A First Family of TasajaraBret Harte / Western
Produced by Donald Lainson
A FIRST FAMILY OF TASAJARA
By Bret Harte
It blows, said Joe Wingate.
As if to accent the words of the speaker a heavy gust of wind at thatmoment shook the long light wooden structure which served as the generalstore of Sidon settlement, in Contra Costa. Even after it had passed aprolonged whistle came through the keyhole, sides, and openings of theclosed glass front doors, that served equally for windows, and filledthe canvas ceiling which hid the roof above like a bellying sail. A waveof enthusiastic emotion seemed to be communicated to a line of strawhats and sou-westers suspended from a cross-beam, and swung them withevery appearance of festive rejoicing, while a few dusters, overcoats,and hickory shirts hanging on the side walls exhibited such markedthough idiotic animation that it had the effect of a satirical commenton the lazy, purposeless figures of the four living inmates of thestore.
Ned Billings momentarily raised his head and shoulders depressed in theback of his wooden armchair, glanced wearily around, said, You bet,it's no slouch of a storm, and then lapsed again with further extendedlegs and an added sense of comfort.
Here the third figure, which had been leaning listlessly against theshelves, putting aside the arm of a swaying overcoat that seemed tobe emptily embracing him, walked slowly from behind the counter to thedoor, examined its fastenings, and gazed at the prospect. He was theowner of the store, and the view was a familiar one,--a long stretch oftreeless waste before him meeting an equal stretch of dreary sky above,and night hovering somewhere between the two. This was indicated bysplashes of darker shadow as if washed in with india ink, and a lighterlow-lying streak that might have been the horizon, but was not. Tothe right, on a line with the front door of the store, were severalscattered, widely dispersed objects, that, although vague in outline,were rigid enough in angles to suggest sheds or barns, but certainly nottrees.
There's a heap more wet to come afore the wind goes down, he said,glancing at the sky. Hark to that, now!
They listened lazily. There was a faint murmur from the shingles above;then suddenly the whole window was filmed and blurred as if theentire prospect had been wiped out with a damp sponge. The man turnedlistlessly away.
That's the kind that soaks in; thar won't be much teamin' over Tasajarafor the next two weeks, I reckon, said the fourth lounger, who,seated on a high barrel, was nibbling--albeit critically andfastidiously--biscuits and dried apples alternately from open boxes onthe counter. It's lucky you've got in your winter stock, Harkutt.
The shrewd eyes of Mr. Harkutt, proprietor, glanced at the occupation ofthe speaker as if even his foresight might have its possible drawbacks,but he said nothing.
There'll be no show for Sidon until you've got a wagon road from hereto the creek, said Billings languidly, from the depths of his chair.But what's the use o' talkin'? Thar ain't energy enough in all Tasajarato build it. A God-forsaken place, that two months of the year can onlybe reached by a mail-rider once a week, don't look ez if it was goin' tobreak its back haulin' in goods and settlers. I tell ye what, gentlemen,it makes me sick! And apparently it had enfeebled him to the extent ofinterfering with his aim in that expectoration of disgust against thestove with which he concluded his sentence.
Why don't YOU build it? asked Wingate, carelessly.
I wouldn't on principle, said Billings. It's gov'ment work. What didwe whoop up things here last spring to elect Kennedy to the legislationfor? What did I rig up my shed and a thousand feet of lumber for benchesat the barbecue for? Why, to get Kennedy elected and make him get abill passed for the road! That's MY share of building it, if it comes tothat. And I only wish some folks, that blow enough about what oughter bedone to bulge out that ceiling, would only do as much as I have done forSidon.
As this remark seemed to have a personal as well as local application,the storekeeper diplomatically turned it. There's a good many as DON'Tbelieve that a road from here to the creek is going to do any good toSidon. It's very well to say the creek is an embarcadero, but callin' itso don't put anough water into it to float a steamboat from the bay, norclear out the reeds and tules in it. Even if the State builds you roads,it ain't got no call to make Tasajara Creek navigable for ye; and asthat will cost as much as the road, I don't see where the money's comin'from for both.
There's water enough in front of 'Lige Curtis's shanty, and hislocation is only a mile along the bank, returned Billings.
Water enough for him to laze away his time fishin' when he's sober, anddeep enough to drown him when he's drunk, said Wingate. If youcall that an embarcadero, you kin buy it any day from 'Lige,--title,possession, and shanty thrown in,--for a demijohn o' whiskey.
