It had been raining in the valley of the Sacramento, the North Fork had overflowed its banks, and Rattlesnake Creek was impassable. The few boulders that had marked the summer ford at Simpson's Crossing were obliterated by a vast sheet of water stretching to the foothills. The up-stage was stopped at Granger's; the last mail had been abandoned in the tules, the rider swimming for his life. "An area," remarked the "Sierra Avalanche," with pensive local pride, "as large as the State of Massachusetts is now under water."
Nor was the weather any better in the foothills. The mud lay deep on the mountain road; wagons that neither physical force nor moral objurgation could move from the evil ways into which they had fallen encumbered the track, and the way to Simpson's Bar was indicated by broken-down teams and hard swearing. And further on, cut off and inaccessible, rained upon and bedraggled, smitten by high winds and threatened by high water, Simpson's Bar, on the eve of Christmas Day, 1862, clung like a swallow's nest to the rocky entablature and splintered capitals of Table Mountain, and shook in the blast.
As night shut down on the settlement, a few lights gleamed through the mist from the windowsof cabins on either side of the highway, now crossed and gullied by lawless streams and sweptby marauding winds. Happily most of thepopulation were gathered at Thompson's store,clustered around a redhot stove, at which theysilently spat in some accepted sense of socialcommunion that perhaps rendered conversation nnecessary. Indeed, most methods of diversion had long since been exhausted on Simpson's Bar; high water had suspended the regular occupations on gulch and on river, and a consequent lack of money and whiskey had taken the zest from most illegitimate recreation. Even Mr. Hamlin was fain to leave the Bar with fifty dollars in his pocket--the only amount actually realized of the large sums won by him in the successful exercise of his arduous profession. "Ef I was asked," he remarked somewhat later,--" ef I was asked to pint out a purty little village where a retired sport as didn't care for moneycould exercise hisself, frequent and lively, I'd say Simpson's Bar but for a young man with a largefamily depending on his exertions, it don'tpay." As Mr. Hamlin's family consisted mainlyof female adults, this remark is quoted rather toshow the breadth of his humor than the exactextent of his responsibilities.
Howbeit, the unconscious objects of this satiresat that evening in the listless apathy begottenof idleness and lack of excitement, Even thesudden splashing of hoofs before the door did notarouse them. Dick Bullen alone paused in the actof scraping out his pipe, and lifted his head, butno other one of the group indicated any interestin, or recognition of, the man who entered.
It was a figure familiar enough to the company,and known in Simpson's Bar as "The OldMan." A man of perhaps fifty years; grizzledand scant of hair, but still fresh and youthful ofcomplexion. A face full of ready but not verypowerful sympathy, with a chameleon-like aptitudefor taking on the shade and color of contiguousmoods and feelings. He had evidently just leftsome hilarious companions, and did not at firstnotice the gravity of the group, but clapped theshoulder of the nearest man jocularly, and threwhimself into a vacant chair "Jest heard thebest thing out, boys! Ye know Smiley, over yar--Jim Smiley--funniest man in the Bar? Well, Jimwas jest telling the richest yarn about"--
"Smiley's a ---- fool," interrupted a gloomy voice.
" A particular ---- skunk," added another in sepulchral accents.
A silence followed these positive statements.The Old Man glanced quickly around the group.Then his face slowly changed. "That'sso," he said reflectively, after a pause,"certainly a sort of a skunk and suthin' of afool. In course." He was silent for amoment, as in painful contemplation of theunsavoriness and folly of the unpopular Smiley."Dismal weather, ain't it?" he added,now fully embarked on the current of prevailingsentiment. "Mighty rough papers on the boys,and no show for money this season. And to-morrow's Christmas."
There was a movement among the men at this announcement, but whether of satisfaction ordisgust was not plain. "Yes," continuedthe Old Man in the lugubrious tone he had, withinthe last few moments, unconsciously adopted,--"yes, Christmas, and to-night's ChristmasEve. Ye see, boys, I kinder thought--that is, Isorter had an idee, jest passin' like, you know--that maybe ye'd all like to come over to my houseto-night and have a sort of tear round. But Isuppose, now, you wouldn't? Don't feel like it,maybe?" he added with anxious sympathy,peering into the faces of his companions.
