Thunder Mountain - Zane Grey - ebook

Thunder Mountain ebook

Zane Grey



One of the bestselling novelists of the American West brings us a gripping tale of gold, greed, and vengeance. Three brothers find a lode of gold at Thunder Mountain. But instead of finding peace and prosperity, Jake, Kalispel, and Sam Emerson find more treachery than any normal men could hope to survive. Before they can get the claim registered, one of the brothers is killed by a claim jumper and the other is beaten and robbed of his ore sample. A boom town rises around the new mine while the youngest brother plots to find a way to force Rand Leavitt, the mine’s owner to admit to the murder. A very complex story of danger and greed that ends with a real unexpected happening.

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A warm spring rain melted the deep snows in the Saw Tooth Range, and a flood poured down the headwaters of the Salmon River.

It washed out a colony of beavers, one of which, a crippled old female with a cub, fell behind the others and lost them. She came at length into a narrow valley where the stream meandered along a wide rocky bench wooded by stately isolated pines and fringes of willow and aspen.

The old mother beaver lingered with her cub near the mouth of an intersecting brook. In a sheltered bend under the looming mountain slope she began her labors. While the little cub played and splashed about she toiled industriously, cutting branches, carrying sticks, dragging rocks, and padding mud until she had bridged the brook and built a dam. A still pool rose behind the barrier.

One night when the afterglow of sunset loomed dull red upon the pool and the silence of the wilderness lay like a mantle upon the valley, the old beaver noticed a strange quivering ripple passing across the placid surface of her pool. There was no current coming from the brook, there was no breath of wind to disturb the dead calm. She noticed the tremors pass across the pool, she sniffed the pine-scented air, she listened with all the sensitiveness of a creature of the wild.

From high up on the looming mountain slope, from the somber purple shadow, came down a low rumble, a thunder that seemed to growl from the bowels of the great mountain.

The old mother beaver did not wait to hear that again. With her cub she abandoned the quivering pool, and taking to the main stream she left the valley.

*     *


The last remnant of the Sheepeater Indians pitched camp on the rocky bench across the stream from the abandoned beaver dam.

Outcasts from various tribes, they were fugitives and had banded together for protection, fifty-one in all, warriors, squaws, and children, under the command of Tomanmo.

While the braves put up their lodges, the weary squaws unpacked meager supplies and belongings. The lame children, exhausted from continuous march, sat silent with somber eyes.

Tomanmo gazed up and down this valley to which he had been led by the Nez Percé member of his band. Long and hard had been the tramp hither, and the last miles over solid rock. The soldiers could not track them here. It was a refuge. Deer and elk as tame as cattle grazed under the pines; white goats shone on the high bluffs of the south wall; mountain sheep stood silhouetted against the sky, watching the invaders of their solitude.

“We will hide here and rest. It is well,” said Tomanmo to his band, and he sent hunters out to kill fresh meat.

When the chief sat down he found himself facing the north slope of the valley. It struck him singularly, and he gazed with the falcon eyes of one used to the heights. Bare and steep, this slope, open to the south, slanted abruptly from the edge of the rocky bench some few hundred yards distant. What first attracted Tomanmo’s curiosity was the fact that no game trail, not even a single track, marred the smooth surface of the incline. It sheered up a long way before its purple continuity was broken by a thin line of fir trees, pointing skyward like tufted spears. From there the color gray and the smooth surface broke to scantily timbered ledges that stepped up and up prodigiously, at last to turn white with snow on the skyline. Precipitous looming mountains were the rule in that range, and all the south slopes, where the snow did not long lie, were bare of timber. But the endless south slope of this mountain showed no solid foundation of rock, no iron ribs of red granite, no bulge of cliff sheering up out of soft earth. Tomanmo shook his lean dark head.

Presently the Nez Percé approached the chief to open a skinny fist to his gaze. He held a handful of wet gravel and sand among which glinted bright specks.

“Ughh!” he ejaculated. “Gold!”

“Bad. White man come,” grunted the chief.

“Some day, long after Sheepeaters gone,” assented the Nez Percé.

