THE Parson was absent for hours, and the Howling Wilderness began to be impatient.
"He's a heelin himself like a fighting cock," said Stubbs; "and if Sandy don't go to kingdom come with his boots on, then chaw me up for a shrimp."
The man here went to the door, opened it, put his head out in the frosty weather, and peered up the creek for Sandy, and across the creek for the Parson, but neither was in sight.
The "Gay Rooster" company knocked off from their work, with many others, and came to town in force to see the fight. The Howling Wilderness was crowded and doing a rushing business.
The two bar keepers shifted and carefully arranged the sand bags under the counter, which in that day and country were placed there in every well regulated drinking saloon, so as to intercept whatever stray bits of lead might be thrown in the direction of their bodies, in the coming battle, and calmly awaited results.
About dark, a thin blue smoke, as from burning paper, curled up from the chimney of the Parsonage, and the Parson came slowly forth.
"Blamed if he hasn't been a makin of his will and a burnin of his letters. Looks grummer than a deacon, too," added the man, as the Parson neared the saloon.
He spoke quietly to the boys, as he entered, but did not swear. That was thought again remarkable indeed.
He went up to the bar, tapped on the counter with his knuckles, threw his head back over his shoulder toward the crowd, and yet apparently without seeing any one, and said:
"Boys, fall in line, fall in line. Rally around me once again."
They fell in line, or at least the majority did. Some, however, stood off in little knots and groups on the other side, and pretended not to have heard or noticed what was going on. These it was at once understood were fast friends of Sandy's, and unbelievers in the Parson.
The glasses were filled quietly, slowly, and respectfully, almost like filling a grave, and then emptied in silence.
Again it was observed that the Parson did not swear. That was considered as remarkable as the omission of prayer from the service in a well regulated church, and, I am sure, contributed to throw a spirit of restraint over the whole party friendly to the Parson. Besides, it was noticed that he was pale, haggard, had hardly a word to say, and most of all, had barely touched the glass to his lips.
No one, however, ventured to advise, question, or in any way disturb him. All were quiet and respectful. It was very evident that the feeling in the Forks, at first, was largely with Sandy.
But Sandy did not appear that evening. This, of course, was greatly against him. The Forks began to suspect that he feared to take the responsibility of his act, and meet the man he had so strangely defamed, and, to all appearances, so deeply injured.
The next day the saloon was crowded more densely than before. Men stood off in little knots and groups, talking earnestly. There was but one topic only the one great subject the impending meeting between the two leading men of the camp, and the probable result.
The Parson was among the first present that day, pale and careworn. They treated him with all the delicacy of women. Not a word was said in his presence of his misfortune, or the occasion of their meeting. To the further credit of the Forks I am bound to say that there had as yet been no bets as to which one of the two men they should have to bury the next day.
The day passed, and still Sandy did not appear. Had there been any other way out of camp than through the Forks and up the rugged, winding, corkscrew stairway of rocks opposite, and in the face of the town, it might have been suspected that he had taken the Widow and fled to other lands.
The Parson came down a little late next morning, pale and quiet, as before. He did not swear. This time, in fact, he did not even drink. He sat down on a bench behind the monte table, with his back to the fire and his face to the door. The men respectfully left a rather broad lane between the Parson and the door, and the monte table was not patronized.
The day passed; dusk, and still Sandy did not appear. By this time he had hardly three friends in the house.
"Hasn't got the soul of a chicken!" "Caved in at last!" "Gone down in his boots!" "Busted in the snapper!" "Lost his grip!" "Don't dare show his hand!" These and like expressions, thrown out now and then from the little knots of men here and there, were the certain indications that Sandy had lost his place in the hearts of the leading men of the Forks.
Toward midnight the bolt lifted!
The door opened, and Sandy entered, backed up against the wall by the door, and stood there, tall and silent.
His great beard was trimmed a little, his bushy hair carefully combed behind his ears, and the necktie was now subdued into a neat love knot, in spite of its old persistent habit of twisting around and fluttering out over his left shoulder. His eye met the Parson's but did not quail.
The bar keeper settled down gracefully behind the bags of sand, so that his eyes only remained visible above the horizon.
The head of the "Gay Roosters" tilted a table up till it made a respectable barricade for his breast, and the crowd silently settled back in the corners, packed tighter than sardines in a tin box.
You might have heard a mouse, had it crossed the floor. Even the fretful fire seemed to hold for the time its snappish red tongue, and the wind without to lean against the door and listen.
