Charles James Lever.

[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) online

. (page 31 of 50)
Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 31 of 50)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

said, had concealed immense treasures, not only of gold, but
gems, emeralds, diamonds, and rubies : well, he not only
refused all offers from the Gobernador of the mines to share
the booty, but he suffered his toes to be taken off by the
smelting nippers, rather than make a confession. Then
they tried him with what the miners call a ' nest-egg,' that is,
a piece of gold heated almost red, and inserted into the spine
of the back ; but it was all to no use, he never spoke a word."

" I heard of him ; that was a nigger called Crick," cried

As for me, I heard no more. The sound of that name
which brought up the memory of my night at Anticosti and
all its terrors filled my heart, besides, with a strange swelling
of hope, vague and ill-defined it is true, but which somehow
opened a vision of future wealth and greatness before me.
The name, coupled with the place, Guajuaqualla, left no doubt
upon my mind that they were talking of no other than the
Black Boatswain himself. If I burned to ask a hundred
questions about him, a prudent forbearance held me back. I
knew that of all men living, none are so much given to sus-
picion and mistrust as the Gambusinos. The frauds and
deceits eternally in practice among them, the constant con-
cealments of treasure, the affected desertion of rich " Placers,"
in order to return to them later and alone, these and many
like artifices suggest a universal want of confidence, which is
ever at work to trace motives or attribute intentions for every
chance word or accidental expression. I retained my curiosity,
therefore ; but from that hour forward, the negro and his
hidden gold were ever before me. It mattered not where I
was, in what companionship, or how engaged. One figure
occupied the foreground of every picture. If my waking
thoughts represented him exactly as I saw him at Anticosti,
my sleeping fancies filled up a whole history of his life. I


pictured him a slave in the " Barracoons " of his native land,
heavily ironed and chained. I saw him on board the slaver,
with bent-down head and crippled limbs, crouching between
the decks. I followed him to the slave-market and the sugar
plantation. I witnessed his sufferings, his sorrows, and his
vengeance. I tracked him as he fled to the woods, with the
deep-mouthed bloodhounds behind him ; and I stood breath-
less while they struggled in deadly conflict, till pale, bleeding,
and mangled, the slave laid them dead at his feet, and tottered
onward to stanch his wounds with the red gnm of the liana.
Then came an indistinct interval ; and when I saw him next
it was as a gold- washer in the dark stream of the " Rio Nero,"
his distorted limbs and mangled flesh showing through what
sufferings he had passed.

Broken incoherent incidents of crime and misery, of tor-
tured agonies and hellish vengeance, would cross my sleeping
imagination, amidst which one picture ever recurred, it was
of the negro as I saw him at Anticosti, crouching beast-like
on the earth, and while he patted the ground with his hand,
throwing a stealthy terrified glance on every side to see that
he was not observed. That he fancied himself in the act of
concealing the gold for which he had bartered his very blood,
the gesture indicated plainly enough ; and in the same atti-
tude my fancy would depict him so powerfully, so truthfully,
too, that when I awoke, I had but to close my eyes again,
and the vision would come back with every colour and adjunct
of reality.

My preoccupation of mind could not have escaped the
shrewd observation of companions, had not the unexpected
discovery of gold in the sands of the river effectually turned
every thought into another and more interesting channel.
At first it was mere dust was detected, but, later on, small
misshapen pieces of dusky yellow were picked up, which
showed the gold in its most valuable form, in combination
with quartz rock.

Up to the moment of that discovery all was lassitude and
indifference. A few only gave themselves the trouble to wet
their feet ; the greater number sitting lazily down upon the
river's bank, and gazing on the " washers " with a contempt-
uous negligence. The failures they experienced, even their
humble successes, were met with sneers and laughter ; till at
last Hermose held up aloft a little spicula of gold about the
thickness of a pencil. No sooner had the brilliant lustre
caught their eyes, than, like hounds at the sight of the stag,
they sprung to their feet and dashed into the stream.

