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Henry and the gold mine.

It came upon Henry, for a minute, that he mightn't be so harmless as he looked and that maybe this wasn't such a good place to be. But then he found his own eyes were shutting and, before he knew it, it was day.

When he woke up, the pack was already on the burro and the coffee hot on the fire.

"We have a long way to go," said the old man. "You had better eat, my friend."

"Excuse me," said Henry Pink, "but I don't know just where we're going."

"Why, to find the gold, of course. Is that not what you have come for?" said the old man, and after they'd had their victuals he led the way.

It was pretty country, but lonesome, there in the high ranges. Henry felt the loneliness all day, like a weight on the back of his neck. He didn't mention it to the old man because he felt, somehow, that the old man was part of the loneliness and it suited him. He went ahead leading the burro, and he was perfectly real, and yet he made Henry wonder. That night they camped on the slope of Lost Mountain itself. No, I can't tell you where it was, though I know the range.

"Now, this gold you were talking about," said Henry, kind of shyly. "I don't want to seem inquisitive, but since you mentioned the fact----"

"You will see it soon enough," said the old man, and sighed. "I know how you feel; I, too, have been young and greedy. It is for that reason that I am not allowed to die."

"I don't think I quite caught what you were saying," said Henry Pink. "It is very simple," said the old man. "We were all strong, greedy men, from Hernando Cortes himself to yellow-haired Alvarado. We meant to have the gold, and we got it--600,000 marks of pure gold we wrung from Montezuma at one blow, besides the precious stones. Yet we loaded him with irons and burned his servants alive. No, the wrong was not all on our side--we had seen the human hearts smoke on the altars of the city. But one does not repay wrong with wrong."

"I can't understand what you're talking about," said Henry Pink, with a cold sweat beginning to break out upon him. "At least I hear the words, but they don't make sense to me. Because if you're talking about what I think you're talking about----"

"I am talking about the men who took the city Tenochtitlan and survived the Noche Triste--the Night of Dolor," said the old man. "You are new conquistadores, you yanquis. But we were conquistadores before."

"But you can't--I mean it can't be--I mean I've heard about it and it was centuries ago," said Henry.

"Three hundred and thirty years and more since we burnt the ships," said the old man. "I remember how bright the flame was--bright under a blue sky."

"You couldn't--it ain't in nature," he said, but he said it in a whisper.

"It is not in nature, no--wolves and bears do not tear each other for pieces of bright metal. But it was in our hearts," said the old man, with a fearful smile. "If we had not been bold, greedy men, we would not have won an empire. And I, my friend, I was as bold as Alvarado--as bold and greedy as he, and as good a sword. I did not have his luck--he had the luck of the devil--but in all other ways we were equal. I remember those days; no gold we got was enough for us; if the whole round earth had been turned into a ball of gold, we would have beaten upon it with our fists and cried, 'More, more!' Yet was I no worse than the rest--not till the torture of Guatemotzin."

"Who was he?" said Henry Pink.

"He was a man," said the old man, and his eyes glowed. "Yes, heathen or not, he was a man--even up-on the rack. Have you ever seen a man upon the rack, my young friend? It is a curious experience. The cacique we tortured with Guatemotzin groaned and cried aloud. 'Do you think I am lying upon a bed of roses? said Guatemotzin, the emperor, and that was all that he said, no matter how we tightened the cords."

"I thought you said Montezuma was emperor," said Henry Pink.

"He had been," said the old man. "If Guatemotzin had been emperor when we landed, not one of us would have survived the Noche Triste. Montezuma was a woman, but not this man. But we caught Guatemotzin at last, and it was I who struck him across the face and bade him tell us where the gold was. Yes, I did that, even as he lay upon the rack. And for that our little priest rebuked me. He called on my blood and my honor, and said it was shame in a conquistador to strike a tortured man. A bold man, that little priest. The he held up the cross in front of me to stay me, but I struck the cross to the ground."

There was a long silence then, and Henry Pink didn't say anything.

"Yes, it was so," said the old man. "I shall not forget it. For the tortured man writhed his own lips then, and I could hear him speak words. 'The white man denies his own God,' he said to the little priest, and the priest picked up his cross silently from the dust. 'Do you claim this man for your God?' said the tortured man again, and again the priest kept silence. I felt the others fall away from me then--yes, even the roughest and the wildest, who had marched and fought at my side.

"'Then I claim this man for our gods,' cried Guatemotzin, emperor of Mexico, from the rack where we had stretched him. 'I claim him for the gold he worships, that he look for it continually, wishing to die, but unable to die, as I wish to die today--until he can find a man of another race who will accept his gold and its burden.' There was no more said than that, and I laughed in his face. But when the torture was over and Guatemotzin dead, men began to look upon me strangely. Yes, even Alvarado, who had been my friend till that time."