The Parson slowly arose from the table. He had his right hand in his pocket, and was very pale.
Experienced shootists, old hands at mortal combat with their kind, glanced from man to man, measured every motion, every look, with all the intense eagerness of artists who are favored with one great and especial sight, not to be met again. Others held their heads down, and only waited in a confused sort of manner for the barking of the bull dogs.
Neither of Sandy's hands were visible; but, as the Parson took a few steps forward, and partly drew his hand from his pocket, Sandy's right one came up like a steel spring, and the ugly black muzzle of a six shooter was in the Parson's face.
Still he advanced, till his face almost touched the muzzle of the pistol. He seemed not to see it, or to have the least conception of his danger.
It was strange that Sandy did not pull. Maybe he was surprised at the singular action of the Parson. Perhaps he had his eye on the unlifted right hand of his antagonist. At all events he had the "drop," and could afford to wait the smallest part of a second, and see what he would do.
"I have been a-wait-ing" the Parson halted and paused at the participle. "I have been a -wait -ing for you, Sandy, a long time."
His voice trembled. The voice that had thundered above a hundred bar room fights, and had directed the men through many a difficulty in camp, was now low and uncertain.
"Sandy," he began again, and he took hold of the counter with his left hand, "I am a- going-a-way. Your cabin will be too small now, and I want you to promise me to take care of the Parsonage till I come back."
Sandy sank back closer still to the wall, and his arm hung down at his side.
"You will move into the Parsonage when it is all over. It's full of good things for Winter. You will take it, I say, at once. Promise me that."
The Parson's voice was a little severe here more determined than before; and, as he concluded, he drew the key from his pocket and handed it to Sandy.
The men looked a moment in each other's eyes. Perhaps they were both embarrassed. The door was convenient. That seemed to Sandy the best way out of his confusion, and he opened it softly and disappeared. The Howling Wilderness was paralyzed with wonder. The Parson looked a little while out in the dark, through the open door and was gone. There was a murmur of disappointment behind him.
"Don't you fear!" at last chimed in the head of the "Gay Roosters." "Don't you never fear! That old sea dog, the Parson, is deeper than a infernal gulf."
"Look here!" He put up his finger to the side of his nose, after a pause, and stroking his beard mysteriously, said: "I say, look here! Shoo! Not a word! Softly now! Powder! That's what it means. Powder! Gits 'em both into the Parsonage and blows 'em to kingdom come together!"
The Howling Wilderness was reconciled. It was certain that the end was not yet, by a great deal. It was again struck with wonder, however; and, for want of a better expression, took a drink and settled down to a game of monte.
Early next morning a morning full of unutterable storms and drifts of snow Sandy entered the Widow's cabin.
The Parson was not to be seen either at the Howling Wilderness or about his own house.
Men stood about the door of the Howling Wilderness, and up and down the single street, in little knots, noting the course of things at the Parsonage, and now and then shaking their loose blanket coats and brushing off the fast falling snow.
After a while, when the smoke rose up from the chimney top, and curled above the Parsonage with a home-like leisure, as if a woman's hand tended the fire below, a man with his face muffled up was seen making his way slowly up the rugged way that led from town across the Sierra.
It was a desperate and dangerous undertaking at that season of the year. He made but poor headway against the storm that came pelting down in his face from the fields of eternal snow; but he seemed determined, and pushed slowly on. Sometimes it was observed he would turn, and, shading his eyes from the snow, look down intently at the peaceful smoke drifting through the trees above the Parsonage.
"Some poor idiot will pass in his checks tonight, if he don't come back pretty soon," said Stubbs, as he nodded at the man up the hill, brushed the snow from his sleeves, and went back into the saloon.
There were now two subjects of conversation in the camp; the departure of the Parson and the courtship of Sandy.
One day, however, there was quite a riffle in the usually smooth current of affairs. It was this. A busy meddling man was seen to lay hold of Sandy, and talk a long time in a mysterious and suspicious manner. He would point to the cabin of the Widow, then to the cabin of the Poet, and gravely shake his head. The man was heard to couple the two names together. At last Sandy shook this man off, and went on his way with anything but a satisfied look.
After an open demonstration like that, the camp felt that it was privileged to speak openly what it had seriously but silently noted before. It had now three topics to talk about: the departure of the Parson, the courtship of Sandy, but now above all and chiefly the secret and frequent visits of the Poet to the Widow's cabin.Start reading Chapter13 of The First Famlies of the Sierras