AS the boy left the saloon one of the men said, "Now I guess the little cuss will git up and dust." And that thought was their consolation. Not that they hated this boy, but they felt that he was out of place in the cabin of their "Widder."
Other, and equally ingenious ways, all quite as innocent, had been used by the miners to force their gifts upon the one sweet woman, the patron saint of the camp, until she might have been almost as wealthy as the good old saint who lies mouldering before the eyes of all who care to pay a five franc note, in the mighty cathedral at Milan. But now they would do no more.
Nuggets, and bars, and scales, and specimens, and dust in her home in profusion. And why did the little woman remain in the wilderness? Why did not this little woman rise up some morning, smile a goodbye to those about her, leave the business to Washee-Washee, take her great big bodyguard, mount a mule, turn his head up the corkscrew trail toward the clouds, toward the snow, and find a milder clime?
Who could she have been, this half hermit, this little missionary who had in one winter half civilized, almost Christianized, a thousand savage men without preaching a single sermon?
Possibly she knew how rare manhood is where men are thickest, how scarce men are where they stand heaped and huddled up together in millions, and was content to remain with these rough fellows, doing good, receiving their homage.
Possibly there was a point of honor in thus. Remaining with these men of the mines. It might have been she refused to go away, and leave those behind her in the wilderness to whom she owed all the camp had brought her, because they would have missed her so sadly.
And yet after all had things gone on smoothly. There was no great reason for her to hurry away. But as it was, it was certainly going to blow great guns, and she certainly knew it.
But here she was now ill, very ill. All this gold was dross. It was nothing to her now. She could hardly lift her hand to the row of golden oranges that lay there before her on the little mantel. She looked at Sandy as he entered and tried to smile. There were tears in her eyes as she did this, and then she hid her face in her hands.
He went and stood and looked in the fire, and tried to think what he should do. Then he went and stood by her bed, and waited there till she uncovered her face and looked up.
She was very pale, and he tried but could not speak.
"Is it raining, Sandy dear?"
She asked this because as she put her hand out some drops fell down from his head upon her own.
"My pretty baby, my baby in the woods, what in the world is the matter?"
He leaned over her, and his voice trembled as he spoke. Then he went down on his knees, and his beard swept her face.
"Is it cold, Sandy dear? Do you think that we, that I, could cross the mountains today? If we went slow and careful, and climbed over the snow on our hands and knees, don't you think it could be done, Sandy?"
She kept on asking this question, and arguing it all the time, because the man kept looking at her in a wild, helpless way, and could not answer a word.
"If we went up the trail a little way at a time, and then rested there under the trees, and waited for the snow to melt, and then went on a little way each day, and so on, as fast as it melted off, up the mountain, don't you think it could be done, Sandy?"
The man was dumb. He kneeled there, grinding his great palms together, looking all the time, and looking at nothing.
There was a long silence then, and still Sandy kneeled by the bed. His eyes kept wandering about till they lighted on a striped gown that hung hard by on the wall. He fell to counting these stripes. He counted them up and down, and across, and then counted them backward, and was quite certain he had got it all wrong, and fell to counting it over again.
The little woman writhed with pain, and that brought the dreamer to his senses again. It passed, and she, pale, fair, beautiful, with her hair about her like folds of sable fur, she put out her round white arms to the great half grizzly, half baby, by her side. She was still a long time then; then she called him pretty names, and she cried as if her heart would break.
"Sandy, I told you it was not best, it was not right, it would not do, that you would be sorry some day, and that you would blame and upbraid me, and that the men would laugh at you and at me. But you would not be put off. Do you not remember how I shut myself up and kept away from you, and would not see you, and how you kept watch, and sent round, and would see me whether or no?"
He now remembered. And what then? Had he repented? On the contrary, he had never loved her half so truly as now. His heart was too full to dare to speak.
