Comstock Lode

It began with a dream, a dream that ended in horror.

It began in a thatched cottage with wind around it and rain beating on the shutters, with a flagstone floor and the smell of fish frying, and his mother putting blue plates on the table and his father sitting by the fire. It began in Cornwall, in England, in 1849.

It began with listening to the storm blowing in from the sea and the fire hissing from occasional drops that fell down the chimney.

It began with Val Trevallion's father saying, "Mary, we are going to America."

His mother stopped, holding a blue plate in her two hands, staring at his father.

"We are going to California, to the goldfields. There will be no more mines for our son, and this day I have decided."

Tom Trevallion leaned over and knocked his pipe empty of ash on the edge of the hearth. "Tomorrow we will go to Gunwalloe."

"But aren't there mines in the goldfields?"

"It is placer-mining like we tinners used to do before the deep mines began. A man need not go underground there, nor a lad, either.

"Look at him! He has been a year in the mines now and the color is gone from him. He was a fine lad with a fine brown color to him when he worked with the fishing. I'll not have it, Mary. He shall not live hidden from the sun as I have."

"But how can we, Tom?"

"I've put by a little . . . not enough, but something. And we shall go to Gunwallow by the sea for a few days."

"To Gunwalloe? Oh!" She realized her husband was speaking of the treasure. "But it is useless. So many have tried, and some of them for years."

"Aye. Yet I have been told a thing or two. I have spent days and nights with old Tregor. The man's dying now and well he knows it. He's always liked me, Mary--"

"Your grandfather was shipmates with him. They went through it together, those two."

"He's whispered a thing to me, the old man has, and nothing about the money-ship, she from who the coins wash ashore from time to time. `Tis another vessel entirely, their own vessel. When she was sinking off the Lizard some of the men escaped overside, each with his own keeping, the share each man had for himself. They tried to run up the coast to Gunwalloe where they had friends, but it was a bloody beast of a gale, and they went on the rocks off there, and only grandfather and old Tregor reached the shore.

"Most of what they had, and those with them, still lies yonder, off the rocks. No great treasure, mind you, but enough for California, I'm thinking."

"But if you start diving off the rocks you'll have half the village around you.!"

"At night, Mary, only at night. On the last days of fishing . . . `twas then I found the wreck.

"We've but one son, Mary, and he must have his chance. It's for America we are, a bit of land and a cow, some chickens for eggs, and a horse or two for riding or driving to a cart."

Val had looked up at his father then and asked, "Is it far to California?"

"It is far . . . very far, I am told."

"Will we go upon a ship?"

"A very small ship, I am afraid, with very many other people. Then, when we get to America, I must find work and when we know what we are about, we must buy a wagon--"

"A wagon?"

"Aye. One is needed for the crossing of the great plains."

"Father? What are `plains'?"

"It is like a moor. It is grassland, miles upon miles of it, with no trees but those along the streams, and there are few streams."

"Tom? Is it as far as London? To cross the plains, I mean?"

He looked at her, smiling. "Will Holder, you know? He who returned to Helston for his family? He said it would be five months in the crossing . . . perhaps six."

He paused. "It is very far. We must carry with us all we will need. It will cost us dear to get to California, Mary, but it will be worth it.

"Do you remember Will Holder? He left here with nothing, and when he came back he wore fine clothes, had new boots, and with money to spend."

The day the Trevallions left for Gunwalloe was a memorable one. Jenkins, the owner himself, had come around to the house to ask his father back, a thing unheard of, with all the village watching from behind doors and curtains.

"Leave now, man, and you canna come back. I will not have my men coming and going."

"I shall not come back," Tom Trevallion said. "There are mines over the sea, and I shall have one of my own."

"Fool's talk! What do you know gold? You're a tinner and a copper man, maybe, but gold? `Tis another thing."

"I can learn."

Val stood beside his father, a proud lad to see it, for never before had the owner come down to a miner's cottage to ask after any man.

