Johnson's Old Woman
From: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other
It was growing dark, and the Sonora trail was becoming more indistinct
before me at every step. The difficulty had increased over the grassy
slope, where the overflow from some smaller watercourse above had worn a
number of diverging gullies so like the trail as to be undistinguishable
from it. Unable to determine which was the right one, I threw the reins
over the mule's neck and resolved to trust to that superior animal's
sagacity, of which I had heard so much. But I had not taken into account
the equally well-known weaknesses of sex and species, and Chu Chu had
already shown uncontrollable signs of wanting her own way. Without a
moment's hesitation, feeling the relaxed bridle, she lay down and rolled
In this perplexity the sound of horse's hoofs ringing out of the rocky
canyon beyond was a relief, even if momentarily embarrassing. An instant
afterwards a horse and rider appeared cantering round the hill on what
was evidently the lost trail, and pulled up as I succeeded in forcing
Chu Chu to her legs again.
"Is that the trail from Sonora?" I asked.
"Yes;" but with a critical glance at the mule, "I reckon you ain't going
"It's a matter of eighteen miles, and most of it a blind trail through
the woods after you take the valley."
"Is it worse than this?"
"What's the matter with this trail? Ye ain't expecting a racecourse or a
shell road over the foothills--are ye?"
"No. Is there any hotel where I can stop?"
"Nor any house?"
"Thank you. Good-night."
He had already passed on, when he halted again and turned in his saddle.
"Look yer. Just a spell over yon canyon ye'll find a patch o' buckeyes;
turn to the right and ye'll see a trail. That'll take ye to a shanty.
You ask if it's Johnson's."
"I am. You ain't lookin' for Vanderbilt or God Almighty up here, are
you? Well, then, you hark to me, will you? You say to my old woman to
give you supper and a shakedown somewhar to-night. Say I sent you. So
He was gone before I could accept or decline. An extraordinary noise
proceeded from Chu Chu, not unlike a suppressed chuckle. I looked
sharply at her; she coughed affectedly, and, with her head and neck
stretched to their greatest length, appeared to contemplate her neat
little off fore shoe with admiring abstraction. But as soon as I had
mounted she set off abruptly, crossed the rocky canyon, apparently
sighted the patch of buckeyes of her own volition, and without the
slightest hesitation found the trail to the right, and in half an hour
stood before the shanty.
It was a log cabin with an additional "lean-to" of the same material,
roofed with bark, and on the other side a larger and more ambitious
"extension" built of rough, unplaned, and unpainted redwood boards,
lightly shingled. The "lean-to" was evidently used as a kitchen, and
the central cabin as a living-room. The barking of a dog as I approached
called four children of different sizes to the open door, where already
an enterprising baby was feebly essaying to crawl over a bar of wood
laid across the threshold to restrain it.
"Is this Johnson's house?"
My remark was really addressed to the eldest, a boy of apparently nine
or ten, but I felt that my attention was unduly fascinated by the baby,
who at that moment had toppled over the bar, and was calmly eyeing
me upside down, while silently and heroically suffocating in its
petticoats. The boy disappeared without replying, but presently returned
with a taller girl of fourteen or fifteen. I was struck with the way
that, as she reached the door, she passed her hands rapidly over the
heads of the others as if counting them, picked up the baby, reversed
it, shook out its clothes, and returned it to the inside, without even
looking at it. The act was evidently automatic and habitual.
I repeated my question timidly.
Yes, it WAS Johnson's, but he had just gone to King's Mills. I replied,
hurriedly, that I knew it,--that I had met him beyond the canyon. As I
had lost my way and couldn't get to Sonora to-night, he had been good
enough to say that I might stay there until morning. My voice was
slightly raised for the benefit of Mr. Johnson's "old woman," who, I had
no doubt, was inspecting me furtively from some corner.
