Part 1 out of 4
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A FIRST FAMILY OF TASAJARA
by Bret Harte
"It blows," said Joe Wingate.
As if to accent the words of the speaker a heavy gust of wind at
that moment shook the long light wooden structure which served as
the general store of Sidon settlement, in Contra Costa. Even after
it had passed a prolonged whistle came through the keyhole, sides,
and openings of the closed glass front doors, that served equally
for windows, and filled the canvas ceiling which hid the roof above
like a bellying sail. A wave of enthusiastic emotion seemed to be
communicated to a line of straw hats and sou-westers suspended from
a cross-beam, and swung them with every appearance of festive
rejoicing, while a few dusters, overcoats, and "hickory" shirts
hanging on the side walls exhibited such marked though idiotic
animation that it had the effect of a satirical comment on the
lazy, purposeless figures of the four living inmates of the store.
Ned Billings momentarily raised his head and shoulders depressed in
the back of his wooden armchair, glanced wearily around, said, "You
bet, it's no slouch of a storm," and then lapsed again with further
extended legs and an added sense of comfort.
Here the third figure, which had been leaning listlessly against
the shelves, putting aside the arm of a swaying overcoat that
seemed to be emptily embracing him, walked slowly from behind the
counter to the door, examined its fastenings, and gazed at the
prospect. He was the owner of the store, and the view was a
familiar one,--a long stretch of treeless waste before him meeting
an equal stretch of dreary sky above, and night hovering somewhere
between the two. This was indicated by splashes of darker shadow
as if washed in with india ink, and a lighter low-lying streak that
might have been the horizon, but was not. To the right, on a line
with the front door of the store, were several scattered, widely
dispersed objects, that, although vague in outline, were rigid
enough in angles to suggest sheds or barns, but certainly not
"There's a heap more wet to come afore the wind goes down," he
said, glancing at the sky. "Hark to that, now!"
They listened lazily. There was a faint murmur from the shingles
above; then suddenly the whole window was filmed and blurred as if
the entire prospect had been wiped out with a damp sponge. The man
turned listlessly away.
"That's the kind that soaks in; thar won't be much teamin' over
Tasajara for the next two weeks, I reckon," said the fourth
lounger, who, seated on a high barrel, was nibbling--albeit
critically and fastidiously--biscuits and dried apples alternately
from open boxes on the counter. "It's lucky you've got in your
winter stock, Harkutt."
The shrewd eyes of Mr. Harkutt, proprietor, glanced at the
occupation of the speaker as if even his foresight might have its
possible drawbacks, but he said nothing.
"There'll be no show for Sidon until you've got a wagon road from
here to the creek," said Billings languidly, from the depths of his
chair. "But what's the use o' talkin'? Thar ain't energy enough
in all Tasajara to build it. A God-forsaken place, that two months
of the year can only be reached by a mail-rider once a week, don't
look ez if it was goin' to break its back haulin' in goods and
settlers. I tell ye what, gentlemen, it makes me sick!" And
apparently it had enfeebled him to the extent of interfering with
his aim in that expectoration of disgust against the stove with
which he concluded his sentence.
"Why don't YOU build it?" asked Wingate, carelessly.
"I wouldn't on principle," said Billings. "It's gov'ment work.
What did we whoop up things here last spring to elect Kennedy to
the legislation for? What did I rig up my shed and a thousand feet
of lumber for benches at the barbecue for? Why, to get Kennedy
elected and make him get a bill passed for the road! That's MY
share of building it, if it comes to that. And I only wish some
folks, that blow enough about what oughter be done to bulge out
that ceiling, would only do as much as I have done for Sidon."
As this remark seemed to have a personal as well as local
application, the storekeeper diplomatically turned it. "There's a
good many as DON'T believe that a road from here to the creek is
going to do any good to Sidon. It's very well to say the creek is
an embarcadero, but callin' it so don't put anough water into it to
float a steamboat from the bay, nor clear out the reeds and tules
in it. Even if the State builds you roads, it ain't got no call to
make Tasajara Creek navigable for ye; and as that will cost as much
as the road, I don't see where the money's comin' from for both."
"There's water enough in front of 'Lige Curtis's shanty, and his
location is only a mile along the bank," returned Billings.
"Water enough for him to laze away his time fishin' when he's
sober, and deep enough to drown him when he's drunk," said Wingate.
"If you call that an embarcadero, you kin buy it any day from
'Lige,--title, possession, and shanty thrown in,--for a demijohn o'
The fourth man here distastefully threw back a half-nibbled biscuit
into the box, and languidly slipped from the barrel to the floor,
fastidiously flicking the crumbs from his clothes as he did so. "I
reckon somebody'll get it for nothing, if 'Lige don't pull up
mighty soon. He'll either go off his head with jim-jams or jump
into the creek. He's about as near desp'rit as they make 'em, and
havin' no partner to look after him, and him alone in the tules,
ther' 's no tellin' WHAT he may do."
Billings, stretched at full length in his chair, here gurgled
derisively. "Desp'rit!--ketch him! Why, that's his little game!
He's jist playin' off his desp'rit condition to frighten Sidon.
Whenever any one asks him why he don't go to work, whenever he's
hard up for a drink, whenever he's had too much or too little, he's
workin' that desp'rit dodge, and even talkin' o' killin' himself!
Why, look here," he continued, momentarily raising himself to a
sitting posture in his disgust, "it was only last week he was over
at Rawlett's trying to raise provisions and whiskey outer his water
rights on the creek! Fact, sir,--had it all written down lawyer-
like on paper. Rawlett didn't exactly see it in that light, and
told him so. Then he up with the desp'rit dodge and began to work
that. Said if he had to starve in a swamp like a dog he might as
well kill himself at once, and would too if he could afford the
weppins. Johnson said it was not a bad idea, and offered to lend
him his revolver; Bilson handed up his shot-gun, and left it
alongside of him, and turned his head away considerate-like and
thoughtful while Rawlett handed him a box of rat pizon over the
counter, in case he preferred suthin' more quiet. Well, what did
'Lige do? Nothin'! Smiled kinder sickly, looked sorter wild, and
shut up. He didn't suicide much. No, sir! He didn't kill
himself,--not he. Why, old Bixby--and he's a deacon in good
standin'--allowed, in 'Lige's hearin' and for 'Lige's benefit, that
self-destruction was better nor bad example, and proved it by
Scripture too. And yet 'Lige did nothin'! Desp'rit! He's only
desp'rit to laze around and fish all day off a log in the tules,
and soak up with whiskey, until, betwixt fever an' ague and the
jumps, he kinder shakes hisself free o' responsibility."
A long silence followed; it was somehow felt that the subject was
incongruously exciting; Billings allowed himself to lapse again
behind the back of his chair. Meantime it had grown so dark that
the dull glow of the stove was beginning to outline a faint halo on
the ceiling even while it plunged the further lines of shelves
behind the counter into greater obscurity.
"Time to light up, Harkutt, ain't it?" said Wingate, tentatively.
"Well, I was reckoning ez it's such a wild night there wouldn't be
any use keepin' open, and when you fellows left I'd just shut up
for good and make things fast," said Harkutt, dubiously. Before
his guests had time to fully weigh this delicate hint, another gust
of wind shook the tenement, and even forced the unbolted upper part
of the door to yield far enough to admit an eager current of humid
air that seemed to justify the wisdom of Harkutt's suggestion.
Billings slowly and with a sigh assumed a sitting posture in the
chair. The biscuit-nibbler selected a fresh dainty from the
counter, and Wingate abstractedly walked to the window and rubbed
the glass. Sky and water had already disappeared behind a curtain
of darkness that was illuminated by a single point of light--the
lamp in the window of some invisible but nearer house--which threw
its rays across the glistening shallows in the road. "Well," said
Wingate, buttoning up his coat in slow dejection, "I reckon I
oughter be travelin' to help the old woman do the chores before
supper." He had just recognized the light in his own dining-room,
and knew by that sign that his long-waiting helpmeet had finally
done the chores herself.
"Some folks have it mighty easy," said Billings, with long-drawn
discontent, as he struggled to his feet. "You've only a step to
go, and yer's me and Peters there"--indicating the biscuit-nibbler,
who was beginning to show alarming signs of returning to the barrel
again--"hev got to trapse five times that distance."
"More'n half a mile, if it comes to that," said Peters, gloomily.
He paused in putting on his overcoat as if thinking better of it,
while even the more fortunate and contiguous Wingate languidly
lapsed against the counter again.
The moment was a critical one. Billings was evidently also
regretfully eying the chair he had just quitted. Harkutt resolved
on a heroic effort.
"Come, boys," he said, with brisk conviviality, "take a parting
drink with me before you go." Producing a black bottle from some
obscurity beneath the counter that smelt strongly of india-rubber
boots, he placed it with four glasses before his guests. Each made
a feint of holding his glass against the opaque window while
filling it, although nothing could be seen. A sudden tumult of
wind and rain again shook the building, but even after it had
passed the glass door still rattled violently.
"Just see what's loose, Peters," said Billings; "you're nearest
Peters, still holding the undrained glass in his hand, walked
slowly towards it.
"It's suthin'--or somebody outside," he said, hesitatingly.
The three others came eagerly to his side. Through the glass,
clouded from within by their breath, and filmed from without by the
rain, some vague object was moving, and what seemed to be a mop of
tangled hair was apparently brushing against the pane. The door
shook again, but less strongly. Billings pressed his face against
the glass. "Hol' on," he said in a quick whisper,--"it's 'Lige!"
But it was too late. Harkutt had already drawn the lower bolt, and
a man stumbled from the outer obscurity into the darker room.
The inmates drew away as he leaned back for a moment against the
door that closed behind him. Then dimly, but instinctively,
discerning the glass of liquor which Wingate still mechanically
held in his hand, he reached forward eagerly, took it from
Wingate's surprised and unresisting fingers, and drained it at a
gulp. The four men laughed vaguely, but not as cheerfully as they
"I was just shutting up," began Harkutt, dubiously.
"I won't keep you a minit," said the intruder, nervously fumbling
in the breast pocket of his hickory shirt. "It's a matter of
business--Harkutt--I"-- But he was obliged to stop here to wipe
his face and forehead with the ends of a loose handkerchief tied
round his throat. From the action, and what could be seen of his
pale, exhausted face, it was evident that the moisture upon it was
beads of perspiration, and not the rain which some abnormal heat of
his body was converting into vapor from his sodden garments as he
"I've got a document here," he began again, producing a roll of
paper tremblingly from his pocket, "that I'd like you to glance
over, and perhaps you'd"-- His voice, which had been feverishly
exalted, here broke and rattled with a cough.
Billings, Wingate, and Peters fell apart and looked out of the
window. "It's too dark to read anything now, 'Lige," said Harkutt,
with evasive good humor, "and I ain't lightin' up to-night."
