ONE day Limber Tim came up from the Howling Wilderness, all excitement: all gyrations, and gimlets, and corkscrews. He twisted himself around a sapling this great, overgrown, six-foot boy without a beard and shouting down to his "pardner" in the mine, Old Sandy, who stood at the bottom of the open claim, leaning on his pick, resting a moment, looking into the bright bubbling water that burst laughing from the bank before him, dreaming a bit in the freshness about him; and said, "Hallo! I say! a widder's come to town. D'ye hear ? A widder; one what's up and up, and on the square."
Sandy only looked up, for he was getting old, and gray, and wrinkled. Then he looked at the silver stream that ran from the bank and through the rocks at his feet, and called to him in the pleasant, balmy sunset, sweet with the smell of fir, and he did not disturb the water again with his pick. It looked too pretty, laughed, and sparkled, and leapt, and made him glad and yet sad.
A poet was this man Sandy, a painter, a sculptor, a mighty moralist; a man who could not write his name.
He laid down his pick, for the sun was just pitching his last lances at the snow peaks away up yonder above the firs, above the clouds, and night was coming down with steady steps to possess this chasm in the earth.
Limber Tim untwisted himself from the sapling as Sandy came up from the mine, twisting his great shaggy beard with his right hand, while he carried his black slouch hat in his left, and the two sauntered on toward their cabin together, while Sandy's great gum boots whetted together as he walked.
The "Parson" was in a neighboring cabin when it was announced that the first woman had come to the camp. The intelligence was received in a profound silence.
There was a piece of looking glass tacked up over the fireplace of this cabin.
Old Baldy whistled a little air, and walked up to this glass, side wise, silently, and stood there smoothing down his beard.
"Ginger blue!" cried the Parson, at last, bounding up from his bench, and throwing out his arms, as if throwing the words from the ends of his fingers. "Ginger blue! hell-ter-flicker!" And here he danced around the cabin in a terrible state of excitement, to the tune of a string of iron-clad oaths that fell like chain-shot. They called him the Parson, because it was said he could outswear any man in the camp, and that was saying a great deal, wonderful as were his achievements in this line.
After the announcement, every one of the ten men there took a look at the little triangular fragment of looking glass that was tacked up over the fireplace.
The arrival of Eve in Paradise was certainly an event; but she came too early in the world's history to create much sensation.
Stop here, and fancy the arrival of the first woman on earth today in this day of committees, conventions, brass-band receptions, and woman's rights!
You imagine a princess had come to camp, a good angel, with song and harps, or, at the least, carpet-bags, and extended crinoline, waterfalls, and false hair, a pack-train of Saratoga trunks, and all the adjuncts of civilization. Not at all. She had secured a cabin, by some accident, very near to that of the boy poet, and settled down there quietly to go to work.
Yes, Limber Tim had "seed" her. She had ridden the bell mule of the pack-train down the mountain and into town. He told how the hats went up in the air from in and about the Howling Wilderness, and how the boys had gone up in rows to the broken looking glass in the new barbershop, and how some had even polished their bowie knives on their boots, and sat down and tried to see themselves in the shining blade, and adjust their dress accordingly.
In a little time Sandy bent silently over the table in the cabin, and with his sleeves rolled up high on his great hairy arms, and kneaded away at the dough in the gold pan in silence, while Limber Tim wrestled nervously with the frying pan by the fire.
"Is she purty, Limber?"
"Purty, Sandy ? She's purtier nur a spotted dog."
Sandy sighed, for he felt that there was little hope for him, and again fell into a moody silence.
There was a run that night on the little Jew shop at the corner of the Howling Wilderness. Before midnight the little kinky headed Israelite had not a shirt, collar, or handkerchief, or white fabric of any kind whatever in the shop.
It might have been a bit of first class and old fashioned chivalry that had lain dormant in these great hairy breasts, or it might have been their strict regard for the appropriateness of names that made these men at once call her the "Widder;" or it might have been some sudden revelation, a sort of inspiration, given to the first man who saw her as she rode down the mountain into camp, or the first man who spoke of her as she rode blushing through their midst with her pretty face held modestly down; but be all that as it may, certainly there was no design, no delay, no hesitation about it from the first. And yet the appellation was singularly appropriate, and perhaps suggested to this poor, lone little woman, daring to cross the mountains, and to come down into this great chasm of the earth, among utter strangers, the conduct of her life.
The first woman came unheralded. Like all good things on earth, she came quietly as a snowflake down in their midst, without ado or demonstration.
Who she was or where she came from no one seemed to know. Perhaps the propriety of questioning occurred to some of the men of the camp, but it never found expression. I had rather say, however, that when they found there was a real live woman in camp, a decent woman, who was willing to work and take her place beside the men in the great battle bear her part in the common curse which demands that we shall toil to eat, they quietly accepted the fact, as men do the fact of the baby's arrival, without any question whatever.
