It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"Help! help! murder! help! murder!" Such were the cries that invaded the sleepers' ears in the middle of the night, to which horrible sounds was added the furious barking of Carlo.
The men seized their revolvers and rushed out of the tent. At about sixty yards distant they saw a man on the ground struggling under two fellows, and still crying, though more faintly, "murder" and "help."
"They are killing him!" cried George; and Robinson and he cocked their revolvers and ran furiously toward the men. But these did not wait the attack. They started up and off like the wind, followed by two shots from Robinson that whistled unpleasantly near them.
"Have they hurt you, my poor fellow ?" said Robinson.
The man only groaned for answer.
Robinson turned his face up in the moonlight, and recognized a man to whom he had never spoken, but whom his watchful eye had noticed more than once in the mine--it was, in fact, the peddler Walker.
"Stop, George, I have seen this face in bad company. Oh! back to our tent for your life, and kill any man you see near it!"
They ran back. They saw two dark figures melting into the night on the other side the tent. They darted in--they felt for the bag. Gone! They felt convulsively all round the tent. Gone! With trembling hands Robinson struck a light. Gone--the work of months in a moment---the hope of a life snatched out of a lover's very hand, and held out a mile off again!
The poor fellows rushed wildly out into the night. They saw nothing but the wretched decoy vanishing behind the nearest tents. They came into the tent again. They sat down and bowed to the blow in silence, and looked at one another, and their lips quivered, and they feared to speak lest they should break into unmanly rage or sorrow. So they sat like stone till daybreak.
And when the first streak of twilight came in, George said in a firm whisper:
"Take my hand, Tom, before we go to work."
So the two friends sat hand in hand a minute or two; and that hard grip of two workingmen's hands, though it was not gently eloquent like beauty's soft, expressive palm, did yet say many things good for the heart in this bitter hour.
It said: "A great calamity has fallen; but we do not blame each other, as some turn to directly and do. It is not your fault, George. It is not your fault, Tom."
It said: "We were lucky together; now we are unlucky together--all the more friends. We wrought together; now we have been wronged together--all the more friends." With this the sun rose, and for the first time they crept to their work instead of springing to it.
They still found gold in it, but not quite so abundant or so large. They had raised the cream of it for the thieves. Moreover, a rush had been made to the hole, claims measured off actually touching them; so they could not follow the gold-bearing strata horizontally--it belonged to their neighbors. They worked in silence, they ate their meal in silence. But as they rose to work again, Robinson said, very gravely, even solemnly:
"George, now I know what an honest man feels when he is robbed of the fruits of his work and his self-denial and his sobriety. If I had known it fifteen years ago, I should never have been a--what I have been."
For two months the friends worked stoutly with leaden hearts, but did little more than pay their expenses. The bag lay between them light as a feather. One morning Tom said to George:
"George, this won't do. I am going prospecting. Moore will lend me his horse for a day."
That day George worked alone. Robinson rode all over the country with a tin pan at his back, and tested all the places that seemed likely to his experienced eye. At night he returned to their tent. George was just lying down.
"No sleep to-night, George," said he, instinctively lowering his voice to a whisper; "I have found surface gold ten miles to the southward."
"Well, we will go to it to-morrow."
"What, by daylight, watched as we are? We, the two lucky ones," said Robinson bitterly. "No. Wait till the coast is clear--then strike tent and away."
At midnight they stole out of the camp. By peep of day they were in a little dell with a brook running at the bottom of it.
"Now, George, listen to me. Here is ten thousand pounds if we could keep this gully and the creek a fortnight to ourselves."
"Oh, Tom! and we will. Nobody will find us here, it is like a box."
Robinson smiled sadly. The men drove their spades in close to the little hole which Robinson had made prospecting yesterday, and the very first cradleful yielded an ounce of gold-dust extremely small and pure. They found it diffused with wonderful regularity within a few inches of the surface. Here for the first time George saw gold-dust so plentiful as to be visible. When a spadeful of the clay was turned up it glittered all over. When they tore up the grass, which was green as an emerald, specks of bright gold came up clinging to the roots. They fell like spaded tigers on the prey.
"What are you doing, George?"
"Going to light a fire for dinner. We must eat, I suppose, though I do grudge the time."
"We must eat, but not hot."
"Because, if you light a fire, the smoke will be seen miles off, and half the diggings will be down upon us. I have brought three days' cold meat---here it is."
