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Tales of Trail and Town by Bret Harte

Part 4 out of 4

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as a hero! Oh, of course, there are a hundred absurd stories about
him,--they used to say that he lived all alone in a cabin like a
savage, and all that sort of thing, and was a friend of a dubious
woman in the locality, whom the common people made a heroine of,--
Miggles, or Wiggles, or some such preposterous name. But look at
John there; can you conceive it?" The listener, glancing at a very
handsome, clean-shaven fellow, faultlessly attired, could not
conceive such an absurdity. So I therefore simply give the opinion
of Joshua Bixley, Superintendent of the Long Divide Tunnel Company,
for what it is worth: "I never took much stock in that bear story,
and its captivating old Forester's daughter. Old Forester knew a
thing or two, and when he was out here consolidating tunnels, he
found out that Jack Tenbrook was about headed for the big lead, and
brought him out and introduced him to Amy. You see, Jack, clear
grit as he was, was mighty rough style, and about as simple as they
make 'em, and they had to get up something to account for that
girl's taking a shine to him. But they seem to be happy enough--
and what are you going to do about it?"

And I transfer this philosophic query to the reader.

THE YOUNGEST PROSPECTOR IN CALAVERAS

He was scarcely eight when it was believed that he could have
reasonably laid claim to the above title. But he never did. He
was a small boy, intensely freckled to the roots of his tawny hair,
with even a suspicion of it in his almond-shaped but somewhat full
eyes, which were the greenish hue of a ripe gooseberry. All this
was very unlike his parents, from whom he diverged in resemblance
in that fashion so often seen in the Southwest of America, as if
the youth of the boundless West had struck a new note of
independence and originality, overriding all conservative and
established rules of heredity. Something of this was also shown in
a singular and remarkable reticence and firmness of purpose, quite
unlike his family or schoolfellows. His mother was the wife of a
teamster, who had apparently once "dumped" his family, consisting
of a boy and two girls, on the roadside at Burnt Spring, with the
canvas roof of his wagon to cover them, while he proceeded to
deliver other freight, not so exclusively his own, at other
stations along the road, returning to them on distant and separate
occasions with slight additions to their stock, habitation, and
furniture. In this way the canvas roof was finally shingled and
the hut enlarged, and, under the quickening of a smiling California
sky and the forcing of a teeming California soil, the chance-sown
seed took root and became known as Medliker's Ranch, or "Medliker's,"
with its bursting garden patch and its three sheds or "lean-to's."

The girls helped their mother in a childish, imitative way; the
boy, John Bunyan, after a more desultory and original fashion--when
he was not "going to" or ostensibly "coming from" school, for he
was seldom actually there. Something of this fear was in the mind
of Mrs. Medliker one morning as she looked up from the kettle she
was scrubbing, with premonition of "more worriting," to behold the
Reverend Mr. Staples, the local minister, hale John Bunyan Medliker
into the shanty with one hand. Letting Johnny go, he placed his
back against the door and wiped his face with a red handkerchief.
Johnny dropped into a chair, furtively glancing at the arm by which
Mr. Staples had dragged him, and feeling it with the other hand to
see if it was really longer.

"I've been requested by the schoolmaster," said the Rev. Mr.
Staples, putting his handkerchief back into his broad felt hat with
a gasping smile, "to bring our young friend before you for a matter
of counsel and discipline. I have done so, Sister Medliker, with
some difficulty,"--he looked down at John Bunyan, who again felt
his arm and was satisfied that it WAS longer--"but we must do our
dooty, even with difficulty to ourselves, and, perhaps, to others.
Our young friend, John Bunyan, stands on a giddy height--on
slippery places, and," continued Mr. Staples, with a lofty
disregard to consecutive metaphor, "his feet are taking fast hold
of destruction." Here the child drew a breath of relief, possibly
at the prospect of being on firm ground of any kind at last; but
Sister Medliker, to whom the Staples style of exordium had only a
Sabbath significance, turned to her offspring abruptly:--

"And what's these yer doin's now, John? and me a slavin' to send ye
to school?"

Thus appealed to, Johnny looked for a reply at his feet, at his
arm, and at the kettle. Then he said: "I ain't done nothin', but
he"--indicating Staples--"hez been nigh onter pullin' off my arm."

"It's now almost a week ago," continued Mr. Staples, waving aside
the interruption with a smile of painful Christian tolerance, "or
perhaps ten days--I won't be too sure--that the schoolmaster
discovered that Johnny had in his possession two or three flakes of
fine river gold--each of the value of half a dollar, or perhaps
sixty-two and one half cents. On being questioned where he got
them he refused to say; although subsequently he alleged that he
had 'found' them. It being a single instance, he was given the
benefit of the doubt, and nothing more was said about it. But a
few days after he was found trying to pass off, at Mr. Smith's
store, two other flakes of a different size, and a small nugget of
the value of four or five dollars. At this point I was called in;
he repeated to me, I grieve to say, the same untruthfulness, and
when I suggested to him the obvious fact that he had taken it from
one of the miner's sluice boxes and committed the grievous sin of
theft, he wickedly denied it--so that we are prevented from
carrying out the Christian command of restoring it even ONE fold,
instead of four or five fold as the Mosaic Law might have required.
We were, alas! unable to ascertain anything from the miners
themselves, though I grieve to say they one and all agreed that
their 'take' that week was not at all what they had expected. I
even went so far as to admit the possibility of his own statement,
and besought him at least to show me where he had found it. He at
first refused with great stubbornness of temper, but later
consented to accompany me privately this afternoon to the spot."
Mr. Staples paused, and sinking his voice gloomily, and with his
eyes fixed upon Johnny, continued slowly: "When I state that, after
several times trying to evade me on the way, he finally led me to
the top of Bald Hill, where there is not a scrap of soil, and not
the slightest indication, and still persisted that he found it
THERE, you will understand, Sister Medliker, the incorrigibility of
his conduct, and how he has added the sin of 'false witness' to his
breaking the Eighth Commandment. But I leave him to your Christian
discipline! Let us hope that if, through his stiff-necked
obduracy, he has haply escaped the vengeance of man's law, he will
not escape the rod of the domestic tabernacle."

"Ye kin leave him to me," said Mrs. Medliker, in her anxiety to get
rid of the parson, assuming a confidence she was far from feeling.