"Well, I don't know," responded Tom Flynn with some cheerfulness. "P'r'aps wemay. But how about your wife, Old Man? What doesshe say to it?"
The Old Man hesitated. His conjugal experience had not been a happy one, and the fact was knownto Simpson's Bar. His first wife, a delicate,pretty little woman, had. suffered keenly andsecretly from the jealous suspicions of herhusband, until one day he invited the whole Bar tohis house to expose her infidelity. On arriving,the party found the shy, petite creature quietlyengaged in her household duties, and retiredabashed and discomfited. But the sensitive womandid not easily recover from the shock of thisextraordinary outrage. It was with difficulty sheregained her equanimity sufficiently to releaseher lover from the closet in which he wasconcealed, and escape with him. She left a boy ofthree years to comfort her bereaved husband. TheOld Man's present wife had been his cook. She waslarge, loyal, and aggressive.
Before he could reply, Joe Dimmick suggested with great directness that it was the "OldMan's house," and that, invoking the DivinePower, if the case were his own, he would invitewhom he pleased, even if in so doing he imperiledhis salvation. The Powers of Evil, he furtherremarked, should contend against him vainly. Allthis delivered with a terseness and vigor lost inthis necessary translation.
"In course. Certainly. Thet's it,"said the Old Man with a sympathetic frown."Thar's no trouble about thet, It's my ownhouse, built every stick on it myself. Don't yoube afeard o' her, boys. She may cut up a triflerough--ez wimmin do--but she'll comeround." Secretly the Old Man trusted to theexaltation of liquor and the power of courageousexample to sustain him in such an emergency.
As yet, Dick Bullen, the oracle and leader of Simpson's Bar, had not spoken, He now took hispipe from his lips. "Old Man, how's thatyer Johnny gettin' on? Seems to me he didn'tlook so peart last time I seed him on the bluffheavin' rocks at Chinamen. Didn't seem to takemuch interest in it. Thar was a gang of 'em. byyar yesterday--drownded out up the river--and Ikinder thought o' Johnny, and how he'd miss 'em!Maybe now, we'd be in the way ef he wussick?"
The father, evidently touched not only by this pathetic picture of Johnny's deprivation, but bythe considerate delicacy of the speaker, hastenedto assure him that Johnny was better, and that a"little fun might 'liven him up."Whereupon Dick arose, shook himself, and saying,"I'm ready. Lead the way, Old Man: heregoes," himself led the way with a leap, acharacteristic howl, and darted out into thenight. As he passed through the outer room hecaught up a blazing brand from the hearth. Theaction was repeated by the rest of the party,closely following and elbowing each other, andbefore the astonished proprietor of Thompson'sgrocery was aware of the intention of his guests,the room was deserted.
The night was pitchy dark. In the first gust of wind their temporary torches were extinguished,and only the red brands dancing and flitting inthe gloom like drunken will-o'-the-wisps indicatedtheir whereabouts. Their way led up Pine-TreeCanon, at the head of which a broad, low,bark-thatched cabin burrowed in the mountain-side.It was the home of the Old Man, and the entranceto the tunnel in which he worked when he worked atall. Here the crowd paused for a moment, out ofdelicate deference to their host, who came uppanting in the rear.
"P'r'aps ye'd better hold on a second out yer, whilst I go in and see that things is allright," said the Old Man, with anindifference he was far from feeling. Thesuggestion was graciously accepted, the dooropened and closed on the host, and the crowd,leaning their backs against the wall and coweringunder the eaves, waited and listened,For a few moments there was no sound but thedripping of water from the eaves, and the stir andrustle of wrestling boughs above them., Then themen became uneasy, and whispered suggestion andsuspicion passed from the one to the other."Reckon she's caved in his head the firstlick!" "Decoyed him inter the tunneland barred him up, likely" "Got him downand sittin' on him." "Prob'ly bilingsuthin' to heave on us: stand clear the door,boys!" For just then the latch clicked, thedoor slowly opened, and a voice said, "Comein out o' the wet."
