The Peril Finders, by George Manville Fenn.
This is a long and excellent book, though a rare one, and is George Manville Fenn at his very best. It starts in California, where several settlers had been trying to gain a living as fruit-growers, but the various blights and insects were getting the upper hand, and failure was in the air all round. One day an aged and deranged old prospector comes there, having walked in from the mountains and salt-plains, many hundreds of miles away. He has a belt with some excellent samples of gold, and a story that there are ancient cities out there, where gold is abundant. He has a few lucid moments just before dying. Some of the settlers decide that they might as well give up, and go in search of these gold-mountains and their ancient cities.
The distances are huge. There are episodes with rattle-snakes which are brilliantly written. Eventually they come to one of these cities, carved into the rock. They find evidence that the city had been sacked by invaders, many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before. But while they are there they are attacked by a large number of Apaches, whom eventually they manage to beat off by an ingenious trick. So they are once again on their travels. They spend several years, but never manage to find the gold-mountains, though they do find another sacked city. Eventually they decide that enough is enough, and they make their way back to their original fruit-farms, where they find all the other neighbouring settlers gone, but to their surprise they find their own farms blooming with excellent fruit, natural predators for the blights and scale-insects having arrived on the scene. So they move back into their old farm buildings, and carry on their businesses.
There are several adults, all men, in the story, but the principals are two lads whose fathers are leading the expedition. Another hero is an American settler, who has great wisdom and character, having much more experience of the wilderness than any of the others. Other important characters are the mules that carry their equipment, and also the extremely important water kegs. The horses are very important, too. You will love this book, especially if you can make it into an audiobook, but it will be one of no mean duration.
THE PERIL FINDERS, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
THE WESTERN PARADISE.
"Well, boys, where have you been?"
The speaker, a sturdy-looking, sun-tanned man, seated upon a home-made stool at a rough home-made table in a home-made house of rugged, coarsely-sawn boards, with an open roof covered in with what one of the boys had called wooden slates, had looked up from his writing, and as he spoke carefully wiped his pen—for pens were scarce—and corked the little stone bottle of ink so that it should not evaporate in the super-heated atmosphere, before it was wanted again for the writing of one of the rare letters dispatched to England, these being few, the writer preferring to wait till the much-talked-of better days came—the days for which they had been patiently waiting five years.
The boys looked sharply one at the other, their eyes seeming to say, "You tell him!" But neither of them spoke, and the penman said sharply—
"Hallo! Been in some mischief?"
The boys spoke out together then, and muddled or blurred their reply, for one said, "No, fa," being his shortening of father, and the other cried, "No, sir," both looking indignant at the suggestion. "What have you been doing, then?"
"Good lads!" cried the first speaker, leaning back on his seat, and starting up and grasping the rough edge of the table to save himself from falling, while the boys burst out laughing.
"Yes, you may laugh, my fine fellows," said the first speaker rather pettishly, "but it wouldn't have been pleasant for me if I had gone down."
"No, fa," said his son, colouring and speaking quickly. "I beg your pardon! I am sorry."
"I know, Chris. You didn't think. I suppose it looked droll."
"Yes, sir," said the other boy, hastily. "I beg your pardon too. You thought you were in an arm-chair, didn't you?"
"I did, my boy," was the reply, given in company with a weary sigh. "But granted, granted, and thank you. I'm glad to find that though we are leading this half savage life, you young fellows don't forget that you are gentlemen."
"Gentlemen's sons, sir," said the second boy modestly.
"Same thing, Ned Bourne. Well, so we're to have a treat: fish for dinner, eh? Where are they?"
The boys exchanged glances again, their eyes twinkling with mirth, and then they burst out laughing merrily once more.
"A big basketful, boys?" And the speaker rubbed his hands.
"No, fa," cried the first boy. "We haven't caught one."
"What! Why, where did you go?"
"To the upper pool, sir," said the second boy, "and there wasn't a fish."
"Then why didn't you try the river?"
"There is no river now, fa."
"No, fa; it was all turned into pools when we were there a fortnight ago, and now there's only a muddy spot here and there; all the rest have dried-up."
"Tut, tut, tut! What a place it is!"
"Oh, it will be better soon, sir," said the second boy cheerfully. "There'll be a heavy rain, the river will fill again, and the fish begin running up from the sea. It's such a lovely morning out, and the flowers are glorious."
"Yes, Ned, lovely and glorious," said the penman sadly. "It is, as I have often said, a perfect paradise—a beautiful garden. I don't wonder that the old mission fathers called it the Valley of the Angels. But though we can drink in the beauty of the place it does not quench one's thirst, and not being herbivorous people, we can't feed on flowers. Oh dear! Then there are no fish?"
"Not till the rains come, fa."
"And when they do come the wet will find it easy to get to your skin, Chris—and to yours too, Ned Bourne. What a pair of ragamuffins you look!"
The two frank, good-looking lads coloured through their bronzed skins, and each involuntarily clapped his hand to a guilty spot—that is to say, one covered a triangular hole in his knickerbockers and the other pressed together the sides of a long slit in his Norfolk jacket, and they spoke together again.
"I got hung up in the agaves, father, and the thorns catch like hooks."
"A nail ran into my knicks, sir, when I was on the roof mending the shingles."
"A very meritorious proceeding, my dear Ned, but there are needles and thread in the chest: why didn't you mend your knicks, as you call them? Don't let's degenerate into scarecrows because we are obliged to live this Robinson Crusoe-like life. It's many years since I read that book, Chris, but if I recollect right he used not only to mend his own clothes, but make new ones out of goat-skins. 'A stitch in time saves nine,' boys, so mend your ways—I mean the open ways where the wind and rain get in. See anything of your father, Ned?"
"Yes, sir; he's working away with Mr Wilton up in the far orange-grove."
"Far orange-grove," repeated Christopher Lee's father bitterly; "a grove without oranges. Is the blight—the scale, I mean—any better up there?"
"No, sir. Father said it was a hundred times worse."
"But that was exaggeration, Ned," cried Chris eagerly. "It's very bad, but not a hundred times worse than it was last time we were there."
"Say eighty or ninety times worse, then," said Chris's father bitterly.
"No; dad's right, sir," cried Ned Bourne. "The twigs and leaves are covered with those nasty little tortoise-like things, and he says they are sucking all the juices out of the trees."
"They might have waited till the fruit was ripe," said Chris, with a grin, "and then been contented with sucking a few oranges."
Doctor Lee smiled sadly at his son, and was silent for a few moments before saying—
"That's bad news indeed, boys; it's like the last straw that breaks the camel's back. I did hope that the orange trees were going to be better this year; it would have made up for that other disappointment."
"What other disappointment, fa?" cried Chris sharply.
"Over the peaches. I've been through the plantations this morning before I sat down to write home about our troubles."
"But have the peaches got scale too, father?"
"Yes, my boy, and every other blight and disease possible to them, without counting the dry shrivelled state they are in from the drought."
"Oh dear!" sighed Chris. "There seems to be nothing here but disappointments."
"Oh yes, there is, my boy," said the doctor; "it is a land of beauty and perfect health."
"Yes, it's beautiful enough, fa," said Chris grudgingly, "and it's wonderful to see Mr Bourne, who used to be so weak that he had to be carried out to lie in the shade, while now he can do anything. He runs faster than we can, doesn't he, Ned?"
"Ever so much," said the lad proudly, and with glistening eyes.
"And he carried that tree to the saw-pit," said Chris; "the one we couldn't lift."
"Yes, he has thoroughly recovered," said the doctor, "and we were none of us so well before in our lives."
"But that makes it so bad for you, fa," said Chris, with something of his father's bitterness of tone. "How are you ever going to get a practice together if people will be so horribly healthy?"
"What!" cried the doctor. "Horribly healthy, indeed! Why, you wicked young ruffian, do you suppose that I want people to be ill? Thank goodness that it is such a paradise of beauty and health. Don't I have people come from a hundred miles round with their accidents—broken limbs and cuts?"
"Doctor Lee," said the other boy, who had been sitting on a flour-barrel very silent and thoughtful and with his brow puckered up, while his voice sounded eager and inquiring.
"What is it, sir? Are you going to defend Chris?"
"No, sir; I wasn't thinking about what he said, but about the way everything we have planted fails. I can't understand it."
"Can't you, my boy?"
"No, sir. We all came here from England, didn't we, to seek for health?"
"That's right, Ned."
"Father gave up his living in Derbyshire because if he had stopped any longer he would have died."
"Yes, Ned, and Mr Wilton gave up his practice as a lawyer because his doctor said that he was in the last stage of consumption."
"But you didn't, sir."
"I was not his attendant, my boy. I had never seen him or Mr Wilton till I met them here on this land they have taken up."
"Did you think they'd die, sir?"
"I was afraid so, Ned. I never expected to see them recover as they have."
"Then I won't say it's a horribly disappointing place," cried Ned, proudly. "I say it's beautiful and grand."
"So it is, my boy," said the doctor; "but why have you begun talking like this?"
"Oh, that's nothing to do with what I was going to say, sir," said the boy excitedly.
"What were you going to say, then?" asked the doctor, smiling.
"That I can't understand it, sir."
"Well, you said so before," cried Chris grumpily.
"Of course I did; you needn't catch me up, Chris.—I mean this, sir; I can't understand why it is that the trees and flowers and other things grow so beautifully here, while the peaches and oranges, bananas and corns are always killed by frost or want of water, when they are not covered with insects and grubs which make them wither away."
