: Selected Stories
We all remembered very distinctly Bulger's advent in Rattlesnake Camp.
It was during the rainy season--a season singularly inducive to settled
reflective impressions as we sat and smoked around the stove in Mosby's
grocery. Like older and more civilized communities, we had our periodic
waves of sentiment and opinion, with the exception that they were more
evanescent with us, and as we had just passed through a fortnight of
dissipation and extravagance, owing to a visit from some gamblers and
speculators, we were now undergoing a severe moral revulsion, partly
induced by reduced finances and partly by the arrival of two families
with grownup daughters on the hill. It was raining, with occasional warm
breaths, through the open window, of the southwest trades, redolent of
the saturated spices of the woods and springing grasses, which perhaps
were slightly inconsistent with the hot stove around which we had
congregated. But the stove was only an excuse for our listless,
gregarious gathering; warmth and idleness went well together, and it was
currently accepted that we had caught from the particular reptile which
gave its name to our camp much of its pathetic, lifelong search for
warmth, and its habit of indolently basking in it.
A few of us still went through the affectation of attempting to dry our
damp clothes by the stove, and sizzling our wet boots against it; but
as the same individuals calmly permitted the rain to drive in upon them
through the open window without moving, and seemed to take infinite
delight in the amount of steam they generated, even that pretense
dropped. Crotalus himself, with his tail in a muddy ditch, and the sun
striking cold fire from his slit eyes as he basked his head on a warm
stone beside it, could not have typified us better.
Percy Briggs took his pipe from his mouth at last and said, with
"Well, gentlemen, if we can't get the wagon road over here, and if
we're going to be left out by the stagecoach company, we can at least
straighten up the camp, and not have it look like a cross between a
tenement alley and a broken-down circus. I declare, I was just sick
when these two Baker girls started to make a short cut through the camp.
Darned if they didn't turn round and take to the woods and the rattlers
again afore they got halfway. And that benighted idiot, Tom Rollins,
standin' there in the ditch, spattered all over with slumgullion 'til he
looked like a spotted tarrypin, wavin' his fins and sashaying backwards
and forrards and sayin', 'This way, ladies; this way!'"
"I didn't," returned Tom Rollins, quite casually, without looking up
from his steaming boots; "I didn't start in night afore last to dance
'The Green Corn Dance' outer 'Hiawatha,' with feathers in my hair and
a red blanket on my shoulders, round that family's new potato patch,
in order that it might 'increase and multiply.' I didn't sing 'Sabbath
Morning Bells' with an anvil accompaniment until twelve o'clock at
night over at the Crossing, so that they might dream of their Happy
Childhood's Home. It seems to me that it wasn't me did it. I might be
mistaken--it was late--but I have the impression that it wasn't me."
From the silence that followed, this would seem to have been clearly
a recent performance of the previous speaker, who, however, responded
"An evenin' o' simple, childish gaiety don't count. We've got to start
in again FAIR. What we want here is to clear up and encourage decent
immigration, and get rid o' gamblers and blatherskites that are makin'
this yer camp their happy hunting-ground. We don't want any more
permiskus shootin'. We don't want any more paintin' the town red. We
don't want any more swaggerin' galoots ridin' up to this grocery and
emptyin' their six-shooters in the air afore they 'light. We want to put
a stop to it peacefully and without a row--and we kin. We ain't got no
bullies of our own to fight back, and they know it, so they know they
won't get no credit bullyin' us; they'll leave, if we're only firm. It's
all along of our cussed fool good-nature; they see it amuses us, and
they'll keep it up as long as the whisky's free. What we want to do is,
when the next man comes waltzin' along--"
A distant clatter from the rocky hillside here mingled with the puff of
damp air through the window.
"Looks as ef we might hev a show even now," said Tom Rollins, removing
his feet from the stove as we all instinctively faced toward the window.
