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Chapter Twenty One.
 Curious Trees, and still more Curious Plains—An Interesting Discovery, followed by a Sad one—Fate of Travellers in the Mountains—A Sudden Illness—Ned proves himself to be a friend in Need and in Deed, as well as an Excellent Doctor, Hunter, Cook, and Nurse—Deer-Shooting by Firelight.  
During the course of their wanderings among the mountains our hero and his companion met with many strange adventures and saw many strange sights, which, however, we cannot afford space to dwell upon here. Their knowledge in natural history, too, was wonderfully increased, for they were both observant men, and the school of nature is the best in which any one can study. Audubon, the hunter-naturalist of America, knew this well! and few men have added so much as he to the sum of human knowledge in his peculiar department, while fewer still have so wonderfully enriched the pages of romantic adventure in wild, unknown regions.
In these wanderings, too, Ned and Tom learned to know experimentally that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that if the writers of fairy-tales had travelled more they would have saved their imaginations a deal of trouble, and produced more extraordinary works.
The size of the trees they encountered was almost beyond belief, though none of them surpassed the giant of which an account has been already given. Among other curious trees they found sugar-pines growing in abundance in one part of the country. This is, perhaps, the most graceful of all the pines. With a perfectly straight and cylindrical stem and smooth bark, it rears its proud crest high above other trees, and flings its giant limbs abroad, like a sentinel guarding the forest. The stem rises to about four-fifths of its height perfectly free of branches; above this point the branches spread out almost horizontally, drooping a little at the ends from the weight of the huge cones which they bear. These cones are about a foot-and-a-half long, and under each leaf lies a seed the size of a pea, which has an agreeably sweet taste, and is much esteemed by the Indians, who use it as an article of food.
Another remarkable sight they saw was a plain, of some miles in extent, completely covered with shattered pieces of quartz, which shone with specks and veins of pure gold. Of course they had neither time nor inclination to attempt the laborious task of pulverising this quartz in order to obtain the precious metal; but Ned moralised a little as they galloped over the plain, spurning the gold beneath their horses’ hoofs, as if it had been of no value whatever! They both puzzled themselves also to account for so strange an appearance; but the only solution that seemed to them at all admissible was, that a quartz vein had, at some early period of the world’s history, been shattered by a volcanic eruption, and the plain thus strewn with gold.
But from the contemplation of these and many other interesting sights and phenomena we must pass to an event which seriously affected the future plans of the travellers.
One beautiful evening—such an evening as, from its deep quiet and unusual softness, leaves a lasting impression on the memory—the two horsemen found themselves slowly toiling up the steep acclivity of a mountain-ridge. Their advance was toilsome, for the way was rugged, and no track of any kind assisted them in their ascent.
“I fear the poor horses will give in,” said Ned, dismounting and looking back at his companion, who slowly followed him.
“We are near the summit,” answered Tom, “and they shall have a long rest there.”
As he spoke, they both dismounted and advanced on foot, leading their fatigued horses by the bridles.
“Do you know,” said Tom, with a sigh, “I feel more used up to-day than I have been since we started on this journey. I think we had better encamp and have a cup of tea; there is a little left yet, if I mistake not.”
“With all my heart, Tom; I, too, feel inclined to rest, and—”
Ned paused, for at that moment they overtopped the highest edge of the ridge, and the view that burst upon them was well fitted to put to flight every previous train of thought.
The ridge on which they stood rose several hundred feet above the level of the plain beyond, and commanded a view of unknown extent towards the far west.
The richest possible sweep of country was spread out at their feet like a huge map, bathed in a glow of yellow sunshine. Lakes and streams, crags and rocks, sward, and swamp, and plain—undulating and abrupt, barren and verdant—all were there, and could be embraced in a single wide-sweeping glance. It seemed, to the entranced travellers, like the very garden of Eden. Water-fowl flew about in all directions, the whistling of their wings and their wild cries being mellowed by distance into pleasant music; and, far away on the right, where a clear lake mirrored each tree on its banks, as if the image were reality, a herd of deer were seen cooling their sides and limbs in the water, while, on the extreme horizon, a line of light indicated the shores of the vast Pacific Ocean.
Ere the travellers could find words to express their feelings, a rock, with a piece of stick and a small rag attached to it, attracted their attention.
“We are not the first who have set their feet here, it seems,” said Ned, pointing to the signal.
“Strange!” muttered Tom Collins, as they turned towards the rock; “that does not look like an Indian mark; yet I would have thought that white men had never stood here before, for the spot is far removed from any known diggings, and, as we know fail well, is not easily reached.”
On gaining the rock, they found that the rag was a shred of linen, without mark of any kind to tell who had placed it there.
“It must have been the freak of some Indian hunter,” said Ned, examining the rock on which the little flag-staff was raised. “Stay—no—here are some marks cut in the stone! Look here, Tom, can you decipher this? It looks like the letter D—DB.”
“DB?” cried Tom Collins, with a degree of energy that surprised his friend. “Let me see!”
Tom carefully removed the moss, and cleared out the letters, which were unmistakeable.
“Who can DB have been?” said Ned.
Tom looked up with a flushed countenance and a glittering eye, as he exclaimed—
“Who? Who but Daniel Boone, Cooper’s great hero—Hawk-eye, of the ‘Last of the Mohicans’—Deer-slayer—Leather-stocking! He has been here before us—ay, brave spirit! Long before other hunters had dared to venture far into the territory of the scalping, torturing, yelling red-skin, this bold heart had pushed westward, fearless and alone, until his eagle eye rested on the great Pacific. It must have been he. I have followed him, Ned, in spirit, throughout all his wild career, for I knew him to be a real man, and no fiction; but little did I think that I should see a spot where his manly foot had rested, or live to discover his farthest step in the ‘far west!’”
