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The Idyl Of Red Gulch








From: Selected Stories

Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea bush, in pretty much
the same attitude in which he had fallen some hours before. How long
he had been lying there he could not tell, and didn't care; how long
he should lie there was a matter equally indefinite and unconsidered.
A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition, suffused and
saturated his moral being.

The spectacle of a drunken man, and of this drunken man in particular,
was not, I grieve to say, of sufficient novelty in Red Gulch to
attract attention. Earlier in the day some local satirist had erected a
temporary tombstone at Sandy's head, bearing the inscription, "Effects
of McCorkle's whisky--kills at forty rods," with a hand pointing to
McCorkle's saloon. But this, I imagine, was, like most local satire,
personal; and was a reflection upon the unfairness of the process
rather than a commentary upon the impropriety of the result. With this
facetious exception, Sandy had been undisturbed. A wandering mule,
released from his pack, had cropped the scant herbage beside him, and
sniffed curiously at the prostrate man; a vagabond dog, with that deep
sympathy which the species have for drunken men, had licked his dusty
boots, and curled himself up at his feet, and lay there, blinking one
eye in the sunlight, with a simulation of dissipation that was ingenious
and doglike in its implied flattery of the unconscious man beside him.

Meanwhile the shadows of the pine trees had slowly swung around until
they crossed the road, and their trunks barred the open meadow with
gigantic parallels of black and yellow. Little puffs of red dust, lifted
by the plunging hoofs of passing teams, dispersed in a grimy shower upon
the recumbent man. The sun sank lower and lower; and still Sandy stirred
not. And then the repose of this philosopher was disturbed, as other
philosophers have been, by the intrusion of an unphilosophical sex.

"Miss Mary," as she was known to the little flock that she had just
dismissed from the log schoolhouse beyond the pines, was taking her
afternoon walk. Observing an unusually fine cluster of blossoms on the
azalea bush opposite, she crossed the road to pluck it--picking her
way through the red dust, not without certain fierce little shivers of
disgust and some feline circumlocution. And then she came suddenly upon
Sandy!

Of course she uttered the little staccato cry of her sex. But when she
had paid that tribute to her physical weakness she became overbold, and
halted for a moment--at least six feet from this prostrate monster--with
her white skirts gathered in her hand, ready for flight. But neither
sound nor motion came from the bush. With one little foot she then
overturned the satirical headboard, and muttered "Beasts!"--an epithet
which probably, at that moment, conveniently classified in her mind the
entire male population of Red Gulch. For Miss Mary, being possessed of
certain rigid notions of her own, had not, perhaps, properly appreciated
the demonstrative gallantry for which the Californian has been so justly
celebrated by his brother Californians, and had, as a newcomer, perhaps
fairly earned the reputation of being "stuck-up."

As she stood there she noticed, also, that the slant sunbeams were
heating Sandy's head to what she judged to be an unhealthy temperature,
and that his hat was lying uselessly at his side. To pick it up and to
place it over his face was a work requiring some courage, particularly
as his eyes were open. Yet she did it, and made good her retreat. But
she was somewhat concerned, on looking back, to see that the hat was
removed, and that Sandy was sitting up and saying something.

The truth was, that in the calm depths of Sandy's mind he was satisfied
that the rays of the sun were beneficial and healthful; that from
childhood he had objected to lying down in a hat; that no people but
condemned fools, past redemption, ever wore hats; and that his right
to dispense with them when he pleased was inalienable. This was the
statement of his inner consciousness. Unfortunately, its outward
expression was vague, being limited to a repetition of the following
formula--"Su'shine all ri'! Wasser maar, eh? Wass up, su'shine?"

Miss Mary stopped, and, taking fresh courage from her vantage of
distance, asked him if there was anything that he wanted.

"Wass up? Wasser maar?" continued Sandy, in a very high key.

"Get up, you horrid man!" said Miss Mary, now thoroughly incensed; "get
up, and go home."

Sandy staggered to his feet. He was six feet high, and Miss Mary
trembled. He started forward a few paces and then stopped.

"Wass I go home for?" he suddenly asked, with great gravity.

"Go and take a bath," replied Miss Mary, eying his grimy person with
great disfavor.

To her infinite dismay, Sandy suddenly pulled off his coat and vest,
threw them on the ground, kicked off his boots, and, plunging wildly
forward, darted headlong over the hill, in the direction of the river.

"Goodness heavens!--the man will be drowned!" said Miss Mary; and then,
with feminine inconsistency, she ran back to the schoolhouse and locked
herself in.

