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Chapter Ten.
 Game and Cookery—Arrival at the Diggings—Little Creek—Law and Order in the Mines—Nooning at Little Creek—Hard-up—Our Adventurers get Credit and begin Work—A Yankee Outwitted.  
Deer, hares, crows, blackbirds, magpies, and quails, were the creatures that bounded, scampered, hopped, and flew before the eyes of the travellers at every step, as they wended their way pleasantly, beneath a bright morning sun, over the hills and through the lesser valleys of the great vale of the Sacramento. And all of these creatures, excepting the crows and magpies, fell before the unerring and unexpectedly useful blunderbuss of Captain Bunting, passed a temporary existence in the maw of the big iron pot, and eventually vanished into the carnivorous jaws of Ned Sinton and his friends.
Crows were excluded from their bill of fare, because the whole party had an unconquerable antipathy to them; and Larry said he had “aiten many pies in his lifetime, but he had niver aiten magpies, and he’d be shot av he wos goin’ to begin now.”
The duties of chief hunter devolved upon the captain,—first, because he was intensely fond of shooting; and, secondly, because game was so plentiful and tame, that it was difficult to avoid hitting something, if one only fired straight before one. For the same reasons the blunderbuss proved to be more effectual than the rifle. The captain used to load it with an enormous charge of powder and a handful of shot—swan-shot, two sizes of duck-shot, and sparrow-hail, mixed, with an occasional rifle-ball dropped in to the bargain. The recoil of the piece was tremendous, but the captain was a stout buffer—if we may be permitted the expression—and stood the shock manfully.
Stewed squirrels formed one of their favourite dishes, it was frequently prepared by Tom Collins, whose powers in the culinary department proved to be so great that he was unanimously voted to the office of chef de cuisine—Bill Jones volunteering, (and being accepted), to assist in doing the dirty work; for it must be borne in mind that the old relations of master and man no longer subsisted amongst any of the travellers now—excepting always the native vaquero. All were equal at starting for the diggings, and the various appointments were made by, and with the consent of the whole party.
Little Creek diggings were situated in a narrow gorge of the mountains, through which flowed a small though turbulent stream. The sides of the hills were in some places thickly clothed with trees, in others they were destitute not only of vegetation but of earth, the rock on the steeper declivities of the hills having been washed bare by the periodical heavy rains peculiar to those regions. Although wild and somewhat narrow, this little valley was, nevertheless, a cheerful spot, in consequence of its facing almost in a southerly direction: while, towards the east, there were several wide and picturesque gaps in the hills which seemed to have been made for the express purpose of letting the sun shine the greater part of the day upon the diggers while they were at work—an advantage, no doubt, when the weather was cool, but rather the reverse when it was hot.
The entrance to Little Creek was about two miles wide, undulating, and beautifully diversified, resembling pleasure grounds rather than a portion of the great wilderness of the far west; but the vale narrowed abruptly, and, about three miles further into the mountains, became a mere gap or ravine through which the streamlet leaped and boiled furiously.
It was an hour before noon when our travellers came suddenly upon the wide entrance to the valley.
“How beautiful!” exclaimed Ned, as he reined up to gaze in admiration over the flowering plain, with its groups of noble trees.
“Ay,” said Maxton, enthusiastically, “you may well say that. There may be, perchance, as grand, but I am certain there is not a grander country in the world than America—the land of the brave and free.”
Ned did not assent at once to the latter part of this proposition.
“You forget,” he said, hesitatingly, as if disinclined to hurt the feelings or prejudices of his new friend, “you forget that it is the land of slaves!”
“I confess that I did forget that at the moment,” answered Maxton, while the blood mounted to his forehead. “It is the foulest blot upon my country’s honour; but I at least am guiltless of upholding the accursed institution, as, also, are thousands of my countrymen. I feel assured, however, that the time is coming when that blot shall be wiped away.”
“I am glad, my friend,” said Ned, heartily, “to hear you speak thus; to be frank with you, I could not have prevailed upon myself to have held out to you the hand of intimate friendship had you proved to be a defender of slavery.”
“Then you’ll form few friendships in this country,” said Tom Collins, “for many of the Yankees here have been slave-holders in their day, and almost all defend the custom.”
The conversation was interrupted at this point by Larry O’Neil uttering a peculiarly Hibernian exclamation, (which no combination of letters will convey,) and pointing in an excited manner to an object a few hundred yards in advance of them.
“What d’ye see, lad!” inquired Bill Jones, shading his eyes with his hand.
The whole party came to a halt, and gazed earnestly before them for a few minutes in silence.
