Sally Dows and Other Stories

The Transformation of Buckeye Camp

Part I

Bret Harte

THE tiny lights that had been far scattered and intermittent as fireflies all along the dark stream at last dropped out one by one, leaving only the three windows of “Parks’ Emporium” to pierce the profoundly wooded banks of the South Fork. So all-pervading was the darkness that the mere opening of the “Emporium” front door shot out an illuminating shaft which revealed the whole length of the little main street of “Buckeye,” while the simple passing of a single figure before one of the windows momentarily eclipsed a third of the settlement. This undue pre-eminence given to the only three citizens of Buckeye who were still up at ten o ‘clock seemed to be hardly justified by their outward appearance, which was that of ordinary long-bearded and long-booted river bar miners. Two sat upon the counter with their hands upon their knees, the third leaned beside the open window.

It was very quiet. The faint, far barking of a dog, or an occasional subdued murmur from the river shallows, audible only when the wind rose slightly, helped to intensify their solitude. So supreme had it become that when the man at the window at last continued his conversation meditatively, with his face towards it, he seemed to be taking all Nature into his confidence.

“The worst thing about it is, that the only way we can keep her out of the settlement is by the same illegal methods which we deplore in other camps. We have always boasted that Buckeye could get along without Vigilance Committees or Regulators.”

“Yes, and that was because we started it on the principle of original selection, which we are only proposing to continue,” replied one of the men on the counter. “So there’s nothing wrong about our sending a deputation to wait upon her, to protest against her settling here, and give her our reasons.”

“Yes, only it has all the impudence without the pluck of the Regulators. You demand what you are afraid to enforce. Come, Parks, you know she has all the rights on her side. Look at it squarely. She proposes to open a store and sell liquor and cigars, which she serves herself, in the broken-down tienda which was regularly given to her people by the Spanish grantee of the land we’re squatting on. It’s not her fault but ours if we’ve adopted a line of rules, which don’t agree with hers, to govern the settlers on her land, nor should she be compelled to follow them. Nor because we justify our squatting here, on the ground that the Spanish grant isn’t confirmed yet, can we forbid her squatting under the same right.”

“But look at the moral question, Brace. Consider the example; the influence of such a shop, kept by such a woman, on the community! We have the right to protect ourselves—the majority.”

“That’s the way the lynchers talk,” returned Brace. “And I’m not so sure about there being any moral question yet. You are assuming too much. There is no reason why she shouldn’t run the tienda as decently—barring the liquor sale, which, however, is legal, and for which she can get a license—as a man could, and without interfering with our morals.”

“Then what is the use of our rules?”

“They were made for those who consented to adopt them, as we all did. They still bind us, and if we don’t choose to buy her liquor or cigars that will dispose of her and her tienda much more effectually than your protest. It’s a pity she’s a lone unprotected woman. Now if she only had a husband”—

“She carries a dagger in her garter.”

This apparently irrelevant remark came from the man who had not yet spoken, but who had been listening with the languid unconcern of one who, relinquishing the labor of argument to others, had consented to abide by their decision. It was met with a scornful smile from each of the disputants, perhaps even by an added shrug of the shoulders from the woman’s previous defender! He was evidently not to be taken in by extraneous sentiment. Nevertheless, both listened as the speaker, slowly feeling his knees as if they were his way to a difficult subject, continued with the same suggestion of stating general fact, but waiving any argument himself. “Clarkson of Angels allows she’s got a free, gaudy, picter-covered style with the boys, but that she can be gilt-edged when she wants to. Rowley Meade—him ez hed his skelp pulled over his eyes at one stroke, foolin’ with a she bear over on Black Mountain—allows it would be rather monotonous in him attemptin’ any familiarities with her. Bulstrode’s brother, ez was in Marysville, said there was a woman—like to her, but not her—ez made it lively for the boys with a game called ‘Little Monte,’ and he dropped a hundred dollars there afore he came away. They do say that about seven men got shot in Marysville on account o’ this one, or from some oneasiness that happened at her shop. But then,” he went on slowly and deferentially as the faces of the two others were lowered and became fixed, “she says she tired o’ drunken rowdies,—there’s a sameness about ’em, and it don’t sell her pipes and cigars, and that’s why she’s coming here. Thompson over at Dry Creek sez that that’s where our reputation is playin’ us! ‘We’ve got her as a reward o’ virtoo, and be d——d to us.’ But,” cautiously, “Thompson ain’t drawed a sober breath since Christmas.”

