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- Tales of Trail and Town - 1/36 -


TALES OF TRAIL AND TOWN

by Bret Harte

CONTENTS

THE ANCESTORS OF PETER ATHERLY

TWO AMERICANS

THE JUDGMENT OF BOLINAS PLAIN

THE STRANGE EXPERIENCE OF ALKALI DICK

A NIGHT ON THE DIVIDE

THE YOUNGEST PROSPECTOR IN CALAVERAS

A TALE OF THREE TRUANTS

TALES OF TRAIL AND TOWN

THE ANCESTORS OF PETER ATHERLY

CHAPTER I

It must be admitted that the civilizing processes of Rough and Ready were not marked by any of the ameliorating conditions of other improved camps. After the discovery of the famous "Eureka" lead, there was the usual influx of gamblers and saloon-keepers; but that was accepted as a matter of course. But it was thought hard that, after a church was built and a new school erected, it should suddenly be found necessary to have doors that locked, instead of standing shamelessly open to the criticism and temptation of wayfarers, or that portable property could no longer be left out at night in the old fond reliance on universal brotherhood. The habit of borrowing was stopped with the introduction of more money into the camp, and the establishment of rates of interest; the poorer people either took what they wanted, or as indiscreetly bought on credit. There were better clothes to be seen in its one long straggling street, but those who wore them generally lacked the grim virtue of the old pioneers, and the fairer faces that were to be seen were generally rouged. There was a year or two of this kind of mutation, in which the youthful barbarism of Rough and Ready might have been said to struggle with adult civilized wickedness, and then the name itself disappeared. By an Act of the Legislature the growing town was called "Atherly," after the owner of the Eureka mine,--Peter Atherly,--who had given largess to the town in its "Waterworks" and a "Gin Mill," as the new Atherly Hotel and its gilded bar-rooms were now called. Even at the last moment, however, the new title of "Atherly" hung in the balance. The romantic daughter of the pastor had said that Mr. Atherly should be called "Atherly of Atherly," an aristocratic title so strongly suggestive of an innovation upon democratic principles that it was not until it was discreetly suggested that everybody was still free to call him "Atherly, late of Rough and Ready," that opposition ceased.

Possibly this incident may have first awakened him to the value of his name, and some anxiety as to its origin. Roughly speaking, Atherly's father was only a bucolic emigrant from "Mizzouri," and his mother had done the washing for the camp on her first arrival. The Atherlys had suffered on their overland journey from drought and famine, with the addition of being captured by Indians, who had held them captive for ten months. Indeed, Mr. Atherly, senior, never recovered from the effects of his captivity, and died shortly after Mrs. Atherly had given birth to twins, Peter and Jenny Atherly. This was scant knowledge for Peter in the glorification of his name through his immediate progenitors; but "Atherly of Atherly" still sounded pleasantly, and, as the young lady had said, smacked of old feudal days and honors. It was believed beyond doubt, even in their simple family records,--the flyleaf of a Bible,--that Peter Atherly's great-grandfather was an Englishman who brought over to his Majesty's Virginian possessions his only son, then a boy. It was not established, however, to what class of deportation he belonged: whether he was suffering exile from religious or judicial conviction, or if he were only one of the articled "apprentices" who largely made up the American immigration of those days. Howbeit, "Atherly" was undoubtedly an English name, even suggesting respectable and landed ancestry, and Peter Atherly was proud of it. He looked somewhat askance upon his Irish and German fellow citizens, and talked a good deal about "race." Two things, however, concerned him: he was not in looks certainly like any type of modern Englishman as seen either on the stage in San Francisco, or as an actual tourist in the mining regions, and his accent was undoubtedly Southwestern. He was tall and dark, with deep-set eyes in a singularly immobile countenance; he had an erect but lithe and sinewy figure even for his thirty odd years, and might easily have been taken for any other American except for the single exception that his nose was distinctly Roman, and gave him a distinguished air. There was a suggestion of Abraham Lincoln (and even of Don Quixote) in his tall, melancholy figure and length of limb, but nothing whatever that suggested an Englishman.