"So be it, Sister Medliker," said Staples, drawing a long,
satisfactory breath; "and let us trust that when you have rastled
with his flesh and spirit, you will bring us joyful tidings to
Wednesday's Mother's Meeting."

He clapped his soft hat on his head, cast another glance at the
wicked Johnny, opened the door with his hand behind him, and backed
himself into the road.

"Now, Johnny," said Mrs. Medliker, setting her lips together as the
door closed, "look me right in the face, and say where you stole
that gold."

But Johnny evidently did not think that his mother's face at that
moment offered any moral support, for he did not look at her; but,
after gazing at the kettle, said slowly, "I didn't steal no gold."

"Then," said Mrs. Medliker triumphantly, "if ye didn't steal it,
you'd say right off HOW ye got it."

Children are often better logicians than their elders. To John
Bunyan the stealing of gold and the mere refusal to say where he
got it were two distinct and separate things; that the negation of
the second proposition meant the affirmation of the first he could
not accept. But then children are also imitative, and fearful of
the older intellect. It struck Johnny that his mother might be
right, and that to her it really meant the same thing. So, after a
moment's silence he replied more confidently, "I suppose I stoled
it."

But he was utterly unprepared for the darkening change in his
mother's face, and her furious accents. "You stole it?--you STOLE
it, you limb! And you sit there and brazenly tell me! Who did you
steal it from? Tell me quick, afore I wring it out of you!"

Completely astounded and bewildered at this new turn of affairs,
Johnny again fell back upon the dreadful truth, and gasped, "I
don't know."

"You don't know, you devil! Did you take it from Frazer's?"

"No."

"From the Simmons Brothers?"

"No."

"From the Blazing Star Company?"

"No."

"From a store?"

"No."

"Then, in created goodness!--WHERE did you get it?"

Johnny raised his brown-gooseberry eyes for a single instant to his
mother's and said, "I found it."

Mrs. Medliker gasped again and stared hopelessly at the ceiling.
Yet she was conscious of a certain relief. After all, it was
POSSIBLE that he had found it--liar as he undoubtedly was.

"Then why don't you say where, you awful child?"

"Don't want to!"

Johnny would have liked to add that he saw no reason why he should
tell. Other people who found gold were not obliged to tell. There
was Jim Brody, who had struck a lead and kept the locality secret.
Nobody forced him to tell. Nobody called him a thief; nobody had
dragged him about by the arm until he showed it. Why was it wrong
that a little boy should find gold? It wasn't agin the
Commandments. Mr. Staples had never got up and said, "Thou shalt
not find gold!" His mother had never made him pray not to find it!
The schoolmaster had never read him awful stories of boys who found
gold and never said anything about it, and so came to a horrid end.
All this crowded his small boy's mind, and, crowding, choked his
small boy's utterance.

"You jest wait till your father comes home," said Mrs. Medliker,
"and he'll see whether you 'want to' or not. And now get yourself
off to bed and stay there."

Johnny knew that his father--whose teams had increased to five
wagons, and whose route extended forty miles further--was not due
for a week, and that the catastrophe was yet remote. His present
punishment he had expected. He went into the adjoining bedroom,
which he occupied with his sister, and began to undress. He
lingered for some time over one stocking, and finally cautiously
removed from it a small piece of flake gold which he had kept
concealed all day under his big toe, to the great discomfort of
that member. But this was only a small, ordinary self-martyrdom of
boyhood. He scratched a boyish hieroglyphic on the metal, and when
his mother's back was turned scraped a small hole in the adobe
wall, inserted the gold in it, and covered it up with a plaster
made of the moistened debris. It was safe--so was his secret--for
it need not, perhaps, be stated here that Johnny HAD told the truth
and HAD honestly found the gold! But where?--yes, that was his own
secret! And now, Johnny, with the instinct of all young animals,
dismissed the whole subject from his mind, and, reclining
comfortably upon his arm, fell into an interesting study of the
habits of the red ant as exemplified in a crack of the adobe wall,
and with the aid of a burnt match succeeded in diverting for the
rest of the afternoon the attention of a whole laborious colony.

The next morning, however, brought trouble to him in the curiosity
of his sisters, heightened by their belief that he could at any
moment be taken off to prison--which was their understanding of
their mother's story. I grieve to say that to them this invested
him with a certain romantic heroism, from the gratification of
which the hero himself was not exempt. Nevertheless, he
successfully evaded their questioning, and on broader impersonal
grounds. As girls, it was none of their business! He wasn't a-
going to tell them HIS secrets! And what did they know about gold,
anyway? They couldn't tell it from brass! The attitude of his
mother was, however, still perplexing. She was no longer actively
indignant, but treated him with a mysterious reserve that was the
more appalling. The fact was that she no longer believed in his
theft,--indeed, she had never seriously accepted it,--but his
strange reticence and secretiveness piqued her curiosity, and even
made her a little afraid of him. The capacity for keeping a secret
she believed was manlike, and reminded her--for no reason in the
world--of Jim Medliker, her husband, whom she feared. Well, she
would let them fight it out between them. More than that, she was
finally obliged to sink her reserve in employing him in the
necessary "chores" for the house, and he was sent on an errand to
the country store at the cross-roads. But he first extracted his
gold-flake from the wall, and put it in his pocket.

On arriving at the store, it was plain even to his boyish
perceptions that the minister had circulated his miserable story.
Two or three of the customers spoke to each other in a whisper, and
looked at him. More than that, when he began his homeward journey
he saw that two of the loungers were evidently following him. Half
in timidity and half in boyish mischief he once or twice strayed
from the direct road, and snatched a fearful joy in observing their
equal divergence. As he passed Mr. Staples's house he saw that
reverend gentleman sneak out of his back gate, and, without seeing
the two others, join in the inquisitorial procession. But the
events of the past day had had their quickening effect upon
Johnny's intellect. A brilliantly wicked thought struck him. As
he was passing a perfectly bare spot on the road he managed,
without being noticed, to cast his glittering flake of gold on the
sterile ground at the other side of the road, where the minister's
path would lie. Then, at a point where the road turned, he
concealed himself in the brush. The Reverend Mr. Staples hurried
forward as he lost sight of the boy in the sweep of the road, but
halted suddenly. Johnny's heart leaped. The minister looked
around him, stooped, picked up the piece of gold, thrust it
hurriedly in his waistcoat pocket, and continued his way. When he
reached the turn of the road, before passing it, he availed himself
of his solitude to pause and again examine the treasure, and again
return it to his pocket. But, to Johnny's surprise, he here turned
back, walked quickly to the spot where he had found it, carefully
examined the locality, kicking the loose soil and stones around
with his feet until he had apparently satisfied himself that there
was no more, and no gold-bearing indications in the soil. At this
moment, however, the two other inquisitors came in sight, and Mr.
Staples turned quickly and hurried on. Before he had passed the
brush where Johnny was concealed, the two men overtook him and
exchanged greetings. They both spoke of "Johnny" and his crime; of
having followed him with a view of finding out where he went to
procure his gold, and of his having again evaded them. Mr. Staples
agreed with their purpose, but, to Johnny's intense astonishment,
SAID NOTHING ABOUT HIS OWN FIND! When they had passed on, the boy
slipped from his place of concealment and followed them at a
distance until his own house came in view. Here the two men
diverged, but the minister continued on towards the other "store"
and post-office on the main road.