"I reckon you're in with us in this, Mosby?" said Briggs, turning toward
the proprietor of the grocery, who had been leaning listlessly against
the wall behind his bar.
"Arter the man's had a fair show," said Mosby, cautiously. He deprecated
the prevailing condition of things, but it was still an open question
whether the families would prove as valuable customers as his present
clients. "Everything in moderation, gentlemen."
The sound of galloping hoofs came nearer, now swishing in the soft mud
of the highway, until the unseen rider pulled up before the door. There
was no shouting, however, nor did he announce himself with the usual
salvo of firearms. But when, after a singularly heavy tread and the
jingle of spurs on the platform, the door flew open to the newcomer,
he seemed a realization of our worst expectations. Tall, broad, and
muscular, he carried in one hand a shotgun, while from his hip dangled
a heavy navy revolver. His long hair, unkempt but oiled, swept a greasy
circle around his shoulders; his enormous mustache, dripping with wet,
completely concealed his mouth. His costume of fringed buckskin was wild
and outre even for our frontier camp. But what was more confirmative
of our suspicions was that he was evidently in the habit of making an
impression, and after a distinct pause at the doorway, with only a side
glance at us, he strode toward the bar.
"As there don't seem to be no hotel hereabouts, I reckon I kin put up
my mustang here and have a shakedown somewhere behind that counter," he
said. His voice seemed to have added to its natural depth the hoarseness
of frequent overstraining.
"Ye ain't got no bunk to spare, you boys, hev ye?" asked Mosby,
evasively, glancing at Percy Briggs without looking at the stranger.
We all looked at Briggs also; it was HIS affair after all--HE had
originated this opposition. To our surprise he said nothing.
The stranger leaned heavily on the counter.
"I was speaking to YOU," he said, with his eyes on Mosby, and slightly
accenting the pronoun with a tap of his revolver butt on the bar. "Ye
don't seem to catch on."
Mosby smiled feebly, and again cast an imploring glance at Briggs. To
our greater astonishment, Briggs said, quietly: "Why don't you answer
the stranger, Mosby?"
"Yes, yes," said Mosby, suavely, to the newcomer, while an angry flush
crossed his check as he recognized the position in which Briggs had
placed him. "Of course, you're welcome to what doings I hev here, but I
reckoned these gentlemen over there," with a vicious glance at Briggs,
"might fix ye up suthin' better; they're so pow'ful kind to your sort."
The stranger threw down a gold piece on the counter and said: "Fork out
your whisky, then," waited until his glass was filled, took it in his
hand, and then, drawing an empty chair to the stove, sat down beside
Briggs. "Seein' as you're that kind," he said, placing his heavy hand
on Briggs's knee, "mebbe ye kin tell me ef thar's a shanty or a cabin at
Rattlesnake that I kin get for a couple o' weeks. I saw an empty one at
the head o' the hill. You see, gennelmen," he added confidentially as
he swept the drops of whisky from his long mustache with his fingers and
glanced around our group, "I've got some business over at Bigwood," our
nearest town, "but ez a place to stay AT it ain't my style."
"What's the matter with Bigwood?" said Briggs, abruptly.
"It's too howlin', too festive, too rough; thar's too much yellin'
and shootin' goin' day and night. Thar's too many card sharps and gay
gamboliers cavortin' about the town to please me. Too much permiskus
soakin' at the bar and free jimjams. What I want is a quiet place what
a man kin give his mind and elbow a rest from betwixt grippin' his
shootin' irons and crookin' in his whisky. A sort o' slow, quiet, easy
place LIKE THIS."
