Many Barren Months And Miles
From: Cabin Fever
"Well, here come them darn burros, Cash. Cora's colt ain't with 'em though. Poor little devils—say, Cash, they look like hard sleddin', and that's a fact. I'll tell the world they've got about as much pep as a flat tire."
"Maybe we better grain 'em again." Cash looked up from studying the last assay report of the Burro Lode, and his look was not pleasant. "But it'll cost a good deal, in both time and money. The feed around here is played out."
"Well, when it comes to that—" Bud cast a glum glance at the paper Cash was holding.
"Yeah. Looks like everything's about played out. Promising ledge, too. Like some people, though. Most all its good points is right on the surface. Nothing to back it up."
"She's sure running light, all right. Now," Bud added sardonically, but with the whimsical quirk withal, "if it was like a carburetor, and you could give it a richer mixture—"
"Yeah. What do you make of it, Bud?"
"Well—aw, there comes that durn colt, bringing up the drag. Say Cash, that colt's just about all in. Cora's nothing but a bag of bones, too. They'll never winter—not on this range, they won't."
Cash got up and went to the doorway, looking out over Bud's shoulder at the spiritless donkeys trailing in to water. Beyond them the desert baked in its rim of hot, treeless hills. Above them the sky glared a brassy blue with never a could. Over a low ridge came Monte and Pete, walking with heads drooping. Their hip bones lifted above their ridged paunches, their backbones, peaked sharp above, their withers were lean and pinched looking. In August the desert herbage has lost what little succulence it ever possessed, and the gleanings are scarce worth the walking after.
"They're pretty thin," Cash observed speculatively, as though he was measuring them mentally for some particular need.
"We'd have to grain 'em heavy till we struck better feed. And pack light." Bud answered his thought.
"The question is, where shall we head for, Bud? Have you any particular idea?" Cash looked slightingly down at the assayer's report. "Such as she is, we've done all we can do to the Burro Lode, for a year at least," he said. "The assessment work is all done—or will be when we muck out after that last shot. The claim is filed—I don't know what more we can do right away. Do you?"
"Sure thing," grinned Bud. "We can get outa here and go some place where it's green."
"Yeah." Cash meditated, absently eyeing the burros. "Where it's green." He looked at the near hills, and at the desert, and at the dreary march of the starved animals. "It's a long way to green country," he said.
They looked at the burros.
"They're tough little devils," Bud observed hopefully. "We could take it easy, traveling when it's coolest. And by packing light, and graining the whole bunch—"
"Yeah. We can ease 'em through, I guess. It does seem as though it would be foolish to hang on here any longer." Carefully as he made his tests, Cash weighed the question of their going. "This last report kills any chance of interesting capital to the extent of developing the claim on a large enough scale to make it profitable. It's too long a haul to take the ore out, and it's too spotted to justify any great investment in machinery to handle it on the ground. And," he added with an undernote of fierceness, "it's a terrible place for man or beast to stay in, unless the object to be attained is great enough to justify enduring the hardships."
"You said a mouthful, Cash. Well, can you leave your seven radishes and three hunches of lettuce and pull out—say at daybreak?" Bud turned to him with some eagerness.
Cash grinned sourly. "When it's time to go, seven radishes can't stop me. No, nor a whole row of 'em—if there was a whole row."
"And you watered 'em copiously too," Bud murmured, with the corners of his mouth twitching. "Well, I guess we might as well tie up the livestock. I'm going to give 'em all a feed of rolled oats, Cash. We can get along without, and they've got to have something to put a little heart in 'em. There's a moon to-night—how about starting along about midnight? That would put us in the Bend early in the forenoon to-morrow."
"Suits me," said Cash. "Now I've made up my mind about going, I can't go too soon."
"You're on. Midnight sees us started." Bud went out with ropes to catch and tie up the burros and their two saddle horses. And as he went, for the first time in two months he whistled; a detail which Cash noted with a queer kind of smile.
Midnight and the moon riding high in the purple bowl of sky sprinkled thick with stars; with a little, warm wind stirring the parched weeds as they passed; with the burros shuffling single file along the dim trail which was the short cut through the hills to the Bend, Ed taking the lead, with the camp kitchen wabbling lumpily on his back, Cora bringing up the rear with her skinny colt trying its best to keep up, and with no pack at all; so they started on the long, long journey to the green country.
A silent journey it was for the most part. The moon and the starry bowl of sky had laid their spell upon the desert, and the two men rode wordlessly, filled with vague, unreasoning regret that they must go. Months they had spent with the desert, learning well every little varying mood; cursing it for its blistering heat and its sand storms and its parched thirst and its utter, blank loneliness. Loving it too, without ever dreaming that they loved. To-morrow they would face the future with the past dropping farther and farther behind. To-night it rode with them.
Three months in that little, rough-walled hut had lent it an atmosphere of home, which a man instinctively responds to with a certain clinging affection, however crude may be the shelter he calls his own. Cash secretly regretted the thirsty death of his radishes and lettuce which he had planted and tended with such optimistic care. Bud wondered if Daddy might not stray half-starved into the shack, and find them gone. While they were there, he had agreed with Cash that the dog must be dead. But now he felt uneasily doubtful It would be fierce if Daddy did come back now. He would starve. He never could make the trip to the Bend alone, even if he could track them.
There was, also, the disappointment in the Burro Lode claim. As Bud planned it, the Burro was packing a very light load—far lighter than had seemed possible with that strong indication on the surface. Cash's "enormous black ledge" had shown less and less gold as they went into it, though it still seemed worth while, if they had the capital to develop it further. Wherefore they had done generous assessment work and had recorded their claim and built their monuments to mark its boundaries. It would be safe for a year, and by that time—Quien sabe?
