The Hidden Mine - Cover

The Hidden Mine

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 14: The Crisis

The bloody beginning of the day shocked me to the uttermost and filled me with gloomy anticipations. An untoward event at any time might turn Halftrigger’s sanguinary fury upon me as it had been turned upon Fisher. I was soon to see, also, that their continual failure to find the mine was to have an’ evil effect upon the temper of the leader, as well as upon that of the men.

We had tramped for several hours along the banks of that river which seemed to roll on forever without leading to anything that would promise a reward for so much travel, when Halftrigger said to me:

“Ef you know anythin’ more about this mine an’ the way to git to it than we do, it’ll be healthy fur you to let it out. We’re gittin’ tired o’ the eternal walk, walk, an’ never gittin’ nowhar. Fur all we know, we may be goin’ further from the mine every day.”

“Aye, that we are!” growled one of the men. “I never set out to walk to the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Keep silent,” said Halftrigger. “Let me do the talkin’. Don’t you know yet that I’m captin o’ the ship?”

The man shrank back like a frightened child, and made no further attempt to enter into the conversation.

I told Halftrigger that I knew no more about the mine than he did, and I gave him this assurance with earnestness and emphasis, for his manner had begun to arouse my apprehensions. I appeared to convince him that I was not concealing anything from him, but he began to cross-examine me then about my friends.

“Do you reckin that hunter feller and the others with him hev found the mine?” he asked, casting a sidelong but keen glance at me.

I answered truthfully that I did not think so. “Wa’al, I don’t know that it would make much difference,” he said, “fur I guess we could wipe out that gang without much trouble.”

We stopped rather longer than usual in the middle of the day, for Halftrigger was now in a state of uncertainty, and spoke of leaving the river and searching for some other stream which might turn out to be the one Pedro had meant. Two of the men were sent out to examine the country and report on its character. They returned in the middle of the afternoon without having found anything that would guide the party in their search.

But they brought some news that was not pleasing to Halftrigger. They had seen proof of the presence of another party in the neighborhood. Some charred sticks in one place indicated an abandoned camp-fire, and some footprints of new arrivals in the soft earth at the crossing of a brook was evidence that these people, whoever they might be, were not far away.

Halftrigger’s countenance was overcast at this news. I supposed—in fact, I was convinced—that the footprints were those of my own party, and I believe that Halftrigger’s surmise was the same. I thought the discovery the two men had made was an unfortunate chance, and it added much to my apprehension. I. alone had seen Pike’s signals, and Halftrigger’s previous manner had indicated a belief that he had shaken off our party.

“Ef we’re going to have a fight,” said one of the men, “I don’t see any use uv our loadin’ ourselves up with freight that we can’t use.”

As he spoke he looked significantly at me.

Hassan, the Moor, who spent half of his time watching me, grinned at me hideously, and stroked the haft of his knife with his right hand. His whole manner seemed to say that if the “useless freight” were put out of the way, he asked the privilege of doing the job.

Halftrigger made no reply. He could not have misunderstood the allusion, and his failure to rebuke it seemed to me to be proof that my uneasiness was well grounded. He called Spanish Pete aside, and they talked with much apparent earnestness. The other men flung themselves on the grass, and awaited the the result of the debate, seemingly without interest. The Moor drew himself over towards me, and, taking advantage of the preoccupation of the leader and his lieutenant, began to indulge in some grim gestures for my amusement and edification.

He drew his knife and made rapid motions with it as if he were sharpening the blade on some imaginary article. Then he began to stab and slice with the knife, his face all the time expressing the most intense enjoyment. Then he put it back in its sheath and changed himself into the person who had been sliced and stabbed. He writhed about and twisted himself into strange shapes, distorting his countenance until the sweat broke out on it. Then he turned his eyes up, gasped for breath, shuddered violently, and stiffening his form, fell ever on his back and lay quite still.

It was ghastly and repulsive, and I tried to look away, but despite my will the man’s contortions held my gaze. After lying as if he were dead for at least a minute, the Moor sprang lightly to his feet, and looking at me, laughed with horrible glee.

“How does the Christian dog like it?” he asked. “Cannot he see his approaching fate?”

I did not answer, for I had decided to pay no attention to him when he made his attempts to annoy me. But he went through the performance again for my benefit. I believe that this man should have been a professional executioner. Perhaps he had held such a place in his own sanguinary country.

Halftrigger and Spanish Pete were still talking when one of the men approached them, and pointing to the southwestern sky, said:

“Cappen, I guess the fust thing we’ll have to do will be to look out for that.”

I followed the line of his outstretched finger and saw some purple clouds lying low on the horizon.

“I’ve been watchin’ ‘em grow for the last fifteen minutes,” said the man; “an’ I guess we’re goin’ to get a wettin’.”

Rain was very unusual at this season of the year in California. I had not seen any since I left San Francisco, but I thought the man was right in his prediction. So did Halftrigger.

“I’ve no min’ to git a wettin’,” he said, “an’ I don’t guess any of you boys want it, either. You don’t ‘pear to be overfond o’ water, inside or outside. I guess we’d better make fur them trees over yonder and shelter ourselves.”

He pointed to a strip of forest, the nearest in sight, though a full mile away. Ordering me to keep in the middle of the band, we started at a lively pace across the plain.

The gathering clouds, which soon filled a corner of the sky, were very dark and, threatening, but we had plenty of time to gain the shelter of the grove. The trees were large, and as they grew close together and had an abundance of foliage, they seemed sufficient to protect us, at least in part.

Standing under the trees we watched the clouds gather and grow. They piled upon each other in heavy black masses, and so much of the sky was obscured that a dusk as if of the twilight fell over the grove. But the passing of the day also contributed to the darkness.

“We’d better make ourselves ez comfortable here ez we kin,” said Halftrigger, “fur the night’s comin’ with the rain. We’ve got to anchor right here till tomorrow. Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, but we’re goin’ to hev a storm!”

There was a heavy roll of thunder, followed by an intensely bright flash of lightning, and we cowered behind the gigantic trunks of the trees for shelter from the coming storm.

“Looks like the advance guard of a monsoon in the China Seas,” said Halftrigger.

Another flash of lightning rent the growing dusk. The atmosphere was close, heavy and oppressive, and it was of such a dead stillness that not a leaf, not a-blade of grass quivered. Halftrigger wet his finger and held it up.

“Not a breath stirrin,” said he “but we’ll hev it soon. I’ve seen the like o’ this many a time at sea.”

The thunder again rolled heavily and the lightning played over everything, tinging the grass, the trees and our faces with its lurid hues. I watched these mighty manifestations of nature with feelings of awe akin to superstition. The men were silent and uneasy.

All the heavens were now overcast by the night and the clouds, but the incessant blaze of lightning lifted the inky veil and revealed the plain and the distant mountain. Presently the thunder and the lightning ceased for a moment, and I heard a sound like the distant groaning of the mountains. It grew louder rapidly, the wind sprang up, and there came a swish of rain. The next instant the storm was upon us, screaming and tearing over the earth.

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