"Well, sir, that's mighty queer story," said Henry Pink. "And I don't say you done right. But still, if you got the gold--"

"That was what I thought," said the old man. "It seemed to me a good bargain. It seemed so, indeed, till I found that I could not die. Oh, I had many escapes, but the arrow would not pierce nor the ball strike. I was with Alvarado in Guatemala; I have searched for the cities of Cibola, the golden Cities; I have wandered the length of the land. For, always, I must look for the gold, as Guatemotzin, the emperor, had said. And the men I knew died, and their sons died, and their sons' sons, but still there was no death for me. So, at last I came here, for here, surely, was a land without gold and the curse of gold--a pleasant, smiling land, where a man might live in peace till death tapped him on the shoulder."

He shook his head.

"And so it was," he said. "So it was, for many years. Nor was it I who unloosed the secret, though I knew of it. You yanquis think you know California, but it is not the California I know. Oh, the good, lazy, sun-warmed land, the fine horses, the grapes on the vine! But now that is over."

He rose.

"We will look at the gold now," he said. "You scrabble in the streams like children for a pennyweight here and there. But here is the lode and the treasure--the mother of it all. I have kept the secret a long time--that I have done, at least, for the sake of the sun-warmed land. But now it matters no more and it is time I had rest."

He picked up a pine torch and led the way to a heap of logs and underbrush. They worked for two hours, cleaning the stuff away; and when they'd done, there was a big, black hole in the side of the mountain. Don Felipe held up his torch.

"The shaft is a natural one," he said. "It was covered by a rock slide when I found it. Let us go in."

They went in, and the air was sweet, so there must have been some sort of vent in the mountainside.

"Where's the gold, old man?" said Henry, trembling all over.

"You are walking over it and under it; you are walking through it and around it," said the old man, in kind of a singsong, waving his torch. And as he waved it, the red flame lit up the walls of the big rock chamber till they seemed all in a sparkling fire.

Henry took one look around. He wasn't educated or a geologist, but he could believe his own eyes. And this wasn't a placer or a pocket. It was Golconda. The veins ran wide as a street and they seemed to go down forever--quartz rotten with gold, moth-eaten with gold, loaded and crammed with pure gold. Henry caught his breath.

"The Mother Lode--the thing that could not be true," said the old man. "And nobody has ever seen it but you and I."

"Can I--do you mind if I----" said Henry, and his voice was shaking now.

"That is why you are here," said the old man sadly. He passed Henry a little hammer. "Strike where you will," he said. "It is all the same."

"Oh, Laertes, Laertes, New York!" said Henry, kind of prayful. "Oh, Hester, and won't you be proud of me!"

Then he went about with his hammer, tapping the walls. He knocked off a sample here and a sample there, and when he had the stuff in his hand he didn't believe it. And then he did believe it, and it made him feel queer. He was standing there, in dirty pants and a ragged shirt, and yet he was a millionaire. He was richer than Astor or the Barings or anybody in the world. He was richer than a body could be and still stay reasonable. And the joy of it flooded through him till he thought it would stop his heart. But then, being quite a sensible youngster, he calmed down and began to consider.

Naturally the old man would want half of it, but, even so, he'd still be rich. He didn't take any stock in the old man's story about living 300 years and being one of the conquistadores. That was just the loony ramblings of a half-crazy Mexican prospector. But, after all, the old bezabor had found the claim, and Henry meant to deal square with him. It seemed an awful lot, when you started thinking about it--half the biggest treasure on earth for a crazy old coot who wouldn't know what to do with it. But Henry had always been an honest boy. He wondered how much stock in the laertes Mining and Development company he'd have to give the old fellow. Then he looked at the samples in his hand again and wondered if he couldn't buy him off with a flat cash payment. When you thought of it, $5,000 would be a whale of a lot of money for an old man like that--more than he'd ever seen in his life, probably. Only Henry didn't have the $5,000.

"Are you satisfied?" said the old man. He had his back turned to Henry, but his voice kind of boomed against the rocks.

"Why wouldn't a man be satisfied?" said Henry in a queer voice. He scraped a flake of gold from the quartz with the edge of his fingernail--it was as easy as that. And the old man still had his back turned. He hadn't said a thing about relatives, but then, he wouldn't have any--not if he was 300 years old. And 300 years was a long enough time for anybody. Henry picked up the hammer from where he'd dropped it. It felt good and solid in his hand. He could see the old man falling, and then it would be finished, and Henry Pink would be the richest man in the world.

"Are you satisfied, Guatemotzin, my enemy?" said the old man, as if he were talking to himself. "It has been a long, weary time."

