GOOD-BYE OLD SOURDOUGH
The Old Prospector is passing, and with him much of the Romance of the West, much also of real value
EACH year, for more than a quarter of a century now, at that time in the fall when the snows crept down from the mountain tops into the valleys and flooded the whole world with white, “Next-Year” Macklin had come to this precise spot in the trail and looked down upon the city below him.
Behind him were the tangled hill-lands, with their myriad draws and valleys and ravines, and with their countless mountain slopes which would take every day of a thousand lifetimes to follow to their uttermost ends. Before him was the city, with the first thin film of snow upon it.
“Next-Year” placed a hand upon the flank of his cayuse with a gesture which was almost affection, and he spoke cheeringly.
“Buck up, you old Dog Ear,” he bantered.
“All we gotta do is just stick it for a few more miles now; and then, you old worn-out pinto, if they wake you up to-night with the band playing, you’ll know it’s for me.”
Macklin tramped on, with his form bent beneath the burden upon his shoulders, and from time to time he tried to ease the weight upon the back of the cayuse, as they followed the draw into the trail leading to that city cupped there in the lap of the encircling hills. On and on they tramped, and at length they came to the fringe of the city; the iron heels of “Next Year’s” boots left a dull, ringing voice behind them as they struck the outlying pavements; a street-car clanged its way past; and as they drew closer and closer to the end of their journey, the shoulders of “Next-Year” Macklin grew straighter and straighter.
Twilight came, and the dusk began to creep about them; then from the thin sprinkling of people along the sidewalks, a voice reached out:
“Well, if that ain’t Next-Year Mack, back from the hills. Did you make it this time, Mack, or is it still Next Year?”
Macklin, with the pressure of this moment pounding at his heart, stared back in silence. He stared until the other man laughed through the dusk, and until the bantering voice broke out
“It’s tough luck, Mack. But I hear the hills were hard to work this yerr; too many fires, and the snow came early.... But, Mack, you sure will strike it next year.. . ”
Macklin nodded sharply.
“I got it now!” he said, hoarsely. Then a moment later he nodded towards that curious burden upon the back of his cayuse. “Yes, Bill, I got it at last. There’s no more next-year forme.”
'T'HERE was something in the voice which caused Bill Rentier to step from the sidewalk and take Macklin’s hand in a sudden grip. Then he turned about and began to trudge through the thin layer of snow at the side of the grizzled one.
“We had better take this side street; it’s shorter,” Rentier said, at length. “Now, what is if! More copper; or perhaps silver?”
"Next-Year” Macklin’s voice was still hoarse when he spoke the one word, rent with its magic:
Silence for a moment, while their crunching feet cut through the snow.
“Gold?” Rentier repeated the word, quite calmly, as his glance took in the queer pack upon the back of the cayuse, and as it wandered in time to that lump upon Macklin’s shoulder. Then he shook his head, somewhat sadly. “No, it can’t be placer gold. Placer gold doesn’t mean a small pack which nearly breaks a cayuse’s back. No, Next-Year, that stuff in the bags must be ore; and that means you have struck ore gold instead of placer gold.”
The hoarseness had been startled out of Macklin’s voice as he exclaimed, in reply:
"Jumpin’ Jerusalem! Isn’t gold enough?
What does it matter whether it’s ore gold or placer? It’s gold, I tell you, Bill. Don’t you understand that? Gold! The stuff I’ve been breaking my back for, for more than half my life. Gold, and I’ve got it at last, way up there in the hills. God, Bill!
There’s a mountain of it. And, Bill, I’ll let you in on it. You’ve played the game with me in the past. I never did have any head for business, but you’ve always give
me a lot of straight tips in the past; so I’ll let you in on half my mountain of gold. Bill, you do all the business, and I’m guessin’ there’ll be enough gold for two...” Macklin’s words poured out in a thin whisper of excitement, but something in the unresponsiveness of his companion seemed to dull his enthusiasm, to dim the fires of faith which had flamed up there among the hills. Then he went on, more calmly:
“....What’s wrong, Bill? You don’t seem to warm up. I’d kinda figured that mabbe the band would come out to-night when the town heard of my strike; but if it’s that, if you’re thinking we’d better keep it quiet, I don’t mind—not so much.”
