This is the debt I pay Just for one riotous day, Years of regret and grief. Sorrow without relief. Pay it I will to the end-- Until the grave, my friend, Gives me a true release-- Gives me the clasp of peace. Slight was the thing I bou... Read more of The Debt at Martin Luther King.caInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Uncle Bill Is Ostracized








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

Uncle Bill Griswold sat by the window in the office of the Hinds House
where he could watch the stage road, and, as usual this winter, he was
sitting by himself. It was thus that Ore City punished reticence.

Uncle Bill was suspected of knowing something--of having
business--of his own--and keeping it to himself. A display of friendly
interest in his affairs having received no encouragement and various
lines of adroit cross-examination having been successfully blocked, Ore
City was forced to regard his stubborn reserve as a hostile act for
which it was tacitly agreed he should be disciplined. Therefore it
withdrew its own confidences and company. Uncle Bill was shunned, left
alone to enjoy his secret. The heavy hand of Public Opinion was upon
him. Socially he was an outcast. Conversation ceased when he approached
as if he had been a spy. Games of solo, high-five, and piute went on
without him and in heated arguments no one any longer asked his views.

This latter offense however was only an aggravation of the real one
which dated back to the memorable occasion when Wilbur Dill had asked
his opinion of the "secondary enrichment." It was held that a man who
would tell the truth at a time like that was a menace to the camp and
the sooner he moved on the better.

In the early spring the old man had disappeared into the mountain with
powder, drills, and a three months' grub-stake. He had told no one of
his destination, and when he had returned the most he would say was that
he had "been peckin' on a ledge all summer." He sent samples of his rock
outside but did not show the assays. He wrote letters and began to get
mail in blank, non-committal envelopes and added to the general feeling
of exasperation by always being at the desk before even the clerk had
time to make out the postmarks. Oh, he was up to something--that was
certain--something that would "knock" the camp no doubt. They wouldn't
put it past him.

If Uncle Bill felt his exile or harbored resentment at being treated
like a leper he was too proud to give any sign.

There had been but little change in the Hinds House in a year. Only a
close observer would have noted that it had changed at all. There was a
trifle more baling-wire intertwined among the legs of the office chairs
and a little higher polish on the seats. The grease spots on the
unbleached muslin where Ore City rested its head were a shade darker and
the monuments of "spec'mins" were higher. The Jersey organ had lost two
stops and a wooden stalagmite was broken. "Old Man" Hinds in a
praiseworthy attempt to clean his solitaire deck had washed off the
spots or at least faded them so that no one but himself could tell what
they were. The office was darker, too, because of the box-covers nailed
across the windows where a few more panes had gone out. Otherwise it
might have been the very day a year ago that Judge George Petty had
lurched through the snow tunnel jubilantly announcing the arrival of the
stage.

Only this year there was no snow tunnel and the Judge was sober--sober
and despondent.

His attitude of depression reflected more or less the spirit of the
camp, which for once came near admitting that "if Capital didn't take
holt in the Spring they might have to quit."

"Anyway," Yankee Sam was saying, lowering his voice to give the
impression to Uncle Bill at the window that he, too, had affairs of a
private nature, "I learnt my lesson good about givin' options. That were
our big mistake--tyin' ourselves up hand and foot with that feller Dill.
Why, if a furrin' syndicate had walked in here and offered me half a
million fer my holdin's in that porphory dike I couldn't a done a stroke
of business. Forfeit money in the bank after this for Samuel. But if
ever I lays eyes on that rat--" Yankee Sam glared about the circle--"you
watch my smoke! Mind what I tell you."

"What about the deal he give me on The Prince o' Peace?" demanded
Lannigan. "Look what he cost me! The money I spent on them stamps
writin' to know what was doin' would a kept me eatin' for a month. Maybe
you think because I don't roar much I ain't angery. If I had the price
I'd hire somebudy regalar to help me hate that feller!"

"I hold that he's worse than robbed me!" Judge Petty struck his knee
with a tremulous fist. "He took one whole year off'n my life, that's
what he's done--pure murder, ain't it? Expectin' to sell every mail, all
summer, and then bein' disappinted has shore took it out of me. Made an
ol' man of me, as you might say, as was hale and hearty. I might have
knowed, too; you had only to look in his face to see what he was!
'Crook' was wrote all over him. There's a law for the likes o' Wilbur
Dill--false pretenses."

"Law!" contemptuously. "Pa" Snow spent more of his time downstairs now
in a rocking chair upholstered with a soogan, where he could vent his
bitterness at short range. Disappointment over the sale of "The Bay
Horse" had made a socialist of him. "The law--a long way we'd get havin'
the law on him! The law's no use to the poor man--he's only got one
weapon he can count on; and while I've never set out to let no man's
blood, if that skunk ever pokes his nose inside these premises he'll
find a red-hot Southerner waitin' for him!" Mr. Snow looked so
altogether ferocious that Ore City more than half believed him.

