Digging for Goldñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Mr. Silverthorn produced his red handkerchief, and rubbed his eyes again.
“It is a hard, cold world!” he said. “I am a very unfortunate man.”
“Perhaps you are; but I don’t think you deserve to be very fortunate. Just make up your mind that you are not going to travel with us. Had you behaved honorably, and not repaid kindness by theft, we would have allowed you to remain with us for a time; but now it is impossible.”
“I shall starve, and be found a wretched corpse by the wayside,” moaned Dionysius.
“Let him have some provisions, Tom,” said Mrs. Cooper, who was naturally compassionate. She had given up the idea that he was a truly good man, but she was not willing that he should be left quite unprovided for.
“I will do that,” said Tom.
He made up a small parcel of provisions, and handed them to Dionysius Silverthorn, who sat down on a stump, while the little caravan pushed on.
“That’s the strangest sort of man I ever encountered,” said Tom. “I wonder whether we’ll ever see him again.”
IN DIRE DISTRESS
Some days later the party reached the great salt plains dreaded by all overland travellers. The sight of the vast, white prairies, utterly destitute of vegetation, with no plant or shrub visible, and no evidence that any had ever existed, was depressing enough.
“If we should get out of provisions or water here, Heaven help us!” said Tom apprehensively.
“How far will we have to go before we reach the borders of the plain?” asked Grant.
“I don’t know, but I have heard that it is very extensive.”
“How are we off for provisions?”
“That is what makes me anxious. Our supply is quite scanty.”
“And there is no chance to replenish it here?”
Tom shook his head.
“Don’t tell mother,” he said. “It would make her worry. It will be time for her to learn it if worse comes to worst.”
On the sixth day they were startled by a sight calculated to increase their fears.
It was a stranded wagon, with three gaunt, emaciated bodies stretched near it, all of them quite dead. There were two men and a woman.
“They must have died of hunger, or thirst, or both,” whispered Tom.
“What can have happened to them?” asked Mrs. Cooper compassionately.
“Perhaps they were weak, and unable to go farther,” said Tom evasively.
“It seems terrible that they should be exposed to the elements. Suppose some wild beasts should come and mangle their bodies.”
“Wild beasts are too sensible to be found in this region,” said Tom.
“Why?” asked his mother.
“Because,” answered Tom, hesitating, “the country is so barren and unattractive.”
“You seem to think wild animals appreciate fine scenery, like human beings.”
“Well, yes, in a measure,” and Tom nodded significantly at Grant, as if to caution him against saying anything that would reveal to his mother his real meaning.
“Tom,” said his father, “don’t you think we had better bury these unfortunate persons?”
I will help you do it.”
“And I,” added Grant.
“First, however, let us see if we can find any letters or documents disclosing their identity. We ought to let their friends know what has become of them.”
In the pocket of one of the men Tom found letters showing that it was a party from Taunton, in Massachusetts. One of the men had a silver watch, and upon another was found a small sum of money.
“I will take charge of the watch and money,” said Mr. Cooper, “and when we reach any point where it is possible, I will send them on to their friends in Taunton, for that appears to have been their home.”
“What about the wagon, father?”
“We must leave it. We have all we can do in transporting our own.”
A grave was dug, and the three bodies were deposited therein. Tom looked sober, for he couldn’t help asking himself, “Suppose this should be our fate!”
He quietly examined the wagon to see if he could find any provisions, but there was not a scrap, or crust to be found.
“It was as I thought,” he whispered to Grant. “The poor wretches died of starvation.”
A week later the same problem confronted them.
“Grant,” said Tom, “I have been examining our food supply, and find that we have only enough to last us two days.”
Grant looked startled.
“And then?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Unless we get a fresh supply we must die, like those poor people whom we buried a week since.”
“Shall you tell your mother?”
“I must. She is entitled to know, for she is in danger like ourselves.”
Mrs. Cooper turned pale, but seemed calm and composed when told of the state of affairs.
“We must make our provisions last as long as possible,” she said.
“We must be placed on allowance.”
“Yes. That will give us some additional time. We must make our two days’ supply last over four days, and who knows what may happen in four days?”
“That is a sensible suggestion, mother, but let it only extend to Grant, father and myself. I don’t want you to be stinted.”
“What do you think of me, Tom? Do you suppose I would consent to fare better than my husband and son, and this boy, who seems like one of us? No, Tom, you should judge your mother better.”
“You have shut me up, mother. I can’t say anything in answer to that.”
“I will show you that a woman has as much fortitude as a man. Besides, I do not have to work as hard as you. I can bear the deprivation better.”