The girl drew the children away, except the boy. To him she said
simply, "Show the stranger whar to stake out his mule, 'Dolphus," and
disappeared in the "extension" without another word. I followed my
little guide, who was perhaps more actively curious, but equally
unresponsive. To my various questions he simply returned a smile of
exasperating vacuity. But he never took his eager eyes from me, and I
was satisfied that not a detail of my appearance escaped him. Leading
the way behind the house to a little wood, whose only "clearing"
had been effected by decay or storm, he stood silently apart while
I picketed Chu Chu, neither offering to assist me nor opposing any
interruption to my survey of the locality. There was no trace of human
cultivation in the surroundings of the cabin; the wilderness still trod
sharply on the heels of the pioneer's fresh footprints, and even seemed
to obliterate them. For a few yards around the actual dwelling there
was an unsavory fringe of civilization in the shape of cast-off clothes,
empty bottles, and tin cans, and the adjacent thorn and elder bushes
blossomed unwholesomely with bits of torn white paper and bleaching
dish-cloths. This hideous circle never widened; Nature always appeared
to roll back the intruding debris; no bird nor beast carried it away; no
animal ever forced the uncleanly barrier; civilization remained grimly
trenched in its own exuvia. The old terrifying girdle of fire around the
hunter's camp was not more deterring to curious night prowlers than this
coarse and accidental outwork.
When I regained the cabin I found it empty, the doors of the lean-to and
extension closed, but there was a stool set before a rude table, upon
which smoked a tin cup of coffee, a tin dish of hot saleratus biscuit,
and a plate of fried beef. There was something odd and depressing in
this silent exclusion of my presence. Had Johnson's "old woman" from
some dark post of observation taken a dislike to my appearance, or was
this churlish withdrawal a peculiarity of Sierran hospitality? Or was
Mrs. Johnson young and pretty, and hidden under the restricting ban of
Johnson's jealousy, or was she a deformed cripple, or even a bedridden
crone? From the extension at times came a murmur of voices, but never
the accents of adult womanhood. The gathering darkness, relieved only by
a dull glow from the smouldering logs in the adobe chimney, added to my
loneliness. In the circumstances I knew I ought to have put aside the
repast and given myself up to gloomy and pessimistic reflection; but
Nature is often inconsistent, and in that keen mountain air, I grieve
to say, my physical and moral condition was not in that perfect accord
always indicated by romancers. I had an appetite and I gratified it;
dyspepsia and ethical reflections might come later. I ate the saleratus
biscuit cheerfully, and was meditatively finishing my coffee when a
gurgling sound from the rafters above attracted my attention. I looked
up; under the overhang of the bark roof three pairs of round eyes were
fixed upon me. They belonged to the children I had previously seen,
who, in the attitude of Raphael's cherubs, had evidently been deeply
interested spectators of my repast. As our eyes met an inarticulate
giggle escaped the lips of the youngest.
I never could understand why the shy amusement of children over their
elders is not accepted as philosophically by its object as when it
proceeds from an equal. We fondly believe that when Jones or Brown
laughs at us it is from malice, ignorance, or a desire to show his
superiority, but there is always a haunting suspicion in our minds that
these little critics REALLY see something in us to laugh at. I, however,
smiled affably in return, ignoring any possible grotesqueness in my
manner of eating in private.
"Come here, Johnny," I said blandly.
The two elder ones, a girl and a boy, disappeared instantly, as if the
crowning joke of this remark was too much for them. From a scraping and
kicking against the log wall I judged that they had quickly dropped to
the ground outside. The younger one, the giggler, remained fascinated,
but ready to fly at a moment's warning.
"Come here, Johnny, boy," I repeated gently. "I want you to go to your
mother, please, and tell her"--
But here the child, who had been working its face convulsively, suddenly
uttered a lugubrious howl and disappeared also. I ran to the front door
and looked out in time to see the tallest girl, who had received me,
walking away with it under her arm, pushing the boy ahead of her
and looking back over her shoulder, not unlike a youthful she-bear
conducting her cubs from danger. She disappeared at the end of the
extension, where there was evidently another door.
It was very extraordinary. It was not strange that I turned back to
the cabin with a chagrin and mortification which for a moment made me
entertain the wild idea of saddling Chu Chu, and shaking the dust of
that taciturn house from my feet. But the ridiculousness of such an act,
to say nothing of its ingratitude, as quickly presented itself to me.