"But I can tell you the substance of it," said the man, with a
faintness that however had all the distinctness of a whisper, "if
you'll just step inside a minute. It's a matter of importance and
"I reckon we must be goin'," said Billings to the others, with
marked emphasis. "We're keepin' Harkutt from shuttin' up." "Good-
night!" "Good-night!" added Peters and Wingate, ostentatiously
following Billings hurriedly through the door. "So long!"
The door closed behind them, leaving Harkutt alone with his
importunate intruder. Possibly his resentment at his customers'
selfish abandonment of him at this moment developed a vague spirit
of opposition to them and mitigated his feeling towards 'Lige. He
groped his way to the counter, struck a match, and lit a candle.
Its feeble rays faintly illuminated the pale, drawn face of the
applicant, set in a tangle of wet, unkempt, party-colored hair. It
was not the face of an ordinary drunkard; although tremulous and
sensitive from some artificial excitement, there was no ENGORGEMENT
or congestion in the features or complexion, albeit they were
morbid and unhealthy. The expression was of a suffering that was
as much mental as physical, and yet in some vague way appeared
"I want to see you about selling my place on the creek. I want you
to take it off my hands for a bargain. I want to get quit of it,
at once, for just enough to take me out o' this. I don't want any
profit; only money enough to get away." His utterance, which had a
certain kind of cultivation, here grew thick and harsh again, and
he looked eagerly at the bottle which stood on the counter.
"Look here, 'Lige," said Harkutt, not unkindly. "It's too late to
do anythin' tonight. You come in to-morrow." He would have added
"when you're sober," but for a trader's sense of politeness to a
possible customer, and probably some doubt of the man's actual
"God knows where or what I may be tomorrow! It would kill me to go
back and spend another night as the last, if I don't kill myself on
the way to do it."
Harkutt's face darkened grimly. It was indeed as Billings had
said. The pitiable weakness of the man's manner not only made his
desperation inadequate and ineffective, but even lent it all the
cheapness of acting. And, as if to accent his simulation of a
part, his fingers, feebly groping in his shirt bosom, slipped
aimlessly and helplessly from the shining handle of a pistol in his
pocket to wander hesitatingly towards the bottle on the counter.
Harkutt took the bottle, poured out a glass of the liquor, and
pushed it before his companion, who drank it eagerly. Whether it
gave him more confidence, or his attention was no longer diverted,
he went on more collectedly and cheerfully, and with no trace of
his previous desperation in his manner. "Come, Harkutt, buy my
place. It's a bargain, I tell you. I'll sell it cheap. I only
want enough to get away with. Give me twenty-five dollars and it's
yours. See, there's the papers--the quitclaim--all drawn up and
signed." He drew the roll of paper from his pocket again,
apparently forgetful of the adjacent weapon.
"Look here, 'Lige," said Harkutt, with a business-like straightening
of his lips, "I ain't buyin' any land in Tasajara,--least of all
yours on the creek. I've got more invested here already than I'll
ever get back again. But I tell you what I'll do. You say you
can't go back to your shanty. Well, seein' how rough it is outside,
and that the waters of the creek are probably all over the trail by
this time, I reckon you're about right. Now, there's five dollars!"
He laid down a coin sharply on the counter. "Take that and go over
to Rawlett's and get a bed and some supper. In the mornin' you may
be able to strike up a trade with somebody else--or change your
mind. How did you get here? On your hoss?"
"He ain't starved yet?"
"No; he can eat grass. I can't."
Either the liquor or Harkutt's practical unsentimental treatment of
the situation seemed to give him confidence. He met Harkutt's eye
more steadily as the latter went on. "You kin turn your hoss for
the night into my stock corral next to Rawlett's. It'll save you
payin' for fodder and stablin'."
The man took up the coin with a certain slow gravity which was
almost like dignity. "Thank you," he said, laying the paper on the
counter. "I'll leave that as security."
"Don't want it, 'Lige," said Harkutt, pushing it back.
"I'd rather leave it."
"But suppose you have a chance to sell it to somebody at Rawlett's?"
continued Harkutt, with a precaution that seemed ironical.
"I don't think there's much chance of that."
He remained quiet, looking at Harkutt with an odd expression as he
rubbed the edge of the coin that he held between his fingers
abstractedly on the counter. Something in his gaze--rather perhaps
the apparent absence of anything in it approximate to the present
occasion--was beginning to affect Harkutt with a vague uneasiness.
Providentially a resumed onslaught of wind and rain against the
panes effected a diversion. "Come," he said, with brisk
practicality, "you'd better hurry on to Rawlett's before it gets
worse. Have your clothes dried by his fire, take suthin' to eat,
and you'll be all right." He rubbed his hands cheerfully, as if
summarily disposing of the situation, and incidentally of all
'Lige's troubles, and walked with him to the door. Nevertheless,
as the man's look remained unchanged, he hesitated a moment with
his hand on the handle, in the hope that he would say something,
even if only to repeat his appeal, but he did not. Then Harkutt
opened the door; the man moved mechanically out, and at the
distance of a few feet seemed to melt into the rain and darkness.
Harkutt remained for a moment with his face pressed against the
glass. After an interval he thought he heard the faint splash of
hoofs in the shallows of the road; he opened the door softly and
The light had disappeared from the nearest house; only an uncertain
bulk of shapeless shadows remained. Other remoter and more vague
outlines near the horizon seemed to have a funereal suggestion of
tombs and grave mounds, and one--a low shed near the road--looked
not unlike a halted bier. He hurriedly put up the shutters in a
momentary lulling of the wind, and re-entering the store began to
fasten them from within.
While thus engaged an inner door behind the counter opened softly
and cautiously, projecting a brighter light into the deserted
apartment from some sacred domestic interior with the warm and
wholesome incense of cooking. It served to introduce also the
equally agreeable presence of a young girl, who, after assuring
herself of the absence of every one but the proprietor, idly
slipped into the store, and placing her rounded elbows, from which
her sleeves were uprolled, upon the counter, leaned lazily upon
them, with both hands supporting her dimpled chin, and gazed
indolently at him; so indolently that, with her pretty face once
fixed in this comfortable attitude, she was constrained to follow
his movements with her eyes alone, and often at an uncomfortable
angle. It was evident that she offered the final but charming
illustration of the enfeebling listlessness of Sidon.
"So those loafers have gone at last," she said, meditatively.
"They'll take root here some day, pop. The idea of three strong
men like that lazing round for two mortal hours doin' nothin'.
Well!" As if to emphasize her disgust she threw her whole weight
upon the counter by swinging her feet from the floor to touch the
shelves behind her.
Mr. Harkutt only replied by a slight grunt as he continued to screw
on the shutters.
"Want me to help you, dad?" she said, without moving.
Mr. Harkutt muttered something unintelligible, which, however,
seemed to imply a negative, and her attention here feebly wandered
to the roll of paper, and she began slowly and lazily to read it
"'For value received, I hereby sell, assign, and transfer to Daniel
D. Harkutt all my right, titles and interest in, and to the
undivided half of, Quarter Section 4, Range 5, Tasajara Township'--
hum--hum," she murmured, running her eyes to the bottom of the
page. "Why, Lord! It's that 'Lige Curtis!" she laughed. "The
idea of HIM having property! Why, dad, you ain't been THAT silly!"
"Put down that paper, miss," he said, aggrievedly; "bring the
candle here, and help me to find one of these infernal screws
The girl indolently disengaged herself from the counter and Elijah
Curtis's transfer, and brought the candle to her father. The screw
was presently found and the last fastening secured. "Supper
gettin' cold, dad," she said, with a slight yawn. Her father
sympathetically responded by stretching himself from his stooping
position, and the two passed through the private door into inner
domesticity, leaving the already forgotten paper lying with other
articles of barter on the counter.
With the closing of the little door behind them they seemed to have
shut out the turmoil and vibration of the storm. The reason became
apparent when, after a few paces, they descended half a dozen steps
to a lower landing. This disclosed the fact that the dwelling part
of the Sidon General Store was quite below the level of the shop
and the road, and on the slope of the solitary undulation of the
Tasajara plain,--a little ravine that fell away to a brawling
stream below. The only arboreous growth of Tasajara clothed its
banks in the shape of willows and alders that set compactly around
the quaint, irregular dwelling which straggled down the ravine and
looked upon a slope of bracken and foliage on either side. The
transition from the black, treeless, storm-swept plain to this
sheltered declivity was striking and suggestive. From the opposite
bank one might fancy that the youthful and original dwelling had
ambitiously mounted the crest, but, appalled at the dreary prospect
beyond, had gone no further; while from the road it seemed as if
the fastidious proprietor had tried to draw a line between the
vulgar trading-post, with which he was obliged to face the coarser
civilization of the place, and the privacy of his domestic life.
The real fact, however, was that the ravine furnished wood and
water; and as Nature also provided one wall of the house,--as in
the well-known example of aboriginal cave dwellings,--its peculiar
construction commended itself to Sidon on the ground of involving
Howbeit, from the two open windows of the sitting-room which they
had entered only the faint pattering of dripping boughs and a
slight murmur from the swollen brook indicated the storm that shook
the upper plain, and the cool breath of laurel, syringa, and alder
was wafted through the neat apartment. Passing through that
pleasant rural atmosphere they entered the kitchen, a much larger
room, which appeared to serve occasionally as a dining-room, and
where supper was already laid out. A stout, comfortable-looking
woman--who had, however, a singularly permanent expression of
pained sympathy upon her face--welcomed them in tones of gentle
"Ah, there you be, you two! Now sit ye right down, dears; DO. You
must be tired out; and you, Phemie, love, draw up by your poor
father. There--that's right. You'll be better soon."
There was certainly no visible sign of suffering or exhaustion on
the part of either father or daughter, nor the slightest apparent
earthly reason why they should be expected to exhibit any. But,
as already intimated, it was part of Mrs. Harkutt's generous
idiosyncrasy to look upon all humanity as suffering and toiling; to
be petted, humored, condoled with, and fed. It had, in the course
of years, imparted a singularly caressing sadness to her voice, and
given her the habit of ending her sentences with a melancholy cooing
and an unintelligible murmur of agreement. It was undoubtedly
sincere and sympathetic, but at times inappropriate and distressing.
It had lost her the friendship of the one humorist of Tasajara,
whose best jokes she had received with such heartfelt commiseration
and such pained appreciation of the evident labor involved as to
reduce him to silence.
Accustomed as Mr. Harkutt was to his wife's peculiarity, he was not
above assuming a certain slightly fatigued attitude befitting it.
"Yes," he said, with a vague sigh, "where's Clemmie?"
"Lyin' down since dinner; she reckoned she wouldn't get up to
supper," she returned soothingly. "Phemie's goin' to take her up
some sass and tea. The poor dear child wants a change."
