The discovery of gold at Thompson's Flat, near the northern boundary of Montana, had been promptly followed by the expected rush of bold and needy adventurers. But disappointment awaited them. Undoubtedly there was gold a few feet below the surface, but it was not found in quantities sufficient to compensate for the labour, privation, and danger, which the miners were compelled to undergo.
It is true that the first discoverer of gold, who had given his name to the Flat, had found a "pocket," which had made him a rich man; but his luck remained unique, and as Big Simpson sarcastically remarked, "A man might as well try to find a pocket in a woman's dress as to search for a second pocket in Thompson's Flat." For eight months of the year the ground was frozen deep and hard, and during the brief summer the heat was intense. There were hostile Indians in the vicinity of the camp, and although little danger was to be apprehended from them while the camp swarmed with armed miners, there was every probability that they would sooner or later attack the handful of men who had remained, after the great majority of the miners had abandoned their claims and gone in search of more promising fields.
In the early part of the summer following Thompson's discovery of gold there were but thirty men left in the camp, with only a single combined grocery and saloon to minister to their wants. Partly because of obstinacy, and partly because of a want of energy to repeat the experiment of searching for gold in some other unprofitable place, these thirty men remained, and daily prosecuted their nearly hopeless search for fortune. Their evenings were spent in the saloon, but there was a conspicuous absence of anything like jollity. The men were too poor to gamble with any zest, and the whiskey of the saloon keeper was bad and dear.
The one gleam of good fortune which had come to the camp was the fact that the Indians had disappeared, having, as it was believed, gone hundreds of miles south to attack another tribe. Gradually the miners relaxed the precautions which had at first been maintained against an attack, and although every man went armed to his work, sentinels were no longer posted either by day or night, and the Gatling gun that had been bought by public subscription in the prosperous days of the camp remained in the storeroom of the saloon without ammunition, and with its mechanism rusty and immovable.
Only one miner had arrived at Thompson's Flat that summer. He was a middle-aged man who said that his name was Montgomery Carleton—a name which instantly awoke the resentment of the camp, and was speedily converted into "Monte Carlo" by the resentful miners, who intimated very plainly that no man could carry a fifteen-inch name in that camp and live. Monte Carlo, or Monty, as he was usually called, had the further distinction of being the ugliest man in the entire north-west. He had, at some unspecified time, been kicked in the face by a mule, with the result that his features were converted into a hideous mask. He seemed to be of a social disposition, and would have joined freely in the conversation which went on at the saloon, but his advances were coldly received.
Instead of pitying the man's misfortune, and avoiding all allusion to it, the miners bluntly informed him that he was too ugly to associate with gentlemen, and that a modest and retiring attitude was what public sentiment required of him. Monty took the rebuff quietly, and thereafter rarely spoke unless he was spoken to. He continued to frequent the saloon, sitting in the darkest corner, where he smoked his pipe, drank his solitary whisky, and answered with pathetic pleasure any remark that might be flung at him, even when it partook of the nature of a coarse jest at his expense.
One gloomy evening Monty entered the saloon half an hour later than usual. It had been raining all day, and the spirits of the camp had gone down with the barometer. The men were more than ever conscious of their bad luck, and having only themselves to blame for persistently remaining at Thompson's Flat, were ready to cast the guilt of their folly on the nearest available scapegoat. Monty was accustomed to entering the room unnoticed, but on the present occasion he saw that instead of contemptuously ignoring his presence, the other occupants of the saloon were unmistakably scowling at him. Scarcely had he made his timid way to his accustomed seat when Big Simpson said in a loud voice:
"Gentlemen, have you noticed that our luck has been more particularly low down ever since that there beauty in the corner had the cheek to sneak in among us?"
"That's so!" exclaimed Slippery Jim. "Monty is ugly enough to spoil the luck of a blind nigger."
"You see," continued Simpson, "thishyer beauty is like the Apostle Jonah. While he was aboard ship there wasn't any sort of luck, and at last the crew took and hove him overboard, and served him right. There's a mighty lot of wisdom in the Scriptures if you only take hold of 'em in the right way. My dad was a preacher, and I know what I'm talking about."
"That's more than the rest of us does," retorted Slippery Jim. "We ain't no ship's crew and Monty ain't no apostle. If you mean we ought to heave him into the creek, why don't you say so?"
