In the old mining days out West the law of the survival of the fittest held good, and he who survived had to be very fit indeed. There were a number of ways of not surviving. One of them was to die. And there were a number of ways of being very fit; such as holding an accurate gun or an even temper, being blessed with industry or a vital-tearing ambition, knowing the game thoroughly or understanding the great American expedient of bluff. In any case the man who survived must see his end clearly through that end's means. Whether it were gold, poker, or life, he must cling to his purpose with a bulldog tenacity that no amount of distraction could loosen. Otherwise, as has been said, he died, or begged, or robbed, or became a tramp, or committed the suicide of horse-stealing, or just plain drifted back East broken--a shameful thing.
Why Peter lived on was patent enough to anyone. He was harmless, good-natured, and, in the estimation of hard-hewn men, just "queer" enough to be a little pathetic. Anyone who had once caught a fair look at his narrow, hatchet face with the surprised blue eyes and the loose-falling, sparse light hair; or had enjoyed his sweet, rare smile as he deprecatingly answered a remark before effacing himself; or had chanced on the fortune of asking him for some trifling favour to meet his eager and pleased rendering of it: none of these hypothetical individuals, and that meant about everyone who came in contact with Peter at all, could have imagined anybody, let alone themselves, harming a hair of his head. But how he continued to be a prospector remained a puzzle. The life is hard, full of privations, sown with difficulties, clamant for technical knowledge, exacting of physical strength, dependent on shrewdness and knowledge of the world. Peter had none of these, not even in the smallest degree. There was also, of course, the instinct. This Peter did possess. He could follow his leads of crumbling brown rock with that marvellous intuitive knowledge which is so important an element in the equipment of your true prospector. But it is only an element. By all the rules of the game Peter should have failed long since, should have "cashed in and quit" some five years back; and still he grubbed away cheerfully at divers mountains and many ranges. He had not succeeded; still, he had not failed.
Three times had he made his "strike." On the first of these three occasions he had gone in with two San Francisco men to develop the property. The San Francisco men had persuaded him to form a stock company of certain capitalisation. In two deals they had "frozen out" Peter completely, and reorganised on a basis which is paying them good dividends. Returning overwhelmed with sophistries and "explanations" from his expostulatory interview, Peter decided he knew more about quartz leads than about business and the disgorging of gains, so he went over into Idaho to try again. There he found the famous Antelope Gap lode. This time he determined to sell outright and have nothing more to do with the matter after the transfer of the property. He drew up the deeds, received a small amount down, and took notes for the balance. When the notes came due he could not collect them. The mine had been resold to third parties. Peter had no money to contest the affair; and probably would not have done so if he had. He knew too little--or too much--of law; but the instinct was his, so he moved one State farther east to Montana for his third trial. This resulted in the Eagle Ridge. And for the third time he was swindled by a persuasive man and a lying one-sided contract.
A sordid, silly enough little tale, is it not? but that is why men wondered at Peter's survival, marvelled at the recuperative force that made possible his fourth attempt, speculated with a certain awe over that cheerful disposition which had earned him, even in his adversity, the sobriquet of Happy Peter.
All of these phenomena, had they but known it, resulted from one simple cause. Peter's mental retrospect for a considerable space would have conjured up nothing but a succession of grand sweeps of mountains, singing pines, rare western skies, and the simplicity of a frontiersman's log-cabin; and yet to his inner vision over the border of that space lay a very different scene. It was the scene he saw the oftenest. Oftenest? he saw it always; across the mountains, through the pines, beyond the skies. As time went on, the vision simplified itself to Peter, as visions will. It came to have two phases, two elements, which visited him always together.
One of these was a house; the other a girl. The house was low, white-painted, with green blinds and a broad stoop. Its front yard was fragrant with lilacs, noisy with crickets, fluttering with butterflies of sulphur yellow. About it lay a stony, barren farm, but lovely with the glamour of home. The girl was not pretty, as we know girls; but she had straight steady eyes, a wide brow, smooth matronly bands of hair, and a wholesome, homely New England character, sweet, yet with a tang to give it a flavour, like the apples on the tree near the old-fashioned, long-armed well. Peter could gain no competence from the stony farm, no consent from the girl. It was to win both that he had come West.
In those days, around the western curve of the earth, every outlook borrowed the tints of sunset. Nothing but the length of the journey stood between a man and his fortune.
"I love you dearly, Peter," she had said, both hands on his shoulders, "and I do not care for the money. But I have seen too much of it here--too much of the unhappiness that comes from debt, from poverty. Misery does not love the company of those it loves. Go make your fortune, Peter, bravely, and come back to me."
