The Hidden Mine - Cover

The Hidden Mine

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 20: The Hidden Mine

A few days devoted to hunting refreshed us and improved our tempers. Deer were fairly abundant in the vicinity, and we killed and cured our winter’s supply of meat, for we intended to carry out Boaneau’s threat of digging up the entire riverbed if necessary in order to find the gold. While on these expeditions we also kept a wary watch for our enemies, but we found nothing to indicate that they were near.

On the fifth day of our change of programme I took my rifle and strolled along the riverbed. I intended to follow its course for two or three miles and then bend off into the mountains.

I noted, not without amusement, the marks of our fruitless labors. The sand was thrown up in great patches here and there as if we had intended to turn the riverbed bottom side upward. About a mile from the hill which had been our chief landmark I came to a place where the banks were steeper than usual. Their shelving surface was sprinkled with shorty stubby shrubs, and changing my plan, I climbed up the slope by means of them, thinking that I might find some game in the vicinity.

Just as I pulled myself up to the crest of the hill I saw a pair of gleaming yellow eyes intently regarding me. There was a thick undergrowth of vines and weeds, and from this mass two eyes flashed like two coals of fire.

I knew that the eyes belonged to some fierce wild beast, but the undergrowth was so dense I could not see the body at first. Taking a step or two nearer I secured a better view, and discovered the long, lank and crouching figure of a mountain lion. Now, I was not hunting mountain lion, but since this big fellow had thrust himself in my way I was too much of a sportsman to let the opportunity pass.

With my rifle cocked and my finger on the trigger, I edged around for a better position. The animal growled and followed me with his blazing eyes. He was drawn up ready to spring, and though I feared that he would make his leap before I could get into position for a shot, he did not stir.

I moved around until the lion’s head was in full view. Then I raised my rifle to my shoulder and poised it for a good shot. There was a spot of reddish hair between the animal’s eyes, and I aimed at it. I pulled the trigger, and as the rifle cracked the lion gathered himself in a great bunch and shot through the air towards me. He struck me on the shoulder. My rifle flew from my hand, and I tumbled over backward.

In seeking vantage ground for a shot I had moved very near the edge of the shelving bank. When the lion struck me both man and beast were near the verge. The superior momentum of the lion carried him past me. He bounded off my shoulder as if he were a huge rubber ball and shot down the bank ahead of me. I grasped instinctively at the shrubs which grew on the sandy slope. My weight jerked them by their roots from the thin soil, but they broke the rapidity of my fall, and when I leaped lightly and unhurt to my feet I found the lion lying stone dead beside me. My bullet had struck him on the red spot between the eyes just as he was preparing to spring, and the impulse which he acquired before the bullet ended his life had lifted him into the air and hurled him against my shoulder. Satisfied at having made a good shot, I turned my attention to myself and was amazed to find that I was still grasping a shrub in each hand. They had been torn up by the roots, and when I looked down at them I found several lumps, one or two of which were nearly as large as my fist, clinging to the roots. I detached the largest lump, brushed off the dirt, and then I opened my mouth and uttered a yell of delight.

I was not much of a miner, but I knew enough to know that I held in my hand an almost pure nugget of gold. I brushed off the others and found that they, too, were gold, mixed to some extent with other substances, but as pure as one ever finds it in the earth.

I scrambled up the bank to the place where I had pulled up the shrubs and, scratching with my hands in the sand and gravel, found more lumps. Then I could contain my feelings no longer and I uttered another shout of delight.

I had found the hidden mine.

Pedro’s tale was true, and by the sheerest accident I had found the gold which its original finder was never to enjoy.

In my pleasure and excitement I started in a run to our hut. When I had gone two hundred yards I found that I had left my rifle lying on the bank where it had fallen when the lion struck me. Somewhat ashamed or myself I hurried back, recovered the weapon and started again, but at a more deliberate pace this time, for our house.

My chest expanded with my sense of importance, but I grew cooler as I approached our place. It chanced that all the boys were at home, and I saw them sitting on the logs in front of the house. I had carefully brushed off all the dust my clothing had gathered when I went down the bank, and I walked up, stepping as briskly and as high as a yearling colt just turned out to pasture.

“Hello,” said Henry, “Here comes Joe, empty handed, too, and walking as if he didn’t care either. How high and mighty we are to-day.”

“Well,” said I, lying down comfortably where the grass was thickest and longest, and speaking in a drawling, lazy manner, as if I did not care whether school kept or not, “I’m getting tired of this thing, fellows.”

“Why, what’s got into the boy’s head?” said Pike in surprise. “Gettin’ tired of what, Joe?”

“Why, all this hunting for gold and never finding, it,” I replied.

“We have been hunting game and not gold for the last two or three days,” said Henry.

“I know, I know,” I replied, “but the gold’s the main thing. That’s what we are here for.”

“Don’t we know that?” said Mr. Sheldon. “What of it?”

“Are we any nearer to finding the gold than we were, when we first came to this spot?” I asked.

“No,” replied Pike, “but are you losin’ your nerve, Joe? Why, you’re the last one I expected to see cave in like this!”

The others stared at me in wonder, but I kept my countenance.

“I suppose we are to begin digging again in a day or two,” I said, pulling carelessly at the long stems of grass.

“That was our intention,” said Mr. Sheldon.

“I have been thinking a good deal about this matter,” I said, “and I have concluded that you fellows are of no account as gold hunters;”

“Can you do any better?” asked Henry.

“I might,” I replied, “but just watch me smash that butterfly that’s hopping on the grass there, by Pike.”

The butterfly, gorgeous in his many hues, had alighted on the grass at Pike’s foot. I thrust my hand in my pocket, pulled out the largest nugget, and tossed it carelessly at the butterfly, missing him, as I had expected, at least six inches. The insect flew away and the nugget rolled up against Pike’s foot.

“Are you carrying stones as big as my fist around in your pockets to throw at butterflies?” asked Henry.

“There seems to be as much profit in that as in anything else we are doing,” I replied.

“Pretty large missile for so small a target,” said Henry.

“Why, this is big enough to throw at a deer,” said Pike, picking up the nugget; “it’s big enough an’ heavy enough to bring down a full- grown stag ef you could only hit him right. Why, what in thunder is this?”

Pike was looking at the nugget with staring eyes.

“Oh, nothing much.” I replied carelessly. “Merely a queer-looking stone I’ve found. Thought maybe you’d like to see it. I’ve brought along a lot like it.”

I pulled the other nuggets out of my pockets and tossed them over towards the boys as if they were so much dirt. Then I stretched myself out at full length and pretended to close my eyes, as if I were tired, bored and sleepy. But I kept the corners open and watched the boys.

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