THE sun at last shot sharply through the far fir tops tossing over the savage and sublime mountain crest away to the east, with its battlement of snow, and Limber Tim was glad at the sight of it, for he was very cold and stiff, and hungry and thirsty, and tired of his post of honor, and disgusted with himself for the miserable mistakes he had made that morning.
He had been standing there like a forlorn and lonesome cock all the morning on one foot, waiting for the dawn, and now he fairly wanted to crow at the sight of it.
Men came and went now, and every man asked after poor Sandy.
Limber Tim now told the same story right straight through, all about how it happened, how Bunker Hill was "kivered" with blood, and all about it, even to the most minute detail; for certainly, thought he to himself, it is Sandy or Sandy would have come out long ago. He even believed it so firmly, that he began to be sorry for Sandy, and to wonder how long it would be till Sandy would be out and about again on crutches. Then he said to himself, it would be at least a month; and then when the next man came by and inquired after Sandy, he told him that in a month Sandy would be about on crutches. At this piece of information Limber Tim felt a great deal better. He said to himself he was very glad it was no worse, and then he screwed his back tighter up to the fence than before, and stood there trying to warm in the cold sunlight of a moist morning in the Sierras. It was like standing on the Apennines, and turning your back and parting your coat tails, and trying to warm by the fires of Vesuvius.
In the midst of meditations like these the door opened, and Sandy shuffled through it, shot over the fence, slapped his two great hands on the two shoulders as before, and before Limber Tim could unscrew himself from the fence, cried out
"Whisky, Limber! whisky, quick! The gals is almost tuckered! Go! Split!"
He spun him around and sent him reeling down the trail, then returned and banged the door behind him.
Limber Tim scratched his ear as he stumbled over the rocks in the trail, and wound his stiffened legs about the boulders and over the logs on his way to the Howling Wilderness, and was sorely perplexed.
"Wall, it ain't Sandy, any way. Ef his big hands have lost any of their grip I don't see it, anyhow." He shrugged his shoulders as he said this to himself, for they still ached from the vice like grip of the giant.
Still Limber Tim was angry, notwithstanding the discovery that his old partner was sound and well, and he lifted the latch with but one resolution, and that was to remain perfectly silent and let his lies take care of themselves.
Men crowded around him as he entered and gave his orders. But this bulletin board was a blank. He had set his lips together and they kept their place. For the first time in his troubled and shaky existence he began to know and to feel the power and the dignity of silence. He knew that every man there thought that he, who stood next to the throne, knew all; and felt dignified by this, and dared even to look a little severe on those who were about to ask him questions.
He had crammed a bottle of so-called "Bourbon" in his left boot, and was just pushing into the right a "phial of wrath," when some one in the cabin sighed, "Poor Sandy!"
Still Limber Tim went on pushing the phial of wrath into his gum boot as well as he could with his stiffened fingers.
Then a man came up sharply out of the crowd, and throwing a big, heavy bag of gold dust, as fat as a pet squirrel, down on the counter, proposed to raise a "puss" for Sandy.
This was too much. Limber Tim raised his head, and slipping as fast as he could through the crowd for the door, said, back over his shoulder
"It ain't Sandy at all. It's Bunker Hill. It's the gals. The gals is almost tuckered."
There was the confusion of Babel in the Howling Wilderness. The strange and contradictory accounts that had come down from the Widow's, their shrine, the little log house that to them was as a temple, a city set upon a hill, were anything but satisfactory. The men began to get nervous, and then they began to drink, and then they began to dispute again, and then they began to bet high and recklessly who it was that had cut his foot.
"Got it all right now," said poor Limber Tim to himself as he made his way up the trail as fast as possible, with the two bottles in the legs of his great gum boots for safe carriage. "Got it all right now! That's it. Bunker Hill cut her foot or shot her hand with that darned derringer, or something of the kind. That's it, that's where the blood came from, that's why she's tuckered that's what's the matter." And so saying and musing to himself, he reached his post, uncorked the phial of wrath, as it was called, looked in at the contents, turned it up towards the sun as if it had been a sort of telescope, and smacking his lips felt slightly confirmed in his opinion. He also resolved to ask Sandy, like a man, what the devil was up the moment he appeared.
Again the door flew open, Sandy flew out, rushed over the fence, took the Bourbon from the trembling hand of Limber Tim, and before he could get his wits together had disappeared and banged the door behind him.
Limber Tim did not like this silent dignity business a bit. "Lookee here!" he said, as he again turned the telescope up to the sun, and then looked at the door, "I'll see what's what, I reckon."