Johnson had offered me only food and shelter; I could have claimed no
more from the inn I had asked him to direct me to. I did not re-enter
the house, but, lighting my last cigar, began to walk gloomily up and
down the trail. With the outcoming of the stars it had grown lighter;
through a wind opening in the trees I could see the heavy bulk of the
opposite mountain, and beyond it a superior crest defined by a red line
of forest fire, which, however, cast no reflection on the surrounding
earth or sky. Faint woodland currents of air, still warm from the
afternoon sun, stirred the leaves around me with long-drawn aromatic
breaths. But these in time gave way to the steady Sierran night wind
sweeping down from the higher summits, and rocking the tops of the
tallest pines, yet leaving the tranquillity of the dark lower aisles
unshaken. It was very quiet; there was no cry nor call of beast or bird
in the darkness; the long rustle of the tree-tops sounded as faint as
the far-off wash of distant seas. Nor did the resemblance cease there;
the close-set files of the pines and cedars, stretching in illimitable
ranks to the horizon, were filled with the immeasurable loneliness of
an ocean shore. In this vast silence I began to think I understood the
taciturnity of the dwellers in the solitary cabin.
When I returned, however, I was surprised to find the tallest girl
standing by the door. As I approached she retreated before me, and
pointing to the corner where a common cot bed had been evidently just
put up, said, "Ye can turn in thar, only ye'll have to rouse out early
when 'Dolphus does the chores," and was turning towards the extension
again, when I stopped her almost appealingly.
"One moment, please. Can I see your mother?"
She stopped and looked at me with a singular expression. Then she said
"You know, fust rate, she's dead."
She was turning away again, but I think she must have seen my concern
in my face, for she hesitated. "But," I said quickly, "I certainly
understood your father, that is, Mr. Johnson," I added, interrogatively,
"to say that--that I was to speak to"--I didn't like to repeat the exact
"I don't know what he was playin' ye for," she said shortly. "Mar has
been dead mor'n a year."
"But," I persisted, "is there no grown-up woman here?"
"Then who takes care of you and the children?"
"Yourself and your father--eh?"
"Dad ain't here two days running, and then on'y to sleep."
"And you take the entire charge of the house?"
"Yes, and the log tallies."
"The log tallies?"
"Yes; keep count and measure the logs that go by the slide."
It flashed upon me that I had passed the slide or declivity on the
hillside, where logs were slipped down into the valley, and I inferred
that Johnson's business was cutting timber for the mill.
"But you're rather young for all this work," I suggested.
"I'm goin' on sixteen," she said gravely.
Indeed, for the matter of that, she might have been any age. Her face,
on which sunburn took the place of complexion, was already hard and set.
But on a nearer view I was struck with the fact that her eyes, which
were not large, were almost indistinguishable from the presence of the
most singular eyelashes I had ever seen. Intensely black, intensely
thick, and even tangled in their profusion, they bristled rather than
fringed her eyelids, obliterating everything but the shining black
pupils beneath, which were like certain lustrous hairy mountain berries.
It was this woodland suggestion that seemed to uncannily connect her
with the locality. I went on playfully:--
"That's not VERY old--but tell me--does your father, or DID your father,
ever speak of you as his 'old woman?'"
She nodded. "Then you thought I was mar?" she said, smiling.
It was such a relief to see her worn face relax its expression of
pathetic gravity--although this operation quite buried her eyes in their
black thickest hedge again--that I continued cheerfully: "It wasn't much
of a mistake, considering all you do for the house and family."
"Then you didn't tell Billy 'to go and be dead in the ground with mar,'
as he 'lows you did?" she said half suspiciously, yet trembling on the
edge of a smile.
No, I had not, but I admitted that my asking him to go to his mother
might have been open to this dismal construction by a sensitive infant
mind. She seemed mollified, and again turned to go.
"Good-night, Miss--you know your father didn't tell me your real name,"
"Good-night, Miss Karline."
I held out my hand.
She looked at it and then at me through her intricate eyelashes. Then
she struck it aside briskly, but not unkindly, said "Quit foolin', now,"
as she might have said to one of the children, and disappeared through
the inner door. Not knowing whether to be amused or indignant, I
remained silent a moment. Then I took a turn outside in the increasing
darkness, listened to the now hurrying wind over the tree-tops,
re-entered the cabin, closed the door, and went to bed.