He would have told his mother what he had seen, and his surprise
that the minister had not spoken of finding the gold to the other
men, but he was checked, first by his mother's attitude towards
him, which was clearly the same as the minister's, and, second, by
the knowledge that she would have condemned his dropping the gold
in the minister's path,--though he knew not WHY,--or asked his
reason for it, which he was equally sure he could not formulate,
though he also knew not why. But that evening, as he was returning
from the spring with water, he heard the minister's voice in the
kitchen. It had been a day of surprises and revelations to Johnny,
but the climax seemed to be reached as he entered the room; and he
now stood transfixed and open-mouthed as he heard Mr. Staples say:--

"It's all very well, Sister Medliker, to comfort your heart with
vain hopes and delusions. A mother's leanin's is the soul's
deceivin's,--and yer leanin' on a broken reed. If the boy truly
found that gold he'd have come to ye and said: 'Behold, mother, I
have found gold in the highways and byways; rejoice and be
exceedin' glad!' and hev poured it inter yer lap. Yes," continued
Mr. Staples aggressively to the boy, as he saw him stagger back
with his pail in hand, "yes, sir, THAT would have been the course
of a Christian child!"

For a moment Johnny felt the blood boiling in his ears, and a
thousand words seemed crowding in his throat. "Then"--he gasped
and choked. "Then"--he began again, and stopped with the
suffocation of indignation.

But Mr. Staples saw in his agitation only an awakened conscience,
and, nudging Mrs. Medliker, leaned eagerly forward for a reply.
"Then," he repeated, with suave encouragement, "go on, Johnny!
Speak it out!"

"Then," said Johnny, in a high, shrill falsetto that startled them,
"then wot for did YOU pick up that piece o' gold in the road this
arternoon, and say nothin' of it to the men who followed ye? Ye
did; I seed yer! And ye didn't say nothin' of it to anybody; and
ye ain't sayin' nothin' of it now ter maw! and ye've got it in yer
vest! And it's mine, and I dropped it! Gimme it."

Astonishment, confusion, and rage swelled and empurpled Staples'
face. It was HIS turn to gasp for breath. Yet in the same moment
he made an angry dash at the boy. But Mrs. Medliker interfered.
This was an entirely new feature in the case. Great is the power
of gold. A single glance at the minister's confusion had convinced
her that Johnny's accusation was true, and it was Johnny's MONEY--
constructively HERS--that the minister was concealing. His mere
possession of that gold had more effect in straightening out her
loose logic than any sense of hypocrisy.

"You leave the boy be, Brother Staples," said Mrs. Medliker
sharply. "I reckon wot's his is hisn, spite of whar he got it."

Mr. Staples saw his mistake, and smiled painfully as he fumbled in
his waistcoat pocket. "I believe I DID pick up something," he
said, "that may or may not have been gold, but I have dropped it
again or thrown it away; and really it is of little concern in our
moral lesson. For we have only HIS word that it was really his!
How do we KNOW it?"

"Cos it has my marks on it," said Johnny quickly; "it had a criss-
cross I scratched on it. I kin tell it good enuf."

Mr. Staples turned suddenly pale and rose. "Of course," he said to
Mrs. Medliker with painful dignity, "if you set so much value upon
a mere worldly trifle, I will endeavor to find it. It may be in my
other pocket." He backed out of the door in his usual fashion, but
instantly went over to the post-office, where, as he afterwards
alleged, he had changed the ore for coin in a moment of inadvertence.
But Johnny's hieroglyphics were found on it, and in some mysterious
way the story got about. It had two effects that Johnny did not
dream of. It had forced his mother into an attitude of complicity
with him; it had raised up for him a single friend. Jake Stielitzer,
quartz miner, had declared that Burnt Spring was "playing it low
down" on Johnny! That if they really believed that the boy took
gold from their sluice boxes, it was their duty to watch their
CLAIMS and not the boy. That it was only their excuse for
"snooping" after him, and they only wanted to find his "strike,"
which was as much his as their claims were their own! All this with
great proficiency of epithet, but also a still more recognized
proficiency with the revolver, which made the former respected.

"That's the real nigger in the fence, Johnny," said Jake, twirling
his huge mustache, "and they only want to know where your lead is,--
and don't yer tell 'em! Let 'em bile over with waitin' first, and
that'll put the fire out. Does yer pop know?"

"No," said Johnny.

"Nor yer mar?"

"No."

Jake whistled. "Then it's only YOU, yourself?"

Johnny nodded violently, and his brown eyes glistened.

"It's a heap of information to be packed away in a chap of your
size, Johnny. Makes you feel kinder crowded inside, eh? MUST keep
it to yourself, eh?"

"Have to," said Johnny with a gasp that was a little like a sigh.

It caused Jake to look at him attentively. "See here, Johnny," he
said, "now ef ye wanted to tell somebody about it,--somebody as was
a friend of yours,--ME, f'r instance?"

Johnny slowly withdrew the freckled, warty little hand that had
been resting confidingly in Jake's and gently sidled away from him.
Jake burst into a loud laugh.

"All right, Johnny boy," he said with a hearty slap upon the boy's
back, "keep yer head shut ef yer wanter! Only ef anybody else
comes bummin' round ye, like this, jest turn him over TO ME, and
I'll lift him outer his boots!"