The solemn still day wore on. The pointed lodges of elk hide and the brush shelters, the columns of blue smoke rising upward, the active raven-haired squaws with their colored raiment flashing in the sun, the hunters dragging carcasses over the stones, the ragged hollow-cheeked children asleep on the ground–all attested to a settlement of permanent camp. Soon pots were steaming, fragrant viands broiled over the red coals, cakes of bread baked on the hot flat stones.

At sunset the band feasted. Only Tomanmo did not share the sense of well-being after long hardship. While he ate he watched the changing colors on the steep slope, the darkening purple at the base, the merging of gray into the gold-flushed snow, high on the peaks.

Dusk fell, and then silent night, with the dark velvet sky studded by cold stars. The fires burned low, gleaming red over the haggard visages of the sleepers. But Tomanmo did not sleep. He stalked to and fro, listening as a chieftain who expected the voices of his gods. A low roar of running water permeated the silence and a sharp bay of a wolf, far up the valley, accentuated it.

Tomanmo’s ears, attuned as those of the deer to the whisperings and rustlings of the wild, registered other sounds. He sought out the sleeping Nez Percé and roused him with a moccasined foot.

“Ughh!” exclaimed the brave, sitting up.

“Come,” said the chief, and led him away from the circle of dying fires and sleeping savages. “Listen.”

Across the bench, away from the murmur of stream and song of pine, close under the black looming slope, Tomanmo bade his scout bend keen ears to the silence.

For long there was nothing. The valley seemed dead. The mountains slept. The stars watched. Wild life lay in its coverts. Then there came a ticking of tiny pebbles down the slope, a faint silken rustle of sliding dust, a strange breath of something indefinable, silence, and then again far off, a faint crack of rolling rocks, a moan, as a subterranean monster trying to breathe in the bowels of the earth, and at last, deep and far away, a rumble as of distant thunder.

“Hear?” queried the chief, with slow gesture toward the looming bulk.

The Nez Percé‘s somber eyes, mirroring the stars, dilated in answer. Tomanmo was assured that his own sensitive ears had not deceived him.

“It is the voice of the Great Spirit,” he said, solemnly. “Tomanmo is warned. This mountain moves, … When the sun shines we go.”

*     *


Years later, long after Tomanmo had gone to join his forefathers, three adventuring prospectors, brothers named Emerson, toiled down into the valley from the south, and late in the day unpacked their weary burros and made camp.

“Reckon it’s the place, all right,” said Sam, the eldest. “Thet old Nez Percé gave me a clear hunch.”

“Wal, I shore hope it ain’t,” replied Jake, the second brother, with a short grim laugh.


“Hell, man! Look around!”

Sam had been doing that avidly. The long valley, shut in by the rough red and green wall on the south, and the insurmountable and prodigious slope of talus on the north, evidently had taken his eye. But Sam was thinking of the isolation, the possibility of finding and working a gold claim without sharing it with other prospectors or being harassed by robbers. The dark caverned and notched wall on the east side, where the stream cut its way in cascades down to the valley, had a fascinating look to Sam Emerson. Those cliffs would hide gold-bearing ledges of quartz.

“Jake, I didn’t befriend that poor old Injun for nothin’,” replied Sam, with satisfaction. “This is the valley.”

“Wal, Sam, we never seen things alike, even as kids,” rejoined Jake, resignedly. “To me this is shore a hell of a hole. Gettin’ out will be worse than gettin’ in, an’ that was a tough job.”

“I’ll grade out a trail,” said his brother, cheerfully, “if that’s all you’re rarin’ about.”

“It ain’t all. It ain’t even a little,” retorted Jake, nettled by the other’s imperturbability. “This is a gloomy hole. The sun comes late an’ leaves early. It’d be hotter’n hell in summer an’ colder’n Greenland in winter. It’s too far to pack in supplies. It’s too lonely. Shore I know you an’ our gun-packin’ cowboy brother here like loneliness. But I like people. I like a barroom an’ to set in a little game now an’ then.”

“Jake, thet last objection of yourn may soon remedy itself. You may see this valley hustlin’ with miners, an’ a gold-diggin’s town springin’ up overnight like a mushroom.”

