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- Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands - 3/23 -
pocket diary. Then there was a long pause, when Johnson slowly drew something from his pocket, and held it up before his companion. It was apparently a dull red stone.
"Ef," said Johnson, slowly, with his old look of simple cunning,-- "ef you happened to pick up sich a rock ez that, Tommy, what might you say it was?"
"Don't know," said Tommy.
"Mightn't you say," continued Johnson, cautiously, "that it was gold, or silver?"
"Neither," said Tommy, promptly.
"Mightn't you say it was quicksilver? Mightn't you say that ef thar was a friend o' yourn ez knew war to go and turn out ten ton of it a day, and every ton worth two thousand dollars, that he had a soft thing, a very soft thing,--allowin', Tommy, that you used sich language, which you don't?"
"But," said the boy, coming to the point with great directness, "DO you know where to get it? have you struck it, Uncle Ben?"
Johnson looked carefully around. "I hev, Tommy. Listen. I know whar thar's cartloads of it. But thar's only one other specimen-- the mate to this yer--thet's above ground, and thet's in 'Frisco. Thar's an agint comin' up in a day or two to look into it. I sent for him. Eh?"
His bright, restless eyes were concentrated on Tommy's face now, but the boy showed neither surprise nor interest. Least of all did he betray any recollection of Bill's ironical and gratuitous corroboration of this part of the story.
"Nobody knows it," continued Johnson, in a nervous whisper,-- "nobody knows it but you and the agint in 'Frisco. The boys workin' round yar passes by and sees the old man grubbin' away, and no signs o' color, not even rotten quartz; the boys loafin' round the Mansion House sees the old man lyin' round free in bar-rooms, and they laughs and sez, 'Played out,' and spects nothin'. Maybe ye think they spects suthin now, eh?" queried Johnson, suddenly, with a sharp look of suspicion.
Tommy looked up, shook his head, threw a stone at a passing rabbit, but did not reply.
"When I fust set eyes on you, Tommy," continued Johnson, apparently reassured, "the fust day you kem and pumped for me, an entire stranger, and hevin no call to do it, I sez, 'Johnson, Johnson,' sez I,' yer's a boy you kin trust. Yer's a boy that won't play you; yer's a chap that's white and square,'--white and square, Tommy: them's the very words I used."
He paused for a moment, and then went on in a confidential whisper, "'You want capital, Johnson,' sez I, 'to develop your resources, and you want a pardner. Capital you can send for, but your pardner, Johnson,--your pardner is right yer. And his name, it is Tommy Islington.' Them's the very words I used."
He stopped and chafed his clammy hands upon his knees. "It's six months ago sens I made you my pardner. Thar ain't a lick I've struck sens then, Tommy, thar ain't a han'ful o' yearth I've washed, thar ain't a shovelful o' rock I've turned over, but I tho't o' you. 'Share, and share alike,' sez I. When I wrote to my agint, I wrote ekal for my pardner, Tommy Islington, he hevin no call to know ef the same was man or boy."
He had moved nearer the boy, and would perhaps have laid his hand caressingly upon him, but even in his manifest affection there was a singular element of awed restraint and even fear,--a suggestion of something withheld even his fullest confidences, a hopeless perception of some vague barrier that never could be surmounted. He may have been at times dimly conscious that, in the eyes which Tommy raised to his, there was thorough intellectual appreciation, critical good-humor, even feminine softness, but nothing more. His nervousness somewhat heightened by his embarrassment, he went on with an attempt at calmness which his twitching white lips and unsteady fingers made pathetically grotesque. "Thar's a bill o' sale in my bunk, made out accordin' to law, of an ekal ondivided half of the claim, and the consideration is two hundred and fifty thousand dollars,--gambling debts,--gambling debts from me to you, Tommy,--you understand?"--nothing could exceed the intense cunning of his eye at this moment,--"and then thar's a will."
"A will?" said Tommy, in amused surprise.
Johnson looked frightened.
"Eh?" he said, hurriedly, "wot will? Who said anythin' 'bout a will, Tommy?"
"Nobody," replied Tommy, with unblushing calm.
Johnson passed his hand over his cold forehead, wrung the damp ends of his hair with his fingers, and went on: "Times when I'm took bad ez I was to-day, the boys about yer sez--you sez, maybe, Tommy-- it's whiskey. It ain't, Tommy. It's pizen,--quicksilver pizen. That's what's the matter with me. I'm salviated! Salviated with merkery.
"I've heerd o' it before," continued Johnson, appealing to the boy, "and ez a boy o' permiskus reading, I reckon you hev too. Them men as works in cinnabar sooner or later gets salviated. It's bound to fetch 'em some time. Salviated by merkery."
"What are you goin' to do for it?" asked Tommy.
