Chapter 30




THE NUGGET.

Ben and Bradley made their way back to Golden Gulch by easy stages. They reached the Gulch about sunset, and were welcomed in such noisy style by the miners that it might almost be called an ovation.

"We reckoned you'd come," said one of the leaders. "You look like you'd keep your promise."

"I hope there ain't any hosses been stole since we went away," said Bradley, jocosely. "Ben and I ain't quite ready to hand in our checks."

"We wouldn't hold you responsible if there had been," was the reply.

"That makes me feel a little easier in mind," said Bradley. "It may be pleasant to hang from a branch with a noose round your neck, but I don't want to try it."

The miners were just preparing to take their evening meal, and Ben and his friend were invited to share their hospitality. After supper pipes were produced, and Bradley was called upon to bring forth his budget of news. In the little mining-settlement, far from the great world, a man who could give the latest news from the city or produce a late paper from any of the Eastern cities was hailed as a public benefactor.

So it was at an unusually late hour that our friends and the miners retired to rest.

The next morning the two new-comers were shown the claims which had been set aside for them. They were eligibly located, and already had a commercial value, but were bestowed out of good-will, without a cent of compensation.

Bradley and Ben got to work at once. They had had their vacation, and were ready to settle down to business. They were stimulated to effort by the success of some of their fellow miners. Ben's next neighbor had already gathered nearly three thousand dollars' worth of gold-dust, and it was quite within the limits of probability that our young hero might be as successful.

"If I fail it won't be for lack of trying," thought Ben.

Three thousand dollars, in addition to the thousand he already had, would make him feel rich. Some of my readers, who have been luxuriously reared, will be surprised to hear this. But Ben had always been used to small things. He had been brought up in a small country town, where a dollar counts for a good deal more than it does in the city, and where a man possessing ten thousand dollars is thought to be independently rich. His uncle Job, who was thrifty and industrious, and generally, through careful economy, had a little money in the savings bank, was probably worth, at the outside, fifteen hundred dollars.

No wonder, then, that the prospect of being worth four thousand dollars dazzled our young hero and stimulated him to unwonted effort.

Neither of our two friends got on fast. They averaged perhaps fifty dollars a week each, but out of this their expenses had to be paid, and these, on account of the high price of all articles of necessity, were rather heavy. Still, the end of each week found both richer, and they were contented.

It was the aim of every miner to "strike it rich." Each had a dream of some day cutting a rich vein or finding a nugget of extraordinary size which should compress into one day the profits of a year or two of ordinary success. But such lucky finds were not numerous. As in ordinary life, the large prizes are rare, and average success is the rule. But the general hope was kept up by occasional lucky strokes.

"Ben," said Bradley, one day in excitement, returning from a visit to the claims half a mile distant on the other side of a hilly ridge, "I've got great news."

"What is it, Jake?"

"Perkins has just found a nugget that must contain five hundred dollars' worth of gold."

"You don't say so, Jake?"

"Fact; I just saw it."

"I hope there's more of them 'round here."

"So do I. That's a find worth having."

The discovery made a sensation at Golden Gulch. It excited the hope of all, and stimulated labor. What had fallen to Perkins might chance to any one of his comrades.

So, as the miners sat round their roaring fire--for it was getting chilly in the evening--one and another discussed the interesting question, "What would I do if I could find a nugget?" Various, of course, were the answers. One would go home and start a dry-goods store (he had been a dry-goods clerk in Philadelphia); another would buy the old Stuart place and get married; another would pay off a mortgage on the old homestead, and so on.

"What would you do, Ben?" asked Bradley.

"I would go home by the next steamer, and buy Uncle Job the three-acre lot he has been wanting so long, and buy new dresses for aunt and Jennie. But it isn't much use forming plans till the nugget is found."

"That's so, Ben; but you are as likely to find it as the next man."

"I will hope for it, at any rate."

Though Ben's prospects were excellent, and he had met with unusual success, his thoughts often wandered back to the quiet village where the years of his boyhood had been chiefly passed. From time to time he was disturbed by the thought that something might have happened to his uncle's family, of whom he had heard little or nothing since he went away. He afterward learned that letters had been sent which he had not received. He was not exactly homesick, but he felt keenly the lack of news from home.

In spite of this, however, he worked on with energy and industry. He felt that every dollar he earned brought nearer the day when he would feel justified in turning his back upon the gold-fields of California and wending his homeward way to Hampton.

Meanwhile, Ben did not neglect to do what he could for the general entertainment. It has already been mentioned that he could sing very creditably, and his talent was very often called into requisition in the evening. Ben was obliging, and, finding he could give pleasure, he generally complied with the request of the miners and rehearsed such songs as he knew, so that he was considered a decided acquisition by the little company, and his popularity was unbounded.

"I've been thinkin', Ben," said Bradley, one Sunday when they were taking a walk together, "that if there was any offices to be filled you'd stand a good show of bein' elected."

"What makes you think so, Jake?"

"You're the most popular man in the camp--leastways, boy."

"I can easily believe that, Jake, as I am the only boy."

"Well, there's no one ahead of you, man or boy."

"I am glad if that is so," said Ben, modestly. "It is chiefly because I am a boy."

"Boys are not always popular. It depends a good deal on the kind of boy."

So the reader will get some idea of Ben's life at the mines and the estimation in which he was held by his comrades. It was not very exciting nor very eventful, but there was to be a change.

One day his pick struck something hard. It might be a rock which would need to be removed. He dug round it patiently, but when he wished to lift it after it was loosened, he found it necessary to summon Bradley to his assistance.

"Why, Ben!" exclaimed Bradley, in excitement, "this isn't a rock; it is a nugget, and a bouncer."

"'A nugget'!" repeated Ben, incredulously.

"Yes; look here!" and Bradley pointed out the indubitable signs of its value. "Yes, Ben, your fortune has come at last."

"How much is it worth?" demanded Ben, almost breathless with excitement and exhilaration.

"How much? Three thousand dollars at least."

"Then I can go home."

"Yes, Ben, you're got your pile."

It may as well be stated here that Bradley's guess was not far out of the way. The nugget, when it reached San Francisco, was found to amount to three thousand seven hundred dollars.

To the credit of the miners of Golden Gulch, it must be said that all rejoiced in Ben's success. No one's good luck would have excited so little envy or jealousy as that of the boy who had worked by their side for months, and done so much by his good-humor and musical gifts to cheer up and entertain them. When he was ready to start for the city on his homeward journey all joined in wishing him a pleasant journey and the best of luck in the years to come.

Ben was not obliged to travel alone. Bradley decided not only to accompany him to San Francisco, but to sail to New York in his company.

"I've never seen York," he said, "and I never shall see it if I don't go now. So, if you don't mind, Ben, I'll go along with you."

"Mind, Jake? There's nothing I shall like better."

While they are on the steamer homeward bound events have transpired in Ben's old home which require to be noted.




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