"That's simple enough, my dear boy," said the doctor gravely. "All those things which flourish so well are natives of this part of the world, and grow wild. Those which we have planted are foreign to the soil, and grow after the fashion to which they have been trained by cultivation. Nature is a better gardener than man, but fruits of the soil that she produces and which flourish so bravely are not suited to our requirements."
"Oh, I see," said Ned thoughtfully. "But what about the millions of insects? Why don't Nature's plants get blighted the same as ours do?"
"They are," replied the doctor; "only in the enormous space and amongst the millions of trees spread about, we do not notice that a part of them suffer. It is only in the plantations and orchards and gardens set apart by man for growing things quite foreign to the soil, that the damage is so plain. Nature never meant groves of oranges to flourish here, or they would have existed—at least, so it seems to me. As it is, we choose to settle down upon wild land that has been the home of the insects which annoy us ever since the beginning of time, and plant those foreign trees, so we must take our chance of their succeeding. Who's that coming across the plantation?"
"Mr Wilton," said Chris, running to the door.
"And father along with him," cried Ned.
"Tut, tut, tut! To dinner, I suppose," said the doctor dismally. "Potatoes and damper! Oh, boys, I did think you would have had a dish of fish."
OUR YANKEE NEIGHBOUR.
The gentlemen named strode into the roughly-furnished kitchen-like room, looking as unlike a clergyman and a lawyer as could be imagined, for both were dressed in well-worn garments, half farmer, half back wood settler, the one with a thistle staff or spud in his hand, the other shouldering a double gun, which, following the example of his companion, he set up in a corner in company with the spud and a couple of fishing rods and a landing-net, before going to the broad shelf over the fire-place, upon which he placed a cartridge wallet, glancing at the same time at another fowling-piece and four rifles hanging across upon hooks.
The whole place was untidy, giving the notion to an observer that no woman ever entered the shanty; but the firearms looked clean and bright, and the gentleman who had just deposited the canvas wallet on the mantel-board was probably answerable for the absence of dust, for he took an old silk handkerchief from his pocket, and using it liberally, flicked away a few traces of white wood-ash which had floated up from the fire smouldering on the hearth in spite of the heat of the day.
"Hallo, boys!" he said; "back again?" and without waiting for an answer, he continued, "What have you for dinner to-day, Lee?"
"Hang it all, man! There's a tin or two of preserved meat. One wasn't finished."
"No," said the doctor; "I looked at it this morning, and it had gone bad."
"Too bad to eat—for a hungry man?"
"Yes," said the doctor; "unless he wants to poison himself."
"This sounds cheerful, Bourne."
"Horrible! There, it's of no use to save up," said the gentleman addressed. "You must give us the last tin of bouille beef."
"Gone bad too," said the doctor gruffly.
"What, have you opened it to see?"
"No; the top and bottom are both blown up in a curve with the bad gas generated."
"Well, upon my word! Hear this, Wilton! Can anything be worse?"
"No. Who says home—Eastward Ho!" replied the gentleman addressed. "Look here, Lee; we've been talking it all over as we went well over the plantation this morning. Everything has gone wrong, and it's madness to try any longer. Why, it's five years since we agreed to join hands and lands and to work the fruit-farm into a success."
"Yes," said the doctor sadly; "and we've worked like slaves."
"I'm afraid," said the gentleman addressed as Bourne, "that no slaves would have worked half so hard."
"That they would not," cried Wilton. "There, it's a failure, and we'd better get to 'Frisco and take passage by a sailing-vessel while we have the money. The plantation is going back to a state of nature, and we shall waste time by trying any more."
"We ought to stay on for a bit," said the doctor, as the two boys stood listening eagerly and forgetting all about the poor dinner to come.
"What!" cried Wilton, with a bitter laugh. "Who'd buy it?"
"Oh, we shouldn't make much; only enough to pay our passages back to Liverpool. Some newcomer would be glad to have a place fenced in and planted, and with all the improvements we have made."
"I, for one," said Mr Bourne firmly, "will not be a party to selling such a miserable failure to a stranger."
"Nor I," cried Wilton angrily. "It wouldn't be honest."
"Well, I suppose not," said the doctor sadly. "I'm afraid—no matter how little we obtained—I should feel as if I had swindled my brother-seeker for prosperity. There, I'll join with you in what you say. But what a failure we have made!"
"No, no, not altogether," said Ned's father warmly. "We have found what we ought to think better than riches. Eh, Wilton?"
"Hah! Brother-grumbler, we have indeed," said the other. "I never expected to be strong again."
"And we are," said Bourne. "Strong as horses, thanks to you, Lee."
"No, no, no, I won't take the undeserved credit, my dear fellows; thank the climate and the out-door life. The place is a regular Eden."
"Only it won't grow us food-stuffs to live upon."
"Nor fruit to sell," added Wilton. "There, we've talked it over for years, worked till we have been worn out, and hoped against hope. The plantations are the homes of plagues of every noxious insect under the western sun, so let's give it up and go."
"Agreed," said the others, and the boys joined in with a hearty "Hurrah!"
"Then you won't mind going, Ned?" said Mr Bourne.
"No, father. I should like it—for some things," replied the boy addressed, and he looked wistfully at his companion.
"What do you say, Chris?" cried the doctor. "You want to go, then?"
"Yes, fa, I should like to go to England again, but I shall be very sorry to go away from here, for it is very beautiful, you know."
"But you'd like the change?"
"Yes, fa," said the boy frankly, "for some things. But I shouldn't like it if Ned Bourne were not coming too."
"Oh! I should be coming too, shouldn't I, father?" said the other lad eagerly.
"Of course, my boy. I dare say Doctor Lee will think out some plan by which those years of companionship may be continued," looking at his friends.
"Oh yes," cried Wilton eagerly; "that must be managed somehow. I should say—Who's this?"
"Company?" said Ned's father, turning to look through the open door towards the track leading to the next plantation.
"Our Yankee neighbour," said the doctor. "What does he want?"
"It's a patient for you, Lee," said Wilton.
"Hillo, you!" cried the newcomer, in a lusty voice, but in rather a nasal sing-song tone. "Doctor there?"
"Yes; come in," was the reply, and a tall, sun-dried, keen-looking man in grey flannels, the legs of which were tucked into his boots, dropped the butt of his rifle on the earthen floor with a dull thud, as he slouched into the room, to show the assembled party that the joke about a patient for the doctor was a good guess, and that many a true word really is spoken in jest.
THE MAN FROM THE WILDERNESS.
"Howdy, all on you? Two boys included. D'yer hear, nippers? I was a bit scared about ketching you, doctor. You're wanted yonder."
"An accident?" cried the doctor quickly.
"Accident?" said the newcomer. "Wal, yes, that'll do. You might call him an accident, poor beggar, for he's about played down to the lowest level. Some'd call him a loafer, but we'll say accident—fatal accident, for I'm thinking he's too far gone for you, friend Lee, clever doctor as you are."
"Where is he? At your place?"
"Nay-y-y! He's trudging along after me. I said I'd fetch the doctor to him, poor fellow, but he just found words enough to say he'd come after me, and he crept along. Yes," continued the American, turning to the door. "Here he comes. Do what you can for him, and send him back to me; he can have one of the sheds and as much husk as he likes to lie on for the time he wants it, and I don't think that'll be long."
"I dare say we can do that for him, poor fellow," said the doctor coldly, as he stepped towards the door, and then uttered an exclamation. "For goodness' sake, Bourne, look here!"
Both his companions and the boys hurried to the door to look out where a strange, gaunt-looking, grey-haired figure came creeping along in the hot sunshine, walking painfully by the help of a stout six-foot stick.
At the first glance the red-brown skin drawn so tightly over his face made him resemble a mummy more than a living being, while his worn canvas and skin garments clung so tightly to him that his bodily aspect was horribly suggestive of a clothed skeleton.
Upon seeing that he was observed he stopped short, leaning forward resting heavily upon the stick, to which he clung, peering from beneath the shadow cast by his bony brows, while his eyes, deeply sunken in their orbits, seemed to literally glow.
The next moment he turned slowly towards a rough bench fixed beneath a shade-giving tree and sank slowly down with his back to the trunk, stretching out a long thin hand towards the doctor, while his dry greyish lips moved as if appealing naturally to him, the man he believed able to give that which he sought—help.
"Ugh! How horrible!" whispered Chris to his companion. "If I had seen him lying down I should have thought that he was dead."
The boy's idea was shared by all present, as the doctor stepped forward to their visitor.
"That's how he looked at me when he came up," said their American neighbour. "He can't say a word—only point and make signs."
"But where does he come from?"
"Over yonder," said the American, nodding south-east. "I caught sight of him when I first woke this morning, ever so far away, and then forgot all about him for hours, when I saw him again, and he had crawled nearer, about a hundred yards an hour, I should say. He looked so queer that I went over to him, and tried, as soon as I had got over the first look, to find out who and what he was."
"Well," said Christopher eagerly; "who is he?"
"You know as much as I do, squire, and that's nothing," was the reply; "but I guess."
"Yes: what?" cried Ned.
"Strikes me, young sir, that, he's some poor chap who has been regularly swallowed up in the great desert of salt plains over yonder. Lost his way, and his wits too, seemingly. Lots have been in my time."
