Striking “Pay Dirt.”

Annie Hamilton Donnell

From Harper's Round Table (November 3, 1896)




“No beans? Why, Thanny!” The rich creamy spoonful dripped back into the tureen. Millia Thacher's tired face put on astonishment as a garment. “No beans?

“Well, that's what I said, wasn't it?” her brother snapped across at her. “I don't know's the world has got any call to stand still because I don't want 'em, either. I don't want any dinner.”

“Why, Thanny!”

“Well, I don't. That's all there is to it.”

“But, Thanny, I've got rhubarb pie. I made it a purpose, and I guess it's real good. You ain't going to slight that, Thanny?”

“Milly Thacher, for pity's sake do stop Thannying me! Anybody'd think I was ten years old instead of twenty. There! I'm sorry. I'll be a good boy now.”

He reached his long arm across the table, and touched Millia's face with big, contrite fingers very gently. The sudden remorse softened the morose lines in his face, and lifted for a minute the cloud upon it. It was a strong enough, comely enough young face, its chin rounded out boldly, and the clean-cut mouth above was not at all weak. But Nathan Thacher's face was listless and discouraged, and altogether unhappy.

He pushed away his chair, rasping it over the uneven floor as if the discord accorded with his mood.

“It's no use, Milly; I'm going to give it up. It's no use.”

“Oh no, Thanny — no, no! You're only tired out and down-spirited this morning, that's all. You don't feel like yourself. The idea of us giving it up!” She laughed nervously, with a little shrill, hysterical note in her voice. “Why, we've got to keep right on, Thanny Thacher, just as we promised father we'd do. We've got to keep the old farm running —”

“Till it runs down hill into the poorhouse. It's more'n two-thirds down now.”

“I don't care! Then we've got to pull it up again. We promised father.”

Millia's defiance had the thrill and surrender of a sob in it, and suddenly she sank down into a heap on the kitchen floor and cried in smothered dreary abandon.

The door being open, Nathan looked out, across Millia's huddled shoulders, at the bare stretch of rough uncultivated acres. The scant unthrifty grass divided the honors with rocks and underbrush. There was nothing beautiful nor “sightly” nor encouraging in the prospect, and Nathan Thacher's mouth puckered into a low whistle of contempt. He whistled still louder, and shuffled his feet about to drown the low monotony of Millia's sobs, filling the little room drearily.

“Hush up, Milly; there's a good girl,” he said at last, prodding her arm gently. “What's the good of wasting all that salt water? Salt may go up.”

He made a sorry attempt at laughing, and strode past her out of the door. The girl sat on the floor, rocking back and forth with even swaying motion for a long while. The cheerless world outside oppressed her through the net-work of her fingers and chilled her heart. Pitifully distinct she saw the same barren stretch of fields that Nathan had seen — the same sparse, worn-out vegetation. It looked as forlorn, as discouraging, as it had to him. But Millia Thacher's troubled soul held stubbornly to its one anchor of unswerving loyalty to the poor old farm, and of faith to their promise — Thanny's and hers — to poor old “father.”

Give it up? Never! Oh, no, no! They must stand by the farm. Thanny must work — she must work.

She got up hastily, and peered out across the fields in the eager hope of seeing Thanny with old Bess ploughing. Surely he would plough to-day; yes, there he was, but walking idly, moodily, about, with stooped-over shoulders, like an old man.

Poor Thanny! He hadn't wanted, anyway, to be a farmer, and after his brave little beginning out in the world — after father died — it had been hard to come home and settle down on the old “run-out” farm among the stumps and rocks and the meagre timothy heads.

Poor Thanny! Millia watched him with loving eyes. He looked so dismal in the dismal setting of stubbly fields, backgrounded by the dull sky, that she had no heart to upbraid him. Poor Millia!

The little kitchen wore its late-afternoon spick-and-span dress, and Millia sat in it, humming a little brave tune over her mending-box, when Nathan came hurrying, springing in. There was rare buoyancy in his step, and Millia waited, astonished.

“Why, Thanny!” she cried, as soon as he got within hearing range.