The voice was neither that of the Old Man nor of his wife. It was the voice of a small boy, itsweak treble broken by that preternaturalhoarseness which only vagabondage and the habit ofpremature seIf-assertion can give. It was theface of a small boy that looked up at theirs,--aface that might have been pretty, and evenrefined, but that it was darkened by evilknowledge from within, and dirt and bardexperience from without. He had a blanket aroundhis shoulders, and had evidently just risen fromhis bed. "Come in," he repeated,"and don't make no noise. The Old Man's inthere talking to mar," he continued, pointingto an adjacent room which seemed to be a kitchen,from which the Old Man's voice came in deprecatingac cents. "Let me be," he addedquerulously, to Dick Bullen, who had caught himup, blanket and all, and was affecting to toss himinto the fire, "let go o' me, you d----d oldfool, d' ye hear?"
Thus adjured, Dick Bullen lowered Johnny to theground with a smothered laugh, while the men,entering quietly, ranged themselves around a longtable of rough boards which occupied the centre ofthe room. Johnny then gravely proceeded to acupboard and brought out several articles, whichhe deposited on the table. "Thar's whiskey.And crackers. And red herons. And cheese."He took a bite of the latter on his way to thetable. "And sugar." He scooped up amouthful en route with a small and very dirtyhand. "And terbacker, Thar's dried appilstoo on the shelf, but I don't admire'em. Appilsis swellin'. Thar," he concluded, "nowwade in, and don't be afeard. I don't mind theold woman. She don't b'long to me. S'long.
He had stepped to the threshold of a smallroom, scarcely larger than a closet, partitionedoff from the main apartment, and holding in itsdim recess a small bed. He stood there a momentlooking at the company, his bare feet peeping fromthe blanket, and nodded.
"Hello, Johnny! You ain't goin' to turnin agin, are ye?" said Dick.
"Yes, I are," responded Johnnydecidedly1
"Why, wot's up, old fellow?"
"I've got a fevier. And childblains.And roomatiz," returned Johnny, and vanishedwithin. After a moment's pause, he added in thedark, apparently from under the bedclothes,--"And biles!"
There was an embarrassing silence. The menlooked at each other and at the fire. Even withthe appetizing banquet before them, it seemed asif they might again fall into the despondency ofThompson's grocery, when the voice of the Old Man,incautiously lifted, came deprecatingly from thekitchen.
"Certainly! Thet's so. In course theyis. A gang o' lazy, drunken loafers, and that arDick Bullen's the orneriest of all. Didn't hevno more sabe than to come round yar with sicknessin the house and no provision. Thet's what Isaid: 'Bullen,' sez I, 'it's crazy drunk you are,'r a fool,' sez I, 'to think o' such a thing.''Staples,' I sez, 'be you a man, Staples, and'spect to raise h--ll under my roof and invalidslyin' round?' But they would come,--they would.Thet's wot you must 'spect o' such trash as laysround the Bar."
A burst of laughter from the men followed thisunfortunate exposure. Whether it was overheard inthe kitchen, or whether the Old Man's iratecompanion had just then exhausted all other modesof expressing her contemptuous indignation, Icannot say, but a back door was suddenly slammedwith great violence. A moment later and the OldMan reappeared, haply unconscious of the cause ofthe late hilarious outburst, and smiled blandly
"The old woman thought she'd jest runover to Mrs. MacFadden's for a sociablecall," he explained with jaunty indifference,as he took a seat at the board.
Oddly enough it needed this untoward incidentto relieve the embarrassment that was beginningto be felt by the party, and their naturalaudacity returned with their host. I do notpropose to record the convivialities of thatevening. The inquisitive reader will accept thestatement that the conversation was characterizedby the same intellectual exaltation, the samecautious reverence, the same fastidious delicacy,the same rhetorical precision, and the samelogical and coherent discourse somewhat later inthe evening, which distinguish similar gatheringsof the masculine sex in more civilized localitiesand under more favorable auspices. No glasseswere broken in the absence of any; no liquor wasuselessly spilt on the floor or table in thescarcity of that article.
It was nearly midnight when the festivitieswere interrupted. "Hush," said DickBullen, holding up his hand. It was the querulousvoice of Johnny from his adjacent closet: "Odad!"