"When the agint comes up, and I begins to realize on this yer mine," said Johnson, contemplatively, "I goes to New York. I sez to the barkeep' o' the hotel, 'Show me the biggest doctor here.' He shows me. I sez to him, 'Salviated by merkery,--a year's standin',--how much?' He sez, 'Five thousand dollars, and take two o' these pills at bedtime, and an ekil number o' powders at meals, and come back in a week.' And I goes back in a week, cured, and signs a certifikit to that effect."
Encouraged by a look of interest in Tommy's eye, he went on.
"So I gets cured. I goes to the barkeep', and I sez, 'Show me the biggest, fashionblest house thet's for sale yer.' And he sez, 'The biggest, nat'rally b'longs to John Jacob Astor.' And I sez, 'Show him,' and he shows him. And I sez, 'Wot might you ask for this yer house?' And he looks at me scornful, and sez, 'Go 'way, old man; you must be sick.' And I fetches him one over the left eye, and he apologizes, and I gives him his own price for the house. I stocks that house with mohogany furniture and pervisions, and thar we lives, you and me, Tommy, you and me!"
The sun no longer shone upon the hillside. The shadows of the pines were beginning to creep over Johnson's claim, and the air within the cavern was growing chill. In the gathering darkness his eyes shone brightly as he went on: "Then thar comes a day when we gives a big spread. We invites govners, members o' Congress, gentlemen o' fashion, and the like. And among 'em I invites a Man as holds his head very high, a Man I once knew; but he doesn't know I knows him, and he doesn't remember me. And he comes and he sits opposite me, and I watches him. And he's very airy, this Man, and very chipper, and he wipes his mouth with a white hankercher, and he smiles, and he ketches my eye. And he sez, 'A glass o' wine with you, Mr. Johnson'; and he fills his glass and I fills mine, and we rises. And I heaves that wine, glass and all, right into his damned grinnin' face. And he jumps for me,--for he is very game, this Man, very game,--but some on 'em grabs him, and he sez, 'Who be you?' And I sez, 'Skaggs! damn you, Skaggs! Look at me! Gimme back my wife and child, gimme back the money you stole, gimme back the good name you took away, gimme back the health you ruined, gimme back the last twelve years! Give 'em to me, damn you, quick, before I cuts your heart out!' And naterally, Tommy, he can't do it. And so I cuts his heart out, my boy; I cuts his heart out."
The purely animal fury of his eye suddenly changed again to cunning. "You think they hangs me for it, Tommy, but they don't. Not much, Tommy. I goes to the biggest lawyer there, and I says to him, 'Salviated by merkery,--you hear me,--salviated by merkery.' And he winks at me, and he goes to the judge, and he sez, 'This yer unfortnet man isn't responsible,--he's been salviated by merkery.' And he brings witnesses; you comes, Tommy, and you sez ez how you've seen me took bad afore; and the doctor, he comes, and he sez as how he's seen me frightful; and the jury, without leavin' their seats, brings in a verdict o' justifiable insanity,--salviated by merkery."
In the excitement of his climax he had risen to his feet, but would have fallen had not Tommy caught him and led him into the open air. In this sharper light there was an odd change visible in his yellow-white face,--a change which caused Tommy to hurriedly support him, half leading, half dragging him toward the little cabin. When they had reached it, Tommy placed him on a rude "bunk," or shelf, and stood for a moment in anxious contemplation of the tremor-stricken man before him. Then he said rapidly: "Listen, Uncle Ben. I'm goin' to town--to town, you understand-- for the doctor. You're not to get up or move on any account until I return. Do you hear?" Johnson nodded violently. "I'll be back in two hours." In another moment he was gone.
For an hour Johnson kept his word. Then he suddenly sat up, and began to gaze fixedly at a corner of the cabin. From gazing at it he began to smile, from smiling at it he began to talk, from talking at it he began to scream, from screaming he passed to cursing and sobbing wildly. Then he lay quiet again.
He was so still that to merely human eyes he might have seemed asleep or dead. But a squirrel, that, emboldened by the stillness, had entered from the roof, stopped short upon a beam above the bunk, for he saw that the man's foot was slowly and cautiously moving toward the floor, and that the man's eyes were as intent and watchful as his own. Presently, still without a sound, both feet were upon the floor. And then the bunk creaked, and the squirrel whisked into the eaves of the roof. When he peered forth again, everything was quiet, and the man was gone.
An hour later two muleteers on the Placerville Road passed a man with dishevelled hair, glaring, bloodshot eyes, and clothes torn with bramble and stained with the red dust of the mountain. They pursued him, when he turned fiercely on the foremost, wrested a pistol from his grasp, and broke away. Later still, when the sun had dropped behind Payne's Ridge, the underbrush on Deadwood Slope crackled with a stealthy but continuous tread. It must have been an animal whose dimly outlined bulk, in the gathering darkness,
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