That night, while seated at supper with her hostess, the blacksmith's
wife, it came to Miss Mary to ask, demurely, if her husband ever got
drunk. "Abner," responded Mrs. Stidger, reflectively, "let's see: Abner
hasn't been tight since last 'lection." Miss Mary would have liked to
ask if he preferred lying in the sun on these occasions, and if a cold
bath would have hurt him; but this would have involved an explanation,
which she did not then care to give. So she contented herself with
opening her gray eyes widely at the red-cheeked Mrs. Stidger--a fine
specimen of Southwestern efflorescence--and then dismissed the subject
altogether. The next day she wrote to her dearest friend, in Boston:
"I think I find the intoxicated portion of this community the least
objectionable. I refer, my dear, to the men, of course. I do not know
anything that could make the women tolerable."

In less than a week Miss Mary had forgotten this episode, except that
her afternoon walks took thereafter, almost unconsciously, another
direction. She noticed, however, that every morning a fresh cluster of
azalea blossoms appeared among the flowers on her desk. This was not
strange, as her little flock were aware of her fondness for flowers, and
invariably kept her desk bright with anemones, syringas, and lupines;
but, on questioning them, they one and all professed ignorance of the
azaleas. A few days later, Master Johnny Stidger, whose desk was nearest
to the window, was suddenly taken with spasms of apparently gratuitous
laughter that threatened the discipline of the school. All that Miss
Mary could get from him was, that someone had been "looking in the
winder." Irate and indignant, she sallied from her hive to do battle
with the intruder. As she turned the corner of the schoolhouse she came
plump upon the quondam drunkard--now perfectly sober, and inexpressibly
sheepish and guilty-looking.

These facts Miss Mary was not slow to take a feminine advantage of, in
her present humor. But it was somewhat confusing to observe, also,
that the beast, despite some faint signs of past dissipation, was
amiable-looking--in fact, a kind of blond Samson whose corn-colored,
silken beard apparently had never yet known the touch of barber's razor
or Delilah's shears. So that the cutting speech which quivered on
her ready tongue died upon her lips, and she contented herself with
receiving his stammering apology with supercilious eyelids and the
gathered skirts of uncontamination. When she re-entered the schoolroom,
her eyes fell upon the azaleas with a new sense of revelation. And
then she laughed, and the little people all laughed, and they were all
unconsciously very happy.

It was on a hot day--and not long after this--that two short-legged boys
came to grief on the threshold of the school with a pail of water,
which they had laboriously brought from the spring, and that Miss Mary
compassionately seized the pail and started for the spring herself. At
the foot of the hill a shadow crossed her path, and a blue-shirted arm
dexterously but gently relieved her of her burden. Miss Mary was both
embarrassed and angry. "If you carried more of that for yourself," she
said, spitefully, to the blue arm, without deigning to raise her lashes
to its owner, "you'd do better." In the submissive silence that followed
she regretted the speech, and thanked him so sweetly at the door that
he stumbled. Which caused the children to laugh again--a laugh in which
Miss Mary joined, until the color came faintly into her pale cheek.
The next day a barrel was mysteriously placed beside the door, and as
mysteriously filled with fresh spring water every morning.

Nor was this superior young person without other quiet attentions.
"Profane Bill," driver of the Slumgullion Stage, widely known in the
newspapers for his "gallantry" in invariably offering the box seat to
the fair sex, had excepted Miss Mary from this attention, on the ground
that he had a habit of "cussin' on upgrades," and gave her half the
coach to herself. Jack Hamlin, a gambler, having once silently ridden
with her in the same coach, afterward threw a decanter at the head of a
confederate for mentioning her name in a barroom. The overdressed mother
of a pupil whose paternity was doubtful had often lingered near this
astute Vestal's temple, never daring to enter its sacred precincts, but
content to worship the priestess from afar.

With such unconscious intervals the monotonous procession of blue skies,
glittering sunshine, brief twilights, and starlit nights passed over Red
Gulch. Miss Mary grew fond of walking in the sedate and proper woods.
Perhaps she believed, with Mrs. Stidger, that the balsamic odors of
the firs "did her chest good," for certainly her slight cough was less
frequent and her step was firmer; perhaps she had learned the unending
lesson which the patient pines are never weary of repeating to heedful
or listless ears. And so, one day, she planned a picnic on Buckeye Hill,
and took the children with her. Away from the dusty road, the straggling
shanties, the yellow ditches, the clamor of restless engines, the cheap
finery of shop windows, the deeper glitter of paint and colored glass,
and the thin veneering which barbarism takes upon itself in such
localities--what infinite relief was theirs! The last heap of ragged
rock and clay passed, the last unsightly chasm crossed--how the waiting
woods opened their long files to receive them! How the children--perhaps
because they had not yet grown quite away from the breast of the
bounteous Mother--threw themselves face downward on her brown bosom with
uncouth caresses, filling the air with their laughter; and how Miss Mary
herself--felinely fastidious and intrenched as she was in the purity of
spotless skirts, collar, and cuffs--forgot all, and ran like a crested
quail at the head of her brood until, romping, laughing, and panting,
with a loosened braid of brown hair, a hat hanging by a knotted ribbon
from her throat, she came suddenly and violently, in the heart of the
forest, upon--the luckless Sandy!