But not to sleep. Perhaps the responsibility towards these solitary
children, which Johnson had so lightly shaken off, devolved upon me as
I lay there, for I found myself imagining a dozen emergencies of their
unprotected state, with which the elder girl could scarcely grapple.
There was little to fear from depredatory man or beast--desperadoes of
the mountain trail never stooped to ignoble burglary, bear or panther
seldom approached a cabin--but there was the chance of sudden illness,
fire, the accidents that beset childhood, to say nothing of the
narrowing moral and mental effect of their isolation at that tender age.
It was scandalous in Johnson to leave them alone.
In the silence I found I could hear quite distinctly the sound of their
voices in the extension, and it was evident that Caroline was putting
them to bed. Suddenly a voice was uplifted--her own! She began to sing
and the others to join her. It was the repetition of a single verse of
a well-known lugubrious negro melody. "All the world am sad and
dreary," wailed Caroline, in a high head-note, "everywhere I roam." "Oh,
darkieth," lisped the younger girl in response, "how my heart growth
weary, far from the old folkth at h-o-o-me." This was repeated two or
three times before the others seemed to get the full swing of it, and
then the lines rose and fell sadly and monotonously in the darkness. I
don't know why, but I at once got the impression that those motherless
little creatures were under a vague belief that their performance was
devotional, and was really filling the place of an evening hymn. A brief
and indistinct kind of recitation, followed by a dead silence, broken
only by the slow creaking of new timber, as if the house were stretching
itself to sleep too, confirmed my impression. Then all became quiet
But I was more wide awake than before. Finally I rose, dressed myself,
and dragging my stool to the fire, took a book from my knapsack, and by
the light of a guttering candle, which I discovered in a bottle in the
corner of the hearth, began to read. Presently I fell into a doze.
How long I slept I could not tell, for it seemed to me that a dreamy
consciousness of a dog barking at last forced itself upon me so strongly
that I awoke. The barking appeared to come from behind the cabin in the
direction of the clearing where I had tethered Chu Chu. I opened the
door hurriedly, ran round the cabin towards the hollow, and was almost
at once met by the bulk of the frightened Chu Chu, plunging out of the
darkness towards me, kept only in check by her reata in the hand of a
blanketed shape slowly advancing with a gun over its shoulder out of the
hollow. Before I had time to recover from my astonishment I was thrown
into greater confusion by recognizing the shape as none other than
Without the least embarrassment or even self-consciousness of her
appearance, she tossed the end of the reata to me with the curtest
explanation as she passed by. Some prowling bear or catamount had
frightened the mule. I had better tether it before the cabin away from
"But I thought wild beasts never came so near," I said quickly.
"Mule meat's mighty temptin'," said the girl sententiously and passed
on. I wanted to thank her; I wanted to say how sorry I was that she
had been disturbed; I wanted to compliment her on her quiet midnight
courage, and yet warn her against recklessness; I wanted to know whether
she had been accustomed to such alarms; and if the gun she carried was
really a necessity. But I could only respect her reticence, and I was
turning away when I was struck by a more inexplicable spectacle. As she
neared the end of the extension I distinctly saw the tall figure of
a man, moving with a certain diffidence and hesitation that did not,
however, suggest any intention of concealment, among the trees; the girl
apparently saw him at the same moment and slightly slackened her pace.
Not more than a dozen feet separated them. He said something that was
inaudible to my ears,--but whether from his hesitation or the distance
I could not determine. There was no such uncertainty in her reply,
however, which was given in her usual curt fashion: "All right. You can
trapse along home now and turn in."
She turned the corner of the extension and disappeared. The tall figure
of the man wavered hesitatingly for a moment, and then vanished also.
But I was too much excited by curiosity to accept this unsatisfactory
conclusion, and, hastily picketing Chu Chu a few rods from the front
door, I ran after him, with an instinctive feeling that he had not gone
far. I was right. A few paces distant he had halted in the same dubious,
lingering way. "Hallo!" I said.
He turned towards me in the like awkward fashion, but with neither
astonishment nor concern.
