Openings in the Old Trail

The Landlord of the Big Flume Hotel

Bret Harte

THE BIG FLUME stage-coach had just drawn up at the Big Flume Hotel simultaneously with the ringing of a large dinner bell in the two hands of a negro waiter, who, by certain gyrations of the bell was trying to impart to his performance that picturesque elegance and harmony which the instrument and its purpose lacked. For the refreshment thus proclaimed was only the ordinary station dinner, protracted at Big Flume for three quarters of an hour, to allow for the arrival of the connecting mail from Sacramento, although the repast was of a nature that seldom prevailed upon the traveler to linger the full period over its details. The ordinary cravings of hunger were generally satisfied in half an hour, and the remaining minutes were employed by the passengers in drowning the memory of their meal in “drinks at the bar,” in smoking, and even in a hurried game of “old sledge,” or dominoes. Yet to-day the deserted table was still occupied by a belated traveler, and a lady—separated by a wilderness of empty dishes—who had arrived after the stage-coach. Observing which, the landlord, perhaps touched by this unwonted appreciation of his fare, moved forward to give them his personal attention.

He was a man, however, who seemed to be singularly deficient in those supreme qualities which in the West have exalted the ability to “keep a hotel” into a proverbial synonym for superexcellence. He had little or no innovating genius, no trade devices, no assumption, no faculty for advertisement, no progressiveness, and no “racket.” He had the tolerant good-humor of the Southwestern pioneer, to whom cyclones, famine, drought, floods, pestilence, and savages were things to be accepted, and whom disaster, if it did not stimulate, certainly did not appall. He received the insults, complaints, and criticisms of hurried and hungry passengers, the comments and threats of the Stage Company as he had submitted to the aggressions of a stupid, unjust, but overruling Nature—with unshaken calm. Perhaps herein lay his strength. People were obliged to submit to him and his hotel as part of the unfinished civilization, and they even saw something humorous in his impassiveness. Those who preferred to remonstrate with him emerged from the discussion with the general feeling of having been played with by a large-hearted and paternally disposed bear. Tall and long-limbed, with much strength in his lazy muscles, there was also a prevailing impression that this feeling might be intensified if the discussion were ever carried to physical contention. Of his personal history it was known only that he had emigrated from Wisconsin in 1852, that he had calmly unyoked his ox teams at Big Flume, then a trackless wilderness, and on the opening of a wagon road to the new mines had built a wayside station which eventually developed into the present hotel. He had been divorced in a Western State by his wife “Rosalie,” locally known as “The Prairie Flower of Elkham Creek,” for incompatibility of temper! Her temper was not stated.

Such was Abner Langworthy, the proprietor, as he moved leisurely down towards the lady guest, who was nearest, and who was sitting with her back to the passage between the tables. Stopping, occasionally, to professionally adjust the tablecloths and glasses, he at last reached her side.

“Ef there’s anythin’ more ye want that ye ain’t seein’, ma’am,” he began—and stopped suddenly. For the lady had looked up at the sound of his voice. It was his divorced wife, whom he had not seen since their separation. The recognition was instantaneous, mutual, and characterized by perfect equanimity on both sides.

“Well! I wanter know!” said the lady, although the exclamation point was purely conventional. “Abner Langworthy! though perhaps I’ve no call to say ‘Abner.’”

“Same to you, Rosalie—though I say it too,” returned the landlord. “But hol’ on just a minit.” He moved forward to the other guest, put the same perfunctory question regarding his needs, received a negative answer, and then returned to the lady and dropped into a chair opposite to her.

“You’re looking peart and—fleshy,” he said resignedly, as if he were tolerating his own conventional politeness with his other difficulties; “unless,” he added cautiously, “you’re takin’ on some new disease.”

“No! I’m fairly comf’ble,” responded the lady calmly, “and you’re gettin’ on in the vale, ez is natural—though you still kind o’ run to bone, as you used.”