The three men looked in each other’s faces in silence. The same thought occurred to each; the profane Thompson was right, and the woman’s advent was the logical sequence of their own ethics. Two years previously, the Buckeye Company had found gold on the South Fork, and had taken up claims. Composed mainly of careful, provident, and thoughtful men,—some of cultivation and refinement,—they had adopted a certain orderly discipline for their own guidance solely, which, however, commended itself to later settlers, already weary of the lawlessness and reckless freedom which usually attended the inception of mining settlements. Consequently the birth of Buckeye was accompanied with no dangerous travail; its infancy was free from the diseases of adolescent communities. The settlers, without any express prohibition, had tacitly dispensed with gambling and drinking saloons; following the unwritten law of example, had laid aside their revolvers, and mingled together peacefully when their labors were ended, without a single peremptory regulation against drinking and playing, or carrying lethal weapons. Nor had there been any test of fitness or qualification for citizenship through previous virtue. There were one or two gamblers, a skillful duelist, and men who still drank whiskey who had voluntarily sought the camp. Of some such antecedents was the last speaker. Probably with two wives elsewhere, and a possible homicidal record, he had modestly held aloof from obtrusive argument.

“Well, we must have a meeting and put the question squarely to the boys to-morrow,” said Parks, gazing thoughtfully from the window. The remark was followed by another long silence. Beyond, in the darkness, Buckeye, unconscious of the momentous question awaiting its decision, slept on peacefully.

“I brought the keg of whiskey and brandy from Red Gulch to-day that Doctor Duchesne spoke of,” he resumed presently. “You know he said we ought to have some in common stock that he could always rely upon in emergencies, and for use after the tule fever. I didn’t agree with him, and told him how I had brought Sam Denver through an attack with quinine and arrowroot, but he laughed and wanted to know if we’d ‘resolved’ that everybody should hereafter have the Denver constitution. That’s the trouble with those old army surgeons,—they never can get over the ‘heroics’ of their past. Why he told Parson Jennings that he’d rather treat a man for jim-jams than one that was dying for want of stimulants. However, the liquor is here, and one of the things we must settle tomorrow is the question if it ought not to be issued only on Duchesne’s prescription. When I made that point to him squarely, he grinned again, and wanted to know if I calculated to put the same restriction on the sale of patent medicines and drugs generally.”

“’N powder ’n shot,” contributed the indifferent man.

“Perhaps you’d better take a look at the liquor, Saunders,” said Parks, dismissing the ethical question. “you know more about it than we do. It ought to be the best.”

Saunders went behind the counter, drew out two demijohns, and, possibly from the force of habit, selected three mugs from the crockery and poured some whiskey into each, before he could check himself.

“Perhaps we had better compare tastes,” said Brace blandly. They all sipped their liquor slowly and in silence. The decision was favorable. “Better try some with water to see how it mixes,” said Saunders, lazily filling the glasses with a practiced hand. This required more deliberation, and they drew their chairs to the table and sat down. A slight relaxation stole over the thoughtful faces of Brace and Parks, a gentle perspiration came over the latter’s brow, but the features and expression of Saunders never changed. The conversation took a broader range; politics and philosophy entered into it; literature and poetry were discussed by Parks and Brace, Saunders still retaining the air of a dispassionate observer, ready to be convinced, but abstaining from argument—and occasionally replenishing the glasses. There was felt to be no inconsistency between their present attitude and their previous conversation; rather it proved to them that gentlemen could occasionally indulge in a social glass together without frequenting a liquor saloon. This was stated with some degree of effusion by Parks and assented to with singular enthusiasm by Brace; Saunders nodding. It was also observed with great penetration by Brace that in having really good, specially selected liquor like that, the great danger of the intoshikat’n ’fx—he corrected himself with great deliberation, “the intoxicating effects”—of adulterated liquors sold in drinking saloons was obviated. Mr. Brace thought also that the vitiated quality of the close air of a crowded saloon had a great deal to do with it—the excess of carbon—hic—he begged their pardon—carbonic acid gas undoubtedly rendered people “slupid and steepy.” “But here, from the open window,” he walked dreamily to it and leaned out admiringly towards the dark landscape that softly slumbered without, “one could drink in only health and poetry.”

