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Chapter Nineteen.
 The Wilderness again—A Splendid Valley—Gigantic Trees and Waterfalls—Tom meets with an Accident—Both meet with many Surprises—Mysteries, Caverns, Doleful Sounds, and Grizzly-Bear-Catchers.  
Mounted on gallant steeds, Ned and his friend again appear in the wilderness in the afternoon of a beautiful autumn day. They had ridden far that day. Dust covered their garments, and foam bespattered the chests of their horses, but the spirits of men and beasts were not yet subdued, for their muscles, by long practice, were inured to hardship. Many days had passed since they left the scene of their recent successful labours, and many a weary league had been traversed over the unknown regions of the interior. They were lost, in one sense of that term—charmingly, romantically lost—that is to say, neither Ned nor Tom had the most distant idea of where they were, or what they were coming to, but both of them carried pocket-compasses, and they knew that by appealing to these, and to the daily jotting of the route they had travelled, they could ascertain pretty closely the direction that was necessary to be pursued in order to strike the great San Joaquin river.
Very different was the scenery through which they now rode from that of the northern diggings. The most stupendous and magnificent mountains in the world surrounded, on all sides, the valley through which they passed, giving to it an air of peaceful seclusion; yet it was not gloomy, for the level land was broad and fertile, and so varied in aspect that it seemed as though a beautiful world were enclosed by those mighty hills.
Large tracts of the valley were covered with wild oats and rich grass, affording excellent pasturage for the deer that roamed about in large herds. Lakes of various sizes sustained thousands of wild-fowl on their calm breasts, and a noble river coursed down its entire length. Oaks, chestnuts, and cypresses grew in groups all over the landscape, and up on the hill-sides firs of gigantic size reared their straight stems high above the surrounding trees.
But the point in the scenery which struck the travellers as being most peculiar was the precipitous character of the sides of many of the vast mountains and the flatness of their summits. Tom Collins, who was a good judge of heights, having travelled in several mountainous regions of the world, estimated the nearest precipices to be upwards of three thousand feet, without a break from top to bottom, but the ranges in the background towered far above these, and must have been at least double.
“I never saw anything like this before, Tom,” said Ned, in a suppressed voice.
“I did not believe such sublime scenery existed,” replied his companion. “I have travelled in Switzerland and Norway, but this surpasses both. Truly it was worth while to give up our gold-digging in order to see this.”
“Yet there are many,” rejoined Ned, “who travel just far enough into California to reach the diggings, where they remain till their fortunes are made, or till their hopes are disappointed, and then return to England and write a book, perchance, in which they speak as authoritatively as if they had swept the whole region, north and south, east and west. Little wonder that we find such travellers contradicting each other flatly. One speaks of ‘California’ as being the most splendid agricultural country in the world, and advises every one to emigrate at once; while another condemns it as an arid, unproductive region, fit only for the support of Indians and grizzly-bears;—the fact being, that both speak, (correctly enough, it may be), of the very small portion of California they have respectively visited. Why, the more I travel in this wonderful land the more I feel how very little I know about it; and had I returned to England without having seen this valley, I should have missed one of the most remarkable sights, not only in the country, but, I verily believe, in the world. If you ever return home, Tom, and are persuaded, ‘at the earnest request of numerous friends,’ to write a book, don’t dogmatise as to facts; remember how limited your experience has been, and don’t forget that facts in one valley are not facts at all in another valley eight or ten miles off.”
“Perhaps,” suggested Tom Collins, patting the arched neck of his steed—“perhaps the advice with which you have just favoured me might, with greater propriety, have proceeded from me to you; for, considering the copious variety of your sentiments on this and other subjects, and the fluency with which you utter them, it is likely that you will rush into print long before I timidly venture, with characteristic modesty, even to grasp the pen!”
As Tom ceased speaking they came upon a forest of pine, or fir trees, in the midst of which towered a tree of such gigantic height, that its appearance caused them simultaneously to draw up, and gaze at it in silent wonder.
“Can it be possible,” said Ned, “that our eyes don’t deceive us! Surely some peculiarity in the atmosphere gives that tree false proportions?”
Without answering, Tom galloped towards the tree in question, closely followed by his friend.
Instead of any delusive haze being cleared away, however, the tree grew larger as they approached, and when they halted about twenty yards from it, they felt that they were indeed in the presence of the monarch of the forest. The tree, which they measured, after viewing it in wondering admiration from all points of view, was ninety-three feet in circumference, and it could not have been less than three hundred and sixty feet high. They little knew that, many years afterwards, the bark of this giant tree, to the height of a hundred and sixteen feet, was to be removed to England, built up in its original form, and exhibited in the great Crystal Palace of Sydenham; yet so it was, and part of the “mother of the forest” may be seen there at this day.