His father looked the owner in the eye and said, "Why don't you come yourself, then? Sell this and come out to California. This--" he waved a hand, "is but a teapot operation to what you will find there."

This made the owner angry. "A teapot opera--" Jenkins grunted his disdain. "You dare advise me? You'll starve over there, if you manage to leave at all. You will starve or drown or be killed by savages."

Jenkins strode away down the street, anger and damaged pride in every step. His father had turned to see his mother smiling. "Ah, Tom, if starve it is to be I shall starve a proud woman! Who would think to hear the owner told so completely. You are a bold man, Tom."

"I shall needs be bold. Do not think I go lightly from here, Mary. We shall face trouble. But now we will go to Gunwalloe."

They went down the road in the morning to Gunwalloe by the sea, and they went to the house where Mary Trevallion was born and where her brother Tony still lived. "You still have the boat?" his father asked.

"Aye." Tony was a stocky man with a blue kerchief at his throat and a leather coat. "You have need of a boat?"

"There are fish in the sea, yonder. If you will help you may have a bit of what I catch."

"You will catch nothing if you seek more than fish. John Knill searched long for the King of Portugal's ship but found nothing."

"Have you a memory for old Tregor?"

"Who does not, who lives in Gunwalloe? He was of this place, but always away upon the sea, and when at last he came back, he came walking up from the sea, all dripping and soaked. I remember it well. He staggered from the waves like a man drunken. And then away he went to live out his years in Mullion."

"Did he not come back to Gunwalloe at all?"

"He did. A time or two he returned for the fishing and to share a pint or two in the tavern."

"All those years? What did he live on then?"

Tony shrugged. "It is said he cared for horses for the Godolphins."

"What he lived on," his father had said, "was what he brought back from the seas. Old Tregor is dying now, and he left to me what is out there, and when I have had what I need, the rest is for you. When Old Tregor went out fishing he was actually diving, at a place he knew. There's no enormous treasure, just some packets of it, and rich enough for the likes of you and me."

When the morning came they went down the coast for the fishing, and when dark was coming on, they crept back up the coast and dropped anchor off the rocks. While Tony sat with a line out, Tom Trevallion dove down, and when he came up he held a small box, and in it were a few gold coins and a piece or two of jewelry. Then, while he rested, Tony went down and came up with a canvas sack, small but with gold coins also, a silver buckle, and some odds and ends.

It was not much, for it was what each man had for himself before the big treasure was divided, that stormy night long ago. But each man brought the share he had at hand when they fled the boat, before it broke up and sank off Gunwalloe. Tregor had lived his life away on what remained of one or two of the shares.

Tony kept only one gold coin for himself, but came away with the knowledge of where the boat lay. At least two more packets were down there, and possibly a third.

The morning after, Tony drove the Trevallions in his cart to Falmouth, a far piece. The ship lay there, small dirty, and overcrowded, but a ship.

Only hours later they were at sea. Val loved the great sails, the creak of the bumpkins, and the rush of water along the hull. The storms frightened him, yet "I could be a sailor," he told his father.

"`Tis a dog's life, that. Work by day and by night, and naught but poor food and much abuse with small payment at the end."

"But they are out in the air!" Val protested.

"Aye," his father agreed, "there is that."

"When we reach America we will not go to California at once?"

"Will Holder advised against it. First, he said, we should come to know the people an the climate of things. A newcomer can make mistakes."

Val's father and mother talked of little else but California and what they would do there and now they should live. It seemed a far off, magnificent dream, but all aboard the ship were dreaming, some of one thing and some of another.

Gold was everywhere, people said, they had simply to pick it off the bottom of streams, or wash it from the earth. Tom Trevallion smiled at that.

Their ship took them to New Orleans, and a river steamer to Westport. In new Orleans they all bought new clothes. "We will need them," his father advised, "they will be cheaper here than in St. Louis or Wesport."