The Old Man arose hurriedly and disappeared inthe closet. Presently he reappeared. "Hisrheumatiz is coming on agin bad," heexplained, "and he wants rubbin'." Helifted the demijohn of whiskey from the table andshook it.. It was empty. Dick Bullen put downhis tin cup with an embarrassed laugh. So did theothers. The Old Man examined their contents andsaid hopefully, "I reckon that's enough; hedon't need much, You hold on all o' you for aspell, and I'll be back;" and vanished inthe closet with an old flannel shirt and thewhiskey. The door closed but imperfectly, and thefollowing dialogue was distinctly audible:
"Now, sonny, whar does she acheworst?"
"Sometimes over yar and sometimes underyer; but it's most powerful from yer to yer.Rub yer, dad."
A silence seemed to indicate a brisk rubbing.Then Johnny
"Hevin' a good time out yer, dad?"
" Yes, sonny."
"To-morrer's Chrismiss,--ain't it?"
"Yes, sonny. How does she feel now?"
"Better. Rub a little furder down, Wot'sChrismiss, anyway? Wot's it all about?"
"Oh, it's a day."
This exhaustive definition was apparentlysatisfactory, for there was a silent interval ofrubbing. Presently Johnny again:
"Mar sez that everywhere else but yereverybody gives things to everybody Chrismiss andthen she jist waded inter you. She sez thar's aman they call Sandy Claws, not a white man, youknow, but a kind o' Chinemin, comes down thechimbley night afore Chrismias and gives things tochillern,--boys like me. Puts 'em in their butes! Thet's what she tried to play upon me. Easynow, pop, whar are you rubbin' to,--thet's amile from the place! She jest made that up, didn't she, jest to aggrewate me and you? Don't rubthat. Why, dad!"
In the great quiet that seemed to have fallenupon the house the sigh of the near pines and thedrip of leaves without was very distinct.Johnny's voice, too, was lowered as he went on,"Don't you take on now, for I'm gettin' allright fast. Wot's the boys doin' out thar?"
The Old Man partly opened the door and peeredthrough. His guests were sitting there sociablyenough, and there were a few silver coins and alean buckskin purse on the table. "Bettin'on suthin'--some little game or 'nother. They're all right," he replied to Johnny, andrecommenced his rubbing.
"I'd like to take a hand and win somemoney," said Johnny reflectively after apause.
The Old Man glibly repeated what was evidentlya familiar formula, that if Johnny would waituntil he struck it rich in the tunnel he'd havelots of money, etc., etc.
"Yes," said Johnny, "but youdon't. And whether you strike it or I win it, it's about the same. It's all luck. But it'smighty cur'o's about Chrismiss--ain't it? Why dothey call it Chrismiss?"
Perhaps from some instinctive deference to theoverhearing of his guests, or from. some vaguesense of incongruity, the Old Man's reply was solow as to be inaudible beyond the room.
"Yes," said Johnny, with some slightabatement of interest, "I've heerd o' himbefore. thar, that'll do, dad. I don't achenear so bad as I did. Now wrap me tight in thisyer blanket. So. Now," he added in amuffled whisper, "sit down yer by me till Igo asleep." To assure himself of obedience,he disengaged one hand from the blanket, and,grasping his fatber's sleeve, again composedhimself to rest.
For some moments the Old Man waited patiently.Then the unwonted stillness of the house excitedhis curiosity, and without moving from the bed hecautiously opened the door with his disengagedhand, and looked into the main room. To hisinfinite surprise it was dark and deserted. Buteven then a smouldering log on the hearth broke,and by the upspringing blaze he saw the figure ofDick Bullen sitting by the dying embers."Hello!"
Dick started, rose, and came somewhatunsteadily toward him.
"Whar's the boys?" said the Old Man.
"Gone up the caņon on a little pasear.They coming back for me in a minit. I'm waitin'round for 'em. What are you starin' at, OldMan?" he added, with a forced laugh;"do you think I'm drunk?"
