The darkness of young summer night was falling on earth and tree and stream. Every thing looked of a different form and color from those of an hour ago, and the rich bloom of shadow mixed with color, and cast by snowy mountains, which have stored the purple adieu of the sun, was filling the air with delicious calm. The Sawyer ran out with his shirt sleeves shining, so that any sneaking foe might shoot him; but, with the instinct of a settler, he had caught up his rifle. I stood beneath a carob-tree, which had been planted near the porch, and flung fantastic tassels down, like the ear-rings of a negress. And not having sense enough to do good, I was only able to be frightened.
Listening intently, I heard the sound of skirring steps on the other side of and some way down the river; and the peculiar tread, even thus far off, was plainly Suan Isco’s. And then in the stillness a weary and heavy foot went toiling after it. Before I could follow, which I longed to do, to learn at once the worst of it, I saw the figure of a man much nearer, and even within twenty yards of me, gliding along without any sound. Faint as the light was, I felt sure that it was not one of our own men, and the barrel of a long gun upon his shoulder made a black line among silver leaves. I longed to run forth and stop him, but my courage was not prompt enough, and I shamefully shrank away behind the trunk of the carob-tree. Like a sleuth, compact, and calm-hearted villain, he went along without any breath of sound, stealing his escape with skill, till a white bower-tent made a background for him, and he leaped up and fell flat without a groan. The crack of a rifle came later than his leap, and a curl of white smoke shone against a black rock, and the Sawyer, in the distance, cried, “Well, now!” as he generally did when satisfied.
So scared was I that I caught hold of a cluster of pods to steady me; and then, without any more fear for myself, I ran to see whether it was possible to help. But the poor man lay beyond earthly help; he was too dead to palpitate. His life must have left him in the air, and he could not even have felt his fall.
In violent terror, I burst into tears, and lifted his heavy head, and strove to force his hot hands open, and did I know not what, without thinking, laboring only to recall his life.
“Are you grieving for the skulk who has shot my Firm?” said a stern voice quite unknown to me; and rising, I looked at the face of Mr. Gundry, unlike the countenance of Uncle Sam. I tried to speak to him, but was too frightened. The wrath of blood was in his face, and all his kind desires were gone.
“Yes, like a girl, you are sorry for a man who has stained this earth, till his only atonement is to stain it with his blood. Captain Pedro, there you lie, shot, like a coward, through the back. I wish you were alive to taste my boots. Murderer of men and filthy ravisher of women, miscreant of God, how can I keep from trampling on you?”
It never had been in my dream that a good man could so entirely forget himself. I wanted to think that it must be somebody else, and not our Uncle Sam. But he looked toward the west, as all men do when their spirits are full of death, and the wan light showed that his chin was triple.
Whether it may have been right or wrong, I made all haste to get away. The face of the dead man was quite a pleasant thing, compared with the face of the old man living. He may not have meant it, and I hope he never did, but beyond all controversy he looked barbarous for the moment.
As I slipped away, to know the worst, there I saw him standing still, longing to kick the vile man’s corpse, but quieted by the great awe of death. If the man had stirred, or breathed, or even moaned, the living man would have lost all reverence in his fury. But the power of the other world was greater than even revenge could trample on. He let it lie there, and he stooped his head, and went away quite softly.
My little foolish heart was bitterly visited by a thing like this. The Sawyer, though not of great human rank, was gifted with the largest human nature that I had ever met with. And though it was impossible as yet to think, a hollow depression, as at the loss of some great ideal, came over me.
Returning wretchedly to the house, I met Suan Isco and two men bringing the body of poor Firm. His head and both his arms hung down, and they wanted somebody to lift them; and this I ran to do, although they called out to me not to meddle. The body was carried in, and laid upon three chairs, with a pillow at the head; and then a light was struck, and a candle brought by somebody or other. And Suan Isco sat upon the floor, and set up a miserable Indian dirge.
“Stow away that,” cried Martin of the mill, for he was one of those two men; “wait till the lad is dead, and then pipe up to your liking. I felt him try to kick while we carried him along. He come forth on a arrand of that sort, and he seem to ‘a been disappointed. A very fine young chap I call him, for to try to do it still, howsomever his mind might be wandering. Missy, keep his head up.”