Jake kept his word, and his distance thereafter. Indeed, it was
after this first and last conversation with him that the influence
of his powerful protection was so strong that all active criticisms
of Johnny ceased, and only a respectful surveillance of his
movements lingered in the settlement. I do not know that this was
altogether distasteful to the child; it would have been strange,
indeed, if he had not felt at times exalted by this mysterious
influence that he seemed to have acquired over his fellow
creatures. If he were merely hunting blackberries in the brush, he
was always sure, sooner or later, to find a ready hand offered to
help and accompany him; if he trapped a squirrel or tracked down a
wild bees' hoard, he generally found a smiling face watching him.
Prospectors sometimes stopped him with: "Well, Johnny, as a chipper
and far-minded boy, now WHAR would YOU advise us to dig?" I grieve
to say that Johnny was not above giving his advice,--and that it
was invariably of not the smallest use to the recipient.

And so the days passed. Mr. Medliker's absence was protracted, and
the hour of retribution and punishment still seemed far away. The
blackberries ripened and dried upon the hillside, and the squirrels
had gathered their hoards; the bees no longer came and went through
the thicket, but Johnny was still in daily mysterious possession of
his grains of gold! And then one day--after the fate of all heroic
humanity--his secret was imperilled by the blandishments and
machinations of the all-powerful sex.

Florry Fraser was a little playmate of Johnny's. Why, with his
doubts of his elder sister's intelligence and integrity, he should
have selected a child two years younger, and of singular
simplicity, was, like his other secret, his own. What SHE saw in
him to attract her was equally strange; possibly it may have been
his brown-gooseberry eyes or his warts; but she was quite content
to trot after him, like a young squaw, carrying his "bow-arrow," or
his "trap," supremely satisfied to share his woodland knowledge or
his scanter confidences. For nobody who knew Johnny suspected that
she was privy to his great secret. Howbeit, wherever his ragged
straw hat, thatched with his tawny hair, was detected in the brush,
the little nankeen sunbonnet of Florry was sure to be discerned not
far behind. For two weeks they had not seen each other. A fell
disease, nurtured in ignorance, dirt, and carelessness, was
striking right and left through the valleys of the foothills, and
Florry, whose sister had just recovered from an attack, had been
sequestered with her. But one morning, as Johnny was bringing his
wood from the stack behind the house, he saw, to his intense
delight, a picket of the road fence slipped aside by a small red
hand, and a moment after Florry squeezed herself through the narrow
opening. Her round cheeks were slightly flushed, and there was a
scrap of red flannel around her plump throat that heightened the
whiteness of her skin.

"My!" said Johnny, with half-real, half-affected admiration, "how
splendiferous!"

"Sore froat," said Florry, in a whisper, trying to insert her two
chubby fingers between the bandage and her chin. "I mussent go
outer the garden patch! I mussent play in the woods, for I'll be
seed! I mussent stay long, for they'll ketch me outer bed!"

"Outer bed?" repeated Johnny, with intense admiration, as he
perceived for the first time that Florry was in a flannel nightgown,
with bare legs and feet.

"Ess."

Whereupon these two delightful imps chuckled and wagged their heads
with a sincere enjoyment that this mere world could not give!
Johnny slipped off his shoes and stockings and hurriedly put them
on the infant Florry, securing them from falling off with a thick
cord. This added to their enjoyment.

"We can play cubby house in the stone heap," whispered Florry.

"Hol' on till I tote in this wood," said Johnny. "You hide till I
come back."

Johnny swiftly delivered his load with an alacrity he had never
shown before. Then they played "cubby house"--not fifty feet from
the cabin, with a hushed but guilty satisfaction. But presently it
palled. Their domain was too circumscribed for variety. "Robinson
Crusoe up the tree" was impossible, as being visible from the house
windows. Johnny was at his wits' end. Florry was fretful and
fastidious. Then a great thought struck him and left him cold.
"If I show you a show, you won't tell?" he said suddenly.

"No."

"Wish yer-ma-die?"

"Ess."

"Got any penny?"

"No."

"Got any slate pencil?"

"No."

"Ain't got any pins nor nuthin'? You kin go in for a pin."

But Florry had none of childhood's fluctuating currency with her,
having, so to speak, no pockets.

"Well," said Johnny, brightening up, "ye kin go in for luv."

The child clipped him with her small arms and smiled, and, Johnny
leading the way, they crept on all fours through the thick ferns
until they paused before a deep fissure in the soil half overgrown
with bramble. In its depths they could hear the monotonous trickle
of water. It was really the source of the spring that afterwards
reappeared fifty yards nearer the road, and trickled into an
unfailing pool known as the Burnt Spring, from the brown color of
the surrounding bracken. It was the water supply of the ranch, and
the reason for Mr. Medliker's original selection of that site.
Johnny lingered for an instant, looked carefully around, and then
lowered himself into the fissure. A moment later he reached up his
arms to Florry, lowered her also, and both disappeared from view.
Yet from time to time their voices came faintly from below--with
the gurgle of water--as of festive gnomes at play.

At the end of ten minutes they reappeared, a little muddy, a little
bedraggled, but flushed and happy. There were two pink spots on
Florry's cheeks, and she clasped something tightly in her little
red fist.

"There," said Johnny, when they were seated in the straw again,
"now mind you don't tell."

But here suddenly Florry's lips began to quiver, and she gave vent
to a small howl of anguish.

"You ain't bit by a trant'ler nor nuthin'?' said Johnny anxiously.
"Hush up!"

"N--o--o! But"--

"But what?" said Johnny.

"Mar said I MUST tell! Mar said I was to fin' out where you get
the truly gold! Mar said I was to get you to take me," howled
Florry, in an agony of remorse.

Johnny gasped. "You Injin!" he began.

"But I won't--Johnny!" said Florry, clutching his leg frantically.
"I won't and I sha'n't! I ain't no Injin!"

Then, between her sobs, she told him how her mother and Mr. Staples
had said that she was to ask Johnny the next time they met to take
her where they found the "truly gold," and she was to remember
where it was and to tell them. And they were going to give her a
new dolly and a hunk of gingerbread. "But I won't--and I sha'n't!"
she said passionately. She was quite pale again.

Johnny was convinced, but thoughtful. "Tell 'em," he said
hoarsely, "tell 'em a big whopper! They won't know no better.
They'll never guess where." And he briefly recounted the wild-
goose chase he had given the minister.

