Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/276

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sky of ineffable blue. ‘“Long’s the Smiths was alive an’ wanted me, I figgered I owed it to ’em to stay. But now they’ve went, you oughta see that I got to be a-movin’ toward the hills!’’ explained Jem Brown, querulously.

What he sought—the means for sustaining life among the mountains—he did not immediately achieve; instead, for several years, he drifted: clerking in remote stores and trading posts, driving mail and stage coaches, working about the mines. All through the West during those strenuous days the talk and fever of gold waxed as steadily persistent as the lilt of wind through the pines. Fortunes were made and lost with an ease and frequency which bred conversational unconcern. Jem Brown, drifting with the ebb and flow, clerking behind counters at which prospectors bought their coffee and bacon, swinging his whip from the driver’s seat of stage-coaches, listened carefully to the unceasing talk of lodes and strikes, of faults and contacts. Pocket hunting for small rich deposits of ore near the earth’s surface was, he early learned, the most possible and profitable form of gold mining for an amateur without capital; thoughtfully he studied the rules for this endeavour until the day when, having achieved a small surplus, he bade farewell to the settlements and went on his own account toward the mountains.

His progress was a leisurely business of working down the ranges; in time he covered a surprisingly large area of wandering, became impervious to weather or hardship, lived almost entirely off the land. There were trout in abundance in all the deep pools, quail and doves everywhere for the snaring, edible plants and roots along all the water-courses. Sometimes, swinging into sight of the gleaming hedge of tin cans encircling a town, Jem Brown smelled the aroma of boiling coffee or sizzling bacon and succumbed to early memories by patronizing an eating-house or the store; but, as the years went by, he found walls and a roof increasingly unbearable, was happy only when he was among the wind-tilted cedars of the high country or panning out gravel in the rocky shallows of some mountain stream; inevitably, with so much looking, he made occasional finds which were always more than sufficient to supply his few needs. And as, with his primitive equipment, he washed down the loose floating gold against a sheepskin, Jem Brown did not know that the famed Golden