"It wouldn't do him any harm," replied Simpson. "He's a dirty beast, and this camp hasn't no call to associate with men that's afraid of water, except, of course, when it comes to drinking it."
"I'm as clean as any man here," said Monty, stirred for the moment to indignation. "Mining ain't the cleanest sort of work, and I don't find no fault with Simpson nor any other man if he happens to carry a little of his claim around with him."
"That'll do," said Simpson severely. "We don't allow no such cuss as you to make reflections on gentlemen. We've put up with your ugly mug altogether too long, and I for one ain't going to do it no longer. What do you say, gentlemen?" he continued, turning to his companions, "shall we trifle with our luck, and lower our self-respect any longer by tolerating the company of that there disreputable, low-down, miserable coyote? I go for boycotting him. Let him work his own claim and sleep in his own cabin if he wants to, but don't let him intrude himself into this saloon or into our society anywhere else."
The proposal met with unanimous approval. The men wanted something on which to wreak their spite against adverse fortune, and as Monty was unpopular and friendless he was made the victim. Simpson ordered him to withdraw from the saloon and never again to enter it at an hour when other gentlemen were there. "What's more," he added, "you'll not venture to speak to anybody; and if any gentleman chances to heave a remark at you you'll answer him at your peril. We're a law-abiding camp, and we don't want to use violence against no man; but if you don't conform to the kind and reasonable regulations that I've just mentioned to you, there'll be a funeral, and you'll be required to furnish the corpse. You hear me?"
"I hear you," said Monty. "I hear a man what's got no more feelings than a ledge of quartz rock. What harm have I ever done to any man in the camp? I know I ain't handsome, but there's some among you that ain't exactly Pauls and Apolloses. If you don't want me here why don't you take me and shoot me? It would be a sight kinder and more decent than the way you say you mean to treat me."
"Better dry up!" said Simpson, warningly. "We don't want none of your lip. We've had enough of you, and that's all about it."
"I've no more to say," replied Monty, rising and moving to the door. "If you've had enough of me I've had enough of you. I've been treated worse than a dog, and I ain't going to lick no man's hand. Good evening, gentlemen. The day may come when some of you will be ashamed of this day's work, that is if you've heart enough to be ashamed of anything."
So saying Monty walked slowly out, closing the door ostentatiously behind him. His departure was greeted by a burst of laughter, and the cheerfulness of the assembled miners having been restored by the sacrifice of Monte Carlo, a subdued gaiety once more reigned in the saloon.
Monty returned to his desolate cabin, and after lighting his candle threw himself into his bunk. The man was coarse and ignorant, but he was capable of keenly feeling the insult that had been put upon him. He knew that he was hideously ugly, but he had never dreamed that the fact would be made a pretext for thrusting him from the society of his kind. Strange to say he felt little anger against his persecutors. No thoughts of revenge came to him as he lay in the silence and loneliness of his cabin. For the time being the sense of utter isolation crowded out all other sensations. He felt infinitely more alone when the sound of voices reached him from the saloon than he would have felt had he been lost in the great North forest.
Before coming to Thompson's Flat he had lived in one of the large towns of Michigan, where decent and civilized people had not been ashamed to associate with him. Here, in this wretched mining camp, a gang of men, guiltless of washing, foul in language, and brutal in instinct, had informed him that he was unfit to associate with them. There had never been any one among the miners for whom he had felt the slightest liking; but it had been a comfort to exchange an occasional word with a fellow-being. Now that he was sentenced to complete isolation he felt as a shipwrecked man feels who has been cast alone on an uninhabited island. If the men would only retract their sentence of banishment, and would permit him to sit in his accustomed corner of the saloon he would not care how coarsely they might insult him—if only he could feel that his existence was recognized.
But no! There was no hope for him. The men hated him because of his maimed and distorted face. They despised him, possibly because he did not permit himself to resent their conduct with his revolver, and thus give them an excuse for killing him. He could not leave the camp and make his way without supplies to the nearest civilized community. There was nothing for him to do but to work his miserable claim, and bear the immense and awful loneliness of his lot. As Monty thought over the situation and saw the hopelessness of it, his breath came in quick gasps until he broke into a sob, and the tears flowed down his scarred and grimy cheeks.
