Time alone reveals the just man; but you might discern a bad man in a single day. — Sophocles

Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin




The Mysterious Stranger

Charley Adams was trudging up to his knees in snow, on his way home from down town. It was Washington's Birthday, 1849, and winter had sent St. Louis a late valentine in shape of a big snowstorm. As this occurred seventy-five years ago, there were no street-cars in St. Louis (or in any other American city, for that matter); and even had there been street-cars they doubtless would have been tied up. At all events, Charley had walked down, and now he was trudging back with the mail.

His father was very anxious to see that mail. It contained the Eastern papers, and these probably would add to the tidings printed in the St. Louis papers, from the marvelous gold fields of California.

Since January, when President Polk's annual message to Congress had been read in St. Louis, in the papers, St. Louis people, like the whole population of the United States, had been crazy over the California gold. It was claimed that as far back as January, 1848, a man named Marshall, while digging a mill-race somewhere in interior Upper California, for a Captain Sutter of Sutter's Fort ranch, on the emigrant trail over the Sierra Nevada mountain-range down to Sacramento, had washed into plain sight an unlimited supply of gold flakes.

However, when the news first had reached Washington and New York and had filtered back to St. Louis, it was several months old and seemed scarcely worth attention, California being such a long way off. But now the President himself was authority for the fact that gold actually was lying around loose, for anybody to pick up, in this fair new land of California, and that thousands of people already were gathering it!

The President offered as proof letters from Colonel Richard B. Mason, the military governor of California, and from the Honorable Thomas O. Larkin, who had been the United States consul in California. The letters said not only that gold had been found, as before stated, but that 10,000 people (nearly all the able-bodied population of California) were out looking for more, and finding it, too! Sailors were deserting the ships and soldiers the ranks; servants were leaving the houses and merchants the stores, and the whole territory was wild. Congressmen at Washington asserted so much gold would be put on the market that gold money would lose its value, it would be so common.

These reports sounded like fairy-tales come true. Think of it! Gold, lying around on the surface of the ground, to be pocketed by the first finders! In spite of the fact that California had been a part of the United States only two years, or since the war with Mexico, and was distant 2000 miles across uninhabited desert and mountains, as soon as the word about gold was guaranteed to be really the truth a tremendous number of people here in the "States" set about dropping everything else and starting right away, to seek their fortunes.

Hundreds of St. Louis people had left, in parties large and small, a few to travel clear around Cape Horn of South America, or to cross the Isthmus of Panama and to sail up the Pacific Coast, but the majority to ride and walk, with wagon and team, across the deserts and mountains from the Missouri River 2000 miles to California. A number of neighbors and other friends of the Adamses had gone. Even Mr. Walker, Billy Walker's father, was going as soon as he could provide so that his family would not suffer in his absence; and he was talking of taking Billy. As Billy was Charley's best chum, this seemed pretty mean—for Charley, not for Billy, of course. To Charley there seemed no chance of his going, traveling across those wild plains and ranges, sleeping out of doors, and fighting Indians, perhaps, and then gathering gold in far California itself. His father was laid up, still recovering from wounds received in the war with Mexico. Charley was proud of his soldier father, who had served under General Scott all through the war, until disabled in the capture of Mexico City; but he did wish that there was some way for them to go to those gold fields.

The snow-storm had about ceased. The snow was two feet deep, in the streets, and the air was nipping chill. The streets were deserted, as evening settled down and Charley neared home. Now when he passed an open stairway, leading up into a building, he saw a huddled figure just inside the entrance.

He hurried on, but suddenly he stopped short. The figure had not stirred, as he passed—it looked odd—maybe it was only crouching there for shelter from the wind and snow—or maybe it was asleep—or maybe frozen. Jiminy! He ought not to go and leave it. Boy Scouts of America had not been organized, in 1849; but Charley was a Boy Scout at heart, so he turned back, anxious to do a good turn if possible.

When he peered into the entrance to the stairway, the huddled figure was there, just as first seen. It was that of a man, in ragged clothing, with worn boots, slouch hat, and unkempt beard visible where the face was bent forward upon the chest and folded arms. The figure did not move, and Charley spoke to it.

"Hello."

There was no response.

"Hello, there! What are you doing?"

Still no answer of any kind.

"Hey! Wake up!" bade Charley, more boldly. "You'll freeze."

Into Charley's throat welled a little tinge of fear; the figure remained so quiet and motionless. He reached in and shook the man by the shoulder. It was cold and stiff.

"Wake up! Wake up!"

Hurrah! The man was alive, anyway, for now he did stir drowsily, and mumbled as if objecting. Charley noticed that his hands were clenched tightly over the side-pockets of his old jacket, where the corners were drawn into his lap.

"Wake up! You'd better get out of here. You'll freeze. Want me to help you?"

Charley tried to lift the man, and to force him to move; but the man sat as a dead weight, and only mumbled crossly, and held back.

"Oh, crickity!" despaired Charley. "I'll have to get somebody to help. He's half frozen already. That's what's the matter with him."