He went up to the fence, leaned over, but his heart failed him.
Then he resorted to the phial of wrath, again looked at the sun, and as he replaced it in his boot felt bold as a lion. The man was drunk. He climbed the fence, staggered up to the door, lifted the latch and pushed it open.
Bunker Hill came softly out of the bed room, pushed the man back gently as if he had been a child, shut the door slowly, and the man went back to his post.
Men have curiosity as well as women. Weak women over weaker. tea, discussing strong scandal in some little would be fashionable shoddy saloon in Paris, are not more curious than were these half wild men here in the woods. The difference however is, this was an honest sympathetic interest. It was all these men had outside of hard work to interest them. They wanted to know what was the matter in their little temple on the hill. The camp was getting wild.
Limber Tim tried to screw himself up against the fence for some time, and failing in this, turned his attention again to the phial of wrath. He was leaning over, trying to get it out of his boot leg, when the door opened and Bunker Hill stepped out carefully, but supple and straight as he had ever seen her.
Limber Tim was quite overcome. He looked up the canyon and then down the canyon.
"They'll be a comet next." He shook his head hopelessly at this remark of his, and again bent down and wrestled with the boot leg and bottle.
"Bully for Bunker Hill. Guess she's not hurt much after all."
The men went out of the Howling Wilderness as the man who shot this injunction or observation in at the door went in, and to their amazement saw the woman alluded to walk rapidly on past the saloon. She did not look up, she did not turn right or left or stop at the saloon or speak to any one; she went straight to her own cabin. Then the men knew for a certainty that it was the little Widow who was ill, and they knew that it was this woman who was nursing her, and they almost worshiped the ground that the good Samaritan walked upon.
Soon Bunker Hill came out again, and again took the trail for the Widow's cabin, and walking all the time rapidly as before. The men as she passed took off their hats and stood there in silence.
There was a smile of satisfaction on her plain face as she climbed the hill. She went up that hill as if she had been borne on wings. Her heart had never been so light before. For the first time since she had been in camp, she had noticed that she was treated with respect. It was a rare sensation, new and most delightful. The hump on her back was barely noticed as she passed Limber Tim trying to lean up against the fence, and entered with a noiseless step, and almost tiptoe, the home of the sufferer.
The men respected this woman now more than ever before. They also respected her silence. At another time they would have called out to her; sent banter after her in rough unhewn speech, and got in return as good, or better, than they sent. But now no man spoke to her. She had been dignified, sanctified, by her mission of mercy, whatever it meant or whatever was the matter, and she was to them a better woman. Men who met her on her return gave her all the trail, and held their hats as she passed. One old man gave her his hand as she crossed a little snow stream in the trail, and helped her over it as if she had been his own child. Yet this old man had despised her and all her kind the day before.
She went and came many times that day, and always with the same respect, the same silent regard from the great Missourians whom the day found about the Forks.
Then Captain Tommy came forth in the evening, and also went on straight to her cabin, and her face was full of concern. The Captain had not been a person of any dignity at all the day before, but now not a man had the audacity to address her as she passed on with her eyes fixed on the trail before her.
When she returned, the man at his post had fallen. Poor Limber Tim! He would not leave his station, and Sandy had something else to think of now; and so he fell on the field. It was not that he had drunk so much, but that that he had eaten so little. His last recollections of that day were a long and protracted and fruitless wrestle with the phial of wrath in his boot leg, and an ineffectual attempt to screw the picket fence on to his back.
It was no new thing to find a man spilt out in the trail in these days, and his fall excited no remark.
They would carry men in out of the night and away from the wolves, or else would sit down and camp by them till they were able to care for themselves.
A man took a leg under each arm, another man took hold of his shoulders, and Limber Tim, now the limpest thing dead or alive was borne to his cabin.
One, two, three days. The camp, that at first was excited almost beyond bounds, had gone back to its work, and only now and then sent up a man from the mines below, or sent down a man from the mines above, to inquire if there was yet any news from the Widow. But not a word was to be heard.
All these days the two women went and came right through the thick of the men, but no man there was found rude enough to ask a question.
Never had the camp been so sober. Never had the Forks been so thoughtful. The cinnamon headed bar keeper leaned over his bar and said confidentially to the man at the table behind the silver faro box, who had just awakened from a long nap
"Ef this 'ere thing keps up, I busts." Then the red haired man drew a cork and went on a protracted spree all by himself.
"Send for a gospel sharp all to once, Jake. Let's go the whole hog. The Forks only wants to get religion now, and die."Start reading Chapter20 of The First Famlies of the Sierras