Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XI

Rovers

From Jowler I wanted nothing more. Such matters were too grand for him. He had beaten the dog of Hercules, who had only brought the purple dye — a thing requiring skill and art and taste to give it value. But gold does well without all these, and better in their absence. From handling many little nuggets, and hearkening to Suan Isco’s tales of treachery, theft, and murder done by white men for the sake of this, I knew that here I had found enough to cost the lives of fifty men.

At present, however, I was not possessed with dread so much as I was with joy, and even a secret exultation, at the power placed in my hands. For I was too young to moralize or attempt philosophy. Here I had a knowledge which the wisest of mankind might envy, much as they despise it when they have no chance of getting it. I looked at my father’s grave, in the shadow of the quiet peach-trees, and I could not help crying as I thought that this was come too late for him. Then I called off Jowler, who wished (like a man) to have another tug at it; and home I ran to tell my news, but failing of breath, had time to think.

It was lucky enough that this was so, for there might have been the greatest mischief; and sadly excited as I was, the trouble I had seen so much of came back to my beating heart and told me to be careful. But surely there could be no harm in trusting Suan Isco. However, I looked at her several times, and was not quite so sure about it. She was wonderfully true and faithful, and scarcely seemed to concede to gold its paramount rank and influence. But that might only have been because she had never known the want of it, or had never seen a lump worth stealing, which I was sure that this must be; and the unregenerate state of all who have never been baptized had been impressed on me continually. How could I mistrust a Christian, and place confidence in an Indian? Therefore I tried to sleep without telling any one, but was unable.

But, as it happened, my good discovery did not keep me so very long awake, for on the following day our troop of horsemen returned from San Francisco. Of course I have done very foolish things once and again throughout my life, but perhaps I never did any thing more absurd than during the whole of that day. To begin with, I was up before the sun, and down at the mill, and along the plank, which I had removed overnight, but now replaced as my bridge to the pine-wood pile. Then I gazed with eager desire and fear — which was the stronger I scarcely knew — for the yellow under-gleam, to show the safety of my treasure. There it lay, as safe as could be, massive, grand, and beautiful, with tones of varying richness as the ripples varied over it. The pale light of the morning breathed a dewy lustre down the banks; the sun (although unrisen yet) drew furrows through the mountain gaps; the birds from every hanging tree addressed the day with melody; the crystal water, purer than religion’s brightest dream, went by; and here among them lay, unmoved, unthought of, and inanimate, the thing which to a human being is worth all the rest put together.

This contemplation had upon me an effect so noble that here I resolved to spend my time, for fear of any robbery. I was afraid to gaze more than could be helped at this grand sight, lest other eyes should spy what was going on, and long to share it. And after hurrying home to breakfast and returning in like haste, I got a scare, such as I well deserved, for being so extremely foolish.

The carpentry of the mill-wheel had proved so very stanch and steadfast that even in that raging deluge the whole had held together. It had been bodily torn from its hold and swept away down the valley; but somewhere it grounded, as the flood ebbed out, and a strong team had tugged it back again. And the Sawyer had vowed that, come what would, his mill should work with the self-same wheel which he with younger hands had wrought. Now this wheel (to prevent any warp, and save the dry timber from the sun) was laid in a little shady cut, where water trickled under it. And here I had taken up my abode to watch my monster nugget.

I had pulled my shoes and stockings off, and was paddling in the runnel, sheltered by the deep rim of the wheel, and enjoying the water. Little fish darted by me, and lovely spotted lizards played about, and I was almost beginning even to forget my rock of gold. In self-defense it is right to say that for the gold, on my own account, I cared as much as I might have done for a fig worm-eaten. It was for Uncle Sam, and all his dear love, that I watched the gold, hoping in his sad disaster to restore his fortunes. But suddenly over the rim of the wheel (laid flat in the tributary brook) I descried across the main river a moving company of horsemen.

These men could have nothing to do with Uncle Sam and his party, for they were coming from the mountain-side, while he would return by the track across the plains. And they were already so near that I could see their dress quite plainly, and knew them to be Mexican rovers, mixed with loose Americans. There are few worse men on the face of the earth than these, when in the humor, and unluckily they seem almost always to be in that humor. Therefore, when I saw their battered sun-hats and baggy slouching boots, I feared that little ruth, or truth, or mercy dwelt between them.

On this account I shrank behind the shelter of the mill-wheel, and held my head in one trembling hand, and with the other drew my wind-tossed hair into small compass. For my blood ran cold at the many dreadful things that came into my mind. I was sure that they had not spied me yet, and my overwhelming desire was to decline all introduction.

I counted fourteen gentlemen, for so they always styled themselves, and would pistol any man who expressed a contrary opinion. Fourteen of them rode to the brink of the quiet blue river on the other side; and there they let their horses drink, and some dismounted and filled canteens, and some of longer reach stooped from the saddle and did likewise. But one, who seemed to be the captain, wanted no water for his rum.

“Cut it short, boys,” I heard him say, with a fine South Californian twang (which, as well as his free swearing, I will freely omit). “If we mean to have fair play with the gal, now or never’s the time for it: old Sam may come home almost any time.”

What miserable cowards! Though there were so many of them, they really had no heart to face an old man known for courage. Frightened as I was, perhaps good indignation helped me to flutter no more, and not faint away, but watch those miscreants steadily.

The horses put down their sandy lips over and over again to drink, scarcely knowing when they ought to stop, and seemed to get thicker before my eyes. The dribbling of the water from their mouths prepared them to begin again, till the riders struck the savage unroweled spur into their refreshment. At this they jerked their noses up, and looked at one another to say that they expected it, and then they lifted their weary legs and began to plash through the river.