AS YET, Bill Rentier’s glance still roved over those strange packs. “Ore gold,” he repeated, in his sorrowing way.
“Bill, you don’t mean that the world don’t want no more gold?” Macklin exclaimed, as something strange in Rentier’s manner reached him. “You don’t mean that something’s happened while I was up in the hills, something so that gold ain’t worth anything no more?”
“Yes,” Rentier returned quietly. “Something has happened since you made your last find; though it isn’t quite what you have said. Suppose you come down to my place for the night, and we’ll talk it over.”
So they talked it over in the Rentlër home, and while they talked, Macklin forgot all about the town band; and long before the evening was over the mercury of his high hopes had dribbled and sagged its way down through the tortuous stream of life, until in the end, “Next-Year” Macklin was looking out upon the world through gloomy eyes instead of through cheering ones.
Next day the city News carried a half column about the recent gold find of “Mr. Thomas Macklin, one of our oldest prospectors”; but it was more bitter than triumphant. A few clipped paragraphs will show the trend of the editorial mind, and will show, as well, just why the fires of hope were burning low in the brain of “Next-Year” Macklin.
“.... There can be no doubt about the exceedingly high grade of the ore which Mr. Macklin brought to the city last night, for already it has undergone the inspection of the local analyst; and Mr. Macklin’s integrity is too well established to permit anyone to doubt his statement that there is a whole mountain of ore of similar grade.
“Under the conditions which prevailed ten years ago, Mr. Macklin’s friends would be carrying him about the city on their shoulders to-day, and his standing as a prosperous and successful citizen would have been established over night. Ten years ago, within a few hours of reaching the city with such ore in his possession, Mr. Macklin would doubtless have been the holder of a check for many thousands of dollars, and he could either have bonded his mine, or could have sold his claim outright. But now it seems that the Macklin Red Deer Mine is just one more undeveloped property added to the thousands of claims which have already been recorded around the city and all through the southern portion of British Columbia; and we presume that the prospect of the property being opened up and developed during the next quarter of a century will have to be added to the already long list of shattered hopes which have left the mining operations in this portion of Canada in a stagnant condition.
“Still, we understand that Mr. William Rentier is taking an active interest in the Macklin mine, and if that is the case, we can rest assured that some action will be secured, if such be possible.”
Through the dull grey days of the thickening winter, “Next-Year” Macklin sat and watched the fires of hope grow duller and duller in his wondering brain, and wherever he went he was received less with an air of triumph than with one of commiseration.
“Hard lines,” was the consolation of Dunk Revue, proprietor of the main hotel, which but a few years ago had seen the spilling of gold-dust upon its bars, and which had been the rendezvous of all the plungers and wild-catters and mining promoters for a score of miles about. Now the bar was forlorn, and only an occasional, mild-mannered tourist slipped through the doorway and sipped his ginger ale through a straw.
“Hard lines,” repeated Dunk Revue, “ten years ago we would have given you a banquet. You could have had the best room in the hotel, as long as you wanted it, with everything charged against the time when you got your money. But how times have changed! If you’re looking for a job to pull you through the winter. Continued on page 57
Good-bye, Old Sourdough
Continued from page 15
Mack, I can squeeze you in as extra bellboy, though we don’t need one at this time of the year. It’s for old time’s sake, you know.”
“Next Year” Macklin, with the vision of the old years, and of that gold-find up in the mountains still fresh in his brain, nodded sadly. . , .
“I’ll take it, Dunk,” he said. Things aren't what I expected to find them. Bui Rentier said he’d carry me through the winter, but I don’t want him to have to do that. He isn’t getting any money out of the mine; I’ve seen the letters which come through, and there hasn t been any body so much as nibbled at it yet. Yes, Dunk, I’ll carry the ice-water all winter,
for my meals and a grub-stake next spring.”
