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Out Of A Pioneer's Trunk








From: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other Stories

It was a slightly cynical, but fairly good-humored crowd that had
gathered before a warehouse on Long Wharf in San Francisco one afternoon
in the summer of '51. Although the occasion was an auction, the bidders'
chances more than usually hazardous, and the season and locality famous
for reckless speculation, there was scarcely any excitement among the
bystanders, and a lazy, half-humorous curiosity seemed to have taken the
place of any zeal for gain.

It was an auction of unclaimed trunks and boxes--the personal luggage of
early emigrants--which had been left on storage in hulk or warehouse at
San Francisco, while the owner was seeking his fortune in the mines. The
difficulty and expense of transport, often obliging the gold-seeker
to make part of his journey on foot, restricted him to the smallest
impedimenta, and that of a kind not often found in the luggage of
ordinary civilization. As a consequence, during the emigration of
'49, he was apt on landing to avail himself of the invitation usually
displayed on some of the doors of the rude hostelries on the shore:
"Rest for the Weary and Storage for Trunks." In a majority of cases
he never returned to claim his stored property. Enforced absence,
protracted equally by good or evil fortune, accumulated the high storage
charges until they usually far exceeded the actual value of the goods;
sickness, further emigration, or death also reduced the number of
possible claimants, and that more wonderful human frailty--absolute
forgetfulness of deposited possessions--combined together to leave
the bulk of the property in the custodian's hands. Under an understood
agreement they were always sold at public auction after a given time.
Although the contents of some of the trunks were exposed, it was found
more in keeping with the public sentiment to sell the trunks LOCKED and
UNOPENED. The element of curiosity was kept up from time to time by the
incautious disclosures of the lucky or unlucky purchaser, and general
bidding thus encouraged--except when the speculator, with the true
gambling instinct, gave no indication in his face of what was drawn in
this lottery. Generally, however, some suggestion in the exterior of
the trunk, a label or initials; some conjectural knowledge of its former
owner, or the idea that he might be secretly present in the hope of
getting his property back for less than the accumulated dues, kept up
the bidding and interest.

A modest-looking, well-worn portmanteau had been just put up at a
small opening bid, when Harry Flint joined the crowd. The young man had
arrived a week before at San Francisco friendless and penniless, and had
been forced to part with his own effects to procure necessary food
and lodging while looking for an employment. In the irony of fate that
morning the proprietors of a dry-goods store, struck with his good looks
and manners, had offered him a situation, if he could make himself
more presentable to their fair clients. Harry Flint was gazing half
abstractedly, half hopelessly, at the portmanteau without noticing the
auctioneer's persuasive challenge. In his abstraction he was not aware
that the auctioneer's assistant was also looking at him curiously, and
that possibly his dejected and half-clad appearance had excited the
attention of one of the cynical bystanders, who was exchanging a few
words with the assistant. He was, however, recalled to himself a moment
later when the portmanteau was knocked down at fifteen dollars, and
considerably startled when the assistant placed it at his feet with a
grim smile. "That's your property, Fowler, and I reckon you look as if
you wanted it back bad."

"But--there's some mistake," stammered Flint. "I didn't bid."

"No, but Tom Flynn did for you. You see, I spotted you from the first,
and told Flynn I reckoned you were one of those chaps who came back from
the mines dead broke. And he up and bought your things for you--like a
square man. That's Flynn's style, if he is a gambler."

"But," persisted Flint, "this never was my property. My name isn't
Fowler, and I never left anything here."

The assistant looked at him with a grim, half-credulous, half-scornful
smile. "Have it your own way," he said, "but I oughter tell ye, old
man, that I'm the warehouse clerk, and I remember YOU. I'm here for that
purpose. But as that thar valise is bought and paid for by somebody else
and given to you, it's nothing more to me. Take it or leave it."

