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Chapter Eight.
 Our Hero and his Friends start for the Diggings—The Captain’s Portrait—Costumes, and Scenery, and Surprises—The Ranche by the Road-Side—Strange Travellers—They meet with a New Friend, and adopt him—The Hunter’s Story—Larry offers to fight a Yankee—High Prices and Empty Purses.  
Ovid never accomplished a metamorphosis more striking or complete than that effected by Captain Bunting upon his own proper person. We have said, elsewhere, that the worthy captain was a big, broad man, with a shaggy head of hair, and red whiskers. Moreover, when he landed in San Francisco, he wore a blue coat, with clear brass buttons, blue vest, blue trousers, and a glazed straw hat; but in the course of a week he effected such a change in his outward man, that his most intimate friend would have failed to recognise him.
No brigand of the Pyrenees ever looked more savage—no robber of the stage ever appeared more outrageously fierce. We do not mean to say that Captain Bunting “got himself up” for the purpose of making himself conspicuous. He merely donned the usual habiliments of a miner; but these habiliments were curious, and the captain’s figure in them was unusually remarkable.
In order that the reader may have a satisfactory view of the captain, we will change the scene, and proceed at once to that part of the road to the gold-fields which has now been reached by our adventurers.
It is a wide plain, or prairie, on which the grass waves like the waters of the sea. On one side it meets the horizon, on another it is bounded by the faint and far-distant range of the Sierra Nevada. Thousands of millions of beautiful wild-flowers spangle and beautify the soft green carpet, over which spreads a cloudless sky, not a whit less blue and soft than the vaunted sky of Italy. Herds of deer are grazing over the vast plain, like tame cattle. Wild geese and other water-fowl wing their way through the soft atmosphere, and little birds twitter joyously among the flowers. Everything is bright, and green, and beautiful; for it is spring, and the sun has not yet scorched the grass to a russet-brown, and parched and cracked the thirsty ground, and banished animal and vegetable life away, as it will yet do, ere the hot summer of those regions is past and gone.
There is but one tree in all that vast plain. It is a sturdy oak, and near it bubbles a cool, refreshing spring, over which, one could fancy, it had been appointed guardian. The spot is hundreds of miles from San Francisco, on the road to the gold-mines of California. Beneath that solitary oak a party of weary travellers have halted, to rest and refresh themselves and their animals; or, as the diggers have it, to take their “nooning.” In the midst of that party sits our captain, on the back of a long-legged mule.
On his head is, or, rather, was—for he has just removed it, in order to wipe the perspiration from his forehead—a brown felt wide-awake, very much battered in appearance, suggesting the idea that the captain had used it constantly as a night-cap, which, indeed, is the fact. Nothing but a flannel shirt, of the brightest possible scarlet, clothes the upper portion of his burly frame, while brown corduroys adorn the lower. Boots of the most ponderous dimensions engulf, not only his feet, but his entire legs, leaving only a small part of the corduroys visible. On his heels, or, rather, just above his heels, are strapped a pair of enormous Mexican spurs, with the frightful prongs of which he so lacerated the sides of his unfortunate mule, during the first part of the journey, as to drive that animal frantic, and cause it to throw him off at least six times a day. Dire necessity has now, however, taught the captain that most difficult and rarely-accomplished feat of horsemanship, to ride with the toes well in, and the heels well out.
Round Captain Bunting’s waist is a belt, which is of itself quite a study. It is made of tough cow-hide, full two and a half inches broad, and is fastened by a brass buckle that would cause the mouth of a robber-chief to water. Attached to it in various ways and places are the following articles:— A bowie-knife of the largest size—not far short of a small cutlass; a pair of revolving pistols, also large, and having six barrels each; a stout leathern purse; and a leathern bag of larger dimensions for miscellaneous articles. As the captain has given up shaving for many weeks past, little of his face is visible, except the nose, eyes, and forehead. All besides is a rugged mass of red hair, which rough travel has rendered an indescribable and irreclaimable waste. But the captain cares not: as long as he can clear a passage through the brushwood to his mouth, he says, his mind is easy.
Such is Captain Bunting, and such, with but trifling modifications, is every member of his party. On Ned Sinton and his almost equally stalwart and handsome friend, Tom Collins, the picturesque costume of the miner sits well; and it gives a truly wild, dashing look to the whole party, as they stand beneath the shade of that lovely oak, preparing to refresh themselves with biscuit and jerked beef, and pipes of esteemed tobacco.
