “Why, everybody knows old man Jallinger pretended to be sick o’ miners and minin’ camps, and couldn’t bear to hev ’em near him, only jest because he himself was all the while secretly prospectin’ the whole lode and didn’t want no interlopers. It was only when Fleming nippled in by gettin’ hold o’ the girl that Jallinger knew the secret was out, and that’s the way he bought him off. Why, Jack wasn’t no miner—never was—ye could see that. He never struck anything. The only treasure he found in the woods was Tinka Jallinger!”