And then, with sound of the voice, Henry knew he couldn't do it. He knew he couldn't do it at all. He felt the hammer fall out of his hand and heard it clatter on the rock.

"Say," he said, "if I could interest you in a first-rate, straight proposition. I don't mean to jump anybody's claim--I did that once, but that was because I didn't know. But this is the Laertes Mining and Development Company and I'm president and treasurer. I've got to keep 51 percent of the stock, you see, because of Hester. In spite of her writing poetry. But I guess we could come to an arrangement."

"You are young and strong," said the old man. "It would be so much easier for you to kill me."

"Oh, a whole lot easier, not to speak of more convenient," said Henry earnestly. "But, you see, I don't think Amy Frothingham would like it. She's a flirt and she's fickle, and I don't know why I'm thinking of her instead of Hester, but I figure she wouldn't like me to do a thing like that. And then there's my friend Reb Plummer, son of the town undertaker. Well, you might think an undertaker----But Reb's sensitive fellow, and I don't think he would either. And I'd certainly hate to ruin Reb's opinion of me--he's one of the best-thought-of people in Laertes. And then there's Judge Hannafield--not that I care so much what the judge thinks, but still----Oh, for God's sake!" he said. "Will you come out of this cave? It's rich as all get out, but I don't like one thing about it!"

The old man looked at him and smiled. Henry always said it was a wonderful thing, That smile.

"You may go, my son," said the old man. "For that was the second thing that was said to me. I was to live till I found a man who would take my burden of guilt, and with it the gold, or a boy who would refuse them both. I thought it would be the first way. But I was wrong. Oh, my California!" he said. "My fine, lazy, high-hearted land! They will dig in your entrails for the gold that ruins them, but I shall be at peace. Yes, my young friend, go!"

Even so, right until he'd got back to the campfire, Henry thought the old man was following him. But when he woke the next morning, there was only his own burro, cropping and the ashes of the fire.

At least, that's the way he told it when he got back to Lone Tree. I hardly recognized him at first, to tell you the truth. He'd gone out a boy, but he'd come back a man. And he told his story like a man, in spite of the wildness.

"No, I wouldn't believe it myself," he said in the end. "But, you see, I've got evidence." And he fished out a leather bag.

"That's real color," I said, looking at the samples. "But I thought you said it was a quartz formation."

"That's right," he said, and then a curious expression came over his face. "But that isn't the bag," he said.

"It isn't the what?" said I.

"It isn't the right bag," he said

"The one I brought from the mountain was canvass. I ought to know. This here's just that worthless dirt I scrabbled up behind the cabin the first day you took me in. I can't tell you why I kept it--sort of souvenir, maybe."

"Worthless dirt!" said I. "Oh, for God's sake, where's my pain?" Well, it didn't take two minutes to show us what we had. And I hadn't even bothered to stake the place. But when I got through we were protected, even if I did have to warn Horse Mason off with a shotgun. We took $16,000 in dust right out of the back yard, and it nearly drove the old man crazy. Well, don't ask me what I did with mine. But a year or so later I paid my last $2 for a letter at the express office. And worth it, at that, because it said: LAERTES, N.Y. January 18th, 1852.

Dear Friend: I hope this finds you as it leaves me, in the best of health and spirits and also a married man. Not to Hester, however, my dear friend, though I know this will surprise. but on returning to Laertes, I found out that a sympathy had sprung up between Hester and my friend, Reb Plummer, due chiefly to a mutual interest in graves. In such circumstances there is nought for a man to do but bow his head to the inscrutable decrees of destiny, which is just as well. To tell you the truth, it was a misunderstanding with Amy Pink, nee Frothingham, that drove me to Hester in the first place. Amy sends her warmest regards to "my old friend and partner" and extends, as do I, the most cordial of invitations to visit us in our home when you come east. With which, wishing you (Illegible Data) of "dust," I remain, Your true friend, Henry Pink.

Ex-President, Laertes Mining and Developing Company, at present ed. and prop. of the Laertes Item, having bought out Hester's father.

P.S.: We intend to call our first offspring after my old partner.

Well, that's the story--and you can believe it or otherwise, but I've talked to men who've got lost in those ranges. They all say there's something queer about them, once you start going in and in. And there was a sheep-herder once; he got lost and his sheep got lost, and finally he got to a place where everything was very still and quiet. Well, then, he got raving about how spirits came out of the mountain and warned him away. But he did bring something back with him. It was an old Sunday-school medal, all rusted and tarnished. But you could still make out some of the letters and they said "--OR G--OD --ONDUC--, H----RY --INK." When I asked him where he'd found it, he didn't make a word of sense.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Benet, Stephen Vincent
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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