A low, inquiring mew drew his attention for a moment from his woes. The camp cat—a ragged, disreputable animal, who owned no master, and rejected all friendly advances—stood in the door of Monty's cabin, with an interrogative tail pointing to the zenith and a friendly arch in his shabby back.
Monty had often tried to make friends with the cat, but Tom had repulsed him as coldly as the miners themselves. Now in his loneliness the man was glad to be spoken to, even by the camp cat; and he called it to him, though without any expectation that the animal would come to him. But Tom, stalking slowly into the cabin, sprang after a moment's hesitation into Monty's bunk, and purring loudly in a hoarse voice, as one by whom the accomplishment of purring had long been neglected, gently and tentatively licked the man's face, and kneaded his throat with two soft and caressing paws. A vast sob shook both Monty and the cat. The man put his arms around the animal, and hugging him closely, kissed his head. The cat purred louder than ever, and presently laying his head against Monty's cheek, he drew a long breath and sank into a peaceful slumber.
Monty was himself again. He was no longer alone. Tom, the cat, had come to him in the hour of his agony and had brought the solace of a love that did not heed his ugliness. Henceforth he would never be wholly alone, no matter how strictly the men might enforce their boycott against him. He no longer cared what they might do or say. He felt the warm breath of the friendly animal on his cheek. The remnant of its right ear twitched from time to time and tickled his lip. The long sinewy paws pressed against his neck trembled nervously, as the cat dreamed of stalking fat sparrows, or of stealing fried fish. Its hoarse croupy purr sounded like the sweetest music to the lonely man. "There's you and me, and me and you, Tom!" said Monty, stroking the cat's ragged and crumpled fur. "We'll stick together, and neither of us won't care a cuss what them low-down fellows says or does. You and me'll be all the world to one another. God bless you forever for coming to me this night."
From that time onward, Monte Carlo and Tom were the most intimate of friends. Wherever the man went the cat followed. When he was working in the shallow trench, where the sparse gold dust was found, Tom sat or slept on the edge of the trench, and occasionally reminded Monty of the presence of a friend, by the soft crooning sound which a mother cat makes to her newborn kittens. The two shared their noon meal together; and it was said by those who professed to have watched them that the cat always had the first choice of food, while the man contented himself with what his comrade rejected. In the evening Monty and Tom sat together at the door of the cabin, and conversed in low tones of any subject that happened to interest them for the time being. Monty set forth his political and social views, and the cat, listening with attention, mewed assent, or more rarely expressed an opposite opinion by the short, sharp mew, or an unmistakable oath.
Once or twice a week Monty was compelled to visit the saloon for groceries and other necessities. He always made these visits when the men of the camp were working in their claims; and he was invariably accompanied by Tom, who trotted by his side, and sprang on his shoulder while he made his purchases. The saloon keeper declared that when once by accident he gave Monty the wrong change, Tom loudly called his friend's attention to the error and insisted that it should be rectified. "That there cat," said the saloon keeper to his assembled guests on the following evening, "ain't no ordinary cat, for it stands to reason that if he was he wouldn't chum with Monty. A cat that takes up with such a pal, and that talks pretty near as well as you or me, or any other Christian is, according to what I learned at Sunday School, possessed with the devil. You mark my word, Monty sold his soul to that pretended cat, and presently he'll be shown a pocket chuck full of nuggets, and will go home with his ill-gotten gains while we stay here and starve."
The feeling that there was something uncanny in the relations that existed between Monte Carlo and the cat gradually spread through the camp. While no man condescended to speak to the boycotted Monty, a close watch was kept upon him. Slippery Jim asserted that he had heard Monty and Tom discuss the characters of nearly every man in the camp, while he was concealed one evening in the tall grass near Monty's cabin.
"First," said Jim, "Monty asked kind o' careless like, 'What may be your opinion of that there Big Simpson?' The cat, he just swears sort of contemptuous, and then Monty says, 'Jest so! That's what I've always said about him; and I calculated that a cat of your intelligence would say the same thing.' By and by Monty says, 'What's that you're saying about Red-haired Dick? You think he'd steal mice from a blind cat, and then lay it on the dog? Well! my son! I don't say he wouldn't. He's about as mean as they make 'em, and if I was you I wouldn't trust him with a last year's bone!' Then they kept on jawing to each other about this and that, and exchanging views about politics and religion, till after a while Tom lets out a yowl that sounded as if it was meant for a big laugh. Monty, he laughed too; and then he says, 'I never thought you would have noticed it, but that's exactly what Slippery Jim does every time he gets a chance.'