"Come up and take a drink with me before you go," I said, "if you're not
in a hurry. I'm alone here, and since I HAVE turned out I don't see why
we mightn't have a smoke and a talk together."
I looked up at the six feet of strength before me and repeated
wonderingly, "Dare not?"
"SHE wouldn't like it." He made a movement with his right shoulder
towards the extension.
"Nonsense!" I said. "She isn't in the cabin,--you won't see HER. Come
along." He hesitated, although from what I could discern of his bearded
face it was weakly smiling.
He obeyed, following me not unlike Chu Chu, I fancied, with the same
sense of superior size and strength and a slight whitening of the eye,
as if ready to shy at any moment. At the door he "backed." Then he
entered sideways. I noticed that he cleared the doorway at the top and
the sides only by a hair's breadth.
By the light of the fire I could see that, in spite of his full first
growth of beard, he was young,--even younger than myself,--and that he
was by no means bad-looking. As he still showed signs of retreating at
any moment, I took my flask and tobacco from my saddle-bags, handed them
to him, pointed to the stool, and sat down myself upon the bed.
"You live near here?"
"Yes," he said a little abstractedly, as if listening for some
interruption, "at Ten Mile Crossing."
"Why, that's two miles away."
"Then you don't live here--on the clearing?"
"No. I b'long to the mill at 'Ten Mile.'"
"You were on your way home?"
"No," he hesitated, looking at his pipe; "I kinder meander round here at
this time, when Johnson's away, to see if everything's goin' straight."
"I see--you're a friend of the family."
"'Deed no!" He stopped, laughed, looked confused, and added, apparently
to his pipe, "That is, a sorter friend. Not much. SHE"--he lowered his
voice as if that potential personality filled the whole cabin--"wouldn't
"Then at night, when Johnson's away, you do sentry duty round the
"Yes, 'sentry dooty,' that's it,"--he seemed impressed with the
suggestion--"that's it! Sentry dooty. You've struck it, pardner."
"And how often is Johnson away?"
"'Bout two or three times a week on an average."
"But Miss Caroline appears to be able to take care of herself. She has
"Fear! Fear wasn't hangin' round when SHE was born!" He paused. "No,
sir. Did ye ever look into them eyes?"
I hadn't, on account of the lashes. But I didn't care to say this, and
"There ain't the created thing livin' or dead, that she can't stand
straight up to and look at."
I wondered if he had fancied she experienced any difficulty in standing
up before that innocently good-humored face, but I could not resist
"Then I don't see the use of your walking four miles to look after her."
I was sorry for it the next minute, for he seemed to have awkwardly
broken his pipe, and had to bend down for a long time afterwards to
laboriously pick up the smallest fragments of it. At last he said,
"Ye noticed them bits o' flannin' round the chillern's throats?"
I remembered that I had, but was uncertain whether it was intended as a
preventive of cold or a child's idea of decoration. I nodded.
"That's their trouble. One night, when old Johnson had been off for
three days to Coulterville, I was prowling round here and I didn't git
to see no one, though there was a light burnin' in the shanty all night.
The next night I was here again,--the same light twinklin', but no one
about. I reckoned that was mighty queer, and I jess crep' up to the
house an' listened. I heard suthin' like a little cough oncet in a
while, and at times suthin' like a little moan. I didn't durst to sing
out for I knew SHE wouldn't like it, but whistled keerless like, to let
the chillern know I was there. But it didn't seem to take. I was jess
goin' off, when--darn my skin!--if I didn't come across the bucket of
water I'd fetched up from the spring THAT MORNIN', standin' there full,
and NEVER TAKEN IN! When I saw that I reckoned I'd jess wade in, anyhow,
and I knocked. Pooty soon the door was half opened, and I saw her eyes
blazin' at me like them coals. Then SHE 'lowed I'd better 'git up and
git,' and shet the door to! Then I 'lowed she might tell me what was
up--through the door. Then she said, through the door, as how the
chillern lay all sick with that hoss-distemper, diphthery. Then she
'lowed she'd use a doctor ef I'd fetch him. Then she 'lowed again I'd
better take the baby that hadn't ketched it yet along with me, and leave
it where it was safe. Then she passed out the baby through the door all
wrapped up in a blankit like a papoose, and you bet I made tracks with
it. I knowed thar wasn't no good going to the mill, so I let out for
White's, four miles beyond, whar there was White's old mother. I told
her how things were pointin', and she lent me a hoss, and I jess rounded
on Doctor Green at Mountain Jim's, and had him back here afore sun-up!
