THE CONTENTS OF A BANDANNA
It was a breathless August evening; all day the land had lain humming and quivering beneath the glare of the sun. It seemed that such heat must culminate in a thunder shower. Even Pap Himes had sought the coolest corner of the porch, his pipe put out, as adding too much to the general swelter, and the hot, yellow cat perched at a discreet distance.
The old man's dreamy eyes were fixed with a sort of animal content on the winding road that disappeared in the rise of the gap. If was his boast that God Almighty never made a day too hot for him, and to the marrow of them his rheumatic bones felt and savoured the comfort of this blistering weather. High up on the road he had noted a small moving speck that appeared and disappeared as the foliage hid it, or gaps in the trees revealed it. It was not yet time for the mill operatives to be out; but as he glanced eagerly in the direction of the buildings, the gates opened and the loom-fixers streamed forth. Pap had matters of some importance to discuss with Shade Buckheath, and he was glad to see the young man's figure come swinging down the street. The two were soon deep in a whispered discussion, their heads bent close together.
The little speck far up the road between the trees announced itself to the eye now as a moving figure, walking down toward Cottonville.
"Well, I'll read it again, if you don't believe me," Buckheath said impatiently. "All that Alabama mill wants is to have me go over there and put this trick on their jennies, and if it works they'll give us a royalty of--well, I'll make the bargain."
"Or I will," countered Pap swiftly.
"You?" inquired Shade contemptuously. "Time they wrote some of the business down and you couldn't read it, whar'd you be, and whar'd our money be?"
The moving speck on the road appeared at this time to be the figure of a tall man, walking unsteadily, reeling from side to side of the road, yet approaching the village.
"Shade," pacified Himes, with a truckling manner that the younger man's aggressions were apt to call out in him, "you know I don't mean anything against you, but I believe in my soul I'd ruther sell out the patent. That man in Lowell said he'd give twenty thousand dollars if it was proved to work--now didn't he?"
"Yes, and by the time it's proved to work we'll have made three times that much out of it. There ain't a spinning mill in the country that won't save money by putting in the indicator, and paying us a good royalty on it. If Johnnie and me was wedded, I'd go to work to-morrow advertising the thing."
"The gal ain't in the mill this afternoon, is she?" asked old Himes.
"No, she's gone off somewheres with some folks Hardwick's sister-in-law has got here. If you want to find her these days, you've got to hunt in some of the swell houses round on the hills."
He spoke with bitterness, and Pap nodded comprehendingly; the subject was an old one between them. Then Shade drew from his pocket a letter and prepared to read it once more to the older man.
Himes started so violently that he disturbed the equilibrium of his chair and brought the front legs to the floor with a slam, so that he sat staring straight ahead. Shade Buckheath whirled and saw Pros Passmore standing at the foot of the steps--the moving speck come to full size. The old man was a wilder-looking figure than usual. He had no hat on, and a bloody cloth bound around his head confined the straggling gray locks quaintly. The face was ghastly, the clothing in tatters, and his hands trembled as they clutched a bandanna evidently full of some small articles that rattled together in his shaking grasp.
"Good Lord--Pros! You mighty nigh scared me out of a year's growth," grumbled Pap, hitching vainly to throw his chair back into position. "Come in. Come in. You look like you'd been seein' trouble."
"Whar's Johnnie?" repeated old Pros hollowly.
It was the younger man who answered this time, with an ugly lift of the lip over his teeth, between a sneer and a snarl.
"She's gone gaddin' around with some of her swell friends. She may be home before midnight, an' then again she may not," he said.
The old man collapsed on the lower step.
"I wish't Johnnie was here," he said querulously. "I--" he looked about him confusedly--"I've found her silver mine."
At the words the two on the porch became suddenly rigid. Then Buckheath sprang down the steps, caught Passmore under the arm-pits and half led, half dragged him up to a chair, into which he thrust him with little ceremony.
He stood before the limp figure, peering into the newcomer's face with eyes of greed and hands that clenched and unclenched themselves automatically.
"You've found the silver mine!" he volleyed excitedly. "Whose land is it on? Have you got options yet? My grandpappy always said they was a silver mine--"
"Hush!" Pap Himes's voice hissed across the loud explosive tones. "No need to tell your business to the town. I'll bet Pros ain't thought about no options yit. He may need friends to he'p him out on such matters; and here's you and me, Buck--God knows he couldn't have better ones."
The old man stared about him in a dazed fashion.
"I've got my specimens in this here bandanner," he explained quaveringly. "I fell over the ledge, was the way I chanced upon it at the last, and I lay dead for a spell. My head's busted right bad. But the ore specimens, they're right here in the bandanner, and I aimed to give 'em to Johnnie--to put 'em right in her lap--the best gal that ever was--and say to her, 'Here's your silver mine, honey, that your good-for-nothin' old uncle found for ye; now you can live like a lady!' That's what I aimed to say to Johnnie. I didn't aim that nobody else should tetch them samples till she'd saw 'em."