There was not a trace of malevolence in either of their comments, only a resigned recognition of certain unpleasant truths which seemed to have been habitual to both of them. Mr. Langworthy paused to flick away some flies from the butter with his professional napkin, and resumed,—

“It must be a matter o’ five years sens I last saw ye, isn’t it?—in court arter you got the decree—you remember?”

“Yes—the 28th o’ July, ’51. I paid Lawyer Hoskins’s bill that very day—that’s how I remember,” returned the lady. “You’ve got a big business here,” she continued, glancing round the room; “I reckon you’re makin’ it pay. Don’t seem to be in your line, though; but then, thar wasn’t many things that was.”

“No—that’s so,” responded Mr. Langworthy, nodding his head, as assenting to an undeniable proposition, “and you—I suppose you’re gettin’ on too. I reckon you’re—er—married—eh?”—with a slight suggestion of putting the question delicately.

The lady nodded, ignoring the hesitation. “Yes, let me see, it’s just three years and three days. Constantine Byers—I don’t reckon you know him—from Milwaukee. Timber merchant. Standin’ timber’s his specialty.”

“And I reckon he’s—satisfactory?”

“Yes! Mr. Byers is a good provider—and handy. And you? I should say you’d want a wife in this business?”

Mr. Langworthy’s serious half-perfunctory manner here took on an appearance of interest. “Yes—I’ve bin thinkin’ that way. Thar’s a young woman helpin’ in the kitchen ez might do, though I’m not certain, and I ain’t lettin’ on anything as yet. You might take a look at her, Rosalie,—I orter say Mrs. Byers ez is,—and kinder size her up, and gimme the result. It’s still wantin’ seven minutes o’ schedule time afore the stage goes, and—if you ain’t wantin’ more food”—delicately, as became a landord—“and ain’t got anythin’ else to do, it might pass the time.”

Strange as it may seem, Mrs. Byers here displayed an equal animation in her fresh face as she rose promptly to her feet and began to rearrange her dust cloak around her buxom figure. “I don’t mind, Abner,” she said, “and I don’t think that Mr. Byers would mind either;” then seeing Langworthy hesitating at the latter unexpected suggestion, she added confidently, “and I wouldn’t mind even if he did, for I’m sure if I don’t know the kind o’ woman you’d be likely to need, I don’t know who would. Only last week I was sayin’ like that to Mr. Byers”—

“To Mr. Byers?” said Abner, with some surprise.

“Yes—to him. I said, ‘We’ve been married three years, Constantine, and ef I don’t know by this time what kind o’ woman you need now—and might need in future—why, thar ain’t much use in matrimony.’”

“You was always wise, Rosalie,” said Abner, with reminiscent appreciation.

“I was always there, Abner,” returned Mrs. Byers, with a complacent show of dimples, which she, however, chastened into that resignation which seemed characteristic of the pair. “Let’s see your ‘intended’—as might be.”

Thus supported, Mr. Langworthy led Mrs. Byers into the hall through a crowd of loungers, into a smaller hall, and there opened the door of the kitchen. It was a large room, whose windows were half darkened by the encompassing pines which still pressed around the house on the scantily cleared site. A number of men and women, among them a Chinaman and a negro, were engaged in washing dishes and other culinary duties; and beside the window stood a young blonde girl, who was wiping a tin pan which she was also using to hide a burst of laughter evidently caused by the abrupt entrance of her employer. A quantity of fluffy hair and part of a white, bared arm were nevertheless visible outside the disk, and Mrs. Byers gathered from the direction of Mr. Langworthy’s eyes, assisted by a slight nudge from his elbow, that this was the selected fair one. His feeble explanatory introduction, addressed to the occupants generally, “Just showing the house to Mrs.—er—Dusenberry,” convinced her that the circumstances of his having been divorced he had not yet confided to the young woman. As he turned almost immediately away, Mrs. Byers in following him managed to get a better look at the girl, as she was exchanging some facetious remark to a neighbor. Mr. Langworthy did not speak until they had reached the deserted dining-room again.

