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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Girl of the Golden West By David Belasco Characters: 20698

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

As has been said, it was a custom of the miners, whenever a storm made it impossible for them to work in the mines, to turn the dance-hall of the Polka Saloon into an Academy, the post of teacher being filled by the Girl. It happened, therefore, that early the following morning the men of Cloudy Mountain Camp assembled in the low, narrow room with its walls of boards nailed across inside upright beams-a typical miners' dance-hall of the late Forties-which they had transformed into a veritable bower, so eager were they to please their lovely teacher. Everyone was in high spirits, Rance alone refraining from taking any part whatsoever in the morning's activities; dejectedly, sullenly, he sat tilted back in an old, weather-beaten, lumber chair before the heavily-dented, sheet-iron stove in a far corner of the room, gazing abstractedly up towards the stove's rusty pipe that ran directly through the ceiling; and what with his pale, waxen countenance, his eyes red and half-closed for the want of sleep, his hair ruffled, his necktie awry, his waistcoat unfastened, his boots unpolished, and the burnt-out cigar which he held between his white, emaciated fingers, he was not the immaculate-looking Rance of old, but presented a very sad spectacle indeed.

Outside, through the windows,-over which had been hung curtains of red and yellow cotton,-could be seen the green firs on the mountain, their branches dazzling under their burden of snow crystals; and stretching out seemingly interminably until the line of earth and sky met were the great hills white with snow except in the spots where the wind had swept it away. But within the little, low dance-hall, everywhere were evidences of festivity and good cheer, the walls being literally covered with pine boughs and wreaths of berries, while here and there was an eagle's wing or an owl's head, a hawk or a vulture, a quail or a snow-bird, not to mention the big, stuffed game cock that was mounted on a piece of weather-beaten board, until it would seem as if every variety of bird native to the Sierra Mountains was represented there.

Grouped together on one side of the wall were twelve buck horns, and these served as a sort of rack for the miners to hang their hats and coats during the school session. Several mottoes, likewise upon the wall, were intended to attract the students' attention, the most conspicuous being: "Live and Learn" and "God Bless Our School." A great bear's skin formed a curtain between the dance-hall and the saloon, while upon the door-frame was a large hand rudely painted, the index-finger outstretched and pointing to the next room. It said:

"To The Bar."

It was, however, upon the teacher's desk-a whittled-up, hand-made affair which stood upon a slightly-raised platform-that the boys had outdone themselves in the matter of decoration. Garlanded both on top and around the sides with pine boughs and upon the centre of which stood a tall glass filled with red and white berries, it looked not unlike a sacrificial altar which, in a way, it certainly was. A box that was intended for a seat for the teacher was also decorated with pine branches; while several cheap, print flags adorned the primitive iron holder of the large lamp suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the room. Altogether it was a most festive-looking Academy that was destined to meet the teacher's eye on this particular morning.

For some time Nick had been standing near the window gazing in the direction of the Girl's cabin. Turning, suddenly, to Rance, the only other occupant of the room, he remarked somewhat sadly:

"I'd be willin' to lose the profits of the bar if we could git back to a week ago-before Johnson walked into this room."

At the mention of the road agent's name Rance's eyes dropped to the floor. It required no flash of inspiration to tell him that things would never be what they had been.

"Johnson," he muttered, his face ashen white and a sound in his throat that was something like a groan. "A week-a week in her cabin-nursed and kissed…" he finished shortly.

Nick had been helping himself to a drink; he wheeled swiftly round, confronting him.

"Oh, say, Rance, she-"

Rance took the words out of his mouth.

"Never kissed him! You bet she kissed him! It was all I could do to keep from telling the whole camp he was up there." His eyes blazed and his hands tightened convulsively.

"But you didn't…" Nick broke in on him quickly. "If I hadn't been let into the game by the Girl I'd a thought you were a level Sheriff lookin' for him. Rance, you're my ideal of a perfect gent."

Rance braced up in his chair.

"What did she see in that Sacramento shrimp, will you tell me?" presently he questioned, contempt showing on every line of his face.

The little barkeeper did not answer at once, but filled a glass with whisky which he handed to him.

"Well, you see, I figger it out this way, boss," at last he answered, meeting him face to face frankly, earnestly, his foot the while resting on the other's chair. "Love's like a drink that gits a hold on you an' you can't quit. It's a turn of the head or a touch of the hands, or it's a half sort of smile, an' you're doped, doped, doped with a feelin' like strong liquor runnin' through your veins, an' there ain't nothin' on earth can break it up once you've got the habit. That's love."