"She wants to go to 'Frisco, and so do I, pop," said Phemie,
leaning her elbow half over her father's plate. "Come, pop, say
do,--just for a week."
"Only for a week," murmured the commiserating Mrs. Harkutt.
"Perhaps," responded Harkutt, with gloomy sarcasm, "ye wouldn't
mind tellin' me how you're goin' to get there, and where the
money's comin' from to take you? There's no teamin' over Tasajara
till the rain stops, and no money comin' in till the ranchmen can
move their stuff. There ain't a hundred dollars in all Tasajara;
at least there ain't been the first red cent of it paid across my
counter for a fortnit! Perhaps if you do go you wouldn't mind
takin' me and the store along with ye, and leavin' us there."
"Yes, dear," said Mrs. Harkutt, with sympathetic but shameless
tergiversation. "Don't bother your poor father, Phemie, love;
don't you see he's just tired out? And you're not eatin' anything,
As Mr. Harkutt was uneasily conscious that he had been eating
heartily in spite of his financial difficulties, he turned the
subject abruptly. "Where's John Milton?"
Mrs. Harkutt shaded her eyes with her hand, and gazed meditatively
on the floor before the fire and in the chimney corner for her only
son, baptized under that historic title. "He was here a minit
ago," she said doubtfully. "I really can't think where he's gone.
But," assuringly, "it ain't far."
"He's skipped with one o' those story-books he's borrowed," said
Phemie. "He's always doin' it. Like as not he's reading with a
candle in the wood-shed. We'll all be burnt up some night."
"But he's got through his chores," interposed Mrs. Harkutt
"Yes," continued Harkutt, aggrievedly, "but instead of goin' to
bed, or addin' up bills, or takin' count o' stock, or even doin'
sums or suthin' useful, he's ruinin' his eyes and wastin' his time
over trash." He rose and walked slowly into the sitting-room,
followed by his daughter and a murmur of commiseration from his
wife. But Mrs. Harkutt's ministration for the present did not pass
beyond her domain, the kitchen.
"I reckon ye ain't expectin' anybody tonight, Phemie?" said Mr.
Harkutt, sinking into a chair, and placing his slippered feet
against the wall.
"No," said Phemie, "unless something possesses that sappy little
Parmlee to make one of his visitations. John Milton says that out
on the road it blows so you can't stand up. It's just like that
idiot Parmlee to be blown in here, and not have strength of mind
enough to get away again."
Mr. Harkutt smiled. It was that arch yet approving, severe yet
satisfied smile with which the deceived male parent usually
receives any depreciation of the ordinary young man by his
daughters. Euphemia was no giddy thing to be carried away by young
men's attentions,--not she! Sitting back comfortably in his
rocking-chair, he said, "Play something."
The young girl went to the closet and took from the top shelf an
excessively ornamented accordion,--the opulent gift of a reckless
admirer. It was so inordinately decorated, so gorgeous in the
blaze of papier mache, mother-of-pearl, and tortoise-shell on keys
and keyboard, and so ostentatiously radiant in the pink silk of its
bellows that it seemed to overawe the plainly furnished room with
its splendors. "You ought to keep it on the table in a glass vase,
Phemie," said her father admiringly.
"And have HIM think I worshiped it! Not me, indeed! He's conceited
enough already," she returned, saucily.
Mr. Harkutt again smiled his approbation, then deliberately closed
his eyes and threw his head back in comfortable anticipation of the
It is to be regretted that in brilliancy, finish, and even
cheerfulness of quality they were not up to the suggestions of the
keys and keyboard. The most discreet and cautious effort on the
part of the young performer seemed only to produce startlingly
unexpected, but instantly suppressed complaints from the
instrument, accompanied by impatient interjections of "No, no,"
from the girl herself. Nevertheless, with her pretty eyebrows
knitted in some charming distress of memory, her little mouth half
open between an apologetic smile and the exertion of working the
bellows, with her white, rounded arms partly lifted up and waving
before her, she was pleasantly distracting to the eye. Gradually,
as the scattered strains were marshaled into something like an air,
she began to sing also, glossing over the instrumental weaknesses,
filling in certain dropped notes and omissions, and otherwise
assisting the ineffectual accordion with a youthful but not
unmusical voice. The song was a lugubrious religious chant; under
its influence the house seemed to sink into greater quiet,
permitting in the intervals the murmur of the swollen creek to
appear more distinct, and even the far moaning of the wind on the
plain to become faintly audible. At last, having fairly mastered
the instrument, Phemie got into the full swing of the chant.
Unconstrained by any criticism, carried away by the sound of her
own voice, and perhaps a youthful love for mere uproar, or possibly
desirous to drown her father's voice, which had unexpectedly joined
in with a discomposing bass, the conjoined utterances seemed to
threaten the frail structure of their dwelling, even as the gale
had distended the store behind them. When they ceased at last it
was in an accession of dripping from the apparently stirred leaves
outside. And then a voice, evidently from the moist depths of the
abyss below, called out,--
Phemie put down the accordion, said, "Who's that now?" went to the
window, lazily leaned her elbows on the sill, and peered into the
darkness. Nothing was to be seen; the open space of dimly outlined
landscape had that blank, uncommunicative impenetrability with
which Nature always confronts and surprises us at such moments. It
seemed to Phemie that she was the only human being present. Yet
after the feeling had passed she fancied she heard the wash of the
current against some object in the stream, half stationary and half
"Is any one down there? Is that you, Mr. Parmlee?" she called.
There was a pause. Some invisible auditor said to another, "It's a
young lady." Then the first voice rose again in a more deferential
tone: "Are we anywhere near Sidon?"
"This is Sidon," answered Harkutt, who had risen, and was now quite
obliterating his daughter's outline at the window.
"Thank you," said the voice. "Can we land anywhere here, on this
"Run down, pop; they're strangers," said the girl, with excited,
almost childish eagerness.
"Hold on," called out Harkutt, "I'll be thar in a moment!" He
hastily thrust his feet into a pair of huge boots, clapped on an
oilskin hat and waterproof, and disappeared through a door that led
to a lower staircase. Phemie, still at the window, albeit with a
newly added sense of self-consciousness, hung out breathlessly.
Presently a beam of light from the lower depths of the house shot
out into the darkness. It was her father with a bull's-eye
lantern. As he held it up and clambered cautiously down the bank,
its rays fell upon the turbid rushing stream, and what appeared to
be a rough raft of logs held with difficulty against the bank by
two men with long poles. In its centre was a roll of blankets, a
valise and saddle-bags, and the shining brasses of some odd-looking
As Mr. Harkutt, supporting himself by a willow branch that overhung
the current, held up the lantern, the two men rapidly transferred
their freight from the raft to the bank, and leaped ashore. The
action gave an impulse to the raft, which, no longer held in
position by the poles, swung broadside to the current and was
instantly swept into the darkness.
Not a word had been spoken, but now the voices of the men rose
freely together. Phemie listened with intense expectation. The
explanation was simple. They were surveyors who had been caught by
the overflow on Tasajara plain, had abandoned their horses on the
bank of Tasajara Creek, and with a hastily constructed raft had
intrusted themselves and their instruments to the current. "But,"
said Harkutt quickly, "there is no connection between Tasajara
Creek and this stream."
The two men laughed. "There is NOW," said one of them.
"But Tasajara Creek is a part of the bay," said the astonished
Harkutt, "and this stream rises inland and only runs into the bay
four miles lower down. And I don't see how--
"You're almost twelve feet lower here than Tasajara Creek," said
the first man, with a certain professional authority, "and that's
WHY. There's more water than Tasajara Creek can carry, and it's
seeking the bay this way. Look," he continued, taking the lantern
from Harkutt's hand and casting its rays on the stream, "that's
salt drift from the upper bay, and part of Tasajara Creek's running
by your house now! Don't be alarmed," he added reassuringly,
glancing at the staring storekeeper. "You're all right here; this
is only the overflow and will find its level soon."
But Mr. Harkutt remained gazing abstractedly at the smiling
speaker. From the window above the impatient Phemie was wondering
why he kept the strangers waiting in the rain while he talked about
things that were perfectly plain. It was so like a man!
"Then there's a waterway straight to Tasajara Creek?" he said
"There is, as long as this flood lasts," returned the first speaker
promptly; "and a cutting through the bank of two or three hundred
yards would make it permanent. Well, what's the matter with that?"
"Nothin'," said Harkutt hurriedly. "I am only considerin'! But
come in, dry yourselves, and take suthin'."
The light over the rushing water was withdrawn, and the whole
prospect sank back into profound darkness. Mr. Harkutt had
disappeared with his guests. Then there was the familiar shuffle
of his feet on the staircase, followed by other more cautious
footsteps that grew delicately and even courteously deliberate as
they approached. At which the young girl, in some new sense of
decorum, drew in her pretty head, glanced around the room quickly,
reset the tidy on her father's chair, placed the resplendent
accordion like an ornament in the exact centre of the table, and
then vanished into the hall as Mr. Harkutt entered with the
They were both of the same age and appearance, but the principal
speaker was evidently the superior of his companion, and although
their attitude to each other was equal and familiar, it could be
easily seen that he was the leader. He had a smooth, beardless
face, with a critical expression of eye and mouth that might have
been fastidious and supercilious but for the kindly, humorous
perception that tempered it. His quick eye swept the apartment and
then fixed itself upon the accordion, but a smile lit up his face
as he said quietly,--
"I hope we haven't frightened the musician away. It was bad enough
to have interrupted the young lady."
"No, no," said Mr. Harkutt, who seemed to have lost his abstraction
in the nervousness of hospitality. "I reckon she's only lookin'
after her sick sister. But come into the kitchen, both of you,
straight off, and while you're dryin' your clothes, mother'll fix
you suthin' hot."
"We only need to change our boots and stockings; we've some dry
ones in our pack downstairs," said the first speaker hesitatingly.
"I'll fetch 'em up and you can change in the kitchen. The old
woman won't mind," said Harkutt reassuringly. "Come along." He
led the way to the kitchen; the two strangers exchanged a glance of
humorous perplexity and followed.
The quiet of the little room was once more unbroken. A far-off
commiserating murmur indicated that Mrs. Harkutt was receiving her
guests. The cool breath of the wet leaves without slightly stirred
the white dimity curtains, and somewhere from the darkened eaves
there was a still, somnolent drip. Presently a hurried whisper and
a half-laugh appeared to be suppressed in the outer passage or
hall. There was another moment of hesitation and the door opened
suddenly and ostentatiously, disclosing Phemie, with a taller and
slighter young woman, her elder sister, at her side. Perceiving
that the room was empty, they both said "Oh!" yet with a certain
artificiality of manner that was evidently a lingering trace of
some previous formal attitude they had assumed. Then without
further speech they each selected a chair and a position, having
first shaken out their dresses, and gazed silently at each other.