"What, crossing the plains?" said Chris.
"Yes. It's like getting into quicksands. I never knew of any one before getting back again after once getting well in. It's going straight away to death to go there. This one's crawled out, poor chap, but it's only to die. Look at him; he's as good as dead now, all but his eyes."
"Yes, it is horrible," said Ned, in a voice hardly above a whisper. "How can anybody be so foolish as to go?"
"Ah, that's it," said the American, with a harsh chuckle. "They've seen yellow, or fancied they have, and been dreaming about it till it's too much for them, and away they go—mad."
"Yellow?" said Chris wonderingly. "I don't understand you."
"He's making fun of us, Chris."
"Not a bit of it, my lad," said the American. "I mean it. He's had the yellow fever badly. I had an awful fit of it when I first came out here and took up land to grow things that won't grow. There were plenty of old settlers and people here in those days, who had come cram full of stories about the salt desert yonder and what it hid. They said that the old mission fathers who first came here to travel about among the Indians discovered an old city there, half buried in the drifting sand, and beyond it two great hills. They said that there was a great treasure in the city, left by the old people who had lived there, and that the hills beyond were of solid gold, waiting for any one who would risk all there was to meet and go. They said he'd come back the richest man in the world—if he did come back at all."
"And did anybody go?" said Chris breathlessly.
"Oh yes, my lad, as I said before; but no one had ever heard of any coming back to be rich. I didn't go. Hadn't pluck enough, I s'pose, or else you might have seen me come back like that poor chap there. Don't look very rich, do he?"
"No: horrible," said Chris again. "Look, Ned; father's doing something to him."
"Yes," said the American grimly, "and I expect we shall all have to do something to him soon."
"What?" cried Ned excitedly.
"Dig," replied the American, almost in a whisper, and the boys looked about at the beautiful scene spreading around, and shuddered as they felt the full meaning of their neighbour's words.
"Ah, 'tain't nice to think about, is it, lads?" continued the American; "much better to stop here and grow yellow oranges—not that I've found it so," he continued, with a sigh. "It's all been one horrible disappointment. Still one is alive and well, while that poor fellow—"
"But he's very, very old," said Chris.
"Old? Awful. Looks old too, from what he's gone through. I should say he has starved, and been dried-up with thirst, and been hunted by those brutes of plain Indians, and had all his seven senses driven out of him. But maybe I'm all wrong, after all."
"Oh no: I think you're right," said Chris eagerly. "You must be."
"Must, eh? P'raps it's all my fancy."
"How could a man come like that, then?" cried Ned.
"That's what we've got to learn, my lad; but most likely we shall never know, for, take my word, that poor chap has found his way to this place at last as a quiet spot where he may lie down and die."
"And my father won't let him," cried Chris excitedly. "Look, he's going to do something for the poor fellow now."
The little group moved towards where the doctor was bending over his new patient; but he motioned to them to keep back, and all waited, watching him for the next ten minutes, when he beckoned to Mr Bourne, who stepped forward, to find the stranger lying motionless and with his eyes closed.
"Dead?" he whispered in awe-stricken tones, as he gazed down pityingly at the wasted object before him.
"As near to it as he can be to remain alive," replied the doctor. "I can't let him lie here. Ask Wilton to help you bring the loose door from the long shed, and we'll get him upon it and carry him there."
"Yes," said Mr Bourne quickly, and he hurried back to the others.
"Come for the physic?" said the American, smiling; but on hearing what was required he eagerly joined in to help, and in a few minutes the roughly-made door was placed beside the unfortunate man, who was drawn upon it and carried into the long open shed and placed upon a heap of sweet new Indian corn-husks over which a blanket had been laid, a home-made pillow being fetched by Chris from the shanty the party shared, and as soon as the stranger felt the restfulness of his shaded easy couch he uttered a low sigh, opened his eyes, and looked up in the doctor's, but only to gaze in a strange, far-off, stony way.
"Going to give him something now, doctor?" said the American.
"Not yet," was the reply. "He is quite exhausted, and disposed to sleep. Did you give him anything?"
"Mug o' water with a drop of cold tea in. He seemed choked with thirst."
"Then I will wait and see if he sleeps before I do more."
"But say, mister," said the American; "I didn't show him the way here so as to plant him on to you. I thought you'd give him some pills now and a draught to take in the morning. I could have done this for the poor chap. Hadn't you better do something of that sort and let me take him back? What do you say to bleeding him?"
"When he has scarcely a drop of blood left in his body?"
"Oh, all right; I don't understand that sort of thing, doctor. But I don't want you to think I meant to shuffle from helping a man out of a hole."
"Oh, I don't think that, Griggs," said the doctor warmly; "but the poor fellow must not be moved. He's in the last stage of exhaustion, and must have suffered terribly."
"Precious old un, ain't he?" said the American, gazing down at the head no longer covered by the rough cap of puma-skin that the patient had worn, and all noting the yellow, half-bald head and the long, thin, perfectly white hair and beard.
"A man of seventy, or more, I should say," replied the doctor gravely.
"Hundred and seventy, you mean," said the American sharply.
"No: about the age I said," replied the doctor.
"Well," cried the American, in a tone full of the surprise he felt, "yew do surprise me, doctor!"
"Let's leave him for a bit," said the doctor, as he saw that their visitor's eyes remained closed. "Perhaps he will sleep for a while."
The party backed out of the airy shed used for storing corn in the season, and often utilised in the hottest weather for a sleeping-place by the occupants of the shanty, and the strange visitor was left alone.
"I feel mean over this job, neighbours," said the American, as they moved towards the shanty; "and now I'm going to be meaner and meaner, as I am here and had no time to see to my vittling department. Got anything to eat?"
"A very poor spread, Griggs," said Wilton, smiling, "but of course we shall be glad if you'll share it."
"I call that rale kind of you, and I will stop, for I'm downright hungry, and precious little to home. I say, if the President ever sends round for us to vote a new name for this part of the State I shall propose that we call it Starvationton. Why, look here, you're a deal better off for corn and hay than I am to home," he continued, as he sat back after munching potatoes and damper, and washing all down with fresh cool water from a little spring which never failed. "White wine too as never gets into a fellow's head. But the place don't answer my expectations; does it yours?"
"Ours? No, Griggs," said Mr Bourne sadly. "We've made up our minds to give it up."
"Not pull up stakes and go?" cried the American, bringing the haft of his knife down upon the rough table with a loud rap.
"Yes," said the doctor; "fruit-growing here is fruitless."
"Yes, because we don't get any fruit. But look here, you neighbour Wilton, you don't say anything: you don't mean to go too?"
"Indeed, but I do," replied the gentleman addressed.
"Hear him!" cried the American. "But you lads—you are going?"
"Why, of course we should," cried the boys, in a breath.
"What, and leave me nearly all alone by myself? Well, as sure as my name's 'Thaniel Griggs, I call it mean."
He looked round from one to the other, as if asking for an explanation, and rested his eyes last upon Mr Bourne, as he added—
"On-neighbourly, that it is."
"We shall be sorry to lose so good a neighbour," said Bourne; "but what is to be gained by trying any longer?"
"Hum! That's a riddle," said the American. "Give it up. Ask me another."
"What can we do to improve our position anywhere near?"
"Hah! That's another riddle, and not so easy as t'other. Got any more, for I give that one up too."
"I think those two are enough," said Wilton merrily. "The fact is, Griggs, we have all come to the conclusion that we are wasting our lives here."
"Where are you going, then?"
"Home," was the reply.
"Ah!" cried Griggs. "There's a nice sound about that—Home. Well, I shall go with you."
"What!" cried the doctor. "To England?"
"No, I didn't say that. I'm not going to cross the herring-pond. Your people yonder wouldn't take to me. But let's try some other place. Pull up tent-pegs and take up a location farther north, and I'll go with you. What do you say, doctor?"
"That you are wasting your life here, Mr Griggs, and that I should strongly advise you to make a fresh start."
"Along with you and the other neighbours?"
"I do not say that."
"Eh? Not too proud to have me, are you?"
"Certainly not," said the doctor warmly. "You have often proved yourself too good a friend."
"Ah, that sounds better, doctor. Just you think over what I said, and don't be in too great a hurry to go back to the old-country. There, thankye for the dinner."
"Dinner!" said Wilton contemptuously. "I wish it was."
"Might have been worse," said the American good-humouredly. "You old-country folk have a saying about, 'You shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.' Well, that'll do in this case—noo version. When you go out to dinner you shouldn't look at what people give you to put in your mouth. There, I'm off. But lookye here, squires, all of you. I'm off now to go on killing blight and things, but as soon as you're tired of our wild man, just send me word, and I'll fetch him over to my place."
He gave a comprehensive nod all round and was passing through the door, but turned sharply round.
"Here, I'll just take a peep at the poor fellow as I go, doctor, by your leave—Go on tip-toe, you know. P'r'aps you'd like to go with me."
"Yes, I want to see him again," replied the doctor, and they went to the temporary hospital together, and found the stranger sleeping heavily.
"Man must have gone through a deal to get to look like that, doctor," whispered the American, as they stole away.
"A great deal more than we know, or ever shall know, friend Griggs," replied Chris's father.
"Oh, I dunno so much about that, mister. You once get him well, and he'll spin us a yarn, I expect, such as'll make our hair stand on end."
"But how to get him well?" said the doctor, smiling sadly.