“Wal, it won’t last long, I’ll gamble. Look at thet slope. Five thousand feet of silt an’ gravel on end, fresh as if some one was diggin’ above an’ slidin’ everythin’ down. No grass, no brush, no trees! Nary a damn rock! It’s alive, Sam, thet slope is, an’ some wet day it’ll slide down an’ obliterate this valley.”

Sam was impressed, and gazed up at the sinister slope. He had to tip his head far back to see the snow-patched summit.

“Queer-lookin’, at thet,” he said. “But I reckon it’s been there just as long as these other mountains.”

Jake turned to the youngest brother, Lee, who stood leaning on his rifle, looking about with piercing hazel eyes. He was a stalwart young man with the lithe build of a rider.

“Wal, Kalispel,” drawled Jake, “you ain’t often stumped for speech. Are you linin’ up with Sam in favor of this ghastly hole?”

“It’s great, Jake.”

“Ah-huh…. Wall, just why? I reckoned you’d stand by me, consider’n’ your weakness for horses, girls, an’ such thet can’t be had here.”

“I like it, Sam. You know I don’t care a heap about diggin’ gold. Too darn hard work for a cowboy! But I love the wildness an’ beauty of this valley. It’s a paradise for game. I’ll bet I saw a thousand head of elk today. An’ deer, bear, goat, sheep–even cougars, in broad daylight! I’ll hunt game while you fellows hunt gold.”

“Humph!… Sam, what you think of Kal’s shiftin’ to your side?”

“All proves I was right draggin’ Lee off thet bloody Montana range,” replied the eldest brother, forcefully. “I feel relieved ‘cause he won’t be lookin’ for thet hard-lipped sheriff an’, for all we know, some more of them ridin’ gents…. Rustle some firewood an’ water now while I unpack.”

Lee Emerson, nicknamed Kalispel by the first outfit he had ever ridden for in Montana, laughed at his loquacious brothers, and laying aside his rifle for a bucket, he made for the stream. It was a goodly body of water, dark green in color, still high and somewhat roily from melting snow. In places it was running swiftly, in others tarrying in pools formed by huge boulders. Kalispel espied a big leather-back salmon rising to break on the surface, and that sight considerably enhanced the charm of this valley which had already intrigued him. There were sure to be mountain trout, also, in this stream. Stepping out on a sand-bar, he dipped the pail and filled it with water as cold as ice. As an afterthought then, Kalispel scooped up a handful of wet sand. He saw grains of gold glistening in it.

“By thunder!” he ejaculated. “As easy as that!… Sam will be wild. I’ll let him discover it…. I wonder. Minin’ might beat runnin’ cattle. Reckon I was sick of the range.”

Thoughtfully he returned to camp. There seemed to be a vague portent in connection with their arrival in this wild valley. Jake came staggering in under an enormous load of dead wood. Sam had spread supplies out on a tarpaulin and was awaiting the water to mix dough.

“About a week’s rations, not counting meat,” he said. “If we make a strike here two of us will have to go to Salmon an’ pack in grub.”

“Ah-huh. An’ if we don’t strike it we’ll starve,” rejoined Jake, humorously.

Sam had no answer for that and silence fell upon the trio. Kalispel performed what camp tasks offered, and lastly unrolled his canvas and blanket in the lee of a fallen pine. Next he found a bit of soap in his bag and a towel that resembled a coal-sack. Repairing to the stream, he enjoyed a wash in the icy water. After that he sat down to wait for supper.

The valley changed every hour. Shadows were dusking the far corners. He saw a black bear amble along the lower reaches of the stream, where it turned into the dark canyon. A troop of deer had come down off the south slope. Eagles soared above the sunlit crags. The upper third of the north slope blazed with gold and the snowy summit had a rosy flush. The place had a fascination for Kalispel that he could not define in a moment. The longer he gazed the more he appreciated things not strikingly noticeable at first. On all sides the formidable walls frowned down. White and black tips of mountains peeped above the ramparts. Purple veils deepened in the notch where the valley turned to the east. He had thought at first glance that the valley headed at the eastern end, but he decided that the stream split there, one fork leaping down off the ledges, and the other turning with the narrow valley into a defile. It was a big country, just what his gaze encompassed, and incredibly rough on the heights. The gold faded up off the north slope and the whole atmosphere changed as if by magic. The steely grays and blacks stole upward out of the valley, as if now free of their arch enemy. And night was at hand.