"Do you not remember that when I told you all this would happen, that you said it could not happen? That, happen what would, no man should mock or laugh or reprove, and live? Well, now, Sandy dear, it will happen. I have done you wrong. I now want to tell you to take back your promise. That is best."
The man rose up. The place where he had hid his face was wet as rain.
"Sandy, Sandy, can we cross the mountains now?"
The little lady lay trembling in her bed with her hands covering her face.
Then she put down her hands and looked up into the face of her husband.
"Sandy, leave me!"
She sprang up in bed as she said this, as if inspired with a new thought.
"There! Take that gold, this gold; all of it!" She left her bed with a bound and heaped the gold together and turned to Sandy.
"Take it, I tell you, and go. That is best; that is right. I want you to go go now! Go! Will you go? Will you not go when I command you to go?"
"Not when you're sick, my pretty; get well, and then I will go; go, and stay till you tell me I may come back."
"Will you not go?"
"Not while you're sick, my pretty."
"Then I will go."
She caught a shawl from the wall. Her face was aflame. She sprang to the door, through the door, and out to the fence, in a moment. Sandy's arms were about her now, and he led her back and laid her in her bed.
She lay there trembling again, and Sandy bent above her.
"Sandy, when all the world turns against me and laughs at me, what will you do?"
He did not understand; he could not answer.
"When men laugh at me when I pass, what can you say, and what will you do?"
"What will I do?"
The man seemed to hear now, and to understand. He sprang up, spun about, and tossed his head.
"What will I do! Shoot 'em! Scalp every mother's son of 'em!" And he brought his fist down on the little mantel piece till the bits of gold remaining and the little trinkets leapt half way across the room.
The little woman lay a moment silent, and then she threw back the clothes, and pushing Sandy back, as if he had been a great child, sprang up again, and again dashed through the door.
Limber Tim had been standing there all the time, half hidden behind the fence, against which he had glued his back, waiting to be of some use if possible to the guardian angel of the camp. There was also a row of men reaching within hail all the way down to the town, waiting to be of help, for Limber Tim had told them the Widow was ill.
The man started from his fastening on the fence at sight of this apparition, wild, half clad, with her hair all down about her loose, ungathered garments, and he stood before her.
"I want to go home," the woman cried, wringing her hands. "I want to go home. I will go home. There is something wrong. You do not understand. Sandy is an angel; I am a devil. I want to go home."
The strong man's arms were about her again as she stood there on the edge of the fence, and he bore her back, half fainting and quite exhausted, into the house.
He laid her down, and stood back as if half frightened at what he had done. Never before had he put out a finger, said a word, held a thought, contrary to her slightest and most unreasonable whim. Then he came back timidly, as if he was afraid he would frighten her, for she began to tremble again, and she was whiter than before. She did not look up, she was looking straight ahead, down toward her feet, but she knew he was there knew he would hear her, let her speak never so low.
"When the great trouble comes, Sandy, when the trouble comes and covers both of us with care, will you remember that you would not put me off? When the trouble comes, will you ever remember that you would not let me go away? That you would not go away? Will you remember, Sandy?"
She was getting wild again, and sprang up in bed as she said this last, and looked the man in his face so earnest, so pleading, so pitiful, that Sandy put up his two hands and swore a solemn oath to remember.
She sank back in bed, drew the clothes about her, hid her face from the light, and then Sandy drew back and stood by the fire, and the awful thought came fully and with all its force upon him that she was insane.
Ah! That was what it was. She feared she would go mad. Mad! Mad! He thought of all the mad people he had ever seen or heard of; thought how he had been told that it runs in families; how people go mad and murder their friends, destroy themselves, go into the woods and are eaten by wild beasts, lost in the snow, or drowned in the waters hurrying by wood and mountain wall, and then he feared that he should go mad himself.
"Poor little soul!" he kept saying over to himself. " Poor, noble little soul! Would not marry me because she knew she would go mad." And she was dearer to the man' now than ever before.
The sufferer barely breathed his name, but he leaned above her while yet she spoke.