"Oh, you go on; you'll do it. See how you mended that black fellow the horse kicked to pieces. It was wonderful; made me wish I'd been a doctor myself. But there, I must be off back."
He turned away, and after another glance at his sleeping patient, who quite fascinated him by his strangely weird aspect, the doctor returned to the shanty, where he and his companions began at once to discuss the bearings of the strange incident, talking over the possibility of the man having been lost, perhaps for years, in one of the great deserts towards the south, and having at last found his way back to civilisation, while the two boys sat silently drinking in every word, associating their weird visitor with wild and stirring adventures in the unknown land.
"I say, Ned," said Chris that night when they went to their rough beds, "shouldn't you like to go right off and see what the wild part of the country's like?"
"I just should," replied Chris's companion. "We'd take rifles and plenty of ammunition, and go exploring. It would be fine!"
"But they wouldn't let us go," said Chris slowly.
"Sure of it. Why, if I was to ask father to give me leave he'd take me out to the long shed and say, Do you want to come back like that poor fellow there? So would your father."
"Yes. Just as if it was likely! I dare say he lost himself, poor chap. We shouldn't," continued Ned. "The way would be always to take bearings, and never lose sight of them."
"Or take a big ball of white cotton and unwind it as you go," said Chris, grinning. "You're bound to find your way back then."
"Get out! You're poking fun at me," said Ned quietly. "I know a better way than that of yours, which is of course nonsense. How could a fellow take miles of cotton in his pocket to unwind! No: I tell you what! The best way would be—Chris!—Chris!—Why don't you answer? Oh, what a Dummkopf it is! Fast as a top in a moment! I never saw such a fellow to sleep!"
WENT OFF TO SLEEP.
Chris was, as they say, "fast as a top," but he was the first to awaken in the morning, according to his regular custom, just when the orange sun was beginning to tinge the east, and jumping up and scrambling on his clothes he stepped out into the cool dawn, with the intention of having a look at the bony features which had haunted his dreams. But just as he reached the open doorway and was about to step cautiously inside, there was a faint rustling sound which made his heart seem to stand still with the chill of horror which ran through him, for from out of the darkness where the stranger had been laid a shadowy form rose up and came forward.
The feeling of dread was only momentary, though it was succeeded by a strange shrinking from coming face to face with the awe-inspiring object of his solicitude. But the boy stood firm.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he said to himself, and then wonderingly—"You, father!"
"Yes, my boy; what is it?"
"I only came to see if the man was awake."
"Half," said the doctor. "He is slightly conscious at times. You are early, my boy."
"Not so early as you are, father," said the boy, smiling. "How long have you been here?"
"All through the night, my boy."
"I was afraid to leave him—he is so weak. I have had to give him a stimulant every hour to keep him alive. There, go now, and don't talk. I want him to sleep."
Chris stole away, and then stood thinking whether he should rouse up Ned to go to one of the pools higher up the nearly-dry river, and bale it out on the chance of getting a few fish after all.
But on second thoughts he let his comrade rest and went into the lean-to on the other side of the shanty, where he busied himself in lighting a fire upon the stone and setting the kettle over it, after which he went cautiously indoors, to return again with a tin canister, which upon being opened sent forth a fragrant odour.
A few minutes later he was busy over further preparations, but only to be interrupted by the sound of some one at the door giving three or four sharp sniffs in rapid succession. Then—"Pig!" came from inside. "Oh, I say, what a shame! Might have woke a fellow up to have some too."
"'Tisn't for me," said Chris gruffly.
"Oh no! I suppose not. Who's it for, then?"
"The dad: he has been sitting up all night with that poor fellow. I thought he'd like a cup of coffee."
"Good boy," said Ned. "I'll take pig back."
A few minutes later the two boys were making their way through the rapidly broadening morning, bearing a steaming mug of milkless coffee towards the shed, but only to stop short on hearing a strangely harsh voice talking slowly and solemnly for a few moments, before stopping suddenly, to be followed by a few words from the doctor.
Then all was silent for some little time, before Chris whispered sharply—
This brought the doctor to the entrance.
"Thanks," he said. "Very thoughtful of you, Chris. Go away now."
The boys hurried back to the lean-to and made up the fire, to sit talking till the other occupants of the shanty began to stir, and the rough breakfast was prepared.
"Been sitting up with the poor fellow all night, Chris?" said Mr Bourne. "Oh, he should have wakened me, and I would have relieved him for half the watch."
The doctor was still in the shed, but he joined the rest when breakfast was ready, and answered the inquiries of his companions.
"A hopeless case, I am afraid," he said, "but I shall fight it out to the last.—What? Is he sensible?" continued the doctor, in response to a question from Wilton. "At times, but for the most part he keeps wandering about thirst and heat, and wanting to sleep. The poor fellow has evidently suffered terribly."
After breakfast the doctor returned to the shed, while the others found business to do about the blighted plantations, but working in a dull, despondent fashion, for the recollection of their previous day's consultation about giving up was still strong in their minds.
"There, let it all go for the present," said Wilton, at last. "It's no use to talk about future plans without Lee being here."
But the doctor was too busy with his patient to do more than join them at dinner, with no better report, for he felt that the man was gradually sinking. It was the same too at the evening meal, when the necessity of some one sharing the night watch came up for discussion, the doctor consenting to Mr Bourne taking the first half of the night while he snatched a few hours' sleep.
The arrangement was carried out, with Doctor Lee ready and alert to take his position by the sufferer's bed at midnight, when Bourne announced that the patient had only moved once, to ask for water.
"I think he seems to be better. He is fast asleep now," said Bourne, after saying "Good-night!" and then he left the doctor to himself.
It was getting on towards morning when, making a faint rustling amongst the Indian corn-husks, the doctor bent over and laid his cool hand upon his patient's brow.
"Who's that?" came in a harsh voice.
This was supplied, and the sufferer lay very quiet for another hour, and then, just as the first faint streaks of dawn appeared, the man asked who was there in a stronger voice, and upon being told, said—
"Yes, that's right; come nearer. I want to speak to you."
The doctor bent over his patient, whose voice as he spoke gradually grew stronger and more emphatic, and he went on speaking eagerly till long after sunrise, when he was silent for a few minutes, but only to begin talking uneasily again.
But there was silence in the long shed that morning when Chris took in a mug of coffee and came softly out again under the impression that his father's patient was asleep; and when Wilton and Bourne came out they heard this as the report of the stranger's state.
Breakfast time soon came, and the doctor joined them as before, ready to answer the first question asked as to how his patient had passed the night.
"For the most part talking."
"Then he is better?" cried Bourne.
"In a way—yes," replied the doctor solemnly, and every eye was fixed upon him now, as Wilton said sharply—
"You mean that he is worse?"
"No: better for him, poor fellow," said the doctor sadly. "Nothing whatever could be done, and he was in horrible pain. It is all over now."
"You don't mean to say—" began Wilton, and stopped short.
"Dead?" said Bourne, in a solemn whisper.
"Yes," said the doctor gravely. "The agony he was in passed away about dawn, leaving him calm, patient, and quite in his right senses, talking to me long and earnestly for quite three hours, before he turned away and with a low restful sigh went off to sleep—to wake no more."
"You say he talked to you a good deal," said Bourne; "did he say anything about how he came to be in such a terrible state?"
"Yes, he related everything to me, clearly," replied the doctor gravely.
"Hah!" cried Wilton. "Poor fellow, he must have gone through a great deal. How did it all come to pass?"
"Give me time," said the doctor thoughtfully. "I should like to lie down and sleep for a few hours, for I have gone through a good deal since you left us, Bourne. To-night we must lay him to rest. Afterwards I have a great deal that is very startling to tell you both— to tell you all, I should say, for the boys may hear."
A PIECE OF SKIN.
It was late that same evening when the occupants of the shanty sat about the rough board table. The stranger had been laid in his last resting-place, Mr Bourne had read the service over him, and the American neighbour, who had been present, had stayed to partake of the evening meal.
This latter had passed over almost in silence, all waiting then for the communication the doctor was to make; but he sat still, thoughtful and silent, till Griggs, after fidgeting a little in his chair, said—
"I can't help feeling a bit sorry, doctor, for bringing the poor fellow over to you. I never meant him to stay."
"You need no excuses, Griggs," said the doctor, rousing himself from his musing fit. "It was an act of Christian charity, and I am glad that we were able to share it with you."
"That's right, and nicely spoken of you, doctor," said the American; "but I wish we had been able to help the poor fellow sooner. Here, I'm burning to know how he got into such a state. I s'pose he told you?"
"He told me a great deal," replied the doctor, "but the time was short, his words hurried, and what he said has set me considering as to how much is simple fact and how much the imagination of a diseased brain."
"Hah!" exclaimed the American. "Then the best way will be for you to tell us too, and then maybe we shall be able to help you sort it out, and untangle the real thread from the touzly yarn."
"Exactly," said the doctor. "Well, it seems that he was one of a dozen adventurous prospectors whose brains had been excited by one of the old legends respecting the discovery of gold by the old mission fathers in one of the deserts between here and Arizona. They banked their funds together, purchased necessaries and provisions, and started with a mule team and a large water-barrel furnished with pole and axles so that it should act as its own wheels, revolving and bearing its own weight—a contrivance, the poor fellow said, that answered capitally in the sandy plains, but only proved a hindrance in the rocky ground."
