TWO days after the Widow had arrived, Washee-Washee, as the "boys" had named him, stood out on the steps of his cabin all the afternoon, looking up the Forks and down the Forks, and wondering what in the world was the reason the "boys" did not come creaking along and screeching their great gum boots together, with their extra shirt for wash wadded down in one of the spacious legs.
Three days after the Widow had arrived she had absorbed all the business. Four days after she had arrived, she absorbed Washee-Washee. And now it was the brown hand of little moon eyed Washee-Washee that reached through the door, took the clothes, and handed them out again, or at least such portions as he chose to hand out, to the bearded giants standing there, patiently waiting at the door of the Widow's cabin.
The face of the Widow was now almost entirely invisible. It was as if there was no sun at the Forks, and all the sky was in a perpetual eclipse of clouds.
Soon there was trouble. Clothes began to disappear. One bearded sovereign, a gallant man, who refused to complain because there was a woman in the case, was observed to wear his coat buttoned very closely up to his chin; and that too in midday in Summer. This good man had at first lost only his extra shirt. He did not complain. He simply went to bed on Sunday, sent his shirt early to the wash, expecting to rise in the afternoon, "dress," and go to town. A week went by. The man could not stay in bed till the day of judgment, so he rose up, buttoned up to the throat, and went down to buy another supply.
Other circumstances, not dissimilar in result, began to be talked of quietly; and men began to question whether or not after all the camp had been greatly the gainer by this new element in its population.
One afternoon there was a commotion at the door of the Widow's cabin. Sandy was in trouble with Washee-Washee. The moon eyed little man tried to get back into the house, but the great big giant had been too long a patient and uncomplaining sufferer to let him escape now, and he reached for his queue, and drew him forth as a showman does a black snake from a cage.
The Widow saw the great hairy face of this grizzly giant, and retreated far back into the cabin. She was certain she was terribly afraid of this great big awkward half clad exasperated man, and therefore, with a woman's consistency, she came to the door, and in a voice softer than running water to Sandy's ears, asked what could be the matter?
Sandy was taken by surprise, and could not say a word. He only rolled his great head from one shoulder to the other, got his hands lashed up somehow in his leather belt, and stood there sadly embarrassed.
But who ever saw an embarrassed Chinaman? The innocent little fellow, turning his soft brown almond eyes up to the Widow, told her, as poor Sandy stared on straight down the hill, that this dreadful "Amelikan" wanted him to leave her, and to go home with him, to be his wife.
When Sandy heard this last he disappeared, crestfallen and utterly crushed. He went home; but not to rest. He told Limber Tim all about what had happened. How he had stood it all in silence, till it came to the last shirt. How the Chinaman had lied, and how he was now certain that it was this same little celestial who had been robbing him. Limber Tim raised himself on his elbow where he lay in his bunk, and looking at Sandy, struck out emphatically with his hand, and cried
"Lay fur him!"
Sandy drew on his great gum boots again. Limber Tim rose up, and then the two men kept creaking, and screeching and whetting their great boots together, as they went, without speaking, and in single file down the hill towards town.
There was an expression of ineffable peace and tranquility on the face of Washee-Washee that twilight, as he wended his way from the Widow's cabin to his own. His day's work was done; and the little man's face looked the soul of repose. Possibly he was saying with the great good poet, whose lines you hear at evening time, on the lips of nearly every English artisan
" Something attempted, something done, Has earn'd a night's repose."
Washee-Washee looked strangely fat for a Chinaman, as he peacefully toddled down the trail, still wearing, as he neared his cabin, that look of calm delight and perfect innocence, such only as the pure in heart are supposed to wear. His hands were drawn up and folded calmly across his obtruding stomach, as if he feared he might possibly burst open, and wanted to be ready to hold himself together.
In the great little republic there, where all had begun an even and equal race in the battle of life, where all had begun as beggars, this tawny little man from the far-off Flowery Kingdom was alone; he was the only representative of his innumerable millions in all that camp. And he did seem so fat, so perfectly full of satisfaction. Perhaps he smiled to think how fat he was, and, too, how he had flourished in the little democracy.