It may be said briefly that sitting thus--in spite of their
unnatural attitude, or perhaps rather because of its suggestion of
a photographic pose--they made a striking picture, and strongly
accented their separate peculiarities. They were both pretty, but
the taller girl, apparently the elder, had an ideal refinement and
regularity of feature which was not only unlike Phemie, but
gratuitously unlike the rest of her family, and as hopelessly and
even wantonly inconsistent with her surroundings as was the
elaborately ornamented accordion on the centre-table. She was one
of those occasional creatures, episodical in the South and West,
who might have been stamped with some vague ante-natal impression
of a mother given to over-sentimental contemplation of books of
beauty and albums rather than the family features; offspring of
typical men and women, and yet themselves incongruous to any known
local or even general type. The long swan-like neck, tendriled
hair, swimming eyes, and small patrician head, had never lived or
moved before in Tasajara or the West, nor perhaps even existed
except as a personified "Constancy," "Meditation," or the "Baron's
Bride," in mezzotint or copperplate. Even the girl's common pink
print dress with its high sleeves and shoulders could not
conventionalize these original outlines; and the hand that rested
stiffly on the back of her chair, albeit neither over-white nor
well kept, looked as if it had never held anything but a lyre, a
rose, or a good book. Even the few sprays of wild jessamine which
she had placed in the coils of her waving hair, although a local
fashion, became her as a special ornament.
The two girls kept their constrained and artificially elaborated
attitude for a few moments, accompanied by the murmur of voices in
the kitchen, the monotonous drip of the eaves before the window,
and the far-off sough of the wind. Then Phemie suddenly broke into
a constrained giggle, which she however quickly smothered as she
had the accordion, and with the same look of mischievous distress.
"I'm astonished at you, Phemie," said Clementina in a deep contralto
voice, which seemed even deeper from its restraint. "You don't seem
to have any sense. Anybody'd think you never had seen a stranger
"Saw him before you did," retorted Phemie pertly. But here a
pushing of chairs and shuffling of feet in the kitchen checked her.
Clementina fixed an abstracted gaze on the ceiling; Phemie regarded
a leaf on the window sill with photographic rigidity as the door
opened to the strangers and her father.
The look of undisguised satisfaction which lit the young men's
faces relieved Mr. Harkutt's awkward introduction of any
embarrassment, and almost before Phemie was fully aware of it, she
found herself talking rapidly and in a high key with Mr. Lawrence
Grant, the surveyor, while her sister was equally, although more
sedately, occupied with Mr. Stephen Rice, his assistant. But the
enthusiasm of the strangers, and the desire to please and be
pleased was so genuine and contagious that presently the accordion
was brought into requisition, and Mr. Grant exhibited a surprising
faculty of accompaniment to Mr. Rice's tenor, in which both the
Then a game of cards with partners followed, into which the rival
parties introduced such delightful and shameless obviousness of
cheating, and displayed such fascinating and exaggerated
partisanship that the game resolved itself into a hilarious melee,
to which peace was restored only by an exhibition of tricks of
legerdemain with the cards by the young surveyor. All of which
Mr. Harkutt supervised patronizingly, with occasional fits of
abstraction, from his rocking-chair; and later Mrs. Harkutt from her
kitchen threshold, wiping her arms on her apron and commiseratingly
observing that she "declared, the young folks looked better
But it was here a more dangerous element of mystery and suggestion
was added by Mr. Lawrence Grant in the telling of Miss Euphemia's
fortune from the cards before him, and that young lady, pink with
excitement, fluttered her little hands not unlike timid birds over
the cards to be drawn, taking them from him with an audible twitter
of anxiety and great doubts whether a certain "fair-haired
gentleman" was in hearts or diamonds.
"Here are two strangers," said Mr. Grant, with extraordinary
gravity laying down the cards, "and here is a 'journey;' this is
'unexpected news,' and this ten of diamonds means 'great wealth' to
you, which you see follows the advent of the two strangers and is
some way connected with them."
"Oh, indeed," said the young lady with great pertness and a toss of
her head. "I suppose they've got the money with them."
"No, though it reaches you through them," he answered with
unflinching solemnity. "Wait a bit, I have it! I see, I've made a
mistake with this card. It signifies a journey or a road. Queer!
isn't it, Steve? It's THE ROAD."
"It is queer," said Rice with equal gravity; "but it's so. The
road, sure!" Nevertheless he looked up into the large eyes of
Clementina with a certain confidential air of truthfulness.
"You see, ladies," continued the surveyor, appealing to them with
unabashed rigidity of feature, "the cards don't lie! Luckily we
are in a position to corroborate them. The road in question is a
secret known only to us and some capitalists in San Francisco. In
fact even THEY don't know that it is feasible until WE report to
them. But I don't mind telling you now, as a slight return for
your charming hospitality, that the road is a RAILROAD from Oakland
to Tasajara Creek of which we've just made the preliminary survey.
So you see what the cards mean is this: You're not far from
Tasajara Creek; in fact with a very little expense your father
could connect this stream with the creek, and have a WATERWAY
STRAIGHT TO THE RAILROAD TERMINUS. That's the wealth the cards
promise; and if your father knows how to take a hint he can make
It was impossible to say which was the most dominant in the face of
the speaker, the expression of assumed gravity or the twinkling of
humor in his eyes. The two girls with superior feminine perception
divined that there was much truth in what he said, albeit they
didn't entirely understand it, and what they did understand--except
the man's good-humored motive--was not particularly interesting.
In fact they were slightly disappointed. What had promised to be
an audaciously flirtatious declaration, and even a mischievous
suggestion of marriage, had resolved itself into something absurdly
practical and business-like.
Not so Mr. Harkutt. He quickly rose from his chair, and, leaning
over the table, with his eyes fixed on the card as if it really
signified the railroad, repeated quickly: "Railroad, eh! What's
that? A railroad to Tasajara Creek? Ye don't mean it!--That is--
it ain't a SURE thing?"
"Perfectly sure. The money is ready in San Francisco now, and by
this time next year--"
"A railroad to Tasajara Creek!" continued Harkutt hurriedly. "What
part of it? Where?"
"At the embarcadero naturally," responded Grant. "There isn't but
the one place for the terminus. There's an old shanty there now
belongs to somebody."
"Why, pop!" said Phemie with sudden recollection, "ain't it 'Lige
Curtis's house? The land he offered"--
"Hush!" said her father.
"You know, the one written in that bit of paper," continued the
"Hush! will you? God A'mighty! are you goin' to mind me? Are you
goin' to keep up your jabber when I'm speakin' to the gentlemen?
Is that your manners? What next, I wonder!"
The sudden and unexpected passion of the speaker, the incomprehensible
change in his voice, and the utterly disproportionate exaggeration
of his attitude towards his daughters, enforced an instantaneous
silence. The rain began to drip audibly at the window, the rush of
the river sounded distinctly from without, even the shaking of the
front part of the dwelling by the distant gale became perceptible.
An angry flash sprang for an instant to the young assistant's eye,
but it met the cautious glance of his friend, and together both
discreetly sought the table. The two girls alone remained white and
collected. "Will you go on with my fortune, Mr. Grant?" said Phemie
A certain respect, perhaps not before observable, was suggested in
the surveyor's tone as he smilingly replied, "Certainly, I was only
waiting for you to show your confidence in me," and took up the
Mr. Harkutt coughed. "It looks as if that blamed wind had blown
suthin' loose in the store," he said affectedly. "I reckon I'll go
and see." He hesitated a moment and then disappeared in the
passage. Yet even here he stood irresolute, looking at the closed
door behind him, and passing his hand over his still flushed face.
Presently he slowly and abstractedly ascended the flight of steps,
entered the smaller passage that led to the back door of the shop
and opened it.
He was at first a little startled at the halo of light from the
still glowing stove, which the greater obscurity of the long room
had heightened rather than diminished. Then he passed behind the
counter, but here the box of biscuits which occupied the centre and
cast a shadow over it compelled him to grope vaguely for what he
sought. Then he stopped suddenly, the paper he had just found
dropping from his fingers, and said sharply,--
"What the devil are you doin' there, sir?"
It was true. The boy was half reclining in a most distorted
posture on two chairs, his figure in deep shadow, but his book was
raised above his head so as to catch the red glow of the stove on
the printed page. Even then his father's angry interruption
scarcely diverted his preoccupation; he raised himself in his chair
mechanically, with his eyes still fixed on his book. Seeing which
his father quickly regained the paper, but continued his objurgation.
"How dare you? Clear off to bed, will you! Do you hear me?
Pretty goin's on," he added as if to justify his indignation.
"Sneakin' in here and--and lyin' 'round at this time o' night!
Why, if I hadn't come in here to"--
"What?" asked the boy mechanically, catching vaguely at the
unfinished sentence and staring automatically at the paper in his
"Nothin', sir! Go to bed, I tell you! Will you? What are you
standin' gawpin' at?" continued Harkutt furiously.
The boy regained his feet slowly and passed his father, but not
without noticing with the same listless yet ineffaceable perception
of childhood that he was hurriedly concealing the paper in his
pocket. With the same youthful inconsequence, wondering at this
more than at the interruption, which was no novel event, he went
slowly out of the room.
Harkutt listened to the retreating tread of his bare feet in the
passage and then carefully locked the door. Taking the paper from
his pocket, and borrowing the idea he had just objurgated in his
son, he turned it towards the dull glow of the stove and attempted
to read it. But perhaps lacking the patience as well as the keener
sight of youth, he was forced to relight the candle which he had
left on the counter, and reperused the paper. Yes! there was
certainly no mistake! Here was the actual description of the
property which the surveyor had just indicated as the future
terminus of the new railroad, and here it was conveyed to him--
Daniel Harkutt! What was that? Somebody knocking? What did this
continual interruption mean? An odd superstitious fear now mingled
with his irritation.
The sound appeared to come from the front shutters. It suddenly
occurred to him that the light might be visible through the
crevices. He hurriedly extinguished it, and went to the door.
"Me,--Peters. Want to speak to you."
Mr. Harkutt with evident reluctance drew the bolts. The wind,
still boisterous and besieging, did the rest, and precipitately
propelled Peters through the carefully guarded opening. But his
surprise at finding himself in the darkness seemed to forestall any
explanation of his visit.
"Well," he said with an odd mingling of reproach and suspicion. "I
declare I saw a light here just this minit! That's queer."
"Yes, I put it out just now. I was goin' away," replied Harkutt,
with ill-disguised impatience.
"What! been here ever since?"
"No," said Harkutt curtly.