“Well?” he said briefly, glancing at the clock, “what did ye think o’ Mary Ellen?”

To any ordinary observer the girl in question would have seemed the least fitted in age, sobriety of deportment, and administrative capacity to fill the situation thus proposed for her, but Mrs. Byers was not an ordinary observer, and her auditor was not an ordinary listener.

“She’s older than she gives herself out to be,” said Mrs. Byers tentatively, “and them kitten ways don’t amount to much.”

Mr. Langworthy nodded. Had Mrs. Byers discovered a homicidal tendency in Mary Ellen he would have been equally unmoved.

“She don’t handsome much,” continued Mrs. Byers musingly, “but”—

“I never was keen on good looks in a woman, Rosalie. You know that!” Mrs. Byers received the equivocal remark unemotionally, and returned to the subject.

“Well!” she said contemplatively, “I should think you could make her suit.”

Mr. Langworthy nodded with resigned toleration of all that might have influenced her judgment and his own. “I was wantin’ a fa’r-minded opinion, Rosalie, and you happened along jest in time. Kin I put up anythin’ in the way of food for ye?” he added, as a stir outside and the words “All aboard!” proclaimed the departing of the stage-coach,—“an orange or a hunk o’ gingerbread, freshly baked?”

“Thank ye kindly, Abner, but I sha’n’t be usin’ anythin’ afore supper,” responded Mrs. Byers, as they passed out into the veranda beside the waiting coach.

Mr. Langworthy helped her to her seat. “Ef you’re passin’ this way ag’in”—he hesitated delicately.

“I’ll drop in, or I reckon Mr. Byers might, he havin’ business along the road,” returned Mrs. Byers with a cheerful nod, as the coach rolled away and the landlord of the Big Flume Hotel reentered his house.

For the next three weeks, however, it did not appear that Mr. Langworthy was in any hurry to act upon the advice of his former wife. His relations to Mary Ellen Budd were characterized by his usual tolerance to his employees’ failings,—which in Mary Ellen’s case included many “breakages,”—but were not marked by the invasion of any warmer feeling, or a desire for confidences. The only perceptible divergence from his regular habits was a disposition to be on the veranda at the arrival of the stage-coach, and when his duties permitted this, a cautious survey of his female guests at the beginning of dinner. This probably led to his more or less ignoring any peculiarities in his masculine patrons or their claims to his personal attention. Particularly so, in the case of a red-bearded man, in a long linen duster, both heavily freighted with the red dust of the stage road, which seemed to have invaded his very eyes as he watched the landlord closely. Towards the close of the dinner, when Abner, accompanied by a negro waiter after his usual custom, passed down each side of the long table, collecting payment for the meal, the stranger looked up. “You air the landlord of this hotel, I reckon?”

“I am,” said Abner tolerantly.

“I’d like a word or two with ye.”

But Abner had been obliged to have a formula for such occasions. “Ye’ll pay for yer dinner first,” he said submissively, but firmly, “and make yer remarks agin the food arter.”

The stranger flushed quickly, and his eye took an additional shade of red, but meeting Abner’s serious gray ones, he contented himself with ostentatiously taking out a handful of gold and silver and paying his bill. Abner passed on, but after dinner was over he found the stranger in the hall.

“Ye pulled me up rather short in thar,” said the man gloomily, “but it’s just as well, as the talk I was wantin’ with ye was kinder betwixt and between ourselves, and not hotel business. My name’s Byers, and my wife let on she met ye down here.”

For the first time it struck Abner as incongruous that another man should call Rosalie “his wife,” although the fact of her remarriage had been made sufficiently plain to him. He accepted it as he would an earthquake, or any other dislocation, with his usual tolerant smile, and held out his hand.

