The Hidden Mine - Cover

The Hidden Mine

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 15: The Chances of a Night

When my eyes opened again I wavered for a while on the verge of consciousness. My senses were heavy and dull, and memory had left me. My eyelids drooped again, but with a supreme effort of the will I summoned back my lost faculties, and with slowness and pain climbed to my feet. Even then my senses sought to wander, but the human will in me triumphed.

When I got the shadows and dimness out of my eyes I looked up at a sky from which the clouds had gone, leaving a million stars to twinkle in their place, Around me was the dripping forest, and the cool wind came, fragrant with the breath of the summer night.

I looked down and there at my feet was that which brought back full recollection to me. The body of the Moor lay upon its back. The scorched and blackened face was upturned to the stars and in his right hand he still clutched the handle of the knife that had drawn the lightning. It was a death such as he deserved.

It took me some time to overcome my repugnance and to touch the body, but I resolved to search it for weapons or food, or anything that might assist me in the wilderness. It was at last, with many shudders, that I turned the thing about, in order that I might look in the pockets. But I found nothing except some pieces of cooked meat, which I hastily appropriated. Weapons there were none. He had been armed only with the knife which he loved. Then I left the stark and cold body without a feeling of pity, for the man in his life had inspired me with the most unutterable repugnance, and I could not forget it in his death. But every feeling of prudence told me to hasten from the spot. Where Hassan was the others could not be very far away. Perhaps the same merciful Providence that had saved me from Hassan’s knife had saved me from their discovery. I must have lain senseless a long time, for the storm was now over and the heavens were bright.

I was weak and dizzy with the exposure and the events of the night, but I rubbed my arms and legs so vigorously that a fair degree of circulation was soon restored. Then I walked away, taking a random course, still trusting in that Providence which had protected me so well thus far.

After the storm the night seemed to wish to make amends for so much violence. The stars never twinkled more brightly, and the wind was like the odor of a flower bank. Though the water from the trees dripped upon me and my feet frequently sank in the soft earth, my clothes began to dry, and the vigorous exercise warmed me. Though I was still in a sorry plight, alone and unarmed in a vast wilderness, my spirits, with all the elasticity of youth, began to rise rapidly. Hope never dies at twenty, and lifted up by this revulsion of feelings, I swung along full of confidence, and even expecting that some infallible fortune would guide me to Pike and my friends before morning.

From this castle-building I was recalled by the sound of voices. At first I thought it was but the wind playing with the leaves, but a more attentive ear showed that the sounds were made by human beings. Reason told me that it must be one of two bands, either Pike’s or Halftrigger’s. But the chances favored the latter, for Pike would not allow his men to travel through a forest making as much noise as a troop of cavalrymen.

I looked around for someplace of concealment, for the night was now so bright one could scarcely hope to escape the observation of a keen eye at short distance. Near me was a large tree which had been overturned by the storm. The tearing up of the roots had made a deep hole, overhung by the bunch of roots and mass of earth which still clung to the tree. I thrust myself into the hole, and found it such, an admirable place of concealment that I would be invisible to a person standing near enough to touch me, while I could watch those without in perfect security.

I had scarcely made myself comfortable in my lair when several figures emerged from the denser shade of the forest and walked directly towards me. Then I was thankful, indeed, for my covert, for in the clear, moonlight I recognized instantly the gigantic form of Halftrigger. Behind him came Spanish Pete and all the others, save Hassan, who would never again follow his leader in crime, at least not in this world.

Halftrigger held something in his hand, and I saw with surprise that it was the haft of Hassan’s dagger. The men halted about twenty feet from me, and Halftrigger said in petulant tones:

“The fellow hain’t fur from here, boys. Hassan had this knife in his hands when the lightnin’ struck him, an’ I guess he wouldn’t hev had his knife drawed ef he hadn’t been ready to strike somethin’.”

“We saw the tracks of some one leading away from the spot,” said Spanish Pete, “but we lost them in the grass.”

“That’s so! That’s so!” said Halftrigger. “Thet Fieldin’ wuz shorely thar, an’ I’d give a double han’ful o’ gold ef I had it, to git my han’s on him ag’in. We’ve had nothin’ but bad luck since we come across him. We’ve lost three o’ our men, good men, too, they’d be in a pinch. Hassan was a bloodthirsty heathen, an’ ‘ he didn’t hev the right sort o’ control o’ his feelin’s, but he wuz never afeard and we’d a had use fur him.”