Besides those we have mentioned, Larry O’Neil is there,—busy carrying water in a bucket to the horses, and as proud of his Mexican spurs as if they were the golden spurs of the days of chivalry. Bill Jones is there, with a blue instead of a red-flannel shirt, and coarse canvas ducks in place of corduroys. Bill affects the sailor in other respects, for he scorns heavy boots, and wears shoes and a straw hat; but he is compelled to wear the spurs, for reasons best known to his intensely obstinate mule. There is also among them a native Californian,—a vaquero, or herd,—who has been hired to accompany the party to the diggings, to look after the pack-mules, of which there are two, and to assist them generally with advice and otherwise. He is a fine athletic fellow—Spanish-like, both in appearance and costume; and, in addition to bad Spanish, gives utterance to a few sounds, which he calls “Encleesh.” The upper part of his person is covered by the serape, or Mexican cloak, which is simply a blanket, with a hole in its centre, through which the head of the wearer is thrust, the rest being left to fall over the shoulders.
Our travellers had reached the spot on which we now find them by means of a boat voyage of more than a hundred miles, partly over the great bay of San Francisco, and partly up the Sacramento River, until they reached the city of Sacramento. Here they purchased mules and provisions for the overland journey to the mines—a further distance of about a hundred and fifty miles,—and also the picks, shovels, axes, pewter plates, spoons, pans, and pannikins, and other implements and utensils that were necessary for a campaign among the golden mountains of the Sierra Nevada. For these the prices demanded were so enormous, that when all was ready for a start they had only a few dollars left amongst them. But being on their way to dig for gold, they felt little concern on this head.
As the Indians of the interior had committed several murders a short time before, and had come at various times into collision with the gold-diggers, it was deemed prudent to expend a considerable sum on arms and ammunition. Each man, therefore, was armed with a rifle or carbine, a pistol of some sort, and a large knife or short sword. Captain Bunting selected a huge old bell-mouthed blunderbuss, having, as he said, a strong partiality for the weapons of his forefathers. Among other things, Ned, by advice of Tom Collins, purchased a few simple medicines; he also laid in a stock of drawing-paper, pencils, and water-colours, for his own special use, for which he paid so large a sum that he was ashamed to tell it to his comrades; but he was resolved not to lose the opportunity of representing life and scenery at the diggings, for the sake of old Mr Shirley, as well as for his own satisfaction. Thus equipped they set forth.
Before leaving San Francisco, the captain, and Ned, and Tom Collins had paid a final visit to their friend the merchant, Mr Thompson, and committed their property to his care—i.e. the hull of the good ship Roving Bess—the rent of which he promised to collect monthly—and Ned’s curious property, the old boat and the little patch of barren sand on which it stood. The boat itself he made over, temporarily, to a poor Irishman who had brought out his wife with him, and was unable to proceed to the diggings in consequence of the said wife having fallen into a delicate state of health. He gave the man a written paper empowering him to keep possession until his return, and refused to accept of any rent whereat the poor woman thanked him earnestly, with the tears running down her pale cheeks.
It was the hottest part of an exceedingly hot day when the travellers found themselves, as we have described, under the grateful shade of what Larry termed the “lone oak.”
“Now our course of proceeding is as follows,” said Ned, at the conclusion of their meal—“We shall travel all this afternoon, and as far into the night as the mules can be made to go. By that time we shall be pretty well off the level ground, and be almost within hail of the diggings—”
“I don’t belave it,” said Larry O’Neil, knocking the ashes out of his pipe in an emphatic manner; “sure av there was goold in the country we might have seed it by this time.”
Larry’s feelings were a verification of the words, “hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” He had started enthusiastically many days before on this journey to the gold regions, under the full conviction that on the first or second day he would be, as he expressed it, “riding through fields of goold dust;” instead of which, day after day passed, and night after night, during which he endured all the agonies inseparable from a first journey on horseback, and still not a symptom of gold was to be seen, “no more nor in owld Ireland itself.” But Larry bore his disappointments like an Irishman, and defied “fortin’ to put him out of timper by any manes wotiver.”
“Patience,” said Bill Jones, removing his pipe to make room for the remark, “is a wirtue—that’s wot I says. If ye can’t make things better, wot then? why, let ’em alone. W’en there’s no wind, crowd all canvas and ketch wot there is. W’en there is wind, why then, steer yer course; or, if ye can’t, steer as near it as ye can. Anyhow, never back yer fore-topsail without a cause—them’s my sentiments.”
“And very good sentiments they are, Bill,” said Tom Collins, jumping up and examining the girth of his horse; “I strongly advise you to adopt them, Larry.”
“Wot a bottle o’ wisdom it is,” said O’Neil, with a look of affected contempt at his messmate. “Wos it yer grandmother, now, or yer great wan, that edicated ye?—Arrah, there ye go! Oh, morther, ye’ll break me heart!”