Mr. Byers took it, seemingly mollified, and yet inwardly disturbed,—more even than was customary in Abner’s guests after dinner.

“Have a drink with me,” he suggested, although it had struck him that Mr. Byers had been drinking before dinner.

“I’m agreeable,” responded Byers promptly; “but,” with a glance at the crowded bar-room, “couldn’t we go somewhere, jest you and me, and have a quiet confab?”

“I reckon. But ye must wait till we get her off.”

Mr. Byers started slightly, but it appeared that the impedimental sex in this case was the coach, which, after a slight feminine hesitation, was at last started. Whereupon Mr. Langworthy, followed by a negro with a tray bearing a decanter and glasses, grasped Mr. Byers’s arm, and walked along a small side veranda the depth of the house, stepped off, and apparently plunged with his guest into the primeval wilderness.

It has already been indicated that the site of the Big Flume Hotel had been scantily cleared; but Mr. Byers, backwoodsman though he was, was quite unprepared for so abrupt a change. The hotel, with its noisy crowd and garish newness, although scarcely a dozen yards away, seemed lost completely to sight and sound. A slight fringe of old tin cans, broken china, shavings, and even of the long-dried chips of the felled trees, once crossed, the two men were alone! From the tray, deposited at the foot of an enormous pine, they took the decanter, filled their glasses, and then disposed of themselves comfortably against a spreading root. The curling tail of a squirrel disappeared behind them; the far-off tap of a woodpecker accented the loneliness. And then, almost magically as it seemed, the thin veneering of civilization on the two men seemed to be cast off like the bark of the trees around them, and they lounged before each other in aboriginal freedom. Mr. Byers removed his restraining duster and undercoat. Mr. Langworthy resigned his dirty white jacket, his collar, and unloosed a suspender, with which he played.

“Would it be a fair question between two fa’r-minded men, ez hez lived alone,” said Mr. Byers, with a gravity so supernatural that it could be referred only to liquor, “to ask ye in what sort o’ way did Mrs. Byers show her temper?”

“Show her temper?” echoed Abner vacantly.

“Yes—in course, I mean when you and Mrs. Byers was—was—one? You know the di-vorce was for in-com-pat-ibility of temper.”

“But she got the divorce from me, so I reckon I had the temper,” said Langworthy, with great simplicity.

“Wha-at?” said Mr. Byers, putting down his glass and gazing with drunken gravity at the sad-eyed yet good-humoredly tolerant man before him. “You?—you had the temper?”

“I reckon that’s what the court allowed,” said Abner simply.

Mr. Byers stared. Then after a moment’s pause he nodded with a significant yet relieved face. “Yes, I see, in course. Times when you’d h’isted too much o’ this corn juice,” lifting up his glass, “inside ye—ye sorter bu’st out ravin’?”

But Abner shook his head. “I wuz a total abstainer in them days,” he said quietly.

Mr. Byers got unsteadily on his legs and looked around him. “Wot might hev bin the general gait o’ your temper, pardner?” he said in a hoarse whisper.

“Don’t know. I reckon that’s jest whar the incompatibility kem in.”

“And when she hove plates at your head, wot did you do?”

“She didn’t hove no plates,” said Abner gravely; “did she say she did?”

“No, no!” returned Byers hastily, in crimson confusion. “I kinder got it mixed with suthin’ else.” He waved his hand in a lordly way, as if dismissing the subject. “Howsumever, you and her is ‘off’ anyway,” he added with badly concealed anxiety.

“I reckon: there’s the decree,” returned Abner, with his usual resigned acceptance of the fact.

“Mrs. Byers wuz allowin’ ye wuz thinkin’ of a second. How’s that comin’ on?”

“Jest whar it was,” returned Abner. “I ain’t doin’ anything yet. Ye see I’ve got to tell the gal, naterally, that I’m di-vorced. And as that isn’t known hereabouts, I don’t keer to do so till I’m pretty certain. And then, in course, I’ve got to.”

