WHILE I was knocking about among the California and Nevada mining camps, fascinated by this feverish life, I chanced to hear of Bodie, "the latest strike," as they called it. Not far from Mono Lake, in the great desert that lies to the east of the Sierra Nevadas, and more than a hundred miles through the sand from the nearest base of supplies, some one had found a rich deposit of gold. At once miners, merchants, gamblers, and all the male and female floating population of the Nevada mining camps made a rush for the spot. In three months arose one of those mushroom mining towns, where every other house is a saloon, and every saloon has a faro bank; where "shooting scrapes" average five, and "hands up" twenty, a week, and the lowest wages paid are $5 a day. Of course, I went at once to Bodie.
One day, as I was walking over to the post-office, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder, and turned around to be violently hugged by a big hairy man in miner's clothes, in whom I with some difficulty recognized Travers, once the best-dressed man in college. I don't know which of us was most delighted to see the other. I soon learned that he had been one of the first to come to Bodie, and had located a promising claim which he was now working in company with four others.
"I made money enough in Virginia City, last spring, to set me going," continued Travers, "and the family were so delighted that they came out to California to spend the summer. They have been travelling around, seeing the sights, and are now here in town staying at the best hotel in the place," and he pointed across the street to a large tent, backed by a brush shanty. "It was a risky thing to do, especially bringing along Elsie, my sister, who is just thirteen, and prettier than she used to be. But I am one of the 'prominent citizens' here, - you know I always was a good shot, - and after talking it over with other 'prominent citizens,' I thought I'd risk it. As it is, all has turned out very well. Elsie is the first respectable woman under sixty who has come to Bodie, and she is creating a regular furor. She holds a reception every evening; the miners form in line and, one after the other, shake hands with her, and have a few minutes' talk. Some of them, who left wife and family East, come away with tears in their eyes. If any one strikes an unusually fine piece of ore, he presents it to Elsie. She has a trunkful already, that must be worth thousands. I don't see how they'll ever get back to the railroad without being robbed! Last night the 'Company' - that's myself and the four others who are working my mine - had a meeting and made Elsie a joint owner of the mine, with one sixth interest. One man, Colney, opposed it, but the others were so near shooting him that he came round in no time. So she is going down the mine to-morrow, - and, by the way, you had better go down at the same time. We've got nothing as yet but a hand-windlass, with a big bucket on the end of a rope, so that it's like going down a magnified well; but if Elsie can do it, I guess you can."
So the next day Travers took us half a mile out of the town, to the Company's mine, on a bare hill-side dotted with groups of men working around their shafts. Two of the "Company" were at work down below, and two were turning the cranks of the rough wooden windlass. They were shaggy, powerful, good-natured fellows, who shook me warmly by the hand when they learned that I was an old friend of their "pard's," and treated Elsie as if she were a goddess just stepped down from the clouds.
They scraped the dirt out of the ore-bucket, lined it with coats, and fastened Elsie in. Then they swung the bucket out under the windlass, and after she had assured them that she was not a bit frightened, they let her slowly down into the black shaft, then two hundred feet deep.
While Elsie was being let down, I caught a few words of whispered talk between Travers and the others, from which I inferred that they were still suspicious of Colney, the man who had opposed Elsie's election into the "Company," and so had managed to put him at work in a side drift, leading off about half way down the shaft, which, as no vein of ore had been "struck" there, it was not worth while for us to visit.
Soon a faint "Hello!" from below, and a shaking of the rope, showed that Elsie was safely down; and in a few minutes I was by her side at the bottom of the shaft. Here another "pard," covered with dirt and wearing a lamp in his cap, took us along a low passage, explained the different strata of soft sandy rock and the methods of working them, and pointed out two or three veins of silver ore, and then the last vein, which was rich gold ore. After splashing around in the mud, bumping our heads against the low ceiling formed by the rock, and collecting specimens, we returned to the shaft, where the small spot of blue sky overhead cast a dim light.
"Hello! Hello!" came faintly from the top. "Send . . . m-m-m . . . together . . . m-m . . .too long . . . m-m . . . hard work . . . m-m-m . . .!" Our ears, unaccustomed to the reverberations of the mine, could not catch the words; but the "pard" explained that they wished Elsie and me to go up together, as pulling us up was a good deal more work than letting us down. I objected to this. There was hardly room in the bucket for little Elsie alone. If we went up together we should have to sit opposite one another on the edge of the bucket with the rope between, like the two sides of a pair of scales; and I feared that Elsie might get cramped and frightened before we reached the top. Besides, I noticed that about six inches above the bucket the rope had been worn half through by the spades. The "pard," however, insisted that it was quite comfortable, that the rope was strong enough yet to hold a dozen; and he enforced his remarks with a dig of his elbow into my ribs which recalled to me that Colney was in the drift above, and that this might be a precaution. So I made no further opposition, and we were soon swinging in mid air, with the growing spot of sky above, the black abyss below and the rough, damp walls around, just out of our reach.
As we neared the upper drift, I could not keep down a growing feeling of uneasiness. I made Elsie keep quiet under pretence of listening to a noise from the top; and when we rose to the level of the black opening I strained eye and ear to catch some sign of what Colney was doing. All was dark and silent, however; and I was just heaving a sigh of relief as we rose to the top of the opening, when, quick as a serpent's tongue, a spade-handle, with a long knife lashed to the end, darted out of the shadow, and made a thrust at the rope where it was already worn almost through.
One thrust was enough; the few remaining strands snapped. Feeling the bucket sink under me, I seized the rope with one hand and Elsie with the other. And just as the bucket struck the bottom of the shaft with a great crash that re-echoed through the mine, I made Elsie clasp her arms around my neck. Then I tried to go up the rope hand over hand, until I should be able to wind it around me, and thus free my arms from the terrible strain; but I found that with Elsie hanging around my neck, I could not do it. There was nothing left, then, but to try to hold on by the rope until we should reach the top.
All this was done in an instant, and we were not five yards above the drift when the men at the top, hearing the crash of the falling bucket, stopped turning and called down to know what was the matter. "Pull us up quick!" I shouted. "The bucket's gone, and we're hanging by the rope."
Then we began to go up again, and very fast, I doubt not, although we seemed hardly to move at all, as I watched the spot of sky above, and bent every particle of will-power on trying to keep aching arms and numb fingers from relaxing their hold on the rope. I hope that I shall never again suffer the agony of those few moments. They seemed hours. Once, I thought I should have to give in; but I looked down at little Elsie, who was twined around me, with her quivering hands clasped about my neck; and the look of terrible suffering in her face changed, as she raised her deep brown eyes to mine, to such a look of hope and trust, that I bit my lip till the blood came, and vowed to hold on till I died.
Then we drew near the top. We could hear the creaking of the wooden cranks, and the panting breath of the men. At last we stopped. Great brown arms reached down and seized us, and -
When I came to myself, we were lying on the ground by the shaft, and the rough fellows were bending tenderly over us, fanning our faces, and rubbing our poor knotted, cramped arms.
That night Colney was lynched; and Elsie and I, seated on the roof of a prairie-wagon, were borne in triumphal procession through the town.