"I will," replied Peter, soberly. "I will, God help me. But it may be long. I don't know; I have not the knack; I am stupid about people, about men."
She smiled, and leaned over to kiss his eyes. "People love you, Peter," she said, simply. "I love you, and I will wait. If it were fifty years, you will find me here ready when you come."
Peter knew this to be true. And so to the unpeopled rooms of the little old Vermont farmhouse Peter's gentle thoughts ever swarmed, like homing bees. In his vision of it the lilac-bush outside the window always smelled of spring; she always sat there beside the open sash, waiting--for him. What wonder that he survived when so many others went down? What wonder that he persevered? What wonder that his patient soul, comparing the eternity of love's happiness with the paltry years of love's waiting, saw nothing in the condition of affairs to ruffle its peaceful serenity? And yet to most the time would have seemed very, very long. Men may blunder against rich pockets or leads and wealthy say farewell to a day which they greeted as the poorest of the poor. So may men win fortunes on a turn of the wheat market. But the one is no more prospecting than the other is business. True prospecting has only the normal percentage of uncertainties, the usual alloy of luck to brighten its toil with the hope of the unexpected. A man must know his business to succeed. A bit of rock, a twist of ledge, a dip of country, an abundance or an absence of dikes--these and many others are the symbols with which the prospector builds the formula that spells gold. And after the formula is made, it must be proved. It is the proving that bends the back, tries the patience, strains to the utmost the man's inborn Instinct of the Metal. For that is the work of the steel and the fire, the water and the power of explosion. Until the proof is done to the Q.E.D., the man must draw for inspiration on his stock of faith. In the morning he sharpens his drills at a forge. In the afternoon he may, by the grace of labour, his Master, have accomplished a little round hole in the rock, which, being filled with powder and fired, will tear loose into a larger hole with debris. The debris must be removed by pick and shovel. After the hole has been sufficiently deepened, the debris must be loaded into a bucket, which must then be hauled to the surface of the ground and emptied. How long do you calculate the man will require to dig in this manner, fifty, a hundred feet? How long to sink one or two such shafts on each and every claim he has staked? How long to excavate the numerous lateral tunnels which the Proof demands?
And besides this, from time to time the shaft must be elaborately timbered in order to prevent its caving in and burying work and workman together--a tedious job, requiring the skill alike of a woodsman, a carpenter, a sailor, and a joiner. The man must make his trips to town for supplies. He must cook his meals. He must meet his fellows occasionally, or lose the power of speech. The years slip by rapidly. He numbers his days by what he has accomplished; and it is little. He measures time by his trips to camp; and they are few. It is no small thing to make three discoveries--and lose them. It is a greater thing to find courage for a fourth attempt.
After the Eagle Ridge fiasco, Peter, as cheerful as ever, journeyed over into Wyoming to try his luck once more. He moved up into the hills, spent a month in looking about him, narrowed his localities to one gulch, and built himself a log cabin in which to live. Then he made his general survey. He went on foot up every gulch, even every little transverse wrinkle that lay tributary to his valley, to the shallow top of it filled with loose stones; he followed the sky-line of every ridge which bordered and limited these gulches; he seized frequent opportunities of making long diagonals down the slopes. Nothing escaped him. In time he knew the general appearance of every bit of drift or outcrop in his district. Then he sat down in his cabin and carefully considered the probabilities. If they had not happened to please him, he would have repeated the whole wearisome process in another valley; but as in this case they did, he proceeded to take the next step. In other words, he went over the same ground again with a sampling-pick and a bundle of canvas bags. Where his theories or experience advised, he broke off quantities of rock from the ledges, which he crushed and mixed in the half of an old blanket; dividing, and recrushing again and again, until an "average" was obtained in small compass. The "average" he took home, where he dumped it into a heavy iron mortar, over which he had suspended a pestle from a springy sapling. By alternately pulling down and letting up on the sapling he crushed the quartz fragments with the pestle into fine red and white sand. The sand he "panned out" for indications of free gold.
The ledges whose averages thus showed the colour, he marked on his map with a cross. Some leads which did not so exhibit gold, but whose other indications he considered promising, he exploited still further, penetrating to a layer below the surface by means of a charge or so of powder. Or perhaps he even spent several weeks in making an irregular hole like a well, from which he carried the broken rock in bags, climbing up a notched tree. Then he selected more samples. This is hard work.
Thus Peter came to know his country, and when he knew it thoroughly, when he had made all his numerous speculations as to horses, blowouts, and slips--then, and not until then, did he stake out his claims; then, and not until then, did he consider himself ready to begin work.
