Johnny Starleigh found himself again late for school. It was always happening. It seemed to be inevitable with the process of going to school at all. And it was no fault “o’ his.” Something was always occurring, some eccentricity of Nature or circumstance was invariably starting up in his daily path to the schoolroom. He may not have been “thinkin’ of squirrels,” and yet the rarest and most evasive of that species were always crossing his trail; he may not have been “huntin’ honey,” and yet a wild bees’ nest in the hollow of an oak absolutely obtruded itself before him; he wasn’t “bird-catchin’,” and yet there was a yellow-hammer always within stone’s throw. He had heard how grown men hunters always saw the most wonderful animals when they “hadn’t got a gun with ‘em,” and it seemed to be his lot to meet them in his restricted possibilities on the way to school. If Nature was thus capricious with his elders, why should folk think it strange if she was as mischievous with a small boy?
You remember Alibaba, the poor woodcutter who discovers how to open the thieves’ secret hideout? In Bret Harte’s retelling, “Open Sesame” is a lever and there is no sword dance.
Read this tale and others like it in Harte’s collection, Openings in the Old Trail, which you’ll find at Project Gutenberg.
On this particular morning Johnny had been beguiled by the unmistakable footprints—so like his own!—of a bear’s cub. What chances he had of ever coming up with them, or what he would have done if he had, he did not know. He only knew that at the end of an hour and a half he found himself two miles from the schoolhouse, and, from the position of the sun, at least an hour too late for school. He knew that nobody would believe him. The punishment for complete truancy was little worse than for being late. He resolved to accept it, and by way of irrevocability at once burnt his ships behind him—in devouring part of his dinner.
Thus fortified in his outlawry, he began to look about him. He was on a thickly wooded terrace with a blank wall of “outcrop” on one side nearly as high as the pines which pressed close against it. He had never seen it before; it was two or three miles from the highroad and seemed to be a virgin wilderness. But on close examination he could see, with the eye of a boy bred in a mining district, that the wall of outcrop had not escaped the attention of the mining prospector. There were marks of his pick in some attractive quartz seams of the wall, and farther on, a more ambitious attempt, evidently by a party of miners, to begin a tunnel, shown in an abandoned excavation and the heap of debris before it. It had evidently been abandoned for some time, as ferns already forced their green fronds through the stones and gravel, and the yerba buena vine was beginning to mat the surface of the heap. But the boy’s fancy was quickly taken by the traces of a singular accident, and one which had perhaps arrested the progress of the excavators. The roots of a large pine-tree growing close to the wall had been evidently loosened by the excavators, and the tree had fallen, with one of its largest roots still in the opening the miners had made, and apparently blocking the entrance. The large tree lay, as it fell — midway across another but much smaller outcrop of rock which stood sharply about fifteen feet above the level of the terrace — with its gaunt, dead limbs in the air at a low angle. To Johnny’s boyish fancy it seemed so easily balanced on the rock that but for its imprisoned root it would have made a capital see-saw. This he felt must be looked to hereafter. But here his attention was arrested by something more alarming. His quick ear, attuned like an animal’s to all woodland sounds, detected the crackling of underwood in the distance. His equally sharp eye saw the figures of two men approaching. But as he recognized the features of one of them he drew back with a beating heart, a hushed breath, and hurriedly hid himself in the shadow. For he had seen that figure once before — flying before the sheriff and an armed posse — and had never forgotten it! It was the figure of Spanish Pete, a notorious desperado and sluice robber!
Finding he had been unobserved, the boy took courage, and his small faculties became actively alive. The two men came on together cautiously, and at a little distance the second man, whom Johnny did not know, parted from his companion and began to loiter up and down, looking around as if acting as a sentinel for the desperado, who advanced directly to the fallen tree. Suddenly the sentinel uttered an exclamation, and Spanish Pete paused. The sentinel was examining the ground near the heap of debris.
“What’s up?” growled the desperado.
“Foot tracks! Weren’t here before. And fresh ones, too.”
Johnny’s heart sank. It was where he had just passed.
Spanish Pete hurriedly joined his companion.