"Not a bad idea," said Griggs, "if it had been all plain, for, as I understand, it's want of water that has upset every expedition out that way."
"When all was ready they started, well armed, as I understood him, making for the south and west. They had certain plans which they had obtained from explorers, and went out in full hope of discovering not only a new land of gold, but a city said to exist in the middle of one of the deserts, a ruin now, but containing fabulous wealth amassed by the emperor, cacique, or whatever he was called, and fostered by the old mission fathers, who had made the city their home."
"Hah!" cried Griggs. "This makes one's mouth water. Go on, doctor."
The latter looked at him seriously, and then continued—
"All this sounded very clear and reasonable, but after a time there was so much of the marvellous in the poor fellow's descriptions that I could not help feeling that we were getting into the dreamland of an enthusiast."
"Let us hear, Lee," said Wilton.
"To be sure," cried Griggs.
"I say that," said the doctor, "because, as I seemed to gather, the adventurers had not been above a month upon their expedition before misfortunes began to assail them, and he talked for long enough about getting amongst Indians who seemed to be always on the watch to hinder their advance."
"Yes," said Mr Bourne thoughtfully, "I have read that the Indian tribes have had handed down to them by tradition the existence of great sacred treasures which they are bound to protect, and which would have been discovered long enough ago but for their watchfulness."
"Never mind the Injuns," said Griggs. "You're sure to meet them if you go south, and, treasure or no treasure, they are always on the kill and rob system."
"I wish they wouldn't talk so much, but let father go on," whispered Chris.
"They had fights desperate and many with these people," continued the doctor, "but they pushed on, to find as they plunged further into the desert that there were worse enemies to encounter."
"Oh, that's nonsense," cried Griggs; "he must have been off his head a bit there. It's the regular old cock-and-bull story about dragons guarding the treasure. I know those sort of things—magic and gammon."
"No," said the doctor, smiling; "the enemies he meant were drought, heat, and fever, all of which helped to slay his brother adventurers. Some perished at the hands of the Indians, but more from exhaustion and disease, so that at last, after going through the most terrible privations, he found himself the sole survivor."
"That's bad," said Griggs, "and bad at that. But, I say, how long did this take?"
"I don't know, and he could not explain. Time seemed to be quite out of his calculations. It must have taken years, for he said that he was a young and vigorous man when he started."
"But look here," said Griggs, "Murrica's a big place, and I s'pose he joined Mexico on to it in his travels; but you could get over a deal of ground in years. How far away was it from here?"
"Distances seemed with him to be alike," continued the doctor. "Much of what he said in this respect seems to me to be all imagination, for he talked of the vast unknown land that he and his companions had penetrated, and in which they passed away, leaving him alone."
"Poor chap, to find out that the gold story was all a hatch-up, and that he had given up the best years of his life in a great hunt after a yellow nothing. Well, go on, doctor."
"There is not much more to tell you," was the reply.
"Then I'm right," said Griggs; "he went through all that to find nothing."
The doctor was silent for a short space, before he continued.
"No," he said; "you are wrong, according to the poor old adventurer's account, and here comes the strange part of his story. He said that he believed he went raving mad after being forced to cover the remains of his last companion with pieces of rock, and for a long time he could think of nothing but getting back to civilisation; but the more he tried the more he seemed to be led deeper and deeper into the great hot, sandy, stony wilderness. It was as if something from which he could not escape kept on driving him to continue the search upon which he had started, till one day he came upon a wider and more level plain of salt and sand, while in the distance, far down upon the horizon, he could see a clump of mountains, towards which he made his way, toiling on day after day, week after week, as it seemed to him, and the range seemed to be always receding with tantalising regularity, while he was parching with thirst and the tops were covered with snow.
"At last, though, when he had been compelled to lie down and rest every few steps from exhaustion, and after months of toil, he reached the foot of the mountains."
"Poor fellow!" said Griggs. "They must have been a long way off, and no mistake. In dreamland, I'm afraid."
"And I too," said the doctor. "This part of his narrative is very suggestive of a fever dream; but he spoke calmly, and as if he believed every word to be true. There was a simple earnestness, too, in the way in which he told me of how, dried-up as he was, he revelled in the ice-cold water that trickled down from the mountain-peaks in stream after stream which only meandered for a few hundred yards before every drop was soaked up in the burning sand."
"That's the worst of the salt plains southward," said Griggs quietly.
"I suppose so," said the doctor, "and this sounded very simple and truthful, but it seemed to me that here fiction was a good deal mingled with fact. He went on to say that these were the mountains of which he and his friends had been in search, for he was not long in discovering now that those hills were composed of the richest gold ore, while in a central tableland some two thousand feet up stood the remains of the city of which he had been in search.
"This proved to be completely ruined, one mass of crumbling stone wall; but every here and there he discovered proofs that the old inhabitants had utilised the rich metal contained in the hills by which they were surrounded. The place had evidently been destroyed in some catastrophe, in all probability by the attack of an enemy, for not a trace save charred beams remained of the woodwork that must have been plentifully used, and in many parts he found the scattered and gnawed bones of the slain."
"I should like to explore that place, doctor and neighbours all," said Griggs, "but I'm afraid that the nation of people who built that city belonged to the imagination."
"That was my own idea," said the doctor gravely, "especially when the poor fellow told me that he made his home there for years, taking possession of a little temple-like place, covering the roof in with cedar-boughs to keep off the sun, and living upon what he could secure by means of his gun."
"And always getting a fresh supply of powder and shot from Noo York by mail, eh, neighbours?"
"The narrative is most improbable," continued the doctor, "but it does contain elements open to belief."
"But if he had discovered such treasure as that," said Wilton, "why didn't he get back to civilisation, so as to profit by it?"
"To be sure," said Bourne. "But what about the Indians who ought to have been there to watch over the gold?"
"He did not mention them," replied the doctor; "but his reason for not returning was that the poor fellow felt that he dared not attempt to go through the same horrors that he had encountered on his way out. He had friends with him then, but now he was alone, weak, and wanting in spirit. In fact, much as he longed to get back to civilisation, he dared not attempt the journey, but kept on putting it off for years."
"For years, eh?" said Griggs derisively.
"Yes, for years, in the hope of some travellers or prospectors accidentally discovering the place. At last, though, he seems to have wakened up to the fact that if ever he was to see civilisation again it must be by some effort of his own, and so he made the venture, to suffer terribly, and finally crawl here to die, as we have seen."
"But he told his story," said Griggs, "and I don't know, doctor, but it half seems to me as if you believe in the poor old lunatic."
"I told you in the beginning that I was somewhat disposed to credit his history."
"Oh, come, Lee," cried Wilton.
"My dear Lee," cried Bourne. "Why, this legend of treasure cities and golden mountains is as old as the hills."
"Yes, I know. I have heard it and read it time after time."
"And don't know any better now, doctor," cried Griggs. "Oh, come, I say, what is there in this story that makes you more ready to believe it than any of the others?"
"The simple fact that I have seen and talked with the historian—one who was ready to give me some tangible idea of the truth of his narration."
"Tangible?" cried Bourne.
"Why, he had got no specimens with him, had he?"
The doctor made no direct reply to the American's question, but went on to tell that his patient had concluded his short history by thanking him for his patient kindness.
"'My life has been a failure, doctor,' he said; 'you can make yours a great success. Mine was used up in discovering the great treasure. It was the work of years and years. You can go straight to the place by the bearings I have marked down for you as I came back. There, I give you that for which I have died, glad to be at rest. It is yours, and yours alone.'
"I tried to draw his attention to another subject," continued the doctor, but he smiled.
"'You think I am only a madman,' he said sadly. 'In your place I should have thought the same. You believe that the treasure is only in my weary brain. I am clearer now, and I can see by the way you look at me; but it is true. Take the skin belt from round my waist. It is yours. In it you will find what I brought from the hills. There are a few ounces, but where I broke the pieces off with a lump of stone—half gold—there were tons upon tons.'
"I was not aware that he was wearing anything beneath his rags of skin, but when to satisfy him I cut through and drew away his pouch-like belt, I could feel inside it pieces of something hard."
"Gold!" cried Griggs excitedly, and the boys' eyes shone with excitement.
"I don't know," said the doctor quietly.
"What, didn't you look?" cried Wilton.
"No; the exertion he made in trying to lift himself so that I could draw away the belt was too much for him, and every thought went to the effort to revive him from his swoon; but it was all in vain, the poor fellow came to sufficiently to show that he was conscious, and caught my hand in his to draw it towards where the belt lay. He pressed my fingers round it, and then lay gazing at me wildly as I bathed his face, till I awoke to the feet that I was trying to revive the dead."
There was silence then for a few moments before Wilton spoke the words that the two boys were eager to utter.
"I'm afraid it's all the poor fellow's dream," he said. And then, "I have no hunger or thirst for gold, but I must confess to a feeling of excitement and desire to know what is in the belt."
"Open it then, and let's all see," said the doctor, and he drew what looked like the well-rubbed and stained skin of a serpent about four feet long from his jacket pocket, and laid it upon the table.
"Skin of a rattler—a copperhead, I should say," cried Griggs. "Well, not a bad idea for a cash belt. There's something hard in it anyhow," he continued, as the doctor let the end drop. "But I say, look here: don't open it for a few moments, because I don't want for us to be disappointed."
"I don't think we shall be," said Bourne. "It is quite possible that in his wanderings the poor fellow found gold, even if he magnified his findings in his imagination."