“Wot’s that?” said Saunders, looking up.

“I said health and poetry,” returned Brace with some dignity. “I repeat”—

“No. I mean wot’s that noise? Listen.”

They listened so breathlessly that the soft murmur of the river seemed to flow in upon them. But above it quite distinctly came the regular muffled beat of horse-hoofs in the thick dust and the occasional rattle of wheels over rocky irregularities. But still very far and faint, and fading like the noises in a dream. Brace drew a long breath; Parks smiled and softly closed his eyes. But Saunders remained listening.

“That was over our road, near the turnpike!” he said musingly. “That’s queer; thar ain’t any of the boys away to-night, and that’s a wagon. It’s some one comin’ here. Hark to that! There it is again.”

It was the same sound but more distinct and nearer, and then was lost again.

“They’re dragging through the river sand that’s just abreast o’ Mallory’s. Stopped there, I reckon. No! pushin’ on again. Hear ’em grinding along the gravel over Hamilton’s trailin’s? Stopped agin—that’s before Somerville’s shanty. What’s gone o’ them now? Maybe they’ve lost the trail and got onto Gray’s slide through the woods. It’s no use lookin’; ye couldn’t see anything in this nigger dark. Hol’ on! If they’re comin’ through the woods, ye’ll hear ’em again jest off here. Yes! by thunder! here they are.”

This time the clatter and horse-hoofs were before them, at the very door. A man’s voice cried, “Whoa!” and there was a sudden bound on the veranda. The door opened; for an instant the entrance appeared to be filled with a mass of dazzling white flounces, and a figure which from waist to crown was impenetrably wrapped and swathed in black lace. Somewhere beneath its folds a soft Spanish, yet somewhat childish voice cried, “Tente. Hol’ on,” turned and vanished. This was succeeded by the apparition of a silent, swarthy Mexican, who dropped a small trunk at their feet and vanished also. Then the white-flounced and black-laced figure reappeared as the departing wagon rattled away, glided to the centre of the room, placed on the trunk a small foot, whose low-quartered black satin slipper seemed to be held only by the toe, threw back with both hands the black lace mantilla, which was pinned by a rose over her little right ear, and with her hands slightly extended and waving softly said, “Mira caballeros! ‘Ere we are again, boys! Viva! Aow ees your mother? Aow ees that for high? Behold me! just from Pike!”

Parks and Brace, who had partly risen, fell back hopelessly in their chairs again and gazed at the figure with a feeble smile of vacuous pain and politeness. At which it advanced, lowered its black eyes mischievously over the table and the men who sat there, poured out a glass of the liquor, and said: “I look towards you, boys! Don’t errise. You are just a leetle weary, eh? A leetle. Oh yes! a leetle tired of crookin’ your elbow—eh? Don’t care if the school keep!—eh? Don’t want any pie! Want to go ’ome, eh?”

But here Mr. Parks rose with slight difficulty, but unflinching dignity, and leaned impressively over the table, “May I ashk—may I be permitted to arsk, madam, to what we may owe the pleasure of thish—of this—visit?”

Her face and attitude instantly changed. Her arms dropped and caught up the mantilla with a quick but not ungraceful sweep, and in apparently a single movement she was draped, wrapped, and muffled from waist to crown as before. With a slight inclination of her head, she said in quite another voice: “Si, senor. I have arrive here because in your whole great town of Booki there is not so much as one”—she held up a small brown finger—“as much as one leetle light or fire like thees; be-cause in this grand pueblo there is not one peoples who have not already sleep in his bed but thees! Bueno! I have arrive all the same like a leetle bird, like the small fly arrive to the light! not to you—only to the light! I go not to my casa for she is dark, and tonight she have nothing to make the fire or bed. I go not to the ’otel—there is not one”—the brown finger again uplifted—“’otel in Booki! I make the ’otel—the Fonda—in my hoose manana—to-morrow! Tonight I and Sanchicha make the bed for us ’ere. Sanchicha, she stands herself now over in the street. We have mooch sorrow we have to make the caballeros mooch tr-rouble to make disposition of his house. But what will you?”

There was another awkward silence, and then Saunders, who had been examining the intruder with languid criticism, removed his pipe from his mouth and said quietly:—

“That’s the woman you’re looking for—Jovita Mendez!”

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