“Foot tracks be — !” he said scornfully. “What fool would be crawlin’ round here barefooted? It’s a young b’ar!”
Johnny knew the footprints were his own. Yet he recognized the truth of the resemblance; it was uncomplimentary, but he felt relieved. The desperado came forward, and to the boy’s surprise began to climb the small ridge of outcrop until he reached the fallen tree. Johnny saw that he was carrying a heavy stone. “What’s the blamed fool goin’ to do?” he said to himself; the man’s evident ignorance regarding footprints had lessened the boy’s awe of him. But the stranger’s next essay took Johnny’s breath away. Standing on the fallen tree trunk at its axis on the outcrop, he began to rock it gently. To Johnny’s surprise it began to move. The upper end descended slowly, lifting the root in the excavation at the lower end, and with it a mass of rock, and revealing a cavern behind large enough to admit a man. Johnny gasped. The desperado coolly deposited the heavy stone on the tree beyond its axis on the rock, so that it would keep the tree in position, leaped from the tree to the rock, and quickly descended, at which he was joined by the other man, who was carrying two heavy chamois-leather bags. They both proceeded to the opening thus miraculously disclosed, and disappeared in it.
Johnny sat breathless, wondering, expectant, but not daring to move. The men might come out at any moment; he had seen enough to know that their enterprise as well as their cave was a secret, and that the desperado would subject any witness to it, however innocent or unwilling, to horrible penalties. The time crept slowly by — he heard every rap of a woodpecker in a distant tree; a blue jay dipped and lighted on a branch within his reach, but he dared not extend his hand; his legs were infested by ants; he even fancied he heard the dry, hollow rattle of a rattlesnake not a yard from him. And then the entrance of the cave was darkened, and the two men reappeared. Johnny stared. He would have rubbed his eyes if he had dared. They were not the same men! Did the cave contain others who had been all the while shut up in its dark recesses? Was there a band? Would they all swarm out upon him? Should he run for his life?
But the illusion was only momentary. A longer look at them convinced him that they were the same men in new clothes and disguised, and as one remounted the outcrop Johnny’s keen eyes recognized him as Spanish Pete. He merely kicked away the stone; the root again descended gently over the opening, and the tree recovered its former angle. The two hurried away, but Johnny noticed that they were empty-handed. The bags had been left behind.
The boy waited patiently, listening with his ear to the ground, like an Indian, for the last rustle of fern and crackle of underbrush, and then emerged, stiff and cramped from his concealment. But he no longer thought of flight; curiosity and ambition burned in his small veins. He quickly climbed up the outcrop, picked up the fallen stone, and in spite of its weight lifted it to the prostrate tree. Here he paused, and from his coign of vantage looked and listened. The solitude was profound. Then mounting the tree and standing over its axis he tried to rock it as the others had. Alas! Johnny’s heart was stout, his courage unlimited, his perception all-embracing, his ambition boundless; but his actual avoirdupois was only that of a boy of ten. The tree did not move. But Johnny had played see-saw before, and quietly moved towards its highest part. It slowly descended under the changed centre of gravity, and the root arose, disclosing the opening as before. Yet here the little hero paused. He waited with his eyes fixed on the opening, ready to fly on the sallying out of any one who had remained concealed. He then placed the stone where he had stood, leaped down, and ran to the opening.
The change from the dazzling sunlight to the darkness confused him at first, and he could see nothing. On entering he stumbled over something which proved to be a bottle in which a candle was fitted, and a box of matches evidently used by the two men. Lighting the candle he could now discern that the cavern was only a few yards long, the beginning of a tunnel which the accident to the tree had stopped. In one corner lay the clothes that the men had left, and which for a moment seemed all that the cavern contained, but on removing them Johnny saw that they were thrown over a rifle, a revolver, and the two chamois-leather bags that the men had brought there. They were so heavy that the boy could scarcely lift them. His face flushed; his hands trembled with excitement. To a boy whose truant wanderings had given him a fair knowledge of mining, he knew that weight could have but one meaning! Gold! He hurriedly untied the nearest bag. But it was not the gold of the locality, of the tunnel, of the “bed rock”! It was “flake gold,” the gold of the river! It had been taken from the miners’ sluices in the distant streams. The bags before him were the spoils of the sluice robber, spoils that could not be sold or even shown in the district without danger, spoils kept until they could be taken to Marysville or Sacramento for disposal. All this might have occurred to the mind of any boy of the locality who had heard the common gossip of his elders, but to Johnny’s fancy an idea was kindled peculiarly his own! Here was a cavern like that of the “Forty Thieves” in the story book, and he was the “Ali Baba” who knew its secret! He was not obliged to say “Open Sesame,” but he could say it if he liked, if he was showing it off to anybody!
