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They of the High Trails By Hamlin Garland Characters: 11188

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"There's gold in the Sierra Blanca country-everybody admits it," Sherman F. Bidwell was saying as the Widow Delaney, who kept the Palace Home Cooking Restaurant in the town of Delaney (named after her husband, old Dan Delaney), came into the dining-room. Mrs. Delaney paused with a plate of steaming potatoes, and her face was a mask of scorn as she addressed the group, but her words were aimed especially at Bidwell, who had just come in from the lower country to resume his prospecting up the gulch.

"It's aisy sayin' gould is in thim hills, but when ye find it rainbows will be fishin'-rods." As she passed the potatoes over Bidwell's head she went on: "Didn't Dan Delaney break his blessed neck a-climbin' the high places up the creek-to no purpis includin' that same accident? You min may talk and talk, but talk don't pay for petaties and bacon, mind that. For eight years I've been here and I'm worse off to-day than iver before-an' the town, phwat is it? Two saloons and a boardin'-house-and not a ton of ore dug-much less shipped out. Y'r large words dig no dirt, I'm thinkin', Sherm Bidwell."

Bidwell was a mild-spoken man who walked a little sidewise, with eyes always on the ground as though ceaselessly searching for pieces of float. He replied to his landlady with some spirit: "I've chashayed around these mountains ever since I got back from Californey in fifty-four and I know good rocks. I can't just lay my pick on the vein, but I'm due to find it soon, for I'm a-gettin' old. Why, consider the float, it's everywhere-and you know there's colors in every sand-bar? There's got to be a ledge somewhere close by."

The widow snorted. "Hah! Yiss, flo-at! Me windysills is burthened with dirty float-but where's the gould?"

"I'll find it, Mrs. Delaney-but you must be patient," he mildly replied.

"Pashint! Me, pashint! Sure Job was a complainin' mill-wheel beside me, Sherm Bidwell. Me boarders have shrunk to five and you're one o' the five-and here you are after another grub-stake to go picnicking into the mountains wid. I know your smooth tongue-sure I do-but ye're up against me determination this toime, me prince. Ye don't get a pound o' meat nor a measure o' flour from Maggie Delaney-"

Bidwell sat with an air of resigned Christian fortitude while the widow delivered herself. To tell the truth, he had listened to these precise words before-and resented them only because spoken publicly.

The other boarders finished their supper in silence and went out, but Bidwell lingered to wheedle the mistress while she ate her own fill at the splotched and littered table. The kerosene-lamp stood close to her plate and brought out the glow of her cheek and deepened the blue of her eyes into violet. She was still on the right side of forty and well cared for.

Bidwell shot a shy glance at her. "I like to stir you up, Maggie darlin'; it makes you purty as a girl."

She caught up a loaf of bread and heaved it at him. He caught it deftly and inquired, guilelessly: "Is this the first of my grub-stake, lassie?"

"It is not! 'Tis the last crumb ye'll have of me. Out wid ye! Grub-stake indade! You go out this night, me bucko!"

Bidwell rose in pretended fright and shuffled to the door. "I don't need much-a couple o' sacks o' flour-"

She lifted an arm. "You tramp!"

He slammed the door just in time to prevent a cup from flying straight into his smiling eyes. After a moment of silent laughter, and with a wink at the men in the "office," he reopened the door and said:

"Ye're a warm-hearted, handsome girl, Maggie. Two strips o' bacon-"

A muffled cry and a crash caused him to again slam the door and withdraw.

Coming back to the middle of the room, he took out his pipe and began to fill it. One of the younger men said:

"You'll get that grub-stake over the eye; the widdy is dangerous to-night."

Sherm seemed not much concerned. Having fired his pipe, he took a piece of rock from his pocket. "What do you think o' this?" he inquired, casually.

The other examined it eagerly, and broke out: "Jee-cripes! Why, say! that's jest rotten with gold. Where'd you find it?"

"Out in the hills," was the placid reply; "a new vein-high up."

The third man took the rock and said: "That vein has got to be low down-that can't come from high up. We're on the wrong trail. Think o' Cripple Creek-mine's right under the grass on the hills. Yer can't fool me."

"But we know the veins are high-we've seen 'em," argued the other men.

"Yes-but they're different veins. This rock comes from lower down."

"What do you say to that, Sherm?"

"One guess is as good as another," he replied, and moved away with his piece of ore.

"The old man's mighty fly this evenin'. I wonder if he really has trailed that float to a standstill. I'd sooner think he's stringin' us."

Bidwell went out on the edge of the ravine, and for a long time sat on a rock, listening to the roar of the swift stream and looking up at the peaks which were still covered with heavy yellow snow, stained with the impalpable dust which the winter winds had rasped from the exposed ledges of rock. It was chill in the ca?on, and the old man shivered with cold as well as with a sense of discouragement. For twenty years he had regularly gone down into the valleys in winter to earn money with which to prospect in summer-all to no purpose. For years Margaret Delaney had been his very present help in time of trouble, and now she had broken with him, and under his mask of smiling incredulity he carried a profoundly disturbed conscience. His benefact

ress was in deadly earnest-she meant every word she said-that he felt, and unless she relented he was lost, for he had returned from the valley this time without a dollar to call his own. He had a big, strong mule and some blankets and a saddle-nothing further.