He might be quite wrong in his calculations. In that case, it was all to do over again somewhere else. He had had this happen. Every prospector has. The claims which Peter selected were four in number. He started in without delay on the proof. Foot by foot the shafts descended through the red, the white, vein matter. One by one the spider arms of the tunnels felt out into the innermost crevices of the lode. Little by little Peter's table of statistics filled; here a pocket, there a streak, yon a clear ten feet of low-grade ore. The days, the months, even the years slipped by. Summers came and went with a flurry of thunder-showers that gathered about Harney, spread abroad in long bands of blackness, broke in a deluge of rain and hail and passed out to dissipate in the hot air of the prairies. Autumns, clear-eyed and sweet-breathed, faded wanly in the smoke of their forest fires. Winters sidled by with constant threat of arctic weather which somehow never came; powdering the hills with their snow; making bitter cold the shadows, and warm the silver-like sun. Another spring was at hand. Like all the rest, it coquetted with the season as a young girl with her lover; smiling with the brightness of a western sun; frowning with the fierceness of a sudden snow-squall, strangely out of place in contrast to the greenery of the mountain "parks"; creeping slowly up the gullies from the prairie in staccato notes of bursting buds; at last lifting its many voices in the old swelling song of delight over the birth of new loves and new desires among its creatures.
Like all the rest, did I say? No, not quite. To Peter this particular spring was a rare thing of beauty. Its gilding was a little brighter, its colours a little fresher, its skies a little deeper, its songs rang a little truer than ever the gilding or colours or skies or songs of any spring he had ever known. For he was satisfied. Steadily the value of the property had proved itself. One clear, cold day he collected all his drills and picks and sledges and brought them back to camp, where he stacked them behind the door. It was his way of signing Q.E.D. to the proof.
The doubtful spot on the Jim Crow was not a blow-out, but a "horse." He had penetrated below it. The mines were rich beyond his dreams. Yet he sat there at his noon meal as cheerful, as unexcited, as content as ever. When one has waited so long, impatience sleeps soundly, arouses with the sluggishness of unbelief itself. Outside he saw the sun, for the first time in weeks, and heard the pines singing their endless song. Inside, his fire sparkled and crackled; his kettle purred like a fireside cat. Peter was tired; tired, but content. The dream was very near to him.
When he had finished his meal he got up and examined himself in his little square mirror. Then he did so again. Then he walked heavily back to his table and sat down and buried his face in his hands. When he had looked the first time he had seen a gray hair. When he had looked the second time he had discovered that there were many. With a sudden pang Peter realised that he was getting to be an old man. He took a picture from a pocket-case and looked at that. Was she getting to be an old woman?
It was fearful what a difference that little thought suddenly made. A moment ago he had had the eternities before him. Now there was not an instant to be wasted. Every minute, every second even, that he sat there gazing at the faded old picture in his hand was so much lost to him and to its original. Not God himself could bring it and its possibilities back to him. Until now he had looked about him upon Youth; he must henceforth look back to it--back to the things which might have been, but could never be--and each pulse-beat carried him inevitably farther from even the retrospective simulacrum of their joys. He and she could never begin young now. They must take up life cold in the moulds, ready fashioned. The delight of influencing each other's development was denied such as they; instead, they must find each other out, must throw a thousand strands of loving-kindness to span the gap which the patient years had sundered between them, a gap which should never have widened at all. Again that remorseless hurry of the moments! Each one of them made the cast across longer, increased the need for loving-kindness, demanded anew, for the mere pitiful commonplace task of understanding each other--which any mother and her child find so trivially easy--the power of affection which each would have liked to shower on the other undictated except by the desires of their hearts. Peter called up the image of himself as he had been when he had left the East, and set it remorselessly by the side of that present image in the mirror. Then he looked at the portrait. Could the years have changed her as much? If so, he would hardly know her!
Those miserable years of waiting! He had not minded them before, but now they were horrible. In the retrospect the ceaseless drudgery of rock and pick and drill loomed larger than the truth of it; his patience, at the time so spontaneous a result of his disposition, seemed that of a man clinging desperately to a rope, able to hang on only by the concentration of every ounce of his will. Peter felt himself clutching the rope so hard that he could think of nothing, absolutely nothing, else. He proved a great necessity of letting go.