The latter part of this remark was addressed to his mule, which at that moment broke its laryat, and gambolled gaily away over the flowering plain. Its owner followed, yelling like a madman. He might as well have chased the wind; and it is probable that he would never have mounted his steed again had not the vaquero come to his aid. This man, leaping on his own horse, which was a very fine one, dashed after the runaway, with which he came up in a few minutes; then grasping the long coil of line that hung at his saddle-bow, he swung it round once or twice, and threw the lasso, or noose, adroitly over the mule’s head, and brought it up.
“Yer a cliver fellow,” said Larry, as he came up, panting; “sure ye did it be chance?”
The man smiled, and without deigning a reply, rode back to the camp, where the party were already in the saddle. In a few minutes they were trotting rapidly over the prairie.
Before evening closed, the travellers arrived at one of the road-side inns, or, as they were named, ranches, which were beginning at this time to spring up in various parts of the country, for the accommodation of gold-hunters on their way to the mines. This ranche belonged to a man of the name of Dawson, who had made a few hundred dollars by digging, and then set up a grog-shop and house of entertainment, being wise enough to perceive that he could gain twice as much gold by supplying the diggers with the necessaries of life than he could hope to procure by digging. His ranche was a mere hovel, built of sun-dried bricks, and he dealt more in drinks than in edibles. The accommodation and provisions were of the poorest description, but, as there was no other house of entertainment near, mine host charged the highest possible prices. There was but one apartment in this establishment, and little or no furniture. Several kegs and barrels supported two long pine planks which constituted at different periods of the day the counter, the gaming-table, and the table d’h?te. A large cooking stove stood in the centre of the house, but there were no chairs; guests were expected to sit on boxes and empty casks, or stand. Beds there were none. When the hour for rest arrived, each guest chose the portion of the earthen floor that suited him best, and, spreading out his blankets, with his saddle for a pillow, lay down to dream of golden nuggets, or, perchance, of home, while innumerable rats—the bane of California—gambolled round and over him.
The ranchero, as the owner of such an establishment is named, was said to be an escaped felon. Certainly he might have been, as far as his looks went. He was surly and morose, but men minded this little, so long as he supplied their wants. There were five or six travellers in the ranche when our party arrived, all of whom were awaiting the preparation of supper.
“Here we are,” cried the captain, as they trotted into the yard, “ready for supper, I trow; and, if my nose don’t deceive me, supper’s about ready for us.”
“I hope they’ve got enough for us all,” said Ned, glancing at the party inside, as he leaped from the saddle, and threw the bridle to his vaquero. “Halloo, Boniface! have ye room for a large party in there?”
“Come in an’ see,” growled Dawson, whose duties at the cooking stove rendered him indifferent as to other matters.
“Ah, thin, ye’ve got a swate voice,” said Larry O’Neil, sarcastically, as he led his mule towards a post, to which Bill Jones was already fastening his steed. “I say, Bill,” he added, pointing to a little tin bowl which stood on an inverted cask outside the door of the ranche, “wot can that be for?”
“Dunno,” answered Bill; “s’pose it’s to wash in.”
At that moment a long, cadaverous miner came out of the hut, and rendered further speculation unnecessary, by turning up his shirt sleeves to the elbow, and commencing his ablutions in the little tin bowl, which was just large enough to admit both his hands at once.
“Faix, yer mouth and nose ought to be grateful,” said Larry, in an undertone, as he and Jones stood with their arms crossed, admiring the proceedings of the man.
This remark had reference to the fact that the washer applied the water to the favoured regions around his nose and mouth, but carefully avoided trespassing on any part of the territory lying beyond.
“Oh! morther, wot nixt?” exclaimed Larry.
Well might he inquire, for this man, having combed his hair with a public comb, which was attached to the door-post by a string, and examined himself carefully in a bit of glass, about two inches in diameter, proceeded to cleanse his teeth with a public tooth-brush which hung beside the comb. All these articles had been similarly used by a miner ten minutes previously; and while this one was engaged with his toilet, another man stood beside him awaiting his turn!
“W’en yer in difficulties,” remarked Bill Jones, slowly, as he entered the ranche, and proceeded to fill his pipe, “git out of ’em, if ye can. If ye can’t, why wot then? circumstances is adwerse, an’ it’s o’ no use a-tryin’ to mend ’em. Only my sentiments is, that I’ll delay washin’ till I comes to a river.”
“You’ve come from San Francisco, stranger?” said a rough-looking man, in heavy boots, and a Guernsey shirt, addressing Captain Bunting.
“Maybe I have,” replied the captain, regarding his interrogator through the smoke of his pipe, which he was in the act of lighting.
“Goin’ to the diggin’s, I s’pose?”
“Bin there before?”
“Nor none o’ your party, I expect?”
“None, except one.”
“You’ll be goin’ up to the bar at the American Forks now, I calc’late?”
“Don’t know that I am.”
“Perhaps you’ll try the northern diggin’s?”
How long this pertinacious............
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