"Seems like everything this year has been agin us." The despondent voice
behind the stove sounded hopeless. "Burt's proposition fizzlin' out on
the river is goin' to hurt this camp wonderful. It's surprisin' how fast
the news of a failure gits around among Capital. I knew the way he was
startin' in to work--in fact I told him--that he never could make
nothin'."

"When I first went down to work for him I advised steam but he goes
ahead, and look what's happened--broke down and you can gamble he won't
start up again." Lannigan added confidently as though he spoke from
personal knowledge--"Them stockholders is done puttin' up money."

"I warned him about the grade he was givin' them sluice-boxes--I went to
him first off, didn't I?" Yankee Sam looked around for confirmation. "Do
you mind I said at the time he wasn't warshin' that dirt fast enough?"

"Anyhow," declared the Judge querulously, "he ought to 'a piped it off.
T'were a hydraulickin' proposition. He could handle it just twice as
fast at half the cost. I sent him down word when I heard what he was
doin'."

"And wastin' money like he did on all them new style riffles--expanded
metal and cocoa matting! Gimme pole riffles with a little strap-iron on
the top and if you can't ketch it with that you can't ketch it with
nothin'."

"Mostly," said Ma Snow who had come up behind the critic's chair
unnoticed, "you've ketched nothin'." She went on in her plaintive voice:

"It's a shame, that's what it is, that Bruce Burt didn't just turn over
his business to you-all this summer. With shining examples of success to
advise him, like's sittin' here burnin' up my wood t'hout offerin' to
split any, he couldn't have failed. Personally, I wouldn't think of
makin' a business move without first talkin' it over with the financiers
that have made Ore City the money centre that it is!"

"Everybody can learn something," Yankee Sam retorted with a show of
spirit.

"Not everybody," Ma Snow's voice had an ominous quaver, "or you'd a
learned long ago that you can't knock that young man in my hearin'. I
haven't forgot if you have, that the only real money that's been in
the camp all Summer has come up from the river."

"We wasn't sayin' anything against him personal," the brash Samuel
assured her hastily; but Bruce's champion refused to be mollified.

"What if he did shut down? What of it?" She glared defiance until her
pale eyes watered with the strain. "I don't notice anybody here that's
ever had gumption enough even to start up. What do you do?" She answered
for them--"Jest scratch a hole in the ground, then set and wait for
Capital to come and hand you out a million. I dast you to answer!"

It was plain from the silence that no one cared to remove the chip on Ma
Snow's shoulder.

"I hear he aims to stay down there all winter alone and trap." Judge
Petty made the observation for the sake of conversation merely, as the
fact was as well known as that there were four feet of snow outside or
that the camp was "busted."

"And it's to his credit," Ma Snow snapped back. "When he's doin' that he
ain't runnin' up board bills he cain't pay."

"It's as good a place as any," admitted the Judge, "providin' he don't
go nutty." He raised his voice and added with a significant look at
Uncle Bill: "Bachin' alone makes some fellers act like a bull-elk that's
been whipped out of the herd."

"It takes about four months before you begin to think that somebudy's
layin' out in the brush watchin' you--waitin' to rob you even if you
haven't got anything to steal but a slab of swine-buzzum and a sack of
flour. The next stage," went on the citizen behind the stove speaking
with the voice of authority, "is when you pack your rifle along every
time you go for a bucket of water, and light you palouser in the middle
of the night to go around the cabin lookin' for tracks. Yes, sir,"
emphatically, "and the more brains you got the quicker you go off."

"You seemed about the same when you got back as when you left that time
you wintered alone on the left fork of Swiftwater," Ma Snow commented.

"Like as not you remember that spell I spent t'other side of Sheep-eater
Ridge when I druv that fifty foot tunnel single-handed into the Silver
King?"

"You've never give us no chance to forgit it," responded an auditor.
"We've heard it reg'lar every day since."

"I hadn't seen nobody fer clost to three months," Lemonade Dan continued
"when a feller come along, and says: 'I'd like to stop with ye but I'm
short of cash.' I counted out a dollar-thirty and I says 'Stranger,' I
says, 'that's all I got but it's yourn if you'll stay!'"