"Will this be enough?" asked George, simply, his mouth full.
"Yes, it will be enough," replied the other, bitterly. "Do you hear that bird, George? They call him a leather-head. What is he singing?"
George laughed. "Seems to me he is saying, 'Off we go!' 'Off we go!' 'Off we go!'"
"That is it. And look now, off he is gone; and, what is more, he has gone to tell all the world he saw two men pick up gold like beans."
"Work!" cried George.
That night the little bag felt twice as heavy as last night, and Susan seemed nearer than for many a day. These two worked for their lives. They counted each minute, and George was a Goliath; the soil flew round him like the dust about a wmnnowing-machine. He was working for Susan. Robinson wasted two seconds admiring him.
"Well," said he, "gold puts us all on our mettle, but you beat all I ever saw. You are a man."
It was the morning of the third day, and the friends were filling the little bag fast; and at breakfast George quizzed Robinson's late fears.
"The leather-head didn't tell anybody, for here we are all alone."
"But we should not have been, if I had let you light a fire. However, I really begin to hope now they will let us alone till we have cleared out the gully. Hallo!"
"What is the matter?"
"Look there, George."
"What is it? Smoke rising--down the valley ?"
"We are done! Didn't I tell you?"
"Don't say so, Tom. Why, it is only smoke, and five miles off."
"What signifies what it is or where it is? It is on the road to us."
"I hope better."
"What is the use of hoping nonsense? Was it there yesterday? Well, then."
"Don't you be faint-hearted," said George. "We are not caught yet. I wonder whether Susan would say it was a sin to try and mislead them?"
"A sin! I wish I knew how, I'd soon see. That was a good notion. This place is five hundred pound a day to us. We must keep it to-day by hook or by crook. Come with me, quick. Bring your tools and the bag."
George followed Robinson in utter ignorance of his design; that worthy made his way as fast as he could toward the smoke. When they got within a mile of it the valley widened and the smoke was seen rising from the side of the stream. Concealing themselves, they saw two men beating the ground on each side like pointers. Robinson drew back. "They are hunting up the stream," said he, "it is there we must put the stopper on them."
They made eastward for the stream which they had left.
"Come," said Robinson, "here is a spot that looks likely to a novice; dig and cut it up all you can."
George was mystified but obeyed, and soon the place looked as if men had been at work on it some time. Then Robinson took out a handful of gold-dust and coolly scattered it over a large heap of mould.
"What are you at? Are you mad, Tom? Why, there goes five pounds. What a sin!"
"Did you never hear of the man that flung away a sprat to catch a whale? Now turn back to our hole. Stop, leave your pickax, then they will think we are coming back to work."
In little more than half an hour they were in their little gully working like mad. They ate their dinner working. At five o'clock George pointed out to Robinson no less than seven distinct columns of smoke rising about a mile apart all down the valley.
"Ay!" said Robinson, "those six smokes are hunting the smoke that is hunting us! but we have screwed another day out."
Just as the sun was setting, a man came into the gully with a pickax on his shoulder.
"Ah! how d'ye do?" said Robinson, in a mock friendly accent. "We have been expecting you. Thank you for bringing us our pickax."
The man gave a sort of rueful laugh and came and delivered the pick and coolly watched the cradle.
"Why don't you ask what you want to know?" said Robinson.
The man sneered. "Is that the way to get the truth from a digger?" said he.
"It is from me, and the only one."
"Oh! then what are you doing, mate?"
"About ten ounces of gold per hour."
The man's mouth and eyes both opened. "Come, my lad," said Robinson, good-naturedly, "of course I am not glad you have found us, but since you are come, call your pals, light fires, and work all night. To-morrow it will be too late."
The man whistled. He was soon joined by two more and afterward by others. The whole party was eight. A hurried conference took place, and presently the captain, whose name was Ede, came up to Robinson with a small barrel of beer and begged him and his pal to drink as much as they liked. They were very glad of the draught and thanked the men warmly.
The newcomers took Robinson's advice, lighted large fires, divided their company, and groped for gold. Every now and then came a shout of joy, and, in the light of the fires, the wild figures showed red as blood against the black wall of night, and their excited eyes glowed like carbuncles as they clawed the sparkling dust. George and Robinson, fatigued already by a long day, broke down about three in the morning. They reeled into their tent, dug a hole, put in their gold bag, stamped it down, tumbled dead asleep down over it, and never woke till morn.