“Why hev ye ‘got to’?” asked Byers abruptly.

“Because it wouldn’t be on the square with the girl,” said Abner. “How would you like it if Mrs. Byers had never told you she’d been married to me? And s’pose you’d happen to hev bin a di-vorced man and hadn’t told her, eh? Well,” he continued, sinking back resignedly against the tree, “I ain’t sayin’ anythin’ but she’d hev got another di-vorce, and from you on the spot—you bet!”

“Well! all I kin say is,” said Mr. Byers, lifting his voice excitedly, “that”—but he stopped short, and was about to fill his glass again from the decanter when the hand of Abner stopped him.

“Ye’ve got ez much ez ye kin carry now, Byers,” he said slowly, “and that’s about ez much ez I allow a man to take in at the Big Flume Hotel. Treatin’ is treatin’, hospitality is hospitality; ef you and me was squattin’ out on the prairie I’d let you fill your skin with that pizen and wrap ye up in yer blankets afterwards. But here at Big Flume, the Stage Kempenny and the wimen and children passengers hez their rights.” He paused a moment, and added, “And so I reckon hez Mrs. Byers, and I ain’t goin’ to send you home to her outer my house blind drunk. It’s mighty rough on you and me, I know, but there’s a lot o’ roughness in this world ez hez to be got over, and life, ez far ez I kin see, ain’t all a clearin’.”

Perhaps it was his good-humored yet firm determination, perhaps it was his resigned philosophy, but something in the speaker’s manner affected Mr. Byers’s alcoholic susceptibility, and hastened his descent from the passionate heights of intoxication to the maudlin stage whither he was drifting. The fire of his red eyes became filmed and dim, an equal moisture gathered in his throat as he pressed Abner’s hand with drunken fervor. “Thash so! your thinking o’ me an’ Mish Byersh is like troo fr’en’,” he said thickly. “I wosh only goin’ to shay that wotever Mish Byersh wosh—even if she wosh wife o’ yours—she wosh—noble woman! Such a woman,” continued Mr. Byers, dreamily regarding space, “can’t have too many husbands.”

“You jest sit back here a minit, and have a quiet smoke till I come back,” said Abner, handing him his tobacco plug. “I’ve got to give the butcher his order—but I won’t be a minit.” He secured the decanter as he spoke, and evading an apparent disposition of his companion to fall upon his neck, made his way with long strides to the hotel, as Mr. Byers, sinking back against the trees, began certain futile efforts to light his unfilled pipe.

Whether Abner’s attendance on the butcher was merely an excuse to withdraw with the decanter, I cannot say. He, however, dispatched his business quickly, and returned to the tree. But to his surprise Mr. Byers was no longer there. He explored the adjacent woodland with non-success, and no reply to his shouting. Annoyed but not alarmed, as it seemed probable that the missing man had fallen in a drunken sleep in some hidden shadows, he returned to the house, when it occurred to him that Byers might have sought the bar-room for some liquor. But he was still more surprised when the barkeeper volunteered the information that he had seen Mr. Byers hurriedly pass down the side veranda into the highroad. An hour later this was corroborated by an arriving teamster, who had passed a man answering to the description of Byers, “mor’ ’n half full,” staggeringly but hurriedly walking along the road “two miles back.” There seemed to be no doubt that the missing man had taken himself off in a fit of indignation or of extreme thirst. Either hypothesis was disagreeable to Abner, in his queer sense of responsibility to Mrs. Byers, but he accepted it with his usual good-humored resignation.

Yet it was difficult to conceive what connection this episode had in his mind with his suspended attention to Mary Ellen, or why it should determine his purpose. But he had a logic of his own, and it seemed to have demonstrated to him that he must propose to the girl at once. This was no easy matter, however; he had never shown her any previous attention, and her particular functions in the hotel,—the charge of the few bedrooms for transient guests—seldom brought him in contact with her. His interview would have to appear to be a business one—which, however, he wished to avoid from a delicate consciousness of its truth. While making up his mind, for a few days he contented himself with gravely regarding her in his usual resigned, tolerant way, whenever he passed her. Unfortunately the first effect of this was an audible giggle from Mary Ellen, later some confusion and anxiety in her manner, and finally a demeanor of resentment and defiance.