"And you'll jump for a new seed catalogue or an Agricultural Bulletin
like it was a novel just out," contributed Yankee Sam from his
experience. "I've allus been a great reader. I mind how I come clost to
burnin' myself out on account of it the fall of '97 when I was
ground-sluicin' down there on Snake river. I had a tidy cabin papered
with newspapers and one week when 'twere stormin' I got interested in a
serial story what was runnin'. It started back of the stove and they was
an installment pasted in the cupboard, they was a piece upside down
clost to the floor so I had to stand on my head, as you might say, to
read it, and the end was on the ceilin'. One evenin' I was standin' on a
box with my mouth open and my neck half broke tryin' to see how it come
out when I tipped the lamp over. I'm a reg'lar book-worm, when I gits
where they's readin'."

"I mind the winter I bached on Crooked Crick I tamed a mouse," ventured
Lannigan. "He got so sociable he et out of my fingers."

"He shorely must have been fond of you." Ma Snow looked fixedly at
Lannigan's hands. "Mistah Hinds," turning sharply upon that person, who
was endeavoring by close inspection to tell whether the last card was a
king or queen, "the bacon's froze and there ain't a knife in yoah ol'
kitchen that will cut."

"Yes ma'am," murmured Mr. Hinds, hoping against hope that the statement
was not a command with his luck just beginning to turn and a sequence in
sight.

"If there ain't an aidge on one of them butcher knives that'll cut bread
when I start in to get supper--"

But Ma Snow did not deliver her ultimatum. In the first place it was not
necessary, for the cowed owner of the Hinds House knew perfectly well
what it was, and in the second, Uncle Bill arose suddenly and stood on
tiptoe looking through the window in something that approached
excitement. Nothing ordinary could jar Uncle Bill's composure--chairs
went over in the rush to join him at the window.

The stage was coming--with passengers! It was almost in--they could hear
the driver's--"Git ep, Eagle! Git ep, Nig! Git ep--git ep--git ep!"
There was luggage on behind and--Yankee Sam's voice broke as though it
were changing when he announced it--a female and two men!

Was this Uncle Bill's secret? Had he known? They could learn nothing
from his face and his mouth was shut so tight it looked as if he had the
lock-jaw.

Who was she? Where was she from? Did she have any money? Was she old or
young? Delicacy forbade them to go outside and look straight at a
strange lady but a dozen questions rose in every mind. Then
simultaneously the same thought came to each. Moved by a common impulse
they turned and stared suspiciously at Uncle Bill. Could it be--was it
possible that he had been advertising for a wife? Luring some trusting
female from her home by representing himself as a mining man forced to
reside in this mountain solitude near his valuable properties? Ore City
knew of cases like it; and he was just about the age to begin writing to
matrimonial bureaus.

Speculation ended abruptly. A sharp intake of breath--a startled gasp
ran through the tense group as a pair of nimble, yellow legs flashed
from beneath the robes and the citizens of Ore City saw the smiling face
of Wilbur Dill! They turned to each other for confirmation lest their
own eyes deceive them.

Mr. Dill stamped the snow from his feet, flung open the door and beamed
around impartially.

"Well, boys--" he threw off his opulent, fur-lined coat--"it's good to
be back."

For the space of a second Ore City stood uncertainly. Then Pa Snow
disentangled his feet from the quilt and stepped forth briskly.

"Welcome home!" said the fire-eater cordially.

Dill's return could have but one meaning. He had returned with a "Live
One" to take up the options. Hope smouldering to the point of extinction
sprang to life and burned like a fire in a cane-brake. Imaginations were
loosed on the instant. Once more Ore City began to think in six figures.

Yankee Sam, who had called upon his friends and High Heaven to "watch
his smoke," was the next to wring Dill's hand, and Lannigan followed,
while the Judge forgot the priceless year of which he had been robbed
and elbowed Porcupine Jim aside to greet him. Only Uncle Bill stood
aloof turning his jack-knife over and over nonchalantly in the pocket of
his Levi Strauss's.

Ore City scowled. Couldn't he be diplomatic for once--the stubborn old
burro'--and act glad even if he wasn't? Why didn't he at least step up
like a man and say howdy to the woman he had lured from a good home?
Where was he raised, anyhow?--drug up in the brush, most like, in
Missoury.

Dill looked about inquiringly.

"Ah-h! Mr. Griswold." He strode across the floor. "How are you?"

Ore City's hand flew to its heart, figuratively speaking, and clutched
it. No man ever called another "Mister" in that tone unless he had
something he wanted. And no man ever answered "tolable" with Uncle
Bill's serenity unless he knew he had something the other fellow
wanted.

Had he really got hold of something on his prospecting trip this summer?
Had he sold? Was he selling? Did this account for Dill's presence and
not the options? The chill at their hearts shot to their feet.

Mr. Dill tapped his pocket and lowered his voice--a futile precaution,
for at the moment Ore City could have heard a "thousand legger" walk
across the floor. "I've got the papers here," he said, "all ready to be
signed up if every thing's as represented."