"Well, I want to speak to ye about 'Lige. Seein' the candle
shinin' through the chinks I thought he might be still with ye. If
he ain't, it looks bad. Light up, can't ye! I want to show you
There was a peremptoriness in his tone that struck Harkutt
disagreeably, but observing that he was carrying something in his
hand, he somewhat nervously re-lit the candle and faced him.
Peters had a hat in his hand. It was 'Lige's!
"'Bout an hour after we fellers left here," said Peters, "I heard
the rattlin' of hoofs on the road, and then it seemed to stop just
by my house. I went out with a lantern, and, darn my skin! if
there warn't 'Lige's hoss, the saddle empty, and 'Lige nowhere! I
looked round and called him--but nothing were to be seen. Thinkin'
he might have slipped off--tho' ez a general rule drunken men
don't, and he is a good rider--I followed down the road, lookin'
for him. I kept on follerin' it down to your run, half a mile
"But," began Harkutt, with a quick nervous laugh, "you don't reckon
that because of that he"--
"Hold on!" said Peters, grimly producing a revolver from his side-
pocket with the stock and barrel clogged and streaked with mud. "I
found THAT too,--and look! one barrel discharged! And," he added
hurriedly, as approaching a climax, "look ye,--what I nat'rally
took for wet from the rain--inside that hat--was--blood!"
"Nonsense!" said Harkutt, putting the hat aside with a new
fastidiousness. "You don't think"--
"I think," said Peters, lowering his voice, "I think, by God! HE'S
BIN AND DONE IT!"
"Sure! Oh, it's all very well for Billings and the rest of that
conceited crowd to sneer and sling their ideas of 'Lige gen'rally
as they did jess now here,--but I'd like 'em to see THAT." It was
difficult to tell if Mr. Peters' triumphant delight in confuting
his late companions' theories had not even usurped in his mind the
importance of the news he brought, as it had of any human sympathy
"Look here," returned Harkutt earnestly, yet with a singularly
cleared brow and a more natural manner. "You ought to take them
things over to Squire Kerby's, right off, and show 'em to him. You
kin tell him how you left 'Lige here, and say that I can prove by
my daughter that he went away about ten minutes after,--at least,
not more than fifteen." Like all unprofessional humanity, Mr.
Harkutt had an exaggerated conception of the majesty of unimportant
detail in the eye of the law. "I'd go with you myself," he added
quickly, "but I've got company--strangers--here."
"How did he look when he left,--kinder wild?" suggested Peters.
Harkutt had begun to feel the prudence of present reticence.
"Well," he said, cautiously, "YOU saw how he looked."
"You wasn't rough with him?--that might have sent him off, you
know," said Peters.
"No," said Harkutt, forgetting himself in a quick indignation, "no,
I not only treated him to another drink, but gave him"--he stopped
suddenly and awkwardly.
"Eh?" said Peters.
"Some good advice,--you know," said Harkutt, hastily. "But come,
you'd better hurry over to the squire's. You know YOU'VE made the
discovery; YOUR evidence is important, and there's a law that
obliges you to give information at once."
The excitement of discovery and the triumph over his disputants
being spent, Peters, after the Sidon fashion, evidently did not
relish activity as a duty. "You know," he said dubiously, "he
mightn't be dead, after all."
Harkutt became a trifle distant. "You know your own opinion of the
thing," he replied after a pause. "You've circumstantial evidence
enough to see the squire, and set others to work on it; and," he
added significantly, "you've done your share then, and can wipe
your hands of it, eh?"
"That's so," said Peters, eagerly. "I'll just run over to the
"And on account of the women folks, you know, and the strangers
here, I'll say nothin' about it to-night," added Harkutt.
Peters nodded his head, and taking up the hat of the unfortunate
Elijah with a certain hesitation, as if he feared it had already
lost its dramatic intensity as a witness, disappeared into the
storm and darkness again. A lurking gust of wind lying in ambush
somewhere seemed to swoop down on him as if to prevent further
indecision and whirl him away in the direction of the justice's
house; and Mr. Harkutt shut the door, bolted it, and walked
aimlessly back to the counter.
From a slow, deliberate and cautious man, he seemed to have changed
within an hour to an irresolute and capricious one. He took the
paper from his pocket, and, unlocking the money drawer of his
counter, folded into a small compass that which now seemed to be
the last testament of Elijah Curtis, and placed it in a recess.
Then he went to the back door and paused, then returned, reopened
the money drawer, took out the paper and again buttoned it in his
hip pocket, standing by the stove and staring abstractedly at the
dull glow of the fire. He even went through the mechanical process
of raking down the ashes,--solely to gain time and as an excuse for
delaying some other necessary action.
He was thinking what he should do. Had the question of his right
to retain and make use of that paper been squarely offered to him
an hour ago, he would without doubt have decided that he ought not
to keep it. Even now, looking at it as an abstract principle, he
did not deceive himself in the least. But Nature has the
reprehensible habit of not presenting these questions to us
squarely and fairly, and it is remarkable that in most of our
offending the abstract principle is never the direct issue. Mr.
Harkutt was conscious of having been unwillingly led step by step
into a difficult, not to say dishonest, situation, and against his
own seeking. He had never asked Elijah to sell him the property;
he had distinctly declined it; it had even been forced upon him as
security for the pittance he so freely gave him. This proved (to
himself) that he himself was honest; it was only the circumstances
that were queer. Of course if Elijah had lived, he, Harkutt, might
have tried to drive some bargain with him before the news of the
railroad survey came out--for THAT was only business. But now that
Elijah was dead, who would be a penny the worse or better but
himself if he chose to consider the whole thing as a lucky
speculation, and his gift of five dollars as the price he paid for
it? Nobody could think that he had calculated upon 'Lige's
suicide, any more than that the property would become valuable. In
fact if it came to that, if 'Lige had really contemplated killing
himself as a hopeless bankrupt after taking Harkutt's money as a
loan, it was a swindle on his--Harkutt's--good-nature. He worked
himself into a rage, which he felt was innately virtuous, at this
tyranny of cold principle over his own warm-hearted instincts, but
if it came to the LAW, he'd stand by law and not sentiment. He'd
just let them--by which he vaguely meant the world, Tasajara, and
possibly his own conscience--see that he wasn't a sentimental fool,
and he'd freeze on to that paper and that property!
Only he ought to have spoken out before. He ought to have told the
surveyor at once that he owned the land. He ought to have said:
"Why, that's my land. I bought it of that drunken 'Lige Curtis for
a song and out of charity." Yes, that was the only real trouble,
and that came from his own goodness, his own extravagant sense of
justice and right,--his own cursed good-nature. Yet, on second
thoughts, he didn't know why he was obliged to tell the surveyor.
Time enough when the company wanted to buy the land. As soon as it
was settled that 'Lige was dead he'd openly claim the property.
But what if he wasn't dead? or they couldn't find his body? or he
had only disappeared? His plain, matter-of-fact face contracted
and darkened. Of course he couldn't ask the company to wait for
him to settle that point. He had the power to dispose of the
property under that paper, and--he should do it. If 'Lige turned
up, that was another matter, and he and 'Lige could arrange it
between them. He was quite firm here, and oddly enough quite
relieved in getting rid of what appeared only a simple question of
detail. He never suspected that he was contemplating the one
irretrievable step, and summarily dismissing the whole ethical
He turned away from the stove, opened the back door, and walked
with a more determined step through the passage to the sitting-
room. But here he halted again on the threshold with a quick
return of his old habits of caution. The door was slightly open;
apparently his angry outbreak of an hour ago had not affected the
spirits of his daughters, for he could hear their hilarious voices
mingling with those of the strangers. They were evidently still
fortune-telling, but this time it was the prophetic and divining
accents of Mr. Rice addressed to Clementina which were now plainly
"I see heaps of money and a great many friends in the change that
is coming to you. Dear me! how many suitors! But I cannot promise
you any marriage as brilliant as my friend has just offered your
sister. You may be certain, however, that you'll have your own
choice in this, as you have in all things."
"Thank you for nothing," said Clementina's voice. "But what are
those horrid black cards beside them?--that's trouble, I'm sure."
"Not for you, though near you. Perhaps some one you don't care
much for and don't understand will have a heap of trouble on your
account,--yes, on account of these very riches; see, he follows the
ten of diamonds. It may be a suitor; it may be some one now in the
"He means himself, Miss Clementina," struck in Grant's voice
"You're not listening, Miss Harkutt," said Rice with half-serious
reproach. "Perhaps you know who it is?"
But Miss Clementina's reply was simply a hurried recognition of her
father's pale face that here suddenly confronted her with the
"Why, it's father!"
In his strange mental condition even the change from Harkutt's
feeble candle to the outer darkness for a moment blinded Elijah
Curtis, yet it was part of that mental condition that he kept
moving steadily forward as in a trance or dream, though at first
purposelessly. Then it occurred to him that he was really looking
for his horse, and that the animal was not there. This for a
moment confused and frightened him, first with the supposition that
he had not brought him at all, but that it was part of his
delusion; secondly, with the conviction that without his horse he
could neither proceed on the course suggested by Harkutt, nor take
another more vague one that was dimly in his mind. Yet in his
hopeless vacillation it seemed a relief that now neither was
practicable, and that he need do nothing. Perhaps it was a
The explanation, however, was much simpler. The horse had been
taken by the luxurious and indolent Billings unknown to his
companions. Overcome at the dreadful prospect of walking home in
that weather, this perfect product of lethargic Sidon had artfully
allowed Peters and Wingate to precede him, and, cautiously
unloosing the tethered animal, had safely passed them in the
darkness. When he gained his own inclosure he had lazily
dismounted, and, with a sharp cut on the mustang's haunches, sent
him galloping back to rejoin his master, with what result has been
already told by the unsuspecting Peters in the preceding chapter.
Yet no conception of this possibility entered 'Lige Curtis's
alcoholized consciousness, part of whose morbid phantasy it was to
distort or exaggerate all natural phenomena. He had a vague idea
that he could not go back to Harkutt's; already his visit seemed to
have happened long, long ago, and could not be repeated. He would
walk on, enwrapped in this uncompromising darkness which concealed
everything, suggested everything, and was responsible for
It was very dark, for the wind, having lulled, no longer thinned
the veil of clouds above, nor dissipated a steaming mist that
appeared to rise from the sodden plain. Yet he moved easily
through the darkness, seeming to be upheld by it as something
tangible, upon which he might lean. At times he thought he heard
voices,--not a particular voice he was thinking of, but strange
voices--of course unreal to his present fancy. And then he heard
one of these voices, unlike any voice in Sidon, and very faint and
far off, asking if it "was anywhere near Sidon?"--evidently some
one lost like himself. He answered in a voice that seemed quite as
unreal and as faint, and turned in the direction from which it
came. There was a light moving like a will-o'-the-wisp far before
him, yet below him as if coming out of the depths of the earth. It
must be fancy, but he would see--ah!
