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- Openings in the Old Trail - 30/35 -


themselves out of the cave, and whether they suspected their imprisonment was the work of an enemy or only an accident. For several days he avoided the locality, and even feared the vengeful appearance of Spanish Pete some night at his father's house. It was not until the end of a fortnight that he had the courage to revisit the spot. The tree was in its normal position, but immovable, and a great quantity of fresh debris at the mouth of the cave convinced him that the robbers, after escaping, had abandoned it as unsafe. His brother did not return, and either the activity of the Vigilance Committee or the lack of a new place of rendezvous seemed to have dispersed the robbers from the locality, for they were not heard of again.

The next ten years brought an improvement to Mr. Starleigh's fortunes. Johnny Starleigh, then a student at San Jose, one morning found a newspaper clipping in a letter from Miss Amelia Stryker. It read as follows: "The excavators in the new tunnel in Heavystone Ridge lately discovered the skeletons of two unknown men, who had evidently been crushed and entombed some years previously, by the falling of a large tree over the mouth of their temporary refuge. From some river gold found with them, they were supposed to be part of the gang of sluice robbers who infested the locality some years ago, and were hiding from the Vigilants."

For a few days thereafter Johnny Starleigh was thoughtful and reserved, but he did not refer to the paragraph in answering the letter. He decided to keep it for later confidences, when Miss Stryker should become Mrs. Starleigh.

MISS PEGGY'S PROTEGES

The string of Peggy's sunbonnet had become untied--so had her right shoe. These were not unusual accidents to a country girl of ten, but as both of her hands were full she felt obliged to put down what she was carrying. This was further complicated by the nature of her burden--a half-fledged shrike and a baby gopher--picked up in her walk. It was impossible to wrap them both in her apron without serious peril to one or the other; she could not put either down without the chance of its escaping. "It's like that dreadful riddle of the ferryman who had to take the wolf and the sheep in his boat," said Peggy to herself, "though I don't believe anybody was ever so silly as to want to take a wolf across the river." But, looking up, she beheld the approach of Sam Bedell, a six-foot tunnelman of the "Blue Cement Lead," and, hailing him, begged him to hold one of her captives. The giant, loathing the little mouse- like ball of fur, chose the shrike. "Hold him by the feet, for he bites AWFUL," said Peggy, as the bird regarded Sam with the diabolically intense frown of his species. Then, dropping the gopher unconcernedly in her pocket, she proceeded to rearrange her toilet. The tunnelman waited patiently until Peggy had secured the nankeen sunbonnet around her fresh but freckled cheeks, and, with a reckless display of yellow flannel petticoat and stockings like peppermint sticks, had double-knotted her shoestrings viciously when he ventured to speak.

"Same old game, Peggy? Thought you'd got rather discouraged with your 'happy family,' arter that new owl o' yours had gathered 'em in."

Peggy's cheek flushed slightly at this ungracious allusion to a former collection of hers, which had totally disappeared one evening after the introduction of a new member in the shape of a singularly venerable and peaceful-looking horned owl.

"I could have tamed HIM, too," said Peggy indignantly, "if Ned Myers, who gave him to me, hadn't been training him to ketch things, and never let on anything about it to me. He was a reg'lar game owl!"

"And wot are ye goin' to do with the Colonel here?" said Sam, indicating under that gallant title the infant shrike, who, with his claws deeply imbedded in Sam's finger, was squatting like a malignant hunchback, and resisting his transfer to Peggy. "Won't HE make it rather lively for the others? He looks pow'ful discontented for one so young."

"That's his nater," said Peggy promptly. "Jess wait till I tame him. Ef he'd been left along o' his folks, he'd grow up like 'em. He's a 'butcher bird'--wot they call a 'nine-killer '--kills nine birds a day! Yes! True ez you live! Sticks 'em up on thorns outside his nest, jest like a butcher's shop, till he gets hungry. I've seen 'em!"

"And how do you kalkilate to tame him?" asked Sam.

"By being good to him and lovin' him," said Peggy, stroking the head of the bird with infinite gentleness.

"That means YOU'VE got to do all the butchering for him?" said the cynical Sam.

Peggy shook her head, disdaining a verbal reply.

"Ye can't bring him up on sugar and crackers, like a Polly," persisted Sam.

"Ye ken do anythin' with critters, if you ain't afeerd of 'em and love 'em," said Peggy shyly.

The tall tunnelman, looking down into the depths of Peggy's sunbonnet, saw something in the round blue eyes and grave little mouth that made him think so too. But here Peggy's serious little face took a shade of darker concern as her arm went down deeper into her pocket, and her eyes got rounder.

