1.     Part II - The Transformation of Buckeye Camp - Sally Dows and Other Stories - Bret Harte, Book, etext

 

Sally Dows and Other Stories

The Transformation of Buckeye Camp

Part II

Bret Harte


THE rest of that interview has not been recorded. Suffice it that a few minutes later Parks, Brace, and Saunders left the Emporium, and passed the night in the latter’s cabin, leaving the Emporium in possession of Miss Mendez and her peon servant; that at the earliest dawn the two women and their baggage were transferred to the old adobe house, where, however, a Mexican workman had already arrived, and with a basketful of red tiles was making it habitable. Buckeye, which was popularly supposed to sleep with one eye on the river, and always first repaired there in the morning to wash and work, was only awake to the knowledge of the invasion at noon. The meeting so confidently spoken of the night before had not been called. Messrs. Parks and Brace were suffering from headaches—undoubtedly a touch of tule chill. Saunders, at work with his partner in Eagle Bar, was as usual generous with apparently irrelevant facts on all subjects—but that of the strangers. It would seem as if the self-constituted Committee of Safety had done nothing.

And nothing whatever seemed to happen! Thompson of Angels, smoking a meditative pipe at noon on the trail noticed the repairing of the old adobe house, casually spoke of it on his return to his work, without apparent concern or exciting any comment. The two Billinger brothers saw Jovita Mendez at the door of her house an hour later, were themselves seen conversing with her by Jim Barker, but on returning to their claim, neither they nor Barker exhibited any insurrectionary excitement. Later on, Shuttleworth was found in possession of two bundles of freshly rolled corn-husk cigarettes, and promised to get his partner some the next day, but that gentleman anticipated him. By nightfall nearly all Buckeye had passed in procession before the little house without exhibiting any indignation or protest. That night, however, it seemed as if the events for which the Committee was waiting were really impending. The adult female population of Buckeye consisted of seven women—wives of miners. That they would submit tamely to the introduction of a young, pretty, and presumably dangerous member of their own sex was not to be supposed. But whatever protest they made did not pass beyond their conjugal seclusion, and was apparently not supported by their husbands. Two or three of them, under the pretext of sympathy of sex, secured interviews with the fair intruder, the result of which was not, however, generally known. But a few days later Mrs. “Bob” Carpenter—a somewhat brick-dusty blonde—was observed wearing some black netting and a heavily flounced skirt, and Mrs. Shuttleworth in her next visit to Fiddletown wore her Paisley shawl affixed to her chestnut hair by a bunch of dog-roses, and wrapped like a plaid around her waist. The seven ladies of Buckeye, who had never before met, except on domestic errands to each other’s houses or on Sunday attendance at the “First Methodist Church” at Fiddletown, now took to walking together, or in their husbands’ company, along the upper bank of the river—the one boulevard of Buckeye. The third day after Miss Mendez’ arrival they felt the necessity of immediate shopping expeditions to Fiddletown. This operation had hitherto been confined to certain periods, and restricted to the laying in of stores of rough household stuffs; but it now apparently included a wider range and more ostentatious quality. Parks’ Emporium no longer satisfied them, and this unexpected phase of the situation was practically brought home to the proprietor in the necessity of extending the more inoffensive and peaceful part of his stock. And when, towards the end of the week, a cartload of pretty fixtures, mirrors, and furniture arrived at the tienda, there was a renewed demand at the Emporium for articles not in stock, and the consequent diverting of custom to Fiddletown. Buckeye found itself face to face with a hitherto undreamt of and preposterous proposition. It seemed that the advent of the strange woman, without having yet produced any appreciable effect upon the men, had already insidiously inveigled the adult female population into ostentatious extravagance.

At the end of a week the little adobe house was not only rendered habitable, but was even made picturesque by clean white curtains at its barred windows, and some bright, half-Moorish coloring of beams and rafters. Nearly the whole ground floor was given up to the saloon of the tienda, which consisted of a small counter at one side, containing bottles and glasses, and another, flanking it, with glass cases, containing cigars, pipes, and tobacco, while the centre of the room was given up to four or five small restaurant tables. The staff of Jovita was no longer limited to Sanchicha, but had been augmented by a little old man of indefinite antiquity who resembled an Aztec idol, and an equally old Mexican, who looked not unlike a brown-tinted and veined tobacco leaf himself, and might have stood for a sign. But the genius of the place, its omnipresent and all-pervading goddess, was Jovita! Smiling, joyous, indefatigable in suavity and attention; all-embracing in her courtesies; frank of speech and eye; quick at repartee and deftly handling the slang of the day and the locality with a childlike appreciation and an infantine accent that seemed to redeem it from vulgarity or unfeminine boldness! Few could resist the volatile infection of her presence. A smile was the only tribute she exacted, and good-humor the rule laid down for her guests. If it occasionally required some mental agility to respond to her banter, a Californian gathering was, however, seldom lacking in humor. Yet she was always the principal performer to an admiring audience. Perhaps there was security in this multitude of admirers; perhaps there was a saving grace in this humorous trifling. The passions are apt to be serious and solitary, and Jovita evaded them with a jest,—which, if not always delicate or witty, was effective in securing the laughter of the majority and the jealousy of none.

