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- OF FROM SAND HILL TO PINE - 2/36 -
brilliancy gave a spasmodic mobility to the faces of those turned towards it, or threw into stronger shadow the features that were turned away. Yet, by this uncertain light, they could see the figures of a man and two women. The man rose and, with a certain apathetic gesture that seemed to partake more of weariness and long suffering than positive discourtesy, tendered seats on chairs, boxes, and even logs to the self-invited guests. The stage party were surprised to see that this man was the stranger who had held the lantern in the road.
"Ah! then you didn't go with Bill to help clear the road?" said the expressman surprisedly.
The man slowly drew up his tall, shambling figure before the fire, and then facing them, with his hands behind him, as slowly lowered himself again as if to bring his speech to the level of his hearers and give a lazier and more deliberate effect to his long-drawn utterance.
"Well--no!" he said slowly. "I--didn't--go--with--no--Bill--to-- help--clear--the road! I--don't--reckon--TO go--with--no--Bill-- to--clear--ANY road! I've just whittled this thing down to a pint, and it's this--I ain't no stage kempany's nigger! So far as turnin' out and warnin' 'em agin goin' to smash over a fallen tree, and slap down into the canyon with a passel of innercent passengers, I'm that much a white man, but I ain't no NIGGER to work clearing things away for 'em, nor I ain't no scrub to work beside 'em." He slowly straightened himself up again, and, with his former apathetic air, looking down upon one of the women who was setting a coffee-pot on the coals, added, "But I reckon my old woman here kin give you some coffee and whiskey--of you keer for it."
Unfortunately the young expressman was more loyal to Bill than diplomatic. "If Bill's a little rough," he said, with a heightened color, "perhaps he has some excuse for it. You forget it's only six months ago that this coach was 'held up' not a hundred yards from this spot."
The woman with the coffee-pot here faced about, stood up, and, either from design or some odd coincidence, fell into the same dogged attitude that her husband had previously taken, except that she rested her hands on her hips. She was prematurely aged, like many of her class, and her black, snake-like locks, twisting loose from her comb as she lifted her head, showed threads of white against the firelight. Then with slow and implacable deliberation she said:
"We 'forget'! Well! not much, sonny! We ain't forgot it, and we ain't goin' to forget it, neither! We ain't bin likely to forget it for any time the last six months. What with visitations from the county constables, snoopin's round from 'Frisco detectives, droppin's-in from newspaper men, and yawpin's and starin's from tramps and strangers on the road--we haven't had a chance to disremember MUCH! And when at last Hiram tackled the head stage agent at Marysville, and allowed that this yer pesterin' and persecutin' had got ter stop--what did that yer head agent tell him? Told him to 'shet his head,' and be thankful that his 'thievin' old shanty wasn't burnt down around his ears!' Forget that six months ago the coach was held up near here? Not much, sonny--not much!"
The situation was embarrassing to the guests, as ordinary politeness called for some expression of sympathy with their gloomy hostess, and yet a selfish instinct of humanity warned them that there must be some foundation for this general distrust of the public. The journalist was troubled in his conscience; the expressman took refuge in an official reticence; the lady coughed slightly, and drew nearer to the fire with a vague but safe compliment to its brightness and comfort. It devolved upon Mr. Heckshill, who felt the responsibility of his late airy introduction of the party, to boldly keep up his role, with an equally non-committal, light-hearted philosophy.
"Well, ma'am," he said, addressing his hostess, "it's a queer world, and no man's got sabe enough to say what's the rights and wrongs o' anything. Some folks believe one thing and act upon it, and other folks think differently and act upon THAT! The only thing ye kin safely say is that THINGS IS EZ THEY BE! My rule here and at the mill is jest to take things ez I find 'em!"
It occurred to the journalist that Mr. Heckshill had the reputation, in his earlier career, of "taking" such things as unoccupied lands and timber "as he found them," without much reference to their actual owners. Apparently he was acting upon the same principle now, as he reached for the demijohn of whiskey with the ingenuous pleasantry, "Did somebody say whiskey, or did I dream it?"
But this did not satisfy Frenshaw. "I suppose," he said, ignoring Heckshill's diplomatic philosophy, "that you may have been the victim of some misunderstanding or some unfortunate coincidence. Perhaps the company may have confounded you with your neighbors, who are believed to be friendly to the gang; or you may have made some injudicious acquaintances. Perhaps"--
He was stopped by a suppressed but not unmusical giggle, which appeared to come from the woman in the corner who had not yet spoken, and whose face and figure in the shadow he had previously overlooked. But he could now see that her outline was slim and graceful, and the contour of her head charming,--facts that had evidently not escaped the observation of the expressman and Mr. Heckshill, and that might have accounted for the cautious reticence of the one and the comfortable moralizing of the other.