This was so different from what he had expected that he was obliged to precipitate matters. The next day was Sunday,—a day on which his employees, in turns, were allowed the recreation of being driven to Big Flume City, eight miles distant, to church, or for the day’s holiday. In the morning Mary Ellen was astonished by Abner informing her that he designed giving her a separate holiday with himself. It must be admitted that the girl, who was already “prinked up” for the enthrallment of the youth of Big Flume City, did not appear as delighted with the change of plan as a more exacting lover would have liked. Howbeit, as soon as the wagon had left with its occupants, Abner, in the unwonted disguise of a full suit of black clothes, turned to the girl, and offering her his arm, gravely proceeded along the side veranda across the mound of debris already described, to the adjacent wilderness and the very trees under which he and Byers had sat.

“It’s about ez good a place for a little talk, Miss Budd,” he said, pointing to a tree root, “ez ef we went a spell further, and it’s handy to the house. And ef you’ll jest say what you’d like outer the cupboard or the bar—no matter which—I’ll fetch it to you.”

But Mary Ellen Budd seated herself sideways on the root, with her furled white parasol in her lap, her skirts fastidiously tucked about her feet, and glancing at the fatuous Abner from under her stack of fluffy hair and light eyelashes, simply shook her head and said that “she reckoned she wasn’t hankering much for anything” that morning.

“I’ve been calkilatin’ to myself, Miss Budd,” said Abner resignedly, “that when two folks—like ez you and me—meet together to kinder discuss things that might go so far ez to keep them together, if they hez had anything of that sort in their lives afore, they ought to speak of it confidentially like together.”

“Ef any one o’ them sneakin’, soulless critters in the kitchen hez bin slingin’ lies to ye about me—or carryin’ tales,” broke in Mary Ellen Budd, setting every one of her thirty-two strong, white teeth together with a snap, “well—ye might hev told me so to oncet without spilin’ my Sunday! But ez fer yer keepin’ me a minit longer, ye’ve only got to pay me my salary to-day and”—but here she stopped, for the astonishment in Abner’s face was too plain to be misunderstood.

“Nobody’s been slinging any lies about ye, Miss Budd,” he said slowly, recovering himself resignedly from this last back-handed stroke of fate; “I warn’t talkin’ o’ you, but myself. I was only allowin’ to say that I was a di-vorced man.”

As a sudden flush came over Mary Ellen’s brownish-white face while she stared at him, Abner hastened to delicately explain. “It wasn’t no onfaithfulness, Miss Budd—no philanderin’ o’ mine, but only ‘incompatibility o’ temper.’”

“Temper—your temper!” gasped Mary Ellen.

“Yes,” said Abner.

And here a sudden change came over Mary Ellen’s face, and she burst into a shriek of laughter. She laughed with her hands slapping the sides of her skirt, she laughed with her hands clasping her narrow, hollow waist, laughed with her head down on her knees and her fluffy hair tumbling over it. Abner was relieved, and yet it seemed strange to him that this revelation of his temper should provoke such manifest incredulity in both Byers and Mary Ellen. But perhaps these things would be made plain to him hereafter; at present they must be accepted “in the day’s work” and tolerated.

“Your temper,” gurgled Mary Ellen. “Saints alive! What kind o’ temper?”

“Well, I reckon,” returned Abner submissively, and selecting a word to give his meaning more comprehension,—“I reckon it was kinder—aggeravokin’.”