He had fallen violently forward, and at the same moment felt his
revolver leap from his breast pocket like a living thing, and an
instant after explode upon the rock where it struck, blindingly
illuminating the declivity down which he was plunging. The
sulphurous sting of burning powder was in his eyes and nose, yet in
that swift revealing flash he had time to clutch the stems of a
trailing vine beside him, but not to save his head from sharp
contact with the same rocky ledge that had caught his pistol. The
pain and shock gave way to a sickening sense of warmth at the roots
of his hair. Giddy and faint, his fingers relaxed, he felt himself
sinking, with a languor that was half acquiescence, down, down,--
until, with another shock, a wild gasping for air, and a swift
reaction, he awoke in the cold, rushing water!
Clear and perfectly conscious now, though frantically fighting for
existence with the current, he could dimly see a floating black
object shooting by the shore, at times striking the projections of
the bank, until in its recoil it swung half round and drifted
broadside on towards him. He was near enough to catch the frayed
ends of a trailing rope that fastened the structure, which seemed
to be a few logs, together. With a convulsive effort he at last
gained a footing upon it, and then fell fainting along its length.
It was the raft which the surveyors from the embarcadero had just
He did not know this, nor would he have thought it otherwise
strange that a raft might be a part of the drift of the overflow,
even had he been entirely conscious; but his senses were failing,
though he was still able to keep a secure position on the raft, and
to vaguely believe that it would carry him to some relief and
succor. How long he lay unconscious he never knew; in his after-
recollections of that night, it seemed to have been haunted by
dreams of passing dim banks and strange places; of a face and voice
that had been pleasant to him; of a terror coming upon him as he
appeared to be nearing a place like that home that he had abandoned
in the lonely tules. He was roused at last by a violent headache,
as if his soft felt hat had been changed into a tightening crown of
iron. Lifting his hand to his head to tear off its covering, he
was surprised to find that he was wearing no hat, but that his
matted hair, stiffened and dried with blood and ooze, was clinging
like a cap to his skull in the hot morning sunlight. His eyelids
and lashes were glued together and weighted down by the same
sanguinary plaster. He crawled to the edge of his frail raft, not
without difficulty, for it oscillated and rocked strangely, and
dipped his hand in the current. When he had cleared his eyes he
lifted them with a shock of amazement. Creeks, banks, and plain
had disappeared; he was alone on a bend of the tossing bay of San
His first and only sense--cleared by fasting and quickened by
reaction--was one of infinite relief. He was not only free from
the vague terrors of the preceding days and nights, but his whole
past seemed to be lost and sunk forever in this illimitable
expanse. The low plain of Tasajara, with its steadfast monotony of
light and shadow, had sunk beneath another level, but one that
glistened, sparkled, was instinct with varying life, and moved and
even danced below him. The low palisades of regularly recurring
tules that had fenced in, impeded, but never relieved the blankness
of his horizon, were forever swallowed up behind him. All trail of
past degradation, all record of pain and suffering, all footprints
of his wandering and misguided feet were smoothly wiped out in that
obliterating sea. He was physically helpless, and he felt it; he
was in danger, and he knew it,--but he was free!
Happily there was but little wind and the sea was slight. The raft
was still intact so far as he could judge, but even in his
ignorance he knew it would scarcely stand the surges of the lower
bay. Like most Californians who had passed the straits of
Carquinez at night in a steamer, he did not recognize the locality,
nor even the distant peak of Tamalpais. There were a few dotting
sails that seemed as remote, as uncertain, and as unfriendly as sea
birds. The raft was motionless, almost as motionless as he was in
his cramped limbs and sun-dried, stiffened clothes. Too weak to
keep an upright position, without mast, stick, or oar to lift a
signal above that vast expanse, it seemed impossible for him to
attract attention. Even his pistol was gone.
Suddenly, in an attempt to raise himself, he was struck by a flash
so blinding that it seemed to pierce his aching eyes and brain and
turned him sick. It appeared to come from a crevice between the
logs at the further end of the raft. Creeping painfully towards it
he saw that it was a triangular slip of highly polished metal that
he had hitherto overlooked. He did not know that it was a
"flashing" mirror used in topographical observation, which had
slipped from the surveyors' instruments when they abandoned the
raft, but his excited faculties instinctively detected its value to
him. He lifted it, and, facing the sun, raised it at different
angles with his feeble arms. But the effort was too much for him;
the raft presently seemed to be whirling with his movement, and he
. . . . . .
The voice was close upon--in his very ears. He opened his eyes.
The sea still stretched emptily before him; the dotting sails still
unchanged and distant. Yet a strange shadow lay upon the raft. He
turned his head with difficulty. On the opposite side--so close
upon him as to be almost over his head--the great white sails of a
schooner hovered above him like the wings of some enormous sea
bird. Then a heavy boom swung across the raft, so low that it
would have swept him away had he been in an upright position; the
sides of the vessel grazed the raft and she fell slowly off. A
terrible fear of abandonment took possession of him; he tried to
speak, but could not. The vessel moved further away, but the raft
followed! He could see now it was being held by a boat-hook,--
could see the odd, eager curiosity on two faces that were raised
above the taffrail, and with that sense of relief his eyes again
closed in unconsciousness.
A feeling of chilliness, followed by a grateful sensation of
drawing closer under some warm covering, a stinging taste in his
mouth of fiery liquor and the aromatic steam of hot coffee, were
his first returning sensations. His head and neck were swathed in
coarse bandages, and his skin stiffened and smarting with soap. He
was lying in a rude berth under a half-deck from which he could see
the sky and the bellying sail, and presently a bearded face filled
with rough and practical concern that peered down upon him.
"Hulloo! comin' round, eh? Hold on!" The next moment the stranger
had leaped down beside Elijah. He seemed to be an odd mingling of
the sailor and ranchero with the shrewdness of a seaport trader.
"Hulloo, boss! What was it? A free fight, or a wash-out?"
"A wash-out!"* Elijah grasped the idea as an inspiration. Yes,
his cabin had been inundated, he had taken to a raft, had been
knocked off twice or thrice, and had lost everything--even his
* A mining term for the temporary inundation of a claim by flood;
also used for the sterilizing effect of flood on fertile soil.
The man looked relieved. "Then it ain't a free fight, nor havin'
your crust busted and bein' robbed by beach combers, eh?"
"No," said Elijah, with his first faint smile.
"Glad o' that," said the man bluntly. "Then thar ain't no police
business to tie up to in 'Frisco? We were stuck thar a week once,
just because we chanced to pick up a feller who'd been found gagged
and then thrown overboard by wharf thieves. Had to dance
attendance at court thar and lost our trip." He stopped and looked
half-pathetically at the prostrate Elijah. "Look yer! ye ain't
just dyin' to go ashore NOW and see yer friends and send messages,
Elijah shuddered inwardly, but outwardly smiled faintly as he
"And the tide and wind jest servin' us now, ye wouldn't mind
keepin' straight on with us this trip?"
"Where to?" asked Elijah.
"No," said Elijah, after a moment's pause. "I'll go with you."
The man leaped to his feet, lifted his head above the upper deck,
shouted "Let her go free, Jerry!" and then turned gratefully to his
passenger. "Look yer! A wash-out is a wash-out, I reckon, put it
any way you like; it don't put anything back into the land, or
anything back into your pocket afterwards, eh? No! And yer well
out of it, pardner! Now there's a right smart chance for locatin'
jest back of Santy Barbara, where thar ain't no God-forsaken tules
to overflow; and ez far ez the land and licker lies ye 'needn't
take any water in yours' ef ye don't want it. You kin start fresh
thar, pardner, and brail up. What's the matter with you, old man,
is only fever 'n' agur ketched in them tules! I kin see it in your
eyes. Now you hold on whar you be till I go forrard and see
everything taut, and then I'll come back and we'll have a talk."
And they did. The result of which was that at the end of a week's
tossing and seasickness, Elijah Curtis was landed at Santa Barbara,
pale, thin, but self-contained and resolute. And having found
favor in the eyes of the skipper of the Kitty Hawk, general trader,
lumber-dealer, and ranch-man, a week later he was located on the
skipper's land and installed in the skipper's service. And from
that day, for five years Sidon and Tasajara knew him no more.
It was part of the functions of John Milton Harkutt to take down
the early morning shutters and sweep out the store for his father
each day before going to school. It was a peculiarity of this
performance that he was apt to linger over it, partly from the fact
that it put off the evil hour of lessons, partly that he imparted
into the process a purely imaginative and romantic element gathered
from his latest novel-reading. In this he was usually assisted by
one or two school-fellows on their way to school, who always envied
him his superior menial occupation. To go to school, it was felt,
was a common calamity of boyhood that called into play only the
simplest forms of evasion, whereas to take down actual shutters in
a bona fide store, and wield a real broom that raised a palpable
cloud of dust, was something that really taxed the noblest
exertions. And it was the morning after the arrival of the
strangers that Johh Milton stood on the veranda of the store
ostentatiously examining the horizon, with his hand shading his
eyes, as one of his companions appeared.
"Hollo, Milt! wot yer doin'?"
John Milton started dramatically, and then violently dashed at one
of the shutters and began to detach it. "Ha!" he said hoarsely.
"Clear the ship for action! Open the ports! On deck there!
Steady, you lubbers!" In an instant his enthusiastic school-fellow
was at his side attacking another shutter. "A long, low schooner
bearing down upon us! Lively, lads, lively!" continued John
Milton, desisting a moment to take another dramatic look at the
distant plain. "How does she head now?" he demanded fiercely.
"Sou' by sou'east, sir," responded the other boy, frantically
dancing before the window. "But she'll weather it."
They each then wrested another shutter away, violently depositing
them, as they ran to and fro, in a rack at the corner of the
veranda. Added to an extraordinary and unnecessary clattering with
their feet, they accompanied their movements with a singular
hissing sound, supposed to indicate in one breath the fury of the
elements, the bustle of the eager crew, and the wild excitement of
the coming conflict. When the last shutter was cleared away, John
Milton, with the cry "Man the starboard guns!" dashed into the
store, whose floor was marked by the muddy footprints of yesterday's
buyers, seized a broom and began to sweep violently. A cloud of
dust arose, into which his companion at once precipitated himself
with another broom and a loud BANG! to indicate the somewhat belated
sound of cannon. For a few seconds the two boys plied their brooms
desperately in that stifling atmosphere, accompanying each long
sweep and puff of dust out of the open door with the report of
explosions and loud HA'S! of defiance, until not only the store,
but the veranda was obscured with a cloud which the morning sun
struggled vainly to pierce. In the midst of this tumult and dusty
confusion--happily unheard and unsuspected in the secluded domestic
interior of the building--a shrill little voice arose from the road.
"Think you're mighty smart, don't ye?"