It is a pretty thing to see a skillful horse plod through a stream, probing with his eyes the depth, and stretching his head before his feet, and at every step he whisks his tail to tell himself that he is right. In my agony of observation all these things I heeded, but only knew that I had done so when I thought long afterward. At the moment I was in such a fright that my eyes worked better than my mind. However, even so, I thought of my golden millstone, and was aware that they crossed below, and could not see it.

They gained the bank upon our side within fifty yards of where I crouched; and it was not presence of mind, but abject fear, which kept me crouching. I counted them again as they leaped the bank and seemed to look at me. I could see the dark array of eyes, and could scarcely keep from shrieking. But my throat was dry and made no sound, and a frightened bird set up a scream, which drew off their attention.

In perils of later days I often thought of this fear, and almost felt that the hand of Heaven had been stretched forth on purpose to help my helplessness.

For the moment, however, I lay as close as if under the hand of the evil one; and the snorting of the horses passed me, and wicked laughter of the men. One was telling a horrible tale, and the rest rejoicing in it; and the bright sun, glowing on their withered skin, discovered perhaps no viler thing in all the world to shine upon. One of them even pointed at my mill-wheel with a witty gibe — at least, perhaps, it was wit to him — about the Sawyer’s misfortune; but the sun was then in his eyes, and my dress was just of the color of the timber. So on they rode, and the pleasant turf (having lately received some rain) softly answered to the kneading of their hoofs as they galloped away to surround the house.

I was just at the very point of rising and running up into the dark of the valley, when a stroke of arithmetic stopped me. Fourteen men and fourteen horses I had counted on the other side; on this side I could not make any more than thirteen of them. I might have made a mistake; but still I thought I would stop just a minute to see. And in that minute I saw the other man walking slowly on the opposite bank. He had tethered his horse, and was left as outpost to watch and give warning of poor Uncle Sam’s return.

At the thought of this, my frightened courage, in some extraordinary way, came back. I had played an ignoble part thus far, as almost any girl might have done. But now I resolved that, whatever might happen, my dear friend and guardian should not be entrapped and lose his life through my cowardice. We had been expecting him all the day; and if he should come and fall into an ambush, I only might survive to tell the tale. I ought to have hurried and warned the house, as my bitter conscience told me; but now it was much too late for that. The only amends that I could make was to try and warn our travelers.

Stooping as low as I could, and watching my time to cross the more open places when the sentry was looking away from me, I passed up the winding of the little watercourse, and sheltered in the swampy thicket which concealed its origin. Hence I could see for miles over the plain — broad reaches of corn land already turning pale, mazy river fringed with reed, hamlets scattered among clustering trees, and that which I chiefly cared to see, the dusty track from Sacramento.

Whether from ignorance of the country or of Mr. Gundry’s plans, the sentinel had been posted badly. His beat commanded well enough the course from San Francisco; but that from Sacramento was not equally clear before him. For a jut of pine forest ran down from the mountains and cut off a part of his view of it. I had not the sense or the presence of mind to perceive this great advantage, but having a plain, quick path before me, forth I set upon it. Of course if the watchman had seen me, he would have leaped on his horse and soon caught me; but of that I scarcely even thought, I was in such confusion.

When I had run perhaps a mile (being at that time very slight, and of active figure), I saw a cloud of dust, about two miles off, rising through the bright blue haze. It was rich yellow dust of the fertile soil, which never seems to cake or clot. Sometimes you may walk for miles without the smallest fear of sinking, the earth is so elastic. And yet with a slight exertion you may push a walking-stick down through it until the handle stops it. My heart gave a jump: that cloud of dust was a sign of men on horseback. And who could it be but Uncle Sam and Firm and the foreman Martin?

As soon as it began to show itself, it proved to be these very three, carelessly lounging on their horses’ backs, overcome with heat and dust and thirst. But when they saw me there all alone under the fury of the sun, they knew that something must have gone amiss, and were all wide awake in a moment.

“Well, now,” said the Sawyer, when I had told my tale as well as short breath allowed, “put this thing over your head, my dear, or you may gain a sun-stroke. I call it too bad of them skunks to drive you in Californy noon, like this.”

“Oh, Uncle Sam, never think of me; think of your house and your goods and Suan, and all at those bad men’s mercy!”

“The old house ain’t afire yet,” he answered, looking calmly under his hand in that direction. “And as for Suan, no fear at all. She knows how to deal with such gallowses; and they will keep her to cook their dinner. Firm, my lad, let us go and embrace them. They wouldn’t ‘a made much bones of shooting us down if we hadn’t known of it, and if they had got miss afore the saddle. But if they don’t give bail, as soon as they see me ride up to my door, my name’s not Sampson Gundry. Only you keep out of the way, Miss Remy. You go to sleep a bit, that’s a dear, in the graywitch spinny yonder, and wait till you hear Firm sound the horn. And then come you in to dinner-time; for the Lord is always over you.”

I hastened to the place which he pointed out — a beautiful covert of birch-trees — but to sleep was out of the question, worn out though I was with haste and heat, and (worst of all) with horror. In a soft mossy nest, where a breeze from the mountains played with the in and out ways of the wood, and the murmurous dream of genial insects now was beginning to drowse upon the air, and the heat of the sun could almost be seen thrilling through the alleys like a cicale’s drum — here, in the middle of the languid peace, I waited for the terror of the rifle-crack.

For though Uncle Sam had spoken softly, and made so little of the peril he would meet, I had seen in his eyes some token of the deep wrath and strong indignation which had kept all his household and premises safe. And it seemed a most ominous sign that Firm had never said a word, but grasped his gun, and slowly got in front of his grandfather.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31