"THE I-LACEK." 301

What a sudden change came over the scene ! Instead of
the silence of that dark river, through whose dull current
three or four figures waded noiselessly, while in lazy indolence
their companions lay smoking or sleeping near, now, in an
instant, the whole picture became animated. With plashing
water and wild shouts of various import the deep glen re-
sounded, as upwards of thirty men descended into the river ;
and while some examined the bed of the stream with the
" barretas," others dived beneath the water to explore it with,
their hands, and bring up mingled masses of earth and dust,
over which they bent with earnest gaze for many minutes

Then what cries of joy or disappointment broke forth at
every instant. There seemed at once to come over that
hardened, time-worn group of men, all the changing fickle-
ness of childhood. The wayward vacillations of hope and
despair, bright visions of sudden wealth, with gloomy
thoughts of disappointment, when, suddenly, one brought up
from the bed of the stream something which he showed to
his neighbour, then to another, and another, till a knot had
gathered close around him, among which I found myself.
"What is it ? " said I, disappointed at not seeing some great
mass of yellow gold.

" Don't you see ! It is the fossil bone of the antelope,"
said Hermose ; " and when the floods have penetrated deep
enough to unbury that, there's little doubt but we shall find
gold enough."

"Who says enough?" cried a Mexican, as emerging half-
suffocated from the water he held aloft a pure piece of metal,
nearly the size of a small apple ; "of such fruit as this one
never can eat to indigestion ! "

Halkett's whistle was soon heard, summoning the whole
party to a council on the bank ; nor was the coll long un-
answered. In an instant the tanned and swarthy figures
were seen emerging, all dripping as they were, from the
stream, ascending the banks, and then throwing themselves
in attitudes of careless ease around the leader.

A short discussion ensued as to the locality upon which we
had chanced, some averring that it was an unexplored branch
of the " Brazo," others that it was one of those wayward
courses into which mountain streams are directed in seasons
of unusual rain. The controversy was a warm, and might
soon have become an angry one, had not Halkett put an end
to all altercation by saying, " It matters little how the place
be called, or what its latitude ; you know the Mexican adage,


' It's always a native land where there's gold.' That there
is some here, I have no doubt ; that there is as much as will
repay us for the halt, is another question. My advice is,
that we turn the river into another course, leave the present
channel dry and open, and then explore it thoroughly."

"Well spoken, and true," said an old white-headed Gara-
busino ; " that is the plan in the far wesb, and they are the
only fellows who go right about their work."

The proposal was canvassed ably on all sides, and adopted
with scarcely anything like opposition ; and then parties were
" told off," to carry into execution different portions of the
labour. The section into which I fell was that of the scouts
or explorers, who were to track the course of the stream up-
wards, and search for a suitable spot at which to commence
operations. Hennose took the command of this party, and
named the " Lepero " as his lieutenant.

The " sierra " through which our path lay was singularly
wild and picturesque. The rocks, thrown about in every
fantastic shape, were actually covered with the tendrils of
the liana, whose great blue flowers hung in luxuriant clusters
from every cliff and crag. Wild fig and almond trees loaded
with fruit, red guavas and limes, met us as we advanced, till
at length we found ourselves in the very centre of a tract
rich in every production of our gardens, and all growing in
spontaneous freedom and wildness. The yellow-flowering
cactus, and the golden lobelia, that would have been the
choicest treasures of a conservatory in other lands, we here
broke branches off to fan away the mosquitoes and the galli-
nippers. The farther we went, the more fruitful and luxu-
riant did the tract seem. Oranges, peaches, and grapes, in
all the profusion of their wildest abundance, surrounded us,
and even littered the very way beneath our feet. To feel the
full enchantment of such a scene, one should have been a
prairie traveller for weeks, long-wearied and heart-sore with
the dull monotony of a tiresome journey, with fevered tongue
and scorching feet, with eyeballs red from the glaring sun,
and temples throbbing from the unshaded lustre. Then,
indeed, the change was like one of those wondrous transfor-
mations of a fairy tale, rather than mere actual life. In the
transports of our delight we threw ourselves down among
the flowering shrubs, and covered ourselves with blossoms
and buds ; we bound the grape clusters on our foreheads like
bacchanals, and tied great branches of the orange-tree round
us as scarfs. In all the wantonness of children, we tore the
fruit in handfuls, and threw it around us. The wasteful pro-

