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- Jeff Briggs's Love Story - 2/17 -
Jeff had not; but would a bear-skin do?
Jeff ran, tore down his extempore window curtain, and returned with it. Yuba Bill, who had quietly and disapprovingly surveyed the proceeding, here disengaged himself from the bar with evident reluctance.
"You'll want another man," he said to Jeff, "onless ye can carry double. Ez HE," indicating the stranger, "ez no sort o' use, he'd better stay here and 'tend bar,' while you and me fetch the wimmen off. 'Specially ez I reckon we've got to do some tall wadin' by this time to reach 'em."
The meek man sat down helplessly in a chair indicated by Bill, who at once strode after Jeff. In another moment they were both fighting their way, step by step, against the storm, in that peculiar, drunken, spasmodic way so amusing to the spectator and so exasperating to the performer. It was no time for conversation, even interjectional profanity was dangerously exhaustive.
The coach was scarcely a thousand yards away, but its bright lights were reflected in a sheet of dark silent water that stretched between it and the two men. Wading and splashing, they soon reached it, and a gully where the surplus water was pouring into the valley below. "Fower feet o' water round her, but can't get any higher. So ye see she's all right for a month o' sich weather." Inwardly admiring the perspicacity of his companion, Jeff was about to open the coach door when Bill interrupted.
"I'll pack the old woman, if you'll look arter the darter and enny little traps."
A female face, anxious and elderly, here appeared at the window.
"Thet's my little game," said Bill, sotto voce.
"Is there any danger? where is my husband?" asked the woman impatiently.
"Ez to the danger, ma'am,--thar ain't any. Yer ez safe HERE ez ye'd be in a Sacramento steamer; ez to your husband, he allowed I was to come yer and fetch yer up to the hotel. That's his look- out!" With this cheering speech, Bill proceeded to make two or three ineffectual scoops into the dark interior, manifestly with the idea of scooping out the lady in question. In another instant he had caught her, lifted her gently but firmly in his arms, and was turning away.
"But my child!--my daughter! she's asleep!"--expostulated the woman; but Bill was already swiftly splashing through the darkness. Jeff, left to himself, hastily examined the coach: on the back seat a slight small figure, enveloped in a shawl, lay motionless. Jeff threw the bear-skin over it gently, lifted it on one arm, and gathering a few travelling bags and baskets with the other, prepared to follow his quickly disappearing leader. A few feet from the coach the water appeared to deepen, and the bear-skin to draggle. Jeff drew the figure up higher, in vain.
"Sis," he said softly.
"Sis," shaking her gently.
There was a slight movement within the wrappings.
"Couldn't ye climb up on my shoulder, honey? that's a good child!"
There were one or two spasmodic jerks of the bear-skin, and, aided by Jeff, the bundle was presently seated on his shoulder.
"Are you all right now, Sis?"
Something like a laugh came from the bear-skin. Then a childish voice said, "Thank you, I think I am!"
"Ain't you afraid you'll fall off?"
Jeff hesitated. It was beginning to blow again.
"You couldn't reach down and put your arm round my neck, could ye, honey?"
"I am afraid not!"--although there WAS a slight attempt to do so.
"Well, then, take a good holt, a firm strong holt, o' my hair! Don't be afraid!"
A small hand timidly began to rummage in Jeff's thick curls.
"Take a firm holt; thar, just back o' my neck! That's right."
The little hand closed over half a dozen curls. The little figure shook, and giggled.
"Now don't you see, honey, if I'm keerless with you, and don't keep you plump level up thar, you jist give me a pull and fetch me up all standing!"
"Of course you do! That's because you're a little lady!"
Jeff strode on. It was pleasant to feel the soft warm fingers in his hair, pleasant to hear the faint childish voice, pleasant to draw the feet of the enwrapped figure against his broad breast. Altogether he was sorry when they reached the dry land and the lee of the "Half-way House," where a slight movement of the figure expressed a wish to dismount.