He was making a short turn in the trail, still holding his clasped hands over his extended stomach, still smiling peacefully out of his half shut eyes:
A double bolt of thunder was in his ears. A tremendous hand reached out from behind a pine, and then the fat little Chinaman squatted down and began to wilt and melt beneath it.
Washee-Washee was not at all willing to come; but that made not the slightest difference in the world to Sandy. The little almond eyed man was not at all heavy. Old flannel shirts, cotton overalls, stockings, cotton collars and cambric handkerchiefs never are heavy, no matter how well they may be wadded in, and padded away, and tucked up, and twisted under an outer garment; and so before he had time to say a word he was on his way to the Widow's with Sandy, while Limber Tim, with his mouth half open, came corkscrewing up the trail, and grinding and whetting his screechy gum boots together after them.
There is a fine marble statue in the garden at Naples, near the massive marble head of Virgil, which represents some great giant as striding along with some little pigmy thrown over his shoulder, which he is carelessly holding on by the heel. Sandy looked not wholly unlike that statue, as he strode up the trail with Washee-Washee.
He reached the door of the Widow's cabin, knocked with the knuckles of his left hand, while his right hand held on to an ankle that hung down over his left shoulder, and calmly waited an answer.
The door half way opened.
"Beg pardon, mum."
He bowed stiffly as he said this, and then shifting Washee-Washee round, quietly took his other heel in his other hand, and proceeded to shake him up and down, and dance him and stand him gently on his head, until the clothes began to burst out from under his blue seamless garment, and to peep through his pockets, and to reach down around his throat and dangle about his face, till the little man was nearly smothered.
Then Sandy set him down a moment to rest, and he looked in his face as he sat there, and it had the same peaceful smile, the same calm satisfaction as before. The little man now put his head to one side, shut his pretty brown eyes a little tighter at the corners, and opened his mouth the least bit in the world, and put out his tongue as if he was about to sing a hymn.
Then Sandy took him up again. He smiled again sweeter than before. Sandy tilted him sidewise, and shook him again. Then there fell a spoon, then a pepper box, and then a small brass candlestick; and at last, as he rolled him over and shook the other side, there came out a machine strangely and wonderfully made of whalebone and brass, and hooks and eyes, that Sandy had never seen before, and did not at all understand, but supposed was either a fish trap or some new invention for washing gold.
Then Limber Tim, who had screwed his back up against the palings, and watched all this with his mouth open, came down, and reaching out with his thumb and finger, as if they had been a pair of tongs, took the garments one by one, named them, for he knew them and their owners well, and laid them silently aside. Then he took Washee-Washee from the hands of Sandy and stood him up, or tried to stand him up alone. He looked like a flagstaff with the banner falling loosely around it in an indolent wind. He held him up by the queue awhile, but he wilted and sank down gently at his feet, all the time smiling sweetly as before, all the time looking up with a half closed eye and half parted lips, as though he was enjoying himself perfectly, and would like to laugh, only that he had too much respect for the present company.
" If I could only shake the lies out of him, mum, as easily as I did this 'ere spoon, and this 'ere candlestick, and this 'ere, this 'ere" Sandy had stooped and picked up the articles as he spoke, and now was handing them to the Widow in triumph.
" Poor little, helpless, pitiful fellow!"
The Widow was looking straight at the celestial, who sat there piled up in a little bit of a heap, the limpest thing in all the Forks perhaps, ^ave Limber Tim.
"Let him go, please; let him go. Bring the things and come in. You can go now, John; but do n't do so any more. It is not right."
The Widow smiled in pity as she said this to Washee-Washee. The Chinaman understood the first proposition perfectly, but not the last at all. To him all this was simply a bad investment. To him it was only a little shipwreck; and having been taught by the philosophers of his country to prepare for adversity in the hour of prosperity, he was not at all lacking in resignation now. He rose up, smiled that patient and peaceful smile of his, and wended his way to his home.
Sandy looked a moment at the retreating hungry looking little Chinaman, and then thrust his two great hands into his two great pockets, and tilting his head, first on the left shoulder and then on the right, tried hard to look the Widow in the face, but found himself contemplating the toes of his great gum boots.
"Will you not come in?"
The man rolled forward. He sat down in the Widow's cabin in a perfect glow of excitement and delight.