"And get the dolly and the cake," said Florry, her eyes shining
through her tears.

"In course," said Johnny. "They'll get the dolly back, but you kin
have eated the cake first." They looked at each other, and their
eyes danced together over this heaven-sent inspiration. Then
Johnny took off her shoes and stockings, rubbed her cold feet with
his dirty handkerchief, and said: "Now you trot over to your mar!"

He helped her through the loose picket of the fence and was turning
away when her faint voice again called him.

"Johnny!"

He turned back; she was standing on the other side of the fence
holding out her arms to him. He went to her with shining eyes,
lifted her up, and from her hot but loving little lips took a fatal
kiss.

For only an hour later Mrs. Fraser found Florry in her bed, tossing
with a high fever and a light head. She was talking of "Johnny"
and "gold," and had a flake of the metal in her tiny fist. When
Mr. Staples was sent for, and with the mother and father, hung
anxiously above her bed, to their eager questioning they could only
find out that Florry had been to a high mountain, ever so far away,
and on the top of it there was gold lying around, and a shining
figure was giving it away to the people.

"And who were the people, Florry dear," said Mr. Staples
persuasively; "anybody ye know here?"

"They woz angels," said Florry, with a frightened glance over her
shoulder.

I grieve to say that Mr. Staples did not look as pleased at the
celestial vision as he might have, and poor Mrs. Fraser probably
saw that in her child's face which drove other things from her
mind. Yet Mr. Staples persisted:--

"And who led you to this beautiful mountain? Was it Johnny?"

"No."

"Who then?"

Florry opened her eyes on the speaker. "I fink it was Dod," she
said, and closed them again.

But here Dr. Duchesne hurried in, and after a single glance at the
child hustled Mr. Staples from the room. For there were grave
complications that puzzled him, Florry seemed easier and quieter
under his kindly voice and touch, but did not speak again,--and so,
slowly sinking, passed away that night in a dreamless sleep. This
was followed by a mad panic at Burnt Spring the next day, and Mrs.
Medliker fled with her two girls to Sacramento, leaving Johnny,
ostensibly strong and active, to keep house until his father's
return. But Mr. Medliker's return was again delayed, and in the
epidemic, which had now taken a fast hold of the settlement,
Johnny's secret--and indeed the boy himself--was quite forgotten.
It was only on Mr. Medliker's arrival it was known that he had been
lying dangerously ill, alone, in the abandoned house. In his
strange reticence and firmness of purpose he had kept his
sufferings to himself,--as he had his other secret,--and they were
revealed only in the wasted, hollow figure that feebly opened the
door to his father.

On which intelligence Mr. Staples was, as usual, promptly on the
spot with his story of Johnny's secret to the father, and his usual
eager questioning to the fast-sinking boy. "And now, Johnny," he
said, leaning over the bed, "tell us ALL. There is One from whom
no secrets are hid. Remember, too, that dear Florry, who is now
with the angels, has already confessed."

Perhaps it was because Johnny, even at that moment, hated the man;
perhaps it was because at that moment he loved and believed in
Florry, or perhaps it was only that because at that moment he was
nearer the greater Truth than his questioner, but he said, in a
husky voice, "You lie!"

Staples drew back with a flushed face, but lips that writhed in a
pained and still persistent eagerness. "But, Johnny, at least tell
us where--wh--wow--wow."

I am obliged to admit that these undignified accents came from Mr.
Staples' own lips, and were due to the sudden pressure of Mr.
Medliker's arm around his throat. The teamster was irascible and
prompt through much mule-driving, and his arm was, from the same
reason, strong and sinewy. Mr. Staples felt himself garroted and
dragged from the room, and only came to under the stars outside,
with the hoarse voice of Mr. Medliker in his ears:--

"You're a minister of the gospel, I know, but ef ye say another
word to my Johnny, I'll knock the gospel stuffin' out of ye. Ye
hear me! I'VE DRIVEN MULES AFORE!"

He then strode back into the room. "Ye needn't answer, Johnny,
he's gone."

But so, too, had Johnny, for he never answered the question in this
world, nor, please God, was he required to in the next. He lay
still and dead. The community was scandalized the next day when
Mr. Medliker sent for a minister from Sacramento to officiate at
his child's funeral, in place of Mr. Staples, and then the subject
was dropped.

. . . . . .

But the influence of Johnny's hidden treasure still remained as a
superstition in the locality. Prospecting parties were continually
made up to discover the unknown claim, but always from evidence and
data altogether apocryphal. It was even alleged that a miner had
one night seen the little figures of Johnny and Florry walking over
the hilltop, hand in hand, but that they had vanished among the
stars at the very moment he thought he had discovered their secret.
And then it was forgotten; the prosperous Mr. Medliker, now the
proprietor of a stage-coach route, moved away to Sacramento;
Medliker's Ranch became a station for changing horses, and, as the
new railway in time superseded even that, sank into a blacksmith's
shop on the outskirts of the new town of Burnt Spring. And then
one day, six years after, news fell as a bolt from the blue!

It was thus recorded in the county paper: "A piece of rare good
fortune, involving, it is said, the development of a lead of
extraordinary value, has lately fallen to the lot of Mr. John
Silsbee, the popular blacksmith, on the site of the old Medliker
Ranch. In clearing out the failing water-course known as Burnt
Spring, Mr. Silsbee came upon a rich ledge or pocket at the actual
source of the spring,--a fissure in the ground a few rods from the
road. The present yield has been estimated to be from eight to ten
thousand dollars. But the event is considered as one of the most
remarkable instances of the vagaries of 'prospecting' ever known,
as this valuable 'pot-hole' existed undisturbed for EIGHT YEARS not
FIFTY YARDS from the old cabin that was in former times the
residence of J. Medliker, Esq., and the station of the Pioneer
Stage Company, and was utterly unknown and unsuspected by the
previous inhabitants! Verily truth is stranger than fiction!"

A TALE OF THREE TRUANTS

The schoolmaster at Hemlock Hill was troubled that morning. Three
of his boys were missing. This was not only a notable deficit in a
roll-call of twenty, but the absentees were his three most original
and distinctive scholars. He had received no preliminary warning
or excuse. Nor could he attribute their absence to any common
local detention or difficulty of travel. They lived widely apart
and in different directions. Neither were they generally known as
"chums," or comrades, who might have entered into an unhallowed
combination to "play hookey."