Towards evening the travellers drew near to the head of the valley.
“We must be approaching a waterfall of no ordinary size,” remarked Tom, as they rode through the dark shades of the forest, which were pretty extensive there.
“I have heard its roar for some time,” answered Ned, “but until we clear this belt of trees we shan’t see it.”
Just then the roar of the fall burst upon them with such deafening violence, that they involuntarily started. It seemed as if a mighty torrent had burst its bounds and was about to sweep them away, along with the forest through which they rode. Pressing forward in eager haste, they soon found that their having doubled round a huge mountain barrier, which the trees had hitherto concealed from them, was the cause of the sudden increase in the roar of the fall, but they were still unable to see it, owing to the dense foliage that overshadowed them. As they galloped on, the thunder of falling waters became more deep and intense, until they reached an elevated spot, comparatively free from trees, which overlooked the valley, and revealed a sight such as is not equalled even by Niagara itself.
A succession of wall-like mountains rose in two tiers before them literally into the clouds, for several of the lower clouds floated far below the highest peaks, and from the summit of the highest range a river, equal to the Thames at Richmond, dropt sheer down a fall of above two thousand feet. Here it met the summit of the lower mountain-range, on which it burst with a deep-toned, sullen, never-ceasing roar, comparable only to eternal thunder. A white cloud of spray received the falling river in its soft embrace, and sent it forth again—turbulent and foam bespeckled—towards its second leap, another thousand feet, into the plain below. The entire height of the fall was above three thousand feet. Its sublimity no language can convey. Its irresistible effect on the minds of the wanderers was to turn their thoughts to the almighty Creator of so awe-inspiring and wonderful a scene.
Here they discovered another tree, which was so large that their thoughts were diverted even from the extraordinary cataract for a short time. Unlike the previous one, this monarch of the woods lay prostrate on the ground, but its diameter near the root was so great that they could not see over it though seated on horseback. It measured a hundred and twenty feet in circumference, and, when standing, must have been little, if at all, short of five hundred feet in height.
Surrounded as they were by such noble and stupendous works of God, the travellers could not find words to express their feelings. Deep emotion has no articulate language. The heaving breast and the glowing eye alone indicate the fervour of the thoughts within. For a long time they sat gazing round them in silent wonder and admiration, then they dismounted to measure the great tree, and after that Ned sat down to sketch the fall, while his companion rode forward to select a spot for camping on.
Tom had not proceeded far when he came upon the track of wheels in the grass, a sight which surprised him much, for into that remote region he had supposed few travellers ventured, even on horseback. The depth and breadth of the tracks, too, surprised him not a little. They were much deeper and broader than those caused by any species of cart he had yet seen or heard of in the country, and the width apart was so great, that he began to suspect he must have mistaken a curious freak of nature for the tracks of a gigantic vehicle. Following the track for some distance, he came to a muddy spot, where the footprints of men and horses became distinctly visible. A little further on he passed the mouth of what appeared to be a cavern, and, being of an inquisitive disposition, he dismounted and tied his horse to a tree, intending to examine the entrance.
To enter a dark cave, in a wild, unknown region, with the din of a thundering cataract filling the ears, just after having discovered tracks of a mysterious nature in the neighbourhood, was so trying to Tom’s nervous system, that he half resolved to give it up; but the exploration of a cavern has a fascination to some dispositions which every one cannot understand. Tom said “Pshaw!” to himself in an undertone, and boldly stepping into the dark portals of the cave, he disappeared.
Meanwhile, Edward Sinton finished his sketch, and, supposing that Tom was waiting for him in advance, he mounted and galloped forward as fast as the nature of the ground would allow.
Soon he came to the tracks before mentioned, and shortly after to the muddy spot with the footprints. Here he drew rein, and dismounted to examine the marks more closely. Our hero was as much perplexed as his friend had been at the unusually broad tracks of the vehicle which had passed that way. Leading his horse by the bridle, he advanced slowly until he came to the spot where Tom’s horse stood fastened to a tree,—a sight which alarmed him greatly, for the place was not such as any one would have selected for an encampment, yet had any foul play befallen his friend, he knew well that the horse would not have been left quietly there.
Sorely puzzled, and filled with anxious fears, he examined the spot carefully, and at last came upon the entrance to the cavern, before which he paused, uncertain what to do. The shadows of evening were fast falling on the scene, and he experienced a feeling of dread as he gazed into the profound gloom. He was convinced that Tom must be there; but the silence, and the length of time he had been absent, led him to fear that some accident had befallen his friend.
“Ho! Tom!” he shouted, on entering, “are you there?” There was a rolling echo within, but no voice replied to the question.
Again Ned shouted at the full pitch of hi............
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