Charley bolted out, to peer up and down the dusky white street. He had a notion to run to a little store about a block away, when he saw a man walking hastily along on the opposite side of the street. Out into the middle of the street floundered Charley, and hailed him.

"Hello! Can you please come over here a minute?"

"Sure, sonny." And he turned off, curiously approaching. "What is it you want, now?"

"There's a man freezing to death in the doorway, yonder," said Charley, excited. "He ought to be taken out."

"Who is he?"

"I don't know."

"What doorway, sonny?"

"That one. I'll show you." And Charley led off, the other man following him. He was a dark complexioned, sharp-faced man, with a little black moustache and a long drooping nose. He had bright black, narrow eyes, piercing but rather shifty. He wore a round fur cap and an overcoat with a cape.

The figure in the stairway entrance sat exactly as Charley had left him, except that he appeared to have gathered his coat pockets tighter.

"See?" directed Charley.

"Humph!" The long-nosed man peered in keenly. "Drunk, isn't he?" And he ordered roughly: "Come! get out o' here! Stir your stumps. This is no place to sleep."

The figure mumbled and swayed.

"I don't think he's drunk," ventured Charley. "He doesn't act like it, does he?"

"I dunno," grunted the long-nosed man, as if irritated. He reached in and, as Charley had done, but more rudely, grasped the figure by the shoulder; shook him and attempted to drag him forward; raised him a few inches and let him drop back again.

"We can't do anything. He looks like a beggar, anyhow. I'll see if I can find a watchman, on my way down town, and send him up."

That sounded inhuman, and Charley, for one, could not think of letting the figure huddle there, in the cold and the night, until the watchman should arrive. He did not like the long-nosed man.

"If you'll help, I'll take him home," volunteered Charley. "'Tisn't far."

"How far?" demanded the long-nosed man.

"Just a block and a half."

"What'll you do with him there?"

"Get him warm. My mother and father'll tend to him. They won't mind."

"Humph!" grunted the long-nosed man. "Well, let's see. But I don't intend to break my back for some no-'count trash such as this is. Come," he ordered, to the figure. "Get out o' here."

He grasped the figure by the arms and pulled him forward. Charley tried to get behind and boost. The tramp (if that was his kind) mumbled and actually resisted—hanging back and fighting feebly. His arms were wrenched from their position across his chest, and his coat corners fell back, with a thud, against the sides of the stairway.

"This fellow must be carrying a brick in each pocket," grumbled the long-nosed man. And halting his operations, despite the other man's resistance he roughly felt of the coat corners. But when he would have thrust in his hand, to investigate further, the other clutched the pockets so tightly and moaned "No! No!" so imploringly, that much to Charley's relief the long-nosed man quit.

Supporting their charge between them, and wading through the snow, they proceeded up the street. The "tramp" half shambled, half slid; darkness had gathered, stars were peeping out in the blue-black sky, the way seemed hard and lonesome, and Charley was glad indeed that they were bound to a place of warmth and shelter: home.

"It's right in the middle of this next block," panted Charley to the long-nosed man. "Where that horse-step is, under the big old oak."

The gate was ajar, and they turned through, dragging their awkwardly shambling burden. As they gained the front porch the front door was flung wide, and Mrs. Adams stood there, peering out, to find what was the meaning of this scuffling and grunting. Charley was glad to see her, framed in the lamp-light.

"Why, Charley!" she exclaimed. "What's the matter?"

"Please, mother, let us in," answered Charley. "We've got a man who was freezing in a stairway. Where'll we put him?"

"Gracious goodness! Take him right through and put him on the sofa. Oh, George!" and she called to Mr. Adams. "Is he badly frozen, Charley?" she asked, as Charley, tugging away, passed her.

"I don't think so, ma'am," replied the long-nosed man, speaking up. "No, ma'am. Not yet. He's fairly limber." And he scolded, to the "tramp": "Come on, now! You weigh a ton, with all your ballast."

Carrying and guiding the man, both, they continued on through the hall, into the pleasant sitting-room lighted by a whale-oil lamp and heated by a large wood-stove. At the call of his wife, Mr. Adams had hastily come from the back part of the house.

"Hello," he greeted. "What's here? Who is he, Charley?"

Charley's father was a tall man (he stood six feet one inch in his stockinged feet), and before the war he had been powerfully muscled. Now he was worn thin, and was a little stooped; and because of the wound in his knee, from a copper bullet, he limped. His full beard, trimmed around, was brown, but his eyes were a bright keen blue. Charley thought him the handsomest man in the world—and about the biggest.

"Somebody they've taken out of a stairway," explained Mrs. Adams, to him. "He was freezing. I told them to put him on the sofa."

"I should say so!" ejaculated Mr. Adams, and limped forward to help. Mrs. Adams quickly rearranged the knitted spread and the pillow; and with Mr. Adams attending to the feet end of the rescued stranger and Charley and the long-nosed man attending to the body and head, on the sofa the unknown was deposited.