He looked at the vacant places before him with a concern which his
other scholars little shared, having, after their first lively
curiosity, not unmixed with some envy of the derelicts, apparently
forgotten them. He missed the cropped head and inquisitive glances
of Jackson Tribbs on the third bench, the red hair and brown eyes
of Providence Smith in the corner, and there was a blank space in
the first bench where Julian Fleming, a lanky giant of seventeen,
had sat. Still, it would not do to show his concern openly, and,
as became a man who was at least three years the senior of the
eldest, Julian Fleming, he reflected that they were "only boys,"
and that their friends were probably ignorant of the good he was
doing them, and so dismissed the subject. Nevertheless, it struck
him as wonderful how the little world beneath him got on without
them. Hanky Rogers, bully, who had been kept in wholesome check by
Julian Fleming, was lively and exuberant, and his conduct was
quietly accepted by the whole school; Johnny Stebbins, Tribbs's
bosom friend, consorted openly with Tribbs's particular enemy; some
of the girls were singularly gay and conceited. It was evident
that some superior masculine oppression had been removed.

He was particularly struck by this last fact, when, the next
morning, no news coming of the absentees, he was impelled to
question his flock somewhat precisely concerning them. There was
the usual shy silence which follows a general inquiry from the
teacher's desk; the children looked at one another, giggled
nervously, and said nothing.

"Can you give me any idea as to what might have kept them away?"
said the master.

Hanky Rogers looked quickly around, began, "Playin' hook--" in a
loud voice, but stopped suddenly without finishing the word, and
became inaudible. The master saw fit to ignore him.

"Bee-huntin'," said Annie Roker vivaciously.

"Who is?" asked the master.

"Provy Smith, of course. Allers bee-huntin'. Gets lots o' honey.
Got two full combs in his desk last week. He's awful on bees and
honey. Ain't he, Jinny?" This in a high voice to her sister.

The younger Miss Roker, thus appealed to, was heard to murmur that
of all the sneakin' bee-hunters she had ever seed, Provy Smith was
the worst. "And squirrels--for nuts," she added.

The master became attentive,--a clue seemed probable here. "Would
Tribbs and Fleming be likely to go with him?" he asked.

A significant silence followed. The master felt that the children
recognized a doubt of this, knowing the boys were not "chums;"
possibly they also recognized something incriminating to them, and
with characteristic freemasonry looked at one another and were
dumb.

He asked no further questions, but, when school was dismissed,
mounted his horse and started for the dwelling of the nearest
culprit, Jackson Tribbs, four miles distant. He had often admired
the endurance of the boy, who had accomplished the distance,
including the usual meanderings of a country youth, twice a day, on
foot, in all weathers, with no diminution of spirits or energy. He
was still more surprised when he found it a mountain road, and that
the house lay well up on the ascent of the pass. Autumn was
visible only in a few flaming sumacs set among the climbing pines,
and here, in a little clearing to the right, appeared the dwelling
he was seeking.

"Tribbses," or "Tribbs's Run," was devoted to the work of cutting
down the pines midway on a long regularly sloping mountain-side,
which allowed the trunks, after they were trimmed and cut into
suitable lengths, to be slid down through rude runs, or artificial
channels, into the valley below, where they were collected by teams
and conveyed to the nearest mills. The business was simple in the
extreme, and was carried on by Tribbs senior, two men with saws and
axes, and the natural laws of gravitation. The house was a long
log cabin; several sheds roofed with bark or canvas seemed
consistent with the still lingering summer and the heated odors of
the pines, but were strangely incongruous to those white patches on
the table-land and the white tongue stretching from the ridge to
the valley. But the master was familiar with those Sierran
contrasts, and as he had never ascended the trail before, it might
be only the usual prospect of the dwellers there. At this moment
Mr. Tribbs appeared from the cabin, with his axe on his shoulder.
Nodding carelessly to the master, he was moving away, when the
latter stopped him.

"Is Jackson here?" he asked.

"No," said the father, half impatiently, still moving on. "Hain't
seen him since yesterday."

"Nor has he been at school," said the master, "either yesterday or
to-day."

Mr. Tribbs looked puzzled and grieved. "Now I reckoned you had
kep' him in for some devilment of his'n, or lessons."

"Not ALL NIGHT!" said the master, somewhat indignant at this
presumption of his arbitrary functions.

"Humph!" said Mr. Tribbs. "Mariar!" Mrs. Tribbs made her
appearance in the doorway. "The schoolmaster allows that Jackson
ain't bin to school at all." Then, turning to the master, he
added, "Thar! you settle it between ye," and quietly walked away.

Mrs. Tribbs looked by no means satisfied with or interested in the
proposed tete-a-tete. "Hev ye looked in the bresh" (i. e., brush
or underwood) "for him?" she said querulously.

"No," said the master, "I came here first. There are two other
boys missing,--Providence Smith and Julian Fleming. Did either of
them"--

But Mrs. Tribbs had interrupted him with a gesture of impatient
relief. "Oh, that's all, is it? Playin' hookey together, in
course. 'Scuse me, I must go back to my bakin'." She turned away,
but stopped suddenly, touched, as the master fondly believed, by
some tardy maternal solicitude. But she only said: "When he DOES
come back, you just give him a whalin', will ye?" and vanished into
her kitchen.

The master rode away, half ashamed of his foolish concern for the
derelicts. But he determined to try Smith's father, who owned a
small rancho lower down on a spur of the same ridge. But the spur
was really nearer Hemlock Hill, and could have been reached more
directly by a road from there. He, however, kept along the ridge,
and after half an hour's ride was convinced that Jackson Tribbs
could have communicated with Provy Smith without coming nearer
Hemlock Hill, and this revived his former belief that they were
together. He found the paternal Smith engaged in hoeing potatoes
in a stony field. The look of languid curiosity with which he had
regarded the approach of the master changed to one of equally
languid aggression as he learned the object of his visit.

"Wot are ye comin' to ME for? I ain't runnin' your school," he
said slowly and aggressively. "I started Providence all right for
it mornin' afore last, since when I never set eyes on him. That
lets ME out. My business, young feller, is lookin' arter the
ranch. Yours, I reckon, is lookin' arter your scholars."