We all stared at him, Percy Briggs as fixedly as any. But there was not
the slightest trace of irony, sarcasm, or peculiar significance in his
manner. He went on slowly:
"When I struck this yer camp a minit ago; when I seed that thar ditch
meanderin' peaceful like through the street, without a hotel or free
saloon or express office on either side; with the smoke just a curlin'
over the chimbley of that log shanty, and the bresh just set fire to and
a smolderin' in that potato patch with a kind o' old-time stingin' in
your eyes and nose, and a few women's duds just a flutterin' on a line
by the fence, I says to myself: 'Bulger--this is peace! This is wot
you're lookin' for, Bulger--this is wot you're wantin'--this is wot
"You say you've business over at Bigwood. What business?" said Briggs.
"It's a peculiar business, young fellow," returned the stranger,
gravely. "Thar's different men ez has different opinions about it. Some
allows it's an easy business, some allows it's a rough business; some
says it's a sad business, others says it's gay and festive. Some wonders
ez how I've got into it, and others wonder how I'll ever get out of it.
It's a payin' business--it's a peaceful sort o' business when left to
itself. It's a peculiar business--a business that sort o' b'longs to
me, though I ain't got no patent from Washington for it. It's MY OWN
business." He paused, rose, and saying, "Let's meander over and take a
look at that empty cabin, and ef she suits me, why, I'll plank down
a slug for her on the spot, and move in tomorrow," walked towards the
door. "I'll pick up suthin' in the way o' boxes and blankets from the
grocery," he added, looking at Mosby, "and ef thar's a corner whar I kin
stand my gun and a nail to hang up my revolver--why, I'm all thar!"
By this time we were no longer astonished when Briggs rose also, and not
only accompanied the sinister-looking stranger to the empty cabin, but
assisted him in negotiating with its owner for a fortnight's occupancy.
Nevertheless, we eagerly assailed Briggs on his return for some
explanation of this singular change in his attitude toward the stranger.
He coolly reminded us, however, that while his intention of excluding
ruffianly adventurers from the camp remained the same, he had no right
to go back on the stranger's sentiments, which were evidently in accord
with our own, and although Mr. Bulger's appearance was inconsistent with
them, that was only an additional reason why we should substitute a
mild firmness for that violence which we all deprecated, but which might
attend his abrupt dismissal. We were all satisfied except Mosby, who had
not yet recovered from Briggs's change of front, which he was pleased
to call "craw-fishing." "Seemed to me his account of his business was
extraordinary satisfactory! Sorter filled the bill all round--no mistake
thar," he suggested, with a malicious irony. "I like a man that's
"I understood him very well," said Briggs, quietly.
"In course you did. Only when you've settled in your MIND whether he
was describing horse-stealing or tract-distributing, mebbe you'll let ME
It would seem, however, that Briggs did not interrogate the stranger
again regarding it, nor did we, who were quite content to leave matters
in Briggs's hands. Enough that Mr. Bulger moved into the empty cabin the
next day, and, with the aid of a few old boxes from the grocery, which
he quickly extemporized into tables and chairs, and the purchase of some
necessary cooking utensils, soon made himself at home. The rest of the
camp, now thoroughly aroused, made a point of leaving their work in
the ditches, whenever they could, to stroll carelessly around Bulger's
tenement in the vague hope of satisfying a curiosity that had become
tormenting. But they could not find that he was doing anything of a
suspicious character--except, perhaps, from the fact that it was
not OUTWARDLY suspicious, which I grieve to say did not lull them to
security. He seemed to be either fixing up his cabin or smoking in his
doorway. On the second day he checked this itinerant curiosity by taking
the initiative himself, and quietly walking from claim to claim and from
cabin to cabin with a pacific but by no means a satisfying interest. The
shadow of his tall figure carrying his inseparable gun, which had not
yet apparently "stood in the corner," falling upon an excavated bank
beside the delving miners, gave them a sense of uneasiness they could
not explain; a few characteristic yells of boisterous hilarity from
their noontide gathering under a cottonwood somehow ceased when Mr.