"It's--it's--BURRERED OUT!" she said breathlessly.

The giant leaped briskly to one side. "Hol' on," said Peggy abstractedly. With infinite gravity she followed, with her fingers, a seam of her skirt down to the hem, popped them quickly under it, and produced, with a sigh of relief, the missing gopher.

"You'll do," said Sam, in fearful admiration. "Mebbe you'll make suthin' out o' the Colonel too. But I never took stock in that there owl. He was too durned self-righteous for a decent bird. Now, run along afore anythin' else fetches loose ag'in. So long!"

He patted the top of her sunbonnet, gave a little pull to the short brown braid that hung behind her temptingly,--which no miner was ever known to resist,--and watched her flutter off with her spoils. He had done so many times before, for the great, foolish heart of the Blue Cement Ridge had gone out to Peggy Baker, the little daughter of the blacksmith, quite early. There were others of the family, notably two elder sisters, invincible at picnics and dances, but Peggy was as necessary to these men as the blue jay that swung before them in the dim woods, the squirrel that whisked across their morning path, or the woodpecker who beat his tattoo at their midday meal from the hollow pine above them. She was part of the nature that kept them young. Her truancies and vagrancies concerned them not: she was a law to herself, like the birds and squirrels. There were bearded lips to hail her wherever she went, and a blue or red-shirted arm always stretched out in any perilous pass or dangerous crossing.

Her peculiar tastes were an outcome of her nature, assisted by her surroundings. Left a good deal to herself in her infancy, she made playfellows of animated nature around her, without much reference to selection or fitness, but always with a fearlessness that was the result of her own observation, and unhampered by tradition or other children's timidity. She had no superstition regarding the venom of toads, the poison of spiders, or the ear-penetrating capacity of earwigs. She had experiences and revelations of her own,--which she kept sacredly to herself, as children do,--and one was in regard to a rattlesnake, partly induced, however, by the indiscreet warning of her elders. She was cautioned NOT to take her bread and milk into the woods, and was told the affecting story of the little girl who was once regularly visited by a snake that partook of HER bread and milk, and who was ultimately found rapping the head of the snake for gorging more than his share, and not "taking a 'poon as me do." It is needless to say that this incautious caution fired Peggy's adventurous spirit. SHE took a bowlful of milk to the haunt of a "rattler" near her home, but, without making the pretense of sharing it, generously left the whole to the reptile. After repeating this hospitality for three or four days, she was amazed one morning on returning to the house to find the snake--an elderly one with a dozen rattles--devotedly following her. Alarmed, not for her own safety nor that of her family, but for the existence of her grateful friend in danger of the blacksmith's hammer, she took a circuitous route leading it away. Then recalling a bit of woodland lore once communicated to her by a charcoal-burner, she broke a spray of the white ash, and laid it before her in the track of the rattlesnake. He stopped instantly, and remained motionless without crossing the slight barrier. She repeated this experiment on later occasions, until the reptile understood her. She kept the experience to herself, but one day it was witnessed by a tunnelman. On that day Peggy's reputation was made!

From this time henceforth the major part of Blue Cement Ridge became serious collectors for what was known as "Peggy's menagerie," and two of the tunnelmen constructed a stockaded inclosure--not half a mile from the blacksmith's cabin, but unknown to him--for the reception of specimens. For a long time its existence was kept a secret between Peggy and her loyal friends. Her parents, aware of her eccentric tastes only through the introduction of such smaller creatures as lizards, toads, and tarantulas into their house,--which usually escaped from their tin cans and boxes and sought refuge in the family slippers,--had frowned upon her zoological studies. Her mother found that her woodland rambles entailed an extraordinary wear and tear of her clothing. A pinafore reduced to ribbons by a young fox, and a straw hat half swallowed by a mountain kid, did not seem to be a natural incident to an ordinary walk to the schoolhouse. Her sisters thought her tastes "low," and her familiar association with the miners inconsistent with their own dignity. But Peggy went regularly to school, was a fair scholar in elementary studies (what she knew of natural history, in fact, quite startled her teachers), and being also a teachable child, was allowed some latitude. As for Peggy herself, she kept her own faith unshaken; her little creed, whose shibboleth was not "to be afraid" of God's creatures, but to "love 'em," sustained her through reprimand, torn clothing, and, it is to be feared, occasional bites and scratches from the loved ones themselves.

The unsuspected contiguity of the "menagerie" to the house had its drawbacks, and once nearly exposed her. A mountain wolf cub, brought especially for her from the higher northern Sierras with


Openings in the Old Trail - 30/35

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