Nathan Thacher's tanned face radiated excitement and triumph from every feature. His eyes were shining. Into Millia's hands he thrust a bit of jagged rock.

“Look at that, Milly — gold!

“My goodness me, Thanny!”

Gold, I tell you — g-o-l-d! Milly Thacher, there's gold on this farm — do you hear? It's under your face and eyes, in that rock. It's in all the rocks.”

He laughed shrilly, executing shuffling dance steps around her chair.

“Thanny Thacher, you ain't in your right mind! You scare me.”

“Milly Thacher, it's the live truth! Dan Merriweather thought so as long ago as he worked for father, but father didn't believe it, nor I either. I didn't think there could be any such good luck. But there is — there is!” The boy's face was radiant. “Dan's an old Forty-niner, and he ought to know. I didn't believe him, though — not till this afternoon, when I found that rock. Seeing's believing, and can't you see? Can't you see all those little gold grains, Milly Thacher, if you've got half an eye? They're there. All we've got to do is to get 'em out. I guess I know gold when I see it!”

Millia held the little rock in limp, unbelieving fingers. She saw the tiny sparkles in it; but — gold! Visions of wealth and luxury and rest hurried through her brain, of Thanny looking happy and satisfied again, and of herself — plain, tired little Milly — wearing becoming clothes, and letting her roughened fingers grow smooth and white. Perhaps she would wear soft kid gloves; people did who had gold. Perhaps Thanny would too; Thanny's hands were slender and shapely. Luxuries read of and dreamed of appealed suddenly to her dazzled vision as possible, probable realities; people with gold on their farms had such things, of course.

Nathan broke in upon her dreaming:

“They found gold on a farm over in Bently. Over Easton way, too. I guess it's all over these parts. Anyhow, it's on the Thacher farm!” He laughed jubilantly. Then he pocketed the little sparkling pebble, and said, briskly: “Don't you wait supper for me, Milly. I'm going down to the Forks to see Amasa Flagg. He can advise me some about working the vein. Amasa knows everything.”

Working the vein! How mysteriously important it sounded to Millia as she sat there, confused and awed! Could that be Thanny — Thanny! — swinging along with great springy strides, his shoulders unstooped, and importance and energy trailing in a little wake behind him?

Would Amasa Flagg advise him to dig a mine — Millia's thoughts were couched in familiar words — and wear a candle in his hat, and burrow round in the earth in unsafe places? My goodness me! — would there be real miners round the place, perhaps wanting to board right in the family?

In the midst of things Millia fell asleep.

Nathan came home at night rather sobered, but still confident. There was gold there; how much nobody could prophesy till it could be looked into systematically, and that took money. There was no money on the Thacher place, and Nathan scorned any suggestion of borrowing.

So the money must be earned. When that was done, he would sink a shaft and find his gold. When that was done — the money earned! Well, it looked a little appalling just at first; but Nathan Thacher had his grandfather Thacher's courage, once aroused, and he set his teeth for the struggle.

“Crops,” Amasa Flagg had said, succinctly.

Nathan had thought of his barren waste fields, and gasped inwardly. Well, crops, then, if crops it must be; but what?

“Corn,” the oracle had declared. “There's money in sweet-corn, now't them factories are runnin full tilt over to Easton. They want all they can git. You won't make no mistake if you plant your fields full of it, an' I calc'late you'll find that the nighest road to your gold-mine. I calc'late so. But you'll have to hustle considerable, an' make your hoe fly real stiddy. You can't make a corn crop payin' without you do everything thorough. You've got to hustle, my boy, early 'n' late!”

And how Nathan Thacher hustled those long hot summer days! How, from daylight to sunsetting, he delved and toiled in his fields, working miracles in them with slow stubborn courage! He lost courage once or twice, but Millia never knew it. She watched his eager determined face steadily, and always read quiet resolution in it, and, as the weeks multiplied to months, a new expression of self-respect that delighted her soul.

“Thanny's losing his old down-spirited looks,” she would muse happily over her work. “He holds up his head straight and kind of proud now; but, my goodness me, how he is working!”

