Johnson's Old Woman

: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other Stories

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
r /> 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

thar tonight."

"Why not?"

"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."

"Who's Johnson?"

"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

phrase--"his WIFE."

"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?"

"I do."

"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,"

I said.


"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

the wind.

"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 dursn't."

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.


"Miss Karline."

"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."

"I reckon."

"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

like it."

"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

no fear."

"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

only nodded.

"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."

"Educating 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.

"Not much."

"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

the cabin.

"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."

"Anything else?"

"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.