THERE was a gray streak of dawn just breaking through the black tree tops that tossed above the high, far, deep snow, on the mountain that lifted to the east, as the door opened, and Bunker Hill came forth alone. There were ugly clouds rolling overhead, mixing, marching, and countermarching, as if preparing for a great battle of the elements. On the west wall of the mountain a wolf howled dolefully to his mate on the opposite crest of the canyon. The water tumbled and thundered through the gorge below, and sent up echoes and sounds that were sad and lonesome as the march to the home of the dead.
She came out into the gray day, slowly and thoughtfully, her head was down, and when Limber Tim helped her over the fence she was shy and modest, as if she herself had been the Widow.
He tried to ask about the Widow, but that awful respect for the other sex that seems born with the American of the Far West, kept him silent; and as Bunker Hill led on rapidly towards town and did not say one word about the sufferer, he followed, as ignorant as any man in camp.
On the way the woman slipped on the wet and icy trail and fell, for she was in terrible haste and terribly excited. Perhaps she cut her arm or hand on the sharp stone as she fell, for as she hastily arose and again hurried on, she kept rubbing and holding her right arm with her left.
She led straight to the Howling Wilderness, lifted the latch and entered. She looked all around, but did not speak. She was in a great hurry, and was evidently looking for some one she wished to find at once. No man spoke to her now. The few found there at this hour were the wildest and most reckless in the camp, but they were respectful, as if in the presence of a lady born and bred a lady.
There was something beautiful in this silence and respect. Even the man with the silver faro box for a breastwork rose up and stood in her presence while she remained. He did not do it on purpose. He would not have done it the day before had she stood before him by the hour. He did not even know when he arose, but when she bowed just the least bit, and turned away and went out again into the cold and did not drink did not drink, mind you did not even look at the crimson headed man who had risen up in perfect confidence, he found himself standing, and found his heart filling with a kind of gallantry that he had not known before. He had risen in her presence by instinct.
"Come, we must find Captain Tommy." The woman said this to Limber Tim as they left the saloon, and then led swiftly on to Captain Tommy's cabin.
This Captain Tommy was a character and a power too, and, wretch as she was, was a woman to be leaned upon, and trusted too to the last.
True, she was very plain. But you may adopt it as one of your rules of life, and act upon it with absolute certainty, that, if you have to trust any woman, trust a plain one, rather than a handsome one; for the plain ones were not made to sell, else they too had been made handsome.
"Not to be too particular about a delicate subject," said old Baldy, who had been fortunate enough to know her, "her memory possibly may reach back to the Black Hawk War."
But the crowning feature of this woman was her enormous head of hair. It was black as night and bushy as a Kanaka's; all about her head in a heap, that seemed to be constantly in motion. But at the back and down between her shoulders it had gathered into a queue, and hung down there like a bell rope with a black tassel at the end.
She generally kept her mouth closed. But men observed that, when she wanted to say any thing, she pulled up her back, took hold of the bell rope, and pulled and pulled till her mouth came open; then she would throw out her sunken breast, and wind and wind with her two hands, and corkscrew at her back hair, and pull and twist and wind, until she had wound herself up so tight that it was impossible to close either her mouth or her eyes. After that she could talk faster than any man in the world, and faster than a great many women, until she ran down, and the bell rope hung loose between her shoulders. Then her mouth would close suddenly, and she would have to stop that instant, even if in the midst of a sentence, until she could seize the bell rope, pull herself open and wind herself up again.
The Captain had admirers in the Forks; many and many a worshiper, and not altogether without reason. There was about her a certain sweetness of nature that contrasted well with the rough life in which she was thrown; and the strong men noted this, and liked the sense of her presence.
Besides that, this woman had a certain sincerity about her, a virtue that is as rare as it is dear to man. I think, if we look at ourselves clearly, we will discover that this one quality wins upon us more than any other that is more than beauty, more than gold sincerity, earnestness. For my part, I only make that one demand on any man or any woman. You can not be graceful at will, or wealthy, or beautiful, or always good natured; but you can be in earnest. You can refuse to lie, either in word or in deed. I demand that you shall be in earnest before you shall approach me. Be in earnest even in your villainy.
The woman knocked on the door with her knuckles, and called through the hole of the latch string to the woman within; for Captain Tommy was also a woman, and a woman of the order of a less order even than this good Samaritan, who stood calling through the key hole and shivering with the cold.
There was an answer, and then the two stood there in the bleak, still, cold, gray morning together. There was a noise of somebody dressing in the dark very fast, a hard oath or two, the scratching of a match, the lifting of a latch in the rear of a cabin, the sound of a man's boots scratching over the stones of a back trail that led to the Howling Wilderness, and then the door opened, and Bunker Hill led in instantly, went right up to Captain Tommy, took her hand in her own, and whispered in her ear.
The Captain caught her breath, and then with both hands up, as if to defend herself, staggered close back against the wall. Then, as if suddenly recovering herself, and coming upon a new thought, she relaxed her lifted arms, let them fall, and rounding her shoulders, walked up to the smouldering fire, turned her back, put her hands behind her, looked at Bunker Hill sidewise, and said
"Yer be darned!"
"It's so, Tommy, sure as gospel, and we want you. She wants you. She sent for you, sent me, and you will come, for you are needed. I can't go it all night. Some people must be there, and that some people must be women."
"No, you don't play me! Go 'long with yer larks! Git!" The Captain was getting out of temper. What was to be done ? Bunker Hill went close up to her, and, leaning up, whispered sharply in her ear.
The Captain only said, "Yer be blowed!" and turned and kicked the fire, till it blazed up and filled the room with a rosy light, such only as smouldering pine logs can throw out when roused up into a flame; and then she turned around and looked at Bunker Hill as if she had firmly made up her mind not to be hoaxed. She looked at the good souled hunch back before her as if she would look her through; then suddenly her eyes rested on one of her white cuffs. "What the devil's that on yer sleeve? Been in a row again, eh?"
"Come, come, there's no time to lose. It's awful!"
Bunker Hill laid hold of Captain Tommy's arm, and attempted to drag her to the door. She was getting desperate.
Tommy pulled back, and still kept looking at the excited woman's white sleeve or cuff.
"What the devil's that on your sleeve ? It looks like blood."
Bunker Hill lifted her arm, looking now herself, pulled back her sleeve, and held it to the light.
"Blood it is! Will you believe me now ?"
The stubborn woman, who had been standing on the defensive, with her back to the fire, darted forward now all excitement, all sympathy. She snatched her outer garments from the foot of the bed, where they had lain all this interview, and threw them on her back. She did not stop to fasten them. She caught a blanket from the bed, threw it over her head, as she passed out all breathless, and left the cabin door wide open, with the fitful pine fire making ghosts on the floor, and the fitful March morning riding in on the wind and sowing it with ashes.Start reading Chapter18 of The First Famlies of the Sierras