“Och!” said O’Neil, slowly, and with trembling earnestness, “av me two eyes are spakin’ truth, it’s—it’s a goold digger!—the first o’ the goold-diggers!”—and Larry followed up the discovery with a mingled cheer and war-whoop of delight that rang far and wide over the valley.
At such an unwonted, we might almost say, appalling, sound, the “first o’ the goold-diggers,”—who was up to his waist in a hole, quietly and methodically excavating the earth on the river’s bank with a pick-axe—raised his head, and, leaning on the haft of his pick, scrutinised the new arrivals narrowly.
“Hooray, my hearty!” shouted Larry, as he advanced at a gallop, followed by his laughing comrades. “The top o’ the mornin’ to ye—it’s good luck I’m wishin’ ye, avic. How are ye gittin’ on in the goold way, honey?”
The rough-looking, dusty, and bearded miner, smiled good-humouredly, as he replied, in a gentle tone of voice that belied his looks—“Pretty well, friend; though not quite so well as some of my neighbours. I presume that you and your friends have just arrived at the mines?”
“Tear an’ ages! it’s a gintleman, I do belave,” cried Larry, turning to his companions with a look of surprise.
The miner laughed at the remark, and, leaping out of the hole, did his best to answer the many questions that were put to him in a somewhat excited tone by the party.
“Where’s the gold?” inquired Jones, gravely, going down on his knees at the side of the excavation, and peering into it. “I don’t see none, wotsomediver.”
“The dust is very fine here,” answered the miner, “and not easily detected until washed. Occasionally we come upon nuggets and pockets in the dry parts of the river’s bed, and the ca?ons of the hills, but I find it most profitable to work steadily down here where the whole earth, below the surface, is impregnated with fine particles of gold. Many of the diggers waste their time in prospecting, which word, I suppose you know, means looking out for new diggings; but, according to the proverb of my country, I prefer to remain ‘contented wi’ little, and cantie wi’ mair.’”
“Are we far-distant from the other miners in this creek?” inquired Ned.
“No; you are quite close. You will come upon the colony after passing that bluff of trees ahead of you,” answered the Scotchman; “but come, I will shew you the way; it is not far from nooning-time, when I usually cease work for a couple of hours.”
So saying, the miner threw his pick-axe and shovel into the hole, and led the way towards the colony of Little Creek.
“Ain’t you afraid some of the bad-looking scoundrels in these parts may take a fancy to your pick and shovel?” inquired the captain, as they rode along at a foot pace.
“Not in the least. Time was when I would have feared to leave them; for at one time neither life nor property was safe here, where so many ruffians congregated from all parts of the world; but the evil wrought its own cure at last. Murders and robberies became so numerous, that the miners took to Lynch law for mutual protection. Murderers and thieves were hanged, or whipped almost to death, with such promptitude, that it struck terror into the hearts of evil-doers; and the consequence is, that we of this valley are now living in a state of perfect peace and security, while in other districts, where the laws of Judge Lynch are not so well administered, murders and thefts are occasionally heard of. Here, if a man takes a fancy to go prospecting for a time, he has only to throw his pick and shovel into his claim, or upon his heap of dirt, (see note 1) and he will be sure to find them there untouched on his return, even though he should be absent several weeks. Our tents, too, are left unwatched, and our doors unfastened, with perfect safety, though it is well-known that hundreds and thousands of dollars in gold-dust lie within. I do not mean to assert that we have attained to absolute perfection—a murder and a theft do occasionally occur, but such are the exceptions, security is the rule.”
“Truly,” said Ned Sinton, “you seem to live in a golden age in all respects.”
“Not in all,” answered the Scot; “the terrors of the law deter from open violence, but they do not enforce morality, as the language and deportment of miners generally too plainly shew. But here we are at the colony of Little Creek.”
They rounded the projecting spur of one of the hills as he spoke, and the whole extent of the little valley opened up to view. It was indeed a romantic and curious sight. The vale, as we have said, was narrow, but by no means gloomy. The noontide sun shed a flood of light over the glistening rocks and verdant foliage of the hills on the left, and cast the short, rounded shadows of those on the right upon the plain. Through the centre of this the Little Creek warbled on its course; now circling round some wooded knoll, until it almost formed an island; anon dropping, in a quiet cascade, over the edge of a flat rock; in some places sweeping close under the base of a perpendicular cliff; in others shooting out into a lake-like expanse of shallow water across a bright-green meadow, as it murmured on over its golden bed towards the Sacramento.
Higher up the valley the cliffs were more abrupt. Dark pines and cedars, in groups or singly,............
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