"He's so thinly clothed!" cried Mrs. Adams, hovering over. "I'll get some hot milk." And away she bustled, for the kitchen.

"Let's take off his coat and boots," directed Mr. Adams, with soldierly decision. "Hope his feet aren't frozen." And he worked at the boots, to haul them from the cold, stiff feet.

Charley and the long-nosed man had a harder time with the coat. The unknown resisted, as before. He had opened his eyes (they were vacant and frightened) and had roused a little more strength. He even shoved the long-nosed man back.

"You," he appealed, huskily, to Charley, whom he seemed to accept as his friend. "You—take it."

"Well, I'll be jiggered!" ejaculated the long-nosed man. "There's gratitude for you!"

But he stood back, while Charley went ahead removing the coat. The unknown grasped the pockets, for the last time, and tried to hand them on to Charley.

"Keep it. You——" and he fell back, exhausted.

"We don't want your coat, my man," assured Mr. Adams, briskly rubbing the feet.

"He's got something in the pockets, dad," explained Charley. "Something heavy."

"Look and see, then," bade the long-nosed man. "Now's your chance."

"Shall I?" queried Charley, of his father, doubtfully, holding the coat.

"Why, yes, if you want to. Perhaps we ought to know."

"Here's the milk," announced Mrs. Adams, hurrying in bearing glass and steaming pitcher.

Charley, with the long-nosed man peering curiously, and Mr. and Mrs. Adams looking, as well, fished out the weight from the right-hand coat pocket. It was a little buckskin sack, round and heavy with its contents.

"By thunder!" exclaimed the long-nosed man. "Hooray! I suspicioned it. This fellow's from the Californy gold mines, and that sack's stuffed with gold dust, as they call it. Open her up and see. Where's the other one? He's got the mate in t'other pocket, I'll bet you."

"Hold on, Charley. Don't open it," ordered Mr. Adams, as Charley fumbled with the string tied tightly around the puckered mouth of the little sack. "It isn't yours."

"Pass it to me and I'll open it," invited the long-nosed man. "Let me feel. Yes, sirs; that's gold dust, all right; several hundred dollars' worth."

"We'll not open it, just the same," insisted Mr. Adams, firmly. "Put the sack back in the pocket, Charley, and hang coat and all away. Wait, though. Look through the other pockets and see if there are any letters or such things to tell who he is."

Charley sought. In the other side pocket he felt another buckskin sack, round and heavy (just as the long-nosed man, who was watching closely, had predicted), but the inside pockets contained nothing at all.

The unknown murmured weakly.

"I'd better give him a little hot milk, if he can drink it, hadn't I?" proffered Mrs. Adams; she poured a few inches into the glass and held it to his bearded lips. He tried to sip—did sip, greedily, and sank back.

Charley started off with the coat, to hang it over a chair.

"Here, you!" objected the long-nosed man. "What are you going to do? Half that coat's mine, remember. I helped fetch him in. Half the plunder comes to me."

"That's no way to talk, sir," reproved Mr. Adams, sternly. "Would you rob a helpless stranger? Not in this house, sir!"

"He's not dead. He's only fainted," informed Mrs. Adams, indignant.

"But he gave the stuff away, didn't he?" demanded the long-nosed man. "Sure he did. Supposing he dies on your hands, you count on getting all he has, I reckon! But you won't."

"He told me to keep it, anyway, didn't he?" retorted Charley.

"He didn't mean you to keep it for yourself, Charley," corrected Mr. Adams. "That's foolishness. He meant that you should keep it safe until he could use it."

"Of course," nodded Mrs. Adams. "What had we better do with him, George?"

"Let him sleep, if he wants to. His feet are getting warm. He'll be all right."

"Lookee here," blustered the long-nosed man. "I come in for half, remember. I helped fetch him in. If it hadn't been for my help he'd have frozen solid where he was, or else the watchman would have picked him up and taken him off. I'm going, now. I've got business to tend to—same as before I was interrupted. I left a business errand, to help fetch him here. Understand? My time's worth money. I know where this house is, and I know your names; and I'm coming 'round again, to see what's what. Half that dust is mine, or I'll make you trouble."

"If he doesn't use it, himself, it will go to his kin, sir," returned Mr. Adams.

"Kin!" snorted the long-nosed man. "He's from the gold fields. Look at that shirt, and those whiskers and boots; and the dust itself tells the tale. As like as not he hasn't any kin, within reach; and if he has, you're a blamed fool to summon 'em. We've got things in our own hands—understand? Think it over. I'll be 'round. Good-night."

"Good-night," they answered. "Open the door for him, Charley," bade Mr. Adams.

With a grunty grumble the long-nosed man passed out into the night. Charley hastened back to look at the unknown again.

From the California gold fields! Think of that! And with two sacks of gold dust! Who could he be? Where was he going in St. Louis? What had he seen and done, in California? But here he lay, in a stupor, with Mr. Adams rubbing his arms and legs, and Mrs. Adams hovering over with the glass and pitcher.