JUST exactly how many days or weeks or even months had blown over the Forks through the long bleak winter since the wedding no man knew. These men in the mountains, snowed up for half a year, where there is no business, where there is no law, no church, nothing but half wild men hard at work these men, I say, sometimes forget the day, the week, even the month. Yet the Day of the week is always kept. Six days they labor in the mine; the seventh, they do not rest, but they at least do not mine.
Certainly there was snow on the day of the wedding, and certain it was that there was a little fall of snow on the high hill sides, and in the black fir tops, and the great pines were tipped in white, as Sandy hurried from his cabin down to the Forks in search of his now divorced and forgotten Limber Tim. He was pale and excited. He pushed his great black, broad hat down over his eyes as he hurried on down the trail, slipping and sliding over the worn walk, over the new sprinkle of snow, in his great big gum boots. Then he pushed his hat back so as to get the cool wind of March in his face and even the blustering snow in his beard.
He found Limber at last standing on one leg by the great log fire in the Howling Wilderness, lonesome as a crow in March. He pulled his hat again down over his eyes as he approached his old partner, and stooped his shoulders and looked out from under its rim, as if he was half afraid or else was half ashamed.
In all western towns, in all mines, in all cities, great or small for that matter, there is always one common center. Here it was the Howling Wilderness. If a man felt sad, what better place than the Howling Wilderness saloon to go to for distraction? If a man felt glad, where else could he go to share his mirth.
Here was happiness or unhappiness. All great extremes run together. Tears flow as freely for joy as for grief. Between intense delight or deepest sorrow the wall is so thin you can whisper through it and be heard.
Here, at fifty cents a glass, you had dealt out to you over a great plank laid up upon a barricade of sand bags, that were laid there to intercept any stray bullet that might be making its way towards the crimson headed vendor of poisons, almost any drink that you might name. And it is safe to say that all of the following popular drinks, that is Old Tiger, Bad Eye, Forty Rod, Rat Pizen, Rot Gut, Hell's Delight, and Howling Modoc, were all made from the same decoction of bad rum, worse tobacco, and first class cayenne pepper. The difference in proportion of ingredients made the difference in the infernal drinks.
If one of those splendid, misled fellows, who really knew no better, felt very sad, he took one of these drinks; if he felt very glad he took two.
Sandy wheeled on his heel the moment he found his old friend, and went out without saying a word. He stood there in the snow, the wind twisting about his beard, blowing his old hat brim up and down, and he seemed as one lost. At length he lifted the latch again hastily, hesitated, looked back, around, up towards his cabin on the hill, and then suddenly pushing his hat back again, as if he wanted room to breathe, he tumbled into the saloon, went right up before Limber Tim, and bringing his two hands down on his two shoulders, said tremulously, "Limber Tim."
Sandy had laid hold of him as if he had determined to never let him go again, and the man fairly winced under his great vice-like grasp. He looked at the back log on the fire, looked left and right, but did not look Sandy in the face. If he had, he would for the first time in all his timid experience have been able to have had it all his own way.
Sandy had fished up one of his hands high enough to pull his hat down over his eyes, and now nothing was to be seen but a hat rim and the fringe of a grizzly beard.
Limber Tim looked up. He never before had heard his old partner's voice troubled, and he was very sorry, and began to look, or to try to look, Sandy in the face. Up went a big hand from a shoulder, back went the old hat, and then Limber Tim looked to the left at a lot of picks and pans, and torn irons, and crevicing spoons, that lay up against the wall, but did not speak. "Limber Tim! I tell you. My my" Sandy choked. He never had yet been able to call her his wife. He had tried to do so over and over again. His dear little wife had taught him many things had made him, in fact, another man, but she never could get him to speak of her to the other miners but as "the Widow." He had gone out by himself and practiced it in the dark to himself; he was certain he could say it in the crowd, but somehow just at the moment he tried to say it he was certain some one was thinking about it just as he was, was watching him, and so it always and for ever stuck in his throat. How he loved her! How tender he was to her all the time! How he did little else but think of her and her happiness day and night; but he had been a savage so long, had been with the "boys" so much, that he could not find it in his power to say that one dear word. It was like a new convert trying to pray in public in one of the great camp meetings of the West; or to stand up before all his neighbors and confess his sins. He stood still only a second; in fact, all this took but a moment, for Sandy was in a terrible hurry. Limber Tim had never seen him in such a hurry before. Up shot the hand, down slid the hat, and Sandy was quite hidden away again. It was a moment of terrible embarrassment. When an Englishman is embarrassed he takes snuff; when a Yankee is embarrassed he whips out a jack knife and falls to whittling anything that he can find, not excepting the ends of his fingers; but a true Californian of Sierras jerks his head at the boys, heads straight up to the bar, knocks his knuckles on the board, winks at the bar keeper, pecks his nose at his favorite bottle, fills to the brim, nods his head down the line to the left, then to the right, hoists his Poison, throws back his head, and then falls back wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, quite recovered from his confusion.
Sandy backed his partner into a corner rapidly, and then, laying his hands again on his shoulders, said: "Limber Tim! she's sick!"
He had to throw his head forward to say it. It came out as if jerked from his throat by a thousand fish hooks.
He raised his two great hands, and reaching out his face again clutched the two shoulders, and said, "She's d----d sick!"
Up went the hands, back went the hat, the door was jerked open, a man whirled out of the door as if he had been a whirlwind, up the trail, up over the stones and snow and logs. Sandy climbed to his cabin on the hill, while the boys followed him with their eyes; and then stood looking at each other in wonder as he disappeared in the door.