Yet alas he also knew it was a secret he must keep to himself. He had nobody to trust it to. His father was a charcoal-burner of small means; a widower with two children, Johnny and his elder brother Sam. The latter, a flagrant incorrigible of twenty-two, with a tendency to dissipation and low company, had lately abandoned his father’s roof, only to reappear at intervals of hilarious or maudlin intoxication. He had always been held up to Johnny as a warning, or with the gloomy prognosis that he, Johnny, was already following in his tortuous footsteps. Even if he were here he was not to be thought of as a confidant. Still less could he trust his father, who would be sure to bungle the secret with sheriffs and constables, and end by bringing down the vengeance of the gang upon the family. As for himself, he could not dispose of the gold if he were to take it. The exhibition of a single flake of it to the adult public would arouse suspicion, and as it was Johnny’s hard fate to be always doubted, he might be connected with the gang. As a truant he knew he had no moral standing, but he also had the superstition — quite characteristic of childhood — that being in possession of a secret he was a participant in its criminality — and bound, as it were, by terrible oaths! And then a new idea seized him. He carefully put back everything as he had found it, extinguished the candle, left the cave, remounted the tree, and closed the opening again as he had seen the others do it, with the addition of murmuring “Shut Sesame” to himself, and then ran away as fast as his short legs could carry him.
Well clear of the dangerous vicinity, he proceeded more leisurely for about a mile, until he came to a low whitewashed fence, inclosing a small cultivated patch and a neat farmhouse beyond. Here he paused, and, cowering behind the fence, with extraordinary facial contortions produced a cry not unlike the scream of a blue jay. Repeating it at intervals, he was presently relieved by observing the approach of a nankeen sunbonnet within the enclosure above the line of fence. Stopping before him, the sun-bonnet revealed a rosy little face, more than usually plump on one side, and a neck enormously wrapped in a scarf. It was “Meely” (Amelia) Stryker, a schoolmate, detained at home by “mumps,” as Johnny was previously aware. For, with the famous indiscretion of some other great heroes, he was about to entrust his secret and his destiny to one of the weaker sex. And what were the minor possibilities of contagion to this?
“Playin’ hookey ag’in?” said the young lady, with a cordial and even expansive smile, exclusively confined to one side of her face.
“Um! So’d you be ef you’d bin whar I hev,” he said with harrowing mystery.
“No! — say!” said Meely eagerly.
At which Johnny, clutching at the top of the fence, with hurried breath told his story. But not all. With the instinct of a true artist he withheld the manner in which the opening of the cave was revealed, said nothing about the tree, and, I grieve to say, added the words “Open Sesame” as the important factor to the operation. Neither did he mention the name of Spanish Pete. For all of which he was afterwards duly grateful.
“Meet me at the burnt pine down the crossroads at four o’clock,” he said in conclusion, “and I’ll show ye.”
“Why not now?” said Meely impatiently.
“Couldn’t. Much as my life is worth! Must keep watching out! You come at four.”
And with an assuring nod he released the fence and trotted off. He returned cautiously in the direction of the cave; he was by no means sure that the robbers might not return that day, and his mysterious rendezvous with Meely veiled a certain prudence. And it was well! For as he stealthily crept around the face of the outcrop, hidden in the ferns, he saw from the altered angle of the tree that the cavern was opened. He remained motionless, with bated breath. Then he heard the sound of subdued voices from the cavern, and a figure emerged from the opening. Johnny grasped the ferns rigidly to check the dreadful cry that rose to his lips at its sight. For that figure was his own brother!