So hopeful Macklin, with a mountain of gold recorded in his name, steadied himself for the job of jumping to his feet every time some flitting traveller pressed the button for another glass of ice-water; and while he tried to get, a grip upon this new shocking phase of life, Bill Rentier was struggling to interest some financial man in the Mountain of Gold.
But when spring came, a new grubstake was not his sole financial need. A sum¡ ming up of the situation with Bill Rentier disclosed that fact.
“Things are not what they were a few years ago,” Rentier was forced to admit.
“You remember the time, Mack, when all a fellow like you bad to do was to come into town with a few good samples of ore and they didn’t have to be gold either— and there was always somebody ready to slip you a thousand or two.”
“Next Year” jerked his head restlessly, and one eye seemed to be turned constantly upon the slumbering mountains.
“Don’t I know it!” he exclaimed, “I’ve got six mines tied up that way; bonded, they call it. I got my first stake on them, but the Lord only knows when I’ll get anything more. Six mines, and there isn't one of them being worked. I’m sort of thinking that, the fellows I bonded them to, have bonded them to somebody else, and they’re just sitting down like I am, waiting for that somebody else to work them. Don’t look to me like I’d live long enough to get anything out of those mines. But what am I going to do with that pile of gold up at the Red Deer, Bill?”
FROM the way Bill Rentier toyed with his ear, it was obvious that the problem had occasioned him considerable thought.
“There are two things you can do,” he concluded. “You can bond it like you bonded your copper and silver mines, though I haven’t found anybody to advance any money yet. It’s harder to get money out of anybody on a bonded gold mine to-day than it was on lead ten years ago.. . Or if you don’t do that, you can go in and prove the mine.”
“Next-Year” Macklin knew all too well the significance of that; but in spite of the toil and the seeming impossibility of it, his eyes kept straying to those points where the snow had already melted from the mountain tops.
“It costs a bunch of money to prove a gold mine,” Rentier went on. “But you see this letter from the Oberley Corporation of New York. They’re sending an engineer in here next spring, to look over all the proved mines; and then they’re going to pick out one to work. Per-
Macklin reflected solemnly.
“I wouldn’t bond the Red Deer to anybody, unless I got enough out of it to keep me the rest of my days, which I can’t do; so I’m stuck there. And I can’t prove the mine, because I haven’t got the money to do it. I’m in an awful fix, Bill.” Through the years which he had watched the hopeful operations of “Next-Year” Macklin, Bill Rentier had come to understand, something of the lure which had taken the older man year after year along that trail which melted into the mountains. He knew much of the life the man had led; and now that a slight stoop was creeping into Macklin’s big frame, he could see a little of the tragedy which lay there just back of the sombre eyes.
“I don’t suppose you’ve managed to save any money?” Rentier asked, knowing the hopelessness of that even before he asked.
For Macklin, typical sourdough that he was, had tramped the mountains since his mere boyhood, and since the bonding of those half dozen mines which had brought him an odd thousand or so each, nothing of importance had ever come into the man’s life. Somehow or other he had struggled along, year after year, prospecting the wild sweeps of the mountains through the summers, picking up odd jobs here and there through the winter; and each spring he had gone out grubstaked by some citizen or other who had been willing to bet the price of Macklin’s summer outfit that “Next-Year” would come back with the sobriquet swept from him forever.
AS HE looked into Macklin’s wrinkled face, Rentier knew the folly of his own question. For the man’s whole life had been passed in spending every last dollar which came to his fingers, to meet the barest needs of a summer in the mountains. And the winters? In some haphazard manner they had cared for themselves.
"You would need a couple of thousand this summer alone, perhaps more,” Rentier spoke slowly. “I will let you have it, Mack.”
Macklin’s bony fingers closed about the other’s hand in wordless thanks; and so they parted.
