by Emma-Lindsay Squier
Warming California sunshine, tang of December in the air, a dusty mountain road leading away from Sacramento—an old man plodding steadily, with sturdy defiance for age and the tiredness he was feeling.
He had been walking thus since early morning. The stamp of the “Old Prospector” was on him; his abundant hair was grizzled, and a dilapidated black felt hat was pushed far back from his forehead. In his eyes, crinkly and blue, was that incurable look of the adventurer who always expects something just around the curve in the road. His clothes were frayed and shabby; his dusty boots were patched in so many places that it was hard to tell where the original leather had started. His steady, plodding tread was accompanied by the jingle of pans and the clatter of a dangling short-handled pick and a miner’s shovel hung above them.
He had long ago left the highway for a narrow, dusty road. Below the slope of the hill he could catch a glimpse now and then of a wide, brawling stream. He had panned for gold in it many times. But the country, though familiar, had a strangely alien feel. It was like meeting an old friend after a lapse of many years, to find that something intimate and glamorous has escaped.
The warmth of the day was gradually giving way to a wintry chill that presaged the coming of night. The old prospector stopped, shivering a little, and adjusted the knapsack on his back.
“Shanty,” he said aloud after the manner of one who has lived much alone, “it’s jest a plain fool ye are! With Christmas only a few days off, and goose an’ trimmin’s at the Poor Farm, ye had to break yer parole like, and become a fugitive! Shame be to ye, Shanty, as can’t be a pauper in the proper spirit, but must be takin’ to the road again!”
He sighed, and turned over a vagrant piece of quartz with the toe of his boot, scanning it with the look of one who sees in every wayside rock a potential gold mine. Then his eye caught the angle of a roof, down at the foot of the hill on the other side of the stream, almost hidden by the rusty yellowing of sycamores and cottonwood trees. The sight of it lifted his spirits suddenly.
“’Tis a shack, sure as ye’re born! ’Twill have plenty o’ rats infestin’ it, but belike they won’t mind sharin’ it with ye fer one night—or maybe two ….”
He turned off the narrow road and pushed his way down through a mass of clustering bracken. The tumbling stream that barred his way for the moment was riotous, swollen by the autumn rains. There were sharp-pointed bowlders strewn across it, and he stepped warily, while the water churned close to his feet.
The cabin stood in a clearing once ample size, but now encroached on by a younger generation of cottonwood trees assuming squatters’ rights. He went around to the front. The windows were dusty, and the holes in them had been stuffed with rags. The door sagged on its hinges.
But as a twig snapped under his foot, there came from within the sound of something moving. And then Shanty stood still, looking into the twin barrels of a gun poked through a broken pane of glass.
“Stand where you are.” The voice was muffled, but shrill with a frightened defiance. “I’ll shoot—”
The old man felt an instant of unpleasant tingling along his spine. Then he chuckled, and scratched his head under the battered brim of the hat.
“Seems as if manners ain’t changed after all, even if times has! ’Scuse me, pard—I wasn’t after jumpin’ yer claim. It’s jest a bit chilly that I was, and—”
“Aren’t you from the Orphanage?” the unseen voice demanded, a little louder.
Shanty’s jaw dropped.
“From the Orphanage! Do I look that young?”
There was a moment of silence. Then the gun was drawn inward. A face appeared behind the dusty window pane—a smudged young countenance, with eyes that were like great black holes, and hair that even in the waning light showed brick red.
Shanty drew in his breath sharply. “Saints above—it’s only a lad! Come out, son. Are ye lost, or what?”
Again there was silence. Then a bar dropped, and the door opened cautiously, creaking on rusty hinges. Shanty was staring at a sturdy figure, at a boy who might have been a replica of himself at sixteen. The youth’s square face was pinched and thin above his blue overalls. He clutched his gun with a grip that made knuckles show whitely. But as he stared into the kindly, twinkling-eyed face, some of the strain went out of his own, and a little quiver came into his lips.
“I—I guess you’re all right, Mister. Sorry I pointed the gun at you.” Then a grin suddenly illumined the face. “It’s not really loaded,” he admitted.
Shanty grinned back.
“’Twas not such a monster of a fright ye gave me. I’ve looked into gun barrels before—as was loaded! But what are ye doin’ here, lad, miles away from anywhere?”
The boy’s shadowed brown eyes took on a defiant gleam. His mouth set firmly.
“I ran away—from the Orphanage!”
Shanty burst out laughing.