The two naval heroes stopped in their imaginary fury. and, as the
dust of conflict cleared away, recognized little Johnny Peters
gazing at them with mingled inquisitiveness and envy.
"Guess ye don't know what happened down the run last night," he
continued impatiently. "'Lige Curtis got killed, or killed
hisself! Blood all over the rock down thar. Seed it, myseff. Dad
picked up his six-shooter,--one barrel gone off. My dad was the
first to find it out, and he's bin to Squire Kerby tellin' him."
The two companions, albeit burning with curiosity, affected
indifference and pre-knowledge.
"Dad sez your father druv 'Lige outer the store lass night! Dad
sez your father's 'sponsible. Dad sez your father ez good ez
killed him. Dad sez the squire'll set the constable on your
father. Yah!" But here the small insulter incontinently fled,
pursued by both the boys. Nevertheless, when he had made good his
escape, John Milton showed neither a disposition to take up his
former nautical role, nor to follow his companion to visit the
sanguinary scene of Elijah's disappearance. He walked slowly back
to the store and continued his work of sweeping and putting in
order with an abstracted regularity, and no trace of his former
The first one of those instinctive fears which are common to
imaginative children, and often assume the functions of premonition,
had taken possession of him. The oddity of his father's manner the
evening before, which had only half consciously made its indelible
impression on his sensitive fancy, had recurred to him with Johnny
Peters's speech. He had no idea of literally accepting the boy's
charges; he scarcely understood their gravity; but he had a
miserable feeling that his father's anger and excitement last night
was because he had been discovered hunting in the dark for that
paper of 'Lige Curtis's. It WAS 'Lige Curtis's paper, for he had
seen it lying there. A sudden dreadful conviction came over him
that he must never, never let any one know that he had seen his
father take up that paper; that he must never admit it, even to HIM.
It was not the boy's first knowledge of that attitude of hypocrisy
which the grownup world assumes towards childhood, and in which the
innocent victims eventually acquiesce with a Machiavellian subtlety
that at last avenges them,--but it was his first knowledge that that
hypocrisy might not be so innocent. His father had concealed
something from him, because it was not right.
But if childhood does not forget, it seldom broods and is not above
being diverted. And the two surveyors--of whose heroic advent in a
raft John Milton had only heard that morning with their traveled
ways, their strange instruments and stranger talk, captured his
fancy. Kept in the background by his sisters when visitors came,
as an unpresentable feature in the household, he however managed to
linger near the strangers when, in company with Euphemia and
Clementina, after breakfast they strolled beneath the sparkling
sunlight in the rude garden inclosure along the sloping banks of
the creek. It was with the average brother's supreme contempt that
he listened to his sisters' "practicin'" upon the goodness of these
superior beings; it was with an exceptional pity that he regarded
the evident admiration of the strangers in return. He felt that in
the case of Euphemia, who sometimes evinced a laudable curiosity in
his pleasures, and a flattering ignorance of his reading, this
might be pardonable; but what any one could find in the useless
statuesque Clementina passed his comprehension. Could they not see
at once that she was "just that kind of person" who would lie abed
in the morning, pretending she was sick, in order to make Phemie do
the housework, and make him, John Milton, clean her boots and fetch
things for her? Was it not perfectly plain to them that her
present sickening politeness was solely with a view to extract from
them caramels, rock-candy, and gum drops, which she would meanly
keep herself, and perhaps some "buggy-riding" later? Alas, John
Milton, it was not! For standing there with her tall, perfectly-
proportioned figure outlined against a willow, an elastic branch of
which she had drawn down by one curved arm above her head, and on
which she leaned--as everybody leaned against something in Sidon--
the two young men saw only a straying goddess in a glorified
rosebud print. Whether the clearly-cut profile presented to Rice,
or the full face that captivated Grant, each suggested possibilities
of position, pride, poetry, and passion that astonished while it
fascinated them. By one of those instincts known only to the
freemasonry of the sex, Euphemia lent herself to this advertisement
of her sister's charms by subtle comparison with her own
prettinesses, and thus combined against their common enemy, man.
"Clementina certainly is perfect, to keep her supremacy over that
pretty little sister," thought Rice.
"What a fascinating little creature to hold her own against that
tall, handsome girl," thought Grant.
"They're takin' stock o' them two fellers so as to gabble about 'em
when their backs is turned," said John Milton gloomily to himself,
with a dismal premonition of the prolonged tea-table gossip he
would be obliged to listen to later.
"We were very fortunate to make a landing at all last night," said
Rice, looking down upon the still swollen current, and then raising
his eyes to Clementina. "Still more fortunate to make it where we
did. I suppose it must have been the singing that lured us on to
the bank,--as, you know, the sirens used to lure people,--only with
less disastrous consequences."
John Milton here detected three glaring errors; first, it was NOT
Clementina who had sung; secondly, he knew that neither of his
sisters had ever read anything about sirens, but he had; thirdly,
that the young surveyor was glaringly ignorant of local phenomena
and should be corrected.
"It's nothin' but the current," he said, with that feverish youthful
haste that betrays a fatal experience of impending interruption.
"It's always leavin' drift and rubbish from everywhere here. There
ain't anythin' that's chucked into the creek above that ain't bound
to fetch up on this bank. Why, there was two sheep and a dead hoss
here long afore YOU thought of coming!" He did not understand why
this should provoke the laughter that it did, and to prove that he
had no ulterior meaning, added with pointed politeness, "So IT ISN'T
YOUR FAULT, you know--YOU couldn't help it;" supplementing this
with the distinct courtesy, "otherwise you wouldn't have come."
"But it would seem that your visitors are not all as accidental as
your brother would imply, and one, at least, seems to have been
expected last evening. You remember you thought we were a Mr.
Parmlee," said Mr. Rice looking at Clementina.
It would be strange indeed, he thought, if the beautiful girl were
not surrounded by admirers. But without a trace of self-
consciousness, or any change in her reposeful face, she indicated
her sister with a slight gesture, and said: "One of Phemie's
friends. He gave her the accordion. She's very popular."
"And I suppose YOU are very hard to please?" he said with a
She looked at him with her large, clear eyes, and that absence of
coquetry or changed expression in her beautiful face which might
have stood for indifference or dignity as she said: "I don't know.
I am waiting to see."
But here Miss Phemie broke in saucily with the assertion that Mr.
Parmlee might not have a railroad in his pocket, but that at least
he didn't have to wait for the Flood to call on young ladies, nor
did he usually come in pairs, for all the world as if he had been
let out of Noah's Ark, but on horseback and like a Christian by the
front door. All this provokingly and bewitchingly delivered,
however, and with a simulated exaggeration that was incited
apparently more by Mr. Lawrence Grant's evident enjoyment of it,
than by any desire to defend the absent Parmlee.
"But where is the front door?" asked Grant laughingly.
The young girl pointed to a narrow zigzag path that ran up the bank
beside the house until it stopped at a small picketed gate on the
level of the road and store.
"But I should think it would be easier to have a door and private
passage through the store," said Grant.
"WE don't," said the young lady pertly, "we have nothing to do with
the store. I go in to see paw sometimes when he's shutting up and
there's nobody there, but Clem has never set foot in it since we
came. It's bad enough to have it and the lazy loafers that hang
around it as near to us as they are; but paw built the house in
such a fashion that we ain't troubled by their noise, and we might
be t'other side of the creek as far as our having to come across
them. And because paw has to sell pork and flour, we haven't any
call to go there and watch him do it."
The two men glanced at each other. This reserve and fastidiousness
were something rare in a pioneer community. Harkutt's manners
certainly did not indicate that he was troubled by this
sensitiveness; it must have been some individual temperament of his
daughters. Stephen felt his respect increase for the goddess-like
Clementina; Mr. Lawrence Grant looked at Miss Phemie with a
"But you must be very limited in your company," he said; "or is Mr.
Parmlee not a customer of your father's?"
"As Mr. Parmlee does not come to us through the store, and don't
talk trade to me, we don't know," responded Phemie saucily.
"But have you no lady acquaintances--neighbors--who also avoid the
store and enter only at the straight and narrow gate up there?"
continued Grant mischievously, regardless of the uneasy, half-
reproachful glances of Rice.
But Phemie, triumphantly oblivious of any satire, answered
promptly: "If you mean the Pike County Billingses who live on the
turnpike road as much as they do off it, or the six daughters of
that Georgia Cracker who wear men's boots and hats, we haven't."
"And Mr. Parmlee, your admirer?" suggested Rice. "Hasn't he a
mother or sisters here?"
"Yes, but they don't want to know us, and have never called here."
The embarrassment of the questioner at this unexpected reply, which
came from the faultless lips of Clementina, was somewhat mitigated
by the fact that the young woman's voice and manner betrayed
neither annoyance nor anger.
Here, however, Harkutt appeared from the house with the information
that he had secured two horses for the surveyors and their
instruments, and that he would himself accompany them a part of the
way on their return to Tasajara Creek, to show them the road. His
usual listless deliberation had given way to a certain nervous but
uneasy energy. If they started at once it would be better, before
the loungers gathered at the store and confused them with lazy
counsel and languid curiosity. He took it for granted that Mr.
Grant wished the railroad survey to be a secret, and he had said
nothing, as they would be pestered with questions. "Sidon was
inquisitive--and old-fashioned." The benefit its inhabitants would
get from the railroad would not prevent them from throwing
obstacles in its way at first; he remembered the way they had acted
with a proposed wagon road,--in fact, an idea of his own, something
like the railroad; he knew them thoroughly, and if he might advise
them, it would be to say nothing here until the thing was settled.
"He evidently does not intend to give us a chance," said Grant
good-humoredly to his companion, as they turned to prepare for
their journey; "we are to be conducted in silence to the outskirts
of the town like horse-thieves."
"But you gave him the tip for himself," said Rice reproachfully;
"you cannot blame him for wanting to keep it."
"I gave it to him in trust for his two incredible daughters," said
Grant with a grimace. "But, hang it! if I don't believe the fellow
has more concern in it than I imagined."
"But isn't she perfect?" said Rice, with charming abstraction.
"Clementina, and so unlike her father."
"Discomposingly so," said Grant quietly. "One feels in calling her
'Miss Harkutt' as if one were touching upon a manifest indiscretion.
But here comes John Milton. Well, my lad, what can I do for you?"
The boy, who had been regarding them from a distance with wistful
and curious eyes as they replaced their instruments for the
journey, had gradually approached them. After a moment's timid
hesitation he said, looking at Grant: "You don't know anybody in
this kind o' business," pointing to the instruments, "who'd like a
boy, about my size?"
"I'm afraid not, J. M.," said Grant, cheerfully, without suspending
his operation. "The fact is, you see, it's not exactly the kind of
work for a boy of your size."