I did as I was told, and watched poor Firm as if my own life hung upon any sign of life in him. When I look back at these things, I think that fright and grief and pity must have turned an excitable girl almost into a real woman. But I had no sense of such things then.
“I tell you he ain’t dead,” cried Martin; “no more dead than I be. He feels the young gal’s hand below him, and I see him try to turn up his eyes. He has taken a very bad knock, no doubt, and trouble about his breathing. I seed a fellow scalped once, and shot through the heart; but he came all round in about six months, and protected his head with a document. Firm, now, don’t you be a fool. I have had worse things in my family.”
Ephraim Gundry seemed to know that some one was upbraiding him. At any rate, his white lips trembled with a weak desire to breathe, and a little shadow of life appeared to flicker in his open eyes. And on my sleeve, beneath his back, some hot bright blood came trickling.
“Keep him to that,” said Martin, with some carpenter sort of surgery; “less fear of the life when the blood begins to run. Don’t move him, missy; never mind your arm. It will be the saving of him.”
I was not strong enough to hold him up, but Suan ran to help me; and they told me afterward that I fell faint, and no doubt it must have been so. But when the rest were gone, and had taken poor Firm to his straw mattress, the cold night air must have flowed into the room, and that, perhaps, revived me. I went to the bottom of the stairs and listened, and then stole up to the landing, and heard Suan Isco, who had taken the command, speaking cheerfully in her worst English. Then I hoped for the best, and, without any knowledge, wandered forth into the open air.
Walking quite as in a dream this time (which I had vainly striven to do when seeking for my nugget), I came to the bank of the gleaming river, and saw the water just in time to stop from stepping into it. Careless about this and every other thing for the moment, I threw myself on the sod, and listened to the mournful melody of night. Sundry unknown creatures, which by day keep timid silence, were sending timid sounds into the darkness, holding quiet converse with themselves, or it, or one another. And the silvery murmur of the wavelets soothed the twinkling sleep of leaves.
I also, being worn and weary, and having a frock which improved with washing, and was spoiled already by nursing Firm, was well content to throw myself into a niche of river-bank and let all things flow past me. But before any thing had found time to flow far, or the lullaby of night had lulled me, there came to me a sadder sound than plaintive Nature can produce without her Master’s aid, the saddest sound in all creation — a strong man’s wail.
Child as I was — and, perhaps, all the more for that reason as knowing so little of mankind — I might have been more frightened, but I could not have been a bit more shocked, by the roaring of a lion. For I knew in a moment whose voice it was, and that made it pierce me tenfold. It was Uncle Sam, lamenting to himself, and to his God alone, the loss of his last hope on earth. He could not dream that any other than his Maker (and his Maker’s works, if ever they have any sympathy) listened to the wild outpourings of an aged but still very natural heart, which had always been proud of controlling itself. I could see his great frame through a willow-tree, with the sere grass and withered reeds around, and the faint gleam of fugitive water beyond. He was kneeling toward his shattered mill, having rolled his shirt sleeves back to pray, and his white locks shone in the starlight; then, after trying several times, he managed to pray a little. First (perhaps partly from habit), he said the prayer of Our Lord pretty firmly, and then he went on to his own special case, with a doubting whether he should mention it. But as he went on he gathered courage, or received it from above, and was able to say what he wanted.
“Almighty Father of the living and the dead, I have lived long, and shall soon be dead, and my days have been full of trouble. But I never had such trouble as this here before, and I don’t think I ever shall get over it. I have sinned every day of my life, and not thought of Thee, but of victuals, and money, and stuff; and nobody knows, but myself and Thou, all the little bad things inside of me. I cared a deal more to be respectable and get on with my business than to be prepared for kingdom come. And I have just been proud about the shooting of a villain, who might ‘a gone free and repented. There is nobody left to me in my old age. Thou hast taken all of them. Wife, and son, and mill, and grandson, and my brother who robbed me — the whole of it may have been for my good, but I have got no good out of it. Show me the way for a little time, O Lord, to make the best of it; and teach me to bear it like a man, and not break down at this time of life. Thou knowest what is right. Please to do it. Amen.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50