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CHAPTER I


It was a season of unequalled prosperity in Devil's Ford. The half
a dozen cabins scattered along the banks of the North Fork, as if
by some overflow of that capricious river, had become augmented
during a week of fierce excitement by twenty or thirty others, that
were huddled together on the narrow gorge of Devil's Spur, or cast
up on its steep sides. So sudden and violent had been the change
of fortune, that the dwellers in the older cabins had not had time
to change with it, but still kept their old habits, customs, and
even their old clothes. The flour pan in which their daily bread
was mixed stood on the rude table side by side with the
"prospecting pans," half full of gold washed up from their
morning's work; the front windows of the newer tenements looked
upon the one single thoroughfare, but the back door opened upon the
uncleared wilderness, still haunted by the misshapen bulk of bear
or the nightly gliding of catamount.

Neither had success as yet affected their boyish simplicity and the
frankness of old frontier habits; they played with their new-found
riches with the naive delight of children, and rehearsed their
glowing future with the importance and triviality of school-boys.

"I've bin kalklatin'," said Dick Mattingly, leaning on his long-
handled shovel with lazy gravity, "that when I go to Rome this
winter, I'll get one o' them marble sharps to chisel me a statoo o'
some kind to set up on the spot where we made our big strike.
Suthin' to remember it by, you know."

"What kind o' statoo--Washington or Webster?" asked one of the
Kearney brothers, without looking up from his work.

"No--I reckon one o' them fancy groups--one o' them Latin goddesses
that Fairfax is always gassin' about, sorter leadin', directin' and
bossin' us where to dig."

"You'd make a healthy-lookin' figger in a group," responded
Kearney, critically regarding an enormous patch in Mattingly's
trousers. "Why don't you have a fountain instead?"

"Where'll you get the water?" demanded the first speaker, in
return. "You know there ain't enough in the North Fork to do a
week's washing for the camp--to say nothin' of its color."

"Leave that to me," said Kearney, with self-possession. "When I've
built that there reservoir on Devil's Spur, and bring the water
over the ridge from Union Ditch, there'll be enough to spare for
that."

"Better mix it up, I reckon--have suthin' half statoo, half
fountain," interposed the elder Mattingly, better known as
"Maryland Joe," "and set it up afore the Town Hall and Free Library
I'm kalklatin' to give. Do THAT, and you can count on me."

After some further discussion, it was gravely settled that Kearney
should furnish water brought from the Union Ditch, twenty miles
away, at a cost of two hundred thousand dollars, to feed a memorial
fountain erected by Mattingly, worth a hundred thousand dollars, as
a crowning finish to public buildings contributed by Maryland Joe,
to the extent of half a million more. The disposition of these
vast sums by gentlemen wearing patched breeches awakened no sense
of the ludicrous, nor did any doubt, reservation, or contingency
enter into the plans of the charming enthusiasts themselves. The
foundation of their airy castles lay already before them in the
strip of rich alluvium on the river bank, where the North Fork,
sharply curving round the base of Devil's Spur, had for centuries
swept the detritus of gulch and canyon. They had barely crossed
the threshold of this treasure-house, to find themselves rich men;
what possibilities of affluence might be theirs when they had fully
exploited their possessions? So confident were they of that
ultimate prospect, that the wealth already thus obtained was
religiously expended in engines and machinery for the boring of
wells and the conveyance of that precious water which the exhausted
river had long since ceased to yield. It seemed as if the gold
they had taken out was by some ironical compensation gradually
making its way back to the soil again through ditch and flume and
reservoir.

Such was the position of affairs at Devil's Ford on the 13th of
August, 1860. It was noon of a hot day. Whatever movement there
was in the stifling air was seen rather than felt in a tremulous,
quivering, upward-moving dust along the flank of the mountain,
through which the spires of the pines were faintly visible. There
was no water in the bared and burning bars of the river to reflect
the vertical sun, but under its direct rays one or two tinned roofs
and corrugated zinc cabins struck fire, a few canvas tents became
dazzling to the eye, and the white wooded corral of the stage
office and hotel insupportable. For two hours no one ventured in
the glare of the open, or even to cross the narrow, unshadowed
street, whose dull red dust seemed to glow between the lines of
straggling houses. The heated shells of these green unseasoned
tenements gave out a pungent odor of scorching wood and resin. The
usual hurried, feverish toil in the claim was suspended; the pick
and shovel were left sticking in the richest "pay gravel;" the
toiling millionaires themselves, ragged, dirty, and perspiring, lay
panting under the nearest shade, where the pipes went out
listlessly, and conversation sank to monosyllables.