The Thompson claim, too, had not justified any enthusiasm whatever. They had found it, had relocated it, and worked out the assessment for the widow. Cash had her check for all they had earned, and he had declared profanely that he would not give his share of the check for the whole claim.
They would go on prospecting, using the check for a grubstake, That much they had decided without argument. The gambling instinct was wide awake in Bud's nature—and as for Cash, he would hunt gold as long as he could carry pick and pan. They would prospect as long as their money held out. When that was gone, they would get more and go on prospecting. But they would prospect in a green country where wood and water were not so precious as in the desert and where, Cash averred, the chance of striking it rich was just as good; better, because they could kill game and make their grubstake last longer.
Wherefore they waited in Gila Bend for three days, to strengthen the weakened animals with rest and good hay and grain. Then they took again to the trail, traveling as lightly as they could, with food for themselves and grain for the stock to last them until they reached Needles. From there with fresh supplies they pushed on up to Goldfield, found that camp in the throes of labor disputes, and went on to Tonopah.
There they found work for themselves and the burros, packing winter supplies to a mine lying back in the hills. They made money at it, and during the winter they made more. With the opening of spring they outfitted again and took the trail, their goal the high mountains south of Honey Lake. They did not hurry. Wherever the land they traveled through seemed to promise gold, they would stop and prospect. Many a pan of likely looking dirt they washed beside some stream where the burros stopped to drink and feed a little on the grassy banks.
So, late in June, they reached Reno; outfitted and went on again, traveling to the north, to the green country for which they yearned, though now they were fairly in it and would have stopped if any tempting ledge or bar had come in their way. They prospected every gulch that showed any mineral signs at all. It was a carefree kind of life, with just enough of variety to hold Bud's interest to the adventuring. The nomad in him responded easily to this leisurely pilgrimage. There was no stampede anywhere to stir their blood with the thought of quick wealth. There was hope enough, on the other hand, to keep them going. Cash had prospected and trapped for more than fifteen years now, and he preached the doctrine of freedom and the great outdoors.
Of what use was a house and lot—and taxes and trouble with the plumbing? he would chuckle. A tent and blankets and a frying pan and grub; two good legs and wild country to travel; a gold pan and a pick—these things, to Cash, spelled independence and the joy of living. The burros and the two horses were luxuries, he declared. When they once got located on a good claim they would sell off everything but a couple of burros—Sway and Ed, most likely. The others would bring enough for a winter grubstake, and would prolong their freedom and their independence just that much. That is, supposing they did not strike a good claim before then. Cash had learned, he said, to hope high but keep an eye on the grubstake.
Late in August they came upon a mountain village perched beside a swift stream and walled in on three sided by pine-covered mountains. A branch railroad linked the place more or less precariously with civilization, and every day—unless there was a washout somewhere, or a snowslide, or drifts too deep—a train passed over the road. One day it would go up-stream, and the next day it would come back. And the houses stood drawn up in a row alongside the track to watch for these passings.
Miners came in with burros or with horses, packed flour and bacon and tea and coffee across their middles, got drunk, perhaps as a parting ceremony, and went away into the hills. Cash watched them for a day or so; saw the size of their grubstakes, asked few questions and listened to a good deal of small-town gossip, and nodded his head contentedly. There was gold in these hills. Not enough, perhaps, to start a stampede with—but enough to keep wise old hermits burrowing after it.
So one day Bud sold the two horses and one of the saddles, and Cash bought flour and bacon and beans and coffee, and added other things quite as desirable but not so necessary. Then they too went away into the hills.
Fifteen miles from Alpine, as a cannon would shoot; high up in the hills, where a creek flowed down through a saucerlike basin under beetling ledges fringed all around with forest, they came, after much wandering, upon an old log cabin whose dirt roof still held in spite of the snows that heaped upon it through many a winter. The ledge showed the scars of old prospect holes, and in the sand of the creek they found "colors" strong enough to make it seem worth while to stop here—for awhile, at least.
They cleaned out the cabin and took possession of it, and the next time they went to town Cash made cautious inquiries about the place. It was, he learned, an old abandoned claim. Abandoned chiefly because the old miner who had lived there died one day, and left behind him all the marks of having died from starvation, mostly. A cursory examination of his few belongings had revealed much want, but no gold save a little coarse dust in a small bottle.
"About enough to fill a rifle ca'tridge," detailed the teller of the tale. "He'd pecked around that draw for two, three year mebby. Never showed no gold much, for all the time he spent there. Trapped some in winter—coyotes and bobcats and skunks, mostly. Kinda off in the upper story, old Nelson was. I guess he just stayed there because he happened to light there and didn't have gumption enough to git out. Hills is full of old fellers like him. They live off to the'rselves, and peck around and git a pocket now and then that keeps 'm in grub and tobacco. If you want to use the cabin, I guess nobody's goin' to care. Nelson never had any folks, that anybody knows of. Nobody ever bothered about takin' up the claim after he cashed in, either. Didn't seem worth nothin' much. Went back to the gov'ment."
"Trapped, you say. Any game around there now?"
"Oh, shore! Game everywhere in these hills, from weasels up to bear and mountain lion. If you want to trap, that's as good a place as any, I guess."
So Cash and Bud sold the burros and bought traps and more supplies, and two window sashes and a crosscut saw and some wedges and a double-bitted axe, and settled down in Nelson Flat to find what old Dame Fortune had tucked away in this little side pocket and forgotten.
Next: The Bite Of Memory
Previous: Into The Desert