Through the cabin burst the man, and back to the little bedroom, as if he had been wild as the north wind that whistled and whirled about without.
The little lady lay there, quiet now, but her face was white as ashes. The blood had gone out from her face like a falling tide; the pain was over, but only, like a tide, to return.
How white she was, and how beautiful she was! How helpless she was down there in the deep, hidden in a crack of the world, away from all old friends, away from all her kindred, all her sex and kind. She was very ill, so alone was she; not a doctor this side of that great impassable belt of snow that curved away like a deep white wave around and above the heads of the three little rivers. Sandy saw all this, felt all this. It cut him to the core, and he shook like a leaf.
What a pretty nest of a bed room! How fragrant it was from the fir boughs that were gathered under foot. There were little curtains about this bed, there deep in the Sierras. Coarse they were, it is true, very coarse, but white as the snow that whirled about without the cabin. Still, you might have seen here and there that there were cloudy spots that had refused all the time to be quite washed out, rub and soak and soap and boil them as the Widow and Washee-Washee would.
If you had lain in that bed through a spell of sickness, and looked and looked at the curtains and all things as sick people will all the time look and look when they lie there and can do nothing else, you would at last have noticed that these coarse but snowy curtains had been made of as many pieces as Jacob's coat. And lying there and looking and looking, you would have at last in the course of time read there in one of the many cloudy spots, these words stamped in bended rows of fantastic letters: SELF-RISING FLOUR WARRANTED SUPERFINE. 50 LBS.
There was a little cracked piece of looking glass on the wall, no bigger than your palm. It was fastened on the wall, over, perhaps, the only illustrated paper that had ever found its way to the Forks. There were little rosettes around this little glass that had been made from leaves of every color by the cunning hand of the Widow. There were great maple leaves, and leaves of many trees in all the hues of Summer, hung up here and there, sewn together, and made to make the little bedroom beautiful. And what a treasure the little glass was! It seemed to be the great little center of the house. All things rallied, or seemed to be trying to rally, around it. To be sure, the Widow was not at all plain.
Plain! To Sandy she was the center of the world. The rising and the setting of the sun.
The carpet had been finished by the same cunning hand. This had been made of gunny bags sewn together with twine; and under this carpet there was a thick coat of fine fir boughs that left the room all the time sweet and warm, and fragrant as a forest in the Spring. There were little three legged benches waiting about in the corners; but by the bedside sat the great work of art in the camp, a rocking chair made of elk horns. This was the gift of a rejected but generous lover.
On the little wooden mantel piece above the fire place there stood a row of nuggets. They lay there as if they were a sort of Winter fruit put by to ripen. They were like oranges which you see lying about the peasants' houses in Italy, and almost as large. These were the gifts of the hardy miners of the Forks to their patron saint; gifts given at such times and in such ways that they could not be well refused.
Once there had been, late in the night, a heavy stone thrown against the door, while the two "turtle doves," as the camp used to call its lovers, sat by the fire.
In less than a second Sandy's pistol stuck its nose out like a little bull dog and began to look down the hill in the darkness.
A man leaned over the fence and laughed in his face. "Now don't do that, Sandy! Now don't." Sandy let his pistol fall half ashamed; for it was the voice of a friend.
"Good-bye, Sandy!" the man called back up the trail in the dark. "Good-bye. That's for the Widder. Made my pile and off for Pike. Good-bye!"
When "Washee-Washee went out next morning for wood, there he found lying at the door the cause of the trouble in the night. It was a great nugget of gold that the rough Missourian had thrown to his patron saint as he passed.
Once a miner sent them a great fine salmon. The Widow on opening it found it half full of gold. She took all this back to the man, whom she found seated at the green table at the Howling Wilderness, behind a silver faro box; for to mining the man also attached the profession of gambler. She laid this heap of gold down on the table before the man with the faro box and cards. The miners gathered around. The man with the silver box began to deal his cards.
"All on the single turn, Missus Sandy?"
The Judge came forward, "Don't bet it all on the first deal, do you? That's pretty steep, even for the oldest of us!"
"Bet! I don't bet at all. I bring Poker Jake his money back. I found this all in the fish he sent us. It is his. It is a trick, perhaps. Fish don't eat gold, you know."
"O yes they dus, Missus Sandy."
Poker Jake stopped with the card half turned in the air. The Widow held up her pretty finger and her pretty lips pouted as she made her little speech to the gambler, and told him There was a pale thoughtful young man, half ill, too feeble to work, to leave, to retreat from the mountains, standing by the fire when the Widow had entered the saloon. It was the boy poet.
She took up the bag of gold, turned around, looked back in the corner of the saloon, for he had retreated out of sight as she entered, saw the young man hiding back in the shade, leaning over the bunk, caressing the dog; possibly he was crying. Her face lighted with a light that was high and beautiful and half divine.
She turned, held the gold out to Poker Jake.
"And then is it mine? All mine, to do as I like with it? "Yours, lady. Yours to take and go home and git from out of the canyon, out of this hole in the ground, and live like a Christian, as yer are, and not live here like a wild beast in a caravan."
The man stood up as he spoke, and was proud of his speech, and the men cheered and cheered and said:
"Bully for Poker Jake!"
Then the little Widow turned again, went back to the boy leaning over the bull dog, thrust it in his arms as he rose to look at her, and turning to the men was gone.
They looked at each other in amazement and disgust. They could hardly believe their senses.
"How dare she do it before us all?" said one.Start reading Chapter16 of The First Famlies of the Sierras