“Next-Year” Macklin spent the summer at he’idragging task of proving the Red Deer mine. He chiseled and tunneled and bored, to the limit of one man’s endurance; then he sent for a helper; and in the
¥all. when Rentier’s two thousand dollars had gone into the rock, as so many hundreds of other thousands have gone through the passing of a few years, he returned to that city cupped there in the hollow of the hills.
Dunk Revue took him on again, to help meet the whimsical needs of careless travelers, and even while the old prospector carried baggage and ice-water to the rooms of the transients, he was counting the days until the time when that engineer from the Oberley Corporation would visit the district to look over all the proved and half-proved mines splayed out among the hills, and then, perhaps, to choose one of them. There were a score or more of such mines, which had gnawed their way into the rocky breast of the mountains; and when “Next-Year” Macklin came to a grey day and looked solemnly out across the whitened hills, he knew quite well that there were mines which had been proved much deeper than his.
Then in time came the engineer, and the feverish summer’s wait, and the sinking of another thousand of Rentier’s money into the rock in the frantic hope of cutting deeper and laying bare more of the vein of gold than might be lying bare in some other mine.
The engineer was brisk, youthful, commercialized. He had a score of mines to examine in this district, a score more somewhere else. He had a reputation to make for himself, not in the finding of gold or in the proving of mines, but in working out cold, mathematical facts and demonstrating to the directors of the Oberley concern that a definite mine somewhere could be operated more economically than could all others.
He was so brisk that he quite overlooked the stoop in Macklin’s frame; he was so young that he caught nothing of the story of the past which lay slumbering back of the man’s roving eyes.
"/^OOD mine here, Macklin,” he proVJ nounced in the end. “You’re an old timer, I see; but you know how to sink a shaft just the same. Not half deep enough, of course. The vein may sink on you, or die, or anything else, a half dozen yards farther on. But you’ve got a prospect, Macklin. Just keep at it . . . Oh, I would say that if you spend another ten or fifteen thousand on it, you might show up something big enough for us to look at. Lots of ore; yes. Looks like it; and would grade high stuff. But there is just a chance that it might die on us, you know; and there is so much stuff we are certain of that we haven’t time these days to take a chance.”
“You might come in and test it out yourselves,” Macklin began; but the other laughed breezily.
“Haven’t time for that sort of thing these days. We leave that work to you. Sorry, old chap. But keep plugging; perhaps we’ll be wanting another mine in a few years from now. We’re taking the White Eagle up the line a ways, but it may fool us. Can’t tell.”
So “Next Year” Macklin went back to the bell-hopping job in Dunk Revue’s establishment, and each spring, for three years in succession, Bill Rentier advanced another thousand or fraction of it, for the deepening of the shaft in the Red Deer Mine. Things still had a bright side; for there was the White Eagle which the Oberley people had turned into a successful mine.
Then came the slump. Even the White Eagle closed down.
“I’m thinking, Mack, that we’re through,” Rentier faced the situation. "We’ve put five thousand in the Red Deer. We know the gold ore is there, in paying streaks; but we’re only one pair of fifty in this city alone, and goodness only knows how many hundreds there must be if you take in the whole of British Columbia. No, Mack, we’re too small; the day of the small miner is gone. If you haven’t enough money to prove a mine, open up the seams and lay them bare for the big investor to come along and look at, you might just as well stay off the job.”
“How do they think an old sourdough like me is ever going to do that?” Macklin demanded impatiently, as he thought of his mountain of gold.
Since Rentier had no answer, “NextYear” went back once more to the pursuit of the ice-pitcher and the club-bag, and L-st summer he was still there. In the spring, there were some evidences of conditions improving; and Bill Rentier,
though he has been sadly in need of that five thousand in the past few years, was scurrying about trying to raise an extra thousand or two to sink that shaft a bit deeper in the Red Deer Mine. A small gang came in and began tinkering about the White Eagle, as though the machinery were to be put in order for another
BUT no matter what happens, it wil be too late for “Next-Year” Macklin. His shoulders are badly bent now; he spends long hours staring out across the trail which leads to the mystery of the mountains far beyond; and he has taken at times to kicking stray club-bags the moment their owners are out of sight. Dunk Revue caught him at it once last summer, but for the life of him, the man could not help but think of that mountain of gold lying off there undeveloped, and with its owner subjected to all the passing whims of stray travelers.