The Old Man might have been pardoned thesupposition, for Dick's eyes were humid and hisface flushed. He loitered and lounged back to thechimney, yawned, shook himself, buttoned up hiscoat and laughed. "Liquor ain't so plenty asthat, Old Man. Now don't you git up," hecontinued, as the Old Man made a movement torelease his sleeve from Johnny's hand, "Don'tyou mind manners. Sit jest whar you be; I'mgoin' in a jiffy. Thar, that's them now."
There was a low tap at the door, Dick Bullenopened it quickly, nodded "Good-night"to his host, and disappeared. The Old Man wouldhave followed him but for the hand that stillunconsciously grasped his sleeve. He could haveeasily disengaged it: it was small, weak, andemaciated. But perhaps because it was small,weak, and emaciated he changed his mind, and,drawing his chair closer to the bed, rested hishead upon it. In this defenseless attitude thepotency of his earlier potations surprised him.The room flickered and faded before his eyes,reappeared, faded again, went out, and left him--asleep.
Meantime Dick Bullen, closing the door,confronted his companions. "Are youready?" said Staples. "Ready,"said Dick "what's the time?" "Pasttwelve," was the reply; "can you makeit? it's nigh on fifty miles, the round triphither and yon." "I reckon,"returned Dick shortly. "What's the mare?" "Bill and Jack's holdin' her at thecrossin'" "Let 'em hold on a minitlonger," said Dick.
He turned and reentered the house softly. Bythe light of the guttering candle and dying firehe saw that the door of the little room was open.He stepped toward it on tip-toe and looked in.The Old Man had fallen back in his chair, snoring,his helpless feet thrust out in a line with hiscollapsed shoulders, and his hat pulled over hiseyes. Beside him, on a narrow wooden bedstead,lay Johnny, muffled tightly in a blanket that hidall save a strip of forehead and a few curls dampwith perspiration. Dick Bullen made a stepforward, hesitated, and glanced over his shoulderinto the deserted room. Everything was quiet.With a sudden resolution he parted his hugemustache, with both hands and stooped over thesleeping boy. But even as he did so a mischievousblast, lying in wait, swooped down the chimney,rekindled the hearth, and lit up the room with ashameless glow from which Dick fled in bashfulterror.
His companions were already waiting for him atthe crossing. Two of them were struggling in thedarkness with some strange misshapen bulk, whichan Dick came nearer took the semblance of a greatyellow horse.
It was the mare. She wan not a pretty picture.From her Roman nose to her rising haunches, fromher arched spine hidden by the stiff machillas ofa Mexican saddle, to her thick, straight bonylegs, there was not a line of equine grace. Inher half-blind but wholly vicious white eyes, inher protruding under-lip, in her monstrous color,there was nothing but ugliness and vice.
"Niow then," said Staples,"stand cl'ar of her heels, boys, and up withyou. Don't miss your first holt of her mane, andmind ye get your off stirrup quick. Ready!"
There was a leap, a scrambling struggle, abound, a wild retreat of the crowd, a circle offlying hoofs, two springless leaps that jarred theearth, a rapid play and jingle of spurs, a plunge,and then the voice of Dick somewhere in thedarkness. "All right!"
"Don't take the lower road back onlessyou're hard pushed for time! Don't hold her indownhill! We'll be at the ford at five. G'lang!Hoopa! Mula! GO!"
A splash, a spark struck from the ledge in theroad, a clatter in the rocky cut beyond, and Dickwas gone.
Sing, O Muse, the ride of Richard Bullen! Sing, OMuse, of chivalrous men! the sacred quest, thedoughty deeds, the battery of low churls, thefearsome ride and gruesome perils of the Flower ofSimpson's Bar! Alack! she is dainty, this Muse!She will have none of this bucking brute andswaggering, ragged rider, and I must fain followhim in prose, afoot!