At the end of the week another peculiarity was noticed. There was a perceptible increase of the Mexican population, who had always hitherto avoided Buckeye. On Sunday an Irish priest from El Pasto said mass in a patched-up corner of the old Mission ruin opposite Rollinson’s Ford. A few lounging “Excelsior” boys were equally astonished to see Jovita’s red rose crest and black mantilla glide by, and followed her unvarying smile and jesting salutation up to the shadow of the crumbling portal. At vespers nearly all Buckeye, hitherto virtuously skeptical and good-humoredly secure in Works without Faith, made a point of attending; it was alleged by some to see if Jovita’s glossy Indian-inky eyes would suffer aberration in her devotions. But the rose-crested head was never lifted from the well-worn prayer-book or the brown hands which held a certain poor little cheap rosary like a child’s string of battered copper coins. Buckeye lounged by the wall through the service with respectful tolerance and uneasy shifting legs, and came away. But the apparently simple event did not end there. It was unconsciously charged with a tremendous import to the settlement. For it was discovered the next day by Mrs. “Bob” Carpenter and Nan Shuttleworth that the Methodist Church at Fiddletown was too far away, and Buckeye ought to have a preacher of its own. Seats were fitted up in the loft of Carpenter’s store-house, where the Reverend Henry McCorkle held divine service, and instituted a Bible class. At the end of two weeks it appeared that Jovita’s invasion—which was to bring dissipation and ruin to Buckeye—had indirectly brought two churches! A chilling doubt like a cold mist settled along the river. As the two rival processions passed on the third Sunday, Jo Bateman, who had been in the habit of reclining on that day in his shirtsleeves under a tree, with a novel in his hand, looked gloomily after them. Then knocking the ashes from his pipe, he rose, shook hands with his partners, said apologetically that he had lately got into the habit of respecting the sabbath, and was too old to change again, and so shook the red dust of Buckeye from his feet and departed.

As yet there had not been the slightest evidence of disorderly conduct on the part of the fair proprietress of the tienda, nor her customers, nor any drunkenness or riotous disturbance that could be at all attributed to her presence. There was, it is true, considerable hilarity, smoking, and some gambling there until a late hour, but this could not be said to interfere with the rest and comfort of other people. A clue to the mystery of so extraordinary a propriety was given by Jovita herself. One day she walked into Parks’ Emporium and demanded an interview with the proprietor.

“You have made the rules for thees Booki?”

“Yes—that is—I and my friends have.”

“And when one shall not have mind the rule—when one have say, ‘No! damn the rule,’ what shall you make to him? Shall you aprison him?”

Mr. Parks hastened to say with a superior, yet engaging smile that it never had been necessary, as the rules were obligatory upon the honor and consent of all—and were never broken. “Except,” he added, still more engagingly, “she would remember, in her case—with their consent.”

“And your caballeros break not the rules?”

“No.”

“Then they shall not break the rules of me—at my tienda! Look! I have made the rule that I shall not have a caballero drunk at my house; I have made the rule that I shall not sell him the aguardiente when he have too mooch. I have made the rule that when he gamble too mooch, when he put up too mooch money, I say ‘No!’ I will not that he shall! I make one more rule: that he shall not quarrel nor fight in my house. When he quarrel and fight, I say ‘Go! Vamos! Get out!’”

“And very good rules they are too, Miss Mendez.”

Jovita fixed her shining black eyes on the smiling Parks. “And when he say, ‘No, nevarre, damn the rules!’ When he come drunk, remain drunk, play high and fight, you will not poonish him? You will not take him out?”

“Well, you see, the fact is, I have not the power.”

“Are you not the Alcalde?”

“No. There is a Justice of the Peace at Fiddletown, but even he could do nothing to enforce your rules. But if anything should happen, you can make a complaint to him.”

