The Lost Cabin Mine, as a name, is familiar to many. But the true story of that mine there is no man who knows. Of that I am positive—because "dead men tell no tales."
It was on the sixth day of June, 1900, that I first heard the unfinished story of the Lost Cabin, the first half of the story I may call it, for the story is all finished now, and in the second half I was destined to play a part. Of the date I am certain because I verified it only the other day when I came by accident upon a pile of letters, tied with red silk ribbon and bearing a tag "Letters from Francis." These were the letters I sent to my mother during my Odyssey and one of them, bearing the date of the day succeeding that I have named, contained an account, toned down very considerably, as I had thought necessary for her sensitive and retired heart, of the previous day's doings, with an outline of the strange tale heard that day. That nothing was mentioned in the epistle of the doings of that night, you will be scarcely astonished when you read of them.
I was sitting alone on the rear verandah of the Laughlin Hotel, Baker City, watching the cicadi hopping about on the sun-scorched flats, now and again raising my eyes to the great, confronting mountain, the lower trees of which seemed as though trembling, seen through the heat haze; while away above, the white wedge of the glacier, near the summit, glistened dry and clear like salt in the midst of the high blue rocks.
The landlord, a thin, quick-moving man with a furtive air, a straggling apology for a moustache, and tiny eyes that seemed ever on the alert, came shuffling out to the verandah, hanging up there, to a hook in the projecting roof, a parrot's cage which he carried.
His coming awoke me from my reveries.
"Hullo," he said: "still setting there, are you? Warmish?"
"You ain't rustled a job for yourself yet?" he inquired, touching the edge of the cage lightly with his lean, bony fingers to stop its swaying.
I shook my head. I had indeed been sitting there that very moment, despite the brightness of the day, in a mood somewhat despondent, wondering if ever I was to obtain that long-sought-for, long-wished-for "job."
"Been up to the McNair Mine?" he asked.
I nodded again.
"No good," I replied.
"Well, did you try the Molly Magee?"
"And?" he inquired, elevating his brows.
"Same old story," said I. "They all say they only take on experienced men."
He looked at me with a half-smile, half-sneer, and the grey parrot hanging above him with his head cocked on one side, just like his master's, ejaculated:
"Well, if this don't beat cock-fighting!"
Shakespeare says that "what the declined is he will as soon read in the eyes of others as feel in his own fall." I was beginning to read in the eyes of others, those who knew that I had been in this roaring Baker City almost a fortnight and was still idle, contempt for my incapacity. Really, I do not believe now that any of them looked on me with contempt; it was only my own inward self-reproach which I imagined there, for men and women are kindlier than we think them in our own dark days. But on that and at that moment it seemed to me as though the very parrot jeered at me.
"You don't savvy this country," said the landlord. "You want always to say, when they ask you: 'Do you understand the work?' 'why sure! I'm experienced all right; I never done nothing else in my life.' You want to say that, no matter what the job is you 're offered. If you want ever to make enough money to be able to get a pack-horse and a outfit and go prospectin' on your own, that's what you want to say."
"But that would be to tell a downright lie," said I.
"Well," drawled the landlord, lifting his soft hat between his thumb and his first finger and scratching his head on the little bald part of the crown with the third finger, the little finger cocked in the air; "well, now that you put it that way—well, I guess it would. I never looked at it that way before. You see, they all ask you first pop: 'Did you ever do it before?' You says: 'Yes, never did anything else since I left the cradle.' It's just a form of words when you strike a man for a job."
I broke into a feeble laugh, which the parrot took up with such a raucous voice that the landlord turned and yelled to it: "Shut up!"
"I don't have to!" shrieked the parrot, promptly, and you could have thought that his little eyes sparkled with real indignation. Just then the landlord's wife appeared at the door.
"See here," cried Mr. Laughlin, turning to her, "there 's that parrot o' yourn, I told him to shut up his row just now, and he rips back at me, 'I don't have to!' What you make o' that? Are you goin' to permit that? Everything connected with you seems conspirin' agin' me to cheapen me—you and your relations what come here and put up for months on end, and your—your—your derned old grey parrot!"
"Abraham Laughlin," said the lady, her green eyes flashing, "you bin drinkin' ag'in, and ef you ain't sober to-morrow I go back east home to my mother."
It gave me a new thought as to the longevity of the human race to hear Mrs. Laughlin speak of her mother back east. I hung my head and studied the planking of the verandah, then looked upward and gazed at the far-off glacier glittering under the blue sky, tried to wear the appearance of a deaf man who had not heard this altercation. Really I took the matter too seriously. Had I only known it at the time, they were a most devoted couple and would—not "kiss again with tears" and seek forgiveness and reconciliation, but—speak to each other most kindly, as though no "words" had ever passed between them, half an hour later. But at the time of the little altercation on the verandah, when Mrs. Laughlin gave voice to her threat and then, turning, stalked back into the hotel, Laughlin wheeled about with his head thrust forward, showing his lean neck craning out of his wide collar, and opened his lips as though to discharge a pursuing shot. But the parrot took the words out of his mouth, so to speak, giving a shriek of laughter and crying out: "Well, if this don't beat cock-fighting!"
The landlord looked up quizzically at the bird and then there was an awkward pause. I wondered what to say to break this silence that followed upon the exhibition of the break in the connubial bliss of my landlord and his wife. Then I remembered something that I decidedly did want to ask, so I was actually more seeking information than striving to put Mr. Laughlin at his ease again, when I said:
"By the way, what is all this talk I hear about the Lost Cabin Mine? Everybody is speaking about it, you know. What is the Lost Cabin Mine? What is the story of it? People seem just to take it for granted that everybody knows about it."