It was one o'clock, and yet he had only gainedRattlesnake Hill. For in that time Jovita hadrehearsed to him all her imperfections andpracticed all her vices. Thrice had she stumbled.Twice had she thrown up her Roman nose in astraight line with the reins, and resisting bitand spur, struck out madly across country. Twicehad she reared, and rearing, fallen backward; andtwice had the agile Dick, unharmed, regained hisseat before she found her vicious legs again. Anda mile beyond them, at the foot of a long hill,was Rattlesnake Creek. Dick knew that here wasthe crucial test of his ability to perform hisenterprise, set his teeth grimly, put his kneeswell into her flanks, and changed his defensivetactics to brisk aggression. Bullied andmaddened, Jovita began the descent of the hill.Here the artful Richard pretended to hold her inwith ostentatious objurgation and well-feignedcries of alarm. It is unnecessary to add thatJovita instantly ran away. Nor need I state thetime made in the descent; it is written in thechronicles of Simpson's Bar. Enough that inanother moment, as it seemed to Dick, she wassplashing on the overflowed banks of RattlesnakeCreek. As Dick expected, the momentum she hadacquired carried her beyond the point of balking,and holding her well together for a mighty leap,they dashed into the middle of the swiftly flowingcurrent. A few moments of kicking, wading, andswimming, and Dick drew a long breath on theopposite bank.
The road from Rattlesnake Creek to Red Mountainwas tolerably level. Either the plunge inRattlesnake Creek had dampened her baleful fire,or the art which led to it had shown her thesuperior wickedness ot her rider, for Jovita nolonger wasted her surplus energy in wantonconceits. Once she bucked, but it was from forceof habit; once she shied, but it was from a new,freshly painted meetinghouse at the crossing ofthe county road. Hollows, ditches, gravellydeposits, patches of freshly springing grasses,flew from beneath her rattling hoofs. She beganto smell unpleasantly, once or twice she coughedslightly, but there was no abatement of herstrength or speed. By two o'clock he had passedRed Mountain and begun the descent to the plain.Ten minutes later the driver of the fast Pioneercoach was overtaken and passed by a "man on apinto hoss"--an event sufficiently notable forremark. At half-past two Dick rose in hisstirrups with a great shout. Stars wereglittering through the rifted clouds, and beyondhim, out of the plain, rose two spires, aflagstaff, and a straggling line of black objects.Dick jingled his spurs and swung his riata, Jovita bounded forward, and in another moment they sweptinto Tuttleville, and drew up before the woodenpiazza of "The Hotel of All Nations."
What transpired that night at Tuttleville isnot strictly a part of this record. Briefly I maystate, however, that after Jovita had been handedover to a sleepy ostler, whom she at once kickedinto unpleasant consciousness, Dick sallied outwith the barkeeper for a tour of the sleepingtown. Lights still gleamed from a few saloons andgambling houses; but avoiding these, they stoppedbefore several closed shops, and by persistenttapping and judicious outcry roused theproprietors from their beds, and made them unbarthe doors of their magazines and expose theirwares. Sometimes they were met by curses, butoftener by interest and some concern in theirneeds, and the interview was invariably concludedby a drink. It was three o'clock before thispleasantry was given over, and with a smallwaterproof bag of India rubber strapped on hisshoulders, Dick returned to the hotel. But herehe was waylaid by Beauty--Beauty opulent in charms,affluent in dress, persuasive in speech, andSpanish in accent! In vain she repeated theinvitation in "Excelsior," happilyscorned by all Alpine-climbing youth, and rejectedby this child of the Sierras--a rejection softenedin this instance by a laugh and his last goldcoin. And then he sprang to the saddle and dasheddown the lonely street and out into the lonelierplain, where presently the lights, the black lineof houses, the spires, and the flagstaff sank intothe earth behind him again and were lost in thedistance.
The storm had cleared away, the air was briskand cold, the outlines of adjacent landmarks weredistinct, but it was half-past four before Dickreached the meetinghouse and the crossing of thecounty road. To avoid the rising grade he hadtaken a longer and more circuitous road, in whoseviscid mud Jovita sank fetlock deep at everybound. It was a poor preparation for a steadyascent of five miles more; but Jovita, gatheringher legs under her, took it with her usual blind,unreasoning fury, and a half-hour later reachedthe long level that led to Rattlesnake Creek.Another half-hour would bring him to the creek.He threw the reins lightly upon the neck of themare, chirruped to her, and began to sing.
Suddenly Jovita shied with a bound that wouldhave unseated a less practiced rider. Hanging toher rein was a figure that had leaped from thebank, and at the same time from the road beforeher arose a shadowy horse and rider.