I am bound to admit that, upright and great as Sandy was, he kept thinking to himself, "What will the Judge and the boys say of this?" He even was glad in his heart that Limber Tim stood with his back glued up against the palings on the outside, and his hands reached back and wound in and around the rails, so that he could testify to the boys, tell it, in fact, to the world, that he had entered in, and sat down in the Widow's cabin.
It was not easy work for Sandy sitting there. He soon began to suffer. He hitched about and twisted around on the broad wooden stool as if he had sat down on a very hot stove.
The Widow sat a little way back across the cabin, a bit of work in her lap, looking up at Sandy now, and now dropping her half sad blue eyes down to her work, and all the time, in a low sweet way, doing every word of the talking.
Sandy's hot stove kept getting hotter and hotter. He began to wish he was down with the boys at the Howling Wilderness, consulting the oracle of cocktails. All at once he seemed to discover his great long legs. They seemed to him as if they reached almost clean across the cabin, like two great anacondas going to swallow up the Widow. He fished them up, curved them, threw his two great hands across them, nursed them affectionately, but they seemed more in the way and uglier than ever before. Then he thrust them out again, but jerked them back instantly, and drove them back under his bench as if they had been two big and unruly bull dogs, and he nearly upset himself in doing it. They had fairly frightened him, they were surely never half so long before. It seemed to him as if they would reach across the room, through the wall, and even down to the Howling Wilderness. He twisted them up under the bench and got them fast there, and was glad of it, for now they would not and could not run out and rush across the room at the Widow.
But now poor Sandy saw another skeleton. His eyes came upon them suddenly, in a sort of discovery. It seemed as if he had just found them out for the first time, and knew them for mortal enemies, and determined to do away with them at once, and at any sacrifice.
Such hands! had the Widow really been looking at them all this time? the back of that hand was big and rough as the bark of a tree. That finger nail had a white rim of dough around it; that thumb nail was as big and about as dirty as a crevicing spoon! He picked up that hand, thrust it under him, sat firmly over on that side, and held it down and out of sight with all his might. The other one lay there, still in the way. It was uglier than the one he had just slain and hidden away in the bush.
There was dirt enough about the nails to make a small mining claim. He rolled the hand over and over on his lap, as if it had been somebody's baby; and a baby with the colic. At last, in a state of desperation, he rolled it off and let it fall and take care of itself. It hung down at his side like a great big felon from the scaffold.
It twisted and swung around there as if it had just been hung up by the neck in the expiation of some awful crime. It felt to Sandy as if it weighed a ton. He tried to lift it up again, to take care of it, to nurse it, to turn it over on its stomach, to stroke it, and talk to it, and pity it, and soothe away its colic, but lo! he could not lift it. He began to perspire, he was so very warm. It was the warmest time that Sandy had ever seen. All this time Sandy had sat close by the door, and not one word had he uttered.
The Widow rose up, laid her work on the table, all the time smiling sweetly, half sadly, and going up to the fire place, took from the box in the corner, pine knot after pine knot, and laid them on the blazing fire.
"Come, the evening is chilly, will you not sit closer to the fire?"
Sandy sat still as the statue of Moses in the Vatican, but that abominable felon hanging by the neck at his side kept twisting around and around and around as if he never would die or be still. The Widow sat down with her work as before, and this time she began to talk about the weather, trusting that on this subject at least, her great good friend could open his lips and speak.
"How very cold it is this evening. The chill of the snow is in the air; it blows down from the banks of snow on the mountain, and I fancy it may be cold here in this rickety cabin the Summer through."
Still the ugly convict, that now began to grow black in the face, swung and twisted at his side; but he did not speak.
" Do you not feel cold?"
" Yes 'um." '
The two words came out like the bark of a bulldog; as if one of the brutes he had drawn back under his bench had stuck out his nose and yelped in the face of the Widow, and Sandy was frightened nearly to death. The perspiration dropped from his brow to his hand, and he knew that things could not last in this way much longer. The bulldogs would be out, and he knew it. The dead man that he was sitting down upon would rise up to judgment, and the felon at his side was only swinging and turning and twisting more than before.