Touched by the little barkeeper's droll philosophy, the Sheriff dropped his head on his breast, while the hand which held the glass unconsciously fell to his side.

"I've got it," went on Nick with enthusiasm; "you've got it; the boy's got it; the Girl's got it; the whole damn world's got it. It's all the heaven there is on earth, an' in nine cases out of ten it's hell."

Rance opened his lips to speak, but quickly drew them in tightly. The next instant Nick touched him lightly on the shoulder and pointed to the empty glass in his hand, the contents having run out upon the floor.

With a mere glance at the empty glass Rance returned it to Nick. Presently, then, he took out his watch and fell to studying its face intently, and only when he had finally returned the watch to his pocket did he voice what was in his mind.

"Well, Nick," he said, "her road agent's got off by now."

Whereupon, the barkeeper, too, took out his watch and consulted it.

"Left Cloudy at three o'clock this morning-five hours off…" was his brief comment.

Once more a silence fell upon the room. Then, all of a sudden, the sound of horses' hoofs and the murmur of rough voices came to their ears, and almost instantly a voice was heard to cry out:


"Hello!" came from an answering voice.

"Why, it's The Pony Express got through at last!" announced Nick, incredulously; and so saying he took up the whisky bottle and glasses which lay on the teacher's desk and dashed into the saloon. He had barely left, however, than The Pony Express, muffled up to his ears and looking fit to brave the fiercest of storms, entered the room, hailing the boys with:

"Hello, boys! Letter for Ashby!"

The Deputy-who with Trinidad and Sonora had come running in, the latter carrying a boot-leg and a stove-polishing brush in his hand-took the letter and started in search of the Wells Fargo Agent who, Rance had told them, had gone to sleep.

"Well, boys, how d'you like bein' snowed in for a week?" asked The Pony Express, warming himself by the stove; and then without waiting for an answer he rattled on: "There's a rumour at The Ridge that you all let Ramerrez freeze an' missed a hangin'. Say, they're roarin' at you, chaps!" And with a "So long, boys!" he strode out of the room.

Sonora started in hot pursuit after him, hollering out:

"Wait! Wait!" And when The Pony Express halted, he added: "Says you to the boys at The Ridge as you ride by, the Academy at Cloudy is open to-day full blast!"

"Whoopee! Whoop!" chimed in Trinidad and began to execute a pas seul in the middle of the room, dropping into a chair just in time to avoid running into Nick, who hurriedly returned with two glasses and a bottle.

"Help yourselves, boys," he said; which they did to the accompaniment of a succession of joyous yells from Trinidad.

Meantime Rance had relighted the burnt-out cigar which he had been holding for some time between his fingers, and was sending curls of smoke upwards towards the ceiling.

"Academy," he sneered.

Sonora surveyed him critically for some moments; at length he said:

"Say, Rance, what's the matter with you? We began this Academy game together-we boys an' the Girl-an' there's a damn pretty piece of sentiment back of it. She's taught some of us our letters, and-"

"He's a wearin' mournin' because Johnson didn't fall alive into his hands," interposed Trinidad with a laugh.

"Is that it?" queried Sonora.

"Ain't it enough, Rance, that he must be lyin' dead down some canyon, with his mouth full of snow?" A mocking smile was on Trinidad's face as he asked the question.

"You done all you could to git 'im," went on Sonora as if there had been no interruption. "The boys is all satisfied he's dead."

"Dead?" Rance fairly picked up the word. "Dead? Yes, he's dead," he declared tensely, and unconsciously arose and went over to the window where he stood motionless, gazing through the parted curtains at the snow-covered hills. Presently the boys saw a cynical smile spread over his face, and a moment later, he added: "The matter with me is that I'm a Chink."

This depreciation of himself was so thoroughly un-Rance like, that it brought forth great bursts of laughter from the men, but notwithstanding which, Rance went on to admit, in the same sullen tone, that it was all up with him and the Girl.

"Throwed 'im!" whispered Trinidad to Sonora with a pleased look on his face.

Sonora, likewise, was beaming with joy when almost instantly he turned to Nick with:

"As sure's you live she's throwed 'im for me!"

Nick, among his other accomplishments, had a faculty for dumbness and said nothing; but a smile which approached a grin formed on his face as he stood eyeing quizzically first one and then the other. Finally, picking up the empty glasses, he left the room.