Bulger was seen gravely approaching, and his casual stopping before
a poker party in the gulch actually caused one of the most reckless
gamblers to weakly recede from "a bluff" and allow his adversary to
sweep the board. After this it was felt that matters were becoming
serious. There was no subsequent patrolling of the camp before the
stranger's cabin. Their curiosity was singularly abated. A general
feeling of repulsion, kept within bounds partly by the absence of any
overt act from Bulger, and partly by an inconsistent over-consciousness
of his shotgun, took its place. But an unexpected occurrence revived it.
One evening, as the usual social circle were drawn around Mosby's stove,
the lazy silence was broken by the familiar sounds of pistol shots and a
series of more familiar shrieks and yells from the rocky hill road. The
circle quickly recognized the voices of their old friends the roisterers
and gamblers from Sawyer's Dam; they as quickly recognized the returning
shouts here and there from a few companions who were welcoming them. I
grieve to say that in spite of their previous attitude of reformation a
smile of gratified expectancy lit up the faces of the younger members,
and even the older ones glanced dubiously at Briggs. Mosby made no
attempt to conceal a sigh of relief as he carefully laid out an extra
supply of glasses in his bar. Suddenly the oncoming yells ceased, the
wild gallop of hoofs slackened into a trot, and finally halted, and even
the responsive shouts of the camp stopped also. We all looked vacantly
at each other; Mosby leaped over his counter and went to the door;
Briggs followed with the rest of us. The night was dark, and it was a
few minutes before we could distinguish a straggling, vague, but silent
procession moving through the moist, heavy air on the hill. But, to our
surprise, it was moving away from us--absolutely LEAVING the camp! We
were still staring in expectancy when out of the darkness slowly emerged
a figure which we recognized at once as Captain Jim, one of the most
reckless members of our camp. Pushing us back into the grocery he
entered without a word, closed the door behind him, and threw himself
vacantly into a chair. We at once pressed around him. He looked up at us
dazedly, drew a long breath, and said slowly:
"It's no use, gentlemen! Suthin's GOT to be done with that Bulger; and
"What's the matter?" we asked eagerly.
"Matter!" he repeated, passing his hand across his forehead. "Matter!
Look yere! Ye all of you heard them boys from Sawyer's Dam coming over
the hill? Ye heard their music--mebbe ye heard US join in the chorus?
Well, on they came waltzing down the hill, like old times, and we
waitin' for 'em. Then, jest as they passed the old cabin, who do you
think they ran right into--shooting iron, long hair and mustache, and
all that--standing there plump in the road? why, Bulger!"
"Well!--Whatever it was--don't ask ME--but, dern my skin, ef after a
word or two from HIM--them boys just stopped yellin', turned round like
lambs, and rode away, peaceful-like, along with him. We ran after them
a spell, still yellin', when that thar Bulger faced around, said to us
that he'd 'come down here for quiet,' and ef he couldn't hev it he'd
have to leave with those gentlemen WHO WANTED IT too! And I'm gosh
darned ef those GENTLEMEN--you know 'em all--Patsey Carpenter, Snapshot
Harry, and the others--ever said a darned word, but kinder nodded 'So
long' and went away!"
Our astonishment and mystification were complete; and I regret to say,
the indignation of Captain Jim and Mosby equally so. "If we're going to
be bossed by the first newcomer," said the former, gloomily, "I reckon
we might as well take our chances with the Sawyer's Dam boys, whom we
"Ef we are going to hev the legitimate trade of Rattlesnake interfered
with by the cranks of some hidin' horse thief or retired road agent,"
said Mosby, "we might as well invite the hull of Joaquin Murietta's
gang here at once! But I suppose this is part o' Bulger's particular
'business,'" he added, with a withering glance at Briggs.
"I understand it all," said Briggs, quietly. "You know I told you
that bullies couldn't live in the same camp together. That's human
nature--and that's how plain men like you and me manage to scud along
without getting plugged. You see, Bulger wasn't going to hev any of his
own kind jumpin' his claim here. And I reckon he was pow'ful enough to
back down Sawyer's Dam. Anyhow, the bluff told--and here we are in peace
"Until he lets us know what is his little game," sneered Mosby.