The wind grew stronger and keener, roaring down the ca?on with the breath of the upper snows, and the man's blood cried out for a fire (June stands close to winter in the high ranges of the Crestones), and at last he rose stiffly and returned to the little sitting-room, where he found the widow in the midst of an argument with her boarders to prove that they were all fools together for hangin' to the side of a mountain that had no more gould in it than a flatiron or a loomp o' coal-sure thing!

"What you goin' to do about our assays?" asked young Johnson.

"Assays, is it? Annybody can have assays-that will pay the price. Ye're all lazy dogs in the manger, that's phwat ye air. Ye assay and want somebody else to pay ye fer the privilege of workin'. Why don't ye work yer-silves-ye loots? Sit around here expectin' some wan ilse to shovel gould into yer hat. Ye'll pay me yer board-moind that," she ended, making a personal application of her theories; "ivery wan o' ye."

If any lingering resolution remained in Bidwell's heart it melted away as he listened to Mrs. Delaney's throaty voice and plain, blunt words. Opening the door timidly, he walked in and without looking at the angry woman seized upon his bundles, which lay behind the door.

The widow's voice rang out: "Where ye gawun wid thim bags?"

Bidwell straightened. "They're my bundles, I reckon. Can't a man do as he likes with his own?"

"Not whin he's owin' fer board. Put thim boondles down!"

The culprit sighed and sat down on the bundles. Even young Johnson lost his desire to laugh, for Bidwell looked pathetically old and discouraged at the moment, as he mildly asked:

"You wouldn't send a man out in the night without his blankets, would you?"

"I'd send a sneak to purgatory-if I c'u'd. Ye thought ye'd ooze out, did ye? Nice speciment you are!"

Bidwell was roused. "If I had planned to sneak I wouldn't 'a' come into the room with you a-standin' in the middle of the floor," he replied, with some firmness. "You ordered me out, didn't you? Well, I'm goin'. I can't pay you-you knew that when you told me to go-and I owe you a good deal-I admit that-but I'm going to pay it. But I must have a little time."

The other men, with a grateful sense of delicacy, got up and went out, leaving Bidwell free space to justify himself in the eyes of the angry woman.

As the door slammed behind the last man the widow walked over and gave Bidwell a cuff. "Get off thim boondles. Gaw set on a chair like a man, an' not squat there like a baboon." She pitched his bundles through an open door into a small bedroom. "Ye know where yer bed is, I hope! I do' know phwat Dan Delaney w'u'd say to me, housin' and feedin' the likes o' you, but I'll do it wan more summer-and then ye gaw flyin'. Ye hear that now!"

And she threw the door back on its hinges so sharply that a knob was broken.

Bidwell went in, closed the door gently, and took to his bed, dazed with this sudden change in the climate. "She's come round before-and surprised me," he thought, "but never so durn sudden as this. I hope she ain't sick or anything."

Next morning at breakfast Maggie was all smiles. The storm of the evening before had given place to brilliant sunshine. She ignored all winks and nudgings among her boarders, and did not scruple to point out to Bidwell the choicest biscuit on the plate, and to hand him the fattest slice of bacon, all of which he accepted without elation.

"Old Sherm must be one o' these hypnotical chaps," said Johnson as they were lighting their pipes in the sitting-room. "He's converted the widow into another helping. He's goin' to get his flour and bacon all right!"

"You bet he is, and anything else he wants. Beats me what she finds in that old side-winder, anyhow."

"Oh, Sherm isn't so worse if he had a decent outfit."

Bidwell was deeply touched by Maggie's clemency, and would have put his feelings into the best terms he was familiar with, but the widow stopped him.

"The best way to thank me is to hustle out and trail up that flo-at. If it's there, find it. If it's not there, give o'er the search, for ye are a gray man, Sherm Bidwell, and I'm not the woman I was eight years ago."

In the exaltation of the moment Bidwell rose, and his shoulders were squared as he said: "I'm a-goin', Maggie. If I find it I'll come back and marry you. If I don't-I'll lay my useless old bones in the hills."

"Ah-go 'long! Don't be a crazy fool!" she said, but her face flushed with pleasure at the sincerity of his tone. "Ye've made such promises ivery time before."

"I know I have, but I mean it now."

"Aho! so that's the way of it-ye didn't mean it before? Is that phwat ye're sayin'?"

His proud pose collapsed. "You know what I mean-only you're such a tormentin' little devil."

"Thank ye for the compliment, Mr. Bidwell."

Bidwell turned. "I'm going after old Nebuchadnezzar," he said, firmly. "I can't waste time on a chicken-headed woman-"

"Out wid ye before I break the measly head of ye!" she retorted.

An hour later, with his mule packed with food and blankets and tools, he moved off up the trail. The other men stood to watch him go, consumed with curiosity, yet withholding all question.

The widow did not so much as look from the door as her grub-staker disappeared.

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