And Millia, too, worked. She hurried through with her house duties, and went out to the fields with Nathan to do whatever lighter work he would let her do out there. Side by side the brother and sister toiled, seeing the waste places bloom under their eyes, and gradually the rough acres smooth out into beautiful thrifty corn rows.

Millia walked between them in cool evenings, and let her skirts flip the tiny stalks gently. They grew tall, and she could nudge them in friendly greeting as she passed down and up between them.

Of course all this success came only out of the hardest possible wrestling with nature. There went before it weeks of mighty work with drag and pick, wresting out rocks and uprooting stumps and weeds. Only Grandfather Thacher's grim persistence, descended like a mantle on Nathan's aching young shoulders, carried those hard days. The neighbors helped at odd times, and Nathan repaid them in rainy intervals. So at last the two big fields were smooth and ready for the ploughing, that left them seamed with long ridges wavering gently away into perspective. How good the upturned earth had smelled to Millia! She stood outside and drew in long satisfying whiffs of it.

It was so good to see the old place thriving at last — to smell it and watch it and be proud of it. Millia forgot all about the gold-mine some days.

Nathan never did. He repaired the fences to keep intruders out. He drew out loads upon loads of dressing for his land from stores of hitherto wasted fertility beneath the old barns. He nurtured and tended and worked unstintingly, but always with the glitter of the gold grains in his rocks before his eyes. Nathan never forgot. He studied books on mining in the evening until his tired head nodded over the blurring letters. Once, when the corn was all planted, and there was a little interval of rest, he went to a city, a day's trip distant, and had his little samples of glistening rock assayed. It was when he came home from that journey that Millia thought she could detect a little look of disappointment in his face, and perhaps a faint crestfallen note in his voice. But she forgot about it soon, because they were so busy weeding the corn rows.

One evening, when the green stalks towered more than elbow-high around them, Thanny and Milly walked through the rows, talking to each other across them. They both looked happy. Milly's small thin face had rounded out a little, and turned to a golden brown. She walked with little quick jubilant steps. The old farm looked so beautiful to-night! What would father say?

Suddenly she began to laugh. In front of her dangled her scarecrow — the work of her own hands — mincing and bowing to her ludicrously. A slight breeze stirred his hempen hair and swayed his coat skirts. It was Thanny's coat and Thanny's hat and Thanny's trousers and boots. He was an unwieldy, unflattering travesty of Thanny, with, oddly enough, his stooped shoulders, and old air of depression and gloom. Had Thanny bequeathed them to Milly's scarecrow, for once and all?

For to-night Thanny's shoulders were not stooped, and his whole expression was cheery and manly.

He stopped too and laughed.

“My goodness me! Thanny, ain't he a beauty?” giggled Milly, delightedly.

“Milly,” Thanny said, “that's me. I've been watching myself this long time — stooped over and hangdog and down in the mouth. I've been seeing myself the way you and other folks used to see me, and — well, it was kind of a bitter pill, but I took it, and I guess it's done me good. I guess so.”

The summer days swelled the sweet-corn kernels and brought the ears to their perfection. It was almost time to cut them and carry them away to the factory, when one day Nathan found Millia among the rows, and stopped to put both his big hands on both her shoulders with unusual gentleness. Looking up into his face, she thought how serenely happy it seemed.

“Milly,” he said, laughing a little in quiet triumph, “they offered me eighty dollars an acre for this corn to-day.”

“Why, Thanny!”

“Yes'm; and I took it.” He walked away, down one row and up another. Then he faced her again. “Milly, we've struck pay dirt a'ready. We've found the gold,” he said.

“Why, Thanny! Why, I thought —” And then Milly caught his sudden sweeping gesture, comprehending all the golden stalks of corn, row after row, and understood. “Why, yes!” she cried; “so it is, Thanny Thacher — it's our gold!”

“Yes,” Thanny said, thoughtfully, as they walked home together, and there was quiet contentment in his voice. “Yes, I guess it's all right. The assayer said there wasn't enough gold in the rocks to make it worth while, but there's gold in the old sod, Milly. We've struck ‘pay dirt.’”