Ned Sinton listened with interest to the words of his friend, but he did not interrupt him, for he respected the deep emotions that swelled his heart and beamed from his flashing eye.
“We spoke, Ned, sometime ago, of historical associations,” continued Tom,—“here are historical associations worth coming all this way to call up. Here are associations that touch my heart more than all the deeds of ancient chivalry. Ah! Daniel Boone, little didst thou think when thy hawk’s eye rested here, that in a few short years the land would be overrun by gold-diggers from all ends of the earth!”
“But this flag,” said Ned; “he could never have placed that here. It would have been swept away by storms years ago.”
“You are right,” said Tom, turning over the stones that supported the staff—“halloo! what have we here?”
He pulled out a roll of oiled cloth as he spoke, and, on opening it, discovered a scrap of paper, on which were written, in pencil, the words, “Help us!—for God’s sake help us! We are perishing at the foot of the hill to the southward of this.”
No name or date was attached to this strange paper, but the purport of it was sufficiently clear so, without wasting time in fruitless conjecture, the young men immediately sprang on their horses, and rode down the hill in the direction indicated.
The route proved more rugged and steep than that by which they had ascended, and, for a considerable distance, they wound their way between the trunks of a closely-planted cypress grove; after passing which they emerged upon a rocky plain of small extent, at the further extremity of which a green oasis indicated the presence of a spring.
Towards this they rode in silence.
“Ah!” exclaimed Ned, in a tone of deep pity, as he reined up at the foot of an oak-tree, “too late!”
They were indeed too late to succour the poor creatures who had placed the scrap of paper on the summit of that mountain-ridge, in the faint hope that friendly hands might discover it in time.
Six dead forms lay at the foot of the oak, side by side, with their pale faces turned upwards, and the expression of extreme suffering still lingering on their shrunken features. It needed no living witness to tell their sad history. The skeletons of oxen, the broken cart, the scattered mining tools, and the empty provision casks, shewed clearly enough that they were emigrants who had left their homesteads in the States, and tried to reach the gold-regions of California by the terrible overland journey. They had lost their way among the dreary fastnesses of the mountains, travelled far from the right road to the mines, and perished at last of exhaustion and hunger on the very borders of the golden land. The grey-haired father of the family lay beside a young girl, with his arm clasped round her neck. Two younger men also lay near them, one lying as if, in dying, he had sought to afford support to the other. The bodies were still fresh, and a glance shewed that nearly all of them were of one family.
“Alas! Ned, had we arrived a few days sooner we might have saved them,” said Tom.
“I think they must have been freed from their pains and sorrows here more than a week since,” replied the other, fastening his horse to a tree, and proceeding to search the clothes of the unfortunates for letters or anything that might afford a clue to their identity. “We must stay here an hour or two, Tom, and bury them.”
No scrap of writing, however, was found—not even a book with a name on it—to tell who the strangers were. With hundreds of others, no doubt, they had left their homes, full of life and hope, to seek their fortunes in the land of gold; but the Director of man’s steps had ordered it otherwise, and their golden dreams had ended with their lives in the unknown wilderness.
The two friends covered the bodies with sand and stones, and, leaving them in their shallow grave, pursued their way; but they had not gone far when a few large drops of rain fell, and the sky became overcast with dark leaden clouds.
“Ned,” said Tom, anxiously, “I fear we shall be caught by the rainy season. It’s awkward being so far from the settlements at such a time.”
“Oh, nonsense! surely you don’t mind a wetting?” cried Ned; “we can push on in spite of rain.”
“Can we?” retorted Tom, with unwonted gravity. “It’s clear that you’ve never seen the rainy season, else you would not speak of it so lightly.”
“Why, man, you seem to have lost pluck all of a sudden; come, cheer up; rain or no rain, I mean to have a good supper, and a good night’s rest; and here is just the spot that will suit us.”
Ned Sinton leaped off his horse as he spoke, and, fastening him to a tree, loosened the saddle-girths, and set about preparing the encampment. Tom Collins assisted him; but neither the rallying of his comrade, nor his own efforts could enable the latter to shake off the depression of spirits with which he was overpowered. That night the rain came down in torrents, and drenched the travellers to the skin, despite their most ingenious contrivances to keep it out. They spent the night in misery, and when morning broke Ned found that his companion was smitten down with ague.
Even Ned’s buoyant spirits were swamped for a time at this unlooked-for catastrophe; for the dangers of their position were not slight. It was clear that Tom would not be able to travel for many days, for his whole frame trembled, when the fits came on, with a violence that seemed to threaten dislocation to all his joints. Ned felt that both their lives, under God, depended on his keeping well, and being able to procure food for, and nurse, his friend. At the same time, he knew that the rainy season, if indeed it had not already begun, would soon set in, and perhaps render the country impassable. There was no use, however, in giving way to morbid fears, so Ned faced his difficulties manfully, and, remembering the promise which he had given his old uncle at parting from him in England, he began by offering up a short but earnest prayer at the side of his friend’s couch.
“Ned,” said Tom, sadly, as his companion ceased, “I fear that you’ll have to return alone.”
“Come, come, don’t speak that way, Tom; it isn’t right. God is able to help ............
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