The days following were days of intense anxiety. Every morning, when they set out on their daily march, there was a prayer in the heart of each that something would happen before the sun set that would relieve them from the haunting fear of famine.
But in all these days they met no one, and overtook no one. The sun rose hot and fiery, making the great alkali plain seem still more arid and cheerless. So far as they could see, they were the only people in the world; for, look as they might, they could see no other evidence of human habitation. But in the distance it was a relief to perceive some low rising hills, and by night time they reached an oasis, and, what cheered their hearts, a small stream of water, for they were very nearly out, and had felt the need of economizing. Now the oxen, and the horse, as well as themselves, were allowed to drink ad libitum. The animals drank with evident gratification, and looked sensibly cheered and relieved.
“Now, if we could only find some food, I should be perfectly happy,” said Grant.
Only a few crackers were left, but these, dipped in the water, became palatable. But the serious question arose: “What would they do when these were gone?” It was a question that none of them could answer.
“I have often wondered, Grant,” said Tom, “what it was like to want food. I begin to understand it now. I remember one day a poor tramp came to our door, who said he had not tasted food for forty-eight hours. I looked at him with curiosity. I could not understand how this could happen to any one. All my life I had never known what it was to want food. I even doubted his word; but when mother invited him into the kitchen and set a plate of meat and bread before the poor fellow, the eagerness with which the famished wretch ate satisfied me that he had told the truth. Now, Grant, I will make a confession.”
“What is it, Tom? Have you murdered any one?” asked Grant, with forced hilarity.
“Not that I remember. My confession is of a different nature. For four days – during the whole time that I have been on half rations – I have felt a perpetual craving for food.”
“And I too, Tom.”
“And now I feel weak and exhausted. It has been an effort to drag myself along to-day. The fact is, machinery can’t be kept in working trim without fuel.”
“I realize that, too, Tom.”
“I presume father and mother have felt the same way, but I haven’t dared to ask them. They say ‘misery loves company,’ but when the companions in misery are your own father and mother, it doesn’t apply. Though I have to suffer myself, I wish they were spared the same privations that have undermined my strength.”
It will be seen that Tom was better educated than the majority of young men born and brought up in the country. He had attended an academy in a neighboring town for a year, and had for a season taught the district school at Crestville. Grant found him pleasant and instructive company.
That night, when they went to bed, they were utterly without food. What were to be their experiences on the morrow they could not foresee, but there was plenty of room for grave apprehension.
“Grant, if we can get no food, I have decided what we must do,” said Tom, as they lay down to rest at a short distance from each other.
“What is it, Tom? Have you thought of anything?”
“Yes; I suppose you know that horseflesh, though not to be compared with beef, is still palatable?”
“It is our last resource. Poor old Dobbin must die!” and the young man sighed.
At that moment the old horse whinnied.
“It seems as if he knew what we were talking about,” said Tom.
“That will last us some time,” remarked Grant, with renewed hope.
“Yes; I suppose the poor old fellow won’t be very tender, but it is the only way he can serve us now. We can cook up quite a supply while the meat is fresh, and take it with us. It will give us a new lease of life, and something may happen before that supply is exhausted.”
Tom consulted his father and mother, who, though at first startled, decided that it was the only thing to be done.
And so poor Dobbin’s fate seemed to be sealed!
THE SOLITARY CABIN
When they rose the next morning, all looked serious. Each felt that the crisis had come. All eyes were turned upon poor old Dobbin, who, unconscious of his danger, was browsing near the camp.
“Grant,” said Tom suddenly, “let us give Dobbin a small lease of life.”
“Will it do any good, Tom?”
“I don’t know; but this is what I propose: let us each take a rifle and go in different directions. We may find a deer or antelope to serve as a substitute for Dobbin, or something else may turn up.”
“Very well, Tom.”
So the two started out.
Chance directed Grant’s steps into a sheltered valley. Coarse grass covered the ground, which seemed luxurious when compared with the white alkali plains over which they had been travelling.
Grant kept on his way, taking pains not to lose his bearings, for he did not care to stray from the party, and it was quite possible to get lost. There was no evidence of human habitation. So far as appearances went, this oasis might have come fresh from the creative hand, and never fallen under the eye of man. But appearances are deceptive.
Turning a sharp corner, Grant was amazed to find before him a veritable log cabin. It was small, only about twelve feet square, and had evidently at some time been inhabited.
Curious to learn more of this solitary dwelling, Grant entered through the open door. Again he was surprised to find it comfortably furnished. On the rough floor was a Turkish rug. In one corner stood a bedstead, covered with bedding. There were two chairs and a settee. In fact, it was better furnished than Robinson Crusoe’s dwelling in his solitary island.