Ore City went limp but not too limp to strain their ears for Uncle
Bill's reply.

"Yes," he drawled, "you want to take particular care that I ain't saltin'
you. Give plenty of time to your examination. They's no great sweat; I
wouldn't sign my name to an application for a fish license that you
brought me until I'd had a good lawyer look it over first. As I promised
you when you wrote me to open up that ledge, I'll give you the first
shot at it, but don't try any funny business. I know now what I got,
and I don't need you to help me handle it. I've never made it no secret,
Wilbur, that I wouldn't trust you with a red-hot stove."

"I don't see why you should talk to me like this," Dill declared in an
injured tone. "You can't point to a single thing I've done."

"I ain't got fingers enough," Uncle Bill said dryly, "and my toes is
under cover. It's prob'ly slipped your mind that I was down in south'rn
Oregon when you left between two suns; but tain't that"--his old eyes
gleamed--"it's what you done last winter--goin' down there deliberate to
jump Bruce Burt's claim."

"Ss-sh!" Mr. Dill hissed, not in resentment but in alarm as he glanced
over his shoulder. "That's Burt's father." From the corner of his
mouth--"I think he's got money."

Money! The word acted like a strychnia tablet upon Ore City's retarded
circulation. Money! Warmth returned to its extremities. It looked at the
object of these hopeful suspicions as though its many heads swung on a
single neck. He was sitting by the stove in a suit of clothes that must
have cost as much as fifteen dollars and he appeared as oblivious to
their concentrated gaze as though he were alone in the middle of his
ranch.

The strange female was still unaccounted for. Ore City had the tense,
over-strained feeling of a spectator trying to watch all the acts in a
triple-ringed circus. When she removed her outer wraps it was seen that
she was not only young but, in Ore City's eyes, overpoweringly
good-looking. Was she married? Every question paled beside this one.
Surely--they looked at Uncle Bill contemptuously--even if he had
struck something she would not marry that old codger.

When she walked to the stove to warm her hands if they had followed
their impulses they would have jumped and run. The bravest among them
dared not raise his eyes two inches above the bottom part of the
stove-door though in each mind there was a wild groping for some light
and airy nothing to show how much he felt at ease. Something which
should be appropriate and respectful, yet witty.

And of course it must be Porcupine Jim who finally spoke.

"That's a hard stage ride, ma'am," he said deferentially. "Them jolts is
enough to tear the linin' out of a lady. They does me up and I'm quite
hearty."

Ore City blushed to the roots of its hair and there was murder in the
eyes that turned on Jim. Didn't he know nothin'--that Swede?

They felt somewhat relieved when she laughed.

"It is rather bumpy but I enjoyed it. The mountains are wonderful, and
the air, and everybody is so kind; it's a new world to me and I love it
all!"

Ore City fairly purred. Was she married? There was a general
movement--a surreptitious smoothing of back hair--an apologetic fumbling
at the spot sacred to neckties. The judge buttoned up the two remaining
buttons of his waistcoat. Lannigan concealed his hands.

The shadow of a grin flitted across John Burt's face, for he sometimes
saw and heard more than was generally believed.

"If you was aimin' to stay any length of time, ma'am," Yankee Sam fished
innocently, "we kin git up a picnic and show you somethin' of the
country when the snow goes off. About three days' ride from here I know
a real nice view."

Helen thanked him adequately and explained that she was not sure how
long she would remain. "I should like to stay, though," she added, "long
enough to see the boom."

Ore City sat up as if she had said, "bomb."

"By the way, I wonder, if Mr. Griswold is here?"

It was Uncle Bill then! He'd ought to be lynched. It was sickening the
luck some people had.

Uncle Bill came forward wonderingly.

"Here I be."

Helen put out a friendly hand:

"You don't know me, of course, but I've heard a great deal about you."

"I'm most afraid to ask what it is, ma'am, for lyin' and stealin' is the
only crimes I denies."

"I'll tell you when I know you better," Helen laughed, "because I hope
we're going to be good friends."

He looked keenly into her face. "I wouldn't never look for any trouble
between you and me, ma'am. Shake." He added with a smile: "I ain't got
so many friends that I kin afford to turn one down."

"You'll have enough of them shortly," Helen smiled. "I know the world
sufficiently well to be sure of that. I hope I'm the first to
congratulate you on your good fortune. Mr. Dill has told me something of
your luck. He says you're going to be the saviour of the camp."

"I been crucified a-plenty," Uncle Bill replied, with a significant look
at Ore City sitting with its mouth agape, "but," modestly, "I wouldn't
hardly like to go as far as to call myself that."





Next: Annie's Boy

Previous: Failure



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 422