The explanations, apologies, and not overwise conversation that ensued
need not be indicated here. It would seem, however, that Miss Mary had
already established some acquaintance with this ex-drunkard. Enough that
he was soon accepted as one of the party; that the children, with that
quick intelligence which Providence gives the helpless, recognized a
friend, and played with his blond beard and long silken mustache, and
took other liberties--as the helpless are apt to do. And when he had
built a fire against a tree, and had shown them other mysteries of
woodcraft, their admiration knew no bounds. At the close of two such
foolish, idle, happy hours he found himself lying at the feet of the
schoolmistress, gazing dreamily in her face, as she sat upon the sloping
hillside weaving wreaths of laurel and syringa, in very much the same
attitude as he had lain when first they met. Nor was the similitude
greatly forced. The weakness of an easy, sensuous nature that had found
a dreamy exaltation in liquor, it is to be feared was now finding an
equal intoxication in love.

I think that Sandy was dimly conscious of this himself. I know that he
longed to be doing something--slaying a grizzly, scalping a savage,
or sacrificing himself in some way for the sake of this sallow-faced,
gray-eyed schoolmistress. As I should like to present him in a heroic
attitude, I stay my hand with great difficulty at this moment, being
only withheld from introducing such an episode by a strong conviction
that it does not usually occur at such times. And I trust that my
fairest reader, who remembers that, in a real crisis, it is always some
uninteresting stranger or unromantic policeman, and not Adolphus, who
rescues, will forgive the omission.

So they sat there, undisturbed--the woodpeckers chattering overhead and
the voices of the children coming pleasantly from the hollow below.
What they said matters little. What they thought--which might have been
interesting--did not transpire. The woodpeckers only learned how
Miss Mary was an orphan; how she left her uncle's house, to come to
California, for the sake of health and independence; how Sandy was an
orphan, too; how he came to California for excitement; how he had lived
a wild life, and how he was trying to reform; and other details, which,
from a woodpecker's viewpoint, undoubtedly must have seemed stupid, and
a waste of time. But even in such trifles was the afternoon spent; and
when the children were again gathered, and Sandy, with a delicacy which
the schoolmistress well understood, took leave of them quietly at the
outskirts of the settlement, it had seemed the shortest day of her weary
life.

As the long, dry summer withered to its roots, the school term of Red
Gulch--to use a local euphuism--"dried up" also. In another day Miss
Mary would be free; and for a season, at least, Red Gulch would know her
no more. She was seated alone in the schoolhouse, her cheek resting on
her hand, her eyes half-closed in one of those daydreams in which Miss
Mary--I fear to the danger of school discipline--was lately in the habit
of indulging. Her lap was full of mosses, ferns, and other woodland
memories. She was so preoccupied with these and her own thoughts that a
gentle tapping at the door passed unheard, or translated itself into the
remembrance of far-off woodpeckers. When at last it asserted itself more
distinctly, she started up with a flushed cheek and opened the door.
On the threshold stood a woman the self-assertion and audacity of whose
dress were in singular contrast to her timid, irresolute bearing.

Miss Mary recognized at a glance the dubious mother of her anonymous
pupil. Perhaps she was disappointed, perhaps she was only fastidious;
but as she coldly invited her to enter, she half-unconsciously settled
her white cuffs and collar, and gathered closer her own chaste skirts.
It was, perhaps, for this reason that the embarrassed stranger, after a
moment's hesitation, left her gorgeous parasol open and sticking in the
dust beside the door, and then sat down at the farther end of a long
bench. Her voice was husky as she began:

"I heerd tell that you were goin' down to the Bay tomorrow, and I
couldn't let you go until I came to thank you for your kindness to my
Tommy."

Tommy, Miss Mary said, was a good boy, and deserved more than the poor
attention she could give him.

