The Hidden Mine - Cover

The Hidden Mine

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 8: Old Faces Again

When we started the next morning to take breakfast with Mr. Sheldon in his unique domicile, Henry said, humorously:

“We saw some queer people in ‘Frisco and now we’ve met a hermit. I wonder what this journey will bring to us next.”

“Hank Halftrigger,” said Pike, sententiously. In the hurry and interest of the events of the last few days I had thought little of the sinister sailor, and his memory was brought back to me with unpleasant force. But it was the fiery little Frenchman who spoke up.

“Eet ees all right,” said Bonneau. “Let Monsieur Halftriggaire come and bring with him whomsoevaire he pleases. With le Captaine Pike to lead us shall we not beat him off?”

“Right you are, messmate,” said Starboard Sam, giving the Frenchman a hearty slap on the back. “An’ you an’ me will be right thar when it comes to the pinch, won’t we, Frenchy?”

“Vy you hit my back so hard?” cried Bonneau. “You do make my teeth rattle. Vy not save such heavy blows for ze enemy?”

“Shut up, Frenchy,” said Sam, with a grin. The fact was the two men, though incessantly berating each other, had become chums, for they were somehow congenial, and the Frenchman recognized the sterling qualities of the American as readily as the American perceived that the Frenchman was endowed with similar characteristics.

As we ascended the hillside in the fresh and vivifying morning air we found Mr. Sheldon awaiting us at his front door.

“Come In, gentlemen,” he said, with the utmost suavity. “Our repast is ready to be served. We could have eaten, perhaps, in more comfort under the shade of one of these trees than inside the trunk, but I fancied that the entertainment in the former case would lack the picturesqueness and novelty which must accompany it in the case of the latter. Entrez vouz.”

None of us, except Bonneau, understood his French, but the gesture that accompanied it was expressive. So we entered, and our host followed us. The preparations that had been made for us gave us a pleasant thrill of surprise. Spread out upon two boxes was a show of civilized tableware and even a bit or two of napery. Appetizing odors added to the attractiveness of this corner of the room.

“You see I am not a bad housekeeper,” said Mr. Sheldon. “Now you shall see also that I am not a bad cook. Be seated at the banquet board.”

We found that he had not made an empty boast of culinary skill. He had bread, several kinds of game, cooked with great skill, and what we appreciated most of all, coffee with an aroma and taste that were divine.

“Ah,” said Bonneau, leaning back and patting his stomach with a great sigh of satisfaction, “eet ees easy for me to eemagine zat I am eating ze dejeuner back in zee beautiful Paris. Monsieur Sheldon ees one great cook et un parfait gentilhomme.”

“Thank you, Monsieur Bonneau,” said Mr. Sheldon, “that compliment coming from a Frenchman is not without its value, and I assure you it is fully appreciated by your humble servant. But, gentlemen, as I perceive the edge is taken off your hunger and we can sip our coffee at our leisure, the time has come for me to tell my story. I perceive that your curiosity has been awakened, and I assure you I am not averse to gratifying it. Shall I proceed?”

“Yes! Yes!” we clamored.

Mr. Sheldon raised the tin cup that contained his coffee to his lips. Then, putting it down, he said:

“Thus spoke Aeneas from his lofty couch.

“That, gentlemen,” he continued, “as doubtless my young friend on the right with the studious face recognizes, is the introductory line which a fine romancer who lived a number of years ago used when he was on the point of making his hero spin a wondrous tale to a handsome lady of high degree and her attendants. But I assure you my tale is of a very different character, and is not wondrous at all, as you will soon have an opportunity of perceiving.

“I have told you already that I am from New York City. I was born there, and as I inherited plenty of money and no troublesome relatives, I grew up pretty much as I pleased. But when I became a man and had no occupation and no ambition I found that I had more time than I knew what to do with. Everything became a bore and I found my fellow-men the worst bores of all. Some people are born with a desire to be alone, and I suppose I am one of them. At last I went on a long hunting trip and then I found what suited me exactly. The pursuit of game interested me and filled up my time, and there were no other men to tire me with their talk. I extended my trips further and further and hunted bigger and bigger game until at last I came around the isthmus and into California, which was then Mexican territory, and here I have been almost continually since then.