Mary Ellen sniffed the air for a moment in speechless incredulity, and then, locking her hands around her knees and bending forward, said, “Look here! Ef that old woman o’ yours ever knew what temper was in a man; ef she’s ever bin tied to a brute that treated her like a nigger till she daren’t say her soul was her own; who struck her with his eyes and tongue when he hadn’t anythin’ else handy; who made her life miserable when he was sober, and a terror when he was drunk; who at last drove her away, and then divorced her for desertion—then—then she might talk. But ‘incompatibility o’ temper’ with you! Oh, go away—it makes me sick!”

How far Abner was impressed with the truth of this, how far it prompted his next question, nobody but Abner knew. For he said deliberately, “I was only goin’ to ask ye, if, knowin’ I was a di-vorced man, ye would mind marryin’ me!”

Mary Ellen’s face changed; the evasive instincts of her sex rose up. “Didn’t I hear ye sayin’ suthin’ about refreshments,” she said archly. “Mebbe you wouldn’t mind gettin’ me a bottle o’ lemming sody outer the bar!”

Abner got up at once, perhaps not dismayed by this diversion, and departed for the refreshment. As he passed along the side veranda the recollection of Mr. Byers and his mysterious flight occurred to him. For a wild moment he thought of imitating him. But it was too late now—he had spoken. Besides, he had no wife to fly to, and the thirsty or indignant Byers had—his wife! Fate was indeed hard. He returned with the bottle of lemon soda on a tray and a resigned spirit equal to her decrees. Mary Ellen, remarking that he had brought nothing for himself, archly insisted upon his sharing with her the bottle of soda, and even coquettishly touched his lips with her glass. Abner smiled patiently.

But here, as if playfully exhilarated by the naughty foaming soda, she regarded him with her head—and a good deal of her blonde hair—very much on one side, as she said, “Do you know that all along o’ you bein’ so free with me in tellin’ your affairs I kinder feel like just telling you mine?”

“Don’t,” said Abner promptly.

“Don’t?” echoed Miss Budd.

“Don’t,” repeated Abner. “It’s nothing to me. What I said about myself is different, for it might make some difference to you. But nothing you could say of yourself would make any change in me. I stick to what I said just now.”

“But,” said Miss Budd,—in half real, half simulated threatening,—“what if it had suthin’ to do with my answer to what you said just now?”

“It couldn’t. So, if it’s all the same to you, Miss Budd, I’d rather ye wouldn’t.”

“That,” said the lady still more archly, lifting a playful finger, “is your temper.”

“Mebbe it is,” said Abner suddenly, with a wondering sense of relief.

It was, however, settled that Miss Budd should go to Sacramento to visit her friends, that Abner would join her later, when their engagement would be announced, and that she should not return to the hotel until they were married. The compact was sealed by the interchange of a friendly kiss from Miss Budd with a patient, tolerating one from Abner, and then it suddenly occurred to them both that they might as well return to their duties in the hotel, which they did. Miss Budd’s entire outing that Sunday lasted only half an hour.

A week elapsed. Miss Budd was in Sacramento, and the landlord of the Big Flume Hotel was standing at his usual post in the doorway during dinner, when a waiter handed him a note. It contained a single line scrawled in pencil:—

“Come out and see me behind the house as before. I dussent come in on account of her. C. BYERS.”

“On account of ‘her’!” Abner cast a hurried glance around the tables. Certainly Mrs. Byers was not there! He walked in the hall and the veranda—she was not there. He hastened to the rendezvous evidently meant by the writer, the wilderness behind the house. Sure enough, Byers, drunk and maudlin, supporting himself by the tree root, staggered forward, clasped him in his arms, and murmured hoarsely,—

“She’s gone!”

“Gone?” echoed Abner, with a whitening face. “Mrs. Byers? Where?”

“Run away! Never come back no more! Gone!”

A vague idea that had been in Abner’s mind since Byers’s last visit now took awful shape. Before the unfortunate Byers could collect his senses he felt himself seized in a giant’s grasp and forced against the tree.

