NEVER did the press feed on a political war, or a calumniated poet, as these men of the Howling Wilderness fed on this one woman of the Forks.
Yet let it be remembered they always, and to a man, with scarce an exception, spoke of her with the profoundest respect. Few of them had had the pleasure of seeing her, fewer still of speaking to her, yet she was the ever present topic. Even the weather in a London Winter is hardly more popular a theme, than was the Widow when they met in knots in the little town after the day's work was over.
The brave, silent, modest little woman had put her hands to the plow at once. These men knew perfectly well that honest people had no business there but to work; and when her little hands, that did not look at all as if they had been used to toil, took hold of the hard fact of life, and the little face bent above the wash tub, and the fine white brow glistened with a diadem of diamonds that grew there as a price for bread, they loved her to a man.
What strange savage scenes were enacted here before the arrival of this one good woman. Every Saturday night was a sort of carnival of death. Men went about from drinking shop to drinking shop, howling like Modocs, swinging their pistols, proclaiming themselves chiefs, and seeking for bloody combat. They gave the country a name and a reputation in this first year of gold mining in the Sierras that will survive them every one.
On Sunday the scene was somewhat changed. With all their savagery and wildness and nonsense, it was always understood that the work of the week must go on, and Sunday was the great day of preparation.
Sunday was not a day of rest. It is true the miners slept a little later on Sunday morning, but Sunday was to all a day of terror and petty troubles beyond measure. It always came to some one's turn, every Sunday morning, in every mess or cabin, to begin his week's cooking for his mess, and for that reason, if for no other, there was at least one man miserable in every cabin whenever the dreaded Sunday came.
Then there was the mending of clothes! Mercy! Great big hairy men sitting up and out on the hillside with their backs up against the pines, sitting there out of sight, half naked, stitching, stitching, stitching, and swearing at every stitch.
But the great and terrible event of Sunday, before the Widow came, was the washing of clothes. Neither love nor money could induce any one save the uncertain little Chinaman to undertake this task for them, before the arrival of the Widow. Therefore when Sunday came these men went down in line, silently and solemnly, to the little mountain stream (allowed to rest and run clear and crystal like on Sunday), and stood in a row along its banks, in top boots, duck breeches, red shirts, and great broad hats. Then, at a word, each man laid aside his hat, undid the bosom of his shirt, straightened his arms, and drew his shirt up and over his head, and then fastened his belt, and squatted by the stream, and rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. Brawny muscled men, nude above the waist, "naked and not ashamed," hairy breasted and bearded, noble, kingly men miners washing their shirts in a mountain stream of the Sierras. Thoughtful, earnest, splendid men! Boughs above them, pine tops toying with the sun that here and there reached through like fingers pointing at them from the far, pure purple of the sky. And a stillness so profound, perfect, holy as a temple! Nature knows her Sabbath.
I would give more for a painting of this scene that sun, that sky and wood, the water there, the brave, strong men, the thinkers and the workers there, nude and natural, silent and sincere, bending to their work than for all the battle scenes that could be hung upon a palace wall. When the great man comes, the painter of the true and great, these men will be remembered.
It is said that Diogenes, when he saw a boy drinking water from his hand, scooped up from the stream, threw away his cup, the last utensil he had retained.
This shirt washing went on in some camps for years. These men were compelled to study simplicity, and did from necessity nearly what the cynic did from caprice. Where every man had to carry his effects on his back for days and days, through steep and rugged paths, an extra garment was not to be thought of. Men got used to the one shirt system, and seemed to like it. Some stuck to it with a tenacity hardly respectful to the near approach of civilization.
Once upon a time, to coin a new beginning, a younger brother came out to visit one of these brave old miners, now gray and grizzled, but true to his old traditions and habits of life. He called on him on Sunday, entered his cabin, and found him covered in his blankets.
"What, my brother, are you sick?" said he, after the first salutations and embraces were exchanged.
"Sick! No, not sick."
"Then why are you in bed?"
"Oh! I washed my shirt today and got in bed to let it dry."
"Why! Haven't you got but the one shirt?"
"But the one shirt! No! Do you think a man wants a thousand shirts?"