"Thank you, miss; thank ye!" cried the stranger, brightening even
through the color which Red Gulch knew facetiously as her "war paint,"
and striving, in her embarrassment, to drag the long bench nearer the
schoolmistress. "I thank you, miss, for that! and if I am his mother,
there ain't a sweeter, dearer, better boy lives than him. And if I ain't
much as says it, thar ain't a sweeter, dearer, angeler teacher lives
than he's got."

Miss Mary, sitting primly behind her desk, with a ruler over her
shoulder, opened her gray eyes widely at this, but said nothing.

"It ain't for you to be complimented by the like of me, I know," she
went on, hurriedly. "It ain't for me to be comin' here, in broad day, to
do it, either; but I come to ask a favor--not for me, miss--not for me,
but for the darling boy."

Encouraged by a look in the young schoolmistress's eye, and putting her
lilac-gloved hands together, the fingers downward, between her knees,
she went on, in a low voice:

"You see, miss, there's no one the boy has any claim on but me, and I
ain't the proper person to bring him up. I thought some, last year, of
sending him away to Frisco to school, but when they talked of bringing
a schoolma'am here, I waited till I saw you, and then I knew it was all
right, and I could keep my boy a little longer. And O, miss, he loves
you so much; and if you could hear him talk about you, in his pretty
way, and if he could ask you what I ask you now, you couldn't refuse
him.

"It is natural," she went on, rapidly, in a voice that trembled
strangely between pride and humility--"it's natural that he should
take to you, miss, for his father, when I first knew him, was a
gentleman--and the boy must forget me, sooner or later--and so I ain't
goin' to cry about that. For I come to ask you to take my Tommy--God
bless him for the bestest, sweetest boy that lives--to--to--take him
with you."

She had risen and caught the young girl's hand in her own, and had
fallen on her knees beside her.

"I've money plenty, and it's all yours and his. Put him in some good
school, where you can go and see him, and help him to--to--to forget his
mother. Do with him what you like. The worst you can do will be kindness
to what he will learn with me. Only take him out of this wicked life,
this cruel place, this home of shame and sorrow. You will; I know you
will--won't you? You will--you must not, you cannot say no! You will
make him as pure, as gentle as yourself; and when he has grown up, you
will tell him his father's name--the name that hasn't passed my lips
for years--the name of Alexander Morton, whom they call here Sandy! Miss
Mary!--do not take your hand away! Miss Mary, speak to me! You will take
my boy? Do not put your face from me. I know it ought not to look on
such as me. Miss Mary!--my God, be merciful!--she is leaving me!"

Miss Mary had risen and, in the gathering twilight, had felt her way to
the open window. She stood there, leaning against the casement, her
eyes fixed on the last rosy tints that were fading from the western sky.
There was still some of its light on her pure young forehead, on her
white collar, on her clasped white hands, but all fading slowly away.
The suppliant had dragged herself, still on her knees, beside her.

"I know it takes time to consider. I will wait here all night; but I
cannot go until you speak. Do not deny me now. You will!--I see it in
your sweet face--such a face as I have seen in my dreams. I see it in
your eyes, Miss Mary!--you will take my boy!"

The last red beam crept higher, suffused Miss Mary's eyes with something
of its glory, flickered, and faded, and went out. The sun had set on Red
Gulch. In the twilight and silence Miss Mary's voice sounded pleasantly.

"I will take the boy. Send him to me tonight."

The happy mother raised the hem of Miss Mary's skirts to her lips. She
would have buried her hot face in its virgin folds, but she dared not.
She rose to her feet.

"Does--this man--know of your intention?" asked Miss Mary, suddenly.

"No, nor cares. He has never even seen the child to know it."

"Go to him at once--tonight--now! Tell him what you have done. Tell him
I have taken his child, and tell him--he must never see--see--the child
again. Wherever it may be, he must not come; wherever I may take it, he
must not follow! There, go now, please--I'm weary, and--have much yet to
do!"

They walked together to the door. On the threshold the woman turned.

"Good night."

She would have fallen at Miss Mary's feet. But at the same moment the
young girl reached out her arms, caught the sinful woman to her own pure
breast for one brief moment, and then closed and locked the door.


It was with a sudden sense of great responsibility that Profane Bill
took the reins of the Slumgullion Stage the next morning, for the
schoolmistress was one of his passengers. As he entered the highroad, in
obedience to a pleasant voice from the "inside," he suddenly reined up
his horses and respectfully waited as Tommy hopped out at the command of
Miss Mary. "Not that bush, Tommy--the next."

Tommy whipped out his new pocketknife, and, cutting a branch from a tall
azalea bush, returned with it to Miss Mary.

"All right now?"

"All right."

And the stage door closed on the Idyl of Red Gulch.





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