" THE PLACER." 303

digality of nature seemed to suggest excess on our part,
prompting us to a hundred follies and extravagances. As if
to fill up the measure of our present joy by imparting the
brightness of future hope, Hermose told us that such little
spots of luxuriant verdure were very often found in the regions
richest with gold, and that we might be almost certain of
discovering a valuable Placer in our immediate vicinity.
There was another, and that no inconsiderable, advantage
attending these " Oases " of fertility. The Indians never
dared to intrude upon these precincts ; their superstition
being that the " Treasure God," or the " Genius of the Mine "
always had his home in these places, and executed summary
vengeance upon all who dared to invade them. This piece of
red-man faith, however jocularly recorded, did not meet that
fall contempt from my comrades I could have expected. On
the contrary, many cited instances of disasters and calamities
which seemed like curious corroborations of the creed. In-
deed, I soon saw how naturally superstitious credences be-
come matter of faith to him Avho lives the wild life of the

" Then you think we shall have to pay the price of all this
enjoyment, Hermose? " said I, as I lay luxuriously beneath
a spreading banana.

" Quien Sabe ! who knows ?" exclaimed he, in his Mexican
dialect, and with a shrug of the shoulders that implied

Although each event is well marked in my memory, and
the incidents of each day indelibly fixed upon my mind, it is
needless that I should dwell upon passages, which, however
at the time full of adventure and excitement, gave no par-
ticular direction to the course of my humble destiny. We
succeeded in finding a spot by which the bed of the river
might be changed ; and after some days of hard labour we
accomplished the task.

The course of the stream thus left dry for a considerable
distance, became the scene of our more active exertions. The
first week or two little was discovered, save gold dust, or an
occasional " spicula " of the metal, heavily alloyed with
copper ; but as we followed up the course, towards the moun-
tain, a vein of richest ore was found, lying near the surface
too, and presenting masses of pure gold, many of them ex-
ceeding twenty ounces in weight.

There could be no doubt that we had chanced upon a most
valuable Placer ; and now orders were given to erect huts,
and such rude furnaces for testing, as our skill stood in need


of. A strict scale of profits was also established, and ft
solemn oath exacted from each, to be true and faithful to his
comrades in all things. Our little colony demanded various
kinds of service ; for, while the gold-seeking was our grand
object, it was necessary, in order to subsist the party, that
a corps of trappers and hunters should be formed, who should
follow the buffalo, the red deer, and the wild hog, over the

Many declined serving on this expedition, doubtless suspect-
ing that the share of treasure which might be allotted to the
absent man, would undergo a heavy poundage. Hermose,
however, whose adventurous spirit inclined more willingly to
the excitement of the chase than the monotonous labour of a
washer, volunteered to go, and I offered myself to be his com-
panion. Some half-dozen of the youngest agreed to follow
us, and we were at once named The Hunters to the Ex-

The rivalry between the two careers, good-natured as it
was, served to amuse and interest us ; and while our blank
days were certain to obtain for us a share of scoffs and jibes,
their unsuccessful ones did not escape their share of sarcasm.
If one party affected to bewail the necessity of storing up
treasure for a set of walking gentlemen, who passed the day
in pleasure-rambles about the country, the other took care to
express their discontent at returning loaded with spoils for a
parcel of lazy impostors, that lounged away their time on the
bank of a river. Meanwhile both pursuits flourished admir-
ably. Practice had made us most expert with the rifle ; and
as we were fortunate enough to secure some of the " mus-
tangs," and train them to the saddle, our " chasse " became
both more profitable and pleasant. By degrees, too, little
evidences of superfluity began to display themselves in our
equipment: our saddles, at first made of a mere wooden
trestle, with a strip of buffalo hide thrown across it, were
now ornamented with black bear-skins, or the more valuable
black fox-skin : our own costume, if not exactly conformable
to Parisian models, was comfortable and easy a brown deer-
skin tunic, fastened by a belt around the waist; short breeches,
reaching to the knee-cap, which was left bare, for climbing ;
" botas vaqueras," very loose at top, and serving as holsters
for our pistols ; and a cap of fox or squirrel, usually designed
by the wearer, and exhibiting proofs of ingenuity, if not taste;
Bnch was our dress.