“You coward!” said all that was left of the tolerant Abner—his even voice—“you hound! Did you dare to abuse her? to lay your vile hands on her—to strike her? Answer me.”

The shock—the grasp—perhaps Abner’s words, momentarily silenced Byers. “Did I strike her?” he said dazedly; “did I abuse her? Oh, yes!” with deep irony. “Certainly! In course! Look yer, pardner!”—he suddenly dragged up his sleeve from his red, hairy arm, exposing a blue cicatrix in its centre—“that’s a jab from her scissors about three months ago; look yer!”—he bent his head and showed a scar along the scalp—“that’s her playfulness with a fire shovel! Look yer!”—he quickly opened his collar, where his neck and cheek were striped and crossed with adhesive plaster—“that’s all that was left o’ a glass jar o’ preserves—the preserves got away, but some of the glass got stuck! That’s when she heard I was a di-vorced man and hadn’t told her.”

“Were you a di-vorced man?” gasped Abner.

“You know that; in course I was,” said Byers scornfully; “d’ye meanter say she didn’t tell ye?”

“She?” echoed Abner vaguely. “Your wife—you said just now she didn’t know it before.”

“My wife ez oncet was, I mean! Mary Ellen—your wife ez is to be,” said Byers, with deep irony. “Oh, come now. Pretend ye don’t know! Hi there! Hands off! Don’t strike a man when he’s down, like I am.”

But Abner’s clutch of Byers’s shoulder relaxed, and he sank down to a sitting posture on the root. In the meantime Byers, overcome by a sense of this new misery added to his manifold grievances, gave way to maudlin silent tears.

“Mary Ellen—your first wife?” repeated Abner vacantly.

“Yesh!” said Byers thickly, “my first wife—shelected and picked out fer your shecond wife—by your first—like d——d conundrum. How wash I t’know?” he said, with a sudden shriek of public expostulation—“thash what I wanter know. Here I come to talk with fr’en’, like man to man, unshuspecting, innoshent as chile, about my shecond wife! Fr’en’ drops out, carryin’ off the whiskey. Then I hear all o’ suddent voice o’ Mary Ellen talkin’ in kitchen; then I come round softly and see Mary Ellen—my wife as useter be—standin’ at fr’en’s kitchen winder. Then I lights out quicker ’n lightnin’ and scoots! And when I gets back home, I ups and tells my wife. And whosh fault ish’t! Who shaid a man oughter tell hish wife? You! Who keepsh other mensh’ first wivesh at kishen winder to frighten ’em to tell? You!”

But a change had already come over the face of Abner Langworthy. The anger, anxiety, astonishment, and vacuity that was there had vanished, and he looked up with his usual resigned acceptance of the inevitable as he said, “I reckon that’s so! And seein’ it’s so,” with good-natured tolerance, he added, “I reckon I’ll break rules for oncet and stand ye another drink.”

He stood another drink and yet another, and eventually put the doubly widowed Byers to bed in his own room. These were but details of a larger tribulation,—and yet he knew instinctively that his cup was not yet full. The further drop of bitterness came a few days later in a line from Mary Ellen: “I needn’t tell you that all betwixt you and me is off, and you kin tell your old woman that her selection for a second wife for you wuz about as bad as your own first selection. Ye kin tell Mr. Byers—yer great friend whom ye never let on ye knew—that when I want another husband I shan’t take the trouble to ask him to fish one out for me. It would be kind—but confusin’.”

He never heard from her again. Mr. Byers was duly notified that Mrs. Byers had commenced action for divorce in another state in which concealment of a previous divorce invalidated the marriage, but he did not respond. The two men became great friends—and assured celibates. Yet they always spoke reverently of their “wife,” with the touching prefix of “our.”

“She was a good woman, pardner,” said Byers.

“And she understood us,” said Abner resignedly.

Perhaps she had.

Openings in the Old Trail - Contents

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