"Not yet, missy," said Jeff; "not yet! You'll get blown away, sure! And then what'll they say? No, honey! I'll take you right in to your papa, just as ye are!"
A few steps more and Jeff strode into the hall, made his way to the sitting-room, walked to the sofa, and deposited his burden. The bear-skin fell back, the shawl fell back, and Jeff--fell back too! For before him lay a small, slight, but beautiful and perfectly formed woman.
He had time to see that the meek man, no longer meek, but apparently a stern uncompromising parent, was standing at the head of the sofa; that the elderly and nervous female was hovering at the foot, that his aunt, with every symptom of religious and moral disapproval of his conduct, sat rigidly in one of the rigid chairs-- he had time to see all this before the quick, hot blood, flying to his face, sent the water into his eyes, and he could see nothing!
The cause of all this smiled--a dazzling smile though a faint one-- that momentarily lit up the austere gloom of the room and its occupants. "You must thank this gentleman, papa," said she, languidly turning to her father, "for his kindness and his trouble. He has carried me here as gently and as carefully as if I were a child." Seeing symptoms of a return of Jeff's distress in his coloring face, she added softly, as if to herself, "It's a great thing to be strong--a greater thing to be strong AND gentle."
The voice thrilled through Jeff. But into this dangerous human voice twanged the accents of special spiritual revelation, and called him to himself again, "Be ye wise as sarpints, but harmless as duvs," said Jeff's aunt, generally, "and let 'em be thankful ez doesn't aboos the stren'th the Lord gives 'em, but be allers ready to answer for it at the bar o' their Maker." Possibly some suggestion in her figure of speech reminded her of Jeff's forgotten duties, so she added in the same breath and tone, "especially when transient customers is waiting for their licker, and Yuba Bill hammerin' on the counter with his glass; and yer ye stand, Jeff, never even takin' up that wet bar-skin--enuff to give that young woman her death."
Stammering out an incoherent apology, addressed vaguely to the occupants of the room, but looking toward the languid goddess on the sofa, Jeff seized the bear-skin and backed out the door. Then he flew to his room with it, and then returned to the bar-room; but the impatient William of Yuba had characteristically helped himself and gone off to the stable. Then Jeff stole into the hall and halted before the closed door of the sitting-room. A bold idea of going in again, as became a landlord of the "Half-way House," with an inquiry if they wished anything further, had seized him, but the remembrance that he had always meekly allowed that duty to devolve upon his aunt, and that she would probably resent it with scriptural authority and bring him to shame again, stayed his timid knuckles at the door. In this hesitation he stumbled upon his aunt coming down the stairs with an armful of blankets and pillows, attended by their small Indian servant, staggering under a mattress.
"Is everything all right, aunty?"
"Ye kin be thankful to the Lord, Jeff Briggs, that this didn't happen last week when I was down on my back with rheumatiz. But ye're never grateful."
"The young lady--is SHE comfortable?" said Jeff, accepting his aunt's previous remark as confirmatory.
"Ez well ez enny critter marked by the finger of the Lord with gallopin' consumption kin be, I reckon. And she, ez oughter be putting off airthly vanities, askin' for a lookin'-glass! And you! trapesin' through the hall with her on yer shoulder, and dancin' and jouncin' her up and down ez if it was a ball-room!" A guilty recollection that he had skipped with her through the passage struck him with remorse as his aunt went on: "It's a mercy that betwixt you and the wet bar-skin she ain't got her deth!"
"Don't ye think, aunty," stammered Jeff, "that--that--my bein' the landlord, yer know, it would be the square thing--just out o' respect, ye know--for me to drop in thar and ask 'em if thar's anythin' they wanted?"
His aunt stopped, and resignedly put down the pillows. "Sarah," she said meekly to the handmaiden, "ye kin leave go that mattress. Yer's Mr. Jefferson thinks we ain't good enough to make the beds
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