THE little poet had no place in the heart of the camp at the first. And now at the last when he was about to go away, he held even a less place than when he came.
Nobody knew when he came, nobody cared. Now that he was passing away at last, nobody, save the Widow, knew of it. Nobody cared to know of it. Truly, this singular creature did not "fit in" anywhere in the Sierras.
The Widow had been seen to enter the little hermitage alone, and very regularly of late, but no one made inquiry or interfered now. The case was peculiar. The guilt of the Widow was an accepted fact. No one under the circumstances could speak to her of him. They left this all to her, a sort of monopoly of death.
We leave her at this bedside and turn for the last time to the little Chinaman.
And what became of the little brown man with the meek almond eyes and the peaceful smile that for ever hovered about the corner of his mouth ?
Poor little Washee-Washee ! When the Widow got married he had to go. He could not embark in business again, and he would not go away. The Widow always gave him all he asked when he came to her, but that was very little. She even tried to persuade him to accept little gifts, and to take some delicacies for his stomach's sake, but the little pagan would only shake his head, smile the least bit out of one corner of his mouth, and then go away as if half offended.
Every five years there is a curious sort of mule caravan seen meandering up and down the mining streams of California, where Chinamen are to be found. It is a quiet train, and quite unlike those to be found there driven by Mexicans, and bearing whisky and dry goods. In this train or caravan the drivers do not shout or scream. The mules, it always seemed to me, do not even bray. This caravan travels almost always by night, and it is driven and managed almost altogether by Chinamen. These Chinamen are civil, very respectful, very quiet, very mournful both in their dress and manner.
These mules, both in coming in and in going out of a camp, are loaded with little beech wood boxes of about three feet in length and one foot square.
When the train arrives in a camp these boxes are taken from off the backs of the mules, stored in some Chinaman's cabin close to the trail, and there they lie, so far as the world knows, undisturbed for two or three days. Then some midnight, the mules are quietly drawn up to the cabin door, the boxes are brought out, and the mules are loaded, and the line winds away up the hill and out on the mountain to where their freight can be taken down to the sea on wheels.
The only apparent difference in these boxes now is the lead label at either end, which was not there when they entered the camp.
This is the caravan of the dead. No Chinaman will consent to let his bones lie in the land of the barbarian. The bones of every Chinaman, even to the beggar if there ever was such a thing as a Chinese beggar in California are taken back to the land of his fathers.
Washee-Washee stood watching the train climb the corkscrew trail in the gray dawn one morning, and then shaking his head he went to the Widow and said:
"By'ee, by'ee. Washee-Washee allee samee."
And it was so. His first great commercial enterprise had been a disastrous failure, and the brown little fellow never recovered. Other Chinamen poured "in to camp, and he certainly had friends among them all, but he went to none in his griefs as he did to the Widow; she who had been his friend in his first great trouble.
The little brown man took to opium, and gradually grew almost black. His little bright black eyes grew brighter, his thin face grew thinner, and he became a little more than a shadow. Still he would smile a bit out of that corner of his mouth. Would smile as if he was smiling at Death, and was trying to cheat him into the idea that he felt perfectly well.
The caravan came in due time; as before, it rested, loaded, climbed the hill, and as the train led up against the morning star, you might have read on one little box, wherein a skeleton lay doubled up like a jack knife, this name:
"WASHEE-WASHEE."Start reading Chapter32 of The First Famlies of the Sierras