"That's right, parson," cried Griggs, "but you don't see my point. What I meant about being disappointed was this—supposing this long shot-belt sort of thing does hold so many nuggets of gold, what then?"
"What then?" cried Wilton. "Why, it is gold."
"To be sure; but what about finding the tons, doctor?"
"By the bearings the poor fellow mentioned," replied Chris's father.
"Right again, sir," continued the American; "but the bearings—where are they?"
Every one looked hard at the speaker in silence.
"I don't want to chuck cold water on what may mean a fortune for you, doctor,—but look here: I'm not a sailor, but I do know that when you go to find anything by the bearings you have a sort of map or chart with compass points on it, and arrows and dots and marks to guide you in the way you are to go. What about them? Had he a pocket-book anywhere?"
"Nothing of the kind," replied the doctor, "and I was surprised to find his belt."
"Then the poor chap died a bit too soon, and he's taken his secret with him, I should say."
"It seems so," said the doctor. "I had forgotten all that," and the boys drew a deep breath as they suffered each a sharp pang of disappointment.
"Well, I thought it just as well to speak out, doctor," said Griggs.
"I wish you hadn't, sir," cried Wilton angrily. "You seem to have crushed out our hopes."
"Better to know the truth and the worst at once, my dear Wilton," said Bourne.
"Oh, I don't know that," replied Wilton. "The idea of discovering tons of gold does stir one a bit."
"Hah!" sighed Chris, who was indulging in a golden dream, and he kicked out one leg under the table, involuntarily catching Ned on the side of the ankle in a way which made him utter a yell.
"Here, don't shout like that, young squire, because you're a bit disappointed," cried Griggs; and without waiting for an explanation, he continued, "Well, doctor, I vote that the belt be opened. P'r'aps, after all, these inside are only bits of glittering stuff such as some people think is gold, but which is only iron and sulphur. Anyhow, let's look."
"Open it, Wilton," said the doctor, and the former sat with his elbows on the table holding the snakeskin belt with his hands near the ends, so that they hung down over the fingers, softly lissome, while the horny middle sank in a curve.
"Let's have it, squire," cried Griggs. "Go on ahead. You look as if you were making a plan for a suspension bridge over our creek when it's full of water."
"The skin seems to have been slipped off the snake by turning it over from the mouth," said Wilton, whose voice now sounded rather hoarse. "Those ends are wonderfully soft too, as if the skin had been well tanned."
"Not it," said Griggs; "say it was only dried in the sun, and then rubbed soft. There, let's see what is in it. Hold it up by the tail, and the nuggets'll all fall out."
Wilton did as he was told, but the nuggets—if there were any—did not fall out, for the neck of the snake had been strained and dragged out till it was thin like the tail part, and had doubtless shrunk to its present proportions after the stones or metal had been carefully placed inside. The consequence was that Wilton shook and shook in vain.
"I should take out my knife, open it, and slit the skin right up, if it was my job," said Griggs indifferently.
"No, no; it would be a pity," cried Bourne.
"I could do it," cried Chris—"if I might."
"Try, then," said Wilton, who hastily threw the long skin down, his hands being wet with excitement, which showed in a deck upon his forehead.
Chris eagerly snatched up the belt from where it lay, and then dropped it, startled by the warning uttered loudly by Griggs.
"Take care!" he cried. "That's a rattler's skin, with the head complete. P'r'aps there's both poison-fangs in the skull still."
"Ugh!" cried Chris.
"There, pick it up again, young un," cried Griggs, laughing. "There's nothing there but skin. The poison-fangs went along with the flesh and bones."
"Of course," said Chris shortly. "How stupid! Here, catch hold of the tail, Ned."
The next moment the round belt was stretched out between them, and Chris's hand as he passed it along the middle felt within it so many hard round pieces of something about as large as marbles. While confining his attention to the one nearest the head, he worked it along to the mouth, and let it fall with a sharp rap upon the table, to lie shining dully in the light shed by the hanging spirit-lamp.
"Quartz with gold in it, and no mistake," cried Griggs eagerly.
"Gold, with some specks of quartz in it," cried the doctor, raising the heavy roughly-rounded and hammered fragment nearer the lamp.
"Yes, three-quarters gold," said Wilton, while after taking it in his fingers and handling it for a few minutes, Bourne laid it down with a sigh.
"Let's have some more, Squire Christopher," cried Griggs; but the words were hardly out of his lips before there was again a sharp rap on the table, and then another and another, the boy continuing till a dozen of the dull frosted-looking specimens lay upon the boards, shining with a soft dull glow.
"Excessively rich ore," said the doctor, breaking the silence, after the party had been busily turning over the pieces.
"And no doubt about it, doctor," cried Griggs. "Well, that's yours, anyhow."
"No," said the doctor quickly. "You brought the poor fellow here."
"Right, but you doctored him and made him able to speak. 'Sides, he gave it to you, and it's yours. What's more, he gave you the hills where the tons of it lie—somewhere."
"Yes, somewhere," said the doctor; "but where is that?"
"Where the poor old chap came from. He ought to have given you the map with all its bearings marked down. Are you sure that he hadn't got it in his pocket?"
"Certain," replied the doctor, "for he had no pockets."
"Well, sewed up then in his jacket?"
"I carefully examined that so as to get some information about him."
"Of course," said Griggs. "Nothing more inside the sarpent, is there, Squire Chris?"
"No," replied the boy, after running his hand along the soft skin until it touched Ned's. "It's all stuffed full of something of this last part to keep the gold from getting any further."
"Yes, that's it," said Ned; "so as to keep the gold in the middle, and leave the ends soft to tie together."
"It doesn't quite feel like that," said Chris thoughtfully. "If that had been meant, why wasn't there a sort of soft roll of something at the head end? I say, father, there is something like a roll."
"Draw it out then, my boy," was the reply.
"It won't come," said Chris. "We shall have to slit the skin here."
"Nay, skin it out as if it were a bit of the rattler's body left in. Pull the mouth open over the neck. No, no; not like that. Draw it open a bit. That's the way. Now you'll do it, my lad."
Chris jumped at the American's hints, and acting upon them, found that the task was comparatively easy, and in a few minutes a little roll of soft cream-coloured leather, about an inch in diameter and eight or nine long, carefully wound round with what looked like fine twine, but proved to be a remarkably fine kind of animal integument, lay upon the table.
"Leather of some kind—I mean, soft skin," said Griggs, bending over the little roll as it lay before them. "Say, doctor, I'm beginning to think you've got the bearings after all. You must use your knife this time."
"Yes," said the doctor, taking out a many-bladed knife, and then pausing to pass the object round before going farther.
But the roll was returned to him quickly in the impatience felt by all to see whether it should prove to be a scroll containing valuable information, and the doctor inserted the point of his knife beneath the thin twine-like bond. There was a sharp sound as it was divided, and upon being unwound there before the party lay the edge of a roll of very thin, carefully smoothed, yellowish skin, looking like badly-prepared vellum, only feeling far more soft.
"A map, or writing," said Wilton hoarsely.
"A map, I'm sure," said Bourne.
"That's about it, sir," cried Griggs. "Say, neighbour, you've made a find, and the old man wasn't so mad as he looked."
"So it seems," said the doctor, rather breathless in spite of his calm self-contained nature, accustomed to crises.
"Are we on the brink of a great discovery?" said Wilton. "If so, how does the matter stand?"
"It's the doctor's find," cried Griggs, and the two boys began to breathe audibly as they rested their chins in their hands and seemed to devour the little leather scroll.
"No; you brought the poor fellow here."
"Tchah! What's the good of fighting about what we haven't got?" said Griggs, laughing. "What do you say to whacks?"
"What!" cried Bourne.
"Share and share alike all round, when there's anything to share."
"To be sure," said Wilton.
"And I say that the youngsters come into the swim; only look here, young squires, if there's nothing you get nought."
"Agreed," cried the boys, in a breath.
"Agreed all," cried Griggs merrily. "Now then, doctor, open the roll and let's see; but before you begin, who'll buy my share for ten cents?—What, all silent? No buyers? Tchah! There's speculation! I won't sell it now. Read away, doctor, and let's hear—or see."
A WILD-GOOSE CHASE.
The doctor carefully opened the roll of skin upon the table, while Chris turned the lamp up a little higher, keeping one eye upon his father's actions the while and then scanning eagerly the plainly-seen marks which pretty well covered the little guide.
For that it was evidently intended to be, so as to give future searchers an easy means of reaching the treasure that the unfortunate adventurer had discovered.
All gazed down at the skin, which had been smoothed out, and for some minutes not a word was spoken. But it did not take long for the whole of the party to come to the same conclusion, and it was this—
That the adventurer had taken great pains in the preparation of his map for another's benefit, in case he should not be able to seek for the treasure himself, but that to make his chart available it needed something more.
Griggs was the first to give his feelings words, which expressed the thoughts of the rest exactly.
"This is all very well," he said, as he wrinkled his brow and scratched his head viciously, "and it's very nicely done for a man who seems to have begun by making his own makeshift for paper, and then his own pen and ink. What do you make this skin to be, doctor?"
"The nearest guess I can give is that it is the skin of a jack-rabbit that has been pegged-out tightly and dried in the sun."
"Same here," said Griggs; "but what about the ink?"