John Milton was silent for a moment, shifting himself slowly from
one leg to another as he watched the surveyor. After a pause he
said, "There don't seem to be much show in this world for boys o'
my size. There don't seem to be much use for 'em any way." This
not bitterly, but philosophically, and even politely, as if to
relieve Grant's rejection of any incivility.
"Really you quite pain me, John Milton," said Grant, looking up as
he tightened a buckle. "I never thought of it before, but you're
"Now," continued the boy slowly, "with girls it's just different.
Girls of my size everybody does things for. There's Clemmy,--she's
only two years older nor me, and don't know half that I do, and yet
she kin lie about all day, and hasn't to get up to breakfast. And
Phemie,--who's jest the same age, size, and weight as me,--maw and
paw lets her do everything she wants to. And so does everybody.
And so would you."
"But you surely don't want to be like a girl?" said Grant, smiling.
It here occurred to John Milton's youthful but not illogical mind
that this was not argument, and he turned disappointedly away. As
his father was to accompany the strangers a short distance, he,
John Milton, was to-day left in charge of the store. That duty,
however, did not involve any pecuniary transactions--the taking of
money or making of change but a simple record on a slate behind the
counter of articles selected by those customers whose urgent needs
could not wait Mr. Harkutt's return. Perhaps on account of this
degrading limitation, perhaps for other reasons, the boy did not
fancy the task imposed upon him. The presence of the idle loungers
who usually occupied the armchairs near the stove, and occasionally
the counter, dissipated any romance with which he might have
invested his charge; he wearied of the monotony of their dull
gossip, but mostly he loathed the attitude of hypercritical counsel
and instruction which they saw fit to assume towards him at such
moments. "Instead o' lazin' thar behind the counter when your
father ain't here to see ye, John," remarked Billings from the
depths of his armchair a few moments after Harkutt had ridden away,
"ye orter be bustlin' round, dustin' the shelves. Ye'll never come
to anythin' when you're a man ef you go on like that. Ye never
heard o' Harry Clay--that was called 'the Mill-boy of the Slashes'--
sittin' down doin' nothin' when he was a boy."
"I never heard of him loafin' round in a grocery store when he was
growned up either," responded John Milton, darkly.
"P'r'aps you reckon he got to be a great man by standin' up sassin'
his father's customers," said Peters, angrily. "I kin tell ye,
young man, if you was my boy"--
"If I was YOUR boy, I'd be playin' hookey instead of goin' to
school, jest as your boy is doin' now," interrupted John Milton,
with a literal recollection of his quarrel and pursuit of the youth
in question that morning.
An undignified silence on the part of the adults followed, the
usual sequel to those passages; Sidon generally declining to expose
itself to the youthful Harkutt's terrible accuracy of statement.
The men resumed their previous lazy gossip about Elijah Curtis's
disappearance, with occasional mysterious allusions in a lower
tone, which the boy instinctively knew referred to his father, but
which either from indolence or caution, the two great conservators
of Sidon, were never formulated distinctly enough for his
relentless interference. The morning sunshine was slowly
thickening again in an indolent mist that seemed to rise from the
saturated plain. A stray lounger shuffled over from the
blacksmith's shop to the store to take the place of another idler
who had joined an equally lethargic circle around the slumbering
forge. A dull intermittent sound of hammering came occasionally
from the wheelwright's shed--at sufficiently protracted intervals
to indicate the enfeebled progress of Sidon's vehicular repair. A
yellow dog left his patch of sunlight on the opposite side of the
way and walked deliberately over to what appeared to be more
luxurious quarters on the veranda; was manifestly disappointed but
not equal to the exertion of returning, and sank down with blinking
eyes and a regretful sigh without going further. A procession of
six ducks got well into a line for a laborious "march past" the
store, but fell out at the first mud puddle and gave it up. A
highly nervous but respectable hen, who had ventured upon the
veranda evidently against her better instincts, walked painfully on
tiptoe to the door, apparently was met by language which no mother
of a family could listen to, and retired in strong hysterics. A
little later the sun became again obscured, the wind arose, rain
fell, and the opportunity for going indoors and doing nothing was
once more availed of by all Sidon.
It was afternoon when Mr. Harkutt returned. He did not go into the
store, but entered the dwelling from the little picket-gate and
steep path. There he called a family council in the sitting-room
as being the most reserved and secure. Mrs. Harkutt, sympathizing
and cheerfully ready for any affliction, still holding a dust-cloth
in her hand, took her seat by the window, with Phemie breathless
and sparkling at one side of her, while Clementina, all faultless
profile and repose, sat on the other. To Mrs. Harkutt's motherly
concern at John Milton's absence, it was pointed out that he was
wanted at the store,--was a mere boy anyhow, and could not be
trusted. Mr. Harkutt, a little ruddier from weather, excitement,
and the unusual fortification of a glass of liquor, a little more
rugged in the lines of his face, and with an odd ring of defiant
self-assertion in his voice, stood before them in the centre of the
He wanted them to listen to him carefully, to remember what he
said, for it was important; it might be a matter of "lawing"
hereafter,--and he couldn't be always repeating it to them,--he
would have enough to do. There was a heap of it that, as women-
folks, they couldn't understand, and weren't expected to. But he'd
got it all clear now, and what he was saying was gospel. He'd
always known to himself that the only good that could ever come to
Sidon would come by railroad. When those fools talked wagon road
he had said nothing, but he had his own ideas; he had worked for
that idea without saying anything to anybody; that idea was to get
possession of all the land along the embarcadero, which nobody
cared for, and 'Lige Curtis was ready to sell for a song. Well,
now, considering what had happened, he didn't mind telling them
that he had been gradually getting possession of it, little by
little, paying 'Lige Curtis in advances and installments, until it
was his own! They had heard what those surveyors said; how that it
was the only fit terminus for the railroad. Well, that land, and
that water-front, and the terminus were HIS! And all from his own
foresight and prudence.
It is needless to say that this was not the truth. But it is
necessary to point out that this fabrication was the result of his
last night's cogitations and his morning's experience. He had
resolved upon a bold course. He had reflected that his neighbors
would be more ready to believe in and to respect a hard, mercenary,
and speculative foresight in his taking advantage of 'Lige's
necessities than if he had--as was the case--merely benefited by
them through an accident of circumstance and good humor. In the
latter case he would be envied and hated; in the former he would be
envied and feared. By logic of circumstance the greater wrong
seemed to be less obviously offensive than the minor fault. It was
true that it involved the doing of something he had not contemplated,
and the certainty of exposure if 'Lige ever returned, but he was
nevertheless resolved. The step from passive to active wrong-doing
is not only easy, it is often a relief; it is that return to
sincerity which we all require. Howbeit, it gave that ring of
assertion to Daniel Harkutt's voice already noted, which most women
like, and only men are prone to suspect or challenge. The
incompleteness of his statement was, for the same reason, overlooked
by his feminine auditors.
"And what is it worth, dad?" asked Phemie eagerly.
"Grant says I oughter get at least ten thousand dollars for the
site of the terminus from the company, but of course I shall hold
on to the rest of the land. The moment they get the terminus
there, and the depot and wharf built, I can get my own price and
buyers for the rest. Before the year is out Grant thinks it ought
to go up ten per cent on the value of the terminus, and that a
"Oh, dad!" gasped Phemie, frantically clasping her knees with both
hands as if to perfectly assure herself of this good fortune.
Mrs. Harkutt audibly murmured "Poor dear Dan'l," and stood, as it
were, sympathetically by, ready to commiserate the pains and
anxieties of wealth as she had those of poverty. Clementina alone
remained silent, clear-eyed, and unchanged.
"And to think it all came through THEM!" continued Phemie. "I
always had an idea that Mr. Grant was smart, dad. And it was real
kind of him to tell you."
"I reckon father could have found it out without them. I don't
know why we should be beholden to them particularly. I hope he
isn't expected to let them think that he is bound to consider them
our intimate friends just because they happened to drop in here at
a time when his plans have succeeded."
The voice was Clementina's, unexpected but quiet, unemotional and
convincing. "It seemed," as Mrs. Harkutt afterwards said, "as if
the child had already touched that hundred thousand." Phemie
reddened with a sense of convicted youthful extravagance.
"You needn't fear for me," said Harkutt, responding to Clementina's
voice as if it were an echo of his own, and instinctively
recognizing an unexpected ally. "I've got my own ideas of this
thing, and what's to come of it. I've got my own ideas of openin'
up that property and showin' its resources. I'm goin' to run it my
own way. I'm goin' to have a town along the embarcadero that'll
lay over any town in Contra Costa. I'm goin' to have the court-
house and county seat there, and a couple of hotels as good as any
in the Bay. I'm goin' to build that wagon road through here that
those lazy louts slipped up on, and carry it clear over to Five
Mile Corner, and open up the whole Tasajara Plain!"
They had never seen him look so strong, so resolute, so intelligent
and handsome. A dimly prophetic vision of him in a black
broadcloth suit and gold watch-chain addressing a vague multitude,
as she remembered to have seen the Hon. Stanley Riggs of Alasco at
the "Great Barbecue," rose before Phemie's blue enraptured eyes.
With the exception of Mrs. Harkutt,--equal to any possibilities on
the part of her husband,--they had honestly never expected it of
him. They were pleased with their father's attitude in prosperity,
and felt that perhaps he was not unworthy of being proud of them
"But we're goin' to leave Sidon," said Phemie, "ain't we, paw?"
"As soon as I can run up a new house at the embarcadero," said
Harkutt peevishly, "and that's got to be done mighty quick if I
want to make a show to the company and be in possession."
"And that's easier for you to do, dear, now that 'Lige's
disappeared," said Mrs. Harkutt consolingly.
"What do ye mean by that? What the devil are ye talkin' about?"
demanded Harkutt suddenly with unexpected exasperation.
"I mean that that drunken 'Lige would be mighty poor company for
the girls if he was our only neighbor," returned Mrs. Harkutt
Harkutt, after a fixed survey of his wife, appeared mollified. The
two girls, who were mindful of his previous outburst the evening
before, exchanged glances which implied that his manners needed
correction for prosperity.
"You'll want a heap o' money to build there, Dan'l," said Mrs.
Harkutt in plaintive diffidence.
"Yes! Yes!" said Harkutt impatiently. "I've kalkilated all that,
and I'm goin' to 'Frisco to-morrow to raise it and put this bill of
sale on record." He half drew Elijah Curtis's paper from his
pocket, but paused and put it back again.
"Then THAT WAS the paper, dad," said Phemie triumphantly.
"Yes," said her father, regarding her fixedly, "and you know now
why I didn't want anything said about it last night--nor even now."
"And 'Lige had just given it to you! Wasn't it lucky?"
"He HADN'T just given it to me!" said her father with another
unexpected outburst. "God Amighty! ain't I tellin' you all the