Kalispel thought that he would find enough loneliness there even for him. Not often did he yield to the memory of the past. But he did so now. No doubt his brothers Sam and Jake had found him in the nick of time; otherwise that wild Montana range where he had gone the pace of hard cowboys would have soon seen his end. Still, he could excuse it all to himself. His serious blunders, his shooting-scrapes, his deflections which, if continued, would have made him an outlaw, he could trace to circumstances for which he was not to blame. What Kalispel had longed for was a little ranch, with cattle and horses of his own, a wife to keep him straight, and a chance to realize the promise he knew he possessed. But he never could save a dollar; his several attempts to gather a herd of cattle had led to questions he could only answer with a gun; and nothing but trouble had ever come of the girls who had attracted him.

His brooding reflection was interrupted by a low rumble of thunder.

“Say! So early in spring?” he muttered, looking up in surprize. The sky was clear and cold, already showing tiny pale stars. “That was an avalanche somewheres. Strikes me these Saw Tooths might cut loose a lot that way.”

He returned to camp and the blazing fire. Jake was lighting his pipe with a red ember. Sam bent his ruddy bearded face over some task.

“Did you fellows hear thunder?” asked Kalispel.

“Shore did,” replied Jake. “Sam says it wasn’t thunder.”

“Slide somewhere, then?”

“Son, thet wasn’t thunder or slide,” answered Sam, looking up. “My Nez Percé friend told me we’d know the place when we came to a valley under a high white mountain-face thet talked. I reckon we’ve found it.”

“How do you account for that rumble?” queried Kalispel, puzzled.

“Damn if I know yet. Must be earthquake.”

“Nix,” said Jake. “Thet was just a slide rumblin’ down somewheres. These hills must be full of high bare slopes like this one. It gives me the creeps. Don’t you remember some of the steep Lemhi slopes? An’ thet knife canyon over on Trail Creek?”

“Wal, what’s the odds one way or another–if there’s gold here.”

“Suits me. The spookier the better,” returned Kalispel, and sought his bed.

He listened for a while, but the rumbling sound was not repeated. Then he fell asleep. When he awakened it was broad daylight with rosy flush upon the peaks. His brothers were bustling about camp. The ringing bugle of an elk brought Kalispel to a sitting posture, wide awake and thrilling.

“Kal, go out an’ bust thet bull,” said Jake. “The valley’s alive with game. Seems different by day.”

“Son, take a peep in thet pan,” called Sam, sonorously.

Kalispel got up and pulled on his boots, then stretched his tall frame. Sam, impatient at his nonchalance, thrust the pan under his nose. Kalispel saw a thin layer of sand and gold, about half and half.

“Dog-gone! Looks like a strike,” rejoined Kalispel, lazily.

“Nothin’ to rave about,” replied Sam, setting the pan down. “But if we can find the lode thet came from, we’re rich. You’ll have the ranch your heart desires, an’ a thousand hosses, an’ ten thousand cattle before the year is out.”

“Rich!” ejaculated Kalispel, incredulously.

“We’ll sell out for a million. An’ damn me, I’ve a hunch we’ve struck it this time. But even if we can’t find the lode there are good diggin’s all up and down this bench, one way or another!”

“Sam, are you talkin’ sense?”

“Kal, he’s been up since daybreak, roarin’ around,” interposed Jake.

“If it doesn’t turn out my luck to have other prospectors driftin’ in here,” muttered Sam, somberly. “Thet has happened before.”

“What difference would it make, Sam, if we located first?” asked Kalispel.

“Wal, a lot. If we can’t find the lode we can clean up a fortune off this bench–giving us time.”

“Ah-huh. Sam, do you trust thet Nez Percé?” added Jake, scratching his stubbly chin.

“You bet. He’ll not tell. An’ let’s not borrow trouble. We ought to be singin’. Come on an’ eat. After thet we’ll set to work. We’ll move our camp out of these rocks. There’s a likely sheltered spot across the stream. Kal, you fetch in some meat an’ hang it up in the shade. Then you might scout around a bit. Have a look at the outlet of this valley. Jake, you stick your pan in every sand an’ gravel bar along this stream. I’ll take a pick an’ look for the lode.”