These men were mostly shy with their letters and their tales of love. That was sacred ground, upon which no strange, rude feet could pass. No gold hunter there, perhaps, but had his love his one only love, without a chance or possibility of changing the object of his devotion, even if he had desired it. Men must love as well as women. It is the most natural and, consequently, the most proper thing on earth. Imagine how intensified and how tender a man's devotion would become under circumstances like these. The one image in his heart, the one hope HER. So much time to think, bending to the work in the running water under the trees, on the narrow trail beneath the shadows of the forest, by the camp and cabin fire, her face and hers only, with no new face rising up, crossing his path, confronting him for days, for months, for years see how holy a thing his love would grow to be. This, you observe, is a new man, a new manner of lover. Love, I say, is a requirement, a necessity. It is as necessary for a complete man to love as it is for him to breathe pure air. And it is as natural.
These men, being so far removed from any personal contact with the objects of their affections, and only now and then at long intervals receiving letters, all marked and remarked across the backs from the remailings from camp to camp, of course knew of no interruptions in the current of their devotion, and loved in a singularly earnest and sincere way. I doubt if there be anything like it in history.
When men go to war, they have the glory and excitement of battle to allure them, then the eyes of many women are upon them; they are not locked up like these men of the Sierras, with only their work and the one thing to think of. When they go to sea, sailors find new faces in every port; but these men, from the time they crossed the Missouri or left the Atlantic coast, had known no strange gods, hardly heard a woman's voice, till they returned.
But let us return to this one firm first woman, who had come into camp and taken at once upon her shoulders the task of washing and mending the miners' clothes. Men, even the most bloated and besotted, walked as straight as possible up the trail that led by the Widow's cabin, as they passed that way at night; and kept back their jokes and war whoops till far up the creek and out of her hearing in the pines.
A general improvement was noticed in all who dwelt in sight or hearing of her cabin. In fact, that portion of the creek became a sort of West End, and cabin rent went up in that vicinity. Men were made better, gentler. No doubt of that. If, then, one plain woman, rude herself by nature, can do so much, what is not left for gentle and cultured woman, who is or should be the true missionary of the West the world?
A woman's weakness is her strength,
She was tall, gentle, genial too, and soon a favorite with her many, many patrons. She had a scar on the left side of her face, they said, reaching from the chin to the cheek; but with a woman's tact, she always kept her right side to her company, and the scar was not always noticed.
What had been her history, what troubles she had had, what tempests she had stood against, or what great storm had blown this solitary woman far into the great black sea of firs that belts about and lies in the shadow of the Sierras, like a lone white sea dove you sometimes find far out in the China seas, no man knew; and, be it said to the credit of the Forks, no man cared to inquire.
This meeting together, this coming and going of thousands of men from all parts of the earth, where each man stood on the character he made there in a day, deadened curiosity, perhaps.
At all events, you can go, a stranger, today, any where along the Pacific, and, if your character indicates the gentleman, you are accepted as such, and no man cares to ask of your antecedents. A convenient thing, I grant, for many; but, nevertheless, a good thing, and a correct thing for any country.
The old Jewish law of every seven years forgiving each man his debt was an age in advance of our laws of today; and, if any means could be devised by which every seven years to forgive all men their offences, and let them begin life anew all together, an even start, it would be better still.
How the work did pour in upon this first woman in, this wild Eden set with thorns and with thistles! There were not many clothes in the Forks that were worth washing, but the few pieces that were presentable came almost every day to the door of the Widow to be taken in by the little hand that ever opened to the knock of the miners' knuckles on the door, and reached through the partly opened place, and drew back timidly and with scarce a word.
No man had yet entered her cabin. The wise little woman! If one man had been so favored, without good and sufficient reason, then jealousy, unless others had been allowed to enter also, would have made a funeral, and very soon, too, with that one favored man the central figure.
No man had entered that cabin; but a boy had, and oftentime too. In fact from the first little Billie Piper, whose cabin, as I have said, stood hard by, seemed to be as much at home and as much in place with the Widow as he was out of place with the men. The friendship here made him enemies elsewhere. Such is human nature.Start reading Chapter5 of The First Famlies of the Sierras