"Will old dog Tray remember me"-immediately sung out Trinidad, gleefully. While Sonora, in the seventh heaven of

delight, began to caper about the room. Of a sudden Nick poked his head in through the door to inquire into the cause of their hilarity, but they ignored him completely. At the bar-room door, however, Sonora halted and, glancing over his shoulder in the Sheriff's direction, he added in a most tantalising manner:

"… for me!"

But while Trinidad and Sonora were going out through one door the Deputy was entering through another. He was greatly agitated and carried in his hand the letter which The Pony Express had entrusted to his keeping for Ashby.

"Why, Ashby's skipped!" he announced uneasily. "Got off just after three this morning-posse and all."

A question was in Nick's eyes as he turned upon the speaker with the interjection:

"What!" And then as the Deputy made a dash for the bar-room, he added with a swift change of manner: "Help yourself, Dep."

But if Nick was slow to realise the situation, not so the Sheriff, who instantly awoke to the fact that the Wells Fargo Agent was on Johnson's trail. His lips drew quickly back in a half-grin.

"Ashby's after Johnson," presently he said with a savage little laugh. "Nick, he was watchin' that greaser… Took him ten minutes to saddle up-Johnson has ten minutes' start"-He broke off abruptly and ended impatiently with: "Oh, Lord, they'll never get him! He's a wonder on the road-you've got to take your hat off to the damn cuss!" And with a dig at the other's ribs that was half-playful, half-serious, he was off in pursuit of Ashby.

A moment later the miners began to pile in for school, whooping and yelling, their feet covered with snow. Sonora led with an armful of wood, which he deposited on the floor beside the stove; then came Handsome Charlie and Happy Halliday, together with Old Steady and Bill Crow, who immediately dropped on all fours and began to play leap-frog.

"Boys gatherin' for school," observed Trinidad, hurriedly opening the door; and while the men proceeded to flock in, he got into his jacket which lay on a chair beside the teacher's desk.

"Here, Trin, here's the book!" cried out Happy Halliday; and the book, which was securely tied in a red cotton handkerchief, went flying through the air.

In those few words the signal was given; the fun was on in earnest. Instantly the miners-veritable school-boys they were, so genuine was their merriment-braced themselves for a catch of the book, which had landed safely in Trinidad's hands. Now it was aimed at Sonora, who caught it on the fly; from Sonora it travelled to Old Steady, who sent it whizzing over to Handsome. Now the Deputy made ready to receive it; but instead it landed once more in Sonora's hands amidst cheers of "Come on, Sonora! Whoopee! Whoop!"

"Sh-sh-sh, boys!" warned the Deputy as Sonora was about to send the book on another expedition through the air; "here comes the noo scholar from Watson's."

An ominous hush fell upon the room. One could have heard a pin drop as the school settled itself down with anticipatory grins that said, "What won't we do to Bucking Billy!" Therefore, there was not an eye that was not upon the new pupil when with dinner-pail swinging on one arm and the other holding tightly onto a small slate, he slowly advanced towards them.

"Did you ever play Lame Soldier, m' friend?" was Sonora's greeting, while the miners crowded around them.

"No," replied the big, raw-boned, gullible-looking fellow with a grin.

"We'll play it after school; you'll be the stirrup," promised Sonora; then turning to his mates with a laugh, which was unobserved by Bucking Billy, he added: "We'll initiate 'im."

Presently the miners began to move away and Trinidad, picking up a chip which he espied under a bench, put it on his shoulder and stood in the centre of the room, thereby indirectly challenging the new pupil to a scrimmage.

"Don't do it!" cried Old Steady as he hung up his hat upon a buck's horn on the wall.

"Go on! Go on!" encouraged Bill Crow, hanging up his hat beside Old Steady's.

The boys took up his words in chorus.

"Go on! Go on!"

Whereupon, Sonora made a dash far the chip and knocked it off of Trinidad's shoulder, blazing huskily into his face as he did so:

"You do, do you?"

In the twinkling of an eye Trinidad's jacket was off and the two men were engaged in a hand-to-hand scuffle.

"Soak him!" came from a voice somewhere in the crowd.

"Hit him!" urged another.

"Bat him in the eye!" shrieked Handsome Charlie.

Finally Sonora succeeded in throwing down his opponent and sent him rolling along the floor, the contents of his pockets marking his trail.

The rafters of The Polka shook to a storm of cheering, and there is no telling when the men would have ceased had not Nick interfered at that moment by yelling out:

"Boys, boys, here she is!"

"Here comes the Girl!" came simultaneously from Happy Halliday, who had got a glimpse of her coming down the trail.

None the worse for his defeat and fall, Trinidad sprang to his feet; while Sonora made a dash for a seat. They had not been placed; whereupon he cried out excitedly:

"The seats, boys, where's the seats?"