“Fortune has been against us to-night, Captain,” said Spanish Pete.

“No doubt o’ it! No doubt o’ it!” said Halftrigger. “The waves hev been too strong fur us. It wuz thet infernal storm thet did the business. It scattered us ez a monsoon in the China Seas sends the junks a-flyin’.”

“What do you propose to do, Captain?” asked Spanish Pete.

“Tain’t wuth while to try to get any more rest tonight,” said Halftrigger, “an’ I think we’d better beat about the woods until day lookin’ fur Fieldin’. Ef we don’t fin’ him we’ll strike out ag’in fur the mine, an’ leave him here to starve or to be et up by wild beasts.”

“Do you think we will be able to find the mine?” asked Spanish Pete, in a doubtful tone.

“Fin’ it! o’ course we will,” said Halftrigger, adopting a sanguine tone. “I think myself we’ve been follerin’ the wrong river. In the mornin’ we’ll strike out across the country an’ see ef we kaint strike another. More’n likely that’ll be the right one, an’ then the devil will be in it ef we kaint follow Pedro’s directions an’ fin’ that mine, an’ then, Pete, my lad, when we carry dead loads o’ gold back to Frisco, you an’ me and the lads here, won’t thar be times, sech howlin’ times, and we’ll be ez rich ez kings, all o’ us, Pete, an’ we’ll wear clothes ez fine ez an admiral’s, an’ we’ll live like lords.”

The men drew close to him as he spoke and their faces flushed with the gold fever.

“You lead us, Cap,” said one, “an’ we’ll stick to you till we fin’ thet gold and get it back to Frisco.”

“I’ll take you to the place,” said Halftrigger. “Depen’ on me fur that.”

In their talk the men had come nearer and nearer to my covert, and when Halftrigger uttered his emphatic assurance he was standing so near me that I could have reached out and touched him with my hand. Still the hiding place was so good that I felt secure from observation. But just at this moment Halftrigger leaned against a root which the fall of the tree had thrust up into the air like a spear. His weight caused a mass of earth clinging to the root to fall, and this mass striking another mass over my covert, knocked it away, disclosing my face.

“Jehosaphat!” exclaimed Halftrigger, jumping back in alarm, thinking that he had almost stepped upon a wild beast, “what hev we here?”

Surprise acts differently at times, and fortunately at this critical moment I retained my self possession.

With one bound I sprang from the hole. Snatching up a handful of the fallen earth I dashed it into the face of Halftrigger, and while he was gasping and spitting out the stuff and rubbing it from his eyes, I leaped like a deer over the uprooted tree and was away through the forest.

Halftrigger was sputtering about and the other men were dazed by the sudden apparition. I think they took me at first for a wild man or some such mysterious occupant of the forest. Spanish Pete was the first to recover from the shock.

“It’s the prisoner! It’s Fielding!” he shouted. “Fire on him! Fire!”

There was a rattle of pistol shots and the bullets clipped about me, but I ran on untouched.

“After him! After him!” shouted Halftrigger. “Bring him down boys! Don’t let him get away ag’in!”

I cast one fleeting glance behind me and saw the whole party full tilt after me, most of them holding their smoking pistols in their hands. The love of life put lightning in my heels, and I sprang over the ground with a vigor and speed that would have astonished those who knew me. I darted between the tree trunks, leaped over the fallen brushwood and paused not for the twigs and low-hanging boughs which seemed to reach out to grasp my clothes. But my pursuers hung on and ran as fast as I did. They fired again several times, but, running so swiftly in that uncertain light, it was impossible to take good aim, and the bullets did not even whiz near me.

As I sprang along my incautious foot caught a protruding root and I rolled down a gully. There was a shout of triumph behind me, but I was up again as light as a feather, and, springing out of the gully, I ran on, sending back a defiant cry. But the accident had enabled the men to gain so much upon me that more than once I could hear their heavy panting breath.

“Stop!” shouted Halftrigger, “or I’ll bore a hole through you with a bullet.”

But I had little fear of that. Their marksmanship was bad, and, moreover, I believed all their pistols now to be empty. Instead of stopping, I strained every nerve to increase my speed, and, though my heart was almost bursting with the exertion, I had the satisfaction, when I looked back, to see that I had, made a considerable gain upon them. Then I eased up a little in order to save my breath.

For ten minutes or more the distance between us was unchanged. I could hear the heavy rush of the men and occasionally a curse from one of them as a swinging branch struck him a painful blow in the face.

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