"Ah, that looks like charcoal ground very fine, mixed with water and some kind of tree gum, and painted on with a pointed piece of wood."
"That's just what I thought it might be," cried Griggs, "and a deal of trouble the poor fellow has taken with it. Look here, neighbours, east and west and north and south plain enough. What does he say here?—'Des—' Yes, that's right enough, and means desert. Plenty of it too. And what's here?—'No water.' Of course, and over and over again, 'N.W.' That means no water, of course. Mountains under these stars. Plenty of 'em too. More desert, and then three stars set triangle fashion about what looks like a square box with some one's name on it."
"No," cried both boys together; "it's 'temple.'"
"So it is, boys," cried Griggs, "and these dots all round it—I mean all square about it, must mean the city walls. Well, that's clear enough."
"Look there," cried Chris.
"Yes, I'm looking," said Griggs. "What is it?"
"That big W," said Chris. "That must mean water or well."
"Very likely, my boy," said the doctor.
"And these square bits must mean houses, I s'pose," continued Griggs. "Well, it's a prettily-done, careful sort of map, made under difficulties. Mountains here and mountains there, and all the rest desert. But he means whoever uses the map to go straight for the place, by sticking in all these little arrows right away from the north-east corner across the desert to the temple."
"Yes, that's the way to go, plainly enough," cried Bourne.
"That's what I thought, neighbour."
"Well, then, what are you finding fault about?" cried Wilton sharply. "You talk as if you despised it."
"Oh no, not I, squire. It's a very pretty little map, and took the poor chap a long time to do; but it seems to me that it's no good at all."
"I don't understand you," said Wilton sharply. "Look here, he gives a starting-place marked with a big dot, and the little arrows go right across to the three mountains and the temple."
"That is how he described it to me," said the doctor.
"Just so, sir. That's how I understand it, neighbours; but what then?"
"Why, of course!" came in chorus, as every one at the table grasped the hitch that the American had seen.
"Ah, you all hit it now," said Griggs, laughing.
"I think I understand what you mean," said the doctor thoughtfully.
"So do I," came in chorus, and then Bourne said quickly—
"Suppose you speak out and say what you mean, Lee."
"It seems to me," said the doctor gravely, "that though this chart has been prepared so carefully, and points out the trend of the deserts and mountains, and also where the gold-hills, the city, and the temple stand, while the points of the compass are shown as well, it might be a chart of any part of the country, a mere patch, or a territory of great extent."
"That's so, doctor," interposed Griggs; "but you haven't quite hit it yet."
"No, but I was coming to your point directly. You mean that the map gives us no hint of the direction in which the gold-hills lie."
"Now you've hit it right in the bull's-eye, doctor," cried Griggs. "That's it. Say we made up our minds to go and look for it, starting from here, are we to begin north, south, or east? Couldn't go very far west, because that would mean going straight out to sea."
"Of course—of course!" was chorused.
"But we could find the place, after all," cried Chris excitedly.
"How?" said Wilton.
"Mr Griggs can tell us which direction the poor old fellow was coming from."
"No, he can't," said the personage spoken of. "He was zig-zagging about all sorts of ways, and more than once after a stumble I saw him get upon his legs and go back the same way he came, as if he was half blind."
"Oh!" cried Chris, in a disappointed tone.
"You meant, young squire, that if I could tell you the direction from which he had come, all we should have to do would be to go right along his track till we saw the three mountains?"
"Yes, that is something like what I thought," said Chris, who felt damped.
"Wouldn't work, youngster," cried Griggs. "Even if he had come on the last day in a straight line that wouldn't help us about how he came on the other days; and as to his trail—why, the poor old fellow had been on the tramp for years. Look here, all of you; I'll give you another chance for a spec. I'll take five cents for my share. Who'll buy? Don't all speak at once. What, no one? Well, you are a poor lot! Only five cents. Well, never mind; if you won't make yourselves rich it's no fault of mine. I'll keep my share myself in a goose-quill stopped up at the end with wax—when I get it."
"I should very much have liked to go in search of that place," said Wilton, who hardly heard their American neighbour's words.
"And I too," said Bourne. "Setting aside the gold discovery, it would be most interesting to visit the relics of the ancient city."
"I could do without seeing the old place," said Griggs dryly. "Depend upon it, you'd find it terribly out of repair. I should be dead on the gold. How do you feel, doctor?"
"I should like to explore the old place," he replied, "but I certainly should make a point of getting all the gold I could."
"Then why not try and find the spot?" cried Chris. "It must be somewhere south."
"Yes," cried Ned. "Oh, father, don't let's give up without a good try to find it."
The doctor laughed at the boy's eagerness.
"Somewhere due south," he said; "a nice vague direction. Somewhere due south may mean anywhere between here and Cape Horn."
"No, no, father," cried Chris; "not so far as that. I haven't forgotten all my geography since I've been here, and I know that there are plenty of desert regions such as that poor fellow may have been wandering in between here and Panama."
"Hear, hear!" cried Griggs. "But give us one or two, squire."
Chris grew red and uncomfortable, but he caught his father's eye looking keenly at him, and he spoke out.
"I don't know about being exactly south," he said. "Perhaps some of the places lie east; but the old man might have been wandering in the mountainous parts of Colorado or Lower California, or—or—"
"New Mexico," whispered Ned.
"Yes, New Mexico, or California, or perhaps have got to Mexico itself."
"Well done, our side!" cried Griggs, thumping the table. "Three cheers for our own private professor of geography. To be sure, there's desert land in all those places, as I've learned myself from fellows who have been there. But what's Arizona done to be left out in the cold?"
"In the sun, you mean," cried Chris eagerly. "That's the hottest and dryest place of all of them."
"To be sure," said the doctor—"the arid zone."
"Dessay it's true," said Griggs. "I vote we go and see."
"Why not Lower California, or one of the other States?" said the doctor dryly.
"To be sure, why not?" said Griggs, and the boys, who smelt change in the air, thumped the table.
"Quiet, quiet, boys!" said the doctor sternly. "I'm afraid, neighbour Griggs, that your plantation would suffer a good deal during your absence on such a wild-goose chase."
"What! My plantation suffer?" cried Griggs, chuckling. "Oh, come, that's too good a joke, doctor! Suffer? Have you been round it lately?"
"Not for a year past," was the reply. "I've been too busy slaving over our own."
"Then you don't know. Why, my good neighbour, it's in nearly as bad a condition as that poor old fellow we have just buried."
"Have you tried to sell it to some immigrant?"
"Have I tried to swindle some poor fellow just come into the country?" cried Griggs sharply. "No, I haven't. I don't set up for being much of a citizen, but, 'pon my word, doctor, I wouldn't be such a brute as to even give it to a man on condition that he would live there and farm it. Your joint plantation here is bad enough, but my bit's ten times worse."
"I join issue there," cried Wilton sharply; "it can't be."
"Oh, can't it!" cried the American. "You don't know what it's took out of me. Why, I'd have pitched the whole thing up a couple of years ago if it hadn't been for you three here."
"What had we to do with it?" said Bourne sharply.
"Everything. I used to see you folk and these boys plodding along, working like niggers, no matter how your crops turned out, and waiting patiently for better times to come."
"Well, what of that?" said Wilton. "Of course we wanted to get on."
"So did I, squire, and seeing you all keep at it so when I wanted to chuck up, I pitched into myself and called him—this chap, 'Thaniel Griggs, you know—all the idle, lazy scallywags and loafers I could think of, and made him—'Thaniel, you know—so ashamed of himself that he worked harder than ever. 'They've all cut their eye-teeth, Griggy, my boy,' I said, 'and they wouldn't keep on if there wasn't some good to come out of it by and by,' and after that I worked away. But now you all talk of giving up, and say you've proved that there's no good in the place, what's the use of my niggering away by myself?"
"You'd sooner go on such a wild, harum-scarum search as this, eh?" said the doctor, looking at the tall, sun-burnt man grimly.
"To be sure I would. There'd be some fun and adventure in it."
"Well, yes, neighbour; I don't expect it would be all honey. There'd be some mustard and cayenne in it too."
"And danger of wasting your life as that poor fellow yonder did his."
"Some," said the American coolly. "You can't make fortunes without a bit of a fight. I came here to this place to make mine, but there's no stuff here to make it of. If we should find the gold-hills now, that would be something like. The fortune's already made. All it wants is for us to go and pack it up and bring it away."
"To find it first," said Ned's father bitterly.
"Nay, it's already found, parson. The poor old boy found it, and gave the job over to the doctor here, along with those title-deeds."
"Which don't say where the land lies."
"Oh, never mind that. I boggled about it at first, and thought it was a regular blind lead. But I don't now. Amurrykee isn't such a big place as all that comes to. There's the gold somewhere, and we've got some sort of a guide as well as the right to it. We're none of us so old that we can't afford to spend a few years, if it's necessary, in hunting through first one desert and then another. Can't you see what a chance we shall have?"
"I must confess I do not," said the doctor.
"Well, I do, sir. We shall have those places all to ourselves. There'll be no one to complain of our making footmarks over their gardens and strawberry-patches."
"What about the Indians, Mr Griggs?" asked Bourne.