Grant entered and sat down on a chair.
“What does it all mean, I wonder?” he asked himself. “Does anybody live here, or when did the last tenant give up possession? Was it because he could not pay his rent?” and he laughed at the idea.
As Grant leaned back in his chair and asked himself these questions, his quick ear caught the sound of some one approaching. He looked up, and directly the doorway was darkened by the entrance of a tall man, who in turn gazed at Grant in surprise.
“Ah!” he said, after a brief pause, “I was not expecting a visitor this morning. How long have you been here?”
“Not five minutes. Do you live here?”
“For the present. You, I take it, are crossing the plains?”
“Not alone, surely?”
“No; my party are perhaps a mile away.”
“Then you are on an exploring expedition?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Grant gravely; “on a very serious exploring expedition.”
“How is that?”
“We are all out of food. There isn’t a crumb left, and starvation stares us in the face.”
“Ha! Did you expect to find food anywhere about here? Was this your object?”
“I don’t know. It was a desperate step to take. I have a rifle with me. I thought it possible I might come across a deer that would tide us over for a few days.”
“How large is your party?”
“There are only four of us.”
“Except one. Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, and their son Tom, a young man, and myself constitute the party.”
“Whence did you come?”
“I venture to say you have found what you did not expect.”
“Yes; I never dreamed of finding a man or a human habitation in this out-of-the-way spot.”
“And yet the time may come within twenty-five years when there may be a village in this very spot.”
“I wish it were here now,” sighed Grant. “And if there was one, I wish there might be a restaurant or a baker’s shop handy.”
“I can’t promise you that, but what is more important, I can supply you with provisions.”
As he spoke, he walked to one corner of the dwelling and opened a door, which had not thus far attracted Grant’s attention. There was revealed a small closet. Inside was a cask, which, as Grant could see, was full of crackers, another contained flour, and on a shelf was a large piece of deer meat, which had been cooked, and appealed powerfully to Grant’s appetite, which for four days had been growing, and now was clamoring to be satisfied.
Grant sighed, and over his face came a look of longing.
“Shut the door, quick,” he said, “or I may be tempted to take what does not belong to me.”
“My dear boy,” said the stranger, and over his rugged features came a smile that lighted them up wonderfully; “it is yours. Help yourself.”
Grant took a cracker and ate it quickly. Then he took a knife that lay beside the meat and cut off a slice, which he likewise disposed of. Then he remembered himself.
“I am selfish,” he said. “I am satisfying my appetite, while my poor friends are suffering from hunger.”
“Bring them with you. They shall breakfast with me. Or stay. I will go with you and invite them myself.”
Grant left the cabin with his new friend. As he walked by his side he surveyed him with curiosity and interest. He was a tall man – six feet two, at the least, and he walked with a long stride, which he moderated when he found Grant had trouble to keep up with him. He was dressed in a gray mixed suit, and on his head he wore a soft hat. Despite his appearance and surroundings, Grant was led to think that he had passed a part of his life at least in a city.
“I see a question in your face,” said the unknown. “You wonder how it happens that I am living alone in this wilderness. Is it not so?”
“Yes, sir; I could not help wondering.”
“I have been here but a month. I am one of an overland party that passed here four weeks since. In wandering about I found this cabin, and I asked myself how it would seem to live here alone – practically out of the world. I always liked to try experiments, and notified the party of my intention. Indeed, I did not care to remain with them, for they were not at all congenial. They thought me crazy; but I insisted, and remained here with a sufficient supply of provisions to last me three months.”
“And how have you enjoyed yourself, sir?”
“Well, I can’t say I have enjoyed myself; but I have had plenty of time to meditate. There have been disappointments in my life,” he added gravely, “that have embittered my existence and led to a life of solitude.”
“Do you expect to remain the entire three months?” asked Grant.
“If I had been asked that question this morning I should have unhesitatingly answered in the affirmative. Now – I don’t know why it is – perhaps it is the unexpected sight of a fellow being – I begin to think that I should enjoy returning to human companionship. You cannot understand, till you have been wholly alone for a month, how pleasant it seems to exchange speech with another.”
This remark gave Grant a hint.
“Why not join our party?” he said. “There are but four of us. You would make the fifth. We are going to the mines, if we ever get through this wilderness.”
“Tell me something of your companions.”
“Mr. Cooper is a blacksmith. He has lived all his life in Iowa, and is a good man. His wife is with him, and his son Tom, who is a fine, manly young fellow of twenty-one or two.”