"I thought it my business to tell you your son was absent from
school," said the master coldly, turning away. "If you are
satisfied, I have nothing more to say." Nevertheless, for the
moment he was so startled by this remarkable theory of his own
responsibility in the case that he quite accepted the father's
callousness,--or rather it seemed to him that his unfortunate
charges more than ever needed his protection. There was still the
chance of his hearing some news from Julian Fleming's father; he
lived at some distance, in the valley on the opposite side of
Hemlock Hill; and thither the master made his way. Luckily he had
not gone far before he met Mr. Fleming, who was a teamster, en
route. Like the fathers of the other truants, he was also engaged
in his vocation. But, unlike the others, Fleming senior was jovial
and talkative. He pulled up his long team promptly, received the
master's news with amused interest, and an invitation to spirituous
refreshment from a demijohn in his wagon.

"Me and the ole woman kind o' spekilated that Jule might hev been
over with Aunt Marthy; but don't you worry, Mr. Schoolmaster.
They're limbs, every one o' them, but they'll fetch up somewhere,
all square! Just you put two fingers o' that corn juice inside ye,
and let 'em slide. Ye didn't hear what the 'lekshun news was when
ye was at Smith's, did ye?"

The master had not inquired. He confessed he had been worried
about the boys. He had even thought that Julian might have met
with an accident.

Mr. Fleming wiped his mouth, with a humorous affectation of
concern. "Met with an ACCIDENT? Yes, I reckon not ONE accident,
but TWO of 'em. These yer accidents Jule's met with had two legs,
and were mighty lively accidents, you bet, and took him off with
'em; or mebbe they had four legs, and he's huntin' 'em yet.
Accidents! Now I never thought o' that! Well, when you come
across him and THEM ACCIDENTS, you just whale 'em, all three! And
ye won't take another drink? Well, so long, then! Gee up!" He
rolled away, with a laugh, in the heavy dust kicked up by his
plunging mules, and the master made his way back to the schoolhouse.
His quest for that day was ended.

But the next morning he was both astounded and relieved, at the
assembling of school, to find the three truants back in their
places. His urgent questioning of them brought only the one and
same response from each: "Got lost on the ridge." He further
gathered that they had slept out for two nights, and were together
all the time, but nothing further, and no details were given. The
master was puzzled. They evidently expected punishment; that was
no doubt also the wish of their parents; but if their story was
true, it was a serious question if he ought to inflict it. There
was no means of testing their statement; there was equally none by
which he could controvert it. It was evident that the whole school
accepted it without doubt; whether they were in possession of
details gained from the truants themselves which they had withheld
from him, or whether from some larger complicity with the culprits,
he could not say. He told them gravely that he should withhold
equally their punishment and their pardon until he could satisfy
himself of their veracity, and that there had been no premeditation
in their act. They seemed relieved, but here, again, he could not
tell whether it sprang from confidence in their own integrity or
merely from youthful hopefulness that delayed retribution never
arrived!

It was a month before their secret was fully disclosed. It was
slowly evolved from corroborating circumstances, but always with a
shy reluctance from the boys themselves, and a surprise that any
one should think it of importance. It was gathered partly from
details picked up at recess or on the playground, from the
voluntary testimony of teamsters and packers, from a record in the
county newspaper, but always shaping itself into a consecutive and
harmonious narrative.

It was a story so replete with marvelous escape and adventure that
the master hesitated to accept it in its entirety until after it
had long become a familiar history, and was even forgotten by the
actors themselves. And even now he transcribes it more from the
circumstances that surrounded it than from a hope that the story
will be believed.

WHAT HAPPENED

Master Provy Smith had started out that eventful morning with the
intention of fighting Master Jackson Tribbs for the "Kingship" of
Table Ridge--a trifling territory of ten leagues square--Tribbs
having infringed on his boundaries and claimed absolute sovereignty
over the whole mountain range. Julian Fleming was present as
referee and bottle-holder. The battle ground selected was the
highest part of the ridge. The hour was six o'clock, which would
allow them time to reach school before its opening, with all traces
of their conflict removed. The air was crisp and cold,--a trifle
colder than usual,--and there was a singular thickening of the
sun's rays on the ridge, which made the distant peaks indistinct
and ghostlike. However, the two combatants stripped "to the buff,"
and Fleming patronizingly took position at the "corner," leaning
upon a rifle, which, by reason of his superior years, and the
wilderness he was obliged to traverse in going to school, his
father had lent him to carry. It was that day a providential
weapon.

Suddenly, Fleming uttered the word, "Sho!" The two combatants
paused in their first "squaring off" to see, to their surprise,
that their referee had faced round, with his gun in his hand, and
was staring in another direction.

"B'ar!" shouted the three voices together. A huge bear, followed
by its cubs, was seen stumbling awkwardly away to the right, making
for the timber below. In an instant the boys had hurried into
their jackets again, and the glory of fight was forgotten in the
fever of the chase. Why should they pound each other when there
was something to really KILL? They started in instant pursuit,
Julian leading.

But the wind was now keen and bitter in their faces, and that
peculiar thickening of the air which they had noticed had become
first a dark blue and then a whitening pall, in which the bear was
lost. They still kept on. Suddenly Julian felt himself struck
between the eyes by what seemed a snowball, and his companions were
as quickly spattered by gouts of monstrous clinging snowflakes.
Others as quickly followed--it was not snowing, it was snowballing.
They at first laughed, affecting to retaliate with these whirling,
flying masses shaken like clinging feathers from a pillow; but in a
few seconds they were covered from head to foot by snow, their
limbs impeded or pinioned against them by its weight, their breath
gone. They stopped blindly, breathlessly. Then, with a common
instinct, they turned back. But the next moment they heard Julian
cry, "Look out!" Coming towards them out of the storm was the
bear, who had evidently turned back by the same instinct. An
ungovernable instinct seized the younger boys, and they fled. But
Julian stopped with leveled rifle. The bear stopped too, with
sullen, staring eyes. But the eyes that glanced along the rifle
were young, true, and steady. Julian fired. The hot smoke was
swept back by the gale into his face, but the bear turned and
disappeared in the storm again. Julian ran on to where his
companions had halted at the report, a little ashamed of their
cowardice. "Keep on that way!" he shouted hoarsely. "No use
tryin' to go where the b'ar couldn't. Keep on!"