And for her, these years? What had they meant? By the internal combustion which had so suddenly lighted up the dark corners of his being, he saw with almost clairvoyant distinctness how it must have been. He saw her growing older, as he had grown older, but in the dull apathy of monotony. She had none of this great filling Labour wherewith to drug herself into day-dreams of a future. The seasons as they passed showed her the same faces, growing ever a little more jaded, as dancers in the light of dawn. Perhaps she had ceased counting them? No, he knew better than that. But the pity of it! washing, scrubbing, mending; mending, scrubbing, washing to the time of an invalid's complaints. To-day she was doing as she had done yesterday; to-morrow she would do the same. To-morrow?
"No, by God!" cried Peter, starting to his feet. "There shall be no more to-morrow!"
He took from the shelf over the window a number of pieces of quartz, which he stuffed into the pockets of a pair of saddle-bags lying near the door. In the corral was Jenny, a sleek, fat mare. He saddled Jenny and departed with the saddle-bags, leaving the door of his cabin open to the first comer, as is the hospitable Western way.
At Beaver Dam he spread the chunks of rock out on the bar of the principal saloon and invited inspection. He did not think to find a purchaser among the inhabitants of Beaver Dam, but he knew that the tidings of his discoveries would arouse interest and attract other prospectors to the locality of his claims. In this manner his property would come prominently on the market.
The discoveries certainly were accorded attention enough. Peter was well known. Men were perfectly sure of his veracity and his mining instinct. If Peter said there existed a good lode of the stuff he exhibited to them, that settled it.
"Hum," said a man named Squint-eye Dobs, after examining a bit of the transparent crystal through which small kernels of yellow metal shone. Then he laid down the specimen, and walked quietly out the door without further comment. He had gone to get his outfit ready.
To others, not so prompt of action, Peter explained at length, always in that hesitating, diffident voice of his.
"I have my claims all staked," said he; "you boys can come up and hook onto what's left. There's plenty left. I ain't saying it's as good as mine; still, it's pretty good. I think it'll make a camp."
"Make a camp!" shouted Cheyenne Harry. "I should think it would! If there's any more like that up country you can sell a 'tater-patch if it lays anywheres near the district!"
"Well, I must be goin', boys," said Peter, sidling toward the door; "and I 'spect I'll see some of you boys up there?"
The boys did not care to commit themselves as to that before each other, but they were all mentally locating the ingredients of their prospecting outfits.
"Have a drink, Happy, on me," hospitably suggested the proprietor.
Peter slowly returned to the bar.
"Here's luck to the new claim, Happy," said the proprietor; "and here's hoping the sharps doesn't make all there is on her."
The men laughed, but not ill-naturedly. They all knew Peter, as has been said.
Peter turned again to the door.
"You'll have a reg'lar cyclone up thar by to-morrow!" called a joker after him; "look out fer us! There'll be an unholy mob on hand, and they'll try to do you, sure!"
Peter stopped short, looked at the speaker, and went out hurriedly.
The next morning the men came into his gulch. He heard them even before he had left his bunk--the clink, creak, creak! of their wagons. By the time he had finished breakfast the side-hills were covered with them. From his window he could catch glimpses of them through the straight pines as patches of red, or flashes of light reflected from polished metal. In the canon was the gleam of fires; in the air the smell of wood-smoke and of bacon broiling; among the still bare bushes and saplings the shine of white lean-tops; horses fed eagerly on the young grasses and the browse of trees, raising their heads as the creak of wheels farther down the draw told of yet new-comers. The boom was under way.
Peter knew that the tidings of the discovery would spread. To-morrow a new town would deserve a place on the map. Men would come to the town, men with money, men anxious to invest. With them Peter would treat. There was to be no chance of a careless bargain this time. He would take no chances. And yet he had thought that before.
Peter began to forestall difficulties in his mind. The former experience suggested many, but he drew from the same source their remedies. It was the great unknown that terrified him. In spite of his years, in spite of his gray hairs, in spite of his memories of those former failures, he had to confess to himself that he knew nothing, absolutely nothing of sharpers and their methods. They could not fleece him again in precisely the way they had done so before; but how could he guess at the tricks they had in reserve? Eight years out of a man's life ought surely to teach him caution as thoroughly as twelve. Yet he walked into the Eagle Ridge trap as confidently as he had into the Antelope Gap. He had made it twelve years. What was to prevent his making it sixteen? There is no fear like that of the absolutely unknown. You cannot forestall that; you must depend upon your own self-confidence. Self-confidence was just what Peter did not possess.