"The Injun? Yes, there's the Injun, but we shouldn't go as one. We should be half-a-dozen, and if the 'foresaid Injun takes my advice he'll stop at home and leave me alone. I ain't got more pluck in me than most fellows have, but though I called 'Thaniel Griggs all the lazy coons I could lay my tongue to, I've a great respect for that young man. Selfish or not, I like him better than any fellow in this country, and I should no more mind drawing a straight bead on the savage who tried to kill him than I should mind putting my heel on a sleeping rattler's head while I drew my knife and 'capitated him. There, now."
"Self-preservation's the first law of nature, friend Griggs," said Wilton.
"Is it, now?" replied the American. "Then all I can say is that number two and all the rest of her laws have got to be very good ones if they come up to number first, sir. Oh, I shouldn't stop for no Injuns if I made up my mind to go, sirree. I should chance that, practise up my shooting, and never go a step without having my rifle charged in both barrels."
"But can't you see that the chances are very much against any one finding this place?"
"No, sir. It'll be a tight job, no doubt; but what one man could do, going without the slightest idee where to go nor what there was to find, surely half-a-dozen of us, counting the young nippers in, could do, knowing that the gold's there waiting for us, and that we've only got to find the right spot."
"Only!" said Bourne sadly.
"Yes, sir, only. There, if I talk much more I shall want to go back home to see if there is one ripe orange on my plantation that I can suck. So I'll just put my opinions down straight. Those is them—I say, Squire Ned, that's bad grammar, ain't it?"
"Horrible," replied the boy, laughing.
"Never mind; you understood it. Look here, gentlemen, there's a fine chance here for a fortune, and I say, have a try for it, and take me with you to help, share and share alike. I'll work with you, fight for you, and share all the trouble like a man. It's worth the try, and I think so much of it that if you say downright that you won't go I shall see if I can find a trusty mate, and go myself. There, that's all."
Griggs threw himself back on his seat so as to get his back square against the wall, tilting the stool on two legs, and looked sharply round the table, and then at Wilton, who had risen and come round to him to offer his hand.
The American looked at the long brown fingers and then up in their owner's face.
"What's that for?" he said. "Want me to shake, and then go home, because you're tired of me?"
"No," cried Wilton fiercely. "It's for you to give me yours. I say you're right, Griggs. The place must be found, and I'll go with you to work and fight, and through thick and thin, for I believe in you as a true man. I'll go with you, and we'll find the treasure or come back, worn out, to die."
"Not we!" cried the American, seizing Wilton's hand in his strong grip. "I'm with you, to stick to you, Mister Wilton, like a brother man. I'm ready to start with you to-morrow, if you like, if the doctor here will hand over that dockyment.—Any more going on?"
The two boys sprang to their feet and looked at their fathers, who spoke as one man. "Sit down, boys!" they cried.
"Why, you rash young reprobate," cried the doctor. "Do you mean to tell me that you'd go off on this mad journey without asking my leave?"
"No, father, of course not. Ned wouldn't either without Mr Bourne's consent; but I want to go with old Griggs, who has always been such a good fellow to us, and I feel sure you and Mr Bourne both mean to go too."
"What makes you say that, sir?" cried the doctor sternly.
"Oh, first because Mr Wilton's going, and you'd neither of you like him to go without you."
"Any other reason, sir?"
"Yes, father. It seems to me that as we are going away to make a fresh start, it would be much better to go in search of this treasure than to be sailing straight back to England, not knowing what we should do when we got there."
"Oh, that's what you think, is it, sir?" said the doctor.—"By your leave, Bourne!—Now, Master Ned, pray what do you think about it all?"
"Oh," cried the boy addressed, speaking to the doctor, but looking hard and searchingly in his father's face, "I want to go with Chris, of course, and I think just the same as he does. Why, it would be grand, Mr Lee. We should have no end of adventures, and see the beautiful country."
"And the dismal desert. Why, you romantic young dreamer! You'll never see a place south of here half so beautiful."
"But what's the good of its being beautiful if we can't live upon it?"
"Then you'd be glad to go?"
"Oh yes, sir," cried Ned.
"Humph! Well, Bourne, it seems then that you and I will have to go back to England empty and alone."
"No, you won't, father," said Chris quickly. "I shouldn't go without you went too."
"And I shouldn't either, father," said Ned huskily, as he went and stood behind his father with his hands resting on Bourne's shoulders.
"Here, I wish you two young fellows had held your tongues," said Griggs roughly, "because it's like filling a man full of pleasure, and then making a hole and letting it all out again. But it's all right, lads, and thankye all the same. No, you can't go away and leave your two dads; it wouldn't be right, and you couldn't expect to prosper if you did. But I wish they'd think as we do, and say they'd go and chance it. Raally, doctor, and raally, Mr Bourne, I'd go to bed and sleep on it. P'r'aps you'd feel a bit different in the morning. What do you say?"
The doctor was silent for a few moments, gazing full in the American's face, the latter receiving the look without blenching.
"Let me see, Mr Griggs," he said; "I've known you nearly four years, haven't I?"
"Four years, four months, doctor, and that's just as long as I've known you."
"Yes," said the doctor, at last. "Bourne, what do you say to all this— shall we go and sleep on it?"
The two boys caught hands and gazed hard at Ned's father, who was also silent for a few moments, before he drew a deep breath and said firmly—
"Yes, Lee, old friend, I say let us go to rest now, think deeply, and as we should, over what may mean success or failure, and decide in the morning what we ought to do."
"Shout, boys," cried Griggs, springing up. "Not one of your English hoo-roars, but a regular tiger—ragh—ragh—ragh! That's your sort. They mean to go."
"Yes, Griggs, old neighbour," said the doctor; "in spite of all the terrible obstacles I can see plainly in our path, I feel that to-morrow morning my friend and I will have made up our minds that this is too great a thing to give up easily, and that we shall decide to go."
ALL FOR GOLD.
It was not until the doctor rapped sharply at the wooden partition that separated the boys' from the men's quarters at the shanty, that the murmuring buzz ceased. "Look here, you two," he said; "if you don't want to sleep we do, so just be quiet. It's somewhere about one o'clock, and when getting-up time comes you'll want to sleep."
"All right, father," said Chris, in a very wakeful tone; "we won't talk any more."
But they did, in a whisper, for something in the way of recrimination began.
"It was all your fault," said Ned. "I wanted to go to sleep hours ago, but you would keep beginning again about the bothering old chart."
"Oh come, I like that!" replied Chris. "Who kept on wondering whether we should meet Indians, and whether they scalped people now!"
"Well, yes, I did say something about that. Only fancy, though, how horrid!"
"Shan't! We're to go to sleep. I say, though, Ned; think we shall really get away from this bothering old hoeing and weeding and killing blight?"
"Can't think: I'm nearly asleep."
"Oh, what a thumper! You're as wide awake as I am."
"Oh!" and a sudden jump.
"What's the matter?"
"You stuck a pin into my leg."
"Must have been a mosquito."
"I'll skeeter you to-morrow morning, Master Chris!"
"Don't wait: do it now!" (defiantly.)
"You coward! You know that if I hit at you the doctor would jump up in a rage."
"No, he wouldn't, because we'd creep out through the open door and go into the shed. Come on; I'm ready."
"I shan't. I want to sleep."
"I don't. I can't. I feel all over of a tingle. I should like a set-to. Come on out, and then I should like you to skeeter me."
"Don't be a fool, Chris. Let's go to sleep and get ready for to-morrow. My word, what a day we shall have! It seems wonderful. I can hardly believe it's true."
"That is," said Chris, for there was an angry rap on the partition, given by the doctor, who felt as nervously excited as the two boys.
The final rap brought calm, though, sending the lads off into a deep sleep which lasted till sunrise, when they stepped out of their rough bunks, hurried down to the water-pool to have a bathe, and had just finished bathing when Chris caught sight of the tall gaunt figure of the American striding through the Bartlett-pear plantation.
"Coo-ee!" cried Chris.
"Oh, there you are, young 'uns," came in reply. "Mornin'. Well, what time will you be ready to start?"
"Directly after breakfast," cried Chris.
"Packed up your duds?"
"No, not yet."
"Well, look sharp."
"All right. But if we go—"
"But if! Why, we are going."
"I hope so," cried Ned. "But I say, Griggs, what are you going to do about your shanty? Are you going to lock it up and leave the key with the nearest neighbour?"
"Tchah! Nonsense! I'm going to put together what I want in a mule-car, ready for hitching the two kickers on, and then I'm going to take a hammer and a bag of spikes, and nail up the door and window. I shall advise your gov'nors to do the same here."
"But of course we shall take no end of things with us," said Chris.
"You won't, my lad. We shall load up two or three cars, but it will be with meal and tinned meat, bacon and ham. Tea, coffee, and sugar, of course. Ammunition, a few tools, a waterproof or two, and a tent. That's all."
"What about clothes?"
"Oh, we shall bring them on our backs. It's going to be light marching-order, I can tell you."
"That won't matter," said Ned. "I shall like it. I say, Griggs, it'll be like one long jolly great picnic."
"Yes, if we keep well, and the Indians let us alone."
"But, shall we meet Indians, Griggs?" cried Chris excitedly.
"Not we. Sooner go miles round; but they'll meet us, I expect."
"Oh!" said Chris thoughtfully. "But what for?"
"To get our mules and carts, and all we have with us."
"But what about ourselves?"
"Oh, we're no use to them," said the American dryly. "They'll pitch us aside as so much rubbish—if we'll let 'em."
"Get on!" cried Ned. "He's talking like that to frighten us. But I say, Griggs, what about the gold?"