"Keep on--whar? There ain't no trail--no nuthin'!" said Jackson
querulously, to hold down a rising fear. It was true. The trail
had long since disappeared; even their footprints of a moment
before were filled up by the piling snow; they were isolated in
this stony upland, high in air, without a rock or tree to guide
them across its vast white level. They were bitterly cold and
benumbed. The stimulus of the storm and chase had passed, but
Julian kept driving them before him, himself driven along by the
furious blast, yet trying to keep some vague course along the
waste. So an hour passed. Then the wind seemed to have changed,
or else they had traveled in a circle--they knew not which, but the
snow was in their faces now. But, worst of all, the snow had
changed too; it no longer fell in huge blue flakes, but in millions
of stinging gray granules. Julian's face grew hard and his eyes
bright. He knew it was no longer a snow-squall, but a lasting
storm. He stopped; the boys tumbled against him. He looked at
them with a strange smile.

"Hev you two made up?" he said.

"No--o!"

"Make up, then."

"What?"

"Shake hands."

They clasped each other's red, benumbed fingers and laughed, albeit
a little frightened at Julian. "Go on!" he said, curtly.

They went on dazedly, stupidly, for another hour.

Suddenly Provy Smith's keen eyes sparkled. He pointed to a
singular irregular mound of snow before them, plainly seen above
the dreary level. Julian ran to it with a cry, and began wildly
digging. "I knew I hit him," he cried, as he brushed the snow from
a huge and hairy leg. It was the bear--dead, but not yet cold. He
had succumbed with his huge back to the blast, the snow piling a
bulwark behind him, where it had slowly roofed him in. The half-
frozen lads threw themselves fearlessly against his furry coat and
crept between his legs, nestling themselves beneath his still warm
body with screams of joy. The snow they had thrown back increased
the bulwark, and drifting over it, in a few moments inclosed them
in a thin shell of snow. Thoroughly exhausted, after a few grunts
of satisfaction, a deep sleep fell upon them, from which they were
awakened only by the pangs of hunger. Alas! their dinners--the
school dinners--had been left on the inglorious battlefield.
Nevertheless, they talked of eating the bear if it came to the
worst. They would have tried it even then, but they were far above
the belt of timber; they had matches--what boy has not?--but no
WOOD. Still, they were reassured, and even delighted, with this
prospect, and so fell asleep again, stewing with the dead bear in
the half-impervious snow, and woke up in the morning ravenous, yet
to see the sun shining in their faces through the melted snow, and
for Jackson Tribbs to quickly discover, four miles away as the crow
flies, the cabin of his father among the flaming sumacs.

They started up in the glare of the sun, which at first almost
blinded them. They then discovered that they were in a depression
of the table-land that sloped before them to a deep gully in the
mountainside, which again dropped into the canyon below. The trail
they had lost, they now remembered, must be near this edge. But it
was still hidden, and in seeking it there was danger of some fatal
misstep in the treacherous snow. Nevertheless, they sallied out
bravely, although they would fain have stopped to skin the bear,
but Julian's mandate was peremptory. They spread themselves along
the ridge, at times scraping the loose snow away in their search
for the lost trail.

Suddenly they all slipped and fell, but rose again quickly,
laughing. Then they slipped and fell again, but this time with the
startling consciousness that it was not THEY who had slipped, but
THE SNOW! As they regained their feet they could plainly see now
that a large crack on the white field, some twenty feet in width,
extended between them and the carcass of the bear, showing the
glistening rock below. Again they were thrown down with a sharp
shock. Jackson Tribbs, who had been showing a strange excitement,
suddenly gave a cry of warning. "Lie flat, fellers! but keep a-
crawlin' and jumpin'. We're goin' down a slide!" And the next
moment they were sliding and tossing, apparently with the whole
snow-field, down towards the gullied precipice.

What happened after this, and how long it lasted, they never knew.
For, hurried along with increasing momentum, but always
mechanically clutching at the snow, and bounding from it as they
swept on, they sometimes lost breath, and even consciousness. At
times they were half suffocated in rolling masses of drift, and
again free and skimming over its arrested surface, but always
falling, as it seemed to them, almost perpendicularly. In one of
these shocks they seemed to be going through a thicket of
underbrush; but Provy Smith knew that they were the tops of pine-
trees. At last there was one shock longer and lasting, followed by
a deepening thunder below them. The avalanche had struck a ledge
in the mountain side, and precipitated its lower part into the
valley.

Then everything was still, until Provy heard Julian's voice
calling. He answered, but there was no response from Tribbs. Had
he gone over into the valley? They set up a despairing shout! A
voice--a smothered one--that might be his, came apparently from the
snow beneath them. They shouted again; the voice, vague and
hollow, responded, but it was now surely his.

"Where are you?" screamed Provy.

"Down the chimbley."

There was a black square of adobe sticking out of the snow near
them. They ran to it. There was a hole. They peered down, but
could see nothing at first but a faint glimmer.

"Come down, fellows! It ain't far!" said Tribbs's voice.

"Wot yer got there?" asked Julian cautiously.

"Suthin' to eat."

That was enough. In another instant Julian and Provy went down the
chimney. What was a matter of fifteen feet after a thousand?
Tribbs had already lit a candle by which they could see that they
were in the cabin of some tunnel-man at work on the ridge. He had
probably been in the tunnel when the avalanche fell, and escaped,
though his cabin was buried. The three discoverers helped
themselves to his larder. They laughed and ate as at a picnic,
played cards, pretended it was a robber's cave, and finally,
wrapping themselves in the miner's blankets, slept soundly, knowing
where they were, and confident also that they could find the trail
early the next morning. They did so, and without going to their
homes came directly to school--having been absent about fifty
hours. They were in high spirits, except for the thought of
approaching punishment, never dreaming to evade it by anything
miraculous in their adventures.

Such was briefly their story. Its truth was corroborated by the
discovery of the bear's carcass, by the testimony of the tunnel-
man, who found his larder mysteriously ransacked in his buried
cabin, and, above all, by the long white tongue that for many
months hung from the ledge into the valley. Nobody thought the
lanky Julian a hero,--least of all himself. Nobody suspected that
Jackson Tribbs's treatment of a "slide" had been gathered from
experiments in his father's "runs"--and he was glad they did not.
The master's pardon obtained, the three truants cared little for
the opinion of Hemlock Hill. They knew THEMSELVES, that was
enough.

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