It was shortly after the christening of Atherly town that an incident occurred which at first shook, and then the more firmly established, his mild monomania. His widowed mother had been for the last two years an inmate of a private asylum for inebriates, through certain habits contracted while washing for the camp in the first year of her widowhood. This had always been a matter of open sympathy to Rough and Ready; but it was a secret reproach hinted at in Atherly, although it was known that the rich Peter Atherly kept his mother liberally supplied, and that both he and his sister "Jinny" or Jenny Atherly visited her frequently. One day he was telegraphed for, and on going to the asylum found Mrs. Atherly delirious and raving. Through her son's liberality she had bribed an attendant, and was fast succumbing to a private debauch. In the intervals of her delirium she called Peter by name, talked frenziedly and mysteriously of his "high connections"--alluded to himself and his sister as being of the "true breed"--and with a certain vigor of epithet, picked up in the familiarity of the camp during the days when she was known as "Old Ma'am Atherly" or "Aunt Sally," declared that they were "no corn-cracking Hoosiers," "hayseed pikes," nor "northern Yankee scum," and that she should yet live to see them "holding their own lands again and the lands of their forefathers." Quieted at last by opiates, she fell into a more lucid but scarcely less distressing attitude. Recognizing her son again, as well as her own fast failing condition, she sarcastically thanked him for coming to "see her off," congratulated him that he would soon be spared the lie and expense of keeping her here on account of his pride, under the thin pretext of trying to "cure" her. She knew that Sally Atherly of Rough and Ready wasn't considered fit company for "Atherly of Atherly" by his fine new friends. This and much more in a voice mingling maudlin sentiment with bitter resentment, and with an ominous glitter in her bloodshot and glairy eyes. Peter winced with a consciousness of the half-truth of her reproaches, but the curiosity and excitement awakened by the revelations of her frenzy were greater than his remorse. He said quickly:--

"You were speaking of father!--of his family--his lands and possessions. Tell me again!"

"Wot are ye givin' us?" she ejaculated in husky suspicion, opening upon him her beady eyes, in which the film of death was already gathering.

"Tell me of father,--my father and his family! his great- grandfather!--the Atherlys, my relations--what you were saying. What do you know about them?"

"THAT'S all ye wanter know--is it? THAT'S what ye'r' comin' to the old washer-woman for--is it?" she burst out with the desperation of disgust. "Well--give it up! Ask me another!"

"But, mother--the old records, you know! The family Bible--what you once told us--me and Jinny!"

Something gurgled in her throat like a chuckle. With the energy of malevolence, she stammered: "There wasn't no records--there wasn't no family Bible! it's all a lie--you hear me! Your Atherly that you're so proud of was just a British bummer who was kicked outer his family in England and sent to buzz round in Americky. He honey-fogled me--Sally Magregor--out of a better family than his'n, in Kansas, and skyugled me away, but it was a straight out marriage, and I kin prove it. It was in the St. Louis papers, and I've got it stored away safe enough in my trunk! You hear me! I'm shoutin'! But he wasn't no old settler in Mizzouri--he wasn't descended from any settler, either! He was a new man outer England--fresh caught--and talked down his throat. And he fooled ME--the darter of an old family that was settled on the right bank of the Mizzouri afore Dan'l Boone came to Kentucky--with his new philanderings. Then he broke up, and went all to pieces when we struck Californy, and left ME--Sally Magregor, whose father had niggers of his own--to wash for Rough and Ready! THAT'S your Atherly! Take him! I don't want him--I've done with him! I was done with him long afore--afore"--a cough checked her utterance,-- "afore"-- She gasped again, but the words seemed to strangle in her throat. Intent only on her words and scarcely heeding her sufferings, Peter was bending over her eagerly, when the doctor rudely pulled him away and lifted her to a sitting posture. But she never spoke again. The strongest restoratives quickly administered only left her in a state of scarcely breathing unconsciousness.

"Is she dying? Can't you bring her to," said the anxious Peter, "if only for a moment, doctor?"

"I'm thinkin'," said the visiting doctor, an old Scotch army surgeon, looking at the rich Mr. Atherly with cool, professional contempt, "that your mother willna do any more washing for me as in the old time, nor give up her life again to support her bairns. And it isna my eentention to bring her back to pain for the purposes of geeneral conversation!"

Nor, indeed, did she ever come back to any purpose, but passed away with her unfinished sentence. And her limbs were scarcely decently composed by the attendants before Peter was rummaging the trunk in her room for the paper she had spoken of. It was in an old work- box--a now faded yellow clipping from a newspaper, lying amidst spoils of cotton thread, buttons, and beeswax, which he even then


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