Then in a flash he saw what he should have done. It was all so ridiculously simple--a mere question of division of labour. He, Peter, knew prospecting, but did not understand business. Back in his old Vermont home were a dozen honest men who knew business, but understood nothing of prospecting. Nothing would have been easier than to have combined these qualities and lacks. If Peter had returned quietly to his people, concealing his discoveries from the men of Beaver Dam, he could have returned in three weeks' time equipped for his negotiations. Now it was too late. The minute his back was turned they would jump his claims. Peter's mind worked slowly. If he had felt himself less driven by the sight of those gray hairs, he might have come in time to another idea--that of wiring or writing East for a partner, pending whose arrival he could merely hold possession of the claims. As it was, the terror and misgiving, having obtained entry, rapidly usurped the dominion of his thoughts. He could see nothing before him but the inevitable and dread bargaining with unknown powers of dishonesty, nothing behind him but the mistake of starting the "boom."
As the morning wore away he went out into the hills to look about him. The men were all busily enough engaged in chipping out the shallow troughs of their "discoveries," piling supporting rocks about their corner and side stakes, or tacking up laboriously composed mining "notices." They paid scant attention to the man who passed them a hundred yards away. Peter visited his own four claims. On one he found a small group anxiously examining the indications of the lead. He did not join it. The parting words flung after him at the saloon came to his mind. "Look out for us! There'll be an unholy mob on hand, and they'll try to do you, sure."
Peter cooked himself a noon meal, but he did not eat much of it. Instead, he sat quite still and stared with wide, blind eyes at the wavering mists of steam that arose from the various hot dishes. From time to time he got up with apparent purpose, which, however, left him before he had taken two steps, so that his movement speedily became aimless, and he sat down again. Late in the afternoon he went the rounds of his claims again, but saw nothing unusual. He did not take the trouble to cook supper. During the evening some men looked in for a moment or so, but went away, because the cabin was empty. Peter was at the moment of their visit walking back and forth, back and forth, away up high there on the top of the ridge, in a little cleared flat space next the stars. When he came to the end, he whirled sharp on his heels. It was six paces one way and five the other. He counted the steps consciously, until the mental process became mechanical. Then the count went on steadily behind his other thoughts--five, six; five, six; five, six; over and over again, like that. About ten o'clock he ceased opening and shutting his hands and began to scream, at first under his breath, then louder in the over tone, then with the full strength of his lungs. A mountain lion on another slope answered him. He stretched his arms up over his head, every muscle tense, and screamed. And then, without appreciable transition, he sank to the rock and hid his face. For the moment the nerve tension had relaxed.
The clear western stars, like fine silver powder, seemed to glimmer in some light stronger than their own, as dust-motes in the sun. A breeze from the prairie rested its light, invisible hands on the man's bent head. Certain homely night-sounds, such as the tree-toads and crickets and the cries of the poor wills, stole here and there through the pine-aisles like living creatures on the wing. A faint, sweet odour of the woods came with them. Peter arose, and drew a deep breath, and went to his cabin. The peace of nature had for the moment become his own.
But then, in the darkness of his low bunk, the old doubts, the old terrors returned. They perched there above him and compelled him to look at them until his eyes were hot and red. "Do, do, do!" said they, until Peter arose, and there, in the chill of dawn, he walked the three miles necessary for the inspection of his claims. Everything was as it should be. The men in the gulch were not yet awake. From the Jim Crow a drowsy porcupine trundled away bristling.
This could not go on. It would be weeks before he could hope even to open his negotiations. Peter cooked himself an elaborate breakfast--and drank half a cup of coffee. Then he sat, as he had the day before, staring straight in front of him, seeing nothing. After a time he placed the girl's picture and the square mirror side by side on the table and looked at them intently.
He rose, kicking his chair over backward, and went out to his claims once more.
The men in the gulch had awakened. Most of them had finished the more imperative demands of location the day before, so now they were more at leisure to satisfy their curiosity and their love of comment by inspecting the original discovery to which all this stampede was due. As a consequence Peter found a great gathering on the Jim Crow. Some of the men were examining chunks of ore, others were preparing to descend the shafts, still others were engaged idly in reading the location-notice tacked against a stub pine. One of the latter, the same individual who had joked Peter in the saloon, caught sight of the prospector as he approached.
"Hullo, Happy!" he called, pointing at the weather-beaten notice. "What do you call this?" He winked at the rest. The history of Peter's losses was well known.
"What?" asked Peter, strangely.
"You ain't got this readin' right. She says 'fifteen hundred feet'; the law says she ought t' read 'fifteen hundred linear feet.' Your claim is n.g. I'm goin' t' jump her on you."
The statement was ridiculous; everybody knew it, and prepared to laugh, loud-mouthed.
Peter, without a word, shot the speaker through the heart. Men said at his trial that it was the most brutal and unprovoked murder they had ever known.
Return to the Stewart Edward White library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Race