Kalispel found it impossible not to respond to Sam’s forceful optimism. Sam had always been a born prospector. Always seeing the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow! And he had always been poor. He had never made a real strike. On more than one occasion he had almost had fortune in his grasp. This time would probably end like all the others. Yet Kalispel felt himself profoundly stirred by his eldest brother’s inevitableness. Kalispel did not have the gold fever in his blood. He was not given to false hopes. As a cowboy he had been the poorest gambler on the whole Montana range. But he responded to the thrill, the dream of what impetus it would give life actually to find gold.

When camp had been moved to a pretty sheltered spot, Kalispel took his rifle and made off for the widest part of the valley. At the moment he did not see any game. The spring morning was fresh, clear, cold. A film of ice gleamed on still pools; red buds showed on the willows. He remarked the absence of small game and birds. The first living creatures he espied were Sam’s burros. Next he located a herd of elk fairly high on the south slope. He kept on, however, up the stream, making for the widest part of the valley. It proved to be a high bench, well wooded, and merging on a steep mountain slope where the black timber came down thickly to the level. He caught a glimpse of moving gray objects. Presently a small group of deer, does and fawns, trooped out of the brush to stand at gaze, long ears erect. As he approached them they bounded away as if on springs. Soon after that he sighted a buck, which he shot. It was too heavy to pack into camp, so he dressed it on the spot, and carried it in quarters.

While passing to and fro over the bench, taking a straight cut to camp, he spied numerous deer. The ground was cut up by tracks of hoofed game. He saw beds in the grass, and the bones of two cougar kills, one old and the other comparatively fresh. Cougar tracks showed in every patch of soft ground. Game trails led down off the south slope to the water, but he did not note that they crossed the stream. The problem of meat, which constituted the main food supply for hunters and prospectors in the mountains, appeared to be solved for an indefinite period.

This hunting job attended to, Kalispel washed his bloody hands, remarking again the icy shock of the water, and then strolled down the valley. The sun shone overhead now and lent brilliance to the many colors of slope and cliff. On one side the valley was stark and naked, on the other fringed and patched with forest, green ledges, and gray crags.

He proceeded far down around the bend to where the valley boxed in a red-walled canyon. This he could have entered, and perhaps followed for some distance, had he chosen to wade. But he did not like the idea of immersing to his neck in the melted snow water. Re-tracing his steps, he halted in a sunny spot with fragrant sage all around, and there he flung himself at length, as had been his wont so often on the cattle range. He liked the intimacy of the great walls. The monotonous purple reaches of the Montana ranges had palled upon him.

“Dog-gone!” soliloquized Kalispel. “I’d like to settle in this country. That cottonwood flat over on the Salmon River shore took my eye.”

And he gave himself over to a daydream, fostered by Sam’s ineradicable hope of the good fortune about to be.

Kalispel marked that spot. Somehow it had induced lingering hours of happy reverie, to which he had long been stranger. The place was down around the bend from the valley, where a bench of sage nestled under a great wall. The melodious murmur of the stream came up; the warm sun beat down, reflected from the cliff; a still, sweet, drowsy languor pervaded the place; the sweetness of sage was almost intoxicating; the solitude was omnipresent; and across the canyon sheered up a tremendous broken slope as many-sided as that mountain could boast. Long glistening slants of talus, rugged narrow defiles winding up, grassy benches fringed with firs, huge sections of splintered cliff hanging precariously, and patches of black lodge-pole pines stepped up endlessly to the blue sky. This wonderful mountain-side would have been fascinating to Kalispel without a sign of life. But the reward of searching, patient exercise of keen vision made hours there seem like moments. At first the vast slope had appeared bare of life; before the westering sun had turned Kalispel campward he had espied elk, bear, sheep, deer, cougar. And to see cougar in the sunlight was rare indeed.

He found camp deserted. Evidently neither Sam nor Jake had been in since morning. That augured well for this first day. Kalispel set to work at camp tasks, pausing once to laugh when he heard himself whistling. He put things in shipshape, halting only for the mixing of biscuit dough, at which he was a signal failure. But he liked to swing an ax, which art he had mastered during his boyhood along the hardwood creek bottoms of Missouri.