"I don't know," continued Jim, "what they were referring to, but I do know that Monty and the cat talk together just as easy as you and me could talk, and I say that if it's come to this, that we're going to allow an idiot of a man and a devil of a cat to take away the characters of respectable gentlemen, we'd better knuckle down and beg Monty to take charge of this camp and to treat us like so many Injun squaws."
Other miners followed Slippery Jim's example, in watching and listening to his conversations with the cat, and the indignation against the animal and his companion grew deep and bitter. It was decided that the scandal of an ostentatious friendship between a boycotted man and a cat that was unquestionably possessed by the devil must be ended. The suggestion that the cat should be shot would undoubtedly have been carried out, had it not been that Boston, who was a spiritualist, asserted that the animal could be hit only by a silver bullet. The camp would gladly have expended a silver bullet in so good a cause, but there was not a particle of silver in the camp, except what was contained in two or three silver watches.
After several earnest discussions of the subject it was resolved that the cat should be hung on a stout witch-hazel bush, growing within a few yards of Simpson's cabin. It was recognized that hanging was an eminently proper method of treatment in the case of a cat of such malevolent character; and as for Monty himself, more than one man openly said that if he made any trouble about the disposal of the cat, he would instantly be strung up to a convenient pine tree which stood close to the witch-hazel bush.
The next morning a committee of six, led by Big Simpson, cautiously approached the trench in which Monty was working. There was nearly an eighth of a mile between Monty's claim and those of the other miners. The latter had taken possession of that part of Thompson's Flat which seemed to hold out the best promise for gold, and Monty, partly because of his unprepossessing appearance, had been compelled to content himself with what was considered to be the least valuable claim in the camp.
The committee made its way through the long coarse grass, which had sprung up under the fierce heat of summer, and was already as parched and dry as tinder. They had intended to seize the cat before Monty had become aware of their presence; and they were somewhat disconcerted when Monty, with the cat clasped tightly in his arms, came running towards them. "There's Injuns just over there in the woods," he cried. "Tom sighted them first, and after he'd called me I looked and see three devils sneaking along towards your end of the camp. You boys, rush and get your Winchesters, and I'll be with you in a couple of minutes."
The men did not stop to question the accuracy of Monty's story. They forgot their designs against the cat, and no longer thought of their promise to shoot the boycotted man if he ventured to address them. They ran to their cabins, and seizing their rifles, rallied at the saloon, which was the only building capable of affording shelter. It was built of stout logs, and its one door was immensely thick and strong. By firing through the windows the garrison could keep at bay, at least for a time, the cautious Indian warriors, who would not charge through the open, so long as they could harass the miners from the shelter of the wood.
After Monty had placed his cat in his bunk he took his rifle, and carefully closing the door of his cabin, joined his late enemies in the saloon. Several of them nodded genially to him as he entered, and Simpson, who was arranging the plan of defence, told him to take a position by one of the rear windows. The men understood perfectly well that Monty's warning had saved them from a surprise in which they would have been cruelly massacred. Perhaps they felt somewhat ashamed of their previous treatment of the man, but they offered no word of apology.
However Monty thought little of their manner. Although he knew that in all probability the siege would be prolonged until not a single miner was left alive, his thoughts were not on himself or his companions. Would the Indians overlook his cabin, or in case they found it, would they offer violence to Tom? These were the questions that occupied his mind as he watched through the window for the gleam of a rifle barrel in the edge of the forest and answered every puff of smoke with an instantaneous shot from his Winchester. The enemy kept carefully under cover, and devoted their efforts to firing at the windows of the saloon. Already three shots had taken effect. Two dead bodies lay on the floor, and a wounded man sat in the corner, leaning against the wall, and slowly bleeding to death. Suddenly a cloud of smoke shot up in the direction of Monty's cabin. The Indians had set fire to the dry grass, and the flames were sweeping towards the cabin in which the cat was imprisoned.
Monty took in the situation and came to a decision with the same swiftness and certainty with which he pulled the trigger. "You'll have to excuse me, boys, for a few minutes," he said, rising from his crouched attitude and throwing his rifle into the hollow of his arm.