Our weapons of rifle, and bowie-knife, and pistols, giving
it a character, which, on the boards of a minor theatre, would

" THE PLACER." 805

have been a crowning " success." We were also all mounted ;
some, Hermose and myself in particular, admirably so. And
although I often in my own heart regretted the powers of
strength and endurance of poor " Gharry," my little mustang
steed, with his long forelock and his bushy moustaches, a
strange peculiarity of this breed, was a picture of compact-
ness and agility.

We had also constructed a rude waggon, so rude that I can
even yet laugh as I think on it, to carry our spoils, which
were far too cumbrous for a mere horse-load, and when left
on the prairies attracted such numbers of prairie wolves and
vultures as to be downright perilous. If this same waggon
was not exactly a type for " Long Acre," it was at least
strong and serviceable ; and although the wheels were far
nearer oval than circular, they did go round ; the noise they
created in so doing might have been disagreeable to a nervous
invalid, being something between the scream of a railway
train and the yell of a thousand peacocks. But I believe we
rather liked it ; at least I know that when some luckless
Sybarite suggested the use of a little bear's fat around the
axle, he was looked on as a kind of barbarian to whom nature
denied the least ear for music.

As for the " chasse " itself, it was glorious sport. Glorious
in the unbounded freedom to wander whither one listed !
Glorious in the sense of mastery we felt, that we alone of all
the millions of mankind had reached this far-away, unvisited
tract! Glorious in its successes, its dangers, and its toils!
There was, besides, that endless variety of adventure priiirie-
hunting affords. Now, it was the heavy buffalo, lumbering
lazily along, and tossing his huge head in anger, as the rifle
ball pierced his dense hide ! Now, it was the proudly
antlered stag, cai'eering free over miles and miles of waste.
At another time the grizzly bear was our prey, and our sport
lay in the dense jungle, or among the dwarf scrub, thi-ough
which the hissing rattle-snake was darting, affrighted at the
noise. In more peaceful mood the antelope would be the
victim ; while the wild turkey, or the great cock of the wood,
would grace with his bright wavy feathers the cap of him
whose aim was true at longest rifle range.

And these were happy days the very happiest of my
whole life ! for if, sometimes, regrets would arise about that
road of ambition from which I had turned off, to wander in
the path of mere pleasui'e, I bethought me that no career
the luckiest fortune could have opened to me would have
developed the same manly powers of endurance of heat and



cold, and of peril in a hundred shapes. In no other pursuit
could I have educated myself to the like life of toils and
dangers, bringing me daily, as it were, face to face with
death, till I could look on him without a shudder or a fear.

I will not say that Donna Maria may not have passed
across the picture of my mind-drawn regrets ; but if her
form did indeed flit past, it was to breathe a hope of some
future meeting, some bright time to come, the recompence of
all our separation. And I thought with pride how much
more worthy of her would I be as the prairie-hunter the
fearless follower of the bear and buffalo, accustomed to the
life of the wild woods, than as the mere adventurer, whose
sole stock in trade was the subterfuge and deceit he could
practise on the unwary.

It was strange enough all this while that I seemed to have
lost sight of my old guide-star, the great passion of my
earlier years, the desire to be a " Gentleman." It was stranger
still, but, after-reflection has shown me that it was true, I
made far greater progress toward that wished-for goal, when
I ceased to make it the object of my ambition