Sandy shut his eyes and attempted to rise. His gum boots screeched, the bench creaked as he began to undouble himself. It turned up and hung on behind him as if it had been a lobster. He shook it off, and began to tower up like a pine. He feared he would pierce through the roof, and began to look out through the half open door, and to stretch out the prostrate hand. Then he stood still and was more bewildered than before. The Widow was looking straight at him, and expecting him to speak. He wished he had not got up at all. If he was only back on that overthrown bench, with the dead man beneath him, and the bulldogs below, and the felon swinging loosely at his side, how happy he would be. He tried to speak, tried like a man, but if it had been to save his life, to save her life, the world, he could not find will to shape one word. He backed and blundered and stumbled across the threshold and drew a breath, such a breath! the first he had drawn for half an hour, as he stood outside, with the Widow's little feet following to the threshold, and her pretty miniature face looking up to his as if looking up to the top of a pine.
" You will come again, will you not? you have been so very kind; please to call, step in as you pass, and rest. It is so lonesome here, you know! nobody that anybody knows. And then you are such good company." .
And then the pretty little Widow with the sad sweet face, laughed the prettiest little laugh that ever was laughed this side that other Eden with its one fair woman.
Limber Tim closed his mouth and unscrewed himself from the palings on the fence without as Sandy appeared, and the two took their way to their cabin.
"And you are such good company." That was all Sandy could remember. What could he have said? He tried and tried to recall his observations, whatever they may have been, on the various topics of the day, but in vain. He could only remember the circumstance of driving two ugly bulldogs back under his bench, of slaying and hiding away his mortal enemy, and then hanging a felon for high treason; and then chiefest of all, "You will come again, it is lonesome here; you are such good company."
"You are such good company." The wind sang it through the trees as he wended his way home. The water, away down in the canon below the trail, sang it soft and low and sweet, sang it ever, and nothing more, and the tea kettle that night simmered and sang, and sang this one sweet song for Sandy.
He took the first opportunity after supper to slip out and away from Limber Tim; and there in the dark, with his face to the great black forest, he stood saying over and over to himself, in his great coarse voice, trying to catch the soft tones of the Widow, "You are such good company."
That evening Limber Tim leaned up against the logs of the Howling Wilderness, and told all that had happened, and how Sandy had seen the Widow, how he had sat in her cabin, how he had talked, and how she had smiled, and what a very hero his "pardner" had become. He told of Washee-Washee.
The story of Washee-Washee went through the Forks, and then the next morning the Forks rose up and "went through" Washee-Washee.
Perhaps it was what the Widow had said about the "poor little, helpless, harmless man," that saved him, but certain it was, for some unknown reason, the miners dealt gently with this strange little stranger. Had this been one or even a dozen, of their own kind, some tree in the neighborhood of the Forks would have borne in less than an hour one, or even a dozen, of strange and ugly fruit. They went to Washee-Washee's cabin. He smiled as he saw them approach, half shut his eyes as they entered, laid his head a little to one side as they tore up his bunk, and looked perfectly happy, and peaceful as a lamb, as they pulled out from under it enough old clothes to open a shop in Petticoat Lane, or even in Bow Street.
They found a rifle blanket in one of his wooden shoes, and it was heavy with gold dust. Poor Washee-Washee, when called upon to explain, said timidly that he had found it floating up the river past his cabin, and took it in to dry it. He seemed hurt when they refused to believe him. They found a hose coiled up in his great bamboo hat. One of the men took hold of his queue, his beautiful long black queue that swept the ground with its braided folds and black silk tassels tipped with red and gold, and found it heavy with nuggets, hidden away, for what purpose goodness only knows. It was heavy enough to sink it like a shot were it a fish line and all this gold was his!
They threatened hard things to Washee-Washee, these rough, outraged, hairy fellows, who had patronized him and helped him and tried to get him along in the world, but he was perfectly passive and tranquil.
A man who stood there with a bundle of recovered treasure trove, in the shape of shirts and coats of many colors, because of many patches, took Washee-Washee by the little pink ear, and twisted him up and around till he saw his face. Then he let him go, and catching his clothes up under his arm strode on out of the cabin and on down to his claim and his work. The meekest man that the world has seen since Socrates, was Washee-Washee. He sat there with the same semi-grin on his face, the same half smile in his almond eyes, though a man shook a rope in his face, jerked it up, thrust out his tongue, pointed to a tree, and hung himself in pantomime before this placid Chinaman.
