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Henry and the golden mine.

It's where you find it, and that's just the trouble. There never was a truer word said. You can get all your Eastern geologists with their hammers and their spectacles and set them running all over the state of California. But the gold's the gold. You're as likely to come across it looking for a stray mule--that's what made the Four Brothers claim. And you'll find it and lose it and find it. You remember that kid with the slingshot on the wagon train. He was peppering all and sundry with some nice, hard pebbles he'd picked up, and when they took away his slingshot they found out what kind of pebbles they were. Only then he couldn't remember where he'd come across them, and three men died of thirst in the desert, trying to locate the spot. But it never was found, and never will be--wasn't meant to be found, I guess. And then, there's the Mother Lode.

Oh, any professor will tell you that it doesn't exist, and couldn't. There couldn't be such a thing--where the vein runs wide as a street down into the heart of the mountain, and you could walk around blindfolded and it couldn't make any difference to your luck. But it's been seen and located, or so they say. Except, they say it's guarded too; though I wouldn't like to specify by who or what. I've been alone in the mountains myself. And maybe the voices you hear are all inside your own head. But, again, they might not be. I'm not going to look for it, anyway--I'm not so young as I was. Though naturally, now and hen, when you think of it, you get a hankering. But they say--the best informed--that only a fool can find it. And I'm not Henry Pink.

He wasn't really a fool, either. Just kind of innocent and eager and enthusiastic. He'd come around the Horn to the gold fields, but it hadn't changed him a mite. He still looked as if he washed his face every morning because his mother told him to, and a body couldn't be with him more than half an hour without knowing all about him--how he came from Laertes, New York, and was bound to make his pile because of a girl named Hester that he wanted to marry. She was a girl with quite a lot of forehead, who wrote poetry for the paper, but--as he was apt to remark--she was full of soul. It looked more like dyspepsia to me, in the tintype he had of her, but he thought different. There'd been another girl, Amy Frothingham, but the trouble with her was, she was golden-haired but fickle. Yes, I'm telling it to you just the way he told it to me.

That's the kind of boy he was, and you couldn't help it. He even carried a piece of Hester's poetry around with him. It was kind of worn at the edges, but he was perfectly willing to read it out loud. It was called "To a Distant Friend" and it began "How drear now rolls old Hudson's stream," and went on about sweet reunion in the by and by. Hester generally specialized in willows by a grave and white-robed angels coming for the souls of the departed, so this was a pretty cheerful piece, for her. It wouldn't have struck my fancy, exactly, as a keepsake, but I wasn't Henry Pink.

You couldn't help liking him, that was the difficulty. But after you'd seen a little of him, you got kind of awe-struck at the inscrutable ways of Providence. You can talk about guardian angels, but one wouldn't have been enough for Henry. There must have been a whole squad of them, and all of them overworked. I remember when he first showed up at the diggings. He had a big, old-fashioned pepperbox of a gun and a regular fancy outfit, washbowl and all. He looked like a picture of a miner in an emigrant's guide. Well, I'd just, come out of the Last Chance something that looks like a cross between an Injun wickiup and a motherless circus tent. That's Barney's. Of course, it might not be there any more. We grow so fast in these regions. It might even have turned into an honest-to-God hotel overnigh. But I wouldn't put my dust on it."

"And are Mr. Barney's charges reasonable?" said he.

"Very reasonable," said I. "He was charging eight dollars, dust, for half a bunk, washing excluded. Of course, that was yesterday, and prices may have riz. But there's just one thing--don't let him bed you down with a Texas man. They're apt to be born with spurs, and they rake when they get nightmares."

"Born with spurs?" he said, his eyes as big and innocent as saucers.

"Born or growed," I said. "It comes of drinking Rio Grande water. Interesting phenomenon."

"I shall write that home to Hester," he said. "Her father's editor of the Laertes Item, and he will be very interested. The spurs, I should judge, would be of the same substance as the fingernails?"

"They claim chilled steel," I said, "but I never dehorned one to find out. And then, of course, if you don't like Barney's--Well, there's the whole territory of California to bed out in."

"I admit expense is an item," he said. "On the other hand, I am anxious to form connections'--and damned if he didn't shove me a little printed card. It said, THE LAERTES MINING AND DEVELOPMENT CO., HENRY PINK, PRESIDENT AND TREASURER, and then I began to worry about his guardian angels. He looked at me sort of anxious.