"Gee-whiz!" said the landlord in astonishment, wheeling round upon me. He stretched out a hand to a chair, dragged it along the verandah, and sat down beside me in the shadow. "You don't know that story? Why, then I 'll give you all there is to it so far. And talking about the Lost Cabin, now there's what you might be doin' if on'y you had the price of an outfit—go out and find it, my bold buck, and live happy ever after——"
He stopped abruptly, for a man had come out of the hotel and now stood meditating on the verandah. He was a lithe, sun-browned fellow, this, wearing a loose jacket, wearing it open, disclosing a black shirt with pearl buttons. Round his neck was a great, cream-coloured kerchief that hung half down his back in a V shape, as is the manner with cowboys and not usual among miners. This little detail of the kerchief was sufficient to mark him out in that city, for the nearest cattle ranch was about two hundred miles to the south-east and when the "boys" who worked there sought the delights of civilisation it was not to Baker City, but to one of the towns on the railroad, such as Bogus City or Kettle River Gap, that they journeyed. On his legs were blue dungaree overalls, turned up at the bottom as though to let the world see that he wore, beneath the overalls, a very fine pair of trousers. On his head was a round, soft hat, not broad of brim, but the brim in front was bent down, shading his eyes. The cream-colour of his kerchief set off his healthy brown skin and his black, crisp hair. There were no spurs in his boots; for all that he had the bearing of one more at home on the plains than in the mountains. A picturesque figure he was, one to observe casually and look at again with interest, though he bore himself without swagger or any apparent attempt at attracting attention, except for one thing, and that was that in either ear there glistened a tiny golden ear-ring. His brows were puckered as in thought and from his nostrils came two long gusts of smoke as he stood there biting his cigar and glaring on the yellow sand and the chirring cicadi. Then he raised his head, glancing round on us, and his face brightened.
"Warmish," he said.
"That's what, right warmish," the proprietor replied affably, and now the man with the ear-rings, having apparently come to the end of his meditations, stepped lightly off into the loose sand and Laughlin jogged me with his elbow and nodded to me, rolling his eyes toward the departing man as though to say, "Take a good look at him, and when he is out of earshot I shall tell you of him." This was precisely the proprietor's meaning.
"That's Apache Kid," he said softly at last, and when Apache Kid had gone from sight he turned again to me and remarked, with the air of a man making an astounding disclosure:
"That's Apache Kid, and he's in this here story of the Lost Cabin. Yap, that's what they call him, though he ain't the real original, of course. The real original was hanged down in Lincoln County, New Mexico, about twenty-five year back. Hanged at the age of twenty-one he was, and had killed twenty-one men, which is an interesting fact to consider. That's the way with names. I know a fellow they call Texas Jack yet, but the real original died long ago. I mind the original. Omohundro was his correct name; as quiet a man as you want to see, Jack B. Omohundro, with eyes the colour of a knife-blade. But I 'm driftin' away. What you want to get posted up on is the Lost Cabin Mine."
He jerked his chair closer to me, tapped me on the knee, and cleared his throat; but I seemed fated not to hear the truth of that mystery yet, for Mrs. Laughlin stood again on the verandah.
"Abraham," she said in an aggrieved tone, "there ain't nobody in the bar."
Up jumped Abraham, his whole bearing, from his bowed head to his bent knees, apologetic.
"I was just tellin' this gentleman a story," he explained.
"I 'm astonished at you then," she said. "An old man like you a-telling your stories to a young lad like that! You 'd be doin' better slippin' into the bar and takin' a smell at that there barkeep's breath."
Mr. Laughlin turned to me.
"Come into the bar, sir; come into the bar. We 've got a new barkeep and the mistress suspects him o' takin' some more than even a barkeep is expected to take. I hev to take a look to him once in a while."
Mrs. Laughlin disappeared into her own sanctum, satisfied; while the "pro-prietor" and I went into the bar-room.
The "barkeep" was polishing up his glasses. In one corner sat a grimy, bearded man in the prime of life but with a dazed and lonely eye. He always sat in that particular corner, as by ancient right, morning, noon, and evening, playing an eternal solitary game of cards, the whole deck of cards spread before him on a table. He moved them about, changing their positions, lifting here and replacing there, but, though I had watched him several times, I could never discover the system of his lonely game.
"Who is that man?" I quietly inquired. "He is always playing there, always alone, never speaking to a soul."
"The boys call him 'The Failure,'" Laughlin explained. "You find a man like that in the corner of most every ho-tel-bar you go into in this here Western country—always a-playing that there lonesome game, I 'm always scared to ask 'em what the rudiments o' that game is for they 're always kind o' rat-house,—of unsound mind, them men is. I heerd a gentleman explain one day that it's a great game for steadyin' the head. He gets a remittance from England, they say. Anyhow, he stands up to the bar once every two months and blows himself in for about three-four days. Then he goes back to his table there and sets down to his lonesome card game again and frowns away over it for another couple o' months. I guess that gentleman was right in what he explained. I guess he holds his brains together on that there game."
We found seats in a corner of the room and Laughlin again cleared his throat. He had a name for taking a real delight in imparting information and spinning yarns, true, fictitious, and otherwise, to his guests, and this time we were not interrupted. He told me the story of the Lost Cabin Mine, or as much of that story as was known by that time, ere his smiling Chinese cook came to inform him "dinnah vely good. Number A1 dinnah to-day, Misholaughlin, ledy in half-oh."
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