"Throw up your hands," commanded thesecond apparition, with an oath.
Dick felt the mare tremble, quiver, andapparently sink under him. He knew what it meantand was prepared. "Stand aside, JackSimpson. I know you, you d----d thief! Let me pass,or-- He did not finish the sentence. Jovita rosestraight in the air with a terrific bound,throwing the figure from her bit with a singleshake of her vicious head, and charged with deadlymalevolence down on the impediment before her. Anoath, a pistol shot, horse and highwayman rolledover in the road, and the next moment Jovita was ahundred yards away. But the good right arm of herrider, shattered by a bullet, dropped helplesslyat his side.
Without slacking his speed he shifted the reinsto his left hand. But a few moments later he wasobliged to halt and tighten the saddle girths thathad slipped in the onset. This in his crippledcondition took some time. He had no fear ofpursuit, but looking up he saw that the easternstars were already paling, and that the distantpeaks had lost their ghostly whiteness and nowstood out blackly against a lighter sky. Day wasupon him. Then completely absorbed in a singleidea, he forgot the pain of his wound, andmounting again dashed on toward Rattlesnake Creek.But now Jovita's breath came broken by gasps, Dickreeled in his saddle, and brighter and brightergrew the sky.
Ride, Richard; run, Jovita; linger, O day!
For the last few rods there was a roaring inhis ears. Was it exhaustion from loss of blood,or what? He was dazed and giddy as he swept downthe hill, and did not recognize his surroundings.Had he taken the wrong road, or was thisRattlesnake Creek?
It was. But the brawling creek he had swum afew hours before had risen, more than doubled itsvolume, and now rolled a swift and resistlessriver between him and Rattlesnake Hill. For thefirst time that night Richard's heart sank withinhim. The river, the mountain, the quickeningeast, swam before his eyes. He shut them torecover his self-control. In that brief interval,by some fantastic mental process, the little roomat Simpson's Bar and the figures of the sleepingfather and son rose upon him. He opened his eyeswildly, cast off his coat, pistol, boots, andsaddle, bound his precious pack tightly to hisshoulders, grasped the bare flanks of Jovita withhis bared knees, and with a shout dashed into theyellow water. A cry rose from the opposite bankas the head of a man and horse struggled for a fewmoments against the battling current, and thenwere swept away amidst uprooted trees and whirlingdriftwood.
The Old Man started and woke. The fire on thehearth was dead, the candle in the outer roomflickering in its socket, and somebody was rappingat the door. He opened it, but fell back with acry before the dripping, half-naked figure thatreeled against the doorpost.
"Hush! Is he awake yet?"
"No; but, Dick--"
"Dry up, you old fool! Get me some whiskey, quick!" The Old Man flew andreturned with--an empty bottle! Dick would havesworn, but his strength was not equal to theoccasion. He staggered, caught at the handle ofthe door, and motioned to the Old Man.
"Thar's suthin' in my pack yet for Johnny.Take it off. I can't."
The Old Man unstrapped the pack, and laid itbefore the exhausted man.
"Open it, quick."
He did so with trembling fingers. It containedonly a few poor toys--cheap and barbaric enough,goodness knows, but bright with paint and tinsel.One of them was broken; another, I fear, wasirretrievably ruined by water, and on the third--ahme! there was a cruel spot.
"It don't look like much, that's afact," said Dick ruefully. . . "Butit's the best we could do . . . Take 'em, Old Man,and put `em in his stocking, and tell him--tellhim, you know--hold me, Old Man--" The Old Mancaught at his sinking figure. "Tellhim," said Dick, with a weak littlelaugh--"tell him Sandy Claus has come."
And even so, bedraggled, ragged, unshaven andunshorn, with one arm hanging helplessly at hisside, Santa Claus came to Simpson's Bar and fellfainting on the first threshold. The Christmasdawn came slowly after, touching the remoter peakswith the rosy warmth of ineffable love. And itlooked so tenderly on Simpson's Bar that the wholemountain, as if caught in a generous action,blushed to the skies.
Bret Harte, 1870
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