" What will we do with him?" A bearded citizen stood there with a bundle of clothes under his arm, waiting to be gone.
"Poor, lonesome, harmless little man." Sandy stood there, repeating the words of the little Widow without knowing it.
"He does lie so helplessly," said one. "If he could only lie decently, we might hang him decently."
" Tell you what, flog him and send him adrift." The man who proposed this was a stranger, with an anchor and other hallmarks of the sea on his hairy arms.
" Wolves would eat 'im on the mountain."
" Wolves eat a Chinaman! They 'd eat a gum boot fust!"
"Tell you what we'll do," growled the Gopher, "reform him."
" Reform hell!" said the sailor to himself.
" Come, let 's do a little missionary business, and begin at home," urged the Gopher. "Get the Judge to reprimand him. Have him talk to him an hour, then let the Parson speak to him another hour. If he lives that through he will be an honest man, or if not honest he will at least be harmless."
Now they had no preacher in the Forks, not even the semblance of one yet, neither had they a lawyer or doctor, but this Parson was a power in the camp. He was perhaps the most popular man there. He was certainly the most influential, for he was a man who could talk. They called him the Parson because he was certainly the profanest man in all the mines.
The idea was novel and was at once adopted.
Here at last was a practical application of the popular feeling, in older republics, that the officers are the servants of the public.
The little Judge here was certainly the people's servant. If he had not been, if he had asserted himself at all and taken up arms and fortified himself behind a barricade of books, they would simply have called a miners' meeting in half an hour, and in half an hour would have had the little man ousted and another man in his place, and then back to their work as if nothing ever had happened. Never in the world had men known such absolute liberty as was attained here. There was not even the dominion of woman. And yet they were not happy.
They marched Washee-Washee to the Howling Wilderness, told the sentence, and called upon the Parson to enforce judgment.
He now took a cordial and began. Washee-Washee sat before him on a bench, leaning against the wall. The little man seemed as if he was about to go to sleep; possibly his conscience had kept him awake the night before, when he found that all his little investments had been a failure in the Forks.
The Parson began. Washee-Washee flinched, jerked back, sat bolt upright, and seemed to suffer.
Then the Parson shot another oath. This time it came like a cannon ball, and red hot too, for Washee-Washee was almost lifted out of his seat.
Then the Parson took his breath a bit, rolled the quid of tobacco in his mouth from left to right and from right to left, and as he did so he selected the very broadest, knottiest, and ugliest oaths that he had found in all his fifty years of life at sea and on the border.
Washee-Washee had lost his expression of peace. He had evidently been terribly shaken. The Parson had rested a good spell, however, and the little, slim, brown man before him, who had crawled out over the great wall of China, sailed across the sea of seas, climbed the Sierras, and sat down in their midst to begin the old clothes business, without pay or promise, was again settling back, as if about to surrender to sleep.
Cannon balls! conical shot! chain shot! and shot red hot! Never were such oaths heard in the world before! The Chinaman fell over.
" Stop!" cried the bar-keeper of the Howling Wilderness, who did n't want the expense of the funeral; "stop! do you mean to cuss him to death?"
The Chinaman was allowed time to recover, and then they sat him again on the bench. A man fanned him with his broad bamboo hat, lest he should faint before the last half of the punishment was nearly through, and the Judge was called upon to enforce the remainder of their sentence.
The Judge come forward slowly, put his two hands back under his coat tails, tilted forward on his toes and began:
" Washee-Washee! In this glorious climate of Californy how could you?"
Washee-Washee nodded, and the Judge broke down badly embarrassed. At last he recovered himself, and began in a deep, earnest and entreating tone:
" Washee-Washee, in this glorious climate of Californy you should remember the seventh Commandment, and never, under any circumstances or temptations that beset you, should you covet your neighbor's goods, or his boots, or his shirt, or his socks, or his handkerchief, or any thing that is his, or"
The Judge paused, the men giggled, and then they roared, and laughed, and danced about their little Judge; for "Washee-Washee had folded his little brown hands in his lap, and was sleeping as sweetly as a baby in its cradle.Start reading Chapter6 of The First Famlies of the Sierras