“Bueno. You have not the power; I have. I make not the complaint to Fiddletown. I make the complaint to Jose Perez, to Manuel, to Antonio, to Sanchicha—she is a strong one! I say ‘Chook him out.’ They chook him out! they remove him! He does not r-r-remain. Enough. Bueno. Gracias, senor, good-a-by!”

She was gone. For the next four days Parks was in a state of some anxiety—but it appeared unnecessarily so. Whether the interview had become known along the river did not transpire, but there seemed to be no reason for Miss Mendez to enforce her rules. It was said that once, when Thompson of Angels was a little too noisy, he had been quietly conducted by his friends from the tienda without the intervention of Jose. The frequenters of the saloon became its police.

Yet the event—long protracted—came at last! It was a dry, feverish, breezeless afternoon, when the short, echoless explosion of a revolver puffed out on the river, followed by another, delivered so rapidly that they seemed rolled into one. There was no mistaking that significant repetition. One shot might have been an accident; two meant intention. The men dropped their picks and shovels and ran—ran as they never before ran in Buckeye—ran mechanically, blindly groping at their belts and pockets for the weapons that hung there no longer; ran aimlessly, as to purpose, but following instinctively with hurried breath and quivering nostrils the cruel scent of powder and blood. Ran until, reaching the tienda, the foremost stumbled over the body of Shuttleworth; came upon the half-sitting, half-leaning figure of Saunders against its adobe wall! The doors were barred and closed, and even as the crowd charged furiously forward, a window was sharply shut above, in their very face.

“Stand back, gentlemen! Lift him up. What’s the row? What is it, Saunders? Who did it? Speak, man!”

But Saunders, who was still supporting himself against the wall, only looked at them with a singular and half-apologetic smile, and then leaned forward as if to catch the eye of Shuttleworth, who was recovering consciousness in the uplifted arms of his companions. But neither spoke.

“It’s some d——d Greaser inside!” said Thompson, with sudden ferocity. “Some of her cursed crew! Break down the doors, boys!”

“Stop!”

It was the voice of Shuttleworth, speaking with an effort. He was hard hit, somewhere in the groin; pain and blood were coming with consciousness and movement, and his face was ghastly. Yet there was the same singular smile of embarrassment which Saunders had worn, and a touch of invincible disgust in his voice as he stammered quickly, “Don’t be d——d fools! It’s no one in there. It’s only me and him! He’ll tell you that. Won’t you, Saunders?”

“Yes,” said Saunders, leaning anxiously forward, with a brightening face. “D—n it all—can’t you see? It’s only—only us.”

“You and me, that’s all,” repeated Shuttleworth, with a feverish laugh. “Only our d——d foolishness! Think of it, boys! He gave me the lie, and I drew!”

“Both of us full, you know—reg’lar beasts,” said Saunders, sinking back against the wall. “Kick me, somebody, and finish me off.”

“I don’t see any weapons here,” said Brace gravely, examining the ground.

“They’re inside,” said Shuttleworth with tremulous haste. “We began it in there—just like hogs, you know! Didn’t we, Saunders?” bitterly.

“You bet,” said Saunders faintly. “Reg’lar swine.”

Parks looked graver still, and as he passed a handkerchief around the wounded man’s thigh, said: “But I don’t see where you got your pistols, and how you got out here.”

“Clinched, you know; sorter rolled over out here—and—and—oh, d—n it—don’t talk!”

“He means,” said Shuttleworth still feebly, “that we—we—grabbed another man’s six-shooter and—and—he that is—and they—he—he and me grabbed each other, and—don’t you see—?” but here, becoming more involved and much weaker, he discreetly fainted away.

And that was all Buckeye ever knew of the affair! For they refused to speak of it again, and Dr. Duchesne gravely forbade any further interrogation. Both men’s revolvers were found undischarged in their holsters, hanging in their respective cabins. The balls which were afterwards extracted from the two men singularly disappeared; Dr. Duchesne asserting with a grim smile that they had swallowed them.1

Nothing could be ascertained of the facts at the tienda, which at that hour of the day appeared to have been empty of customers, and was occupied only by Miss Mendez and her retainers. All surmises as to the real cause of the quarrel and the reason for the reticence of the two belligerents were suddenly and unexpectedly stopped by their departure from Buckeye as soon as their condition permitted, on the alleged opinion of Dr. Duchesne that the air of the river was dangerous to their convalescence. The momentary indignation against the tienda which the two combatants had checked, eventually subsided altogether. After all, the fight had taken place outside; it was not even proven that the provocation had been given at the tienda! Its popularity was undiminished.


1.    It was a frontier superstition that the ball extracted from a gunshot wound, if swallowed by the wounded man, prevented inflammation or any supervening complications.    [back]


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