Meanwhile the colored lights of the valley had succumbed to waning afternoon. Kalispel began to grow anxious about his brothers. Presently Jake appeared some distance up the stream. He looked a tired man. Kalispel halloed and waved. Jake made a weary response. Upon nearer view Jake was a sight to behold. He was the dirtiest, muddiest, wettest, raggedest object of a man Kalispel had ever seen. He carried under his arm his gold pan, and in his left hand something small and heavy wrapped in a bandana handkerchief.

“Dog-gone-it, Jake!” ejaculated Kalispel, undecided whether to laugh or whoop. Then as Jake staggered into camp, Kalispel met a wonderful look in his eyes.

“Boy, look ahere,” panted Jake, and he forced the bandana into Kalispel’s hands.

The contents were soft, wet, heavy, significant to the touch. Kalispel knew what it contained without being told, and suddenly he was mute. Jake fell on his knees beside his pack and began to fumble around in it.

“Whar’s my weighin’-scales?… My Gawd!–gotta have them!… Ah-ha!… Kal, cluster around now an’ pour out thet gold.”

Kalispel did as he was bidden, and as the tiny golden stream of grains and nuggets thudded into the scales he became aware of trembling hands and knocking heart. Three times the scales had to be emptied before all the gold could be weighed.

“Ten ounces–an’ over,” boomed Jake, breathing thickly. “At eighteen dollars the ounce…. Hundred an’ eighty dollars!… An’ as Sam ordered, I only panned one pan at each bar.”

“Heavens!” ejaculated Kalispel, incredulously. He fingered the shiny nuggets, some of which were as large as peas. All were smooth and worn, due, no doubt, to the action of water and gravel. The majority of the gold was like fine sand, and it slipped from Kalispel’s palm in a yellow stream. Suddenly he sat down to stare at Jake.

“Boy, we’re rich! Rich!… Our fortunes are made. Sam hit it plumb center this time…. My Gawd! if mother could be alive now! We was always so poor.”

“Jake, it–it’s hard to–believe,” replied Kalispel, choking. “But here it is. Gold!… An’ you panned all that in a single day?”

“Boy, I could have doubled–trebled thet ten ounces. But Sam wanted me to cover all the bars. So I did. All showed yellow. But some more than others…. Several were lousy with gold.”

“Gosh! I’m glad for Sam–an’ you, Jake…. Reckon for myself–a little.”

“Lee, you be a hell of a lot glad for yourself,” replied Jake, deep-voiced and husky. “Your cattle ranch is in sight.”

Suddenly Kalispel leaped up to let out such a cowboy yell as had never pealed from his lungs. “Whoo-pee!” The stentorian sound rang along the walls and beat back in hollow echo. It was answered, too, by a halloo from upstream.

“You hear that?” cried Kalispel.

“Shore. Thet was Sam…. An’ there he comes.”

“Gosh! Is he drunk, staggerin’ along like that?”

“Boy, Sam’s packin’ a heavy load.”

“Can’t be firewood. Too small.”

“Nope…. It’s white…. An’ shore as you’re born–it’s a rock.”

“Rock! What’d Sam be packin’ a rock for?… He hadn’t got his pick an’ crowbar, either…. Jake!”

“Boy, I reckon I’m a little weak on my pins.” Jake sat down heavily.

Kalispel stared, his thoughts whirling. Sam came on sturdily, but manifestly under great physical strain. He plunged into camp to thump his heavy burden upon the ground in front of his brothers.

“Look at–thet!” he panted.

Kalispel saw a thick slab of white quartz, brilliantly veined and belted with gold. It appeared to be the most beautiful inanimate object that he had ever beheld. But he could not speak, and Jake strangled over incoherent words.

Sam wiped the sweat from his face which betrayed traces of feeling. He now appeared calm, though his eyes held a singular effulgence.

“I went straight–to the lode–like steel to a magnet,” he said, in cool, slowly expelled words. “Thar’s five hundred dollars–in thet chunk…. An’ a million more–where it come from!”

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