Nobody knew when he came. Perhaps nobody cared. He was the smallest man in the camp. In fact he was not a man. He was only a boyish, girlish-looking creature that came and went at will. He was so small he crowded no one, and so no one cried out about him, or paid him any attention, so long as they were all busily taking possession of and measuring off the new Eden.
What a shy, sensitive, girlish-looking man! His boyish face was beautiful, dreamy and childish. It was sometimes half-hidden in a cloud of yellow hair that fell down about it, and was always being pushed back by a small white hand, that looked helpless enough, in the battle of life among these bearded and brawny men on the edge of the new world.
He had a little bit of a cabin on the hillside, not far way from the Forks, and lived alone. This living alone was always rated to be a bad sign. It was counted selfish. Few men lived alone in the mines. In fact the cabins in the mines were generally jammed and crowded as tight with men as if they had been little tin boxes packed with sardines.
When the bees in this new and busy hive began to settle down to their work; when they in fact got a little of the hurry and flurry of their own affairs a little off their minds, and they had a bit of time to look into the affairs of others, they began to reflect that no man had ever entered this little cabin.
Cabins in the mines in those days were generally open to all. "The latch string," to use the expression of the Sierras, hung on the out-side to strangers. But this one peculiar cabin had no "latch-string " for any man.
Men began to get curious. I assert that curiosity is not the monopoly of sex. One Sunday some half idle and wholly inquisitive men went up to this cabin as they passed in the trail, which ran hard by, and asked for a drink of water.
A little hand brought a dipper of water to the door. A boy face lifted up timidly to the great bearded men from Missouri as they in turn drank and passed the big tin dipper from one to the other till it was drained; then the little hand took the dipper back again and disappeared, while the men, half ashamed and wholly confounded, stumbled on up the trail,
The boy had been so civil, so shy, so modest, and yet, when occasion offered, so kind withal, that few could refuse to be his friends ; and now he had, only by lifting his eyes, won over this knot of half-vulgar, half-ruffianly fellows wholly to his side.
Once the saloon-keeper, the cinnamon-haired man of the Howling Wilderness, as the one whisky shop of this New Eden was called, met him on the trail as he was going out with a pick and shovel on his shoulder, to prospect for gold.
"What is your name, my boy ?"
The timid brown eyes looked up through the cluster of yellow curls, as the boy stepped aside to let the big man pass ; and the two, without other words, went on their ways.
Oddly enough they allowed this boy to keep his name. They called him Little Billie Piper.
He was an enigma to the miners. Sometimes he looked to be only fifteen. Then again he was very thoughtful. The fair brow was wrinkled sometimes; there were lines, sabre cuts of time, on the fair delicate face, and then he looked to be at least double that age.
He worked, or at least he went out to work, every day with his pick and pan and shovel; but almost always they saw him standing by the running stream, looking into the water, dreaming, seeing in Nature's mirror the snowy clouds that blew in moving mosaic overhead and through and over the tops of the tossing firs.
He rarely spoke to the men more than in monosyllables. Yet when he did speak to them his language was so refined, so far above their common speech, and his voice was so soft, and his manner so gentle that they saw in him, in some sort, a superior.
Yet Limber Tim, the boy-man, came pretty near to this boy's life. At least he stood nearer to his heart than any one. Their lives were nearer the same level. One Sunday they stood together on the hill by the grave-yard above the Forks.
"Tell me," said the boy, laying his hand on the arm of his companion, and looking earnestly and sadly in his face, " Tell me, Tim, why it is that they always have the grave-yard on a hill. Is it because it is a little nearer to heaven? "
His companion did not understand. And yet he did understand, and was silent.
They sat down together by and by and looked up out of the great canon at the drifting white clouds, and the boy said, looking into heaven, as if to himself,
"0 ! fleets of clouds that flee before
The burly winds of upper seas."
Then as the sudden twilight fell and they went down the hill together, the white crooked moon, as if it had just been broken from off the snow peak that it had been hiding behind, came out with a star.
"How the red star hangs to the moon's white horn."
There was no answer, for his companion was awed to utter silence.
One day, Bunker Hill, a humped-back and unhappy woman of uncertain ways, passed through the crowd in the Forks. Some of the rough men laughed and made remarks. This boy was there also. Lifting his eyes to one of these men at his side, he said:
"God has made some women a little plain, in order that he might have some women that are wholly good."
These things began to be noised about. All things have their culmination. Even the epizootic has one worst day. Things only go so far. Rockets only rise so high, then they explode, and all is dark and still.
The Judge stood straddled out before the roaring fire of the Howling Wilderness one night, tilting up the tails of his coat with his two hands which he had turned in behind him, as he stood there warming the upper ends of his short legs, and listening to these questions and the comments of the men. At last, he seemed to have an inspiration, and tilting forward on his toes, and bringing his head very low down, and his coat-tails very high up, he said, solemnly:
"Fellow-citizens, it's a poet."
Then bringing out his right hand, and reaching it high in the air, as he poised on his right leg:
"In this glorious climate of Californy"
"Be gad, it is!" cried an Irishman, jumping up, "a Bryan A poet, a rale, live, Lord O'Bryan."
And so the status of the strange boy was fixed at the Forks. He was declared to be a poet, and was no more a wonder. Curiosity was satisfied.
"It is something to know that it is no worse," growled a very practical old man, as he held a pipe in his teeth and rubbed his tobacco between his palms.
He spoke of it as if it had been a case of the small-pox, and as if he was thinking how to best prevent the spread of the infection.Start reading Chapter3 of The First Famlies of the Sierras