The old woman cast an uneasy glance on the fair giggler, but replied to Frenshaw:
"That's it! 'injerdishus acquaintances!' But just because we might happen to have friends, or even be sorter related to folks in another line o' business that ain't none o' ours, the kempany hain't no call to persecute US for it! S'pose we do happen to know some one like"--
"Spit it out, aunty, now you've started in! I don't mind," said the fair giggler, now apparently casting off all restraint in an outburst of laughter.
"Well," said the old woman, with dogged desperation, "suppose, then, that that young girl thar is the niece of Snapshot Harry, who stopped the coach the last time"--
"And ain't ashamed of it, either!" interrupted the young girl, rising and disclosing in the firelight an audacious but wonderfully pretty face; "and supposing he IS my uncle, that ain't any cause for their bedevilin' my poor old cousins Hiram and Sophy thar!" For all the indignation of her words, her little white teeth flashed mischievously in the dancing light, as if she rather enjoyed the embarrassment of her audience, not excluding her own relatives. Evidently cousin Sophy thought so too.
"It's all very well for you to laugh, Flo, you limb!" she retorted querulously, yet with an admiring glance at the girl, "for ye know thar ain't a man dare touch ye even with a word; but it's mighty hard on me and Hiram, all the same."
"Never you mind, Sophy dear," said the girl, placing her hand half affectionately, half humorously on the old woman's shoulder; "mebbe I won't always be a discredit and a bother to you. Jest you hold your hosses, and wait until uncle Harry 'holds up' the next Pioneer Coach,"--the dancing devil in her eyes glanced as if accidentally on the young expressman,--"and he'll make a big enough pile to send me to Europe, and you'll be quit o' me."
The embarrassment, suspiciousness, and uneasiness of the coach party here found relief in a half hysteric explosion of laughter, in which even the dogged Hiram and Sophy joined. It seemed as impossible to withstand the girl's invincible audacity as her beauty. She was quick to perceive her advantage, and, with a responsive laugh and a picturesque gesture of invitation, said:--
"Now that's all settled, ye'd better waltz in and have your whiskey and coffee afore the stage starts. Ye kin comfort yourselves that it ain't stolen or pizoned, even if it is served up to ye by Snapshot Harry's niece!" With another easy gesture she swung the demijohn over her arm, and, offering a tin cup to each of the men, filled them in turn.
The ice thus broken, or perhaps thus perilously skated over, the passengers were as profuse in their thanks and apologies as they had been constrained and artificial before. Heckshill and Frenshaw vied with each other for a glance from the audacious Flo. If their compliments partook of an extravagance that was at times ironical, the girl was evidently not deceived by it, but replied in kind. Only the expressman who seemed to have fallen under the spell of her audacious glances, was uneasy at the license of the others, yet himself dumb towards her. The lady discreetly drew nearer to the fire, the old woman, and her coffee; Hiram subsided into his apathetic attitude by the fire.
A shout from the road at last proclaimed the return of Yuba Bill and his helpers. It had the singular effect of startling the party into a vague and uneasy consciousness of indiscretion, as if it had been the voice of the outer world of law and order, and their manner again became constrained. The leave-taking was hurried and perfunctory; the diplomatic Heckshill again lapsed into glittering generalities about "the best of friends parting." Only the expressman lingered for a moment on the doorstep in the light of the fire and the girl's dancing eyes.
"I hope," he stammered, with a very youthful blush, "to come the next time--with--with--a better introduction."
"Uncle Harry's," she said, with a quick laugh and a mock curtsey, as she turned away.
Once out of hearing, the party broke into hurried comment and criticism of the scene they had just witnessed, and particularly of the fair actress who had played so important a part, averring their emphatic intention of wresting the facts from Yuba Bill at once, and cross-examining him closely; but oddly enough, reaching the coach and that redoubted individual, no one seemed to care to take the initiative, and they all scrambled hurriedly to their seats without a word. How far Yuba Bill's irritability and imperious haste contributed to this, or a fear that he might in turn catechise them kept them silent, no one knew. The cynically observant passenger was not there; he and the sole occupant of the box-seat, they were told, had joined the clearing party some moments before, and would be picked up by Yuba Bill later on.
Five minutes after Bill had gathered up the reins, they reached the
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