There was no mistaking that weak, wicked face, even then flushed with liquor! Johnny had seen it too often thus. But never before as a thief’s face! He gave a little gasp, and fell back upon that strange reserve of apathy and reticence in which children are apt to hide their emotions from us at such a moment. He watched impassively the two other men who followed his brother out to give him a small bag and some instructions, and then returned within their cave, while his brother walked quickly away. He watched him disappear; he did not move, for even if he had followed him he could not bear to face him in his shame. And then out of his sullen despair came a boyish idea of revenge. It was those two men who had made his brother a thief!
He was very near the tree. He crept stealthily on his hands and knees through the bracken, and as stealthily climbed the wedge of outcrop, and then leaped like a wild cat on the tree. With incredible activity he lifted the balancing stone, and as the tree began to move, in a flash of perception transferred it to the other side of its axis, and felt the roots and debris, under that additional weight, descend quickly with something like a crash over the opening. Then he took to his heels. He ran so swiftly that all unknowingly he overtook a figure, who, turning, glanced at him, and then disappeared in the wood. It was his second and last view of his brother, as he never saw him again!
But now, strange to say, the crucial and most despairing moment of his day’s experience had come. He had to face Meely Stryker under the burnt pine, and the promise he could not keep, and to tell her that he had lied to her. It was the only way to save his brother now! His small wits, and alas! his smaller methods, were equal to the despairing task. As soon as he saw her waiting under the tree he fell to capering and dancing with an extravagance in which hysteria had no small part. “Sold! sold! sold again, and got the money!” he laughed shrilly.
The girl looked at him with astonishment, which changed gradually to scorn, and then to anger. Johnny’s heart sank, but he redoubled his antics.
“Who’s sold?” she said disdainfully.
“You be. You swallered all that stuff about Ali Baba! You wanted to be Morgy Anna! Ho! ho! And I’ve made you play hookey — from home!”
“You hateful, horrid, little liar!”
Johnny accepted his punishment meekly — in his heart gratefully. “I reckoned you’d laugh and not get mad,” he said submissively. The girl turned, with tears of rage and vexation in her eyes, and walked away. Johnny followed at a humble distance. Perhaps there was something instinctively touching in the boy’s remorse, for they made it up before they reached her fence.
Nevertheless Johnny went home miserable. Luckily for him, his father was absent at a Vigilance Committee called to take cognizance of the late sluice robberies, and although this temporarily concealed his offense of truancy, the news of the vigilance meeting determined him to keep his lips sealed. He lay all night wondering how long it would take the robbers to dig themselves out of the cave, and whether they suspected their imprisonment was the work of an enemy or only an accident. For several days he avoided the locality, and even feared the vengeful appearance of Spanish Pete some night at his father’s house. It was not until the end of a fortnight that he had the courage to revisit the spot. The tree was in its normal position, but immovable, and a great quantity of fresh debris at the mouth of the cave convinced him that the robbers, after escaping, had abandoned it as unsafe. His brother did not return, and either the activity of the Vigilance Committee or the lack of a new place of rendezvous seemed to have dispersed the robbers from the locality, for they were not heard of again.
The next ten years brought an improvement to Mr. Starleigh’s fortunes. Johnny Starleigh, then a student at San Jose, one morning found a newspaper clipping in a letter from Miss Amelia Stryker. It read as follows: “The excavators in the new tunnel in Heavystone Ridge lately discovered the skeletons of two unknown men, who had evidently been crushed and entombed some years previously, by the falling of a large tree over the mouth of their temporary refuge. From some river gold found with them, they were supposed to be part of the gang of sluice robbers who infested the locality some years ago, and were hiding from the Vigilants.” For a few days thereafter Johnny Starleigh was thoughtful and reserved, but he did not refer to the paragraph in answering the letter. He decided to keep it for later confidences, when Miss Stryker should become Mrs. Starleigh.