“I wouldn’t do that, Mack,” Dunk said, as he put a hand on the old man’s shoulder. “You know, that every grip might be owned by another engineer sent in here to open up a mine somewhere.” “Next-Year” Macklin paused in his labor of hate, considered the point, then nodded slowly.
“You're right, Dunk,’’ he said, “but what good will it ever do me?”
He is quiet and subdued now; he gives no trouble; but occasionally, when a lone traveler seems to be idling about the corridor of the hotel, he sidles up to him, and, if the man is sympathetic, there is told once more the queer story of the mountain of gold, which is waiting up there in the rolling hills for the man with the courage to make of it a key to the treasure vaults of the world.
ALL stories, we are told, should have a cheerful ending. That is all very well for fiction; but fact stories have a habit of ending the way the world decrees. It would have been nice to see “NextYear” Macklin get some reward for his labors; but the thing could not be done. Besides, he is only one of scores, perhaps hundreds, of his kind who dot the province once famed as the land of the sourdough. And for the most part, they appear to be “Next-Year” Macklins. They are weary of the fruitless labor; they are dying out; and in the place of the old picturesque sourdough there is rising up a new generation who know him not.
Getting down to cold statements, it means that the sourdough is passing; the old prospector will soon be a thing of the past because of the conditions which caught Macklin in their grip. Macklin is not a person of fiction; he is a real living being, though bent now beneath the burdens of the world and the years. The time seems to have arrived when there is no longer any reward, even a flitting one, for the old style of prospectors who did so much for the locating of mines in the early days; and as a result, the younger generation, seeing and understanding these facts, are refusing for the most part to go in for the life of a prospector. It was a gambler’s chance anyway. If he struck it in the old days, somebody would come along free-handed and pass over a few thousand dollars. But now, if he strikes it, he gets nowhere. They tell him to develop the mine, and he has not the means to do it. So he is drawing near the end of his vision of hope.
BUT the prospectors are doing what they can to fight the situation. They organized some years ago.
“We do feel that we are being cast aside,” said J. W. Mulholland, President for the past four years of the British Columbia ’rospectors’ Protective Association; “Where our numbers used to be in the thousands, they are now in the hundreds. Why? Because we are being driven out by conditions.”
That seems reasonable; for how can any prospector spend all his funds to keep himself in the hills, and still have the necessary thousands left to develop his mine after he has found it?
The answer? The prospectors have it; and they are going to put it up to the Canadian Government. For, they say, unless the Government steps in and helps, first thing they know there will be no prospectors, and there will be no new mines to be opened up. So, with the passing of the sourdough, it looks as though the Government would in time be faced with the problem of doing its own
■ prospecting, or of giving some financial assistance to those who have located suitable claims, but who lack the means I to put them on the market.
“Let the prospector go in on salary, for I the Government?” you ask; and the hands go up in horror at the thought.
“Nothing like that,” they protest. “The work of the prospector is the work of the love of the wilds, and the lure of wealth Which comes first? Come to think of it, I guess it’s the lure, and not the wealth, i You could never get the right kind of a man to go into the mountains on salary and prospect. He might loaf and eat up supplies. But prospect? Ah, that takes the man who loves the hills.”
Then what is the answer?
Let the Government chip in and open up the genuine claims once the sourdough has found them; let the Government be the intermediary between the financelesa prospector and the big mining corporations which, in these days of fevered life, brush all things aside unless the mineral is lying there before the naked eye; let the Government encourage, but not pauper-
But perhaps, after all, Ottawa might have something to say about that.