"It is not a very large company," he said, "but my good friend, Reuben Plummer, the son of our leading undertaker, his associated himself financially with me in the enterprise. Also Judge Hannafield and Hester's father. In fact, he put up my passage money, and I shall always be grateful to him, for he said it was cheap at the price. But it puts a large responsibility upon my shoulders. Naturally, I wish to find my first bonanza as rapidly as possible. Bonanza is the correct term, is it not? Yet, perhaps, it would be wise to seek some accommodation first; the trip has been somewhat fatiguing"--and he kind of swayed on his feet.

Well, I heaved a sigh at the thought of it, but I told him he'd better bunk in with me--at least for the night. I couldn't do otherwise. If I'd let him go on alone, he might have been eaten by a jack rabbit, or so I figured. I can't say I was living in the altitudes of luxury--the roof hadn't been mended since the Mexican fell through it. But when I got some food inside the youngster, he seemed very pleased and grateful. He told me a lot more about Hester and showed me her poetry. And then, before I was even waked up, in the morning he went out and jumped Horse Manson's claim.

He came steaming back to the cabin with his coatails flying. I'd heard the shots, but I never was a person to borrow trouble. But I tell you, he didn't know anything. He'd just gone out with his washbowl and picked a likely piece of ground.

"Then what happened?" I asked.

"Why," he said, "a very nice old gentleman with a white beard began shotting around me."

"That's Horse Mason," I said. "And it's the first time in human history he's been called a nice old gentleman. Was he drunk?"

"Oh, no," he said, kind of shocked, as he fingered the holes in his hat. "He seemed quite in possession of his faculties, though very angry. But if he had only allowed me to explain--"

"Explain?" I said. "Couldn't you see the claim was staked?"

"I did observe some little sticks," he said, "But----"

Well, then, I sat him down and talked to him like a Dutch uncle. I must have talked to him an hour. Then I went to pacify Horse, which took some time. And when I got back the youngster had dug a two-foot hole in the ground right back of the cabin and was making the dirt fly. I just stared at him.

"All right," I said. "You've had your exercise. Now fill it up.

"I thought I saw indications of gold," he said.

"Listen," I said. "You forget anything you even heard--or read in the Laertes Item--about indications. Do you think I'd have been squating here for a month--and ten men before me--with the gold right under our noses, and not know it? You fill up that hole, and do it fast, or I'll beat you to death with a shovel," I said, because I was getting a little roused. "Furthermore, I'll take that pepperbox gun away from you and make you eat it. And furthermore and likewise--"

Well, I may have gone on for a bit, but I wanted to make an impression. And apparently I did, for the youngster did as I told him. All the same, I saw him stow away a sample of the dirt in a little leather bag he had. But I didn't let on I'd seen. It didn't do any harm, and I knew he'd forget about it the next day.

That was how we got to be partners and, in some ways, I've never had a better one. He was willing and good-humored and a hard worker, and we struck on a little pocket that panned out pretty well. Not any bonanza, you understand, but enough to make you feel good. Shucks, he insistd on giving me a note for 100 shares of stock in the Laertes Mining and Development Company, just because I'd showed him the ropes. Well, it didn't mean anything to me, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings, so I took it and thanked him. Then the news came along of the new strike up at Puma, and half the camp went crazy. I'd been in those rushes before and it didn't impress me much. You wear you legs out getting there, and then you find the good ground's located. But my youngster was wild to go.

I should have gone with him, I guess, and I certainly hated to see him leave. But he was shaping up well, and you can't wet-nurse a youngster beyond a certain point. It isn't fair to the boy. So I said I'd take care of things at my end, and if Puma really panned out he could send me word. It sounded more impressive, put like that. Myself, I thought the wouldn't find anything, and that might knock some sense in him. But I was wrong.

He never got there at all; he got lost in the mountains. It took a special talent to do that, with hundreds of men all going the same way, but he managed it. He thought he'd take a short cut, you see--a short cut, when he didn't even know enough to follow water downhill. Well, he had a burro with him, and grub, so that wasn't so bad. But the country wasn't exactly like Laertes, New York, and, once he got off the trail, he kept wandering in and in. It's easy to do in those ranges. They aren't unfriendly mountains, but you've got to watch yourself. The way he described it, it was like going into a series of big, green boxes, with each box opening into another one, and still no way to get back.