The fourth man here distastefully threw back a half-nibbled biscuitinto the box, and languidly slipped from the barrel to the floor,fastidiously flicking the crumbs from his clothes as he did so. Ireckon somebody'll get it for nothing, if 'Lige don't pull up mightysoon. He'll either go off his head with jim-jams or jump into the creek.He's about as near desp'rit as they make 'em, and havin' no partner tolook after him, and him alone in the tules, ther' 's no tellin' WHAT hemay do.
Billings, stretched at full length in his chair, here gurgledderisively. Desp'rit!--ketch him! Why, that's his little game! He'sjist playin' off his desp'rit condition to frighten Sidon. Whenever anyone asks him why he don't go to work, whenever he's hard up for a drink,whenever he's had too much or too little, he's workin' that desp'ritdodge, and even talkin' o' killin' himself! Why, look here, hecontinued, momentarily raising himself to a sitting posture in hisdisgust, it was only last week he was over at Rawlett's trying toraise provisions and whiskey outer his water rights on the creek! Fact,sir,--had it all written down lawyer-like on paper. Rawlett didn'texactly see it in that light, and told him so. Then he up with thedesp'rit dodge and began to work that. Said if he had to starve in aswamp like a dog he might as well kill himself at once, and would tooif he could afford the weppins. Johnson said it was not a bad idea, andoffered to lend him his revolver; Bilson handed up his shot-gun, andleft it alongside of him, and turned his head away considerate-like andthoughtful while Rawlett handed him a box of rat pizon over the counter,in case he preferred suthin' more quiet. Well, what did 'Lige do?Nothin'! Smiled kinder sickly, looked sorter wild, and shut up. Hedidn't suicide much. No, sir! He didn't kill himself,--not he. Why, oldBixby--and he's a deacon in good standin'--allowed, in 'Lige's hearin'and for 'Lige's benefit, that self-destruction was better nor badexample, and proved it by Scripture too. And yet 'Lige did nothin'!Desp'rit! He's only desp'rit to laze around and fish all day off a login the tules, and soak up with whiskey, until, betwixt fever an' agueand the jumps, he kinder shakes hisself free o' responsibility.
A long silence followed; it was somehow felt that the subject wasincongruously exciting; Billings allowed himself to lapse again behindthe back of his chair. Meantime it had grown so dark that the dull glowof the stove was beginning to outline a faint halo on the ceiling evenwhile it plunged the further lines of shelves behind the counter intogreater obscurity.
Time to light up, Harkutt, ain't it? said Wingate, tentatively.
Well, I was reckoning ez it's such a wild night there wouldn't be anyuse keepin' open, and when you fellows left I'd just shut up for goodand make things fast, said Harkutt, dubiously. Before his guests hadtime to fully weigh this delicate hint, another gust of wind shook thetenement, and even forced the unbolted upper part of the door to yieldfar enough to admit an eager current of humid air that seemed to justifythe wisdom of Harkutt's suggestion. Billings slowly and with a sighassumed a sitting posture in the chair. The biscuit-nibbler selected afresh dainty from the counter, and Wingate abstractedly walked to thewindow and rubbed the glass. Sky and water had already disappearedbehind a curtain of darkness that was illuminated by a single point oflight--the lamp in the window of some invisible but nearer house--whichthrew its rays across the glistening shallows in the road. Well, saidWingate, buttoning up his coat in slow dejection, I reckon I oughterbe travelin' to help the old woman do the chores before supper. He hadjust recognized the light in his own dining-room, and knew by that signthat his long-waiting helpmeet had finally done the chores herself.
Some folks have it mighty easy, said Billings, with long-drawndiscontent, as he struggled to his feet. You've only a step to go,and yer's me and Peters there--indicating the biscuit-nibbler, who wasbeginning to show alarming signs of returning to the barrel again--hevgot to trapse five times that distance.
More'n half a mile, if it comes to that, said Peters, gloomily. Hepaused in putting on his overcoat as if thinking better of it, whileeven the more fortunate and contiguous Wingate languidly lapsed againstthe counter again.
The moment was a critical one. Billings was evidently also regretfullyeying the chair he had just quitted. Harkutt resolved on a heroiceffort.
Come, boys, he said, with brisk conviviality, take a parting drinkwith me before you go. Producing a black bottle from some obscuritybeneath the counter that smelt strongly of india-rubber boots, he placedit with four glasses before his guests. Each made a feint of holding hisglass against the opaque window while filling it, although nothing couldbe seen. A sudden tumult of wind and rain again shook the building, buteven after it had passed the glass door still rattled violently.
Just see what's loose, Peters, said Billings; you're nearest it.
Peters, still holding the undrained glass in his hand, walked slowlytowards it.
It's suthin'--or somebody outside, he said, hesitatingly.