Gn l r-r-r! gn l r-r-r!
"What is the matter, Carlo?"
Gn l r-r-r.
Hum! hum! hum! Crash! crash!
At these sounds Robinson lifted up the corner of his tent. The gully was a digging. He ran out to see where he was to work, and found the whole soil one enormous tan-yard, the pits ten feet square, and so close there was hardly room to walk to your hole without tumbling into your neighbor's. You had to balance yourself like boys going along a beam in a timber-yard. In one of these he found Ede and his gang working. Mr. Ede had acquired a black eye, ditto one of his mates.
"Good-morning, Captain Robinson," said this personage, with a general gayety of countenance that contrasted most drolly with the mourning an expressive organ had gone into.
"Well, was I right?" asked Robinson, looking ruefully round the crowded digging.
"You were, Captain Robinson, and thank you for last night."
"Well, you have picked up my name somehow. Now just tell me how you picked up something else. How did you suspect us in this retired spot?"
"We were working just clear of the great digging by the side of the creek, and doing no good, when your cork came down."
"Cork out of your bottle."
"I had no bottle. Oh, yes! my pal had a bottle of small beer."
"Ay, he must have thrown it into the creek, for a cork came down to us. Then I looked at it, and I said, 'Here is a cork from Moore's store; there is a party working up stream by this cork.'"
Robinson gave a little groan. "We are never to be at the bottom of gold digging," said he.
"So we came up the stream and tried several places as we came, but found nothing; at last we came to your pickax and signs of work, so my lads would stay and work there, and I let them an hour or two, and then I said, 'Come now, lads, the party we are after is higher up.'"
"Now how could you pretend to know that?" inquired Robinson, with curiosity.
"Easy enough. The water came down to us thick and muddyish, so I knew you were washing up stream."
"Confound my stupid head," cried Robinson, "I deserve to have it cut off after all my experience."
And he actually capered with vexation.
"The best may make a mistake," said the other soothingly. "Well, captain, you did us a good turn last night, so here is your claim. We put your pal's pick in it--here close to us. Oh! there was a lot that made difficulties, but we over-persuaded them."
"Gave them a hiding, and promised to knock out any one's brains that went into it. Oh! kindness begets kindness, even in a gold mine."
"It does," cried Robinson, "and the proof is--that I give you the claim. Here come this way and seem to buy it of me. All their eyes are upon us. Now split your gang, and four take my claim."
"Well, that is good of you. But what will you do, captain? Where shall you go?" And his eyes betrayed his curiosity.
"Humph! Well, I will tell you on condition that you don't bring two thousand after me again. You should look behind you as well as before, stupid."
These terms agreed to, Robinson let Ede know that he was going this moment back to the old digging. The other was greatly surprised. Robinson then explained that in the old digging gold lay at various depths and was inexhaustible; that this afternoon there would be a rush made from it to Robinson's Gully (so the spot where they stood was already called); that thousands of good claims would thus by diggers' law be vacated; and that he should take the best before the rush came back, which would be immediately, since Robinson's Gully would be emptied of its gold in four hours.
"So clear out your two claims," said he. "It won't take you two hours. All the gold lies in one streak four inches deep. Then back after me; I'll give you the office. I'll mark you down a good claim."
Mr. Ede, who was not used to this sort of thing since he fought for gold, wore a ludicrous expression of surprise and gratitude. Robinson read it and grinned superior, but the look rendered words needless, so he turned the conversation.
"How did you get your black eye?"
"Oh! didn't I tell you? Fighting with the blackguards for your claim."
It was now Robinson's turn to be touched.
"You are a good fellow. You and I must be friends. Ah! if I could but get together about forty decent men like you, and that had got gold to lose."
"Well," said Ede, "why not? Here are eight that have got gold to lose, thanks to you, and your own lot--that makes ten. We could easy make up forty for any good lay; there is my hand for one. What is it?"
Robinson took Ede's hand with a haste and an energy that almost startled him, and his features darkened with an expression unusual now to his good-natured face. "To put down thieving in the camp," said he, sternly.
"Ah!" said the other, half sadly (the desirableness of this had occurred to him before now); "but how are we to do that?" asked he, incredulously. "The camp is choke-full of them."
Robinson looked blacker, uglier and more in earnest. So was his answer when it came.
"Make stealing death by the law."
"The law! What law?"