The ridiculousness of quarreling over the mere form of his good fortune
here struck Flint, and, as his abrupt benefactor had as abruptly
disappeared, he hurried off with his prize. Reaching his cheap
lodging-house, he examined its contents. As he had surmised, it
contained a full suit of clothing of the better sort, and suitable to
his urban needs. There were a few articles of jewelry, which he put
religiously aside. There were some letters, which seemed to be of a
purely business character. There were a few daguerreotypes of pretty
faces, one of which was singularly fascinating to him. But there
was another, of a young man, which startled him with its marvelous
resemblance to HIMSELF! In a flash of intelligence he understood it all
now. It was the likeness of the former owner of the trunk, for whom
the assistant had actually mistaken him! He glanced hurriedly at the
envelopes of the letters. They were addressed to Shelby Fowler, the name
by which the assistant had just called him. The mystery was plain now.
And for the present he could fairly accept his good luck, and trust to
later fortune to justify himself.

Transformed in his new garb, he left his lodgings to present himself
once more to his possible employer. His way led past one of the large
gambling saloons. It was yet too early to find the dry-goods trader
disengaged; perhaps the consciousness of more decent, civilized garb
emboldened him to mingle more freely with strangers, and he entered the
saloon. He was scarcely abreast of one of the faro tables when a man
suddenly leaped up with an oath and discharged a revolver full in his
face. The shot missed. Before his unknown assailant could fire again
the astonished Flint had closed with him, and instinctively clutched
the weapon. A brief but violent struggle ensued. Flint felt his strength
failing him, when suddenly a look of astonishment came into the furious
eyes of his adversary, and the man's grasp mechanically relaxed. The
half-freed pistol, thrown upwards by this movement, was accidentally
discharged point blank into his temples, and he fell dead. No one in the
crowd had stirred or interfered.

"You've done for Australian Pete this time, Mr. Fowler," said a voice
at his elbow. He turned gaspingly and recognized his strange benefactor,
Flynn. "I call you all to witness, gentlemen," continued the gambler,
turning dictatorially to the crowd, "that this man was FIRST attacked
and was UNARMED." He lifted Flint's limp and empty hands and then
pointed to the dead man, who was still grasping the weapon. "Come!" He
caught the half-paralyzed arm of Flint and dragged him into the street.

"But," stammered the horrified Flint, as he was borne along, "what does
it all mean? What made that man attack me?"

"I reckon it was a case of shooting on sight, Mr. Fowler; but he missed
it by not waiting to see if you were armed. It wasn't the square thing,
and you're all right with the crowd now, whatever he might have had
agin' you."

"But," protested the unhappy Flint, "I never laid eyes on the man
before, and my name isn't Fowler."

Flynn halted, and dragged him in a door way. "Who the devil are you?" he
asked roughly.

Briefly, passionately, almost hysterically, Flint told him his scant
story. An odd expression came over the gambler's face.

"Look here," he said abruptly, "I have passed my word to the crowd
yonder that you are a dead-broke miner called Fowler. I allowed that you
might have had some row with that Sydney duck, Australian Pete, in the
mines. That satisfied them. If I go back now, and say it's a lie, that
your name ain't Fowler, and you never knew who Pete was, they'll jest
pass you over to the police to deal with you, and wash their hands of it
altogether. You may prove to the police who you are, and how that d---
clerk mistook you, but it will give you trouble. And who is there here
who knows who you really are?"

"No one," said Flint, with sudden hopelessness.

"And you say you're an orphan, and ain't got any relations livin' that
you're beholden to?"

"No one."

"Then, take my advice, and BE Fowler, and stick to it! Be Fowler until
Fowler turns up, and thanks you for it; for you've saved Fowler's life,
as Pete would never have funked and lost his grit over Fowler as he did
with you; and you've a right to his name."

He stopped, and the same odd, superstitious look came into his dark
eyes.

"Don't you see what all that means? Well, I'll tell you. You're in the
biggest streak of luck a man ever had. You've got the cards in your own
hand! They spell 'Fowler'! Play Fowler first, last, and all the time.
Good-night, and good luck, MR. FOWLER."