Nevertheless, such is the force of mysterious power that although it was
exercised against what we firmly believed was the independence of the
camp, it extorted a certain respect from us. A few thought it was not a
bad thing to have a professional bully, and even took care to relate the
discomfiture of the wicked youth of Sawyer's Dam for the benefit of
a certain adjacent and powerful camp who had looked down upon us.
He himself, returning the same evening from his self-imposed escort,
vouchsafed no other reason than the one he had already given.
Preposterous as it seemed, we were obliged to accept it, and the still
more preposterous inference that he had sought Rattlesnake Camp solely
for the purpose of acquiring and securing its peace and quietness.
Certainly he had no other occupation; the little work he did upon the
tailings of the abandoned claim which went with his little cabin was
scarcely a pretense. He rode over on certain days to Bigwood on account
of his business, but no one had ever seen him there, nor could the
description of his manner and appearance evoke any information from the
Bigwoodians. It remained a mystery.
It had also been feared that the advent of Bulger would intensify that
fear and dislike of riotous Rattlesnake which the two families
had shown, and which was the origin of Briggs's futile attempt at
reformation. But it was discovered that since his arrival the young
girls had shown less timidity in entering the camp, and had even
exchanged some polite conversation and good-humoured badinage with its
younger and more impressible members. Perhaps this tended to make these
youths more observant, for a few days later, when the vexed question
of Bulger's business was again under discussion, one of them remarked,
"I reckon there ain't no doubt WHAT he's here for!"
The youthful prophet was instantly sat upon after the fashion of
all elderly critics since Job's. Nevertheless, after a pause he was
permitted to explain.
"Only this morning, when Lance Forester and me were chirping with them
gals out on the hill, who should we see hanging around in the bush but
that cussed Bulger! We allowed at first that it might be only a new
style of his interferin', so we took no notice, except to pass a few
remarks about listeners and that sort o' thing, and perhaps to bedevil
the girls a little more than we'd hev done if we'd been alone. Well,
they laughed, and we laughed--and that was the end of it. But this
afternoon, as Lance and me were meandering down by their cabin, we
sorter turned into the woods to wait till they'd come out. Then all of
a suddent Lance stopped as rigid as a pointer that's flushed somethin',
and says, 'B'gosh!' And thar, under a big redwood, sat that slimy
hypocrite Bulger, twisting his long mustaches and smiling like clockwork
alongside o' little Meely Baker--you know her, the pootiest of the
two sisters--and she smilin' back on him. Think of it! that unknown,
unwashed, longhaired tramp and bully, who must be forty if a day, and
that innocent gal of sixteen. It was simply disgustin'!"
I need not say that the older cynics and critics already alluded to at
once improved the occasion. 'What more could be expected? Women,
the world over, were noted for this sort of thing! This long-haired,
swaggering bully, with his air of mystery, had captivated them, as he
always had done since the days of Homer. Simple merit, which sat lowly
in barrooms, and conceived projects for the public good around the
humble, unostentatious stove, was nowhere! Youth could not too soon
learn this bitter lesson. And in this case youth too, perhaps, was
right in its conjectures, for this WAS, no doubt, the little game of the
perfidious Bulger. We recalled the fact that his unhallowed appearance
in camp was almost coincident with the arrival of the two families.
We glanced at Briggs; to our amazement, for the first time he looked
seriously concerned. But Mosby in the meantime leaned his elbows lazily
over the counter and, in a slow voice, added fuel to the flame.