"Sandy, bring Billy Piper."
"What?" He threw up his two hands in the air. The woman did not seem to heed him, but, resting and lying quite still a moment, said, softly
"Bring Bunker Hill."
"Bring what? Who?"
"Go, bring Bunker Hill."
If his wife had said, "Bring Satan," or had repeated her "Bring Billy Piper," the man could not have been more surprised or displeased.
Now this Bunker Hill, or Bunkerhill, was a poor woman of the town the best one there, it is true, but bad enough, no doubt, at the best. She was called Bunker Hill by the boys, and no one knew her by any other name, because she was a sort of a hunch back.
"Did you say, my pretty, did you say?"
"Sandy, bring Bunker Hill. And bring her soon. Soon, Sandy, soon; soon, for the love of God."
The woman was writhing with pain again as the man shot through the door, and looked back over his shoulder to be sure that she did not attempt to leave the house or destroy herself the moment his back was turned.
Limber Tim was there waiting silently and patiently. He scratched his head, and wondered, and raised his brim as he ran, and slid, and shuffled with all his speed down the trail toward the town to bring the woman. Men stood by in respectful silence as he passed. They would have given worlds almost to know how the one fair woman fared, but they did not ask the question, did not stop the man a moment. A moment might be precious. It might be worth a life.
There are some rules of etiquette, some principles of feeling in the wild woods among the wild men there, that might be transplanted with advantage to a better society. There might have been a feeling of disappointment or displeasure on the part of the men standing waiting, waiting for an opportunity to be of the least possible service, as they saw Bunker Hill leave town to return with Limber Tim, but it had no expression.
The man who sat behind the silver faro box no doubt felt this disappointment the keenest of any one.
When we feel displeased or disappointed at any thing, we are always saying that that is about the best that could be done. "What else could she do? The woman's ill; the Widder is sick. She sends for a woman, a bad woman, p'raps, but the best we got. Well, a woman's better as a man, any ways you puts it. What else could she do? A bad woman's better as a good man. What else could she do? I puts it to you, what else could she do?"
The crowd at the Howling Wilderness was satisfied. But the men stood there or sat in knots around the bar room in silence. The crimson headed bar keeper had not seen such a dull day of it since they had the double funeral. What could be the matter? Men made all kinds of guesses, but somehow no one hinted that the little woman was mad.
The Roaring Whirlpool, as the Howling Wilderness was sometimes called, drew in but few victims all that night. Men kept away, kept going out and looking up toward the little cabin on the hill.
The man with the silver faro box sat by the table with the green cloth, as if in a brown study. The great fire blazed up and snapped as if angry, for but few men gathered about it all that evening. The little brown mice up in the loft could be heard nibbling at the old boots and bacon rinds, and their little teeth ticked and rattled together as if the upper half of the Howling Wilderness had been the shop of a mender of watches. Now and then the man behind the silver faro box filliped the pack of cards with his fingers, turned up the heels of a jack in the most unexpected sort of way, as if just to keep his hand in, but the mice had it mostly their own way all that night.
One by one the men who stood waiting dropped away and out of the line to get their dinners, but still enough stood there the livelong night to pass a message from mouth to mouth with the speed of a telegram into town.
Then these men standing there, and those who went away, as to that, fell to thinking of Bunker Hill. Somehow, she had advanced wonderfully in the estimation of all from the moment she had been sent for by the Widow. It was a sort of special dignity that had been conferred. This woman, Bunker Hill, had been knighted by their queen. She had been picked out, and set apart and over and above all the other fallen women of the Forks.
Even Limber Tim, who stood there on one leg, with his back screwed tight up against the palings, began to like her overmuch, and to wonder why she also would not make some honest man an honest wife. In fact, many men that night recalled many noble acts on the part of this poor woman, and they almost began to feel ashamed that they had sometimes laughed at her plainness, and promised in their hearts to never do so again.Start reading Chapter17 of The First Famlies of the Sierras