The next morning's journal contained an account of the justifiable
killing of the notorious desperado and ex-convict, Australian Pete, by
a courageous young miner by the name of Fowler. "An act of firmness
and daring," said the "Pioneer," "which will go far to counteract the
terrorism produced by those lawless ruffians."

In his new suit of clothes, and with this paper in his hand, Flint
sought the dry-goods proprietor--the latter was satisfied and convinced.
That morning Harry Flint began his career as salesman and as "Shelby
Fowler."


From that day Shelby Fowler's career was one of uninterrupted
prosperity. Within the year he became a partner. The same miraculous
fortune followed other ventures later. He was mill owner, mine owner,
bank director--a millionaire! He was popular, the reputation of his
brief achievement over the desperado kept him secure from the attack of
envy and rivalry. He never was confronted by the real Fowler. There was
no danger of exposure by others--the one custodian of his secret, Tom
Flynn, died in Nevada the year following. He had quite forgotten his
youthful past, and even the more recent lucky portmanteau; remembered
nothing, perhaps, but the pretty face of the daguerreotype that had
fascinated him. There seemed to be no reason why he should not live and
die as Shelby Fowler.

His business a year later took him to Europe. He was entering a train
at one of the great railway stations of London, when the porter, who
had just deposited his portmanteau in a compartment, reappeared at the
window followed by a young lady in mourning.

"Beg pardon, sir, but I handed you the wrong portmanteau. That belongs
to this young lady. This is yours."

Flint glanced at the portmanteau on the seat before him. It certainly
was not his, although it bore the initials "S. F." He was mechanically
handing it back to the porter, when his eyes fell on the young lady's
face. For an instant he stood petrified. It was the face of the
daguerreotype. "I beg pardon," he stammered, "but are these your
initials?" She hesitated, perhaps it was the abruptness of the question,
but he saw she looked confused.

"No. A friend's."

She disappeared into another carriage, but from that moment Harry Flint
knew that he had no other aim in life but to follow this clue and the
beautiful girl who had dropped it. He bribed the guard at the next
station, and discovered that she was going to York. On their arrival,
he was ready on the platform to respectfully assist her. A few words
disclosed the fact that she was a fellow-countrywoman, although residing
in England, and at present on her way to join some friends at Harrogate.
Her name was West. At the mention of his, he again fancied she looked
disturbed.

They met again and again; the informality of his introduction was
overlooked by her friends, as his assumed name was already respectably
and responsibly known beyond California. He thought no more of his
future. He was in love. He even dared to think it might be returned; but
he felt he had no right to seek that knowledge until he had told her his
real name and how he came to assume another's. He did so alone--scarcely
a month after their first meeting. To his alarm, she burst into a flood
of tears, and showed an agitation that seemed far beyond any apparent
cause. When she had partly recovered, she said, in a low, frightened
voice:--

"You are bearing MY BROTHER'S name. But it was a name that the unhappy
boy had so shamefully disgraced in Australia that he abandoned it, and,
as he lay upon his death-bed, the last act of his wasted life was
to write an imploring letter begging me to change mine too. For the
infamous companion of his crime who had first tempted, then betrayed
him, had possession of all his papers and letters, many of them from ME,
and was threatening to bring them to our Virginia home and expose him
to our neighbors. Maddened by desperation, the miserable boy twice
attempted the life of the scoundrel, and might have added that blood
guiltiness to his other sins had he lived. I DID change my name to my
mother's maiden one, left the country, and have lived here to escape the
revelations of that desperado, should he fulfill his threat."

In a flash of recollection Flint remembered the startled look that had
come into his assailant's eye after they had clinched. It was the same
man who had too late realized that his antagonist was not Fowler. "Thank
God! you are forever safe from any exposure from that man," he said,
gravely, "and the name of Fowler has never been known in San Francisco
save in all respect and honor. It is for you to take back--fearlessly
and alone!"

She did--but not alone, for she shared it with her husband.





Next: The Ghosts Of Stukeley Castle

Previous: A Treasure Of The Galleon



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