And then I heard she wilted,--regularly played out, you see,--for she
had it all along wuss than the lot, and never let on or whimpered!"
"It was well you persisted in seeing her that night," I said, watching
the rapt expression of his face. He looked up quickly, became conscious
of my scrutiny, and dropped his eyes again, smiled feebly, and drawing a
circle in the ashes with the broken pipe-stem, said:--
"But SHE didn't like it, though."
I suggested, a little warmly, that if she allowed her father to leave
her alone at night with delicate children, she had no right to choose
WHO should assist her in an emergency. It struck me afterwards that this
was not very complimentary to him, and I added hastily that I wondered
if she expected some young lady to be passing along the trail at
midnight! But this reminded me of Johnson's style of argument, and I
"Yes," he said meekly, "and ef she didn't keer enough for herself and
her brothers and sisters, she orter remember them Beazeley chillern."
"Beazeley children?" I repeated wonderingly.
"Yes; them two little ones, the size of Mirandy; they're Beazeley's."
"Who is Beazeley, and what are his children doing here?"
"Beazeley up and died at the mill, and she bedevilled her father to let
her take his two young 'uns here."
"You don't mean to say that with her other work she's taking care of
other people's children too?"
"Yes, and eddicatin' them."
"Yes; teachin' them to read and write and do sums. One of our loggers
ketched her at it when she was keepin' tally."
We were both silent for some moments.
"I suppose you know Johnson?" I said finally.
"But you call here at other times than when you're helping her?"
"Never been in the house before."
He looked slowly around him as he spoke, raising his eyes to the bare
rafters above, and drawing a few long breaths, as if he were inhaling
the aura of some unseen presence. He appeared so perfectly gratified and
contented, and I was so impressed with this humble and silent absorption
of the sacred interior, that I felt vaguely conscious that any
interruption of it was a profanation, and I sat still, gazing at the
dying fire. Presently he arose, stretched out his hand, shook mine
warmly, said, "I reckon I'll meander along," took another long breath,
this time secretly, as if conscious of my eyes, and then slouched
sideways out of the house into the darkness again, where he seemed
suddenly to attain his full height, and so looming, disappeared. I shut
the door, went to bed, and slept soundly.
So soundly that when I awoke the sun was streaming on my bed from the
open door. On the table before me my breakfast was already laid. When I
had dressed and eaten it, struck by the silence, I went to the door and
looked out. 'Dolphus was holding Chu Chu by the reata a few paces from
"Where's Caroline?" I asked.
He pointed to the woods and said: "Over yon: keeping tally."
"Did she leave any message?"
"Said I was to git your mule for you."
"Yes; said you was to go."
I went, but not until I had scrawled a few words of thanks on a leaf of
my notebook, which I wrapped about my last Spanish dollar, addressed it
to "Miss Johnson," and laid it upon the table.
It was more than a year later that in the bar-room of the Mariposa Hotel
a hand was laid upon my sleeve. I looked up. It was Johnson.
He drew from his pocket a Spanish dollar. "I reckoned," he said,
cheerfully, "I'd run again ye somewhar some time. My old woman told me
to give ye that when I did, and say that she 'didn't keep no hotel.'
But she allowed she'd keep the letter, and has spelled it out to the
Here was the opportunity I had longed for to touch Johnson's pride and
affection in the brave but unprotected girl. "I want to talk to you
about Miss Johnson," I said, eagerly.
"I reckon so," he said, with an exasperating smile. "Most fellers do.
But she ain't Miss Johnson no more. She's married."
"Not to that big chap over from Ten Mile Mills?" I said breathlessly.
"What's the matter with HIM," said Johnson. "Ye didn't expect her to
marry a nobleman, did ye?"
I said I didn't see why she shouldn't--and believed that she HAD.
Next: The New Assistant At Pine Clearing School
Previous: A Night At Hays