"I wouldn't hev spoken of it before," he said, with a sidelong glance
at Briggs, "for it might be all in the line o' Bulger's 'business,'
but suthin' happened the other night that, for a minit, got me! I was
passin' the Bakers' shanty, and I heard one of them gals a singing a
camp-meeting hymn. I don't calkilate to run agin you young fellers in
any sparkin' or canoodlin' that's goin' on, but her voice sounded so
pow'ful soothin' and pretty thet I jest stood there and listened. Then
the old woman--old Mother Baker--SHE joined in, and I listened too. And
then--dern my skin!--but a man's voice joined in--jest belching outer
that cabin!--and I sorter lifted myself up and kem away.
"That voice, gentlemen," said Mosby, lingering artistically as he took
up a glass and professionally eyed it before wiping it with his towel,
"that voice, cumf'bly fixed thar in thet cabin among them wimen folks,
Briggs got up, with his eyes looking the darker for his flushed face.
"Gentlemen," he said huskily, "thar's only one thing to be done. A lot
of us have got to ride over to Sawyer's Dam tomorrow morning and pick up
as many square men as we can muster; there's a big camp meeting goin'
on there, and there won't be no difficulty in that. When we've got a big
enough crowd to show we mean business, we must march back here and ride
Bulger out of this camp! I don't hanker arter Vigilance Committees, as
a rule--it's a rough remedy--it's like drinkin' a quart o' whisky agin
rattlesnake poison but it's got to be done! We don't mind being sold
ourselves but when it comes to our standin' by and seein' the only
innocent people in Rattlesnake given away--we kick! Bulger's got to be
fired outer this camp! And he will be!"
But he was not.
For when, the next morning, a determined and thoughtful procession of
the best and most characteristic citizens of Rattlesnake Camp filed into
Sawyer's Dam, they found that their mysterious friends had disappeared,
although they met with a fraternal but subdued welcome from the general
camp. But any approach to the subject of their visit, however,
was received with a chilling dissapproval. Did they not know that
lawlessness of any kind, even under the rude mantle of frontier justice,
was to be deprecated and scouted when a "means of salvation, a power of
regeneration," such as was now sweeping over Sawyer's Dam, was at hand?
Could they not induce this man who was to be violently deported to
accompany them willingly to Sawyer's Dam and subject himself to the
powerful influence of the "revival" then in full swing?
The Rattlesnake boys laughed bitterly, and described the man of whom
they talked so lightly; but in vain. "It's no use, gentlemen," said
a more worldly bystander, in a lower voice, "the camp meetin's got a
strong grip here, and betwixt you and me there ain't no wonder. For the
man that runs it--the big preacher--has got new ways and methods that
fetches the boys every time. He don't preach no cut-and-dried gospel; he
don't carry around no slop-shop robes and clap 'em on you whether they
fit or not; but he samples and measures the camp afore he wades into
it. He scouts and examines; he ain't no mere Sunday preacher with a
comfortable house and once-a-week church, but he gives up his days and
nights to it, and makes his family work with him, and even sends 'em
forward to explore the field. And he ain't no white-choker shadbelly
either, but fits himself, like his gospel, to the men he works among. Ye
ought to hear him afore you go. His tent is just out your way. I'll go
Too dejected to offer any opposition, and perhaps a little curious to
see this man who had unwittingly frustrated their design of lynching
Bulger, they halted at the outer fringe of worshipers who packed the
huge inclosure. They had not time to indulge their cynicisms over this
swaying mass of emotional, half-thinking, and almost irresponsible
beings, nor to detect any similarity between THEIR extreme methods and
the scheme of redemption they themselves were seeking, for in a
few moments, apparently lifted to his feet on a wave of religious
exultation, the famous preacher arose. The men of Rattlesnake gasped for
It was Bulger!
But Briggs quickly recovered himself. "By what name," said he, turning
passionately towards his guide, "does this man--this impostor--call
"Baker?" echoed the Rattlesnake contingent.
"Baker?" repeated Lance Forester, with a ghastly smile.
"Yes," returned their guide. "You oughter know it too! For he sent his
wife and daughters over, after his usual style, to sample your camp, a
week ago! Come, now, what are you givin' us?"