For the few minutes that preceded the Girl's entrance into the room no men were ever known to work more rapidly or more harmoniously. They fairly flew in and out of the room, now bringing in the great whittled-up, weather-beaten benches and placing them in school-room fashion, and then rolling in boxes and casks which served as a ground-hold for the planks which were stretched across them for desks. It was in the midst of these pilgrimages that Trinidad rushed over to Nick to ask whether he did not think to-day a good time to put the question to the Girl.

Nick's eyes twinkled up with merriment; nevertheless, his face took on a dubious look when presently he answered:

"I wouldn't rush her, Trin-you've got plenty of time…" And when he proceeded to put up the blackboard he almost ran into Sonora, who stood by the teacher's desk getting into his frock coat.

"Hurry up, boys, hurry up!" urged Trinidad, though he himself smilingly looked on.

A moment later the Girl, carrying a small book of poems, walked quietly into their midst. She was paler and not as buoyant as usual, but she managed to appear cheerful when she said:

"Hello, boys!"

The men were all smiles and returned her greeting with:

"Hello, Girl!"

Then followed the presentation of their offerings-mere trifles, to be sure, but given out of the fulness of their hearts. Sonora led with a bunch of berries, which was followed by Trinidad with an orange.

"From 'Frisco," he said simply, watching the effect of his words with pride.

A bunch of berries was also Happy's contribution, which he made with a stiff little bow and the one word:


Meantime Nick, faithful friend that he was, went down on his knees and began to remove the Girl's moccasins. The knowledge of his proximity encouraged the Girl to glance about her to see if she could detect any signs on the men's faces which would prove that they suspected the real truth concerning her absence. Needless to say adoration and love was all that she saw; nevertheless, she felt ill-at-ease and, unconsciously, repeated:

"Hello, boys!" And then added, a little more bravely: "How's everythin'?"

"Bully!" spoke up Handsome Charlie, who was posing for her benefit, as was his wont, beside one of the desks.

"Say, we missed you," acknowledged Sonora with a world of tenderness in his voice. "Never knew you to desert The Polka for a whole week before."

"No, I-I…" stammered guiltily, and with their little gifts turned abruptly towards her desk lest she should meet their gaze.

"Academy's opened," suddenly announced Happy, "and-"

"Yes, I see it is," quickly answered the Girl, brushing away a tear that persisted in clinging to her eyelids; slowly, now, she drew off her gloves and laid them on the desk.

"I guess I'm kind o' nervous to-day, boys," she began.

"No wonder," observed Sonora. "Road agent's been in camp an' we missed a hangin'. I can't git over that."

All a-quiver and not daring to meet the men's gaze, much less to discuss the road agent with them, the Girl endeavoured to hide her confusion by asking Nick to help her off with her cape. Turning presently she said in a strained voice:

"Well, come on, boys-come, now!"

Immediately the boys fell in line for the opening exercises, which consisted of an examination by the Girl of their general appearance.

"Let me see your hands," she said to the man nearest to her; a glance was sufficient, and he was expelled from her presence. "Let me see yours, Sonora," she commanded.

Holding his hands behind his back the man addressed moved towards her slowly, for he was conscious of the grime that was on them. Before he had spoken his apology she ordered him none too gently to go and wash them, ending with an emphatic:


"Yes'm," was his meek answer, though he called back as he disappeared: "Been blackenin' my boots."

The Girl took up the word quickly.

"Boots! Yes, an' look at them boots!" And as each man came up to her, "An' them boots! an' them boots! Get in there the whole lot o' you an' be sure that you leave your whisky behind."

When all had left the room save Nick, who stood with her cape on his arm near the desk she suddenly became conscious that she still had her hood on, and at once began to remove it-a proceeding which brought out clearly the extraordinary pallor of her face which, generally, had a bright, healthy colouring. Now she beckoned to Nick to draw near. No need for her to speak, for he had caught the questioning look in her eyes, and it told him plainer than any words that she was anxious to hear of her lover. He was about to tell her the little he knew when with lips that trembled she finally whispered:

"Have you heard anythin'? Do you think he got through safe?"

Nick nodded in the affirmative.

"I saw 'im off, you know," she went on in the same low voice; then, before Nick could speak, she concluded anxiously: "But s'pose he don't git through?"

"Oh, he'll git through sure! We'll hear he's out of this country pretty quick," consoled the little barkeeper just as Rance, unperceived by them, quietly entered the room and went over to a chair by the stove.

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