- j. - -.; -




THE " life of the prairie," with all its seeming monotony, was
very far from wearisome. The chase, which to some might
have presented the same unvarying aspect, to those who
passionately loved sport, abounded in new and exciting inci-
dents. If upon one day the object of pursuit was the powerful
bison bull, with his shaggy mane and short straight horns, on
another, it was the swift antelope or the prairie fox, whose
sable skin is the rarest piece of dandyism a hunter's pelisse
can exhibit : now and then the wide-spread paw of a brown
bear would mark the earth, and give us days of exciting
pursuit : or again, some Indian " trail " some red-man
" sign " would warn us that we were approaching the
hunting-grounds of a tribe, and that all our circumspection
was needed. Besides these, there were changes, inappreciable
to the uninitiated, but thoroughly understood by us, in the
landscape itself, highly interesting. It is a well-known fact
that the shepherd becomes conversant with the face of every
sheep in his flock, tracing differences of expression, whei'e
others would recognize nothing but a blank uniformity ; so
did the prairie, which at first presented one unvarying
expanse, become at last marked by a hundred peculiarities,
with which close observation made us intimate. Indeed I
often wondered how a great stretching plain, without a house,
a tree, a shrub, or a trickling brook, could supply the mate-
rials of scenic interest, and the explanation is almost as diffi-
cult as the fact. One must have lived the life of solitude
and isolation which these wild wastes compel, to feel how
every moss-clad stone can have its meaning how the pre-
sence of some little insignificant lichen indicates the vicinity
of water how the blue foxbell shows where honey is to be
found how tlio faint spiral motion of the pirn grass gives
warning that rain is nigh at hand. Then with what interest
at each sunset is the horizon invested, when the eye can
pierce space to a vast extent, and mark the fog-banks which
tower afar off, and distinguish the gathering clouds from the
dark-backed herd of buffaloes, or a group of Indians on a

x 2


march. Every prairie "roll," every dip and undulation of
that vast surface, had its own interest, till at length I learned
to think that all other prospects must be tame, spiritless, and
unexciting, in comparison with that glorious expanse, where
sky and earth were one, and where the clouds alone threw
shadows upon the vast plain.

The habit of a hunter's life in such scenes, the constant
watchfulness against sudden peril, inspire a frame of mind
in which deep reflectiveness is blended with a readiness and
promptitude of action, gifts which circumstances far more
favourable to moral training do not always supply. The long
day passed in total solitude, since very often the party
separates to rendezvous at nightfall, necessarily calls for
thought ; not indeed the dreamy reverie of the visionary,
forgetful of himself and all the world, but of that active,
stirring, mental operation, which demands effort and will. If
fanciful pictures of the future as we would wish to make it,
intervene, they come without displacing the stern realities of
the present, any more than the far distances of a picture
interfere with the figures of the foreground.

Forgive, most kind reader, the prolix fondness with which
I linger on this theme. Fortune gave me but scant oppor-
tunity of cultivation, but my best schooling was obtained
upon the prairies. It was there I learned the virtue of self-
reliance, the only real independence. It was there I taught
myself to endure reverses without disappointment, and bear
hardships without repining. It was there I came to know
that he who would win an upward way in life must not build
upon some self-imagined superiority, but boldly enter the lists
with others, and make competitorship the test of his capacity.
They were inferior acquirements, it is true ; but I learned also
to bear hunger and cold, and want of rest and sleep, which in
my after-life were not without their value. It would savour
too much of a " bull " for him who writes his own memoirs
to apologize for egotism, still I do feel compunctions of con-
science about the length of these personal details and now
to my story.

While we pursued our hunting pastime over the prairies,
the " expedition " was successful beyond all expectation. No
sooner was the bed of the river laid bare, than gold was dis-
covered in quantities, and the " washers," despising the
slower process of " sifting," betook themselves to the pick
and the " barreta," like their comrades. It was a season of
rejoicing, and, so far as our humble means permitted, of
festivity ; for though abounding in gold, our daily food was


buffalo and "tough doe," unseasoned by bread, or anything
that could prove its substitute. If the days were passed in
successful labour, the evenings were prolonged with narra-
tives of the late discoveries, and gorgeous imaginings of the
future, as each fancied the bright vista should be. Some were
for a life of unbounded excess and dissipation the "amende,"
as they deemed it, for all their toil and endurance ; others,
anticipated a career of splendour and display in the Old
World. The Frenchman raved of Paris and its cafes and
restaurants, its theatres and its thousand pleasures. A few
speculated upon setting forth on fresh expeditions with
better means of success. Halkett alone bethought him of
home and of an aged mother, in the far-away valley of Llan-
berris, whose remainder of life he longed to render easy and

Nor was it the least courageous act of his daring life, to
avow such a feeling among such associates. How they
laughed at his humility ! how they scoffed at the filial rever-
ence of the Gambusino ! Few of them had known a parent's
care. Most were outcasts from their birth, and started in

Online LibraryCharles James Lever[Charles Lever's novels (Volume 5) → online text (page 31 of 50)