The three others came eagerly to his side. Through the glass, cloudedfrom within by their breath, and filmed from without by the rain, somevague object was moving, and what seemed to be a mop of tangled hairwas apparently brushing against the pane. The door shook again, but lessstrongly. Billings pressed his face against the glass. Hol' on, hesaid in a quick whisper,--it's 'Lige! But it was too late. Harkutthad already drawn the lower bolt, and a man stumbled from the outerobscurity into the darker room.
The inmates drew away as he leaned back for a moment against the doorthat closed behind him. Then dimly, but instinctively, discerning theglass of liquor which Wingate still mechanically held in his hand,he reached forward eagerly, took it from Wingate's surprised andunresisting fingers, and drained it at a gulp. The four men laughedvaguely, but not as cheerfully as they might.
I was just shutting up, began Harkutt, dubiously.
I won't keep you a minit, said the intruder, nervously fumbling inthe breast pocket of his hickory shirt. It's a matter ofbusiness--Harkutt--I--But he was obliged to stop here to wipe hisface and forehead with the ends of a loose handkerchief tied round histhroat. From the action, and what could be seen of his pale,exhausted face, it was evident that the moisture upon it was beads ofperspiration, and not the rain which some abnormal heat of his body wasconverting into vapor from his sodden garments as he stood there.
I've got a document here, he began again, producing a roll of papertremblingly from his pocket, that I'd like you to glance over, andperhaps you'd--His voice, which had been feverishly exalted, here brokeand rattled with a cough.
Billings, Wingate, and Peters fell apart and looked out of the window.It's too dark to read anything now, 'Lige, said Harkutt, with evasivegood humor, and I ain't lightin' up to-night.
But I can tell you the substance of it, said the man, with a faintnessthat however had all the distinctness of a whisper, if you'll just stepinside a minute. It's a matter of importance and a bargain--
I reckon we must be goin', said Billings to the others, with markedemphasis. We're keepin' Harkutt from shuttin' up. Good-night!Good-night! added Peters and Wingate, ostentatiously followingBillings hurriedly through the door. So long!
The door closed behind them, leaving Harkutt alone with his importunateintruder. Possibly his resentment at his customers' selfish abandonmentof him at this moment developed a vague spirit of opposition to them andmitigated his feeling towards 'Lige. He groped his way to the counter,struck a match, and lit a candle. Its feeble rays faintly illuminatedthe pale, drawn face of the applicant, set in a tangle of wet, unkempt,party-colored hair. It was not the face of an ordinary drunkard;although tremulous and sensitive from some artificial excitement, therewas no ENGORGEMENT or congestion in the features or complexion, albeitthey were morbid and unhealthy. The expression was of a suffering thatwas as much mental as physical, and yet in some vague way appearedunmeaning--and unheroic.
I want to see you about selling my place on the creek. I want you totake it off my hands for a bargain. I want to get quit of it, at once,for just enough to take me out o' this. I don't want any profit; onlymoney enough to get away. His utterance, which had a certain kind ofcultivation, here grew thick and harsh again, and he looked eagerly atthe bottle which stood on the counter.
Look here, 'Lige, said Harkutt, not unkindly. It's too late to doanythin' tonight. You come in to-morrow. He would have added whenyou're sober, but for a trader's sense of politeness to a possiblecustomer, and probably some doubt of the man's actual condition.
God knows where or what I may be tomorrow! It would kill me to go backand spend another night as the last, if I don't kill myself on the wayto do it.
Harkutt's face darkened grimly. It was indeed as Billings had said.The pitiable weakness of the man's manner not only made his desperationinadequate and ineffective, but even lent it all the cheapness ofacting. And, as if to accent his simulation of a part, his fingers,feebly groping in his shirt bosom, slipped aimlessly and helplesslyfrom the shining handle of a pistol in his pocket to wander hesitatinglytowards the bottle on the counter.
Harkutt took the bottle, poured out a glass of the liquor, and pushedit before his companion, who drank it eagerly. Whether it gave him moreconfidence, or his attention was no longer diverted, he went onmore collectedly and cheerfully, and with no trace of his previousdesperation in his manner. Come, Harkutt, buy my place. It's a bargain,I tell you. I'll sell it cheap. I only want enough to get away with.Give me twenty-five dollars and it's yours. See, there's the papers--thequitclaim--all drawn up and signed. He drew the roll of paper from hispocket again, apparently forgetful of the adjacent weapon.
Look here, 'Lige, said Harkutt, with a business-like straightening ofhis lips, I ain't buyin' any land in Tasajara,--least of all yours onthe creek. I've got more invested here already than I'll ever get backagain. But I tell you what I'll do. You say you can't go back to yourshanty. Well, seein' how rough it is outside, and that the waters ofthe creek are probably all over the trail by this time, I reckon you'reabout right. Now, there's five dollars! He laid down a coin sharply onthe counter. Take that and go over to Rawlett's and get a bed andsome supper. In the mornin' you may be able to strike up a trade withsomebody else--or change your mind. How did you get here? On your hoss?