"There's Fairfax," said Dick Mattingly, at last, with a lazy
effort. His face was turned to the hillside, where a man had just
emerged from the woods, and was halting irresolutely before the
glaring expanse of upheaved gravel and glistening boulders that
stretched between him and the shaded group. "He's going to make a
break for it," he added, as the stranger, throwing his linen coat
over his head, suddenly started into an Indian trot through the
pelting sunbeams toward them. This strange act was perfectly
understood by the group, who knew that in that intensely dry heat
the danger of exposure was lessened by active exercise and the
profuse perspiration that followed it. In another moment the
stranger had reached their side, dripping as if rained upon,
mopping his damp curls and handsome bearded face with his linen
coat, as he threw himself pantingly on the ground.

"I struck out over here first, boys, to give you a little warning,"
he said, as soon as he had gained breath. "That engineer will be
down here to take charge as soon as the six o'clock stage comes in.
He's an oldish chap, has got a family of two daughters, and--I--am--
d----d if he is not bringing them down here with him."

"Oh, go long!" exclaimed the five men in one voice, raising
themselves on their hands and elbows, and glaring at the speaker.

"Fact, boys! Soon as I found it out I just waltzed into that Jew
shop at the Crossing and bought up all the clothes that would be
likely to suit you fellows, before anybody else got a show. I
reckon I cleared out the shop. The duds are a little mixed in
style, but I reckon they're clean and whole, and a man might face a
lady in 'em. I left them round at the old Buckeye Spring, where
they're handy without attracting attention. You boys can go there
for a general wash-up, rig yourselves up without saying anything,
and then meander back careless and easy in your store clothes, just
as the stage is coming in, sabe?"

"Why didn't you let us know earlier?" asked Mattingly aggrievedly;
"you've been back here at least an hour."

"I've been getting some place ready for THEM," returned the new-
comer. "We might have managed to put the man somewhere, if he'd
been alone, but these women want family accommodation. There was
nothing left for me to do but to buy up Thompson's saloon."

"No?" interrupted his audience, half in incredulity, half in
protestation.

"Fact! You boys will have to take your drinks under canvas again,
I reckon! But I made Thompson let those gold-framed mirrors that
used to stand behind the bar go into the bargain, and they sort of
furnish the room. You know the saloon is one of them patent houses
you can take to pieces, and I've been reckoning you boys will have
to pitch in and help me to take the whole shanty over to the laurel
bushes, and put it up agin Kearney's cabin."

"What's all that?" said the younger Kearney, with an odd mingling
of astonishment and bashful gratification.

"Yes, I reckon yours is the cleanest house, because it's the
newest, so you'll just step out and let us knock in one o' the
gables, and clap it on to the saloon, and make ONE house of it,
don't you see? There'll be two rooms, one for the girls and the
other for the old man."

The astonishment and bewilderment of the party had gradually given
way to a boyish and impatient interest.

"Hadn't we better do the job at once?" suggested Dick Mattingly.

"Or throw ourselves into those new clothes, so as to be ready,"
added the younger Kearney, looking down at his ragged trousers. "I
say, Fairfax, what are the girls like, eh?"

All the others had been dying to ask the question, yet one and all
laughed at the conscious manner and blushing cheek of the
questioner.

"You'll find out quick enough," returned Fairfax, whose curt
carelessness did not, however, prevent a slight increase of color
on his own cheek. "We'd better get that job off our hands before
doing anything else. So, if you're ready, boys, we'll just waltz
down to Thompson's and pack up the shanty. He's out of it by this
time, I reckon. You might as well be perspiring to some purpose
over there as gaspin' under this tree. We won't go back to work
this afternoon, but knock off now, and call it half a day. Come!
Hump yourselves, gentlemen. Are you ready? One, two, three, and
away!"

In another instant the tree was deserted; the figures of the five
millionaires of Devil's Ford, crossing the fierce glare of the open
space, with boyish alacrity, glistened in the sunlight, and then
disappeared in the nearest fringe of thickets.




Devil's Ford by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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