This was not really the first woman to come into the camp of this thousand of bearded men; and yet it was the first. There were now five or six, maybe more, down at the Forks some from Sydney, some from New Orleans waifs of the foam, painted children of passion.
I am not disposed to put all these women in the catalogue of saints. They were very devils, some of them.
These women set man against man, and that Winter made many a crimson place in the great snow banks in the streets. They started the first graveyard at the Forks; and kept it recruited too, every holiday, and almost every Sunday.
True, they did some good. I do not deny that. For example, I have in my mind now the picture of one, Bunker Hill, holding the head of a brave young fellow, shot through the temple, his long black hair in strings and streaming with blood. She held him so till he died; and mourned and would not be separated from him while a hope or a breath remained the blood on her hands, on her face, all over her costly silks and lace, and on the floor.
Then she had him buried elegantly as possible; sent for a preacher away over to Yreka to say the funeral service; put evergreens about his grave, and refused to be comforted.
All this was very beautiful a touch of tenderness in it all; but it was spoiled by the reflection that she had allured and almost forced the fellow into the fight, in hopes of revenging herself on the man whom she hated, and by whose hand he had to fall.
There was another woman there who was very benevolent in fact, they all were liberal with their money, and were the first and freest to bestow upon the needy. This woman was a Mexican from Durango, I think; and her name was Dolores. Gentle in her manner, patient, sad; not often in the difficulties that distinguished the others; but generally alone, and by far the best liked of all these poor Magdalens. This good nature of hers made her most accessible, and so she was most sought for deeds of charity. Toward Spring it was said she was ill; but no one seemed to know, or maybe no one cared.
If you will stop here to consider, it will occur to you that it is a man's disposition to avoid a sick woman; but a woman's disposition to seek out a sick man and nurse, him back to health. This being true, here is a text for the Sorosis.
A bank had caved on a man only a prospecter, a German, who lived away in a little cabin on the hillside and crushed him frightfully. The man was penniless and alone, and help had to come from the camp.
Some one went to Dolores. She was in her room or cabin, out a little way from any one, alone and ill, sitting up in bed, looking "wild enough," as the man afterwards stated. He told her what had happened. She leaned her head on her hand a moment, and then lifted it, looked up, and drew a costly ring from her finger, the only one on her pale, thin hand, and gave it to the man, who hurried away to get other aid elsewhere.
Now there was nothing very odd or unusual in a woman giving a ring. That was often done. In fact, there was scarcely any coin on the Creek. In cases of this kind a man generally gave the biggest nugget or specimen he had in his pocket, a ring if he could not do better, sometimes a six shooter, and so on, and let them make the best of it, but always something, if that something was possible. Let this be said and remembered of these brave old men of the mountains.
A few days after this, it came out that Dolores was dead. Then it was whispered that she had starved to death. This last was said with a sort of a shudder. It came out with a struggle between the teeth, as if the men were afraid to say it.
On investigation, it was found that the poor woman had been ill some time, had lost her bloom and freshness; and what becomes of a woman of this kind, who has no money, when she has lost her bloom and strength? never had much money, always gave it away to the needy as fast as she got it, and so had nothing to fight the world with when she fell ill.
Then the man with the rent, the lord of the log cabin, a cross between a Shylock Jew and a flint faced Yankee took her rings and jewels, one by one. The baker grew exacting, and finally the butcher refused to bring her meat. And that was all there was of it. That was the end.
That butcher never succeeded there after that. Some one wrote "Small Pox" over his shop every night for a month, and it was shunned like a pest house. But all that did not bring poor Dolores back to life. The ring was an antique gold, with a costly stone, and a Spanish name, which showed her to have been of good family. A wedding ring.
But this woman, however, was an exception, and at best, when in health, save her generous and sympathetic nature, was probably no angel.
One of these meddlesome men, a hungry, lean, unsatisfied fellow; a man with a nose sharp and inquisitive enough to open a cast iron cannon ball, said one night to a knot of men at the Howling Wilderness saloon:
"Why widder ? why call her the widder ? who knows that she was ever married at all ?"
A man silently and slowly arose at this, and firmly doubled up his fist. He stood there towering above that fellow, and looking down upon that sharp inquisitive nose as if he wanted to drive it back into the middle of his head.
"But maybe she's a maid," answered the terrified nose in haste and fear.
The other sat down, slowly and silently, as he had risen, and perfectly satisfied that no insult had been intended. This was Sandy.
The Judge was there, and as the conversation had fallen through by this man's remark, he felt called upon to resume it in a friendly sort of a way, and said:
"No, no, she's not a maid, I reckon, not an old maid." He scratched his bald head above his ear and went on, for the big man at his side began to double up his knuckles. "I should say she's a widder. You see, the maids never gits this far. They seem to spile first."
The Judge spoke as if talking of a sort of pickled oyster or smoked ham.Start reading Chapter4 of The First Famlies of the Sierras