Himes and Buckheath were exchanging glances across the old man's bent, gray head. Common humanity would have suggested that they offer him rest or refreshment, but these two were intent only on what the bandanna held.
What is it in the thought of wealth from the ground that so intoxicates, so ravishes away from all reasonable judgment, the generality of mankind? People never seem to conceive that there might be no more than moderate repayal for great toil in a mine of any sort. The very word mine suggests to them tapping the vast treasure-house of the world, and drawing an unlimited share--wealth lavish, prodigal, intemperate. These two were as mad with greed at the thought of the silver mine in the mountains as ever were forty-niners in the golden days of California, or those more recent ignoble martyrs who strewed their bones along the icy trails of the Klondike.
"Ye better let me look at 'em Pros," wheedled Pap Himes. "I know a heap about silver ore. I've worked in the Georgia gold mines--and you know you never find gold without silver. I was three months in the mountains with a feller that was huntin' nickel; he l'arned me a heap."
The old man turned his disappointed gaze from one face to the other.
"I wish't Johnnie was here," he repeated his plaintive formula, as he raised the handkerchief and untied the corners.
Pap glanced apprehensively up and down the street; Buckheath ran to the door and shut it, that none in the house might see or overhear; and then the three stared at the unpromising-looking, earthy bits of mineral in silence. Finally Himes put down a stubby forefinger and stirred them meaninglessly.
"Le' me try one with my knife," he whispered, as though there were any one to hear him.
"All right," returned the old man nervelessly. "But hit ain't soft enough for lead--if that's what you're meanin'. I know that much. A lead mine is a mighty good thing. Worth as much as silver maybe; but this ain't lead."
A curious tremor had come over Pap Himes's face as he furtively compared the lump of ore he held in his hand with something which he took from his pocket. He seemed to come to some sudden resolution.
"No, 'tain't lead--and 'tain't nothin'," he declared contemptuously, flinging the bit he held back into the handkerchief. "Pros Passmore--ye old fool--you come down here and work us all up over some truck that wasn't worth turnin' with a spade! You might as well throw them things away. Whar in the nation did you git 'em, anyhow?"
Passmore stumbled to his feet. He had eaten nothing for three days. The fall over the ledge had injured him severely. He was scarcely sane at the moment.
"Ain't they no 'count?" he asked pitifully. "Why, I made shore they was silver. Well"--he looked aimlessly about--"I better go find Johnnie," and he started down the steps.
"Leave 'em here, Pros, and go in. Mavity'll give you a cup of coffee," suggested Pap, in a kinder tone.
The bandanna slipped rattling from the old man's relaxed fingers. The specimens clattered and rolled on the porch floor. With drooping head he shambled through the door.
A woman's face disappeared for a moment from the shadowy front-room window, only to reappear and watch unseen. Mavity was listening in a sort of horror as she heard her father's tones.
"Git down and pick 'em up--every one! Don't you miss a one. Yo' eyes is younger'n mine. Hunt 'em up! hunt 'em up," hissed Pap, casting himself upon the handkerchief and its contents.
"What is it?" questioned Buckheath keenly. "I thort you had some game on hand." And he hastened to comply. "Air they really silver?"
"No--better'n that. They're nickel. The feller that was here from the North said by the dips and turns of the stratagems an' such-like we was bound to have nickel in these here mountains somewhar. A nickel mine's better'n a gold mine--an' these is nickel. I know 'em by the piece o' nickel ore from the Canady mines that I carry constantly in my pocket. We'll keep the old fool out of the knowin' of it, and find whar the mine is at, and we'll--"
The two men squatted on the floor, tallying over the specimens they had already collected, and looking about them for more. In the doorway behind them appeared a face, gaunt, grimed, a blood-stained bandage around the brow, and a pair of glowing, burning eyes looking out beneath. Uncle Pros had failed to find Mavity Bence, and was returning. Too dazed to comprehend mere words, the old prospector read instantly and aright the attitude and expression of the two. As they tied the last knot in the handkerchief, he loomed above them, white and shaking.
"You thieves!" he roared. "Give me my bandanner! Give me Johnnie's silver mine!"
"Yes--yes--yes! Don't holler it out that-a-way!" whispered Pap Himes from the floor, where he crouched, still clutching the precious bits of ore.
"We was a-goin' to give 'em to you, Uncle Pros. We was just foolin'," Buckheath attempted to reassure him.
The old man bent forward and shot down a long arm to recover his own. He missed the bandanna, and the impetus of the movement sent him staggering a pace or two forward. At the porch edge he strove to recover himself, failed, and with a short, coughing groan, pitched down the steps and lay, an inert mass, at their foot.
"Cover that handkecher up," whispered Himes before either man moved to his assistance.