He ain't starved yet?
No; he can eat grass. I can't.
Either the liquor or Harkutt's practical unsentimental treatment ofthe situation seemed to give him confidence. He met Harkutt's eye moresteadily as the latter went on. You kin turn your hoss for the nightinto my stock corral next to Rawlett's. It'll save you payin' for fodderand stablin'.
The man took up the coin with a certain slow gravity which was almostlike dignity. Thank you, he said, laying the paper on the counter.I'll leave that as security.
Don't want it, 'Lige, said Harkutt, pushing it back.
I'd rather leave it.
But suppose you have a chance to sell it to somebody at Rawlett's?continued Harkutt, with a precaution that seemed ironical.
I don't think there's much chance of that.
He remained quiet, looking at Harkutt with an odd expression ashe rubbed the edge of the coin that he held between his fingersabstractedly on the counter. Something in his gaze--rather perhapsthe apparent absence of anything in it approximate to the presentoccasion--was beginning to affect Harkutt with a vague uneasiness.Providentially a resumed onslaught of wind and rain against the paneseffected a diversion. Come, he said, with brisk practicality, you'dbetter hurry on to Rawlett's before it gets worse. Have your clothesdried by his fire, take suthin' to eat, and you'll be all right. Herubbed his hands cheerfully, as if summarily disposing of the situation,and incidentally of all 'Lige's troubles, and walked with him to thedoor. Nevertheless, as the man's look remained unchanged, he hesitateda moment with his hand on the handle, in the hope that he would saysomething, even if only to repeat his appeal, but he did not. ThenHarkutt opened the door; the man moved mechanically out, and at thedistance of a few feet seemed to melt into the rain and darkness.Harkutt remained for a moment with his face pressed against the glass.After an interval he thought he heard the faint splash of hoofs in theshallows of the road; he opened the door softly and looked out.
The light had disappeared from the nearest house; only an uncertain bulkof shapeless shadows remained. Other remoter and more vague outlinesnear the horizon seemed to have a funereal suggestion of tombs and gravemounds, and one--a low shed near the road--looked not unlike a haltedbier. He hurriedly put up the shutters in a momentary lulling of thewind, and re-entering the store began to fasten them from within.
While thus engaged an inner door behind the counter opened softly andcautiously, projecting a brighter light into the deserted apartment fromsome sacred domestic interior with the warm and wholesome incense ofcooking. It served to introduce also the equally agreeable presence of ayoung girl, who, after assuring herself of the absence of every one butthe proprietor, idly slipped into the store, and placing her roundedelbows, from which her sleeves were uprolled, upon the counter, leanedlazily upon them, with both hands supporting her dimpled chin, and gazedindolently at him; so indolently that, with her pretty face oncefixed in this comfortable attitude, she was constrained to follow hismovements with her eyes alone, and often at an uncomfortable angle. Itwas evident that she offered the final but charming illustration of theenfeebling listlessness of Sidon.
So those loafers have gone at last, she said, meditatively. They'lltake root here some day, pop. The idea of three strong men like thatlazing round for two mortal hours doin' nothin'. Well! As if toemphasize her disgust she threw her whole weight upon the counter byswinging her feet from the floor to touch the shelves behind her.
Mr. Harkutt only replied by a slight grunt as he continued to screw onthe shutters.
Want me to help you, dad? she said, without moving.
Mr. Harkutt muttered something unintelligible, which, however, seemed toimply a negative, and her attention here feebly wandered to the roll ofpaper, and she began slowly and lazily to read it aloud.
'For value received, I hereby sell, assign, and transfer to Daniel D.Harkutt all my right, titles and interest in, and to the undividedhalf of, Quarter Section 4, Range 5, Tasajara Township'--hum--hum, shemurmured, running her eyes to the bottom of the page. Why, Lord! It'sthat 'Lige Curtis! she laughed. The idea of HIM having property! Why,dad, you ain't been THAT silly!
Put down that paper, miss, he said, aggrievedly; bring the candlehere, and help me to find one of these infernal screws that's dropped.
The girl indolently disengaged herself from the counter and ElijahCurtis's transfer, and brought the candle to her father. The screw waspresently found and the last fastening secured. Supper gettin' cold,dad, she said, with a slight yawn. Her father sympathetically respondedby stretching himself from his stooping position, and the two passedthrough the private door into inner domesticity, leaving the alreadyforgotten paper lying with other articles of barter on the counter.