It wasn't so bad the first day or the first couple of days. He found water and grass all the way--or the burro found them for him. At first he was scared of Indians; then, after a while Indians would have been a relief. There were coyotes and deer and such; he didn't like the coyotes at night, and yet, in a way, they were company. But it seemed to him, as he went deeper and deeper into the mountains, that the animals got fewer and fewer. Till, finally, when he'd pitch camp and light his fire, the night would be dead still, without a sound in it, except for the wind in the trees and the little moise of his burro, stirring around. He began to talk to Hester. He knew perfectly well she wasn't there, but he talked to her just the same.

He talked to her because he'd begun to wonder if there's ever been a town called Laertes, or a state called New York, or even a likely youngster that his friends called Henry Pink. He could see the town perfectly well, when he thought of it; see the livery stable and the church and the old hand press in the Item office and Hester's father, with the little white tufts of hair that grew out of his ears. He could even see Amy Frothingham, sitting in the third row at Sabbath school. He could see it all just as plain as a picture in Harper's Weekly, but it didn't seem real to him at all.

He told Hester all about this and how queer it was. And at first that was a consolation, but after a while it got so that all she'd do would be to recite poetry at him. He never thought he'd really get tired of her poetry. But he found he did--particularly of "How drear now rolls old Hudson's stream." Finally he got so he'd carry a handful of rocks in his pocket, and whenever Hester started in about the rolling stream he'd chunk one at ther. He hated to do it and always apologized afterward. But it seemed to be the one way to fix her.

He'd been having a pretty bad time with Hester, when he finally saw the campfire at the end of the valley. At first he was perfectly convinced that the campfire wasn't there either. He was so convinced that he meant to walk straight through it and show them. But he didn't, because the burro balked.

The old man on the other side of the fire didn't even move. He was cooking bacon in a skillet, and he just said, "Buenas noches, amigo. You have come a long way." I guess it was the smell of the bacon that made Henry feel dizzy. He'd meant to eat regular, but he'd spent too much time, lately, throwing rocks at Hester to think about his meals. Anyhow, it got black in front of him, and he sat down.

When he got back his senses the burro had its pack off and was munching away, and the old man had a plate of bacon all ready for him. Only after he'd eaten and the life had begun to come back to him did he really notice the old man.

He was brown and he looked Mexican--dressed Mexican, too, for his vest had gold buttons on it and he had a Mexican knife. But again you couldn't tell.

His voice was kind of slow and stately, but he talked American. And in spite of his hair being white, his eyes were young and alive.

"Eat, amigo; I am glad to see you at last," he said to Henry Pink.

"Well, that's very friendly of you, sir," said Henry. "But how could you have been expecting me?"

"What is expectation?" said the old main. "The tree does not expect the lightning nor the fish the hook. Yet the two come together in time, when there is a purpose"--and he smiled in a queer way.

"Now, that's very handsome talk," said Henry. "I like to hear a man talk like that. My father-in-law would be interested too; he edits the Laerter Item and he's a well-educated man. At least, he isn't my father-in-law yet, but he's going to be. At least, if Hester will ever quit reciting poetry." And he reached in his pocket for a rock. But he didn't use it, for Hester wasn't there any more--just him and the old man and the bright fire. He passed his hand over his forehead.

"Excuse me," he said. "I guess I've been talking wild. I could see her there, just as plain as print. But now she's gone back to Laertes."

"What you see may be so and what you do not see may be so," said the old man. "Permit me to introduce myself"--adn he rolled out a long, liquid name. It began with "Don Felipe" and went on for quite a spell, till it ended in something like "Alcantara."

"Delighted to make your acquaintance, sir," said Henry, and reached in his pocket. "This will explain my own interests and activities," he said. "As I said before--or maybe I didn't--we mean to call our first bonanza the Hester. But it's all there on the card."

The old man took the card.

"The gold," he said; "always the gold." And his face was stern in the firelight.

"Well, young man, you were born to be fortunate. Otherwise you would not have come to Lost Mountain. But now we will sleep, I think"--and he rolled up in his serape and shut his eyes.
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Title Annotation:part 1; short story
Author:Benet, Stephen Vincent
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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