"What's the matter with you?" growled Simpson. "Have you turned coward all of a sudden, or are you thinking of scaring the Injuns by giving them a sight of your countenance?"
"That there cabin of mine will be blazing inside of five minutes, and I've left Tom in it with the door fastened," replied Monty, ignoring the insulting suggestions of Simpson, and beginning to unbar the door.
"Here! Come back, you blamed lunatic!" roared Simpson. "Do you call yourself a white man, and then throw your life away for a measly, rascally cat?"
"I am going to help my friend if I kin," said Monty. "He stood by me when thishyer camp throwed me over, and I'll stand by him now he's in trouble."
So saying he quietly passed out and vanished from the sight of the astonished miners.
"I told you," said Slippery Jim, "that Monty was bewitched by that there cat. Who ever heard of a man that was a man who cared whether a cat got burned to death or not?"
"You shut up!" exclaimed Simpson. "You haven't got sand enough to stand by your own brother—let alone standing by a cat."
"What's the matter with you?" retorted Jim. "You was the one who proposed boycotting Monty, and now you're talking as if he was a tin saint on wheels."
"Monty's acted like a man in this business," replied Simpson, "and it's my opinion that we've all treated him pretty particular mean. If we pull through this scrimmage Monty's my friend, and don't you forget it."
Monte Carlo lost none of his habitual caution, although he was engaged in what he knew to be a desperate and nearly hopeless enterprise. On leaving the saloon he threw himself flat on the ground, and slowly drew himself along until he reached the shelter of the high grass. Then rising to his hands and knees he crept rapidly and steadily in the direction of his cabin.
His course soon brought him between the fire of the miners and that of the Indians, but as neither could see him he fancied he was safe for the moment. He was drawing steadily closer to his goal, and was already beginning to feel the thrill of success, when a sharp blow on the right knee brought him headlong to the ground. A stray shot, fired possibly by some nervous miner who had taken his place at the saloon window, had struck him and smashed his leg.
He could no longer creep on his hands and knees, but with indomitable resolution he dragged himself onward by clutching at the strong roots of the grass. His disabled leg gave him exquisite pain as it trailed behind him, and he knew that the wound was bleeding freely; but he still hoped to reach his cabin before faintness or death should put a stop to his progress. He felt sure that the shot which had struck him had not been aimed at him by an Indian, for if it had been he would already have felt the scalping knife. The nearer he drew to his cabin the less danger there was that the Indians would perceive him. If he could only endure the pain and the hemorrhage a few minutes longer he could reach and push open the door of his cabin, and give his imprisoned friend a chance for life. He dragged himself on with unfaltering resolution, and with his silent lips closed tightly. Not a groan nor a curse nor a prayer escaped him. He stuck to his task with the grim fortitude of the wolf who gnaws his leg free from the trap. All his thoughts and all his fast-vanishing strength were concentrated on the effort to save the creature that had loved him.
After an eternity of anguish he reached the open space in front of the cabin, where the thick smoke hid him completely from the sight of both friends and foes. The flames had just caught the roof, and the heat was so intense that for an instant it made him forget the pain of his wound, as his choked lungs gasped for air. The wail of the frightened animal within the cabin gave him new energy. Digging his fingers into the ground he dragged himself across the few yards that separated him from the door. He reached it at last, pushed it open, and with a smile on his face lost consciousness as the cat bounded out and fled like a mad creature into the grass.
Two hours later a troop of Mounted Police, who had illegally and generously crossed the border in time to drive off the Indians and to rescue the few surviving members of the camp, found, close to the smouldering embers of Monty's cabin, a scorched and blackened corpse, by the side of which sat a bristling black cat. The animal ceased to lick the maimed features of the dead man, and turned fiercely on the approaching troopers. When one of them dismounted and attempted to touch the corpse the cat flew at him with such fury that he hurriedly remounted his horse, amid the jeers of his comrades. The cat resumed the effort to recall the dead man to life with its rough caresses, and the men sat silently in their saddles watching the strange sight.
"We can't bury the man without first shooting the cat," said one of the troopers.
"Then we'll let him lie," said the sergeant in command. "We can stop here on our way back from the Fort, and maybe by that time the cat'll listen to reason. I'd as soon shoot my best friend as shoot the poor beast now."
And the troop passed on, leaving Tom alone in the wilderness with his silent friend.
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