“Very well. Now I have been introduced to them, tell me about yourself. Are they relatives of yours?”
“No, they are not related to me.”
“But you have relatives, have you not?”
“I have a mother.”
“I see, and you wish to make money for her. Is she solely dependent on you?”
“No; she is married again. I have a step-father.”
“Whom you do not like?”
“What makes you think so?”
“I read it in your face.”
“No, I don’t like Mr. Tarbox. He is a mean, penurious farmer, a good deal older than mother. She married him for a home, but she made a mistake. She is merely a house-keeper without wages. She would be better off by herself, with me to work for her.”
“Has she any money at all?”
“About two hundred dollars. Mr. Tarbox has tried to get possession of it, but without success.”
“You look well dressed.”
“I bought and paid for the suit myself. I saved a railroad train from destruction, and the passengers made up a collection of over a hundred and fifty dollars for me. I bought this suit, and with the balance of the money I am paying for my trip to California.”
By this time they had come in sight of the camp. Tom had already returned, evidently without luck, and was only waiting for Grant to appear to sacrifice poor old Dobbin on the altar of hunger.
THE NEW ACQUAINTANCE
When Grant appeared with the stranger, Tom and his father looked amazed. Where could he have picked up an acquaintance in this wilderness was their thought.
“Tom,” said Grant quickly, “you needn’t kill Dobbin.”
“Are you ready to take his place?” asked Tom. “Food we must have.”
“My friends,” interposed the stranger, “I come with your young companion to invite you to breakfast at my cabin. Perhaps etiquette requires that I should tell you who I am. Permit me to introduce myself as Giles Crosmont, an Englishman by birth and a citizen of the world.”
“I’m Tom Cooper,” responded Tom briefly; “and there are my father and mother. As for your invitation, we’ll accept it thankfully. Do you keep a hotel hereabout?”
“Well, not exactly,” smiled Crosmont; “but I have a cabin a short distance away, and am able to offer you some refreshment. Let me suggest that you follow me at once. Grant and I will lead the way.”
“So you succeeded better than I, Grant?” remarked Tom.
“Yes; I found Mr. Crosmont’s cabin, and was wondering if it were occupied, when he entered and made me welcome.”
“Have you lived here long, Mr. Crosmont?” asked Tom curiously.
“Four weeks only.”
“Yes; I told Grant that it was a whim of mine to try the experiment of living in utter solitude.”
“How do you like it, as far as you’ve got?”
Giles Crosmont laughed. He was amused by the frank curiosity of his young acquaintance.
“I’ve got as far as I care to go in this particular direction. After breakfast I may have a proposal to make to you.”
They reached the cabin, and Crosmont hospitably produced his stock of provisions, to which his visitors did ample justice.
“Now for my proposal,” said Crosmont. “I should like to join your party.”
“You are welcome, sir; but, as Grant has probably told you, we are all out of provisions.”
“I will turn over to you the balance of mine, and I have more concealed in the woods, at a little distance.”
“Good!” said Tom, in a tone of satisfaction. “We will buy them of you.”
“No, you won’t. I freely contribute them as my share of the common expense. I can help you in another way also. I am a good shot, and I hope to add a deer or an antelope to your stock at frequent intervals.”
“We shall be glad to have you join us,” said Mrs. Cooper hospitably. “Our meeting with you is quite providential.”
Giles Crosmont took off his hat and bowed respectfully to Mrs. Cooper. It was evident that he was a gentleman by birth and training.
“It was what I was waiting for,” he said; “an invitation from the lady. I am afraid I must ask you to help convey the provisions to the camp.”
“Grant and I will undertake that,” said Tom, with alacrity.
“And I will help you,” added the blacksmith. “We are in luck to find food on such an easy condition.”
In half an hour the providential supply was stowed in the wagon, and the party, augmented to five, started on its way.
Generally Tom and Grant had walked together, but the stranger showed such a preference for Grant’s society that Tom fell back and joined his father, leaving his friend and their new acquaintance to journey together.
“So you are going to California to dig for gold, Grant?” said Crosmont, as he moderated his pace to adapt himself to Grant’s shorter steps.
“Yes, sir,” answered Grant enthusiastically. “I wish I were there now.”
“Suppose now that you should be fortunate, and secure, say, ten thousand dollars; you would be happy?”
“To a boy like you, the possession of money seems sure to bring happiness.”
“In my case, yes. Remember, Mr. Crosmont, I have a mother to care for. I should like to take her from Mr. Tarbox’s house, where she is a slave, and give her a nice home of her own. That wouldn’t take more than two thousand dollars, and with the balance I could go into business.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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