At Westport suddenly their plans changed. Mary Trevallion saw a woman crying. She was seated in the lobby of the small tavern where they had taken a room until they found a wagon in which to live and travel.

"Tom," Mary said suddenly, "this woman's husband has died. She is left with two small children and a wagon and stock she cannot use."

"She will have no trouble selling them here."

"Why not to us?"

The woman looked up. "If you will buy today I will sell cheap. I want to go home. I want to go back to my folks."

The wagon was strongly built and painted blue. Tom Trevallion, who knew much of such things, examined it carefully.

"You can have the oxen--there are eight head--for two hundred dollars. The wagon should be worth fifty."

Val's father had squatted on his heels to study the underpinning. There was a spare wagon-tongue lashed there and a sheet of canvas, suspended by its corners and almost the length of the wagon. It sagged a little.

"What's that for?"

"Buffalo chips," a bystander said. "The womenfolks walk behind the wagon and pick up buffalo chips and toss them onto that canvas. They're the only fuel you are likely to find."

They bought the wagon and the animals. A farmer standing by lighted his pipe and glanced at Tom Trevallion. "You made you a good deal. Mighty lucky to have that much. Two hundred dollars is about a year's income for a farmer, these days. I'd like to go west, m'self, if I could afford it."

The woman took the coins Tom Trevallion paid her, and the man with the pale eyes stepped quickly forward, reaching for one of the coins. "May I see that?" He looked at the woman. "I'll give it back. It is a rare coin, I think."

The coin was gold, quite heavy. "A doubloon," the man said. "One sees very few of them." He looked around at Tom Trevallion. "Where did you get it?"

"Something my father brought from the wars. Had it for years," he added.

The man with the pale eyes handed back the coin. "Interesting," he said. "Have you more of them?"

"No," Val's father spoke stiffly, and turned away. The man lingered, watching them.

It took the Trevallions another week to prepare, to buy what was needed in tools, ammunition, and food supplies.

There wasn't much to Westport, just a cluster of log and frame buildings on the bank of the river. Tom Trevallion moved his family into the wagon to save money. Beside the fire that night he put his hand on his son's shoulder. "It is a different life, this. The people are different. We've got to learn to do things right the first time, because where we are going there isn't much room for mistakes. Keep your eyes open, Val, and you will learn fast."

"That man who asked you about the gold, he was in the store when you bought things."

"I saw him."

"He started talking to me," Mary Trevallion said, "asked when we were going." She looked up at her husband. "I told him we had not decided, that we might decide to stay here and farm."

Tom Trevallion smiled. "Good girl. No reason to let anybody know our business."

"That man bothers me. I don't like him."

Val's father shrugged. "Just nosy . . . lots of people are."

Val helped load the wagon. He learned to build a fire, to grease the axles, to care for the oxen. As was his way, he said little. When two or three of the wagonmasters and trail guides got together, Val managed to sit close.

On the day after they bought the wagon, Val went into the street to pick up a coil of rope his father had bought. The man with the pale eyes was seated against the side of the store-building eating a piece of bread. He seemed to have nothing else.

Walking back there were several young men from fifteen to twenty-five years standing in a group, talking. ". . . says he pays for everything in gold."

"Damned furriner!" another said. "How's he have so much when we're down to our last?"

Were they talking of his father? Val hurried to the wagon. "Papa? I heard some men--"

His father listened. "They could have been speaking of many a man here, Val. But I have a choice. It is gold that I have, although little enough of it, so it is gold I must spend."

Later his father came to him. "Do you watch over the little Redaway girl. Her father and I must go up to town on business. Your mother is resting and Mrs. Redaway will be bathing in her wagon. We shall be back soon."

"But, pa!" Val protested.

"Do as you are told. She is a fine little girl and you can play--"

"Play!" he scoffed. "She's only eight!"

"No matter. Each must do his bit and that is for you. Be kind, now."

Her name was Marguerita, she told him politely, but her papa called her Grita.

Val started by telling Grita stories, and what followed was horror.