“In one of my hunting expeditions I found this hollow tree, and a little work made it as snug and nice a home as I wanted. Then I became a kind of hermit and voluntary Robinson Crusoe, though be it understood distinctly that I am not a disappointed man. I have not been jilted by any woman. I am not undergoing any penance for any sin. I do not have any especial hatred of my kind. I have not taken any oath never to live in civilized places again. If at any time I feel a desire to return to civilization, as I probably will, I shall go at once. There is no romance about me at all. I am merely a rover, a lazy sort of a fellow following his own fancy, and I am glad to add that I have a sound conscience, a most wonderful appetite and digestion to match. I may add also that I am reasonably happy, and I find this world a pretty good place to live in. So, gentlemen, unlike most hermits, I am entitled to your congratulations instead of your sympathy.”

“But it is evident that you like the comforts of civilization, or at least a portion of them,” said Henry. “How do you manage to obtain them?”

“I have been up to San Francisco several times,” said Mr. Sheldon, “and there is nothing easier than to buy what I want, load up three or four mules and bring my supplies down here. Besides, I make a dicker sometimes with a passing immigrant train or mining party. And, by the way, I wish to express my regret at these confounded gold discoveries, which threaten to ruin my happy hunting grounds and break up my comfortable Robinson Crusoe life unless I move across the Sierras, where the climate and country are not so good, and I might not find such a snug, ready-made house as I have here.”

“But when you go off on a long cruise,” broke in Starboard Sam, “ain’t you afraid pirates will find your ship and plunder and scuttle it?”

“Plunder my home in the tree, you mean,” said Mr. Sheldon. “When I am about to start on a long journey I secrete all my more valuable possessions in a little cave I found in the mountain side. As for the remainder I trust to luck. Only once has any one sought to intrude upon me here.”

“How was that?” I asked.

Mr. Sheldon took another sip of his coffee, laughed unctuously and then answered with great deliberation:

“It was one moonlight night last spring, when I came in from a long hunt, and was so tired that I fell sound asleep the moment my head touched my bed of furs. I was awakened in the night by a great scratching at my door. Looking out I saw a large family of grizzly bears trying to effect an entrance unasked. But, as you perceive, my door is too narrow for a grizzly bear unless it be a very small one, and I was in no danger whatever. I could lie abed and shoot them as they endeavored to thrust their noses in at the door, but it was such tame sport that I would not have fired a single shot at them had I not been forced to kill two in order to induce the others to go away.”

Mr. Sheldon told his story with so much zest that I could see he enjoyed his own little eccentricities and liked to parade them. He had some vanity, but he had saved my life, he was hospitable and interesting, and we liked him. He was a comfortable hermit in a comfortable hermitage.

“Now, gentlemen,” said Mr. Sheldon, “we have reached the coffee, which, by the way, is quite as good as any your French friend there or any of his countrymen could make, despite all their boasted skill in cookery. I propose that we drink a little toast to each other’s health in this fluid in the absence of champagne.”

We drank the toast with an enthusiasm heightened by the excellence of the coffee, and just as we put down the tin cups which had contained the inviting drink, Pike exclaimed:

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” asked Mr. Sheldon.

“I heard a gunshot as shore as shootin’!” said Pike.

He hurried outside, followed by all of us.

“Thar’s no doubt about it,” said Pike. “Look at the mules down thar! They’ve got thar ears perked up. They’ve heard somethin’ more than the wind.”

We listened attentively, and presently we heard the distant but distinct report of a pistol shot, followed in a moment by another.

“A careless party of gold hunters, probably,” said Mr. Sheldon.

“Suppose we find out,” said Pike.

I knew that Pike had Halftrigger and his crew in mind.

“Your proposition is a sensible one,” said Mr. Sheldon. “In this part of the world a man ought to know who his neighbors are, if he have any, and we will proceed to discover the cause of those pistol shots.”

Even as he spoke we heard the report of another shot.

“It’s jest as well to be cautious in a wild country like this,” said Pike, “so part of us had better stay here an’ look after the mules an’ things, while the rest uv us go on the scout.”

It was quickly arranged that Pike, Mr. Sheldon and I should go on the expedition. The others, much to their discontent, had to stay behind and watch the things.

Pike had marked the direction of the shots, and seizing our arms, we hurried off. Pike took the lead and stepping with lightness, warned us to do likewise. There was a very serious look on Pike’s face and I was still sure that he, as well as I, had Halftrigger in mind. Our course led down the valley and thence among some trees and up a gentle acclivity.

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